Forever frozen in the public’s imagination as appearing dressed in a snood and fingerless gloves, Nik Kershaw’s greatest impact lay in a masterful grasp of a strong pop tune that has produced no less than 11 UK hit singles in the decade that defined him. From the biggest, ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’, which peaked at No.2 in June 1984, to 1989’s ‘One Step Ahead’, Nik’s songwriting skills were to prove a platform that secured him, finally, that hitherto unfulfilled ambition of a chart-topper when he penned ‘The One And Only’ for budding teen star Chesney Hawkes in April 1991.
Nik Kershaw was born in 1958 in Bristol but moved to Ipswich as an infant. Educated at grammar school, he learnt to play the guitar and made his performance debut at a village hall in 1974 as part of Thor, a four-piece determined to do justice to contemporary chart heroes Slade and David Bowie. History fails to accurately record the small crowd’s appreciation of their efforts, but Nik was encouraged enough by the experience and, by the end of the following year, had dropped out of school to pursue his musical ambitions. Thor mutated quickly into a new band called Half Pint Hogg (later shortened to Hogg), and Nik spent the next few years developing his skills with an evolving line-up on the Ipswich pub and club evening circuit after a day working at the local unemployment office.
A later spell working with the band Fusion, defined by their decidedly jazz-funk leanings, suddenly ended in 1982. The band had asked Nik Kershaw to join them: incentive enough for him to throw in his day job for a spell performing covers with the group, which had a strong local following. Nik’s subsequent unexpected spell of unemployment saw him determined to spend the time securing support for his music; he recorded demos and collected a set of rejection slips from publishers and the major labels. A last-ditch advert in Melody Maker finally secured the interest of Nine Below Zero manager Mickey Modern, who sensed something special about the artist and managed to get Nik signed to a record label development deal for in 1983. The advance allowed Nik to put down a deposit on a house in Essex.
Ten weeks across the summer of that year were spent holed up Sarm East studios, in London, recording what was to become Nik’s debut, Human Racing. Produced by Peter Collins, who had worked with pop impresario Pete Waterman on a range of projects, the 10-song set was trailed by ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’, which peaked at a disappointing No.47 at the close of the year. Undefeated by this misfire, which did better business in some corners of continental Europe, Nik’s next single, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good?’, was an out-the-park smash, peaking at UK No.4 in a 14-week run, and even hitting No.46 in the US (though it was to be his only significant solo hit there). On its release in March, Nik’s debut LP peaked at UK No.5 in a 61-week chart run. Containing the classic singles ‘Dancing Girls’, Human Racing and his debut 45, reissued in the summer of 1984 with a new video, it sealed Nik’s fate as a teen heart-throb frequently featured in the pages of Smash Hits, and was the catalyst for an army of fans to form and follow every move of their idol with a frenzied interest.
Christmas 1984 saw the release of ‘The Riddle’, which went silver, hit No.3 on the UK singles chart and shared a name with Nik’s second LP, which itself peaked at UK No.8 in a 36-week chart run. Nik Kershaw confesses it was completed in a hurry – just two weeks was all that his hectic schedule allowed for him to write and demo nine of its tracks. Nevertheless, ‘The Riddle’ was one of his most successful international singles, with strong showings in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, though it just missed the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, peaking at No.107. It remains one of his most covered songs, with a dance version by Gigi D’Agostino performing strongly across continental Europe in 1999, and Swiss DJs Jack Holiday and Mike Candys scoring with a second dance remake, in 2012.
Nik Kershaw didn’t participate in the 1984 Christmas Band Aid project but saw off a hugely successful year by playing a well-received gig at London’s Hammersmith Odeon (some of those live tracks were dusted off for inclusion in a reissue programme released 29 years later). He was invited to appear on stage at Wembley Stadium for July 1985’s Live Aid spectacular, where he performed four songs. He says now he regrets not enjoying the experience more, but was terrified of the billions watching his set, and felt uncomfortable sharing the limelight with people he considered to be his idols. One track, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good?’, was selected for inclusion in the legendary show’s subsequent DVD release.
The ‘Wide Boy’ and ‘Don Quixote’ singles from The Riddle did respectable business in the UK charts, peaking at No.9 and No.10, respectively, but they were to prove Nik’s final entries in the UK Top 20. One again supported by memorable videos, they complemented Nik’s ongoing commitment to the touring circuit, but he admits the relentless promotional schedule was getting tiring.
The following year’s 10-track Radio Musicola project yielded three international singles (and a fourth in Germany) and strong press, but the charts were changing and the dance revolution was beginning to eat away at the commercial fortunes of the decade’s earlier pop champions. Lead single ‘When A Heart Beats’, released in late 1985, peaked at UK No.27, while its follow-up ‘Nobody Knows’, timed to hit the shops in October 1986 just ahead of the parent LP, was his first to miss the Top 40 altogether, peaking at UK No.44.
Nik Kershaw released one more album in the 80s, May 1989’s The Works, which failed to chart but yielded two further singles in ‘One Step Ahead’ (UK No.55) and ‘Elizabeth’s Eyes’ among its 10 tracks. His ability to craft a great pop hook had attracted much attention during his Top 40 career and, as that slowed, it was inevitable he would be invited to contribute to other artists’ projects. His composition ‘The One And Only’, performed by Chesney Hawkes and featured in the film Buddy’s Song, topped the UK charts for five weeks and even hit the US Top 10.
In 1993, Nik Kershaw duetted with one of the artists that had intimidated him at Live Aid eight years earlier. ‘Old Friend’, written and performed with Elton John, was a highlight of Elton’s Duets album and followed Nik’s earlier contribution to Elton’s 1986 international smash ‘Nikita’. At the end of the decade, 1999’s 12-track 15 Minutes album yielded a modest but surprise hit in ‘Somebody Loves You’, but the set failed to chart. The same year saw Nik collaborate with Les Rythmes Digitales – a group built around future Madonna producer Stuart Price. Their track together, ‘Sometimes’, was released as a single and peaked at UK No.56.
By the dawn of the 21st Century, the 80s revival was gathering steam and Nik found himself in demand for an endless round of revival tours. This appetite for his old material did not dent his enthusiasm for producing new music, however, and 2001’s To Be Frank featured 11 new tracks, including a fresh collaboration with Chesney Hawkes on ‘Jane Doe’. One single, ‘Wounded’, was lifted from the set.
In 2005, Universal released a definitive hit singles collection in Then And Now, which contained three new tracks and his two famous duets. It was also released on DVD, featuring most of his classic pop promos. A further – self-released – studio album, You’ve Got To Laugh, was released the following year and contained 12 new tracks, including contributions from Kajagoogoo bassist Nick Beggs. No singles were lifted from the set, which was to be Kershaw’s last release until 2010’s No Frills project, which was largely comprised of acoustic versions of his old classics, and, once again, was released on his own label.
2012 saw the release of another new album, Ei8ht, which yielded two singles in ‘The Sky’s The Limit’ and ‘You’re The Best’. Special editions of Nik’s two biggest-selling albums, Human Racing and The Riddle, were released in 2-CD sets and contained contemporaneous remixes, B-sides and live tracks recorded at the peak of his career.
Nik has five children and still balances a commitment to the touring circuit with a restless passion for writing new music. He may forever be associated with a brace of memorable 80s classics, but he’s proved to be a distinctive, determined songwriter, with certainly no sign of the sun setting on his career anytime soon.
Words: Mark Elliott