The history of popular music is littered with performers who quit, or more often, were ousted, from bands just as they were on the cusp of fame.
Pete Best is the classic industry archetype having been usurped from a certain Liverpool band’s drum stool by Ringo Starr, just a year before the outbreak of Beatlemania.
Best’s grunge counterpart Jason Everman had the misfortune to leave two bands before they made it big, Soundgarden and Nirvana, while other notable examples include original Guns n’ Roses guitarist Tracii Guns (replaced by some bloke called Slash) and bassist Pete Garner who walked out on The Stone Roses.
But of all rock’s nearly men and women, the case of Andy Wickett is perhaps the most extraordinary.
For not only did he quit Duran Duran, just as they were on the brink of worldwide megastardom, he also sold the rights to his songs to the band for the princely sum of just £600 and then gave singing lessons to his replacement, one Simon Le Bon.
Now the release of early demos by Cleopatra Records have shed new light on Wickett’s history with Duran and the songwriting thrust he provided for two of their biggest hits Girls On Film and Rio.
Still active with his band World Service, the Midlands music stalwart tells Matt Catchpole about his time with Duran and the inspiration behind those early songs.
The embryonic Duran Duran had already parted with one singer Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy before Wickett came on board.
Duffy, who Wickett credits with a “deeper and more intellectual” singing style than Le Bon, would go on to have success both with The Lilac Time and as a solo artist.
However, while massive fame was to elude him, back then Wickett was the established performer, looked up to by Duran’s John Taylor and Nick Rhodes.
Both were fans of Wickett’s band TV Eye and regularly attended rehearsals, along with gigs at venues like Barbarellas and Rebecca’s in Birmingham.
Wickett remembers they were not exactly the teen heartthrobs and harbingers of New Romantic cool they were to become.
“Nick Rhodes was called Nick Bates. His dad had a toyshop called Bates’s Toys and he used to buy Nick expensive keyboards. John Taylor was called Nigel. He was a bit geeky back then. He wore glasses. I liked Roger the best. I got him into the band. He was a really nice guy.”
When Wickett left TV Eye, ironically replaced by Duffy, Rhodes and John Taylor invited him to front Duran Duran and he immediately began writing songs for the group.
Known by his alter ego Fane – “It had a nice ring to it. I took it from a make of loudspeaker” – Wickett proved a charismatic frontman and the band began to garner serious record company interest.
The demos released by Cleopatra were recorded in 1979 at Bob Lamb Studio (home of UB40) in Moseley, Birmingham.
The four songs feature Wickett on lead vocals along with John Taylor on bass, namesake Roger on drums and Nick Rhodes on keyboards.
Guitarist Andy, the third Taylor to join the group, would not arrive until the following year, but he acknowledges in his autobiography Wickett’s role in the writing of Girls On Film.
Wickett says the song was composed while he was working on the night shift, watching the chocolates go by on a conveyor belt at the Cadbury’s factory in Bournville.
Though the single’s erotic video suggests the song was about the relationship between photographers and their models, Wickett says the lyrics were actually inspired by stars of old black and white movies.
“I was thinking of films like Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, Judy Garland and her heroin addiction – the dark underbelly of fame and fortune.”
As you can hear below, the demo is a dirtier, more punk-funk sounding tune than the more polished pop single with Le Bon’s vocals, which reached No 5 in the UK charts – Duran’s first Top 10 hit.
The other songs on the demo See Me Repeat Me, Reincarnation, and Working The Steel have an equally dark subtext and were prompted by Wickett’s interest in books like Wild Boys (sound familar?) by controversial writer William Burroughs.
It’s a fascinating insight into the band Duran Duran may have become had Wickett not opted to leave.
Unusually he appears to have quit the band precisely because he knew they were about to hit the big time.
“I knew they were going to be successful,” he says. “The major labels wanted to sign us when I was the band because they liked my voice and Girls On Film.”
Wickett had become uncomfortable with Duran’s image and was beginning to diverge from the rest of the band musically, having become a big fan of dub reggae.
“We already looked a bit New Romantic,” the singer recalls. “Nick wanted to look like the band Japan. They didn’t like it when I had my hair cropped and started dressing like a skinhead. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed.”
So after 18 months, Wickett walked away, but his influence on Duran’s sound was to continue for some time to come.
After leaving, Wickett agreed to sign over the rights to the songs he’d written with the band for just £600.
The cash was handed over in crisp £50 notes and he used the money to buy a new keyboard.
With hindsight it was to prove a serious undervaluation of his contribution.
“Their management told me to phone my solicitor while I was at their office. He advised me to sign the waiver as it would be proof of my involvement in the band’s material,” Wickett recalls.
“However, when I went to see him afterwards, he said EMI would buy me out of court, so I was screwed. I regret that they were so tight.”
Another of Wickett’s songs Stevie’s Radio Station – a favourite of Nick and John’s from his TV Eye days and incorporated into early Duran live sets – would provide the blueprint for Rio.
Elements of See Me Repeat Me from that first Bob Lamb Studio demo are also said to have influenced the music for the song.
Rio was another Top 10 hit – peaking at Number Nine in December 1982.
Wickett was also paid by the group – £10 a time – to give Le Bon 20-minute singing lessons – coaching him in the phrasing of Girl’s On Film.
“He was a nice guy. Their management wanted me to teach him how to sing like me.” Wickett says.
Even after he’d moved on to another band The XpertZ – Wickett claims team Duran continued to look to him for inspiration.
“I wasn’t surprised that they were still using my ideas. I would hear bits of my lyrics and song titles taken from when I was in the band,” Wickett says.
“They used to come to my XpertZ gigs with their managers.We had a song called All the President’s Men. After that their next album included a song called El Presidente.”
As if to acknowledge a debt to their earlier singer, Duran Duran asked Wickett to take his band World Service on a UK tour with them in 1998.
It was to be the last time Wickett had any contact with his erstwhile bandmates.
Despite everything, he’s not bitter, saying he simply wasn’t in a the right frame of mind to handle the degree of stardom Duran would go on to enjoy.
“I knew I would not have survived all the excesses of fame at that time,” he says now. “I would probably have died of a drug and alcohol overdose in some groupie’s bed.”
A recent release of TV Eye material has revived interest in his old band and he’s just released a new album with World Service.
“Ant (one of the drummers from World Service) had tapes of rehearsals from when we went to the Sahara. There were several great song ideas on there and we combined them with some of my other tunes to make up the album,” he explains.
“The album is a mixture of styles and influences that I have assimilated over the years. It’s both dark and bright. Hidden and open. Mysterious and forthright.
“Maybe what Duran would have sounded like had I still been in them?,” he teases.