I was hosting K’s Choice in the American Bar & Grill recently where Billy Kelly was playing a set, and a group of young lads (led by Billy’s son, Will) were enthusiastically and raucously singing “There’s only one Billy Kelly!” in between his songs. It was lovely to see young people enjoying the music from one of Liverpool’s more mature performers (I hope Billy will forgive me for the word “mature”!) and it impressed on me the magical property that music has to span the generations and, among other things, contribute to a bloody good night out – which is what Will and his mates undoubtedly had!
It also made me think….. how can there be only one Billy Kelly in Liverpool? With a name like that there must be hundreds of them!
But there is only the one Billy Kelly who we could well consider to be one of the elder statesmen of the Liverpool music scene, having spent 30 years or more living and breathing his music.
As a boy growing up in Liverpool, Billy taught himself guitar and played in bands with mates at school. Inspired by the excitement of the music scene of the time, and brimming with musical talent and confidence (and no doubt the cockiness of youth!) he actually did what many other musicians of his generation wish they’d done – he gave a full-time music career a serious shot.
Billy moved to London in the early 80s to ride on the crest of the post punk new wave, where he was to stay for some 23 years and bring up his son as a single parent. Amongst his favourite musicians he lists the Beatles, though as a child growing up in Liverpool not long after their heyday he used to maintain his distance from the fab four. “I just used to get sick and tired of people banging on about them all the time,” he laughs, “but once all the commotion died down I was able to enjoy listening to them properly. I remember first hearing the ‘White Album’ and thought, ‘Whoa, what have I been missing here?’” More Billy’s era were such greats as Elvis Costello and Paul Weller, the post punk new wave artists, the guys who inspired his move to the London music scene.
But he acknowledges with a wry smile that it was probably Slade that made him pick up a guitar in the first place, “Because they were popular with teenagers in the 70s a lot of serious musicians didn’t rate Slade at the time, but when you listen to their stuff now you can hear well crafted, guitar based rock n roll that’s pretty timeless I’d say. And they had a very distinctive sound and were a brilliant live band.” Billy reminisces, “I was lucky enough to get to know Noddy Holder quite well in the mid-80s and we had a good few boozy nights out. He’s a cracking fella!”
As well as the 1980s new wave type influence in his music, there is also a country and western twang to many of Billy’s songs, and it makes for quite an arresting combination. “I like a bit of Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and artists like that; some of their chord sequences just seem to drift into my songs.” He laughs, “A mate of mine, singer-songwriter Pod Cousins said to me recently ‘You’re the Bootle Roy Orbison, Billy’, which I took as quite a compliment. He plastered it all over Facebook so quite a few people had a good laugh about that!”
Of his 23 years in London Billy spent the first 8 of these gigging and recording, though to provide some financial stability for his son he turned his attention to building up a thriving hairdressing and beautician business, although he always kept touch with the music scene by maintaining a studio at home. He constantly brings his son into our conversation and is obviously very proud of the contribution he has made as a dad to the young man Will has now become. “We returned to Liverpool about 3 years ago now,” he tells me, “and we are both loving it here.”
Read on to learn more about the Bootle Roy Orbison…..!
Q. What have you been up to this weekend?
A. I’ve just finished recording and producing a new song called “Wipe it Out”. I uploaded it to Soundcloud just this weekend and it’s had about 250 plays in two days. That has just blown me away! It’s a song about the negative influence of things like the X-Factor, and I just happened to have uploaded it on the weekend when X-Factor started on the telly, so quite by accident, I timed it right.
Q. What age did you start playing and performing?
A. When I was a lad my parents bought me my first guitar with Embassy cigarette coupons. They were like Green Shield stamps for smokers! It’s laughable now how they used to give coupons out with ciggies to try and encourage people to smoke more. You can’t imagine anything like that these days.
That first guitar was like playing a cheese grater, absolutely awful, but it made me really appreciate it when I saved up and bought myself a half decent one.
As a schoolboy I used to play in a band in a mate’s garage. Music wasn’t taught at our school so we just used to organise ourselves. It was all just a bit of a laugh really, and most of the kids gave up music when we left school, but it was in my blood and I just went on and on with it.
Q. Which Liverpool venues have you played at? Which are your favourites?
A. I’ve put myself about and played at most of the places that host acoustic music and open mike slots. I like the Lomax, though I haven’t been for a while, the Zanzibar is special too. I’ve recently played at the bombed out church (St Lukes on Berry Street & Leece Street corner) which was a great experience, also the Head of Steam pub is a great laugh. I wouldn’t like to pick a favourite though, they are all special in their way.
Q. Tell us about your song on the K’s Choice album, “Blue Skies Blue Eyes”, what’s it about? Where did the inspiration come from?
A. It’s a bit sad actually, I had a long-term girlfriend when I was younger, and she had the most beautiful blue eyes. We split up just before I went to live in London, she went to live in America, but we remained really good friends. Unfortunately she got cancer of the stomach and passed away when she was only 30. Although we weren’t together at the time we were still very good friends and her passing hit me hard. So the song is for her, but it’s not a sad song, it’s a celebration of her life really.
Q. How does your song writing process normally work? Typically how long does it take you to write a song?
A. It’s something I’ve never been taught to do, I’ve never had a music lesson in my life, it just all seems to be instinctive. Ideas occur to me at random moments and songs seem to develop for ever if I let them, they just flit in and out of my mind. I have to find the discipline to sit down and finish them off, but even then I often re-visit them some time later and change the middle eight or something.
I can’t write a song to order though – they never come if I try and force them. A couple of years ago I tried to write a song when my dad died, but when I sat down to write it I found couldn’t do it.
Billy Kelly’s song “Blue Skies Blue Eyes” features as track 4, disc 2 on the K’s Choice City of Music 2013 compilation album. Listen here https://soundcloud.com/billykellywwk/blue-skies-blue-eyes
To find out more about Billy and links to his other work click here https://www.facebook.com/billykellywwk
To find out more about the K’s Choice album and order a copy please click here.