Randomising the record collection #5: Whycliffe – Rough Side

#6847 – Whycliffe – Rough Side
(LP, 1991) (Discogs tracklisting)

05 whycliffe

It’s impossible to listen to Whycliffe’s first of two albums, both recorded for MCA in the early Nineties, without being aware of the shadow cast by the Nottingham singer-songwriter’s subsequent fall from grace. For the past fifteen years or so, you’ll have found him wandering the streets of his home town, a damaged and vulnerable figure, singing for coins.

“After Journeys of the Mind [his second album, 1994], I went into my own mind and deep into myself. I got ill. It’s hard to remember much of what happened, but it was a downward spiral that I couldn’t get out of”, he told LeftLion magazine in 2005. “There was so much happening to me at such a young age that I couldn’t quite cope with it all.”

It could have worked out very differently. There were TV appearances (Live And Kicking, The Word), big shows (Hammersmith Odeon, support slots with James Brown at Wembley Arena and Birmingham NEC), not to mention a romance with Dannii Minogue, which Whycliffe talks about poignantly in that 2005 interview. And yet the hits never came: three minor chart entries from seven singles, the highest peaking at #56.

Rough Side is handsomely packaged, with photos by Peter Ashworth and Juergen Teller. Money has clearly been spent. Hopes are riding high. Whycliffe’s sleeve notes are full of optimism: “Hold tight, we’re going all the way!” / “To the rest of you spunky kids, don’t let anyone stop you from doing what you want to do.”

Although the requisite pop sheen of the day has been added to the production, it doesn’t smother the songs, or dampen the performances; indeed, the record has aged a good deal better than Wednesday’s D-Influence album. Only two tracks are co-writes. There’s a pleasing variety of subject matter and mood. Stylistically, it follows in a straight line from Terence Trent D’Arby, Sidney Youngblood and Seal: commercial pop-soul, with a post-Soul II Soul percussive funkiness that doesn’t irritate by over-familiarity. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen, if short on stand-out cuts – although perhaps the closing song, “Love Speak Up”, could have been a hit if the wind had been blowing in the right direction.

Around the time of the album’s release, I saw Whycliffe and his band playing at the old Trent Poly. Earthier, funkier and sexier than on record, they put on an impressive show. He had charisma and vocal power. I thought we were in with a chance of that rarest of events in those dark, pre-Bugg days: a Nottingham breakthrough act, that would put the city on the map. But things like that just didn’t happen back then. We didn’t have the sort of supportive, nurturing scene that could have birthed and championed a homegrown talent.

Nottingham’s a kinder place for artists these days, but Whycliffe haunts it still: a punchline to an in-joke, an awful warning, a talent in irreversible retreat. This was a good album, which deserves to be remembered on its own merits – but perhaps that’s now too much to ask.

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