The first time Marti Pellow met pop Svengali and future mastermind of The Spice Girls Simon Fuller was destined to be their last. It was after an early Wet Wet Wet gig at Glasgow’s Daddy Warbucks night-club, and Pellow was first out the dressing room to be chatted up by assorted record industry types with cheque books at the ready. Drinks were duly dispensed, and Fuller came straight to the point. He didn’t want to sign the band, he said. Fact was, he wanted Pellow to ditch the band and sign as a solo artist. Pellow pondered this a while before the rest of Wet Wet Wet joined them. Introductions were made, and then, before Fuller could say anything else, Pellow calmly told his colleagues what Fuller was proposing. Fuller left shortly after, his tail between his legs and a united Wet Wet Wet intent on signing to another label.
Twenty-three years on, Pellow is looking dapper as he holds court in the grandest of suites in Edinburgh’s Witchery to promote The Witches of Eastwick, in which he plays a suitably devilish role. Sporting a shiny blue suit, he holds his arms out aloft in a welcome that’s part magnanimity, part bemusement at how the hell a boy like him from Clydebank ever got to hang out in a joint so swanky. Earlier, at a reception to launch the show, Pellow had taken part in a live interview with Grant Stott before an audience largely made up of ladies old enough to know better but who couldn’t help themselves swooning anyway. Inbetween a couple of numbers performed by some dressed-up west end girls, goodie bags were handed out loaded with Marti Pellow calendars and a copy of the perma-smiling soulster’s Sentimental Me CD of classic covers.
It’s been one hell of a bumpy ride for Pellow to get from front-man of Wet Wet Wet to star of musical theatre. At one stage, heroin addiction nearly finished him off for good, but Pellow bounced back smiling with a solo career that runs in tandem with occasional forays with a revitalised band. As the Simon Fuller story illustrates, loyalty and team-work are important to Pellow.
“There’s nothing better than interacting with musicians and actors,” he says. “That’s what keeps your batteries charged up, that interaction, that’s what makes the piece, or else you’re just singing for yourself. Working as part of a team, that’s what inspires you. That’s why Ferguson’s a great manager. That’s why Walter Smith’s a great manager. People like that, you want to play with. I’m in the business of shaking hands, not pointing fingers, and whatever it is we’re doing, it’s the power of the collective that matters.”
When that collective is headed by theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh, it’s a pretty special team to be playing for.
“Michael Harris who I’d worked with on one of my tours, knew I was looking to do another musical, because I’d enjoyed myself enormously on Chicago. Cameron had been offering me musicals for years, but I kept turning him down. I knew if I was doing eight shows a week, it’s got to be right. Then Michael came up of the idea of The Witches of Eastwick, and I thought, aye, I’m in. How can you turn down the chance of playing the Devil?”
The Witches Of Eastwick itself has had a long road to becoming a musical. Originally a novel by John Updike published in 1984, in 1987 it was adapted for the big screen by Bob Rafelson, who cast his old counter-culture buddy Jack Nicholson in the Daryl Van Horne role alongside Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer. The original 2000 version of the musical starred Ian McShane, though Pellow was unable to see it as he was touring in Chicago at the time. Regardless of those who’ve preceded him, Pellow fully intends making the role his own.
“Jack’s interpretation was f***ing amazing,” Pellow enthuses. “He’s the Don. But I can’t worry about that. I’m not Jack Nicholson and I never will be, but I’m going to make this my puppy. It’s about engaging the imagination. You’ve been asked to play the devil, so where’s the cut off point? It’s not about where you take it. It’s about reining you in. It’s a dark piece, this show. There’s a lot of hamburger here. It’s not just cheese.”
While Pellow never expected a life in musical theatre, there was a clear sense of ambition right from the early days of Wet Wet Wet.
“Musicals in general,” Pellow says, “were something I watched with my mother on BBC2 on a Saturday afternoon because it was raining outside, but I never thought I would ever be doing it. It’s been a revelation to me, but then, I’ve been acting things out for years through song. I always knew as a song-writer that Wet Wet Wet would do great things. That’s the kind of guy I am. I say this time and time again, but my enthusiasm far outweighs my talent. But we were writing number one songs from the start. I never wanted to write a number seven. That would be inconceivable. It was about getting out there and feeding off the audience’s enthusiasm.
“For us, we loved that energy from what was coming back. It’s strange, because we lived very much in an NME world for a few years. I was a Clash fan who sang pop music, but our musical knowledge was so eclectic at the age of nineteen. We’d be into Jah Wobble, The Slits and Captain Beefheart as well as Al Green and all the Stax stuff. We’d think nothing of taking a coupler of days off school to go and see John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson, and squeeze The Clash in at the end of the night. Yet there we were on the cover of Smash Hits. That transition freaked us out, especially as we were working with people like Willie Mitchell.”
Again, from Wet Wet Wet to The Witches of Eastwick, Pellow stresses how much of a team player he is.
“I keep it simple,” he affirms, “and have access to great people. I’ve always been part of a team. What I do ain’t rocket science, but I do it very well. I’ve still got this bug-eyed enthusiasm for everything I do, so whatever turns up next, bring it on. I couldn’t go back and make a Sweet Little Mystery. I’ve already got one of them. I don’t need another one.”
The Witches Of Eastwick, Edinburgh Playhouse, December 10-January 3, 7.30pm
The Herald, December 2008