Ballad of the Sad Cafe

No, not the Carson McCullers book, but an English band of the 70s and 80s, who for my money were probably the best live band on the circuit for a period of about five years around that time. I met up with their bassist, Des Tong, again, a few nights ago. I’ll tell you their story.

Sad Cafe rose from the ashes of some long forgotten Manchester-based bands like Gyro and some of their members had served time with progressive rockers Mandalaband. They began to tour in late ’76 and were quickly signed to RCA. Their debut album, Fanx Tara came out on the 1st of September 1977. Their line-up at the time consisted of:

Paul Young (Vocalist and percussion) (most decidedly not the "Wherever I lay My Hat" guy but the one who went on to front Mike & the Mechanics)
Ian Wilson (guitars and backing vocals)
Ashley Mulford (lead guitar)
Vic Emerson (keyboards)
John Stimpson (bass)
Tony Cresswell (drums)

Young had been with the Toggery Five in the Sixties and led a band called "Young & Renshaw" as well as cutting some solo singles in the first part of the Seventies. He had swagger and panache that was natural but was coupled with moves he had swiped from Jagger, and an incredible set of pipes gave him some of the best vocals I’ve ever heard. Mulford was developing into a very under-rated but accomplished lead guitar whilst Wilson had a sweet voice and played six and twelve string acoustic as well rhythm electric with ease and style.

The first album included Black Rose, Hungry Eyes and I Believe (Love Will Survive) which were to be staples of their live show for the rest of their time together. However sales were modest although the album made it to no. 56 in the UK chart.

Second album, Misplaced Ideals, trod a similar path in musical style and sales (peaking at no. 50 on the charts) but the big breakthrough seemed far away. Their reputation as a great live band had begun to spread and one of their performances was filmed for a broadcast entitled "An Evening with Sad Cafe" which mooched around the late night TV schedules for the next few years and was eventually commercially released after Gary Numan and Blondie had made that a viable option.

The album, released in April ’78, contained Restless and On with The Show which also became live favourites. In early ’79, a lesser cut "Run Home Girl" suddenly became a success in the U.S. Billboard charts rising to 71 on the Hot 100 – dragging its mother album on to the top 100 U.S. albums too. The band were surprised to have broken in the States but more significantly it raised their profile in the UK where they were given a prominent slot on the Old Grey Whistle Test and all was set for a big year in ’79. A saxophonist simply known as Lenni became a regular fixture in the live band and by 1980 was a fully-fledged member.

Drummer Cresswell called it a day just as they were about to begin work on their third album and was replaced by the (in my opinion) more accomplished Dave Irving. Eric Stewart of 10cc was drafted into produce and the third album "Facades" was the one to break them big, albeit for a short time. The big hit from the album, Everyday Hurts (which reached number three in the UK charts in September 1979) was both a blessing and a curse. It meant that when ever the band’s sales dipped (which was often) the record company would request another piano ballad. The band became more associated with that song than the swaggering rockers which were their forte.

The album peaked at number 8 in the UK staying on the chart for nearly half a year. The songs were less fusion-orientated and had more catchy riffs of the kind that Eric Stewart’s band had made their mark with. 3 more hits came from the record. Strange Little Girl reached 32; My Oh My peaked at 14; and Nothing Left Toulouse stuttered as far as 62. None of these troubled the singles charts in the U.S. and the album stalled at 146 on the Billboard list.

For their self-titled fourth album, Stewart again filled the producer’s chair but either the band accorded him less space or he was more complacent in his approach. This album was a little more workmanlike. It gave them two UK hits La-di-da (no.41) and I’m in Love Again (no.40) but they were already beginning to fade from the memories of the pop scene whilst the rock crowd continued to lap up their tours. La-Di-Da became their second minor U.S. hit reaching no. 78. The album peaked at 40 and 160 respectively, in the UK and US charts. Attempts to break the band in the Netherlands and West Germany didn’t bear much fruit and the record company began to lose patience.

To add to the problems, this incarnation of the band began the process of breaking apart. Ashley Mulford was spending increasing amounts of time outside the country as a romantic liasion began to deepen. John Stimpson simply didn’t want to be in the band anymore and set out for a career in music management. Des Tong became the new resident bassist and the band began to fret about the situation with its lead guitarist.

The band owed RCA one more album and a live set "Sad Cafe Live in Concert" was released in the Spring of 1981. This was coupled with an appearance on the ITV series Rockstage which emphasised what a potent force they were. Recorded whilst Stimpson was still on bass, the album was a virtual greatest hits allowing the Johnny-Come-Latelys to hear the great songs form the first two albums in their natural environment. It outsold the last studio record in the UK and reached 36 on the album charts. A single led by the live recording of Black Rose failed to make an impact.

In a decision which was to impact the rest of their career, the band ended into a complicated arrangement which saw Polydor become responsible for their future UK releases even though they had already signed a deal with Swansong in the U.S. (who had handled the release of the self-titled album Stateside). Complicated contracts are often a bad idea and this one was to surround the band with litigation for the next 4 years as the labels squabbled about who owned albums by them.

In the Autumn of 81, they released Ole, which was only a minor success in the UK (no. 72) and was ignored in the rest of the world. The singles were Misunderstanding and Follow You Anywhere. The latter got more airplay than the former but nothing sold. Mulford was missing from most of the recording with a number of guest guitarists filling the holes. One of these, Mike Hehir, would become a full member by the time of another hugely successful tour. Great live band who couldn’t sell records was shortly to become great live band who couldn’t release records. The courts decided the band should release no more albums until the ownership of their work was clarified.

Earning their living by touring, they were on the road almost all of 1982. 1983 eventually saw a single release (albums were a no-no) as Charisma released "Keep Us Together" which reached no. 76 in the bubbling under section of the Record Mirror. A young journalist by the name of Darren Hirst was commissioned by Sounds to go and talk to the band for a feature but nothing helped restore the missing sales. By the following year, the baton for single releases passed to Virgin who released "Why Do You Love Me Like You Do". More touring and spots at Reading and Glastonbury Festivals had enhanced their live reputation even further but their sales increased not a jot. The band played some farewell gigs, persuaded RCA to release a "Best of" package and called it a day.

Paul Young, by now, had another problem to deal with. A singer had risen to prominence using the same name – something that couldn’t happen in the acting world because of Equity was entirely permissible in the music world even though Sad Cafe’s Young had recorded solo singles using that name more than a decade before. He recorded a single with Ian Devaney and christened himself Devaney Young. He made another disc as YPY (which he said stood for young Paul Young). Neither sold and he needed the income when he was invited to cut some lead vocals for Mike Rutherford of Genesis’ new side-project. They eventually released an album called Mike & the Mechanics which sold well – particularly in the States – and Young and Paul Carrack were invited to share vocals in the band for the long haul but that’s another story.

Ironically, at the same time, the legal wrangle regarding Sad Cafe’s ability to release albums was settled and Young decided that he should reform the band. Of the four remaining long standing members two declined. Vic Emerson and Dave Irving had had enough for now. Young and Ian Wilson decided to press on regardless and invited Tong and Lenni to record too. Augmented by some sidemen and a new drummer, Jeff Seopardi, the band recorded "Politics of Existing" which gathered in the singles from 83 and 84 and an album’s worth of new material. It was released in late 1985 but made little impact. Two singles – Refugees (written by new man, Seopardi) amd Only Love, were equally unsuccessful. In the States, "Why Do You Love Me Like You Do" was retitled "Heart" and gained some notice as a single.

Working hard was deemed to be a solution to the lack of sales and Ashley Mulford rejoined the lineup for a 1986 tour of the UK. Ex-Grand Prix keyboardist, Phil Lanzon who was currently a member of the Sweet, moonlighted on keyboards. However, the tour wasn’t as commercially successful as their previous outings and the renewed energy was short-lived.

The band was to have one last stab with 1989’s album "Whatever it Takes" and its single "Take Me (Heart and Soul). Whilst once again an album which displayed excellent songwriting and musicianship, it was if anything even more overlooked than its predecessor. For this set, Young, Wilson, Tong and Lenni were augmented by sidemen Steve Pigott (keyboards) and Paul Burgess (drums). Ashley Mulford disappeared as quickly as he’d returned and was once more replaced by Mike Hehir. Vocalist Alistair Gordon who would be helped by Young in his band "Radio Silence" became the band’s first full-time backing vocalist. This band played a couple of home town gigs to promote the record before drifting apart.

That really is the end of the band’s story. Where are they now? After continued success with Mike and the Mechanics, Paul Young died suddenly of a heart attack in July 2000. Ian Wilson and Mike Hehir are now part of Les Holroyd’s latest version of Barclay James Harvest. Des Tong is part of Alvin Stardust’s touring band and was my inspiration for this article. Ashley Mulford plays the blues in Germany. Vic Emerson did some work with 10cc but I lost track of him after that. Dave Irving runs the band’s official website at to which I have contributed as I can. Alistair Gordon produces a number of bands and singers now that his own band, the rather excellent "Radio Silence" seems to have folded. The bands two most commercially successful albums "Facades" and "Misplaced Ideals" have been re-released in the States by Renaissance Records (who I am currently badgering about the rest of the band’s back catalogue). It won’t be as good as seeing them live but as that is no longer possible, you should do yourself a favour and buy them.

3 thoughts on “Ballad of the Sad Cafe

  1. sad cafe
    Lovely and for once accurate account of the band.Good luck with the re-masters and could you let us know when they are released please?
    Still have loads of memorabilia on band but not paeting with it!
    Good luck

    • Re: sad cafe
      Hi Lorraine,
      The first of the remasters was scheduled to come out in the States on the 20th of April but Renaissance have had to vary this so it will be on the 21st of May. are taking orders for it already. This will be “Sad Cafe” (the 4th album which has La-Di-Da and I’m in Love Again). After that it will be Ole some time in the Summer. I’m just finalising artwork for this one. I wanted the label to go for detailed booklets with the cds but they don’t seem very interested so we’ll just have to be glad that the albums are on the marketplace. Keep in touch!

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