It is late summer ’72 and I am sitting in a café in Marton, Middlesbrough. I was supposed to meet a friend there from school but he didn’t turn up.
There is a jukebox mounted on the wall, one of those where the cards flip as you leaf through them and you can choose a record.
I put in my 5p and play ‘John I’m only dancing’ and the b-side ‘Hang onto yourself’ over and over. I only have 25p and run out of money quickly, having bought a cup of tea, which I linger over.
The girl behind the counter who serves me is unimpressed. She shrugs and then ignores me when I ask her if she likes the Bowie tracks I am playing. I wither and slouch back into my chair, defeated by her indifference.
I am trying to find someone who likes Bowie as much as I do and so far, am failing miserably.
At school, some of the lads like him but not in the obsessively fixated way I do. I don’t know any girls – not a single one – who like him. I guess council estate kids are just not that interested in the weirder pop stars.
In the macho-backwater of Middlesbrough, it is potentially dangerous to admit to liking someone like David Bowie. I’d already suffered ribbing over liking Marc Bolan – the usual taunts of ‘he’s a bummer’ or then turning it on me ‘are you a puff then?’
Bowie took the variety of possible insults to new heights, except strangely, even the really straight kids quickly gained a respect for him. I have no idea why, maybe they realised he could write a good tune or something as basic as that.
I had on me that day, a copy of the Disc music magazine and on the cover there was a headline ‘Bolan slams Bowie!’ My hero Marc Bolan, now having some serious competition was maybe getting a bit rattled by all the attention his old friend was getting.
‘He’s only had one hit…and hasn’t got the balls’ Bolan dismissively said.
David Bowie had just broken through a few months before, with ‘Starman’. I had borrowed the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album from the older brother of a friend. He let me keep it for about a month before I finally had to give him it back.
I couldn’t afford records, I was 13 and if I wanted money, had to wait until birthdays or Xmas as in my household, money was tight and I didn’t have parents who could afford to indulge me too much. It was agony – all these records I wanted to possess but couldn’t!
I did manage to buy music papers most weeks. I knew of up and coming releases then and I remember reading that Bowie’s next single would be a new song called ‘The Jean Genie’. I planned my manipulation campaign carefully. I had to have this one. I got some pocket money from two of my uncles and held onto it, waiting for the single to be released. It is now later in the year, November in fact.
‘Jean Genie’ comes out and soon is at number 2 in the charts. I go out one Saturday to buy it. My Mam gave me the extra 15p or so I needed to get it. I walked into the town, as I didn’t even have the bus fare. It was worth the pilgrimage though. I had already heard it of course: a stomping glam riff with Bowie talking/rapping enigmatic lyrics, a haunting heavily reverbed mouth organ on it; Mick Ronson’s barely audible guitar solo (that made you listen even closer to it) and that great chorus. It got the Pan’s People treatment on Top of the Pops too.
Bowie had now well and truly arrived. ‘Ziggy’ was no flash in the pan one-off. The music papers were already writing about Bowie as a major new musical force and his interviews were compelling in which he said things like ‘I’m very cold. A bit of an ice-man’…and ‘I’m like a Xerox machine’…or ‘I’m really an actor and Ziggy is the most plastic rock star of all’.
He didn’t give interviews like yer average rock star, he came on as someone with interests outside of rock music and gave the impression he was using music as some kind of artistic palette – and although he was in the pop charts, Bowie was ‘rock’ because of the obvious depth to his music. Here was a mind at work, an intellect that was smart and hip to all kinds of hitherto unknown things like The Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges and name-dropped writers like William Burroughs and Jean Genet.
My Bowie odyssey had begun.
Bowie’s next big entrance was as ‘Aladdin Sane’ in early 1973, which I remember was provisionally titled ‘Love, a lad in vein’. Or was that Bowie’s publicist teasing the music press?
I went out to buy ‘Aladdin Sane’ the first day it came out. I took the morning off school to go to Fearnley’s in Middlesbrough to get it. I got the money from a paper round I briefly had. It didn’t last, I only did it to get the money for the album then packed it in as getting up in the morning was something I found hard to do.
‘Aladdin Sane’ was Bowie’s full-on glam sleaze album that captured the decadence and pessimism of the new decade, with a bit of sci-fi doo-wop (‘Drive-in Saturday) and the stagey ‘Time’ being the show-stopping centerpieces of the album. The whole thing finished with a beautiful haunting love song called ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ – although, a love song unlike anything you’d heard before, with imagistic lyrics that seemed random and like the best kind of poetry, ambiguous.
Nothing prepared me for what Bowie released next. Actually, it was an old track from his ‘Hunky Dory’ album. Now Bowie’s star was high in the sky, his old albums were being re-packaged and re-promoted for his new legion of fans to discover.
‘Life on Mars’ was, and remains an incredible song and I remember wondering why the hell had it been ignored when it first appeared in 1971? How could such a beautiful tune and epic, melodramatic arrangement not have been praised to high heavens at the time?
Bowie was now in the tabloids with headlines like ‘Wowie Bowie!’ I remember my Dad holding up the centre-spread of the Daily Mirror to embarrass me. It was a feature on Bowie, with a photograph of him onstage with nothing much on but a jock strap. ‘Is this the singer you like?’ my Dad asked me with an eye-brow raised in mock disgust.
‘Yeah, he’s great’. I said. Then, in clichéd teenage rebuke I said ‘but you wouldn’t understand, I know’.
Bowie, more than anyone at the time, provoked outrage from the older generation. A word they had probably never heard before started to circulate: ‘bisexual’. Bowie had said ‘I’m gay and always have been’ in a Melody Maker interview in early 1972 – just pre-fame – and the papers were starting to bring it up as a red rag to dangle before straight macho sensibilities that had mostly been the premise of rock music. Long hair didn’t make you queer, right? Those rock bands like Deep Purple sang about women and having it off and all things manly. Bowie confronted that cock rock mentality and challenged it.
It’s difficult to express the impact Bowie had on the macho rock culture. Sure, Marc Bolan came on all camp and swaggering, but he never made any proclamations of being anything less than straight ‘I’ve checked it out and prefer chicks’ he once said, keeping up with Bowie, probably lying.
Bowie raised so many questions and became an endless source of fascination and inspiration within barely a year or so. He had an enigma that Marc Bolan surely must have envied more than just a little bit.
Bowie was now massive. All his old albums in the top 30. ‘Aladdin Sane’ had glided to number one, having sold 100,000 copies on pre-orders alone – so the press said.
Then, in July of 1973, I bought my weekly copy of the New Musical Express and it had the headline ‘Bowie Quits!’
It was the talk of the morning in break time at school too.
‘It’s a publicity stunt’ someone said. ‘He wants to go out on top and not fade away, which he probably will’ someone else said.
‘I don’t care, Slade are better’ came another voice.
I was confused more than anything. Why? Why quit when you are a rock superstar? Especially after trying for so long to break through in a major way as he had done?
I was 14 by then and taken in by it. Bowie was indeed quitting. What he really meant was, he was clearing the way for the next phase and effectively firing his band.
One more album came out that year.
‘Pinups’ was an album I acquired by swapping my wrangler jacket for it from someone at school who had bought it but ‘didn’t really like it that much’.
I loved ‘Pinups’ and remembered believing that this was his last album as I had read, Bowie was going to go into films and turn his back on music.
It was all press release tease again and it strung a lot of people along, me included.
Bowie was in fact, buying himself some time to work out his next move, soon to be announced.
‘The 1980 Floor Show’ was meant to be a film or maybe a TV play to precede his next album, a re-working of George Orwell’s ‘1984’well’s . This ambitious project ended up as being the album ‘Diamond Dogs’ of course, as apparently, the estate of George Orwell would not give permission to use the author’s work in this way, recast as a kind of play.
‘The 1980 Floor Show’ was indeed filmed and was screened in America, but never saw the light of day in the UK. Bowie abandoned the idea and made a quick volte face on the project.
It’s hard to know what the actual truth is – had Bowie just changed his mind half-way through, stopped at the song ‘1984’ and completed the album as a compromised version of what he originally intended? Never mind the reasons; ‘Diamond Dogs’ was another great album in Bowie’s rapidly growing artistic canon and his last glam hurrah, with the world he described in ‘Five Years’ now in post-armageddon ruins.
A single ‘Rebel Rebel’ was released as an album trailer and what a great single it was: another classic in fact. I bought the album, this time I can’t remember how I got the money, but buy it I did, about a week after it came out. I remember poring over that weird freak show sleeve, the record company had airbrushed out the dog’s/Bowie’s penis on it but I had read some copies had got out without the airbrush treatment. I didn’t have a copy of that, even if it did exist.
I want to stop my Bowie journey right here, although of course it didn’t end there.
Bowie moved on in 1975 to a new image and new music. It was as radical a move as any he made in that decade.
I didn’t go for ‘Young Americans’ at the time as I didn’t like the idea of Bowie ‘going soul’ and (believe it or not) wondered if he was copping out and trying to reach a more ‘straight’ audience – which in fact, in a way, he was.
As soon as I heard ‘Fame’ though, I realised I was wrong: Bowie’s take on soul was innovative, if only on this track alone – a stripped down, skeletal funk riff that was daringly sparse and not necessarily ‘commercial’ either. Featuring John Lennon – such an unlikely pairing at the time – this was the sound of Bowie never going back to ‘Ziggy’ and saying to his fans ‘come with me or stay behind’.
Bowie did this all through the 70s and thinking of it, he did it all his life.
I could write another twenty thousand words on Bowie easily, but would only be re-treading a lot of what others have already said, in the wake of his death.
I finish here because I wanted to relate that giddy and life-changing moment when you first become a fan and the immediate years after that, when the magic has gripped you and still lingers.
Bowie’s magic has stayed with me all my life and it always will.
So long Major Tom, Thin White Duke…whoever you chose to be, a whole generation travelled with you, including me.
Amazing what you think is a break when you are young. Getting a support slot to The Damned was a big scoop in my mind. But I wasn’t in awe of them. After all, they had not at this point had a decent sized hit record. Support them we did: twice. This is an account of those two gigs.
Middlesbrough Rock Garden – perhaps a more geeky ex-band member of Basczax can supply the date – was the venue that we were supporting them at. The Rock Garden was, of course, one of those venues that a lot of punk bands visited (heavy metal ones too) in the late 70s up to the very early 80s. It was small, rather squalid and suited the spit and snot ethos of punk perfectly. It was a great night out and I looked forward to going there most weekends as I did, between late ’78 and up to mid-1980.
So, there we were, all eager but trying to look nonchalant: too cool to boogie, punk was one big sulk for a lot of bands. Not that Basczax were a glum bunch. We had our stupid goofy moments too. Like the time we exited a stage, ran back on for an encore and Laurel and Hardy-like, I banged heads with bassist Mick Todd. Basczax: we fancied ourselves as Roxy Music if they had met in a British Steel work hut. We were pretty good, had a strong local following and we may or may not have had that whiff of ‘going places’ about us. I was having the time of my life, not realising it at the time of course.
So, The Damned were late. We of course, got there unfashionably early, bag of chips in hand and ready, oh so ready, for the gig. When they finally did arrive they were mostly in a bad mood. Their bass player, a grumpy git in a leather jacket called Algy Ward (had to look it up actually) had no bass amp. It had been broken/ stolen/whatever. We of course, being benevolent spirits said he could use ours. He looked at Mick Todd’s Carlsboro Bass Combo like it was a piece of shit. In fact, he might have even said ‘what’s this facking piece of shit?’ (note the southern pretend cockney vowel)
Singer Dave Vanian actually seemed an ok chap. He kept himself pretty much to himself but remember boys and girls, vampire lead singers need to be enigmatic. However, he was quite nice. I seem to remember him asking about us and being at least half interested in what we had to say.
Captain Sensible. CU next Tuesday is a word that springs to mind. He was carefully cultivating his cuntiness for all to be appalled at. A professional nasty, a bit of a punk clown of the unfunny kind. He picked up my cheap Kay Strat copy, pulled on the strings and nearly broke them and then contemptuously almost threw the guitar back at me. I might have said something like ‘there’s no need for that’. Rat Scabies, scurrying around, bumming cigarettes from Mick Todd (or was it John Hodgson? Certainly not me or sax player Jeff Fogarty – he was as skint as a rent boy, like me. Drummer Alan Cornforth didn’t smoke if my memory serves me well) intervened: ‘come on captain, less of that, leave the lads alone’…Shock horror! He was that anti-punk word: NICE. But of course, the next minute, he was back to being a professional nasty, like his punk chums.
We soundchecked. Or rather, sat around for ages while the Damned arsed around, deliberately taking as much time as they could. Regular ‘that sounds facking shit! ‘Turn up the monitor!’ (screeeech!) no! You facking moron…sort it out’..and all manner of bad boy language spewed from the stage. Vanian was quiet. Very quiet. Like the eye of the punk rock hurricane, he was a persona of calm in the riot of nastiness around him. Professional nastiness of course.
When we did soundcheck, we did a song we used to open with: ‘Success’. It sounded crap onstage, but sheer excitement for the gig made me overlook this small detail. I felt a surge of adrenaline as the indescribable buzz of playing a ‘proper gig’ always gave me.
One song. That was all we had time to do. As we got off the stage, Rat Scabies said to me ‘good one mate, like that, catchy stuff’..or something similar. I noticed he did not use the ‘fack’ word, which made a change. He must have been going soft on me.
The gig itself? To be honest, it is a blur. I was half drunk as always and our set whizzed by. The place was packed. The punks down front jumped up and down, heaved about, we got spat on. They liked us then.
What I do remember was sharing the toilet sized dressing room with The Damned. ‘What are you facking doing in here?’ snapped Captain Nasty. ‘We’re in the dressing room with you’ I answered dead pan. ‘no room to strangle a facking cat and we have to share this?’. I think someone might have said something like ‘now…now…don’t act like a pop star’…We were not fazed by the Damned. I thought they were fun, but shit actually. Yes, ‘New Rose’, ‘Neat Neat Neat’ were classic punk singles but live, they were a punk panto-act – all of them ugly sisters in a parade of panto-hate. (actually, my revisionist self now likes them for this very reason)
By now, I had decided that Captain Sensible was a tiresome bore and avoided trying to talk to him. A punk lass and friends came into the dressing room. I was astonished how Middlesbrough hard lasses acted like fawning groupies. Well, not fawning…but something like a ‘I’m not interested but yes I will sleep with you’ way. Captain Sensible wasted no time in living up to his professional nasty status ‘what do you facking slags want?’….Rat Scabies ‘a good knobbing…fnaaar fnaar’. Such backstage exchanges were not uncommon dear appalled reader. The girls, to give them credit, gave back as good as they got as all good punks should. None of this sissy fluttering eyelashes stuff…
The Rock Garden gig had been a triumph on an obscure local flapping fish in the pond sense. The night faded into the drunken blur of being young and not giving a toss about the future. The Damned, horrible lot that they were, provided us with at least the memorable spectacle of a naked Captain Sensible pissing on the front row of the audience. Punk gigs were not the Carpenters, that’s for sure
Now forgive me if I got this the wrong way around, but we also supported the Damned at a place called Cleethorpes Winter Gardens. This was the gig where Captain Sensible stole my blue teddy bear jumper (actually Mick Todd’s, I borrowed it for the gig) and then wore it on the cover of the ‘Love Song’ single.
Anyhow, this gig was another punk nastiness packed event. I had a pint of lager thrown on me while on stage. Except a salty taste in my mouth betrayed the fact that it was not lager: it was human piss. Well, I hope it was human – if it had been dog piss that would have been going too far.
At this gig the dressing room was bigger and we could mercifully almost avoid each other. I remember however, walking in on Captain Sensible while he was groping a punk girl’s tits. He didn’t flinch when I walked in: in fact, he nibbled on her nubile nipple, her punky baggy jumper hoisted over the top of them. She looked to me to be about fifteen. Sorry parents, but sometimes your naughty daughters go to gigs where they really should not. She might have been sixteen. Oh well, that makes it all right then (!)
This was the night that Captain Sensible surprised me. He gave me a glimpse of the ‘nice bloke’ he could be underneath the punk panto facade. He sat at a piano backstage and played a Barry White song. ‘I love Barry White’ he said as I stood there, admiring his musical prowess, obviously well hidden in the Damned. Of course, I expected him to revert back to the ‘fack this, fack that’ persona as soon as a fan appeared. But this time he shocked me again by ticking off a part time punk (probably dressing up for the weekend) that there was a lot of good music before punk. It turned out that he was quite a fan of Gong and all that weirdo jammed out hippy stuff. I think Grateful Dead might have been mentioned too.
Of course, I suspected this. Not everyone was into the Stooges and other pre-punk bands before punk. In fact, the blackmail pictures of long, lank hair and flares, Yes albums under the trench-coated arm, were hidden in the attic, that’s all.
Professional nasties, then. That was a side of punk that nobody ever talks about, because there was a music hall/vaudeville element to it that has been bricked over by retro-intellectual sociologist takes on Punk rock and how it blew all the dinosaurs away. (It didn’t: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, ELP all sold truck loads of records in this period) And Boney M and Abba were massive during the brief summers of hate that was Punk.
What I am saying is: don’t believe a word of it: punk was about being young, reckless, feckless and having a good time all the time – just like any other musical movement that catches you at a certain age.
Bio: Alan Savage is a Middlesbrough, U.K, born singer and songwriter. He releases music under his own name and other guises such as Dada Guitars and The Crystaleens. His previous bands include Basczax and The Flaming Mussolinis.
Bob Last (Fast Records label owner and manager) first took an interest in Basczax (then called Basssax) before me and Jeff Fogarty joined in late ’78. He had seen them supporting the Rezillos at Middlesbrough Rock Garden and was intrigued by their weirdness: kimonos, pancake make up and strange avant-electro sparse music that sourced from both punk and Kraftwerk. Since then, founder member and bassist/songwriter Mick Todd had kept in touch albeit on an ad hoc basis. It was not until me and Jeff joined that things really took off. Mick Todd knew he needed to get some better musicians to play with and I guess me and Jeff fit the bill.
Let’s rewind shall we, to the night I met Jeff and was lured into Basczax?
October 1978. Local bands including No Way, The Barbarians, Shoot the lights out (or was that another night?) and Monitor were playing the Wellington pub in Middlesbrough. Jeff was the sax player in Monitor. I was playing too – only two songs, one of my own called ‘Trends’ – which was crap – and a New York Dolls cover ‘Personality Crisis’. The band I was in that night had the terrible name of Original Sin. Not my idea by the way. They were really a working man’s club band. Indeed, I had got stuck playing the workies clubs as I had left my boring soul destroying job at British Steel earlier in the year with the mistaken belief that I could make a living playing music. We were a mediocre, third division club band and I wanted out. I liked the lads in the band – we had a good laugh most of the time, but I think they all knew it was a matter of time before I jumped ship. I just didn’t know how to leave as I did not really know any other like-minded musicians who were not playing the clubs.
When we arrived to set up our equipment – I was using a borrowed amp- the Barbarians were there, running through their sound check. There were no monitors of course – there would have been no room for them anyway. A tall scraggly hippy looking man came over to us and said ‘Hi…you can use our equipment if you want…it might be better, there’s no space really’…It turned out to be Dave Johns, leader of the Barbarians. He was very open and friendly and had a great benevolent sharing attitude. I liked him straight away. I also liked the fact he had a Burns Guitar that sounded really trebly, like the guitar sound from the Beatles ‘Revolver’ album. He had a way of hunching over his guitar, his face in concentration, his long lank hair obscuring his face from time to time. He had an insectoid, quirky stage presence.
Standing at the bar later, I got talking to Jeff Fogarty. I had run into him in rehearsals at the local youth club down the road at Easterside/Grove Hill and we hit it off, sharing a mutual like of Roxy Music. I thought Jeff was quite exotic, playing the saxophone. I knew no other sax players and he really stood out. He had a charisma about him. (Don’t let this go to your head now Jeff!) Suffice to say, we really hit it off. This was the night that destiny called for me, that’s for sure.
I remember being really impressed with both the Barbarians and No Way. The Barbarians sang songs with local subject matter like ‘Binns Corner’. I remember talking to Dave Johns about the song. He was very obliging and seemed happy to talk about nerdy things like lyrics. I was too scared to talk to Fran, their singer: he looked really scary to me! (Of course he turned out to be a pussy cat once you got to know him)
No Way came on to big cheers. They sounded bloody great: really powerful, having an orderly sound that begged that admittedly awful word: professional. Their singer, Matey, was a great fitting front man – leaning over the mic stand, pint of lager in hand, off hand leery beery attitude- he was an instant local hero. They had a great guitarist in Paul Gardner too: minimal, droning string riffs and he used a proper guitar unlike all us el skinto copy guitar owners – he had a Fender Telecaster. Oh, their rhythm section was great too by the way. They were simply a very good local band who maybe could have done something outside their immediate back yard.
I remember standing there watching them, and watching the crowd going mad for them. It was the first time in my so far short life as a musician I felt a terrible feeling: envy. It made me even more determined to get out of my club band. (Paul Gardner might be surprised if he reads this!)
Get out I did.
Jeff actually joined the club band I was in briefly. I am not sure why he did this; he was more like a guest player on a couple of songs. I think he was trying to look for an opportunity to get me out of the band. I could be mistaken of course, but looking back, that is my impression.
I phoned Jeff regularly from the phone box up the road. I didn’t actually have a phone back then, being a council estate skint bastard. He was very excited one day and told me I had to come and see him immediately as he had in his possession a cassette of a band that was looking for new members. It was Basssax (remember, that was how it was spelt then)
I distinctly remember hearing that cassette. The quality was pretty bad, but there was something on it that sounded unique: it was ‘Kirlian Photography’. Now I was pretty hip to Kraftwerk and recognised straight away that it was a bit like ‘Radioactivity’. But that was exactly what I liked about it. I remember thinking that the singing was out of tune – but it had a strange charm, almost sounding oriental in its atonal between notes atmosphere. Plus the lyrics were strange and being from the Bowie school of pretentious art fops from Jupiter, I loved it.
It all happened very quickly. We joined bassist Mick Todd, with synth player Nigel Trenchard and drummer (and old school friend of mine) Mick ‘Cog’ Curtis. Rehearsals were intensive. We thrashed around in a place called the Gables on Marton Road. I remember it was always freezing there and when we got a Calor gas heater in, it became more bearable. The first songs we tried out were ‘Kirlian Photography’, ‘1999’ and a song that Nigel Trenchard had written called ‘Detached Houses’.
Nigel was a character – he fancied himself as the Eno of the band, which was cool by me. He was a very funny man and a practical joker. I remember once, when the band picked me up from my house in Easterside, he leapt out of the car and kissed me full on the lips in front of my mother. He was like Iggy Pop – recklessly impulsive!
I remember another time we were dancing at some new wave disco night in Middlesbrough. He was with a girl and every time he came into my view, he got his willy out and shook it for all to see. He was outrageous and there was never a dull moment in his company.
Why was he ejected from the band in favour of John Hodgson? I cannot actually remember the reason. Ego clashes perhaps. Pity we didn’t go a bit further down the line with Nigel…
Jeff in the meantime suggested we changed the spelling of the band name to Basczax. It was a kind of ‘Ultravox’ (John Foxx not the man with the Clark Gable moustache) sounding name – Jeff was really into these at the time as was I briefly. (though not as much as Jeff) My main bands at that time were Wire, Magazine and The Banshees. ‘The Scream’ was a terrific album at the time. I was still very hung up on glam rock of course. I got a guitar because of Marc Bolan. His spirit was never far away from me. Bowie and Roxy Music were the other two obsessions of mine. I also liked Bill Nelson, his Red Noise album was impressive to me at the time. (but I found it irritatingly quirky on hearing it years later)
Basczax we were then. And we got two new members: Alan Cornforth on drums (Mick Curtis, lovely lad that he was, couldn’t keep up with the fast evolution of the band, bless him ) And John Hodgson on Keyboards/synth and occasional vocal.
Both had been drafted in from Blitzkreig Bop. One of Teesside’s first punk bands who released a brilliant single with ‘Let’s Go’. I mean the original version on Mortonsound by the way.
I remember the phone conversation with John Hodgson really well.
He said ‘I’m looking for something cold, something more synth based’. I remember thinking ‘he’s on the wavelength’ and he joined pretty much straight away, as did Alan Cornforth. I think he did one last gig with the Bop and then he and Alan joined us.
Our first rehearsal had John introducing a keyboard riff to us that became ‘Translucent Tales’: our mock psychedelic epic set closer. We were a band that was not self conscious about bringing in then unfashionable musical influences. John never hid the fact that he was a huge fan of Genesis. He was actually a prog rocker in punk disguise. (your secret is out now John!) Me and Mick Todd loved psychedelia too – one of Mick’s favourite albums from the past at that time I remember was ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’, the Rolling Stones’ ill advised but strangely fascinating 1967 acid blues album.
Basczax thus became the ‘classic line up’.
We were a band with one foot in the trashy punk/glam camp, and one foot in the emerging electronic wave of bands about a year in front of us then. I felt we were in tune with the musical zeitgeist, if only for about six months.
I wrote songs like I had two weeks to live. Jeff and I came up with ‘Hollywood Strut’, ‘Neon Vampires’ and ‘Madison Fallout’ around his Mum’s house. Jeff would vamp at the organ, I would direct chord changes, Jeff too putting his musical diversions. The first song we wrote together eye to eye was ‘Celluloid Love’. It was Jeff’s bass line I seem to recall, that sparked the song. I wrote the music on the chorus. We shared lyrical duties – writing a line each. It happened quickly, had that ‘Roxy’ atmosphere about it and I distinctly remember taking it to rehearsals to work out. John Hodgson came up with the great keyboard hook on it. He was very handy like that, always embellishing the songs with hooky parts.
Alan came up with the unusual drum beat –a kind of military shuffle. We were all mindful of trying to approach things a little bit differently.
It was to be a track we were to record for Bob Last’s Fast Records, along with ‘Kirlian Photography’ which was Mick Todd’s song.
Bob Last was producing a 12 inch ‘musical magazine’ as he called it: Earcom. There had already been one released and we were to be on the second one, alongside tracks by the Thursdays and Joy Division. I have no idea how Bob Last managed to scoop two out-takes from the ‘Unknown Pleasures’ sessions, but I do remember thinking: ‘Wow! We are sharing a record with Joy Division!’ (even that early on, already a legendary band)
Now a lot happened in the run up to recording these tracks. Basczax had amassed a large-ish local following, we were playing a Friday night residency at a pub on the Thornaby/Stockton -on-Tees border called ‘The Teessider’. We had by now, a full set of songs, we had a quickly evolving sense of who we were and we had a buzz about us, that even extended to some of the major record companies like Virgin, who I seem to remember were briefly interested in us. (if this is delusional hind sight, please correct me, ex-band members)
1979 was a year that was a white heat of creativity in pop/rock music. There was a pioneering spirit in the air as bands like PIL released the brilliant punk/dub/German prog rock influenced ‘Metal Box’ album. Joy Division led the way from thrashy punk to somewhere altogether more moody and atmospheric.
There was plenty of good new wave pop around: Blondie went from strength to strength.
Disco was big in the charts and was starting to become assimilated into some of the post-punk bands music. The most obvious example was ‘Heart of Glass’. It was a great record that made disco seem cool.
Chic were big in this year. I loved them and anyone with a sense of great dance grooves and hooks loved them too.
On the scratchier side of things you had The Slits and The Pop Group – both using dance rhythms in their music and the explorative dopey vibe of dub reggae (which John Peel played a lot of on his show)
The electronic vanguard was upon us: Gary Numan, love him or hate him, led the way with ‘Are Friends Electric’ – the first proof that men in black shirts and make up with synthesisers could make Top of the Pops. The Human League and all their ilk, followed in Numan’s steps about a year later. (Remember, it took the Human League quite a while to have a proper hit record)
But there was one album and band that blew me away that year, more than even Joy Division. It is still one of my favourite albums: ‘Fear of Music’ by Talking Heads.
‘Fear of Music’ was the sound of a band really hitting their artistic stride: it was an album full of great ideas and it set a benchmark for me. I loved – and still love – the album’s sense of experimentation, while still retaining a sense of song craft. ‘Heaven’ was a sublime track and ‘Life During Wartime’ was funky as hell. Welcome to the post punk disco party.
Even old hero David Bowie made a decent album, now somewhat overlooked I feel – in that year, with ‘Lodger’.
Basczax, 1979: we were in there somewhere, we felt sure we fitted the post punk synthy pop /rock bill.
So there we were – barely six months together and we were recording in a proper studio with a producer in the glamourous location of Rochdale, Cargo Studios.
Bob Last looked cool in shades and a combat jacket over his Human League ‘Being Boiled’ T-shirt. He had the air of a young Phil Spector about him I remember thinking. Of course, I wouldn’t have dreamt of telling him that. He was also eating apricots. Lots of them almost constantly. He was trying to quit smoking and this explained his rabid munchies syndrome. He had the air of someone quite calm and in control about him. He wasn’t exactly chatty, the kind of person who only spoke when he really had something to say. He didn’t really do small talk. I didn’t really know how to take him to be honest, but he was genial enough to get along with. I was young and still suffering bouts of adolescent self-consciousness. I was pretty insecure back then, coming to think of it, and my aloof exterior was a coping mechanism for my shyness. I also had a debilitating negative side to my nature that I still struggle with today to be honest. It didn’t take much to send me off at the deep end. Enough of this navel gazing now…
I remember setting up my guitar amp. It was a small practice amp and not the Marshall stack or decent guitar combo that maybe the session engineer expected. It was all I owned.
‘Is that it? You are using that?’ he said incredulously.
I felt a bit embarrassed.
Bob Last intervened: ‘It will be fine when we mic it up’.
I had brought my only guitar: A Kay Fender Stratocaster copy, purchased from Gratton’s catalogue. It had that scratchy Strat sound, had a five way pick up selector and was not a bad sounding copy coming to think of it. (In fact many people said it sounded better than my next guitar, a Columbus Les Paul copy)
I remember thinking I hope I don’t break any strings because I didn’t have the money to buy any more. I was always chronically broke back then. I have no idea how I managed. Sometimes I didn’t even have the bus fare to rehearsals and walked. I was a rock n roll pauper. Once, I went two days without eating hardly a thing. No wonder I was as skinny as a rake. Mr. Bowie – I blame it all on you.
Bob Last was a pretty hard task master I seem to remember. He made us run through ‘Kirlian Photography’ loads of times. Drummer Alan Cornforth got fed up and was not happy with his drum sound. He went into a sulk and a bad atmosphere started to descend on the session. He went out for a walk, well actually, went off in a huff and I remember John having to talk him around. I just felt embarrassed more than anything as the session ground to a halt. I half expected Bob Last to say ‘forget it, just go home’ but he didn’t. He tried to talk Alan around and in the end, Alan did come around of course. Bob Last was trying to get us to hit a steady groove for the track. We were used to tear-arsing through songs live, and it was hard to pull back and let the music breathe. But time was up against us now: we had to nail these tracks; we had no choice, no luxury of time. We had to do a lot in eight hours.
Then, it was my turn to get stroppy.
Bob Last said to me ‘Oh come on…stop those pretty guitar solos will you?’ when I was overdubbing my guitar for ‘Celluloid Love’. I hardly had any time as John had spent ages overdubbing his keyboard lines. The atmosphere was becoming panicky now as time was running out and I hadn’t even done any vocals yet, apart from the guide tracks when we were recording the basic bass and drum track.
In a fit of frustration, I whacked the hell out of my guitar, running my fingers anywhere on the fret board. I got art rock rage in other words.
Bob Last was (at last) pleased with what I was doing.
‘That’s great…let’s go for it now’…
So, the manic guitar on ‘Celluloid Love’ was done in the second take. I was actually scared of snapping strings, I remember.
I fully expected Bob Last to give me the third degree again when I overdubbed my guitar for ‘Kirlian Photography’ but he liked that guitar line.
‘It sounds good; psychedelic’ he said, looking over his shades at me, probably sensing my nervy insecurity.
I wondered if the song was too long and should we cut it down? After all, who did six minute tracks in those ‘quick get it over with’ post punk days?
‘No’ said Bob Last. ‘It’s good as it is’.
I also remember Jeff doing his sax parts quite vividly. We piled on the Roland Space Echo, an effect that Jeff liked to use as it made him play spacey, more random notes.
As for my vocal, I had to do them quickly. And I did. I seem to recall that ‘Kirlian Photography’ and ‘Celluloid Love’ were both second takes after an initial run through.
We did some backing vocals quickly and I seem to recall we had a fit of giggles doing the Mr. Gumby sounding backing vocals for the chorus of ‘Kirlian Photography’. I remember John getting a little impatient ‘Come on Sav, get it together maaan’ he joked in his best mock hippy voice.
The session went a little over time as the tracks were mixed. The thump thump thump of the bass drum seemed to go on for ages, as the sound was tweaked and the drum sound worked on. Some of us went out to look around outside to get some air.
I remember hearing my vocals isolated in the mix and cringed. I wanted the music back in to mask them. I also remember thinking my guitar sounded tinny and wishing I could get it to sound fatter somehow.
I also remember the thrill of hearing the mix come together. ‘Celluloid Love’ sounded great with all of John’s keyboards textured. I also remember saying ‘get the guitar up’ on the chorus and Bob Last obliged.
The mix for ‘Kirlian Photography’ came together quicker. It was all there in the performance or take we had done and just needed the levels setting. The echo on the guitar and on Jeff’s sax was added in the final mix down I seem to recall.
The time came for playback after what seemed like ages.
We were really pleased with the results. Except I got a bit hung up about my rhythm chops going out of time at the end of ‘Kirlian Photography’. ‘Nobody will notice’ said Bob Last. Pretty soon it was forgotten about and even I didn’t notice it.
It seemed to take ages for the record to come out. In fact, it got to a point where I thought it wasn’t going to happen. I remember getting our copies of the 12 inch Earcom very vividly. They were sent to Mick Todd’s house in Redcar and that bus journey to his house that day just could not go fast enough for me.
Mick had done a nice collage for the inner sleeve that represented us in a graphic sense well. No band photos. This was becoming less the norm in those days. It was more about images and graphics. I always thought it was a pity. Some decent band shots would have been a good thing.
I did not like the cover of the record: a picture of someone abseiling/rock climbing. ‘What the hell for?’ is one thought I had at the time.
I was not even that impressed with the Joy Division tracks. They sounded just as they were: shelved out takes that did not make the ‘Unknown Pleasures’ album.
The Thursdays tracks were shambolic fun. Only in 1979 could a band of twelve year olds make a record in the name of alternative prankery. At least that is the impression I got.
So there you go. It was official: Basczax was now a proper band who had a proper record out on a proper (and cool) alternative record label.
Even John Peel liked it.
Which of course, made it all worthwhile.
We drove back to Teesside that day knackered but buzzing with the adrenalin of it all.
Then I remembered, the next morning, I had to go and sign on the dole. It’s a mighty long way down rock n roll as a certain band once sang.
Bio: Alan Savage is a Middlesbrough born singer and songwriter. He releases music under his own name and other guises such as Dada Guitars and The Crystaleens.
It is mostly a blur now of course, but there are plenty of flashes in my mind of those Friday nights back in ’79-’80 when Basczax played a residency at the Teessider pub.
50p on the door I recall, as we were trying to save money for a PA. Did we get one? I cannot remember.
The Teessider itself was just over the bridge under which the Tees flowed, on the Stockton side of the Thornaby/Stockton border. Thornaby was named after an old Viking settlement and Vikings still lived there except they had lost their horned helmets, shaved off their hair and called themselves skinheads. They would lurk in the darkness after the gigs, making punks lives difficult and making the journey to the train station a scary thing for most.
One night, I went to the station with Robbo (Dave Robinson – where the hell are you now?) We were trailed by skinheads out for some bovver. I had my tuxedo and eye liner on. They started to call me predictable things that I need not repeat: you can guess. Robbo, never the most diplomatic person when drunk, faced them off straight away: ‘Oww! What’s your fucking problem then? What-is-your-problem?’ the last line delivered in (drunk) Dalek diction. Me: ‘Oh shut up Robbo, let’s just ignore them’…No chance of that. We ended up running up the railway track in the dark to escape our hunters. I remember trying to climb over a fence and my hands stung: I had grabbed a bunch of overgrown nettles in the scramble to get over it.
Life as a late teenager was scary. Actually I was 19 nearly 20 at the time, but not yet far enough away from that horrible adolescent world that could often turn violent. We got away, and we somehow managed to get back to get the train too. However, the journey back was nervy too, as drunken men peered at us through pissed rat eyes, sneering and saying things like ‘are you punks then?’
Still, not even scary nights like this, or skins outside the pub waiting to cause trouble, stopped punks and post-punkers, bohemians and long mac(kers) denim boys and posers, and curiosity seekers, flocking to the Teessider on a Friday night.
It had been John Hodgson’s initiation I seem to remember. We talked about a regular gig and how it would be a good thing to have a place where other local bands could play together. The Teessider was not really purpose built for a band to play. There was a pillar positioned centre left of the ‘stage area’ – well, ok, floor area and it blocked your view if you were in the wrong vantage point. The floor space was just about enough to set up drums – pushed right to the back, and a mic stand centred, with guitars – lead and bass – on either side. Keyboard player John had to fit in there somehow: it was not spacious is what I am trying to say. To get to the toilets, people had to walk directly in front of the band. It was a squash, but the atmosphere made it feel like somewhere bigger.
It was always packed. It started off with maybe twenty to thirty people, most of them in local bands, and their friends/girlfriends but it rapidly grew to a chock full house. I think one night we did a door count of over a hundred people – heaven knows, they were all squashed up at the bar as well as peering above tables (this was a pub remember, tables and chairs not removed.)
We brought in good trade for the landlord, so he and his wife were pleased.
The jukebox played punk favourites: ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’ was one that was always on, ‘Angel Eyes’ by Roxy Music, ‘Are Friends Electric’ by Tubeway Army. These records were suggested, I think, to the landlord, whose musical taste stopped at Elvis Presley.
I distinctly remember setting up equipment to Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’. Hearing that Blondie track today, takes me right back there. I really liked Blondie’s singles: how could you not?
We had rehearsal space upstairs too. We recorded the songs in our set up there, engineered by drummer Alan Cornforth. It wasn’t overdub recording, just capturing the songs in their live form. The recordings were released as a cassette album called ‘Terminal Madness’. We sold quite a lot of copies I seem to recall.
We worked out a song called ‘Metal Culture’ up there and played it on the same night. We were never short of ideas, at one point I was writing an average of two new songs a week, either on my own or with Jeff. We were just all flying in the moment.
The landlord and his family lived just across the landing. They had an Alsatian dog that one day, when I had left my guitar case open, shat in it. The landlord’s children were cheeky little urchins and it was revealed one day that their secret name for me – obviously they had seen me in my glam-punk eyeliner – was, ‘the man from fairyland’
Teessider nights were exciting and had a buzz about them.
I remember one of the Billingham crew who used to come and see us tell me that it was the highlight of her life coming to the Teessider. I remember well the feeling of impatience as I took the bus there every Friday. If somebody had suggested setting up a band tent outside to live there, I would have given it serious consideration.
The local music scene had exploded after punk filtered through to the provinces, just like any other large town and city outside London. And Teesside had some really good and varied bands at that time.
Apart from the local heroes No Way and The Barbarians there was the dada art punk of Shoot the lights out. There was the tuneful and upbeat new wave of Deja Vu, the fractured minimalist scratchy punk of Bombay Drug Squad, the very interesting and unique Drop, led by Richard Sanderson, whose willowy, fragile stage presence was compelling to watch.
Another really good band from that time was The Sines. Frontman Doug Palfreeman showed up solo one night at the Teessider and asked if he could play some songs. He did. And he nearly shredded my guitar strings too as he gave an explosive Pete Townshend style performance, borrowing my Kay Strat. He turned up again with a full band – well, a trio. They played some blistering Who-like songs and never failed to impress with their high energy performances.
There were other bands, very much outside of the Teessider crowd, but still doing their bit for the advancement of local culture: Carl Green and the Scene and Dimmer’s power pop outfit The Commercial Acrobats being only two of them.
Monitor, Jeff’s band before Basczax, developed into a really good band, with a female singer and good guitarist I had worked with before called Alan Hunter. They didn’t last long though – pity, as I remember them as a band with potential.
Then there was the anarcho-smut punk of The Amazing Space Frogs, a band that I occasionally played bass and guitar for. Frontman Bugsy was like something out of a punk Carry On film – gloriously inane and puerile.
Bands, bands….there seemed to be new ones forming on a weekly basis.
The biggest pity, was that the scene went largely unreported outside the area. Manchester, Glasgow and Sheffield had their own scenes going on, reported in the weekly music papers like Sounds and N.M.E, but nobody came to Teesside.
John Hodgson, I remember, was always trying to find an in-road to attracting press to Teesside. He actually achieved a pretty good scoop once: a two page spread in the then new Smash Hits magazine, which highlighted the local music scene. We all waited for the press to arrive. They never came.
Larry Ottaway formed Pipeline Records, on which we released ‘Madison Fallout’/Auto Mekanik Destruktor’ in December 1979. There was a lot of talk of him being the area’s Tony Wilson at the time, somebody to get the music scene noticed, but it came to nothing when he disappeared to Hong Kong. He had to go there for work reasons and that was the end of Pipeline, who were going to release something by Drop too. This was the whole reason the area was invisible: there was no sussed entrepreneur to cause some ripples outside the area. The fight was always the same: against apathy and lack of exposure.
Basczax were causing our own ripples though. We toured with early Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark, a tour that came about through Rough Trade putting us forward for the support. Our single sold well and went into its second pressing; Rough Trade was interested in us. So were Dindisc, the Virgin subsidiary label. We had no manager though and were probably very naive when it came to following such interest through. I have no idea what happened to those A@R people or why it all just fizzled out.
Never mind. We had our own thing going on anyway at the Teessider.
One hot summer night in June, Fast Records’ The Flowers came down from Edinburgh to play with us. They arrived for the gig pretty frazzled from the journey. I remember talking to the guitarist Simon who told me that Joy Division’s just then released album ‘Unknown Pleasures’ was incredible and that I had to hear it. He was right: hearing that album was a kind of epiphany moment, as it was for so many people of that time and generation. It is hard to describe the impact that record had. It was not punk but was obviously music that was from the spirit of Punk. It had a wiry and sparse sound to it, like dub in parts. Need I say the obvious? It was massively influential.
The Flowers were a pretty quirky lot and they performed a great set. I can remember Richard Sanderson dancing in front of them quite vividly. I think we raised the entrance price that night as they needed expenses. They stayed in the glamourous location of Redcar at Basczax bassist Mick Todd’s house. I remember singer Hilary asking us if there was a fish and chip shop nearby as she hadn’t eaten since breakfast time. There wasn’t. I think they dropped off somewhere to get some though.
One night, a band played who made me feel we had serious competition.
They were called Savage Passion (Ian Ingram told me the ‘savage’ was after me – but he was a smooth talking gypo and probably lying!)
The band had a very charismatic front man in Ian. I remember some girls next to me nearly passing out when he took his shirt off to stand at the mic in an Iggy pose. One of them laughed, looked at me and said ‘cor…he’s gorgeous!’ I remember replying: ‘why are you telling me?!’…
I am sure Ian took full advantage of his female admirers. But he took too many drugs, lost his focus and ruined himself. Savage Passion fell apart because of Ian’s antics. Maybe he really did think he was Iggy Pop. Pity.
Like any halcyon time, you think it is all going to last forever, but of course it didn’t and couldn’t.
The scene changed drastically I recall with the arrival of ska and then, of all things, a Mod revival. Skinheads suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Most of them of course were all right, but there was always that nasty edge when they were around.
The Teessider landlords suddenly put a stop to the Friday night slot. They were starting to get arsey with us for some reason, I think the landlord’s wife was sick of it all and it was a long Friday night, with a lot of people lingering and staying too late.
There was the sense of the end of an era when it all stopped. In fact, somebody actually said that to me at the time.
To all those who came to the Teessider: cheers and I hope life and sister fate have treated you all well.
Now, where is that copy of ‘Unknown Pleasures’…and Gang of Four’s ‘Damaged Goods’ EP?
(This post first appeared at Sav’s blog)
Bio: Alan Savage is a Middlesbrough, U.K, born singer and songwriter. He releases music under his own name and other guises such as Dada Guitars and The Crystaleens.
In May 1989 I was at a loss as to what to do to make a living. My band life, getting paid for what I loved to do, was coming to an end and I had to think of a way to blag my way back to the real world – a place I had hoped was left behind when I signed a record deal four years earlier. Back on benefits, staring into the void of feeling terminally useless I decided the only option for me was to become a music journalist. I decided to use my own initiative, get some interviews under my belt to build a kind of portfolio, and then offer my services to any paper that would have me. Such stupidity comes from desperation and to be honest, I was old enough to know better, but the rock n roll fairies were still dancing in my head.
My chance to blag it came. Brian Connolly’s Sweet was playing the local Black Cats venue in my resident town of Stockton on Tees. The place had had its glory years – as indeed, had Sweet – when it was called the Fiesta: back in the sixties and early seventies, when hit makers actually played such uncool places. The Kinks had played there. The Walker Brothers. The Hollies. Even Alvin Stardust at the height of his brief fame. The Fiesta was a big money payer back then and one story about the place that was the stuff of urban legend was that Jimi Hendrix was booked to play there in the early days, but pulled out as he became a big star. Another story is of the Shadows who, driving away from the Fiesta after a gig there in 1964, saw a meteorite shower, inspiring the B-side of one of their hits called ‘Stars Fell on Stockton’. With such a roll call of musical luminaries, I was entering a place that had its own legendary status.
Blagging my way in was easy. I phoned the venue, told them I was a freelance journalist and that I wanted to interview Brian Connolly. I could have been an axe wielding ex-roadie with a grudge against Brian, but they let me in anyway.
A person acting as Brian’s protector/manager vetted me. I gushed about how Sweet were essential Top of the Pops viewing back in the day and that I was a fan. I was not lying. I really liked Sweet’s singles from ‘Blockbuster!’ onward. They came across to me like a band who really did not give a shit. They had an almost pre-punk ‘let’s wind up the parents’ attitude about them. Of course, they lacked ‘rock cred’. But hey, 13 year olds don’t even know such a thing exists. And Brian Connolly was a compelling front man – his girly long blonde hair framing his masculine face was a killer combination for the teenyboppers back then. He looked slightly menacing in his catsuits and leather gloves too.
I hung around in the sound check and felt a teenage thrill at hearing the band run through ‘Hellraiser’. Of course, Brian was the only original member; the others hired lackeys, proficient and clinical, pay roll musicians doing a job. What a nasty lot they were though. I went back stage to introduce myself and straight away, two of them sidled up to me to tell me tales of how they were in a proper original material band and that this was just a ‘job’ for them. Thinking I was a journalist who could give them exposure, their crawling around me was astonishing to see. I put them straight and said ‘I’m here for Brian’. They went ashen faced and sullen and did not speak to me again. I felt sorry for Brian. Here he was, manfully trying to be the idol he used to be, having a bunch of wannabe scheming jerks on his pay roll. I noted how he seemed apart from them. He was right to be, too. They were horrible people.
Brian was very gracious. He told one of the roadies to get me a drink and chatted to me as a girl fan sat on his knee. It was like I was not there. She kept pawing him and saying ‘can I see you later Brian?’…’I love your hair Brian’….I thought I was going to witness some strange back stage porn shoot. Brian, a man who obviously had had a lot of female attention was very polite to her. ‘Ok, you go now and see me later…let me talk to this guy ok?’…She obeyed and went back to whatever concubine was waiting for Brian after the show.
As she left, he shrugged and winked: ‘I’m a married man with a daughter! But they just won’t listen!’
Brian was then ushered away by the manager/protector for something to eat. He disappeared back to his hotel – actually more like a cheap traveller’s bed and breakfast place, not a plush five star place – shook my hand and said ‘we’ll speak later…enjoy the show’…
I have so far avoided the terrible truth about Brian. The Wildean ‘portrait in the attic’ aura that surrounded him. His glorious looks had been ravaged by illness and alcohol abuse. He looked ten years older than his age at that time: 45 (as he told me). His hair, actually thinning on top, was combed forward to try and recapture those splendorous goldilocks. His eyes seemed dull and were etched with lines that told a story of pain, of disappointment, of struggle. He had actually died on an operating table for thirty seconds when his alcohol induced illness finally took its toll on him. This was Brian back from the dead I was talking to. He related the tale to me with icy precision. I felt enormous sympathy for him and worse still, felt that Brian could keel over at any moment. He actually shook from time to time and was taking medication to control his spasms.
I came back later with a borrowed tape recorder. I sat in anticipation of the show, already too many drinks down the line. I was nervous, not only for the interview, but for Brian.
The band came onstage to a puny attempt at pyrotechnics. ‘POOOF!’ – a pathetic plume of smoke crawled into the air as the band crashed in with ‘Hellraiser’. It somehow seemed horribly symbolic of a career long having gone up in smoke. Of course, Brian waited for an entrance. He clomped onto the stage from the left side, his cowboy boots making him move with all the grace of a welder at a wedding disco. Like a glam rock Frankenstein, he had an expectant look on his face of demanding adulation. The fat lasses down the front stood up and cheered; their boyfriends just laughed. As Brian sang, his voice was surprisingly strong. But when it came to the ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ screams, his face contorted into a look that seemed to suggest deep pain. It was horrible and at the same time fascinating. The band did some corny cover versions; the kind you would get from a working man’s club band in the 70s: ‘No Matter What’ by Badfinger, ‘Born To Be Wild’ (their ‘we are a real rock band’ gambit I guess). The set was peppered with the thrilling hits: ‘Blockbuster’ – with authentic siren alarms, ‘Wigwam Bam’ – Eddie Cochran gone daft – and of course, saving the best for last: ‘Ballroom Blitz’. Only there was no ‘are you ready Steve?’ spoken intro. It was replaced with ‘are you ready yeah?’ aimed at the crowd. By the end, a throng of about fifty people were up dancing, but in a very pissed nightclub way, not in a rock roll idiot dancing way.
The band came on for an encore. One I had forgotten about: ‘Teenage Rampage’ – it started with some roadies baying into the microphones ’We want Sweet! We want Sweet!’ emulating the record. The audience got the mantra, joined in clapping and stomping. It felt like a Slade gig for about thirty glorious seconds.
‘But they don’t care! No! No! No! No! No!’ Brian’s voice now a knackered strangulated attempt at trying to sound like Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan.
The gig over, it was time to meet Brian for the interview. Half an hour later he appeared. He had changed into a T-shirt that stretched over his bloated body and the irony struck me: it was a Jack Daniels T-shirt. He was advertising the very monster that was killing him.
He was very relaxed, ushering away pestering fans – women now in their thirties perhaps – who had adored Brian back in the heady glam rock days. The girl from the dressing room earlier appeared.
‘Do you remember me Brian?’
The question seemed to resonate with a deeper meaning.
My mind flashed back to Brian on Top of the Pops. On top of his game, a blonde male bombshell living the pop star high life that my teenage self dreamed about. I had to pinch myself: this was a bona fide proper pop star sitting across the table from me, pint of orange juice in his hand. In the low light of the back of the gig, he almost looked his former youthful self.
Girl politely put on hold for later, I asked him about those Top of the Pops appearances.
Brian told me how Sweet used to get Pans People to advise them on makeup. A quintessential anecdote that somehow summed up the glorious daftness of pop in the early seventies.
I asked him about other pop stars of the day. He told me how Marc Bolan said ‘you’ll never beat Bolan!’ when he met them at Top of the Pops. Brian liked Marc saying he was a ‘very nice bloke underneath all that ego’. Sweet were good mates with Slade too, and there was a friendly rivalry between them.
I ventured that it must have been great to have been on Top of the Pops in that garish Glam rock era. His eyes lit up. Like Norma Desmond remembering the heyday, the golden time, the plush carpet of success.
Brian was not a fan of Lou Reed. I cannot remember how he came up in the interview but in Brian’s estimation he was a ‘lucky man…it was only because of Bowie that he became known’. I had to admit, there was some truth in this but did not see why it should foster a dislike for old Lou.
‘He can’t sing’. Brian delivered his punch line. I just feebly nodded, wanting to protest but didn’t.
I asked him if he had met other musicians who had been influenced by Sweet.
He told me a story of how he gave an autograph to a girl when she was only about 15; Sweet were playing a gig in Los Angeles. It turned out to be Joan Jett.
I told him that I had read that Def Leppard were huge Sweet fans. He seemed pleased and I was surprised that he didn’t know this.
The interview took a brief nosedive when I said that Sweet were almost like a punk band in their attitude. He fixed me a rather withering stare and said ‘Punk was rubbish wasn’t it? We could play!’ Realising Brian had missed the point, I apologised for some strange reason. He smiled ‘that’s ok’, and I felt a wave of relief come over me. (For a second I thought he might get up and leave)
He then went on to tell me how Sweet had a lot of input on their records and that, far from how they were seen by the ‘serious music press’ they were not pop puppets. In fact, in Germany, they were perceived as a band in the same musical sphere as Deep Purple (a band that Brian was a fan of)
‘We got Hell’s Angels at our gigs. We were a heavy rock band that just happened to have hits’ .
The calibre of Sweet as musicians is not in doubt: they could rock heavily with the best of them.
So Brian – what was it like to be famous, be a regular band on Top of the Pops? was my must ask dumb question.
‘Fantastic…but all the touring, being in demand. Then back in the studio, recording your next hit…it all becomes a blur’ he said.
He told me the first time he realised he had made it was when he went out to the newsagents to buy some cigarettes. ‘Suddenly a crowd of people appeared, they were at me, wanting to touch me, wanting my autograph. It felt strange. Great but strange’.
What was his favourite Sweet single I wondered?
Brian said he liked most of them but his personal favourite was one of the band’s lesser hits ‘The Six Teens’. He told me he could identify with the words on that one. Brian had no problem with the fact that Sweet’s hits were written by Chinn and Chapman.
‘They could write hits and we didn’t learn how to do that until later. We learnt a lot from them’.
He also revealed that not everyone in the band felt this way.
‘Andy (Scott) and Steve (Priest) were always asking for an A side and got frustrated. When we split from Chinn and Chapman we had a hit with our own song and that felt good’. (The song was ‘Fox on the run’ by the way)
Did Brian feel it would all go on forever then?
‘You don’t have time to stop and think. You keep rolling along with it’ he replied
He then told me the sorry tale of how things came to an end for Sweet. Brian admitted that his drinking had long since gotten out of control and that it took a disastrous American Tour in 1978 for things to come to a messy head. It was appalling timing as Sweet had just scored their first big hit there with ‘Love is like oxygen’. He was effectively kicked out of the band as his alcoholism was affecting his performances and the band could not continue with him in it. Brian also blamed bad management and all manner of behind the scenes skulduggery conspiring against him. He told me how he was ‘getting well’ but that being kicked out of the band sent him over the edge.
‘I just didn’t know what to do. The band was my life and then it was gone. I went solo for a while but it wasn’t the same”.
Rock ‘n’ roll can become a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, and Brian’s story could have been written by the great bard. What brought about the downfall? Was it fame? Was it unchecked excessive behaviour? Was it lust for riches? Was it leechy managers plotting to fill their own pockets?
Brian Connolly, it seemed to me, was almost an innocent who entered the gilded palace of rock n roll sin. Like a lot of those 70s pop stars, he doubtlessly gorged himself at the banquet table of fame and his working class background probably ill prepared him for the shock to the system that fame brings. What do you do if you are a going nowhere no hoper (in the real working world I mean) and you wake up one day as a pop star with a million pounds in your bank account? Do you act wisely, seek counsel, invest it, look after it, or do you go gaga ape-shit and party like there’s no tomorrow?
I think we know the answer to that one.
Except the reality is, Brian was never a millionaire. He just spent money as if he was one and then of course, the tax man came knocking at his door when the hits dried up.
Brian told me he was playing to pay off debts. The taxman being one of them. Legal fees being another as he was trying at that point to get royalties he said were owed to him from those 15 million sales of Sweet singles. I don’t think he ever got them. He also claimed that his ex-band members cheated him out of money when he was kicked out of the band. Brian said: ‘They left me high and dry, no pay off, nothing. They stopped returning my calls’.
I suddenly had an impulse to tell Brian I would write some songs for him. He could record them and we would restore him to former glories. Get him the right producer. But even I knew this was delusional and I resisted to tell. I was also drunk and those rock ‘n’ roll fairies mentioned earlier were flirting with my reason.
I felt very sad for Brian. As the interview went on, he opened up to me. I got the feeling he had a lot to get off his chest and he seemed happy that I had not judged him, that I had listened.
It was like the ending of the David Essex film ‘Stardust’, where the pop star played by Essex says ‘It’s not worth it’ as he slips off into a junkie nod and dies.
He shook my hand after the interview and said ‘You’re good! Good luck with it’. I wished him the same, knowing full well that Brian’s luck was rotten.
Brian had been a great subject to interview. I had loads of tape to look forward to listening to.
I got back home, played the tape: nothing. The stupid player had not worked. Why hadn’t I checked it? I felt really bad – almost like I had betrayed Brian, who had given his time to give me a very open talk. I wrote down what I could remember straight away and then tried to hawk my interview to music papers.
Melody Maker: ‘What that singer from Sweet? Nah, don’t think our readers would be interested’…
Sounds: ‘We do not commission unsolicited articles. Sorry’
Kerrang: ‘We only cover current bands. Thanks anyway’.
N.M.E: I admit I didn’t even bother.
Evening Gazette: ‘We don’t use freelance stuff – sorry’.
Brian Connolly: rock ‘n’ roll he gave you the best years of his life…
Thanks for the memories.
(Previously posted at Cultured Bunker.)
Bio: Alan Savage is a Middlesbrough, U.K, born singer and songwriter.
He releases music under his own name and other guises such as Dada Guitars and The Crystaleens.
1979 and all that …
A moody noir song from Alan Savage (featuring Kit Haigh) with some great noir images in the video.