In Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz an artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week, Skunk Anansie frontwoman Skin, a woman whose rock 'n' roll stories could rival those of Keith Richards.
1: Which Skunk Anansie song did David Bowie once start jamming live after ‘The Jean Genie’?
“It wasn’t ‘Yes It’s Fucking Political’, but it would have been an earlier song. (Starts singing ‘The Jean Genie’) Nope, it’s gone.”
WRONG. It was ‘Milk Is My Sugar’.
“That’s it! Painful! (Laughs) I was watching him at the side of a stage at a festival. Every time I looked at my friends to say ‘I love this song’, they’d nudge me and say: ‘He’s looking at you’. Then he just looked straight at me and went [Imitates Bowie’s baritone] ‘Milk is my sugar….’. I was like ‘Whoa! That’s one of our songs!’. We knew he was a fan because at festivals, he kept requesting that Skunk Anansie go on before him, and we’d seen that his bassist Gail Ann Dorsey – another black, shaven-headed woman, who ended up playing on my solo albums years later – was wearing crucifix make-up on her face, which I did on our first single ‘Selling Jesus’. We ended up quite friendly with him. He was intellectual, mellow and easy to hang out with.”
2: Which fellow former Glastonbury headliner once covered ‘Weak’?
“It felt like: ‘that must be a good song for Rod Stewart to want to sing it’. Instead of singing ‘In this weak young heart’, he changed it to ‘weak old heart’, which I thought was cute. Very few people of that calibre cover our songs, ‘cos they’re quite difficult to sing.”
What was headlining the Pyramid Stage in 1999 like?
“The best experience ever. We were at the top of our game. It felt like a legendary moment. I was the first black woman to headline it, and Beyoncé was the second, and now we have Janelle Monáe this year [headlining West Holts]. Think of how many black women there are around the world and only three of us have ever headlined Glastonbury? It’s got to change. Women are half the population and festivals are now realising it’s something they have to address.”
3: A mock NME cover featuring Christ (‘Bigger Than The Beatles!’) appears in the ‘Selling Jesus’ video. Can you name any of the made-up bands on it?
“Um, Manic Street something? ‘No’ is the answer to that question!”
WRONG. Among others, you could have had The Alter Boys, Shroud, Lost Soul, Holy Water, Broken Bread and The Quivering Brethren.
“[Guitarist] Ace made those up. That was our first video, and was directed by NME journalist Steven Wells. He wanted us surrounded by animal carcasses. I said: ‘I’m vegetarian so instead could we have live sheep around us?’. Being a proper Brixton urban kid, I didn’t realise sheep were so fucking huge! And they shit backwards! I spent the whole shoot trying to avoid 15 sheep shitting backwards onto my custom-made leather pants and DM’s. We filmed in a disused mental institution at night which was freaky, and had a bet on which band member could go deepest into this asylum with no light. I went in and they left me behind. They got halfway down the motorway before realising they’d left me in the bloody place! That and ‘Charlie Big Potato’ are my favourite ever Skunk videos.”
4: Name four artists you sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Nelson Mandela with in 1998.
“Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Danny Glover and Nina Simone.”
“I thought: how the fuck did I get here? (Laughs) Nina Simone was the first record I ever bought, and I ended up hanging out with her for the night. Though she was in a wheelchair and frail, mentally she was sharp. Michael Jackson was insipid and calculating. He was there uninvited because he wanted promotion for his children’s Neverland Ranch he wanted to build in Africa. Michael Jackson was a funny bloke – I was a fan of his early stuff but not who he ended up being. We went back later and did Mandela’s concert because Skunk Anansie were one of the first multi-racial bands to play South Africa. We were the only rock band on an R&B and soul line-up. The black South Africans were looking at us like, ‘Huh? What’s this?’. I remember standing at the side of the stage when Chaka Khan was playing – and she dragged me onstage to sing ‘Ain’t Nobody’, which was crazy.”
As crazy as duetting with Pavarotti on the Skunk song ‘You’ll Follow Me Down’?
“I went over a week early to have singing lessons with him. We hung out at his house, he cooked for us, and sat round his pool as his old-school friends drank schnapps and smoked cigars. He was lovely and one of the greatest voices you’ve ever heard.”
Who’s the most unlikely person you count as fan?
“Lou Reed! He maybe wasn’t the nicest or friendliest person, but we were on a bus to a festival. He towered over the record person I was sat next to and growled: ‘Move’, as the poor guy jumped out of his seat. He sat next to me and we spent four hours chatting. To my surprise, he was the loveliest man and into us. Marilyn Manson is a big Skunk fan and asked us to tour with him a few times but we were too scared to which in retrospect, was stupid.”
5: For what bizarre reason were you banned from a venue in the States during the Post Orgasmic Chill tour?
“They thought we were a Nazi band.”
“They thought we were called Skunk And Nazi. The first song on our debut album is ‘Little Baby Swastikkka’, which is actually anti-fascist. Somebody had told them the lead singer’s a skinhead. The local paper put those three things together, and there was a picket outside the venue so we got kicked out. The first we knew of it was when we got off the tour bus, went to a radio station for an interview. Everyone was looking and us strangely and we were being asked loads of questions about being Nazis and this protest that was happening. It was funny. I was like: ‘We’re sat in front of you. Two of us are black – one has dreadlocks!’. Another time we were banned from a venue because somebody brought a live skunk and all hell broke loose. I want to know how he caught it!”
6: How did you arrive onstage to collect your ‘Services to Italian Culture’ award?
“On a white horse.”
“It was during Mardi Gras in Venice. Everybody was in costume. I was wearing a billowing 18th century skirt, corset and black mask, and I just walked down the middle of the theatre onto the stage on a white horse. It was a Bianca Jagger at Studio 54 moment.”
Have you done anything camper than that?
“Grace Jones taught me to hula-hoop in her living room at her birthday party.”
Why are you so big in Italy?
“I was an X-Factor judge there which took it to another level. It’s madness. The Italians love big songs – they love a diva moment. On X Factor there, they have rock bands and take it more seriously than the UK.”
7: You opened for the Sex Pistols at Finsbury Park in 1996. Can you name three of the seven other support acts?
“Ummmm…oh my gosh! It wasn’t Kiss – that was another gig. Was Rage Against The Machine one?”
WRONG. The others were: Iggy Pop, 3 Colours Red, Fluffy, Stiff Little Fingers, 60 Ft. Dolls, Buzzcocks and The Wildhearts.
“All good bands – but I don’t remember them! (Laughs) Honestly, I didn’t enjoy touring with the Sex Pistols. Apart from one time in Germany, it’s the only time we’ve had people chanting racist stuff at us. I think it’s partly because Johnny Rotten never even addressed it onstage. Not once did he tell those people to shut the fuck up – they took his silence as encouragement. In contrast, Steve Jones would hang out with us afterwards and check we were all right. When we toured Australia with them, we feared for our lives. Their security guard would warn me where the Nazis in the audience were and say: ‘Don’t go over there’. In Adelaide, one of their racist fans attacked me so we got thrown off the tour. I was watching them play in the audience, and he came over, pulled my hat onto the floor and threw beer over me. I lost it. I’d faced the vilest racist abuse every single gig, so I smashed him right in the face. I hit him with anger, he fell over, and we got thrown off the tour.”
8: You starred in the 2016 dystopian film Andron opposite Alec Baldwin. What’s the name of the Hunger Games-style competition your character appears in and (Spoiler alert!) which former EastEnders actress kills you?
“I’ve forgotten the name of the competition, but the actress was…Oh God, what’s her name? Dark-haired and lovely. Michelle? It’s not Michelle Gayle because that’s a black girl (Laughs).”
WRONG. You appear in The Redemption Games and the actress is Michelle Ryan, who played Zoe Slater.
“I never would have got The Redemption Games but I should have got Michelle Ryan! Weirdly, both of the movies I’ve done have featured Danny Glover. I was in a restaurant in Ibiza and was told: ‘There’s a director shooting a movie here who wants to meet you’. I thought he’d be a seedy Hollywood type, but he was a really cool Italian guy. I thought: ‘Why not? I’ve never acted before.’ I did another film which came out last year, Ulysses, a remake of a Greek mythology story.”
Could we see you in Albert Square in the future?
“I’d love to do that! (Laughs) I could run the Queen Vic! I like playing baddies and doing sci-fi.”
9: Complete the following lyrics: ‘From dusk to dawn/The other screams grow silent in defeat…’
“Oooh, is that from [2016 Skunk album] ‘Anarchytecture’?”
WRONG. It’s from ‘Remains’, your 2015 collaboration with Bastille and Rag’N’Bone Man. The rest of the lyrics are: ‘I know I chased a memory but you used to taste so sweet.’
“I wouldn’t have got that in a million years! (Laughs) I can barely remember the songs I’ve been singing for 25 years! That was literally recorded in a studio in a minute, though it’s our second most popular track on Spotify.”
Anyone you’d still like to work with?
“I’ve started making a little list of potential collaborations for an upcoming project, but the only one I can tell you about is Tricky, ‘cos I love him. We talked about it in Berghain on New Year’s Eve, so hopefully it will happen.”
10: You played a series of secret gigs before the Post Orgasmic Chill world tour. What did you call yourselves?
“SCAM, which stood for Skin, Cass, Ace, Mark.”
Ever checked into a hotel under a false name?
“Yeah – they’re all filthy! I used to check into hotels as Punani or P. Nani, until someone exposed me so I had to stop!”
The verdict: 5/10
“At least I got half. That’s not bad.”
Skunk Anansie’s new live album ‘25LIVE@25’ is released on January 25