IN some ways this is a story of what might have been. Of missed opportunities and being in the wrong place at the right time. At the end of the 1970s, Paul Simpson was in a band with future Echo and the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope, soon to be the singer with The Teardrop Explodes. Simpson was even a member of the latter band for a while. Within a couple of years both McCulloch and Cope were pop stars. Simpson, meanwhile, was working in a tea shop back in Liverpool.

Simpson’s next band, The Wild Swans, made one of the truly great singles of the early 1980s in Revolutionary Spirit, but it was recorded in mono by mistake. Then the rest of the band left, taking one of his tunes with them and had a huge hit with it.

At that peacock moment in those post-punk years Simpson had the look, the voice, the talent, but none of the luck. “I’m a bit of a peripheral figure,” he says even before I’ve asked him a question. “And I’m not used to being taken seriously. If you are indeed going to take me seriously.”

I am. And with good reason. And not only because Revolutionary Spirit is one of my favourite singles. Simpson has now written a memoir that is one of the great pop books of 2023.

READ MORE: Christmas movies: It's A Wonderful Life versus Die Hard

Self-laceratingly honest and often very funny, it provides an insight into a pop moment in a pop city recorded by someone at the heart of it. In its pages everyone from Bill Drummond and Ian Broudie to a teenage Courtney Love turn up.

The book’s subtitle is “A post-punk exorcism” and for Simpson, who now lives in Glasgow, that’s not an affectation. “It’s exactly what it’s been,” he says. “It’s been hugely therapeutic. I’ve been carrying this stuff around. Some of these stories I’ve literally not told anyone. It’s my truth. It’s a metaphorical truth. Every member of the old band will have their version of events, but this is mine. I can’t say this is what happened, but it’s how I perceived it.”

Liverpool at the end of the 1970s was incubating the future of British pop. Based around Eric’s nightclub and Probe Records, many of the people who would dominate the charts in the years to come – not only Cope and McCulloch, but also Pete Burns and Pete Wylie – were in collusion and competition.

But even in this company, Simpson stood out. “Julian Cope has me pegged as an effeminate clotheshorse, the type who’d be kicked out of David Sylvian’s Japan for looking too camp,” he writes in the pages of Revolutionary Spirit. (It’s worth saying that Simpson still looks the part these days, albeit a little more toned down.)

Who was that young man? “I was incredibly shy, but that was perceived in Liverpool as aloofness. So, I think people were a bit wary of me.”

But his style marked him out. Shy or not, he liked being noticed. “Getting attention is addictive,” he admits now. And what better way to get attention than being in a band?

The Herald: Echo and the BunnymenEcho and the Bunnymen (Image: free)

For a short time that band was A Shallow Madness, with both Cope and McCulloch. It didn’t last. “Mac wasn’t turning up to rehearsals.”

Cope and Simpson went on to start The Teardrop Explodes, with Simpson playing keyboards. Signed to Bill Drummond and David Balfe’s local label Zoo Records, the Teardrops were more art than pop at the beginning. “It was fine at first. Super minimal, Sooty organ, stripped back to its bones post-punk,” Simpson recalls. “But the new songs were getting poppier and poppier.”

This wasn’t what Simpson wanted, so he left. “I was in Teardrops for five minutes, really. I just thought, ‘My heart’s not in this’, so left, which caused a bit of a ripple in Liverpool because I took a job in a city centre tearoom. Obviously I didn’t leave the Teardrops to work in a tearoom, but that’s how it seemed. ‘The band most likely to and he’s left to peel potatoes in a kitchen’.”

And before long both the Bunnymen and the Teardrops were turning up in the charts and Top of the Pops. That must have stung?

“Oh, it did and Zoo Records left Liverpool, relocated to Islington, and they took the Teardrops and the Bunnymen with them and no-one told me. And no-one kept in touch really.

“I felt very betrayed when they didn’t take me with them, but I stayed friends with them all.”

The Bunnymen’s drummer Pete de Freitas came to his aid, offering to fund the recording of a single by his new band, The Wild Swans, and to even drum on it. The result was Revolutionary Spirit. Simpson is understandably proud of it.

“I wrote the melody and the words, but Jerry Kelly and Ged Quinn wrote the music and Pete playing the drums so dynamically on that record didn’t harm it at all.

READ MORE: Taylor Swift and Spotify Wrapped taught me so much about myself

“It was accidentally recorded in mono. It fades in. It’s got nothing going for it. But John Peel played it for the rest of his life, so we’ve got that. We were a John Peel band.”

Simpson and de Freitas remained close friends until the latter’s tragic death in a motorcycle crash in June 1989. Simpson’s account of De Freitas’s funeral is one of the book’s highlights. It’s full of love and pain.

“The greatest drummer of our generation,” Simpson suggests. “Honestly, if the Bunnymen had got any other drummer I don’t think they would be famous now.”

The Wild Swans never quite made the leap into the charts that so many of Simpson’s friends and contemporaries managed. Perhaps it’s just as well. By the time the first incarnation of the band split up in 1982 Simpson as frontman was struggling with his mental health. Success might have been the worst thing that could have happened to him. “I honestly believe that. I’d have messed up I’d have messed up whatever. If I’d had success and money, I would have gone off the rails.”

Still, when Quinn and Kelly decided to go off and form The Lotus Eaters with Peter Coyle, it did feel like a betrayal, he says. All the more so when they had a huge hit with The First Picture of You, reworking chorus chords that Simpson had come up with for a Wild Swans track.

How long did it take to come to terms with all this? “Another 10 minutes I’ll be all right … I’ve never been OK with it. I’m hoping the book’s publication will help with that. And the funny thing is I’m still good friends with those guys and I’ve heard it from their angles.

“I think I was suffering from depression. It was undiagnosed. I wasn’t communicating, so they were getting snippets from other people.

“Those guys thought, ‘He doesn’t want to do it any more.’ Well, one of them told the rest I’d said that. Which I hadn’t. It destroyed me. Because it wasn’t just the song they took, it was my aesthetic. It was that whole wartime sepia tone, short back and sides, baggy trousers aesthetic. So I thought, ‘Who am I now?’ They’ve taken that. I’ve got nothing. That really really screwed me up. And hearing that song …”

He pauses. “It’s beautiful, but my name’s not on the label. It killed me.”

For a while he worked with Ian Broudie in the group Care but he walked away from that too. Broudie went on to have hits as The Lightning Seeds. The Wild Swans reformed later in the decade, even recorded a couple of albums, but their moment had gone. The 1980s were over.

Time passes. Simpson eventually started making music again under the name Skyray. He also began to write what would eventually become his memoir. And then he learned he’d been a star all along.

“I saw the band China Crisis in the street one day in Liverpool and they said, ‘Paul you need to get out to the Philippines. You’re a God out there.’ I thought they were taking the piss. And then eventually a promoter got in touch and invited me out there. And it’s true. I was met by two news crews fighting each other to film me getting off the plane.

“We bypassed customs and security, we got a police escort. It was just ridiculous. Presidential suites and all that stuff.

“God’s having a laugh with me because he’s made me a superstar in a territory where bootlegging is rife. Any time of the day you can tune in your radio and the Wild Swans will be playing or Care – because Care are massive out there – but it doesn’t do me any good.

“They pay me very well to go out there every few years. But it’s kind of lovely as well because I get a taste of what fame’s like, a taste of celebrity, and then I can come back here and walk around the supermarket. It’s the best of both worlds in a way.”

He smiles. “I am aware that if I was as big as I am in the Philippines in North America or Germany or Japan I would be a wealthy man rather than someone still counting the change in my pocket for a pint.”

Revolutionary Spirit by Paul Simpson is published by Jawbone Press, £16.95