Written by Neil Partrick, with editing by Valerie Grove
Nearly forty years ago two young people who had quit school at the earliest opportunity wrote and recorded a concept album. Aged 16 and 17 respectively, Lucy Nabijou (née Howard) and Steve North composed a collection of songs that referenced trauma, abuse, anxiety, poor parenting, inequality, freedom (or lack of it), drink and drug misuse and the male psyche. Lucy and Steve tackled such issues without being didactic, often temporising their serious subject matter with elliptical and sometimes bizarre references. The songs emerged from music and lyrics that Lucy and Steve had initially written on their own, and then worked up in the studio into much fuller, group performances.
Steve was already a talented electric (lead and bass) and acoustic guitarist. Lucy sang in a sweet, clear voice, possessed of an almost childlike innocence strangely at odds with the emotional maturity and punch of the lyrics. The fact that in 1981 they then proceeded to turn these songs into musically accomplished tracks performed with two of Steve’s schoolmates and a well-known saxophonist, Dick Heckstall-Smith, is nothing short of remarkable.
Lucy Nabijou & Steve North circa 1981
Schitzoid Joe (SIC) has what would be considered by some a ‘prog’ sound. In Steve’s words it was ‘Pink Floyd with folky bits and female vocals.’ This wasn’t some fashionably unfashionable statement though, but a reflection of what he and ‘Juice’ (Lucy’s nickname at the time) had grown up listening to. They were both also becoming fast absorbed in a post-punk musical sensibility that was edgy and funky and had little time for what Steve sees as the blues preoccupation of every young, British, budding rock guitarist who first began playing in the pre-punk 1970s.
The album finds Steve and Lucy in transition to what would soon be a shared but separate musical direction, and there are signposts to the harder yet more experimental musical worlds they would both shortly embrace. Perhaps more to the point, the album’s songs presage issues that have become the almost clichéd preoccupations of today’s boxed-set TV dramas. However they explore these in a first hand, literate way that reflects their own upbringing and without sounding preachy, worthy or angry, despite them both having a lot to be angry about.
Lucy and Steve are uncomfortable now with their use of the word schizoid. However, despite not being able to remember whether misspelling it as ‘schitzoid’ was wilful or not, this provides a disassociation from a label that was often pejoratively bandied about. In the part fictional world they created, it was a term that would probably have been imposed on Joe regardless of his particular reality.
On the title track, ‘Schitzoid Joe’, Lucy invents the character whose persona permeates the album’s guiding themes of disconnection and alienation. The child who occupies the body of this emotionally repressed character is, like Lucy at the time, screaming to get out. Lucy largely based Joe on her (now deceased) father, a relatively well-known classical musician whose psychological abuse was partly about his absence but also about his disregard for Lucy. He had wanted to musically sculpt another son and was not remotely interested in the creative potential of a daughter. The song ‘Schitzoid Joe’ is also about Lucy, the song’s narrator, who, deprived of love by a ‘Peter Pan’ figure unable to function as either a father or husband, is already seeking comfort in self-medication.
In a reflection of just how young she was at the time, the song ‘Crazy Uniform’ was inspired by Lucy’s attempts to make her school uniform more interesting. She stuck punk-style, tabloid newspaper letter cut-outs on the back of her jacket to spell obscenities. The song has even younger associations in its Narnia-type references to ‘drinking from golden fountains in fairy-tale mountains’. These ‘childish’ preoccupations, however, are the fantasies of one whose tears ‘run down (her)…sculptured face’ as she struggles to recognise her ‘inborn grace’. Lucy freely admits now that much of her lyrical and poetic preoccupation at the time was classic self-analysis of one who’d been abandoned by their father. However, it was a rare 15/16 year old who could write and sing about such things, elliptically or not.
In their shared writing in Steve’s bedroom of ‘Impressions of a Day Dream’, both Steve and Lucy document their respective isolation. A verse by Steve refers to an academic father he hid behind but who was more interested in the library than him. A verse by Lucy relives her trauma of nearly drowning as a child, and tells of still being dragged down by the ‘remnants of her nightmares’ while ‘her mother looks in anguish’ and ‘her father plays the fool.’ Speaking today, Lucy is keen to make clear that neither of her parents were literally present when she was struggling for life. What these shared lyrics clearly communicate though is parental detachment from the well-being of their children.
For Steve, Lucy’s song ‘Schitzoid Joe’ provided the ‘scaffolding’ for the album. He makes clear that what he saw as Lucy’s confidence when she first sang it to him, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and how she would hold musical court to other school friends, provided the pivot for the whole project. With his production experience, Steve took the lead once they got into the studio, and contributed some of the songs. However Lucy’s initial idea was the core of the project. Listening to her song nearly 40 years later, the protagonist ‘Joe’, unable or unwilling to articulate the inner suffering he’s buried since childhood, sounds just as conflicted and just as relevant.
Lucy claims that they called the whole thing a concept album because that ‘sounded cool,’ and says it wasn’t as programmatic as the word ‘concept’ suggests. However, as well as the more obvious signature concept album device of reprising the title track at the end, recurring themes come up in her and Steve’s lyrics, and musical connections abound throughout. For example, Joe’s character ties in with the one created by Steve on his song ‘Up Into the Sky’. He’s ‘just a man’, like any other man, who wants to keep his head firmly down. He’s ‘up against the grain’, ‘looking through a veil of pain,’ and it’s then asked ‘who can he abuse?’ In an equally sinister line it’s said that other men are coming for him but somehow he can take a different path – skywards. Lucy complements her singing of Steve’s account of emotional and psychological detachment with soaring backing vocals suggestive of his character’s way out of his suffering. This anti-hero has been told that he won’t have to try, won’t even have to die, if he looks ‘up into the sky.’
Steve’s song ‘They’ll Learn Some Day’ sounds part autobiographical and part character projection when it tells of self-medication leading to him ‘lying in the gutter ‘til the piggy bank broke.’ It also reveals a very young songwriter who already sounds jaundiced. It tells of those who, through little choice of their own, are stuck in a world where there’s no time for abstract concepts like freedom. They’re just ‘getting through life day by day.’ This was probably how Steve and Lucy felt too.
Lucy’s ‘Our Time’ is an ode to tough times, ‘80s style, when we were told there was no such thing as society. ‘Listen to the news’ wrote Lucy, and you’ll hear that ‘You create your own abuse, and the world is an opportunity that drowned in the sea.’ This is pretty grim stuff. It reminded me of some of the bleakest lines on Pink Floyd’s Animals, but this is Lucy’s very personal sense of abandonment, not rock aristocracy’s commercial embrace of it. Discussion of any kind of abuse of course is still relatively new, responsibility is still usually evaded, and, just like back in the ‘70s, many are still left blaming themselves or turning on others close to hand. The only answer Lucy could find back then was to create her own world, knowing full well that her recommendation to ‘fly to the moon, in a silver cocoon, and circle the sun,’ would not mean that ‘your new life’s begun.’
Lucy’s ‘The World’s a Happier Place Today’ is, unsurprisingly, not an overly optimistic account of being a teenager. Mother Nature died today, nightmares and insanity abound, and we’re invited to slip off our shiny shoes and blow away the blues. The reprised version of Schitzoid Joe is a slowed down, more poignant but shorter take on the title track. We are left reflecting more deeply on what it means to conclude that the ‘clowns’ are all over us and getting blitzed seems the only wise human choice.
Musically the album is launched by Dick Heckstall-Smith, a leading name in the UK’s blues and jazz-rock scenes of the 1960s and early 1970s respectively. His deft sax solo introduces the title song and his playing provides a constant accompaniment to this signature track, and to much else on the album. Steve’s school friends Nick Bunker and Pascal Consoli played keyboards and drums respectively, while Steve played bass and lead guitar. Nick didn’t play any old keyboard either. It was a Yamaha electric grand piano. Despite its apparent state-of-the-art tech, it still had to be specially tuned for the recording session, and at some cost. Arguably Nick, Pascal and Dick were akin to session men, although only Dick was paid (£25 an hour, recalls Steve). Steve’s bond with Nick and Pascal went back a few years. From the age of 12 Steve had been playing in school bands with Nick’s younger brother Hugh, and later Pascal was recruited because Steve found out he was taking drumming lessons. Steve’s first musical outing had been playing jazz in a school band run by one Arthur Heckstall-Smith – the connection to his dad’s later recruitment – before rock became Steve’s greater focus. At 14 Steve, Pascal and Hugh formed a school band called The Modes, with the slightly older Nick on lead guitar and Steve on vocals and rhythm guitar.
Prior to the recording session, Lucy, Steve and Pascal had worked up a bedroom demo of all of the songs, utilising Steve’s recently purchased TEAC portastudio. Steve and Lucy had also played some of the songs in a gig at The Earth Exchange, an environmentally-minded centre in Archway Road, north London. Lucy was already attuned to such issues, in part through her mother’s then unusual environmental awareness, and this was reflected in some of Lucy’s poetry and lyrics. For Nick the portastudio demo was all he really knew of the material, aside from two years earlier having performed ‘Up Into The Sky’ at a wedding in Quaglino’s Ballroom with a 14 year old Steve and a couple of other friends.
While the album’s words, music and conceptual base were very much Lucy and Steve’s, a very audible sense of energy and commitment shines through from each of the performers. Despite being still very young when this album was recorded, Steve, Nick and Pascal confidently imposed their individual style on the overall sound without crowding out Lucy’s central vocal performance. On occasions, all of the musicians seem to delight in the opportunity to break out and jam, such as in the middle section of ‘Crazy Uniform’ (in which Steve notes an unconscious channelling of Bowie’s number ‘Station to Station’). On ‘Our Time’ the instrumental section is more akin to a live but organised party. Steve performs neat arpeggios on acoustic guitar, Nick’s keyboard solo positively dances, and there’s a palpable sense of fun that includes much whooping and cheering from all present. On ‘Catch 22’, an exclusively instrumental track, Steve and Pascal do the white boy funk thing that, in a punkier way, soon became Steve’s major musical drive. Dick Heckstall-Smith’s soloing provides a gritty foil to the funk/rock shtick that underpins the track.
Despite Steve’s view that the album is more reflective of his and Lucy’s then musical heritage than trends more typical of the early ‘80s, Schitzoid Joe neither sounds derivative or blandly of its time. Given that the other musicians were probably more mainstream in their tastes than Steve, it was never going to end up sounding avant garde. However, together they succeeded in creating an album unlike any other, then or since.
Schitzoid Joe was recorded in an appropriately named studio in north London: The Pitz. Despite being The Tourists’ rehearsal room, it had little glamour. A cramped space behind a couple of high street shops housed a tiny kitchen, WC, a recording desk and a small space in which the band performed surrounded by mattresses gaffer-taped to the walls and ceiling. The engineer at The Pitz was Paul Anastasi, whose typical clientele were young, local bands looking to make a cheap demo tape to fast track their path to a recording deal and rock stardom. Steve was focused on the project in hand. He arrived knowing what he wanted to do and, having already experimented with his home studio, had a sense of how Paul could help him get it down on tape.
Dick Heckstall-Smith joined them early on a Sunday morning, armed with roll-ups stuffed in various bits of his many saxes. Right from the offset Lucy, Steve, and Paul were blown away by how quickly and seemingly effortlessly Dick could work out what to play and just where. Yet listening to him and to all of the musical contributions to the album today it is remarkable that there is nothing that sounds contrived or casually thrown in. Steve doesn’t remember whether Dick was impressed that a 16 and a 17 year old had written a concept album. He just showed up for a couple of hours, did his thing, and left.~
The late, great Dick Heckstall-Smith
After five intense days in the studio – three days and three long nights of performing, and two days and nights of mixing and remixing – Steve and Lucy had recorded a concept album. Most of the other musicians were able to get their contributions down in the first couple of days, although Nick came back toward the end to add a keyboard solo. Unexpectedly, engineer Paul Anastasi was recruited to add an analogue synth solo of his own (on ‘The World’s A Happier Place Today’).
The track sheet for the song ‘Schitzoid Joe’
Ultimately, Schitzoid Joe contained a strong set of songs and some great playing. Yet it was out of step with its time. It could sound prog in places – such as when a Fisher Price music box is deployed in the intro to ‘Up Into The Sky’, and in the atmospheric opening to ‘The World’s A Happier Place Today’ – but there are no musical excesses on any part of the album. It does in part reflect the pop and rock sensibilities they grew up with, and, at times, those that were more typical of the late 70s/early 80s. On ‘Impressions of a Daydream’, for example, the band sound like other accomplished acts of their era: tight and disciplined; musicians riffing as needed, not for show. Much contemporaneous pop though was providing a soundtrack to material or sexual escapism, or, for a smaller market by 1981, a gritty soundtrack to urban decay. Schitzoid Joe provides lessons in personal trauma punctuated with lyrical escape and a pure musical pleasure that is part retro, part undefinable. There was whimsy, teenage drug oblivion and family hell. What more could a record executive want?
Steve and Lucy recall some attempts at getting some major labels interested and that they got in front of a record exec’s desk a handful of times. Looking back, Steve thinks he probably naively expected that all they had to do was ‘rock it round a few labels’ and then the calls would come in. In reality, the on the spot responses were the clichés of being ‘very impressed’ that two young people could produce such ‘excellent’ work, but that, sadly ‘it isn’t quite what we are looking for right now.’ And of course it wasn’t. Lucy has a more personal take on the experience, remembering one A&R man being particularly patronising and paternal to the nervous young woman in front of him.
Lucy’s aunty had a friend called Shanti who knew something about the music business and was thought of as a potential manager. However, an afternoon in her basement flat in Highbury Grove focused more on the whisky and spliffs that she provided than proper attention to the demo that Lucy and Steve had brought round. Steve concedes that they should probably have made more of an effort to plug the album while Lucy simply remembers that she was so young and shy that a concerted attempt to ‘market’ the record would have been unfathomable. They didn’t gig the album either. Despite having previewed it at The Earth Exchange, there was little idea of adding more public performances in lieu of the finished product. Lucy only remembers feeling overwhelmed playing that gig, a condition that wasn’t to change much in the different bands she fronted for the next few years.
Almost as soon as they had made Schitzoid Joe, Lucy and Steve broke up, musically and personally. They had been in a close relationship for several months, and maybe it was this that got in the way of them capitalising on what they had achieved. However, they had both done what they wanted at that point, and for each of them it was perhaps a matter of moving on to the next thing. Steve remembers them both assuming they’d carry on working together, but that things ‘just drifted apart in their own way.’
Steve North circa early ‘80s
Steve initially teamed up with a couple of other young musicians to record a demo in a pop vein, for which they recruited Steve’s former school band-mate Arthur (Heckstall-Smith) to play keyboards. Steve then got more into the engineering side of the business, graduating from the 16-track recording console at The Pitz to a 24-track at Vineyard Studios and assisting in the engineering of a Level 42 album, The Special AKA album ‘In The Studio’ featuring ‘Nelson Mandela’, and The Jam’s live LP Dig The New Breed. Steve was ultimately though more stimulated by his love of ‘punk-funk’ and would end up singing lead vocals and playing guitar in a band he helped form, Lethal Poor. Labelled ‘Goth’, they made their own albums largely under Steve’s direction, and were contemporary enough to have Rough Trade as their record distributor. ‘We sold albums and gigged around,’ he says, and even got reviewed in Melody Maker. In hindsight, it was always likely that Steve would move in a more alternative direction than the overall sound of Schitzoid Joe: ‘I consider myself to be ultimately more edgy and experimental, out there, more towards Scott Walker than towards Supertramp,’ he says.
Lethal Poor (Steve pictured left)
By 1985 Steve had gone from ‘Lethal Poor’ to ‘Desperate Fun’, a more commercial venture where his role was that of a sideman, albeit contributing what the Melody Maker’s Ian Gittins described in September 1987 as ‘squalls of way out guitar.’
Desperate Fun with Steve centre
‘It was then that I thought I’d do something completely different,’ he says, and joined an ‘alternative country band’, once again playing distorted guitar solos but this time in a very different setting. ‘If It Bleeds’ played gigs across the UK in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. That was the end of what Steve calls his ‘serious gigging’ though. Since then, when not teaching music and guitar in 6th form colleges or pursuing totally unrelated projects, Steve has periodically turned out his own self-produced solo tracks and demos. His most recent track, ‘New’, from 2019, has a spare, haunting vocal style and music inspired by the sad demise of a musical hero, Scott Walker.
If It Bleeds live at The Trolleystop, London, circa 1990
Steve remembers Lucy’s image and style suddenly changing too once they’d completed the album. She wore spikey hair, was plainly into post-punk material, and was gigging with the awfully named ‘Before The Fighting Starts’ in renowned London venues like The Rock Garden and Dingwalls. Lucy recalls this period as a tough time where she felt less and less in control of what she was doing musically. From working with Steve, whom she fondly remembers as ‘always being self-assured, not arrogant, and empathetic,’ she became the ‘eye candy’ in a ‘boy’ band where her song-writing input was often minimal.
Lucy during the ‘Before the Fighting Starts’ phase
In 1983 Lucy (vocals) and close friend Simon Reeves (drums) recorded a demo of two of her new songs at Pace Studios in Milton Keynes, with brothers Paul and Mark da Costa on guitar and bass. Punk-funk and post-punk in style, the sound was raw and urgent but the band never gigged. At this time though what she describes as ‘physiological changes’ had given her voice a more mature and powerful sound that she feels much more comfortable hearing today (though her vocal performance during this particular session was marred by having been awake for three nights).
From 1984 Lucy teamed up with Jim Custance to form Indy duo, The Firehills. Aided by a LinnDrum machine, they cut a demo in the renowned Pathway Studio where Jim was also sound engineer. Lucy’s voice sounded confident and strong and the duo had a melodic but edgy sensibility. Knowing how to try to turn this into music industry success was something else though.
The Firehills (Lucy Nabijou & Jim Custance)
With the exception of that duo, Lucy never felt central to what any of the guys she had gone on to perform with after Schitzoid Joe were doing. By 1987 she had also concluded that trying to work out via her songs the personal demons inflicted by her father was way too painful. Looking back she also feels that her chronic, early shyness and often complicating relationships with the dominant ‘father figure’ in some of these bands stymied what she wanted to be and to do musically. ‘I sold myself short,’ she says.
Lucy at the GLC music festival in Jubilee Gardens 1985
Nick Bunker and Pascal Consoli carved out careers in the music business. After Schitzoid Joe, Nick took to playing guitar as much as keyboards. Within a few years he was touring with Irish Indy band Fatima Mansions before later joining the more renowned Fischer-Z, a British band that enjoyed both commercial success and Indy cred. Pascal Consoli is still a highly successful drummer, at one time having played with acid-jazz band D-Influence when they supported Michael Jackson on tour, and has recorded with Tom Jones and Bjork among other big name acts.
Nick Bunker gigs at his own wedding in 1984 (with, in the background, Pascal Consoli on drums)
Pascal Consoli circa 1981.
For Lucy things could not have been more different. In 2007, after two decades away from music, and having been diagnosed with MS, she had gone home to live with her mother who was to be very supportive to her at this incredibly difficult time. Lucy remembers it not getting off to a great start though: ‘I needed looking after but on the day I arrived she flew out on a pre-booked holiday.’ Lucy had researched her particular condition and concluded that her decline would be imminent and totally debilitating. In her early 40s, she recalls believing ‘My life was over.’ Asleep for much of that same day she remembers being woken by a persistent ringing at the door. She dragged herself out of bed and there at the door stood Jeremy Cooke, who, unknown to Lucy, was a friend of Lucy’s former musical collaborator, Simon Reeves. After swearing at this stranger Lucy was told that a music publicist had listened to one of her demos from the early ‘80s and was interested. For Lucy, Jeremy suddenly became transformed into an angel of mercy. Inspired by his news Lucy took up playing again, and joined with Jeremy and Simon in a new incarnation, ‘StrangeStar’. They reworked a couple of songs that she’d performed with The Firehills and wrote new material. Sadly, in the nature of these things, that band would eventually fold too, but not before putting two EPs together, including ‘Inglorious Gambles’ in 2012, and performing some London gigs. Lucy still felt that she never escaped the sense of being an adjunct to the boys, even when she was co-songwriting and singing all her own lyrics.
Lucy Nabijou in a StrangeStar promotional shot
Lucy is currently pursuing several different musical projects. She has organised the recording of a song, ‘Adversity Rhyme’, that she wrote a couple of years ago on the refugee experience, an issue that prompted her to co-found the refugee and migrant support network ‘Haringey Welcome’ in 2015. Sung and performed by an international group associated with the network, the track was launched in July 2020 as a video project to raise awareness and funds specifically for vulnerable migrants working during the pandemic. Lucy has also been having piano and singing lessons and composing, and feels that she is now defining herself musically after all that her father did to try to impose his musical world on her. Lucy will take one of his Modernist compositions and totally rework it, making his music hers in order to better understand him and to better subvert him.
Both Lucy and Steve retain a very strong sense of what brought them together musically though. Steve sees it as a shared feeling of being outsiders, of not being remotely comfortable in the expected gender, cultural and material roles that their upbringing and wider society enforced. It was that spirit that is perhaps the essential ‘concept’ behind Schitzoid Joe, and it’s that inspiration that makes this lost album sound as fresh today as it was four decades ago.
Prompted by the interviews conducted for this article, Steve and Lucy made digital transfers of the original mouldering reel to reel master tapes and have, finally, released the Schitzoid Joe album. You can listen or download it via this link.
Artwork for the album (‘edited’ by Steve North from an early ‘80s painting by Lucy Nabijou)