Being in a band is all about making music, thought Paul English. But then Sharleen Spiteri came out of the shower wrapped in a towel and was snapped by a top fashion photographer. Texas were reborn.
But that’s not the full story. Almost a year after ‘White On Blonde’ cruised effortlessly into the UK Top 10, where it almost took a time-share residency, Texas have managed to succeed where many before them failed. Around the mid- to late 80s, when the group was in its infancy, Johnny McElhone, the band’s founder was scouting for talent after he quit his old group Hipsway. He’d heard of a young lead guitarist with something of a reputation as an exhibitionist. That guitarist was Ally McErlaine. I met with him recently to take up the story. "I was basically just out of school when I joined Texas. I’d had a band which was basically just me showing off a lot on the guitar, and I was mates with the guys from GUN. Johnny asked them if they knew any good guitarists. They mentioned me, and I just went down, jammed along and got in !".
After the meagre achievements of their last album ‘Rick’s Road’ in 1993, Texas took some time out, to contemplate their muse. The result we now all know. Gone were the bottleneck solos, and tragic under-use of Ms Spiteri’s soaring voice. This was an album punctuated with computer samplings and graftings of hip-hop. Soon Britain, not to mention Chris Evans, wanted Texas again. Successful singles such as Say What You Want, Halo and Put Your Arms Around Me showed the new Texas to be a more confident outfit - able to challenge the boundaries their previous three albums had set for them and glide into something new. But does this new-found reliability on modern gadgetry force the purist out of the band ? Is there still room for the odd lapse into old Texas bottleneck guitar playing territory ? Now 29, Ally has no doubt as he reflects on the 10 years that Texas have survived. "I’m really proud of everything that we’ve done, and there’s plenty of old stuff in the live set. You go through your life and naturally, your taste in sounds and styles change. New records come out that make you think of music in a different way. As a band, we always take onboard what’s new, and we always go to clubs and gigs to watch what everyone else is doing - not because we want to take ideas from it, just because we love the music."
What ? No solos ?
It’s easy to imagine the scene, where the band’s youngest member has his bottleneck taken off him and sets off, resigned to a new position, figuring out how the new samplers work and fiddling with the computer. But in reality, Ally doesn’t miss the guitar solos that were his signature on the Texas of old. "I used to be right into going mad with guitar solos, although now we’re more into playing for the song itself, and concentrating on a good groove. But now and again I quite like to do a bit", he admits. They’re into ‘the groove’ alright. And that’s not all. Sharleen has ditched the leathers, and her friendship with fashion photographer Jeurgen Teller has taken ‘White On Blonde’ down an alternative marketing road. Album and single covers had no space for the rest of the band, making way for Sharleen’s various pouting poses to take pride of place on record store shelves. The tour programme is filled with black and white images of Sharleen being, well... sexy. To many fans, she is Texas. "Yeah, but we’ve done the group thing. We’ve been around long enough to have a democracy in the band, but Sharleen is good for taking control and making things right aesthetically. She’s really good looking and she’s always been into the whole fashion thing. It’s something she loves as an art form, and has lots of friends in the fashion industry."
So was that all part of the marketing strategy ? "Not really. The best thing with the likes of Jeurgen Teller is that they’re really careful about what they do. They won’t just do something because they know you - they’ll only do it if they think it’s a worthwhile thing for them to do. Jeurgen Teller is into our music and that’s why he wanted to do the photographs." The Texas resurgence has no background of record company ploys, or use of sexual stereotypes to sell their ‘product’. McErlaine maintains that it’s nothing more than being in the right place at the right time. "It just seemed to be that when we made this album, everything fell into place. We’ve wanted to do things like that before, but couldn’t get the right people. This time, though, everybody wanted to do it. We used to be quite purist about making records, but on this album we bought a computer and samplers. We spent a lot of time learning how to use the equipment, and it ended up that we spent two years working on it - we wanted to make sure it was the best we could make. And it is - it’s the best album we’ve made by far, and folk genuinely want to hear the songs." That certainly appears to be true. At the turn of the year, the album was approaching the one million sales mark, and was still flirting with the Top 10. As Ally points out : "You don’t sell that amount of records just because you’re trendy or anything."
Causing a stir
From the moment the comeback single Say What You Want was given its first public airing, the reaction of the masses was one of shock. And it’s fair to say that the reaction of the band was something similar, according to Ally. "Everybody sat back in sheer amazement, and that was what we wanted. Folk were saying, ‘Is that Texas ?’ Everybody was shocked at how well the album did. We thought it was good when we were recording it, but never expected it to be so successful." Such was the response that when the band finished their first tour of Britain, they went over to Europe and took in France, Holland, Switzerland and Belgium. But as Ally says, "As the year went on, the album just got bigger and bigger, which gave us the chance to do a massive tour." Hailing from Glasgow’s South-Side (hence the title of their debut album back in 1988), Ally is certainly not typical of the rock ‘n’ roll life which befits his contemporaries. He speaks softly, and draws shakily on a cigarette when he speaks of home. "This year has been hard because I’ve been away all the time. But I’m still close to my family, and I phone my friends and make sure that they come to all the gigs. When I’m at home, we always go out to the pub or to the clubs in Glasgow. I love to do that and it’s something I look forward to when I come home. You meet a lot of people doing this and make a lot of friends, but the people who’re still going to be there when it’s all over are your mates, the same people that have always been your mates." But coming back home does have its strains. "Playing at home is like nothing else. You spend half the time trying to get folk on the guest list. It’s a really hectic day when you come back and play Glasgow. I honestly spend half my time worrying whether or not my granny is going to get in. But I honestly think Glasgow is the best audience I’ve played to in Britain."
From Kay to Gibson
So did Ally have to endure parent-enforced lessons, or was his guitar playing a more organic development ? "Well, me and a few mates all got guitars at the same time when we were about 12 or 13, and we’d all sit around in each other’s houses and play about with chords and stuff. Mine was a Kay that I got for Christmas - it must have cost about thirty quid in Asda or someplace ! And whenever someone learned something new, then they’d have to teach it to everybody else. That’s how I got the basics. But over the years, I’ve learned from records and guitarists I meet. "I always thought Mick Jones was amazing. I just said, ‘he’s cool - I want to be in a band !’
The Clash are the first band whose records I went out to buy. Even now I love them because they have really clever guitar parts. I’ve become quite open since then, and I’ll listen to anything from rap to country." Have his teenage jam partners fared as well ? "They’ve all gone on to different jobs, but one of my best mates is Roger Ward, who’s the guitarist in Glasgow band AC Acoustics. I rate him as one of my favourite guitarists. He plays fingerstyle acoustic stuff now, and has such an original style - he’s a great undiscovered talent." Having ditched the Kay, Ally’s current main guitar is a Gibson ES335. "It’s an old 70s one that I’ve had for 10 years, and it still sounds and looks great. It’s the first main guitar that I had, and it’s still my favourite out of all the ones I’ve used. Les Pauls can be a bit too ‘heavy rock’ sounding for me, whereas a 335 has the tone of a Gibson and the transparency of a Fender." They’re more versatile than people think. But ‘White On Blonde’ relies on sampling, mixing and overlays. Has Ally had to reorganise the way he approaches the guitar ? "I must admit, on the last album I had to practise quite a lot, because I had to change the way I played. The longer you’ve been playing, the harder it is to change the way you play. But I’m never pleased, and always want to get better. The thing with playing guitar is that you find the more you know, makes you realise just how much you don’t know. There’s so many avenues to be explored when playing the guitar that you can never do it all. For me, it’s just a case of trying to come up with new parts for songs and trying never to repeat myself."
Interview taken from "Guitarist Magazine", Volume 14 Number 12 - April 1998.