TONY Mortimer – the song-writing brains behind one of the ’90s most successful pop acts – is under no illusion about his lot in 2011.
As the Walthamstow pop crew behind Christmas number one Stay Another Day prepare to hit the road more than a decade after their heyday one reality check came from his teenage daughters.
“They go to school and their teachers mention the band and ask what’s going on so they find it really weird,” he admits.
“But I am their dad and I’m always going to be embarrassing up until they’re about 30. At their age at the moment I embarrass the hell out of them.
“I did perform at their school last year, though. Their teachers asked me so I took the band down and got some of the teachers up on stage.”
It’s a far cry from the baseball-capped, hand-gesturing oiks we remember from Top Of The Pops. Then compared with headline magnet Brian Harvey, Tony was always the straight man in East 17.
At 40, it’s not something he’s ashamed of. “Was I the sensible one? I just didn’t get caught,” he laughs. “Well, I stopped drinking, stopped smoking. I’ve had a couple of nights in the last 10 years where I’ve got drunk, but I’ve cut smoking out, cut drugs out, I’ve cleaned myself up really and focussed.
“I became a dad, had my family grow up, and I tried to turn my back on music – ‘I’ve done that, let’s try and find something else’. But I’m just musical.
“I’ll always write songs and play but I never had a record company so I never released a solo album.
“ I asked the record company to let me go in 1997 and that was it, off I went to find myself.”
With 20 million album sales in their chav-tastic period at the top, East 17 provided a hip-hop and R&B-tinged, tougher, inked and shaven-headed alternative to Take That and the Irish crooners.
While Gary Barlow’s men have returned to fill stadiums, Tony is in no way expecting East 17 to be quite as big as they approach their 20th anniversary.
“I’d be fooling myself if I thought we could do that. They had the enigma which was Robbie who was a stadium seller as a solo artist. You can’t really compare but people do because we were around at the same time.
“It’s a bit different for us because first and foremost we grew up and went to school together, so we’re always going to bump into each other. We’re kind of connected. We’re always going to be together.”
East 17 evolved when the label Tony was signed to wanted to form a band around him. They subsequently chalked up 12 top 10 hits between 1992 and 1998, including House Of Love, Around The World and It’s Alright, but it was the ballad Stay Another Day that turned them into an arena act.
“In my life it was a phenomenon, a life-changing experience. We were catapulted into real big fame, we had a number one and all that comes with it.
“It’s a different sound now to an extent because we’re older and we’re not trying to be teenagers. It would be ludicrous to try that again – I’m not trying to do a Stay Another Day.
“The record company wanted another one of those but you can’t write something to order otherwise I’d have written a load.
“There was no blueprint. We didn’t know what we were doing. We just went in head first in the deep end.
“It was like being in a giant tumble dryer and then it kicks you out.”
Since Tony parted company with the band it has returned in various forms led by Brian Harvey – the singer who plunged the band into the news when he condoned the use of drugs during a radio interview and more recently when he ran himself over with his own car.
Tony isn’t sure Brian saw the funny side, but he isn’t involved in the 2011 version of East 17, which puts fellow originals Terry Coldwell and John Hendy alongside newcomer Blair Dreelan.
The band had reunited occasionally for one offs while Tony wasn’t involved. Brian even had them doing Butlins.
“I created the band and you see it going down that road and feel a little like a parent – but your child has wanted to go off down the road and learn their own way.
“It’s strange, like watching from afar and thinking ‘I wish they’d listen’.
“I’m under no illusion there’s a lot of things we’ve got to fix in people’s minds before we can get back to where we were and that period was part of it.
“I don’t dislike it even though I wasn’t in it – it is part of East 17 now, growing pains.”
While Tony played some solo gigs and got himself a psychology diploma, John started a roofing business and Terry ran a bar in Spain. On September 10 they play their first English tour date together again at Sheffield’s O2 Academy.
“Lots of people, so called fans, ask ‘Where’s Brian?’ but they’re obviously out of the loop and don’t know what’s been happening,” says Tony, who says they asked him to be involved.
“We bent over backwards, but he didn’t want to do it. It’s probably a question for him, but I can’t see a reason not to do it really. Then he was never really a big East 17 fan, to be honest, although for a 17-year-old he could bang out a tune. It’s an absolute shame he’s not in it. It’ll never be perfect but it’ll be as close to.
“Last time I saw him we did a gig for Born Free and I thought everything went really well.
“I went round his house, picked him up every day for rehearsals and he made me tea and stuff.
“On the day of the gig I sent a car to his house with a driver to pick him up, send him home, look after him...and then he put on the net he never wants to perform with me again.
“If you ask me if I’m still his friend I think I am, but if you ask him he might say no.
“You move on and you remember the good times.
“We’re lucky at the moment because we’re having a laugh and the wheels are starting to get in motion. We’re not thinking we’re Take That or teenagers but we’re enjoying ourselves again.”