A master in the art of combining hi-tech media with lo-tech eccentricity, Willie Williams is a well-established name in the world of live entertainment design. While he is most closely associated with U2 – having been the brains behind their live extravaganzas since 1983 – he has also designed shows for other beat combos including REM, the Rolling Stones and Oasis, and for young hopefuls David Bowie and Bryan Adams. He is also a cult figure for U2 fans, as founding editor of fan-club magazine Propaganda and the author of the legendary ‘Willie’s Diary’, providing readers with a unique behind-the-scenes glimpse of life on tour. Willie has also made valuable contributions to countless Greenbelt festivals, from mainstage compere duties to producing the slightly absurd Trouser Television video pieces. Described by The Edge as “a very smart guy who luckily happens to get a big kick out of making rock bands look great”, Willie’s first steps on the road to rock’n’roll stardom were with Fish Co, Writz and Famous Names. In this revealing interview, he provides the full story, taking us from Transit vans and manning a plug socket to Punty, Hype, dawn in Old Jaffa, U2 and Zoo TV…
Can you take us way, way back? When did your path first cross those of Fairnie, Sage, Rowles et al.?
The first Greenbelt I went to was 1976 at Odell. It was all new and exciting for me but amongst all the Greenbelters wandering about, easily the most interesting looking people were a couple of characters in matching dungarees and baseball caps. I don’t think I spoke to them, but I did see the Fish Co performance and it was love at first sight. I kept an eye on them and went to a couple of Fish Co gigs during the following year and met them properly. I discovered they were fans of a band called Deaf School who I was also following about the country, so made a point of getting a photograph of their singer Bette Bright wearing a Fish Co badge. At Greenbelt ’77 I presented Bev and Steve with the picture and I guess they realised I was somebody to be reckoned with. The next year I went to lots more gigs and started “helping”, though being supremely unqualified to do anything much, I can’t imagine what I did other than carry boxes. I also met Squad Watts who was doing sound for them and his colleague from Scripture Union John Roden, who was also “helping”, though having a car I imagine he was more help than I was. I left school in July ’78 and made a beeline for London to hang out with the Fish Co crowd. I had got a place at University College London to do a Physics degree, mostly to give me a reason to come to London, where punk was in full swing and anything seemed possible.
Having boarded the grey transit van, it seemed I had found my home and the nine of us (Fairnie, Rowles, Bev, Jules, Nick Battle, Arry Axell, Squad, Roden & me) headed for Holland. On the Hook of Holland ferry (8 hours crossing time) Bev took it on as a personal project to get me annihilated with Southern Comfort, a drink which I have never touched since, to the point where I was found wandering on the car deck in my underpants. A day or so later when I had recovered I realised that this was a fun-loving crowd whose great love in life was practical jokes. Laughter really was the hallmark of that time. During that tour I got my ‘A’ Level results and had qualified to go to UCL. However, a month later when it came time to think about the practicalities of going, I realised that the only reason I was going to university at all was because I didn’t have a better plan. I certainly had no interest at all in Physics as a career, I was bright and had done well at school but had just never found anything that I really wanted to do. Until now. So, to lessen the crushing blow to my parents, I decided to take a year out. Nowadays taking a gap year is pretty much standard but back then it was a very radical thing to do, especially as most people who knew me at all were aware that I was somewhat miscast so once I’d headed into the unknown there would be no coming back. I am delighted to say that they were right.
Tell us a little bit about Writz and Famous Names on tour. What were the live milestones for you… and what are your memories of the 1980 Circus Tour? What was your position in the set-up? Was it strictly lights or were you already handling the wider aspects of “show design”?
The controlling element of Writz and Famous Names show designs was the almost total absence of any equipment. In the very beginning we had a pair of lights which plugged into a wall socket, which I would flash at exciting moments by pulling the plug in and out of the socket. I taught myself to run a lighting desk from the gigs we did at clubs or colleges with a lighting set up in-house (the first being Southampton Poly on July 7th 1978). Similiarly John Roden taught himself something about sound and ended up doing the onstage sound whenever there was a foldback system. Squad Watts was equally self-taught mixing the sound out in the house. For reasons I can’t imagine (though perhaps Bev applied the Southern Comfort treatment) Roden bought a small lighting system which became the touring set up. We had 12 lights on a good day. If a bulb or two blew, we’d have to wait till finances permitted their replacement, so the rig would get a little smaller. I can still remember the complete set-up. Fairnie had a pink light from one side, a green from the other and a red floor light. Bev had blue from the side and pink from below. Rowlesy had red from the side and white from below. Jules had a white light and the drums were lit red from above, blue from below. The final big effect was a pair of lights on the drum riser pointed into the audience. Blinders, indeed.
I remember the Circus tour as a bit of a blur. Partly because there were so many people on the tour, but mostly because they were all so bizarre. The wrestlers were the first people I had spent any time with who were hardcore amphetamine users so lived in an altered state most of the time. The wizard was the first full-on peace convoy crusty I’d ever met, and Shock the dance troupe were the darlings of the New Romantic crowd, and all looked like extras from Star Wars. There was also a slight sense of desperation creeping in plus Fairnie was in and out of hospital with his ulcer so it wasn’t the best time for any of us.
You also edited fan-club magazine Punty, a most excellent scissors’n’glue’n’xerox ‘zine-style publication. How did you get roped into that?!… Was it fun to produce?
Ah, Punty… Initially, John Roden was asked to look after the Fish Co Punters Club newsletter. I was keen to help and loved fanzine culture so once again I “helped”. In the event, Roden wasn’t that excited about doing it so my enthusiasm just took over. A mate called Steve Spicer contributed wonderful cartoons for free (Fish Co commanded such a lot of good will) and my complete inability to draw led me to working with available graphic devices, most notably bastardising a copy of the girls comic “Bunty”, hence the title. I was only thinking I’d use it for that one issue, but the name stuck. I still have the file of members names which includes Simon Mayo, age 18.
Fairnie-related projects have had you dressed up as Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot, a cone-head (I think that’s you isn’t it, on the Casualtease album cover) and as a compere sporting angel wings (Fairnie’s 40th). You were obviously willing to go to great lengths in the name of art… Are there other wacky experiments that you’d be prepared to divulge?
On the Casualtease cover I’m the one with the white stocking on my head and black shades. The conehead is Tik from Shock. I confess to having forgotten about the Glenn Miller shoot, but yes, it happened. In that wig I looked so much like my mother it was terrifying. The dressing up box (or “funny box” as we called it) was the core element of life in Writz. That and Bev’s propensity for hair colouring (hers and that of anyone in arm’s reach). We were living large. Millionaires with no money. Holland was good for us as the free ‘colourful’ society suited our nature. Plastic sandals were big for a while, there was the whole Muscle Culture look and various Casual performances which saw us doing very absurd things in bandages. I seem to recall pouring soap powder and cornflakes over Fairnie’s head whilst he sat staring at a de-tuned television. Art. The most absurd thing I ever did was appearing naked on the floor in a plastic bag during a Famous Names photo shoot in Tel Aviv. Their power of persuasion was very strong. And before you ask, we don’t have the pictures.
One of the great things about your working relationship with Fairnie is that it branched out way beyond music, the board game Hype being one of the best examples. What’s the story behind that one? Do you look back on your board game creator status with pride, or rather frustration that Hype wasn’t a commercial success?
I’ve always made games, ever since I was a kid. If there was a game I wanted to buy but couldn’t afford to buy, I’d just make a version of it myself. It was a fun hobby which Fairnie helped me take a step further. Of course it would have been nice if Hype had made a fortune, but the timing was all wrong. Electronic games had just arrived and Trivial Pursuit was yet to happen, so a board game costing 20 quid was pretty much unmarketable. My only disappointment was that Virgin Games had us ‘collaborate’ with a group of developers who turned the game into something only partially recognisible as anything we started with. By that time though I had started working with U2 so was away a lot of the time, leaving Fairnie & Bev to fend off the corporation. In the end it was that way or no way, so it was for the best. Needless to say we never saw any money from it. We also made a board game based on the book ‘1984’ which was going to have a holographic board, but the estate of Eric Blair (i.e. George Orwell) wouldn’t give permission. (Though I did read an interview with his niece (I think) who was saying they would never sully the Blair family name with cheap merchandising of George Orwell and “we even had someone who wanted to turn it into a board game…!”, so I felt we’d at least made the papers).
How did you graduate from Writz / Famous Names to U2? Who or what originally connected the two bands?
Absolutely nothing connected Writz with U2. When Famous Names was beginning to wind down I had started looking for work with lighting hire companies and other groups. I had some success getting small gigs and worked with all kinds of (mostly punk) bands doing one offs, including the Adverts, the Lambrettas, Classix Nouveaux, Blancmange… and Stiff Little Fingers from Belfast. I worked with them for a year or so, then they split up, so I figured I needed another regular band. I had just discovered U2 and loved them. I knew they had a new album in the works and therefore most likely a tour, so I thought I’d call to see if they had a lighting guy or whether I could send them anything. They didn’t even have an office at the time. The first time I spoke to The Edge he was living at home with his parents! I got a number for Paul McGuinness and called him from the hallway payphone in the house where I had a bedsit (Jules also lived there). Paul seemed surprised but said they were looking for someone so yes, do send something. I knew they were going to be in London doing a Radio 1 session, so made a point of being there and finally met them all. I didn’t know it then, but the rest was history – as far as they were concerned I was on board. Subsequently, the U2 guys met and became friends with Bev and Steve. They had children around the same time too, so there were lots of parallels. Bono had a lot of respect for Fairnie.
Imagine my surprise when I saw Bono closing Zoo TV shows with the line “I have a vision… television” which (possibly) harked back to Muscle Culture. Were you responsible for slipping a bit of Writz into U2? If so, has it happened on other occasions?
I did give Bono the line, though checked with Fairnie and Bev first. It was just so perfect for Zoo TV. In the book of condolences at Fairnie’s funeral Bono wrote “You had the vision, I just had the television”. I’m sure there have been other instances of Writz slipping into U2 (and others) because Fairnie taught me how to think. He really gave me the building blocks of creativity, so it could be argued that a great deal has its roots in him.
In your approach to stage and lighting design, what did you learn from the period playing clubs with Writz that remains with you now you’re on the arena and stadium circuit?
The main thing I learned was how to make a little go a long way which means you have to pace a show in order to make it from beginning to end without running out of things to do. Even with a huge show those principles still apply. I often think that the lessons I learned in clubs with very few lights were the most valuable.
I once spotted in an interview with you somewhere that you regarded Fairnie as your mentor. Please tell me more!…
As above… When I met Fairnie I was all set to go off and pursue a career in Physics, knowing in my heart that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. Bev & Steve opened me to other possibilities and other ways of thinking which were very exciting but they also made it seem achievable so I had the courage to abandon my university plans. At the time, the period I spent with Writz, Famous Names, Technos etc., seemed like forever but it was really a little less than three years. However, during that period I spent a very great deal of time with Fairnie – sometimes all day every day for weeks on end (often in quite strange circumstances) so our conversations were sometimes very deep. In fact looking back, that whole time was one long conversation about life. He also taught me about art and gave me access to the seemingly huge and unfathomable art world. He did it by comparing art movements to music movements (something I knew a lot about) and the parallels are quite funny. He would say that in context of the time it was painted, Picasso’s “Demoiselles D’Avignon” [pictured above] was the Sex Pistols. It really was as radical and upsetting as that. Mark Rothko, he said, was Brian Eno – ambient painting. Breugel and Bosch were Iron Maiden, the stuff of nightmares. Monet was Enya, and so it went on. Never did figure out what Country and Western painting would be.
Apologies for the cliché, but what are your fondest memories of Fairnie, either on- or off-stage?
His onstage stream of consciousness chat was always glorious. He was capable of wandering off on the most unlikely tangents and yet always kept the audience engaged. One of the greatest examples being a Trouser Television interview doing an art critique of a large blue tent which was hilarious. Off stage the memory that springs to mind is dawn in Israel. It was the last tour the band ever did and even though we didn’t talk about it at the time, we all knew it was the end of everything. Fairnie and I had stayed up all night talking and walked for miles, winding up in the little fishing port of Old Jaffa. We were on the beach, it was a cool grey morning, the sun hadn’t quite appeared, when we met this guy who lent us his boat. It was a little two-man canoe and we headed out into the Med, little lost souls not knowing where we were going or what lay ahead. It was fantastically dangerous, looking back, but like everything in that time we just did it, heading out into the unknown with some crazy notion that everything would work out all right in the end.
And one final bonus question to put you on the spot. Picture the scene: a good old-fashioned battle of the bands between Fish Co, Writz, the Technos and U2. Who wins? Be honest now!
Of the Fairnie bands, early Writz would be the winner. They were so on it and looked so good. Bev’s military outfit was killer and the whole milkshakes and binoculars look was so cool. It’s impossible to compare them to U2 in any meaningful way, but if Writz had ever got to stadium level I am sure they’d give U2 a run for their money. Incidentally, completely by coincidence, the first time Writz played the Marquee, U2 were in the audience. I found this out years later, but U2 were on their very first trip to London and wanted to go to the Marquee club to see what this legendary place looked like. Headlining that night was this band called Writz. The U2 guys hated it, being in a very purist no bullshit rock and roll phase back then. Little did they imagine that one day they’d have a ‘funny box’ of their own. And the same guy doing the lights…