Nick Heyward: ‘The Fureys’ manager said, I’ve been trying to get my band to wear Aran sweaters their whole career – how did you do it?’

Haircut 100 had it all – adoring fans, critical kudos, alluring knitwear – before burning out. Forty years later they’re about to play their first Irish gig

Nick Heyward remembers climbing on to a tour bus with his band Haircut 100 and wondering why he was surrounded by strangers. “Everybody was jumping on board, going ‘Yeah yeah – I want to get on.’ It was, like, ‘Okay, this is good... welcome aboard.’ But then it’s, like, ‘Who is that? I thought it was your mate,’” he says. “And then a magical mystery tour turns into maybe a not-so-magical one, where people are walking off with your suitcase and stuff.”

It was late 1982, and Haircut 100 were the hottest new band in Britain thanks to their mix of boyish looks and progressive pop. Heyward and company had become critical favourites and chart darlings with their debut album, Pelican West, a thrill-a-minute mash-up of new-romantic verve and Talking Heads-style postpunk. They’d made it – though they were too busy to appreciate the moment until it had passed.

As Heyward says, it became too much. Too much excitement, too many strangers on the tour bus, not enough time to reflect on what they’d achieved and build on it. Exhausted and worn out, Heyward left. The band tried to carry on yet struggled without their charismatic leader. Forty years later, Heyward, the bassist Les Nemes and the guitarist Graham Jones have reforged their friendship and are touring again as Haircut 100. They’re about to make history, too, playing their first ever Irish date, at Vicar Street next month.

“We didn’t plan any of this. It came to us: it presented itself. Are you interested? Everything is organised. All you have to do is turn up,” says Nemes, who, after the failure of the group’s Heyward-free second LP, Paint and Paint, went on to play with Chris Rea and Rick Astley.

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Heyward and Nemes are both in their early 60s. Zooming in from their living rooms in London and Spain, respectively, they are a study in contrasts. Heyward, who spent the latter part of the 1980s clocking up solo hits such as Whistle Down the Wind and Take That Situation, is still fresh-faced, with the air of an eternal teenager. (It may be a glitchy internet connection, but his hair is fantastic to the point of looking slightly supernatural.) His old pal is more grizzled – but then, even in their youth, he was overshadowed by his boyish friend.

“There was a big double-page headline in the Sun: ‘Haircut Mania’,” Nemes says of the giddy months following the release of Pelican West. “It was like that. Liverpool was crazy. We’d booked into a hotel, and after the show the fans found out where we were staying. They all congregated outside the entrance. We were quite high up, on the eight, ninth floor. We looked down. There was a sea of people – a whole square. It was quite something. I went down to reception – these girls were crying their eyes out, asking for Nick. ‘Please, can you get Nick, please?’ It was mental.”

They’d grown up in Bromley, a London suburb perhaps best known for giving the world David Bowie. Heyward and Nemes had played in bands together since school, inspired by the punk scene then sweeping the city.

Things clicked in earnest when they settled on the name Haircut 100 – they loved how silly it sounded – and recruited the saxophonist Phil Smith, whose playing brought a new sophistication to the sound. (He is skipping the reunion.) That parping sax was a defining feature of their debut single, Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl) – a top-five success in the winter of 1981 that hit like a cheery version of Talking Heads’s Psycho Killer.

Earlier on they’d been a moody new-wave band, just like all their peers. The leap to a poppier sound and a playful image – they sport Clancy Brothers-style Aran sweaters in the Favourite Shirts video – felt entirely natural, says Heyward. Music was taking a turn for the glossy. “Everyone was becoming pop stars – even the Human League. They had been industrial. And Depeche Mode, playing in east London – very industrial, with tape machines,” he says. When the clocks chimed for January 1st, 1980, pop’s tectonic plates shifted.

Howadays everything sounds the same to me, because everybody follows the same formula. Whereas, then, it was do what you want to do

—  Les Nemes, Haircut 100

“It was changing. You’d had new wave. There was something else on the horizon. Everyone was dipping their toes in. Even Joy Division were turning into New Order. It was changing. That’s just the climate, isn’t it? You’ve got to swim upstream to a certain extent. That’s where the crazy stuff happens. We had that passion, that enthusiasm, to do it. Music was everything. There was nothing else. Nothing else existed. It was music, music, music.”

While Favourite Shirts was charting, the band bunkered down with the producer Bob Sargeant at Roundhouse Studios in Camden to make Pelican West. It was proclaimed an instant classic on its release in February 1982. Smash Hits raved about it, although the magazine’s editor, Neil Tennant – later one-half of Pet Shop Boys – cast a withering eye on Haircut 100′s fashion choices. They were, he wrote, “a bunch of clean, silly lads in big pullovers, yellow sou’westers” – an oilskin rain hat beloved of sailors – “and trousers tucked into socks with a fetish for tractors and old Monkees records”.

“We were trying to be the best we could be. And to be different,” says Heyward. “Most people around that time were making a conscious effort to be different. It wasn’t that how much you conformed determined how successful you were. It was how different you were that determined how successful you were. There was nobody else like most of the bands around. You look back now, God, what a bunch of odd-bods everybody was. Good – that was healthy, wasn’t it? Don’t conform – that was the golden rule.”

Nemes agrees. “It was very diverse. Maybe it’s because I’m a grandad, but nowadays everything sounds the same to me, because everybody follows the same formula. Whereas, then, it was do what you want to do. That makes the best music: when there are no rules. I taught bass for a while to kids in the local international school. One of my biggest pieces of advice was, ‘Don’t follow the rules. Do your own thing.’ That’s how you develop your own style and creativity. We didn’t know what we were doing musically. We just played what sounded good.”

They were enthusiastic and ambitious for their music. They were also just kids who needed guidance. Unfortunately, the machinery built around them saw Haircut 100 not as serious artists who’d stumbled into the big time but as a cash machine. It wanted more of the same. Tired and feeling the pressure, Heyward – the pin-up and the songwriter – had a breakdown. He exited during abortive sessions for their second LP. When the news broke, it made national headlines.

“You can see burnout with lots of people. If you’re in it for the long run you’ve got to have naps, breaks, time off,” he says. “Step back, appreciate what you’re doing. You will do that once you’ve had a break. If you haven’t had any time off and then you have six months or a year off, you will see it with perspective eventually. And you’ll go ‘Wow’ – you appreciate it.”

You’re going to look back at all the awful times and see them as not awful. And if you embrace them you’ll see them as the best thing that ever happened

—  Nick Heyward, Haircut 100

Haircut 100 weren’t afforded that opportunity. Instead, they were worked to the bone. “In the eye of the storm you’re just stressed. You’re not seeing clearly. You’re not actually seeing what a brilliant thing it is to be alive and doing what you’re doing. You’re living the dream,” Heyward says.

“You’re going to look back at all the awful times and see them as not awful. And if you embrace them you’ll see them as the best thing that ever happened. But that’s only hindsight. It’s best to have hindsight right now – to just take little breaks. Even now, we’re looking at the tour and it’s going to be flat out. But you’ve got to take breaks. Because life suffers when people don’t sleep well or don’t live properly. Lewis Capaldi is definitely suffering.”

Heyward and Nemes are looking forward to coming to Ireland, feeling they missed out on not playing here in the 1980s. They were on the circuit at the same time as Irish groups such as The Undertones, whom they saw as an inspiration. The interaction Heyward remembers most clearly from that time featured quite a different Irish band – and was sartorial rather than musical.

“The Fureys – their manager came up to us on Top of the Pops and said, ‘I’ve been trying to get my band to wear Aran sweaters their whole career – how did you do it?” Heyward says, laughing. “We loved The Undertones. That was our band. They had something no other band had. Grit, melody, great songs about normal things. Wearing an anorak on Top of the Pops – that was the best thing I’ve ever seen. It probably inspired me to get a sou’wester on Top of the Pops.”

The story won’t end with their new tour. A recent deluxe reissue of Pelican West was a reminder of their talents. Now, for the first time since Heyward left, Haircut 100 are working on new music, at the singer’s home studio. “We’re in the process. Les and Graham were just here not so long ago. This is all organic. We’re playing stuff. It was like, ‘Oh, new Haircut material. It’s happening, isn’t it?’”

Haircut 100 play Vicar Street, Dublin 8, on Tuesday, October 10th