Interview: Nik Kershaw

by Jonathan Barnes

1984 might be best known in popular culture as a futuristic Orwellian nightmare, but for Nik Kershaw it was a million-selling dream.

It’s also now so deep into the past that Kershaw’s two most famous albums, Human Racing and The Riddle, are both celebrating their ruby anniversary in 2024, and the man who might wince at ever being called a “pop star” is proving the anthems that built his fame have stood the test of time.

Later this year, Kershaw, now 66, will be playing both albums in their entirety for The 1984 Tour. But for this Saturday’s date in Norwich, ahead of a summer of festival appearances, there are no track listings to follow, and no embellishments either – just Kershaw, his band and some songs that you can’t have avoided if, like this writer, you’re a member of Generation X. 

It’s the greatest hits, and it’s very 1984. “Because I’m not an idiot,” laughs Kershaw. “I know why people have come.”

As he’s been curating a new box set of his MCA recordings, Kershaw has spent a lot of time looking back lately, and it’s still hard to fathom quite what happened in the year he turned 26.

Martin Shaw Photgrpahy

Within those 12 months he released two albums, one in February and one in November, and saw both go multi-platinum, his fame sky-rocket and his singles spend more time in the charts than any other solo artist’s.

Somehow the jazz-rock guitarist, who honed his craft in bands in his hometown of Ipswich and across Suffolk and Essex, became a pop idol, touring the world with big hits and even bigger hair.

“I was, quite literally, living my dream – that’s what I wanted to do,” says Kershaw, who had signed a solo record deal the previous year.

“I was playing live shows, playing my music to people, and people were buying my albums and it was just completely bonkers and bizarre.

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“It had a momentum and you had no control over it. And you hung on for dear life or you fell off.”

Wouldn’t It Be Good, with its irresistible chorus and MTV-friendly video, began the chart assault in January 1984, hitting Number 4, while Dancing Girls made number 13 in April, and a re-released I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me (originally a minor hit in late 1983) peaked at Number 2 in September, before Human Racing’s title track also made the top 20 in the same month. Luminaries such as Miles Davis and Elton John championed his music.

Kershaw’s winning run was such that a song with nonsensical, placeholder lyrics mischievously named The Riddle also flew up the charts in November, riding on a melody that begged postmen to whistle. The album of the same name, released two weeks later, was another synth-pop juggernaut, spawning more top 10 hits in Wide Boy and Don Quixote to welcome in 1985.

He took his place among the stars of the moment at Live Aid that summer and the hot streak saw Kershaw score another hit, When A Heart Beats, by the time the year was out, although the chart position of 27 proved a sign of declining sales. His third album Radio Musicola, not appearing until late 1986, confirmed the downward trend, essentially trading platinum for silver.

After 1989’s The Works fared poorly, Kershaw, married with a young family and bemoaning indifference from his record company, withdrew from solo life and became a silent songwriter for other artists, most notably penning Chesney Hawkes’ worldwide chart-topper The One And Only. He revived his solo career for 1999’s 15 Minutes and has recorded four further albums, most recently 2020’s Oxymoron. (“I don’t intend it to be my last album, but the juices don’t flow like they used to, shall we say. It will take a while but there will be another record.”)

There was a time when he railed against his past glories, he admits. “Every artist goes through that kind of thing and comes out the other side,” he says. “I was very proud of 15 Minutes, a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into it, and when I went to promote it everybody just wanted to talk about the old days and my haircuts. [My hits] were a monkey on my back at that time. I didn’t appreciate how good those songs had been to me.”

That has very much changed. This summer’s dates – including two festivals in one day – feature a platform at the touring Rewind franchise and 45 minutes of back-to-back hits. Then the 1984 Tour, starting in October and heading across Europe, will see his band perform Human Racing and The Riddle in full for the first time, including tracks he has never played live before. It’s a full-on embrace of the past.

“That period has informed the rest of my life,” he says. “Because I’m still playing those songs and those songs have given me the opportunity to do whatever I want: record when I want and play the kind of gigs I want.

“When you get in front of an audience, those hits are great things to have because you get to share them. They are stepping stones through a set. You might play a song from your new album and when their eyes start to glaze over, you can wheel out a hit.”

His big tunes have found big numbers online as well, with Kershaw’s three most popular songs on Spotify amassing more than 270 million streams on the platform, with 1.8m monthly listeners. He laughs that equates to “about £7.50” in royalties and admits it’s a model that’s not ideal for today’s musicians: “A lot of artists and people in my position are still trying to get to the bottom of how it all works. It is still a new model which the record companies need to get a handle on and needs to be continually monitored.”

Kershaw, now a grandfather, knows he’s fortunate to have been at his commercial peak when people bought records in their millions and for his career to have survived into the digital age. And he’s learned not to mess with a good thing with his audience and particularly with one song, which he has no hesitation in naming his favourite. 

“Wouldn’t It Be Good was my first big hit. That’s the one that broke me and the one that people most associate with me,” he says. 

“I have resented some of my old songs to an extent that you change them when you play them live and reinvent them, and people look at you completely baffled and say, ‘Why did you do that?’ But the one song I’ve never done that to is Wouldn’t It Be Good. It is what it is. And I still get a great buzz bashing out those chords.”

Nik Kershaw is performing at Epic Studios, Norwich, on Saturday, June 29.

Click here for tickets

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