Following the demise of Young Marble Giants, singer Allison Statton formed Weekend, a lighthearted, jazz-minded pop group a la Everything But the Girl and Kalima. That band, too, was short-lived, but members of Weekend went on to form a more experimental, heavily improvisational group entitled, cleverly enough, Working Week. With influences ranging from soul to punk and Brazilian music. Their debut album, Working Nights, was an excellent start, while their debut single, “Venceremos (We Will Win)” was a stunning, ten-minute epic track that set the standard for what was to come.
I had a chance to speak to guitarist Simon Booth and saxophonist Larry Stabbins about their debut single.
“Weekend” gives way to “Working Week.” Clever! Do you remember how you came up with that?
Simon: We used to get asked this question all the time, mainly by trendy French journalist from hip 80’s Euro magazines! ‘Le week-end est terminé, pourquoi la working week?’. Sorry but I cannot for the life of me remember what clever replies I came up with.
What led to the breakup of Weekend? Was it unexpected? Did you see it coming?
Simon The breakup of Weekend wasn’t unexpected, no. Alison Statton, Weekend’s singer had had enough of touring and came close to a break down after a remarkable badly matched tour we did with the Virgin Prunes. Our last gig was at Ronnie Scott’s and was recorded for prosperity. It was one my favorite gigs on all times. Paul Weller and Elton Dean from the Soft Machine were in the crowd, Everything But the Girl was also on the bill, and my gran, who was in her 80’s, was in the front row. It was also the first time I shared a stage with Keith Tippett.
“Venceremos (We Will Win)” was dedicated to Victor Jara, and you intended to play a benefit for Chilean solidarity. Did you have the intention of making Working Week a political band? Or do you feel that this Latin style of music is inherently political?
Simon: Yes, the Venceremos 12″ was a benefit record made to raise funds for the UK Chile Solidarity campaign. It was inspired by the life and brutal murder of Victor Jara by the American supported Pinochet junta that overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973. When we made the record we weren’t even aware that we had a band. It was very much a working collective. Myself and Larry also wanted to make a 12″ dance record for the emergent UK jazz dance crowd that had been around as part of the underground British soul and jazz funk scene since the 70’s. The success of the record prompted me and Larry to turn Working Week into a stable band with a permanent singer. That’s when Juliet Roberts joined.
Larry: Any music that has genuine social roots is political. Working Week wasn’t set up to be a specifically political band. We didn’t recruit band members for their politics. We had a brass section that a player who had come out of the army, a few closet Tories, and who would want to be in a band made up solely of table thumping lefties like me? I wouldn’t for a start! But we were heart felt in what we believed in and weren’t afraid to express it though our music. But the music came first, we didn’t see ourselves as a propaganda machine.
Simon: We both have strong political and anti-racist views and always felt that the songs should reflect these views. As Latin music often has a strong political message, it all made sense.
Do you think the people who heard it understood the message?
Simon: Yes people did get it, and I am very proud of the song because of that. It still gives me hope and it contains a message that is more relevant today than ever. I think Working Week were one of the UK’s pioneering world music multiracial band that made a coherent noise people could relate too yet still broke through music business barriers and stereo types. That wasn’t our agenda, it was just who we were and for that I think we can take justifiable credit. In 1984 it was unheard of to have a Ladbroke grove soul girl in a band with a free jazzer, an indie punk let alone a south African then Colombian bass player, a female trombone player, a Trinidadian trumpet player, a Brazilian percussionist and an Algerian speaking English piano player who went on to have a sex change.
Larry: Yes I think so. Despite the common view that the eighties were dominated by yuppies and wine bars there were an intense political backlash against Thatcher and her policies and there was still an idea that there was an alternative, though much as I still despise Thatcher she seems like a pussy cat compared to this lot. We got asked to close the show with Venceremos at the Miner’s Strike benefit at the Royal Festival Hall and we had Arthur Scargill and Ken Livingstone on stage with us banging tambourines so they’d certainly noticed-it was quite an event.
Having Tracey Thorn, Robert Wyatt, and Claudia Figueroa sing on the debut was a deft, brilliant choice. Do you recall if your intentions were to have a rotating cast of vocalists from different backgrounds? Reason I ask is that you rerecorded the song for the album.
Simon: when we started gigging we didn’t have a permanent singer and the idea was to have a series of guest singers, it was only when we found Juliet that we realized we had a perfect team to make a band album.
Larry: That was down to Simon. I think he just asked friends who he thought would sing it well, but I do remember as we started doing gigs, we talked about having a band that would be almost like a Stax review with a varying cast. Remember, though, that the first gigs were mainly instrumental with wild free jazz over pounding Latin grooves.
Listening to the edited version, the beginning reminds me of Marvin Gaye. You would open your debut album with “Inner City Blues,” which is a bold gauntlet to throw down for a young band! What inspiration did he give you?
Simon: Yes, it was a big risk, but it worked. We also went on to record a not so successful cover version of ‘ain’t that peculiar’ for our third album, 1987’s Surrender. That album was our record company’s attempt to give us a massive, crossover R&B album for the American market. That attempt failed miserably.
Larry: His music always had great grooves, great chord changes, great musicians, a strong jazz influence, and his lyrics often had a political edge. He took quite a lot of risks with his music. So yeah, for Working Week, he was a great inspiration–probably in more ways than we realized at the time.
What do you recall of the reception of the single? Was it surprising to you? How do you feel it inspired what you would do on Working Nights, as the band was forming?
Simon: The success of “Venceremos” was indeed unexpected and amazing. It showed me the value of making music that you love and believe in rather than just trying to chase the elusive radio hit.
Larry: Yes, it surprised me, but I was still mainly a working (mainly in the avant garde) jazz musician at the time with a healthy cynicism toward the popular music scene. I can remember passing the UCL Students Union one night and hearing my saxophone solo blasting out from it, and I was certainly surprised to hear it! So it gave us a template for what we would do with our music. It showed us that we could do political songs with long free solo sections and not necessarily alienate the popular music scene.
Looking back at it now, thirty years later, what are your thoughts on the single? Do you feel it set a standard for what you did later?
Larry: I still think it’s a fantastic record and I’m proud to have been part of it, though as I said it was really all down to Simon; he wrote it and set up and organized the whole thing. I just did the horn arrangement and played on it. It was only after we’d recorded “Venceremos” that Working Week gradually became a true working band and I became heavily involved.
Simon: “Venceremos” was indeed the template for all the other eccentric and often genre busting projects I seem to do best, from the first two Acid Jazz compilations records I went on to produce, through to the Afro Celt Sound System and now the Imagined Village. Every one of those projects major labels would dismiss as totally off the wall and uncommercial at the time, but then they would go on to do really well in sales and profile. But I must say, with all these things,I really can’t take sole credit. Working Week was always a team effort. “Venceremos” was an experiment that paid off, but Working Week only really took off when Larry and Juliet became part of the team. A huge amount of the music should be credited to Larry; he really enhanced the production, the songs, brass arrangements, lyrics and general musical direction. I feel the same about the Afro Celts and the Imagined Village. You are only as good as the team you have around you.
A 2-CD deluxe reissue of Working Nights is available from Cherry Red