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.
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 …
I’m not 100% on this but think the first time I sawBasczax they were supporting either Cowboys International or The Damned at Middlesbrough Rock Garden in 1979.
They were great – a cracking mixture of punk, art rock and glam – and me and the Hartlepool crew made regular visits to the big city -Stockton- to see them play at The Teesider pub every Friday night, and wherever else they played for that matter. I even supported them a couple of times when I played in the band Halcyon Days.
As Wikipedia says:
‘Basczax were a British post-punk band that was formed in Redcar in August 1978.
The band was formed by Mick Todd (bass), who recorded a demo of “Karleearn Photography”, which convinced Jeff Fogarty (saxophone) and Alan Savage (guitar, vocals) to join. The line-up was completed for early performances by Nigel Trenchard (keyboards) and Cog (drums), but these were soon replaced by former Blitzkrieg Bop members John Hodgson (keyboards) and Alan Cornforth (drums).
Starting out as an anti-punk, almost anti-music noise band, they supported the Gang Of Four, amongst others in the early days. Basczax’s first released material appeared on Fast Product’s Earcom 2 mini-LP in 1979, alongside Joy Division.The band also released a 7″ single on the Pipeline label: “Madison Fallout”/”Auto Mekanik Destruktor“ (1979), which reached #48 on the UK Independent Chart.
Basczax toured with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) and appeared on the Check It Out TV show in 1980, performing “Ego Therapy“. ’
I can’t remember how many times I saw Baszczax but they were always a pleasure and never a chore and I’m sure a strong influence on me in many, many ways. Singer Alan Savage was one of the first people to encourage me to write, lyrics in this case.
And the good news is that thirty years after splitting up Basczax are BACK!
Their website gives you details of what they’re up to as well as links to some of their splendid songs such as Neon Vampires, Madison Fallout and Young Hearts Wear Scarlet.
Basczax also have a Facebook page with lots of links and information.
Here they are performing EGO THERAPY on the telly back in 1980.
And here’s NEON VAMPIRES from the new LP.