Fine Young Cannibal Roland Gift: “I went back to where it didn’t matter to be pretty” | The music

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Tthere are no movie posters in Roland Gift’s house in Holloway, London, and the platinum records are all wrapped up. It’s a house that gives little clue to the remarkable life story the 59-year-old is about to tell: how Hull’s “first noir punk” became an international pop and music star. cinema.

“I’ve always been afraid of being enveloped in fame and this glamorous world,” that’s how he puts it today. Indeed, even when Gift’s band, Fine Young Cannibals, topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with their 1989 second album, The Raw & the Cooked (reissued this month, along with their eponymous debut in 1985), he had a difficult relationship with celebrity.

At the height of his fame – when he had played Lucky Gordon in the film Scandal, on the Profumo affair, and was named one of the “50 Most Beautiful People” in the world – he suddenly flew to his hometown of Hull. , hanging out in a club of working men and acting like an unlikely pilot for the stripper. “I liked being somewhere, being pretty didn’t matter. I never wanted to be in love with my reflection, ”he shrugs. In 1990, after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was teleported to the Brit Awards ceremony, the Cannibals returned their gongs, saying they “didn’t want to be on a Conservative Party show”. Despite the success of The Raw & the Cooked, the band never made another album.

“We became a ‘came apart’ band”… Fine Young Cannibals in 1987. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

But then Gift never expected to be famous. Growing up as a Métis child in the 1970s, there were few black faces in commercials or on television. “There were black actors in movies like Scum or Scrubbers,” he recalls, “but that’s the joke… they played characters in prison.” The son of a black carpenter and a white mother who ran second-hand clothing stores, he spent his early years in Sparkhill, Birmingham, one of the UK’s first multicultural areas. “There was no sign on our street saying ‘No Irish, No Dogs, No Blacks’. Because everyone was black or brown or Irish. For me it was normal.

Moving to Hull at the age of 11 was “a shock – there were only two other non-white kids in school,” but Gift never felt intrusive. He fell into the Yorkshire town punk scene, where his black leather jacket, dark skin and blond hair earned him the nickname Guinness. During a Clash concert in Leeds, he even caught the attention of singer Joe Strummer. “During the gig, his pants split,” laughs Gift, describing how Strummer asked if anyone had a safety pin and a shower of punk fashion items hit the stage.

“I never wore them normally, but for some reason I had a changing pin in my jacket. I shouted, “Joe! Joe! And he reached out and took it. It was like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where God descends. Like you’ve been anointed? “I don’t know about it,” he laughs, “but it’s been a while.

By then he had received her call. He was in the punky ska band Akrylykz when Andy Cox and David Steele – formerly of The Beat, one of the UK’s first multiracial bands – recruited him for Fine Young Cannibals, a band that mixed rock and soul. with Gift’s inimitable and trembling voice. on hits such as Good Thing, an American No. 1, and I’m Not the Man I Used to Be. Their success came despite being told by industry figures that a white band with a dark-skinned singer would never succeed.

She Drives Me Crazy, another American star, aired both on university radios nationwide and on urban (black) stations, a rarity at the time. “There was so much nonsense about race and music,” he sighs. “Like ‘blacks have a better rhythm.’ But Stax had white musicians, and a lot of Jamaican reggae was produced by Leslie Kong, who was Chinese.

Suspicious minds

At the end of the 80s and 90s, the world of British cinema also diversified. Gift’s first role was as handsome young revolutionary Danny in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi sequel 1987 to My Beautiful Laundrette. The singer was definitely not a shoo-in for the role. “Someone told me later that they asked the women in the office to come by and give me one more time,” he explains, chuckling. “I got the job. “

Subsequent projects range from the 1997 television series Painted Lady with Helen Mirren to the 2017 film Brakes, starring Noel Fielding. Aside from the sometimes dismissed “stereotypical” role, he does not think he experienced any racial barriers. “Not on screen… It can be a hindrance if you want to create the content. But he can understand Steve McQueen’s recent comment to The Guardian: “If you want to understand race and class in Britain, you should start by going on a film set.”

“I noticed this with the record companies. It suddenly occurred to me: “All these people are public schoolchildren. They are the masters of puppets. Invariably, they had a certain color.

“We can hang on to identity,” he said. “I am half white, half black. So what? We all do the same things. He recounts an incident in his childhood, when he and Irish friends, the Magi, strayed into an upscale neighborhood and met two children, dressed in shiny shoes. “We looked at each other through the door, and they were mixed race too, but I knew I had more in common with the Magi, who were white, than with these children. Their father chased them away from us. So it’s not race. It is class. It’s always classy.

Revolutionary ... Gift in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, 1987.
Revolutionary… Gift in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, 1987. Photographie: TCD / ProdDB / Alamy

A different kind of division did it for the Cannibals, which collapsed in 1996. “Everyone got bloated after the success. There were quarrels about me in movies and people told each of us things about the other members. Divide and regulate, basically. When a new movie was looking for music, Gift followed. “And Dave and Andy too, but we hadn’t talked about it. We had always sworn not to be one of those “coming in separately” groups, but suddenly we were. He regrets slightly. “I would have liked to do more together.”

In 2013, an invitation to tour with Jools Holland rekindled his interest in live singing, and at some shows he experienced an almost transcendent feeling. “Not an out-of-body experience, but more: ‘Damn, I better not lose contact with the ground.’ Sounds a little weird, doesn’t it?

He also sings old and new songs in his latest project, Return to Vegas, a musical he reworked from a BBC Radio 4 piece that premiered in April. He plays Johnny Holloway, a musician in a band he called The Blacks, which had a string of worldwide hits before things went wrong: Holloway takes “bad habits”, sells the rights to the songs that were supposed to be his pension and ends up broke, friendless and fresh after five years in prison. “This is what might have been my story, if things had been different,” he says.

Prior to this creative push, Gift says he deliberately slowed down his career because he wanted to be a present dad for his sons. His own father spent three years in prison, “so I didn’t want to be here, there and everywhere, but I didn’t know how to handle it other than the way I did. Looking back, I could have done things differently.

But now Gift’s two sons have grown up and his wife, Louise, died of cancer last year. He wants to get back to work. He has been asked to write more for the radio, and his eyes shine as he says, “The writing of the play is life changing, in a way. What Gift really doesn’t want is to be portrayed as his alter ego in Return to Vegas, when someone yells, “You’re not the man you used to be.” “

“There’s a recurring daydream where he signs and someone walks in and says, ‘Oh, you’re that guy from… Go ahead, sing it!’” He grimaces. “It would be a nightmare situation for me, but it’s Johnny’s story, not mine. I still feel like I have a lot to offer.

  • Fine Young Cannibals and The Raw & The Cooked are reissued on vinyl, CD and digital on December 18 on London Recordings. DJ reworkings’ EP Remix is ​​also coming out on December 18th. Two 7-inch Blacks singles will arrive in the New Year.

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