We're only making plans for Nigel:
Making Plans for Nigel was my attempt at an Alan Bennett-type vignette about someone who’s a bit put-upon. There had been Nigels at my school. The name felt very English. I couldn’t imagine myself in a song about a Graham or Colin. I had the title first, and the rest came very quickly. I finished the whole song in an afternoon.
The theme of parents trying to dictate their child’s path in life was something I had experience of. When I was 15 I wanted to be in a band, and had a big battle with my dad over my not staying on in sixth form. In those days you could get expelled for having long hair – and I was! It took five dispiriting years and a lot of dead-end jobs to break into music, so there’s bit of Nigel in myself.
The music industry was run by public-school boys in those days, not council estate lads like us. But once punk opened the doors, we could explore what we could do. I imagined Nigel working in an office, but not in a top job – probably lower middle management. During the 1970s, British Steel was in the news over industrial disputes, so I gave Nigel “a future in British Steel”.
I played the song to the band on my old acoustic guitar, and we demoed it in a council studio in the catacombs under Swindon Town Hall. The record company were convinced it was a single, so gave us Steve Lillywhite as producer. We loved his work with Ultravox and he spent a lot of time crafting and polishing our song.
Our previous single, Life Begins at the Hop, got us on Top of the Pops, but dropped down the charts after our appearance. We had played a tour to fairly meagre audiences, but once Nigel became a hit it was just mayhem. We were straight back out on tour and on Top of the Pops again. Leslie Crowther and Peter Glaze even sang it on the teatime kids’ TV programme Crackerjack. My greatest honour.
The steelworkers’ union were very excited by what they saw as a fraternal anthem, but once I told the official that Nigel was from the management side it curtailed the conversation. Meanwhile, I put the wind up British Steel with the song’s suggestion that a future in the industry wasn’t all that fantastic. They rounded up lots of Sheffield steelworkers called Nigel to tell the press how great their jobs were.
Forty years on, the recent steel closures suggest that the song’s as relevant as ever. I’ve had countless Nigels come up to me over the years and say: “That song is my life.”