Thursday, October 27, 2016

From New Wave to "New Thing:" A Chat with Tony Fennell of Enuff Z'Nuff

Tony Fennell (second from left)  on stage with Enuff Z'Nuff (photo by Joel Gausten)

For Birmingham-born singer/guitarist Tony Fennell (or Fennelle, depending on which album credits you’re reading at the time), recently becoming a member of Enuff Z’Nuff is an opportunity to be part of a band he’s loved for nearly three decades. He first met the band's incomparable leader, Chip Z'Nuff, in 1987 when his old band Big Noise was signed to Enuff Z'Nuff's then-label, ATCO/Atlantic.

“I’ve hailed this band forever,” he says. “I remember being in the offices of Atlantic and Derek Shulman, the guy who signed them, played me these two songs. He played me 'Fly High Michelle' and 'New Thing.' I was like, 'Holy fucking shit! You’ve got gold.' It was mind-blowing.”

Like other hardcore Enuff Z’Nuff fans, Fennell believes that the group was unfairly pigeonholed as part of the Hair Metal genre.

“The record company signed them because they had great songs, but the record company needed to make money, so they put them in the same bag as anybody else. [Original Enuff Z'Nuff singer] Donnie [Vie]’s songwriting and Donnie’s voice superseded all of that shit.”

Fennell's love for Enuff Z’Nuff remained so strong over the years that he simply couldn’t refuse Z’Nuff’s offer to join the band. Before he knew it, he was sitting next to his new bandmates in a tour van.

“We had two run-throughs in a rehearsal room, and we went, ‘Fuck it; we’re out,’ and that’s it. We’ve never rehearsed since. We learn songs in soundchecks. We’re all old school pros, and [Chip’s] the best Rock bass player I’ve ever played with… He loves this band; he’s never, ever given it up. He’s the same guy who, 30 years later, will put a sticker on a toll booth. He’s that guy.”

Fennell’s arrival in Enuff Z’Nuff is a bit of surprise considering that one of his best-known endeavors was fronting the '90s reincarnation of New Wave giants Ultravox. In 1992, he stepped in to replace former singer Midge Ure in an Ultravox lineup helmed by sole remaining original member, Billy Currie. The Fennell-fronted version of the band released an album, Revelation, in 1993.

“I was in a studio in England, and I was working with the guys from Soul II Soul – a guy named Will Mowat and a guy called Nellee Hooper,” Fennell recalls. “Ultravox were upstairs, and I had met Billy years and years before. He came down and he was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ He said, ‘Look, we’re auditioning singers; Midge is out. What do you think?’ I went, ‘Okay.’ I went upstairs and auditioned in front of the wives and the girlfriends in a studio booth with headphones; it wasn’t even a rehearsal room. It was as nasty as you get; I either fucked up or I got the gig. I walked out and they were like, ‘We go on tour in three weeks. Are you in?’ I went, ‘Fuck yeah!’ I knew the songs anyway because I loved the band.”

Of course, stepping into the singer positon in Ultravox meant following in the footsteps of two of the New Wave era’s greatest frontmen.

“[Midge] is a great guy and an amazing singer, and I was lucky enough to sing some of his songs,” Fennell says. “For me, John Foxx was better than Midge Ure. I love Midge; I adore Midge, but John had that skeleton face; he looked like he hadn’t eaten in 200 years. ‘Slow Motion’ and all those songs were just game changers for me. I was an Ultravox fan; I used to watch them every Thursday on Top of the Pops.

Not surprisingly, Fennell initially faced tough crowds who were not ready for a new vocalist.

“In Germany, [on] the first day of the tour, we finished [Ultravox's 1984 hit] ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,’ it went quiet and this guy in the front shouted, ‘That is not Midge Ure!’ I said to him, “Listen, do you want your money back? I’ll give you your money back. Let me do the gig, and I’ll meet you afterwards.’ He came back afterwards, and he went, ‘All good.’ It wasn’t that I was going to carry the mantle, because Midge Ure is Midge Ure – one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard. ‘Vienna’ is one of the hardest songs to sing ever because you’re going from [sings ‘...walked in the cold air’] to the big notes. I used to dread that every night, because it’s difficult. Somehow, I pulled it off, and I pulled it off because I love the band.”

Although Fennell was involved in the early songwriting stage of what eventually became 1994’s Ingenuity, ongoing personality clashes with Currie led the singer to part ways with Ultravox.

“It was too much for me. I think at that point, he was trying to carry the Ultravox name and I had enough of trying to fill those shoes. As much as I loved the band – and I love the songs dearly – it was just time.”

Looking back, Fennell is proud of his time with the group.

“I genuinely, genuinely loved that band. ‘Sleepwalk,’ ‘Slow Motion,’ ‘Vienna,’ you fucking name it.”

He remains particularly fond of  “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” even though replicating the song’s high-register vocals was far from an easy task. 

“I loved it as a kid, but when I started singing it, I hated it! I was like, ‘Oh, God, please!’ The lights would go down, and I'd go, ‘Oh, God. Here we go!’ It would kill me. But I was in the band, and it was wonderful.”

Following his stint with Ultravox, Fennell got involved in music publishing, eventually leaving his life as an onstage performer behind.

“For me, it just felt right… I decided that I didn’t want to do music anymore. I wanted to write, and I wanted to be in the business, but not play anymore. But [Chip’s] been hounding me for about 15 years, and he’s a hard man to say no to!”

With Enuff Z’Nuff set to release a new album and currently tearing it up in clubs around the country, Fennell is enjoying the best times in his career in the here and now.

“I’ve be blessed. I’ve been with Ultravox, and I’m now with one of my closest friends. I’m having the fucking time of my life, and I’m grateful to be doing this again.”

Chip Z'Nuff Interview

Official Enuff Z'Nuff Website


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