Marti Pellow remembers his introduction to booze clearly. He was a young boy, about 11, and he sneaked a can of beer from his father. “I knew as soon as I had my first drink that it made me feel different,” he says. “I had a fuzzy feeling in my stomach. I liked the rush of that. It made me feel light.” By the time he was 12, he would go to dances with his friends and alcohol would give him dutch courage. “I’d ask an adult to buy me a couple of cans of lager. It gave me a wee bit more confidence to ask a girl to dance; it made me feel larger than life.”
Pellow went on to become the frontman of Wet Wet Wet, the blue-eyed soul band whose version of Love Is All Around, as featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral, topped the charts for 15 weeks and is still the UK’s biggest-selling love song. By the time he left Wet Wet Wet for the first time in 1998, three of their five studio albums had topped the UK charts (with the others peaking at No 2) and they had had 26 Top 40 hits. By then, he had also developed a dual addiction to alcohol and heroin that could easily have done for him. It did pretty much do for him, as far as the band was concerned. Sure, he rejoined in 2003, and they spent another 14 years together, but they never enjoyed the same success again.
Of all the pop stars, Pellow seemed such an unlikely addict – so clean-cut, bouncy and upbeat. After being outed by the tabloids in 1999, he never denied his problems. But he always liked to accentuate the positive. He would smile his famous smile, admit he had had a rough old time of it and hurdle the tricky stuff. He preferred talking about his solo albums, his performances in West End and Broadway musicals and his blessed life. And talk he can – Pellow is smart, informed, funny, obsessed with music and full of stories.
Today, Pellow is speaking from the spare bedroom of the house in Windsor he shares with his long-term partner, Eileen Catterson, a former Miss Scotland. There is a vintage four-poster bed in the background and a few guitars dotted around the room. Pellow is wearing a paisley shirt and a pair of loose-fitting tartan slacks that could double as pyjamas. The ponytail of old has long gone. These days, it is all short hair and professorial glasses. One thing that hasn’t changed is the smile, but nowadays he flashes it with more discretion.
We are here to discuss his 12th solo album, Stargazer, in which he pays homage to heroes such as Marc Bolan, Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Curtis Mayfield, Anthony Newley and David Bowie in a series of self-penned songs. His voice is in fine nick and his impression of the soul and funk-infused mid-70s Bowie is rather wonderful. Pellow says he had a great time making the album, but what he really seems to want to talk about is the very thing he has spent decades avoiding – addiction. Whether it is because so many of these heroes also had addictions, or because his parents are no longer here (his mother died in 2003, his father a couple of years ago), or whether he simply feels the time is right, it is hard to say.
“February 14th, Valentine’s Day, 1998. Twenty-three years clean and serene,” he announces. Then he stops. He knows it is not as simple as that. “You can say 23 years sober, but really the person who has the longest clean time is whoever gets up earliest in the morning. If you get up at 7am and I get up at 7.30, you’ve got the longest clean time, because it is about the day. Do I think I’ll ever beat it? No, I will always acknowledge it. Every day is a school day with addiction.”
Pellow, 56, was born Mark McLachlan. He grew up in Clydebank, dossed around at school and left with no qualifications. He was doing work experience as a painter and decorator when he got together with school friends Tommy Cunningham, Graeme Clark and Neil Mitchell to form a punk covers band called Vortex Motion that subsequently became Wet Wet Wet, named after a line in the Scritti Politti song Gettin’ Havin’ & Holdin’. “Every other band seemed to have two repeated words – the The, Talk Talk, Duran Duran, so we thought we’d go one better.” He chose Marti Pellow as his stage name – Pellow was his mum’s surname and Marti seemed suitably showbiz. When his father, a builder, told him to get a proper job, he said it was pointless, because he was destined to be a huge pop star. There was simply no doubt in his mind, he says. And so it turned out.
The young Pellow was a music anorak – he loved indie bands and soul singers. But, to his surprise, Wet Wet Wet evolved from an unsuccessful punk covers band to chart-topping soft-rockers. Their first hit single, Wishing I Was Lucky, reached No 6 in 1985; a year later, they had their first No 1 with a cover of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends. When their cover of the Troggs’ 60s hit Love Is All Around topped the charts for the best part of four months, Pellow and the band became omnipresent, returning every week from Capri, where they were recording an album, to do Top of the Pops.
“I was in a cinema and the trailer came up for Four Weddings and a Funeral, and they played a bit of the song and a guy behind me went: ‘Ah, not that song again,’ and I turned round to him and said: ‘Imagine how I feel!’” Is it true that the band asked for the single to be deleted, to put an end to its reign? “Hell yeah, you’re darn tootin’, we did.” He grins. “We just thought it was time to give someone else a shot.”
I ask him whether success it all it is cracked up to be. He says it was initially wonderful; he takes me back to the beginning, when the band had just been signed by Mercury and went to Memphis to record with the great producer Willie Mitchell. But, he says, it soon began to pall. “Success and fame are different when it happens to you. When you’re dreaming about it in your bedroom, you see success as a nice, comfortable room, but when you get in the room it’s not so comfortable. It’s a bit sharp.”
Everything in his life had to be recalibrated, from leaving gigs safely without being crushed by teenage fans to knowing how to interact with people he had known his whole life. “Suddenly, you’ve got a few quid in your pocket and you go into the pub and you think: do I buy everybody a drink, or will I be perceived as a flash bastard, and if I don’t buy anybody a drink, am I a tight bastard? How do I navigate this?”
Success changed him, he says. He mentions the time he told his father how much his Versace shirt cost. “He looked at me and said: ‘I don’t want to know that. I only make 120 quid a week. I’m out in the pissing rain and snow doing my job and you walk in here with that horrible shirt on and tell me you spent that on it.’ I mean, fair play – he put me right. And you know what, it was a horrible shirt. I think it might have even had a Medusa face on it.” He bought huge houses, although he always found himself gravitating towards the smallest part. And then there were the cars – lots of them, including a Mercedes he bought before learning to drive. “There was a time I had several cars and it was flagged up by my good lady that I only had one arse.”
Pellow had been drinking heavily all his adult life. “I could never understand why people go into a bar and play Space Invaders. If you go into a bar, you’re in there to drink,” he says. And now it was getting out of hand. “When success happened to me, there wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t have a drink. I’d be topping up all the time. I could fall asleep on a plane before it took off and wake up to the sound of 100 miniature bottles of vodka clicking together. The only thing that would be left in my mini bar was the fucking Toblerone.”
For years, he says, alcohol and cannabis were sufficient. He had taken heroin once in his late teens and hated it. “I thought it was dirty. I was going to stick with my drink and my puff. I loved my puff. It seemed to be a gentler time.”
When was the next time he took heroin? “It came back into my life in my early 30s and I thought about it differently. The sense of connection I felt with that drug was really not good. I went from light using to it becoming all-consuming. When it came back into my life, I grabbed it with both hands.” Pellow tends to call heroin “it” or “the drug”, as if he can’t bear to call it by its name. He has also called it the “ultimate painkiller”. What was the pain he was trying to kill? He says he has been asking himself that question for a quarter of a century. “What exactly was the problem here? And I think it was just in me. I had the big house, the flash car and all the trappings of success. But I could just see this big red button I needed to press. Something happened. The switch went on with me and chaos reigned.”
For a couple of years, 1996 and 1997, while the band were still massive, heroin took over his life. He never told anyone about his habit, always smoking alone. He never injected, he says. How did it affect his work? “It never affected my voice. But my writing wasn’t good. It’s easy to romanticise it and say: ‘All these great writers were taking that and the results will be this,’ but I don’t think it is that. It puts you in a place where not only are you an island to yourself, but your judgment is impaired. The clarity goes. I listen to songs I wrote then and they are very dark. They are scary. Some songs I’ll try to listen to and go: oh wow, Mark!” He doesn’t mean in a good sense. “The music feels claustrophobic, intense. It doesn’t feel nice. That was clearly a byproduct of where I was. It was being spewed out in these tracks.”
One day, Pellow was walking around and he saw a man in a suit lying in a gutter. It resonated. He thought that could be him in the future. In March 1999, it was reported he had been found unconscious at the Conrad hotel in Chelsea Harbour in London. A week later, a newspaper revealed that he was a heroin addict and had attempted to kill himself after a row with Catterson. Today, Pellow says that was untrue. “I had given up heroin by then. That was a combination of medication and me being in the steam room having too much to drink and not looking after myself. That was nothing to do with suicide.”
Does he think the heroin would have killed him? “If I had kept using it? Well, yeah. That’s where you’d be heading, because your body will close down; that’s the end game. Would that have happened to me? There was no reason it shouldn’t have. I remember when I started getting clean. The guy who was helping us sat three of us together in chairs and his opening line was: ‘So who’s the dead one, ’cos one of you’s is going to be dead,’ and you go: fuck that, that’s not me. He called it the law of the thirds.”
How did Catterson cope with his addiction? “She was a great support. Great support. There is no way I can articulate how important Eileen was. Whatever was said to get the man back that she fell in love with was paramount. It’s so important for any addict to have strong people who are not afraid to say: ‘I will walk away from this. But I know what’s in there and I will fight hammer and tongs to get that individual back.’” Catterson helped him understand that he had a disease and needed professional help. He also stresses the importance of both sets of parents: “They came to the fore and surrounded me.”
I ask if he has any siblings. “No,” he says, quietly. He seems as if he is going to leave it at that, then he continues. “I had a brother. I lost him to … I lost him, aye. He died in 2000. He had his own demons. He had a problem with drink. There for the grace of God.” Pellow says that heroin may be the more sensational story, but it is important to remember that alcohol kills far more people. “It’s available on every high street, in every supermarket. I’d been abusing drink for many, many years. I was dealing with addiction since I was in my early 20s, really.”
Twenty-three years on, he still attends narcotics anonymous meetings when the mood takes him. He knows many people swear by the 12-step programme, but he says it never did much for him. “The people who got me better were a little bit more meat and potatoes.” He talks about a time he was in rehab in Arizona and he met a couple of Vietnam veterans who were recovering addicts. “They said to me: ‘What’s going on with the smile? You need to lose that.’” What did they mean? “Well, a lot of people say to me: ‘You’re known for your smile.’ It’s a great defuser, a great way to hide shit. They saw me and stripped it back.”
When he returned to Wet Wet Wet in 2003, it wasn’t the same. “There’s uncharted ground at the beginning, a sense of wonder. I think we were always looking for that, but it never came back.” After Pellow quit the band again four years ago, the Liberty X singer Kevin Simm replaced him.
Pellow is happy with his solo career – and even happier with life in general. “A million great things have happened since I sobered up and a million shit things have happened, but I now go: ‘How do I deal with it? How do I attack that problem?’ I’ve got clarity.”
I ask him if there was one particular time when he realised he could get his life back under control. “Aye. The day I surrendered to being an addict and accepting that it’s bigger than you. You don’t try to fight it, you don’t look for a get-out.” He becomes animated and emotional. “I get up and I punch it in the face every morning. I’m like that: ‘How are you doing?’ Bang! And I own it. And I’m proud of it. Never mind the music and all the good stuff that goes along with that. The thing that sits on my mantelpiece isn’t defined by a Brit award or this or that – the thing I’m most proud of in my life is my sobriety.”
Marti Pellow’s new studio album Stargazer is out now on BMG