In the bleak Midwinter

As soon as it transpired that I was not destined to be a criminal my life  took a turn for the better.

I had decided that it was time for me to get a job. I had been considered for a post as groundsman for a yacht club at the end of the summer, believe it or not there had been two rounds of interviews and I had got as far as the second round. These were days when if you applied for a job you got it but they were a little suspicious that I was overqualified with by three grade E A levels.

Next I applied for a job as a temporary warehouseman (yes man) with a well known newsagent chain. This time I was more successful, the interviewer took one look at my strapping physique and announced ‘we’ll take him’. There were a couple of supplementary questions but basically the job was mine.

And so, for the next couple of months I would leave home in the dark and cycle a couple of miles over the closest we had for a hill in Norfolk to a warehouse. I really cant remember much of what I did, I remember it was freezing at ground level and boiling at roof level. I can also remember having to pretend to work when there obliviously wasn’t anything much to do, I would take a broom and go off down the aisles where I would be entertained by finding a copy of ‘The Joy of Sex’ on the shelves awaiting distribution.

The staff consisted of the foreman, a couple of Norfolk lads called Carl and Darren and a couple of women who seemed to do the more intellectual tasks who names escaped me. These were the elite, they had the best jobs but they would be there when the Christmas rush was over. There were three extra staff for the season, recruited alongside me were Trevor and the Colonel. Trevor was a weedy timid lad who seemed about 14, he didn’t say much and was the main source of entertainment for Carl and Darren. I don’t know what the Colonel had done to end up in a temporary job in a warehouse but it must have been something very bad. Clearly The Colonel was not the name he had been born with but he had a moustache and a military bearing. He was phenomenally reactionary even by 70’s Norfolk standards and would launch into diatribes that would leave him red faced and exhausted if he observed anything that smacked of liberal decay. One morning Carl reported that petrol had been syphoned  from the works van overnight by local ner do wells ‘cut their fucking balls off’ roared The Colonel turning crimson.

Clearly the rest of the staff didn’t want much to do with us and the temp staff took their breaks separately, I made sure I took a book.

Best of all though, I had started a relationship. I had met Lucy (not her real name, that was Bridget) at a rare ‘gig’ by my band The Rockwell Buzz Company’. I think that for one weekend the various band members had reconvened  for the weekend and were mob handed enough to jam at a party held in a house in the country. I still miss those days when I knew rich bohemians, the house was enormous and for one night only occupied by a group of teenagers. Anyway Lucy appeared keen but I only really developed social skills where women were concerned about 30 years later by which time it was little to late. Anyway one day a received a call at the warehouse from Lucy saying she was ‘passing by’ (this was on an industrial estate) and did I fancy going for a lunchtime drink ? For the first time I became aware of just how resourceful women can be when they want something, she had phoned the main branch shop and obtained the number of the godforsaken warehouse. It was a lovely feeling to be wanted, really there is nothing like starting a new relationship at Christmas, my endorphins were working overtime.

Clearly here was nothing wrong with having a couple of pints and then going to work in a hazardous environment and so we had lunch together whenever possible, I was earning a wage now, sometimes we even shared a packet of crisps.

The year, rather belatedly, just got better. Old friends began to drift back from university, Phil had a job on the post, Dunc couldn’t be arsed, they were slightly dismayed at my habit of falling asleep in the pub after eight hours pretending to work.

As the warehouse prepared to close for a couple of days were be visited by the local company bigwig. He stank of alcohol, ‘don’t drink and drive’ he advised us as he left jangling his car keys. We must have had some kind of party and loosened up with a bit of seasonal drinking on Christmas eve. Predictably it got out of had, the women decided it would be a good idea to cut off my shoulder length hair. Becoming alarmed by them waving enormous scissors in from of my face I had to escape by knocking a fire extinguisher off the wall at which point we were sent home only to have a brief sleep and go out on the town again.

What with being so busy I was missing out on the music scene. This might not have been such a bad thing. Despite punk the huge hit single was Mull of Kintyre by Wings.

Now, as I’ve made clear, I have no problems with Macca doing whatever he wants, the man wrote ‘Hey Jude’, if he wants to rhyme Kintyre with desire in what sounds like a first draft he bloody well can. It isn’t my absolute favourite McCartney track though I must admit. By the late 70’s we were not really expecting that much from him (or John or George or Ringo) . What is amazing is that this sold over 2 million copies, equally mystifying is the fact that I have never known anyone who has admitted to owning a copy, and believe me that’s pretty much the first question I ask any new person I meet.

And so 1977 was heading to an end, could it all have been so simple then or has time rewritten every line? There would be great times ahead but I would never feel so free again.

And Macca would write some better songs eventually.

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What did Punk do for us ?

A year after the infamous Bill Grundy incident the media frenzy had just about died down. Punk, by its very nature was not going to last that long, it had built in obsolescence. In a few months the Dammed and the Pistols would be no more, the Clash and Buzzcocks had already experienced line up changes.1977 was over.

In many respects its easy to downplay the influence of Punk. 40 years on just about everything that Punk was going to destroy is doing very well thank you very much. TV shows like the X factor and the Voice represent the ultimate shallow nature of pop, producers are everywhere trying to polish a turd, music has lost it’s value, most of it is free to listen to after all.

Ultimately, the argument goes, all punk was was speeded up badly played heavy metal, it conned us for a while and then the Pink Floyds Phil Collins and Dire Straits move in and cleaned up with real music.

So what did the punks do for us, I humbly put it to dear reader that there’s a legacy we ought to be grateful for….

Music became accessible to fans.

Read any interview with almost any new band in 1977 and there would be a party line spouted about success not going to change them. Go back a couple of years and one of the main reasons for involvement in the world of rock and roll would be that the potential exponent would be wanting to change big time. The house in the country and the white Rolls Royce were clichés to be aspired to. A lot of the punk musicians had been music fans themselves who had got fed up with funding stupid pop stars bad behaviours with their hard earned money. A load of punk musicians really did care about their fans, someone like Joe Strummer would agonise over the potential fate of the rock star who ‘sold out’. The gap between performer and fan has never been less divided than for a couple of years during punk, and for a while that was pretty refreshing.

Musicians became accountable

Following on from the above the new wave of musicians were interested in social change. The  Rock Against Racism movement came about because of this social consciousness. Plenty of the new wave were lined up to play RAR gigs. It was good publicity of course but the rise of the National Front was very very real. On more mundane levels  ticket prices were kept low, the Clash wouldn’t charge full price for Sandanista, they put their money where their mouths were. For a while principals became more important than money.

Political debate became fashionable

.

There was a lot of posturing to be sure  but surely that’s better that a twitter storm over the latest iPhone

Punk was inclusive to women

To be a topic in the new year, stay tuned folks. Women actually on a stage became a reality and the world’s a better place because of it.

Racism and Homophobia were passe

In a time when we thought Elton John and Freddie Mercury were heterosexual. Tom Robinson strode across the musical landscape like a big gay colossus, this was to come in handy when the 80’s arrived. Racism was officially bad, that much was clear, it hasn’t stopped Keith Richards or referring to ‘spades’ in every interview but miracles take longer.

The energy bar was raised

Look at most Top of the Pops clips of bands from 1975 and you well see a bunch of young men looking at their feet or grinning inanely as they chug their way through some masterpiece. ( Glamrock is immediately excused from these accusations).

By 1979 it’s head banging and mugging to the camera, even pop music is a bit angry now. The Dammed smashed up their instruments on The Old Grey Whistle Test, Poco never did that!

Yes opened their post punk album ‘Going for the One’ with some angry guitar from Steve Howe, it wasn’t their finest moment but it showed that they were paying attention.

More people became involved in producing music

The musical bar had been lowered but creativity hadn’t. Never since skiffle had so many people decided to ‘have a go’ at making music, it didn’t have to be punk take The Fall, Wire, The Rezillos,The Mekons or Echo and the Bunnymen, all bands that benefited from a relaxation of standards and a supportive audience.

Hair Products Improved rapidly

.

Sid Vicious apparently had to hang upside down with sugar in his hair to achieve the punk look. Within a couple of years there was hair gel and then the deluge of products that the young people of today just take for granted.

Lots of great music was produced.

I’ll accept that a lot of punk records were fairly dire but once you cast your net a bit wider there are treasures a plenty. John Peel’s favourite track Teenage Kick by the Undertones only happened because of many of the above factors. The Undertones weren’t really punk but it was punk that made them. Dragged along in the slipstream were the likes of Elvis Costello who wrote proper songs and the Slits who didn’t. For a couple of years a great single would be released literally every week and they were all different.

If your idea of a great night out is to go to a stadium and see Phil Collins or Bryan Adams or Dave Gilmour I suspect you wont be swayed by any of my arguments. The big stars were wounded but not fatally they came back bigger and stronger and it was as if nothing ever happened in arenaland.

But I wont be there with you, I’ll be watching Wreckless Eric play in a room above a pub, or James McMurty playing a room behind a pub, or at a festival checking out who is on on the smallest stage or going to a folk club, or a jazz club or taking part in a session or just playing with friends. And that’s because of punk my friends, I want to see people who give a shit, who didn’t have the option of selling out, people that you can buy a pint for afterwards and will sell you their CD which they glued the sleeves together for the previous night.*

And that’s because of punk 40 years ago!

*Obviously I won’t buy a pint and a CD, I’m not made of money!

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Live Stiffs

On the 18th October 1977, just a few days after my nineteenth birthday, the Stiff tour hit the University of East Anglia.

Elvis Costello chose this time to debut a ragged version of ‘I Just don’t Know What to do with Myself’. Costello was on fire, having released ‘My Aim Is True’ backed by country rock band Clover he was adopting a scorched earth policy to his career. He now had a proper backing band The Attractions who could turn their hands to any tune hence a Burt Bacarach cover on this particular night. Costello had begun the tour refusing to play most of the semi popular songs from his debut LP. It was Costello who played the first set of the tour and managed to alienate half the audience with his assertion ‘if you want to hear the old songs you can buy the fucking record’.

By necessity he had mellowed a bit but he was writing new songs almost daily and didn’t want to stay in one place for any period of time. The Attractions were only 10 weeks old but they were already one of the best bands on a live circuit anywhere.

Even before the tour began there was trouble ahead, namely a split between Stiff owners Robinson and Riviera. There was now the prospect of squeezing 18 musicians into a bus and touring the country for 34 days. The idea was that this was going to be like one of the old soul reviews with artists sharing equipment and  musicians and presenting a series of short snappy sets. Along with Costello there was Ian Dury with his new band the Blockheads. Nick Lowe, the artist who kicked the label off would be there along with Larry Wallis who had played on the second Stiff release with the Pink Fairies. Last, but not least was the previously unknown Wreckless Eric.

So lets just compare and contrast the first lines from the albums of the performers who had got as far as recording a full product

‘Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired’

Elvis Costello -Welcome to the Working Week

‘I come awake with a gift for womankind

Ian Dury – Wake up and make Love to me

On a convenient seat by the lavatories in the sodium glare’

Wreckless Eric -Reconnez Cherie

And you have their personalities in a nutshell. Costello is clever, sarcastic and vicious, Dury is poetic and funny, Wreckless is irreverent and flippant. And here lay the secrets of their success or failure.

But firstly, the dark heart of the tour, the 24 hour club. These were a group of musicians who had accumulated an enormous amount of road experience between them and were along to have a good time. Dave Edmunds was an incredibly experienced producer singer and guitarist who, let off the leash, was determined to party. He was joined, for most of the time at least by Pete and Bruce Thomas (no relations), the rhythm section from the Attractions, Larry Wallis, Nick Lowe, Keyboard player Penny Tobin and sometimes ex Man Drummer Terry Williams.

The bulk of these musicians were the house band dubbed ‘ Last Turkey in the Shop’. They would back Lowe, Wallis and sometimes Edmunds. Pete Thomas, a very good drummer, elected to play rhythm guitar while Edmunds, a very good guitarist elected to play drums alongside Terry Williams.

And so a potential contender for best band title was sabotaged. Wallis was hampered by having only two songs, both sides of his recent Stiff single so most of the time he elected to just play guitar, Lowe had plenty of material of course and Edmunds could usually be tempted up to the mike. The main problem the band suffered from is that most of them really just wanted to get off and over to the nearest local pub so most of the time they were happy to be on and off before the gig had really got going.

Another victim of a lack of a career plan was Wreckless Eric. He had been persuaded to have Ian Dury as his drummer, as a man with significant physical disabilities Dury was not best suited for the job, he could just lift his left arm but then could only drop it on the snare, the beat was there but only just. Dury also roped in his girlfriend Denise to play bass and Davy Payne from the Blockheads for a bit of sax squalling. It was probably fair to say that none of his band were really committed to their tasks. Problems were further compounded by Eric having to use other people’s equipment and the fact that 20 minutes of drumming so exhausted Dury that he had to have time to recover for his own set; and so Wreckless Eric had to play near the beginning of the evening and Dury played at the end.

The Attractions and the Blockheads were self contained, not only were they blisteringly good musicians they had also rehearsed together, a lot. As the tour progressed Costello was including more old songs and covers, he remained pretty aloof from the dark heart of the tour, in fact he wrote ‘Pump it Up’ about the experience. Dury was also in his own bubble for slightly different reasons, he was older and this time he was determined not to blow it like he had with his previous band Kilburn and the High Roads. The musicians from New Boots and Panties had been augmented by ex members of Loving Awareness. There had been an expectation of a quirky pub rock band but the Blockheads were unbelievably tight and funky. Dury could manipulate an audience in a way that was beyond Costello, by the end of the tour Dury’s signature tune ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll’ was appropriately the closer with other musicians joining him on stage for the finale.

The levels of showmanship took some of the other musicians by surprise. Larry Wallis whose idea of stagecraft was to down a pint of vodka and orange and change his tee shirt was quite put out by the new competitive edge. Fortunately he was joined Dave Edmunds who was also a bit put out when his drinking buddy Nick Lowe started dressing in a ‘Riddler’ suit to put on a show. Unfortunately it was getting to the stage where Edmund’s drinking, or rather his hangovers were getting in the way of his playing. Matters reached a head where there was an altercation with the tour manager which led to Edmund’s expulsion from the tour for a few days. Also discharged was Wreckless Eric on health grounds. Unused to the rigours of life on the road young Eric had fallen very ill with Laryngitis and had had to go back to hid parents to recuperate.

There were lighter moments, at one gig the musicians were bemused by the presence  of several tins of cat food backstage, it transpired there had been a typo in the request for ‘ cold cuts of meat’ in the rider.

The tour was filmed and various clips have escaped onto YouTube. Its fairly depressing viewing really, lots of shot of cheap hotel rooms and the ‘get off your face and be an asshole’ mentality that Costello was observing. Like touring itself the film is a study in tedium.

Apart from the music of course, for a few minutes on-stage everything was aright. The tour actually lost money, the musicians themselves were all on £50 a week but tours are expensive and in the 70’s admission was relatively cheap, the money was in records. A live album was released and it was OK, some of it was recorded at the UEA including the Costello performance that I started this piece with.

By the end of the tour Dury was in a bubble surrounded by sycophants and minders, he had seen his chance and seized it. Wreckless Eric had appeared as a bit of a novelty act despite the quality of songs that would be covered by Cliff Richard among others. Costello had the raw talent and now he had the band to back him. Material he composed on tour would be on his new album and like Dury he was on the way to becoming a household name. Larry Wallis, not a natural star, would go on to become producer and songwriter for hire, eventually his drinking would become so problematic he was forced to stop alcohol altogether. Sobriety rekindled his actual interest in music and he re recorded his Stiff record ‘Police Car’ it wasn’t a hit this time round either.

As for me; I missed the gig but got to hear the live record and eventually managed to blag a copy of the poster for my wall from a record store a couple of years down the line.

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Busted!

At the end of last year I told the tale about how I missed the Anarchy tour by virtue of the initial gig being cancelled just hours before it was due to take place at the University of East Anglia. That was out of my hands, and a bit of a relief at the time I must  admit. However just months later I missed another seminal gig, and it was all my fault.

The whole sorry affair says a lot about my life in late 1977 but also a bit about the weird home life of my family. By October a lot of my friends had left and I was having to dig deep to find new friendships. Just about to turn 19  friends were important to me, I had to get out of the house!

On the night in question I was wearing my dad’s coat. This will become significant. My dad being generally unwilling to spend money on anything that wasn’t mechanical had invested in two identical coats one for me which medium and one for himself that was large. This had been some time ago but one coat was enough for anyone apparently. I however had now grown to accommodate a large coat and so, quite naturally, had taken to wearing my dad’s over garment . My dad had been working for a while now at Rowntree Macintosh, one of the few big factories in Norwich. He seemed to like this as he was always working, evenings, weekends, he was either at work or just going to work or just home from work. For months I never saw him out of a boiler suit, he never had time to wear the coat I had appropriated anyway.

And so on that fateful night I went out in my dad’s coat but on my own bike. I had come to hate cycling but really it was the only way to get around Norwich and I was going to the University which would have necessitated two buses each way which would have taken hours. I met up with a guy, lets call him Paul, nearly everyone I knew was called Paul, who was kind of a friend but not a close friend, I don’t know why we were meeting up or what we were intending to do or why we went all the way to the University but we did. Paul was a bit older, a nice enough guy but a bit more edgy than my usual friends. At some point it was rumoured he had a girlfriend and child which he had left in some godforsaken village while he escaped to the bright lights. He was now seeing, or about to see, another friend of mine but she wasn’t around that night, it was just me and Paul.

At some point in the evening I located a wage packet in the pocket of my dad’s coat. I wasn’t really surprised, although he would have a fit if you ran a hot tap for more than 5 seconds when it came to the folding stuff he was surprisingly lackadaisical, after he died we found a small fortune in £20 notes stuffed in a drawer and so he had left his weeks earnings in the pocket of his coat. As someone who hadn’t had to work a 70 hour week in sweltering temperature I was not really concerned, all I had to do was get the money back safely by tomorrow, no harm done.

At some point Paul suggested we try and score. I was impressed I wasn’t a drugs virgin, I had an Iggy and the Stooges album after all, but I found that cannabis, because that was all we ever used of course, did very little for me apart from make me feel sick as I didn’t smoke tobacco at the time. Anyway this was a chance for some excitement, it had been a dull night so far and so Paul disappeared somewhere  to do a deal. I was, of course pretty drunk at this point, truth be told I was always pretty drunk if I was out and so I waited quite peacefully for a bit of time until Paul appeared.

Paul eventually arrived without the anticipated minuscule piece of resin but instead he had a few pills in what looked like a prescription bottle. He gave me a few and I washed a couple down with some more beer and pocketed what was left.

I cant remember anything else about the night but at some point I decided to go home, jumped on my bike and peddled off into the night. At some point on the journey home I felt a bit tired and decided to have a break and look into a shop window. I was on a main road but it was very quiet. Out tof nowhere a police officer appeared wanting to know what I was doing. Clearly a young man with long hair and a bike looking in a shop window was serious cause for suspicion. Unfortunately he became seriously suspicious by my reply and insisted in searching me. He could barely contain his excitement when he discovered  a couple of pills and a wad of cash, suddenly I was surrounded by a hoard of the forces finest who also appeared from nowhere and and bundled me, and my bike into an awaiting paddy wagon that had also appeared as if by magic.

There then followed a night of horror. There were little in the way of rights for the potential felon. I don’t know how long I was held for but it was a long time without food or rest or the offer of a friendly solicitor. I was strip searched and had my back passage more closely investigated than at any time before or since. My house, or more accurately my parent’s house, was searched causing even more excitement when they saw my bedroom crammed with a variety of musical equipment.

Eventually they bailed me to report back in a few weeks time and called for my dad to come and collect me, and my bike. I don’t know why, I was an adult after all but it seemed to be an essential part of the humiliation.

I was terribly ashamed, largely because I had got caught. I couldn’t tell any of my friends, I suspect that Paul probably had some form anyway but I had kept his name out of proceedings, I don’t think for a moment the police believed the story I told them but I had occupied half of the Norfolk force for most of the night, I think they were glad to see the back of me. My parents, although shocked, seemed to get over it but, of course I couldn’t even acknowledge that people in their early 50’s could have feelings, it was my peer group who I was really concerned about. I felt that at some point I would have to go to court and then I might be in the local paper, then my life was over, being busted would just be proof I was an idiot. Even the prospect of it effecting my career chances seemed remote although I realised the possibility of going to prison was really frightening. I felt that the probability would be that I would be fined so with that in mine I started saving out of my dole and Saturday gardening job I had inherited from friends who had departed to university.

And saving meant cutting down on spending so less drinking and less gigs.

This was why I missed the Live Stiffs Tour which hit the University of East Anglia sometime in the next few weeks. It’s probably the gig I most miss missing, 40 years on it still hurts.

Serves me right for being a selfish and stupid young man of course. You may have noticed that at no point did I even ask what those pills were, I suspect they were valium but they could have been anything, I didn’t even bother to ask before I necked them.

But that’s youth for you.

I don’t know how long the legal process took, everyday I would wait for the mail and eventually, some weeks later a manilla envelope arrived. All charges had been dropped and I did not need to attend bail. That was it, no further information was deemed necessary, if it happened today I’d probably be sent a leaflet telling me how to make a complaint but this was the 70’s they’d probably lost the paperwork by the time the charges were dropped.

And they did give my dad his wages back by the way.

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If it ain’t Stiff..part 2

On of the few things I can still remember from studying history in my humanities degree was the concept of unwitting testimony. As far as I remember this is the idea that you can find out things from a period in history from what was written, unwittingly, about something else. For example a 1920’s biography of Nelson could also reveal information about the 1920’s in terms of the moral or political stance of the writing . 

Stiff records were not concerned with making any statements about the mid 70’s, they were, initially at least, just releasing songs by people they liked who were struggling to release anything through more commercial routes. Unwittingly the first few releases tell us an awful lot about what music was like, certainly in London for a few months of the ‘phoney war’ when music was changing but no one knew that punk was going to arrive like a hurricane.

 

So here are the first five singles on the Stiff label

 

Nick Lowe

So it Goes/ Heart of the City

 

About as cutting edge as pub rock could get. Lowe could play write and produce to a certain standard. We liked him because he was not one of the old guard (largely because he had not been that successful) but he wrote songs that sounded like we’d heard them before, but we hadn’t.

Another person who was having a bit more success with this approach was Graham Parker and Steve Golding from his band The Rumour plays drums on these tracks. The rest is all Lowe. Give Lowe enough speed booze and dope and leave him in a studio with a drummer and he would always come out with something.

So it Goes is almost the sort of thing that Van Morrison might sing if you ignore the barbed lyrics. There’s an American influence, a smidgen of Springsteen, a touch or Southside Johnny, maybe a little bit of The Band but it still sounds like it was recorded in a basement in Camden Town at a cost of £34.

Heart of the City is a more straight forward rocker, rather like Lowe’s future work with the band Rockpile. Different but still the same.

 

The Pink Fairies

Between the Lines/ Spoiling for a Fight.

 

Lowe’s record sold about 10,000 copies. The Fairies achieved about half of that. On the basis of the 30 seconds I heard on the John Peel Show I thought it was great. I never heard it again until recently. The Pink Fairies operated somewhere between Hawkwind and the MC5. They came out of the Ladbrook Grove squat scene where they were huge. Elsewhere they amounted to diddly squat. Robinson and Rivera, the owners of Stiff would have been familiar with them through the London music/drugs/booze scene. The Fairies were in their final throes, psychedelic Canadian rocker Paul Rudolph had left to play bass with Hawkwind. In his place was Larry Wallis a big boozing mate of the label owners. Wallis was a bit more direct in his playing, the A side thunders along brutally. It sounds ok even today, I have never heard the B side.

 

The Roogalator

All Aboard/ Cincinnati Fat Back.

 

The sort of people who drank at the Hope and Anchor or The Nashville loved The Roogalator. I didn’t like them at all. They were clearly excellent musicians who played a sort of swing/country/blues mixture. I resented their lack of edge and the fact that they seemed to pretend they were American. In their defence their main man Danny Adler was from the states, I think. Even in 1976 everyone who wasn’t pissed in a London Pub didn’t wasn’t to hear some talented Yank singing songs about juke joints. Another flop followed, listening today of course it sounds absolutely great. The keyboard player was to leave to join the Tom Robinson Band and The Roogalator petered out.

 

The Tyler Gang

Styrofoam/Texas Chainsaw Massacre Boogie

 https://youtu.be/kWtbnDy378Q

Yep, more pub rock Americana. This release managed to slip below everyone’s radar. I did listen to for the first time recently and, well I cant really think of anything good or bad about it. Sean or Shaun Tyler had been in Ducks Deluxe who almost rivalled the Feelgoods in the good rockin stakes for a while. Unfortunately they all looked like builders rather than gangsters. A great live band but not a great recording band, the Ducks had splintered and Tyler had formed his gang. Already they were out of date.

 

Lew Lewis and his Band

Boogie on the Street/ Caravan Man

 https://youtu.be/N_ujO7eKrZs

Stiff was showing it’s true colours here. Feelgood’s manager Chris Fenwick had helped set up Stiff. Lew Lewis was from the same pool as the Feelgoods and, of course had been in Eddie and the Hot Rods for a while. The cream of Canvey Island/Southend convened to back one of their own, in fact Lee Brilleaux is on guitar. Lewis is a pretty good harp player but then again most harp players who treat the instrument seriously are. The result is a perfectly acceptable slice of Chicago/Canvey blues.

 

That’s the first five releases on Stiff. With the possible exception of The Roogalator it’s pretty much a collection of boozing mates of the label owners. There was a lot of mix and match going on here, Lowe would work with the Feelgoods, Larry Wallis would become a writer/producer in his own right. As new artists came along they would become part of the pick and mix community. Rumour’s drummer Steve Golding would end up playing with Elvis Costello on Watching the Detectives, Lowe would play on Wreckless Eric’s first single (with Golding on drums again) and so on.

 

At this point the Stiff catalogue was pretty hopeless, a collection of pub rockers who might fill a pub but on record were shown to be pretty derivative. After all these years there’s a charm to all the recordings, at least its real musicians playing together. The main selling point of these tracks however is almost entirely their naive nostalgia appeal, Lowe showed a certain promise but no one was going to wait with baited breath for another record by Lew Lewis (just as well, he was about to descent into a nightmare drugs/mental health/ crime nightmare which hopefully he has now left behind him).In a couple of years Lowe had formed a reputation for his skills and the rest had disappeared.

 

But

 

The next release on Stiff was New Rose by the Dammed. A great record and the first British punk single. Produced by no less than Nick Lowe himself. Punk seemed to nudge Stiff onto some new creative track, it wasn’t an easy ride but soon it would sign yet more pub rockers but this time it would be people with a genuine enduring talent.

 

Step forward Elvis Costello and Ian Dury..OK Wreckless Eric you can take a step forward too, you’re the young generation and you’ve got something to say

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If it ain’t Stiff…

The other day I read the news that apparently Sainsbury’s, the well-loved supermarket chain, is about to start a record label. That probably says more about the state of modern music than anything else. 
In the 70’s the business was clearly defined, we were now open to the idea that
rock music was art, also in the case of many artists from Carole King to Led
Zeppelin it was highly profitable. Bear in mind that records were quite expensive,
in my first Saturday job I was paid 30p an hour, an LP would cost £1.99. Buying a
record was still a major event. 

And so the holy grail of any band was to make a record, preferably, if you had
designs on being an artist that would be an LP. The route to this was clearly
defined, you went out and played gigs. The idea was that eventually you would
create a ‘buzz’ which would attract record company to you. A&R men (it was
always men) used to go out to gigs most night of the weeks looking for the next
big thing.  

There were two things that the band could do to increase their chances. The first
was if a journalist reviewed you for one of the big music papers. There was an
increased chance that this would happen because the papers did actually have
people in the provinces who might offer a one off review. Everyone was looking
for the next big thing, there was a will and desire to make it happen. A review in
a national paper could jumpstart a bands career. The other thing a band could do
was to play London. This was a necessity at some point, it would take an awful
lot for an A&R man to get in his ford Capri and drive up to Doncaster on a
Wednesday night. On the other hand he might go to the Nashville Rooms or
Dingwalls in London just for the hell of it, if a great band was on that was a  bonus. 

There was a lot of gatekeeping here, in order to get to the promised land the
artist hand to form a band and then keep that band going for possibly years,
playing a variety of shitholes until, hopefully someone of influence took interest.
The positive effect of this was that by the time anyone got signed they were tried
and tested and almost certainly had enough material for the first album.
Hopefully by building up a initial fan base when this album actually appeared
there were plenty of people wanting to buy it. 

I actually like this model, it’s too easy to make music these days, and anyone
with a computer can record an album. No one makes bad records anymore, it’s
almost impossible, there is no need to even employ any other musicians with
their faults and peculiarities, there are loops and samples and effects and
endless digital options. The resulting product is bland and shiny and dull but  because it sounds like a professional product it somehow deceives us into  thinking it’s actually good. 70’s records are full of warts, I noticed there is a drum
fluff on Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May’. That was a number one classic single, no
one cared, it was made by living breathing people and it’s great.  

Due to the fact that recording was so expensive in the 70’s there would always
be producer on hand .Today producers are more important than the music. Their
job it often to take a recorded project away to a studio somewhere and work their
magic on it. The old style producers were an extension of the band. Their job was
to coax great performances, point out the guitarist’s backing vocals were out of
tune, persuade the drummer to stay in time, point out the chorus wasn’t catchy
enough or to stick the vocals through a leslie speaker or 1001 other creative tasks. A good producer was a fresh pair of ears who could make a good band
great. 

All this meant that that a high proportion of records had something to offer there
was a lot of quality control at work.

Record companies were magical places, they had made enough of the right
decisions to make some huge amounts of money and gaining entry to the record
company was a bit like being invited to the Playboy Mansion. It was all an illusion
of course, even Johnnie Cash got dropped by his label eventually but it was fun  while it lasted. 

By the mid 70’s however things were changing. It was so hard to get signed that
a few hardy souls were looking at other ways to get their music out there.

Enter the Independent record label.

There had always been independents but by their very nature they struggled to
thrive. DJ John Peel started his own label Dandelion in the early 70’s to put out
music by uncommercial artists Bridget St John and Stackwaddy (he also recorded
Gene Vincent). Peel soon discovered that love and enthusiasm alone was not  enough, it didn’t help that the music could be somewhat challenging to say the
least but there was always the problems of marketing and distribution that the  majors excelled at.The odds were stacked heavily again the independent label 

In 1976 something quite remarkable happened, a record label formed that for a
brief period was a major player both artistically and commercially. Legend has it
that Stiff Record was formed with the aid of a donation from Dr Feelgood’s Lee
Brilleaux. It is also reported that Brilleaux’s cheque was, in fact, never cashed  and was even framed and hung in the label’s office. Whatever the case it gives a
clue to the origins of the enterprise. 

Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera were two beery pub rock men who had been
movers and shakers around the London scene since the beginning of the decade.
Robinson was a promoter and Rivera had been manager of Chilli Willi and the  Red Hot Peppers who had toured with Dr Feelgood. Along with Rivera came his  mate, the wonderfully named Barney Bubbles who was to have artistic control  over the design work. 


Stiff had it all, they were well connected with the capital’s more alternative music
industry. Bubbles produced art work that was iconic. There was a knowing sense
of humour at play, stiff is the record company’s term for a flop. The label
announced itself as ‘the world’s most flexible record label’. Other slogans were to
follow including the legendary ‘if it aint stiff it aint worth a fuck’. The japes  continued with messages scratched around the inner groove of the vinyl e.g.  ‘three chord trick Yeah’. This was the work of one Porky Peckham responsible for
cutting the actual records. 

Robinson and Riviera were as fanatic and obsessive as their drinking regimes
would allow. The the initial releases were sold mail order but soon distribution  deals kicked in and it was possible to own their product as long as you knew a  local hip record store in your town. 

For a period of a year or so a release on Stiff was an exciting experience, for a
short period they specialised in recording fantastically talented individuals who were previously unknown. Backing up the music was a fully realised product, the
packaging was almost as good as the music contained within.

The glory months never even became a glory year. Rivera left before the end of
1977 an, almost inevitably things became less exciting. 

In part two I will look at the first releases before things got really good..stay
tuned.

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The King’s Call

We are, sadly getting used to the idea that rock stars die just like everybody else.At the start of the 70’s we had a nasty wakeup call with the 27 club. The deaths 

of Morrison, Joplin and Hendrix are tragic even after all these years. They were 

young people who died accidently before any hint of a creative slump had been 

reached. We had had a foretaste of things to come when Blues and Jazz legends 

began to pass away. Oldish people with their best creative years now behind 

them. These were our first experiences of older musicians dying a reasonably 

natural death.

As a young man death was quite a stranger to me. My grandad had died in the 

late 60’s but overall our families seemed a fairly healthy bunch, my grandmother

lived to 99 and first introduced me to the concept that, sometimes, it’s always 

great to live that long.

The first death that really hit me was, of all people, Mama Cass. The ex-Mamas 

and Papas singer had been in London and I had listened to an interview with her 

on the radio just a few days before she died. I wasn’t really a fan but I can 

remember the shock of someone just disappearing, someone who a few days 

previously had been completely alive.

Among people a bit older than me there was always the ‘where were you when 

Kennedy was assassinated’ question. I do remember seeing ‘Kennedy ist tot’ 

headlines when walking around a town in Germany with my mother. This related 

to Bobby of course I can’t remember a thing about Robert at all.

The really big death we had to contend with in the 70’sof course was that of the 

King of rock and roll no less than Elvis Presley himself. I remember hearing of his 

death naturally. It had been a warm summers night and I had been to the pub 

(the Maid’s Head in old Catton fact fans) with my school friends Phil and Dunk. 

That’s as much as I can remember until I came home and my mum prepared me 

for some bad news much as she had when my grandad had died.

But the king’s death was not too bad, certainly not as serious as having a family 

member die as I had initially anticipated but also not as traumatic as Mama 

Cass’s passing.

The fact was that Elvis was of another generation and another country, tastes 

were pretty ephemeral in those days. My uncle David who was about 15 years 

older than me was an Elvis fan, his older brother John liked Paul Robeson. Elvis 

probably meant more to my mum than he did to me.

I must say that in theory at least I am a big Elvis fan, he looked great, he moved 

great and he invented rock and roll (discuss!). But, on the other hand there was a

lot of crap associated with him. Crap films, crap records,crap stage shows a crap 

fancy house and a crap manager. In the 70’s he was a bit of a joke, the people 

who really rated him (like John Lennon and my uncle David.) were all at least 10 

years older than me and that was a lot of time in the 70’s.

But. Going back to my initial purchase of 25 rockin and rollin greats I always 

maintained a soft spot for rock and roll. Chuck Berry was still cool as was Little 

Richard and possibly Jerry Lee. I always had just a little space in my heart for a bit of Elvis
In to 80’s when music got really bad I started to dig out the Sun Sessions stuff. 

As time progressed I developed a little love for his Vegas period but all this took 

time and effort. In the 70’s I have three memories of Elvis’s music which came to

me with no effort at all because he was a chart artist who was going to live 

forever. 

The first was ‘Way Down’, a gospel/swing/disco mashup which was his last hit 

before he died. The record grooves. I didn’t really want to like it but I did. I rate it 

as up there with his best but I am probably influenced by the fact that Legs and 

Co did a routine to it on Top of the Pops which was enough to sway any 

teenager’s musical tastes.

The second memory was ‘American Trilogy’. An overwrought piece of flag waving

which an awful lot of Americans seem to find irresistible. I was able to resist the sound as well as the

urge to dress in a sheet. I’m not saying Elvis was racist really and I quite liked the

way that he incorporated the gospel ‘all my trials’ into the performance but it 

didn’t say anything to me about my life. He was a hero to most but for this song 

he never meant shit to me.

The track that did count however came a bit earlier. ‘Burning Love’ encapsulated 

all the good things about 70’s Elvis for me. For a start it’s a really good rock 

song, the King sounds like he’s really enjoying himself on this one, it’s swampy 

and a little bit bloated just like the early 70’s. Around the time this was a single I 

had started going to disco’s at the Duke Street Centre in Norwich. I was 

discovering girls and coca cola in bottles. In the depths of my brain ‘Burning 

Love’ is linked to the infinite possibilities of growing up just as ‘Way Down ‘is 

linked to the lack of possibilities with Legs and Co.

As we now know, Elvis died on the toilet while full of drugs. He was 42, forty 

fucking two ! What happened there? 

My family where almost American. My Auntie Peggy finding herself pregnant 

after WWII headed to California to find the father, it didn’t work out but she 

found someone else and married him instead. She was followed by my uncle 

Brian and his wife Nancy. For much of my childhood I received parcels from the 

promised land and occasionally visits and stories about how great it was in the 

land of the free. My Dad never took the bait and the view existed by those of us 

left behind that our American relatives were a bit weird. Peggy was fine to be 

honest although rather brash and larger than life but there was a lot of weirdness

going on around her.

And it’s always seemed to me that anyone who takes the American dream too 

seriously is on a highway to hell. Elvis was a prime example, if he had lived 

longer surely someone would have tried to shoot him, instead he had a 

premature death as a drug addict.

And don’t get me started on the Beach Boys and their endless summer 

nightmare.

And with Elvis gone someone just needed to write a tribute song. Phil Lynott of 

Thin Lizzy was the man for the job, some call it romanticism some call it cheese but it was a dirty job and someone had to do it .

The Kings Call


And, irony of ironys, while I was writing this, news came in that Fats Domino had 

died, born before Elvis and survived him by 40 years. A very different career, his 

work has aged better simply due to the fact its a smaller body of work with a lot 

less duds there’s enough for a greatest hits LP which, of course, will be great. He 

was black and realised the American dream was a bit shit.

As Elvis said

‘A lot of people think I stated this business..lets face it, I cant sing like Fats 

Domino can. I know that’.

And if anyone asks me where I was when Fats Domino died I can can tell them I was writing an article about where I was when Elvis died 

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