TWENTY years ago, East 17 were a force to be reckoned with. The four lads with the band named after their postcode notched up 18 top 20 singles and four top 10 albums. In the early to mid-1990s they sold 20 million records across Europe, as opposed to Take That’s 19 million.
“We had our little moment in the 90s. I’m proud of that,” says singer and songwriter Tony Mortimer.
“I didn’t want to do it (a reunion) before. Now I can look back on it with a smile.”
Now, East 17 have announced their much-anticipated return to the live circuit with a gig at the O2 Academy Liverpool.
“We were up in Liverpool a lot back in the day,” says Tony. “We did a lot of gigs, and that was when Richard and Judy were still at the Albert Dock, so we’d come up for that a fair bit too.
“I remember the first time we came we stayed at the Adelphi. John and I just looked at each other. we thought it was so posh. We had a drink in the bar and felt like we were somebody.
“Looking back it was probably a bit worn around the edges in there, but to us, four lads from Walthamstow, it was like Buckingham Palace.”
Sadly this time, all four members won’t be there. Tony Mortimer will be joined by John Hendy and Terry Coldwell, but Brian Harvey’s role is sung by Blair Dreelan.
“We were going to call it the hokey cokey band – one in one out you shake it all about,” laughs Tony in reference to the last Liverpool gig the band played, when Brian, John and Terry played the Empire without Tony.
“We wanted Brian in the band this time, but he didn’t want to do it,” says Tony. “He’s got his reasons, and that’s fine. There’s no ill-feeling there.”
Instead, the band is focussing their energies on the tour.
“I think we’re more appreciative of it all now,” ponders Tony. “We’re certainly a lot less moany. This is the most fun I’ve had with the band since 92 or 93.
“If we released a song now and it got into the top 20 we would be pleased. But then we were so competitive.”
Between 1992 and 1998 the band scored 12 top 10 hits in the UK singles chart and debut album, Walthamstow, shot to number one in the album chart. Follow up album Steam produced number one single Stay Another Day.
“We grew up together,” says Tony. “Me and John were in the same class at school. We were all from round the corner. Terry was what, 16 when we started. I was 20. I thought I knew it all. None of us did, really. We were just kids, and then suddenly we were on Top of the Pops. That’s one of the nice things about being back with the band. No-one else really understands what that time was like.”
By the sounds of it, Tony is the organiser of the band.
“I’m a bit more sensible,” he explains. “I think I always was. I’m like their mum, standing at the back when we cross the road, making sure no-one gets run over.”
Tony talks easily about the band’s falls from grace but he refuses to lapse into self pity, jollying the conversation along with quick, self-deprecating wit.
When I ask where he’s been all these years, he replies: “I’ve been in that dark place where all artists go when their career ends. It’s like the cupboard under the stairs, and I’m in there hoping someone opens the door and I can see daylight again.”
I get the feeling that he’s joking. At least I hope so.
“I’ve done a diploma in psychology – that was fascinating – and I’m doing my black belt in karate and my blue belt in Brazilian Ju Jitsu,” he continues. “I’ve been keeping busy.”
The band reformed in 2010, and have recorded a brand new album
“We might perform one new single,” he says. “But it’s not going to be loads of new material.
“I hate it when you go to see a band and they do a lot of songs that you’ve never heard of.
“I enjoy singing the songs again. I like Deep. I really like Thunder. that was really big in Europe so we play it a lot there. It’s Alright, that was a lovely song.
“There’s others I’m not so keen on – Let it Rain for example – I’ll only do that at a push if people ask for it.”
And one day, might we see Brian back in the band?
“The door is open if Brian ever wants to come back,” says Tony. “He’s a little diamond. Sometimes the public saw a different side to him, but that wasn’t really the Brian we knew. The papers hounded him. He got it worse than any of us, and there were things written that weren’t fair.
“But you find that a lot. The papers can demonise somebody, and then you meet them and they’re lovely. I met Dane Bowers, and all I knew him for was having a ding dong in some night club. But he’s lovely when you meet him. Not what you’d expect at all. If there’s one thing I've learned, it’s not to judge people before you meet them.”
I ask Tony if he would like a comeback on the same level as this week’s cover stars Take That.
“It won’t take off like Take That,” he laughs. “What they’ve done has just been something else. It must be incredibly stressful, but I think they’re good at dealing with that.
We used to bump into them a fair bit in hotels and at the Poll Winners Party and all that, and they were always nice lads. They deserve every bit of success that have.
“But no, I’m not expecting the same.
“If we can just do these shows, and a little bit more, that will be enough for me.”