NEAR DEATH AT EMI
In which, following the fall-out from the Subs' split, the Harper-less remaining Subs set about getting a new band off the ground. Will they fly higher, will a wasted youth turn out to be a wasted adult? Thus, despite a brief happy break as a Dog, our narrator narrowly avoids seeing his life go down the pan...
The above may be a morbidly captivating chapter title but I can assure you it is entirely factual and we will get to the specifics of this close call with my mortal demise in good time. Meanwhile…
After my abrupt and unplanned exodus along with Nicky Garratt and Kim Wylie from the now Charlie-centric U.K. Subs I took stock of my options and tried to get my head around the fact that my life was about to alter in ways that were looking, for the short term at least, fairly negative. Like Martin Sheen at the commencement of the film ‘Apocalypse Now’, I quickly became ensnared in the purgatory of inaction and concluded I had to get back to playing music even if it meant claiming unemployment benefit short term to contribute my share of the rent, food, and to help cover the various bills that arrived incessantly in brown envelopes in the post. This, I determined, would only be a temporary measure until paying my way through earning as a professional musician resumed.
To advance getting back to that desirable position earlier rather than later, I got together with Nicky Garratt and Kim Wylie at the Ship public house in London’s Wardour Street and there, at my beer-scented office from home, suggested starting up a new band together. Nicky was enthusiastic about the potential of this collaboration between us ex-Subs and said he knew of a talented singer who had also recently extracted himself from a band I knew next to nothing about called Wasted Youth.
Not to be confused with the hardcore Punk band with the same name from Los Angeles, this British-based Wasted Youth had a far more gothic and measured sound than their Californian namesakes. Comprising of guitarist Rocco Barker (soon to join the group Flesh for Lulu with Nick Marsh); Darren Murphy, bass: Nick Nicole, synth; Andy Scott on drums, and Andy’s brother Ken, who had been Youth’s lead vocalist and the man Garratt had been referring to as a potential frontman for our fledgling group, this stylish collection of musicians had enterprisingly managed to release four albums and several singles on the Bridgehouse record label between the years 1979 to 1982.
I soon uncovered Youth’s elemental musical dissimilarity to the music we had been writing and recording with the U.K. Subs for myself when I played one of their singles, ‘Wildlife’, back at my South Kensington flat after having located it in a bargain bin of a West End record store a couple days after the ex-Subs’ Wardour Street summit.
Ken Scott’s sumptuous voice flawlessly complimented the atmospheric music that seeped from my home speakers. After it had concluded I immediately ’phoned Garratt to tell him his vocalist choice was sound and we should hastily set up a get-together with Kenny before he got snapped up by another band looking for a lead vocalist with extensive recording experience. Because of the nature of Ken Scott’s dreamy, Bowie-esque singing approach it was obvious to me that the music we were going to make together would be very different from the material we were used to providing for Charlie Harper.
Nicky and I discussed this at some length during a telephone conversation. We were both fans of the Psychedelic Furs’ album ‘Talk Talk Talk’, especially the haunting track ‘Dumb Waiters’. We agreed using this LP record as a musical template would accommodate our potential new singer’s more refined vocal methodology while simultaneously satisfying our craving to get into something musically different. I then told Garratt I thought we would also need a keyboard player in the band to enhance the more textured sound direction we had now agreed upon. He concurred. I contacted my friend and ex-TV Smith’s Explorers’ keyboard ace Mel Wesson, who readily agreed to get involved.
The inevitable location for a first assignation with Kenny Scott was again the Ship. We drank and chatted about music for some time and both Kim, Mel and I liked the musical influences Scott referenced, which were very much counterpart to our own – Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls, the Rolling Stones - particularly his admiration of Keith Richards as a guitarist and a stylish personage - Iggy Pop and the Stooges, as well as the Clash. Nicky Garratt wasn’t as impressed, being into more irregular musical entities such as Wire and Magma. But the meeting went well, Kenny seemed a switched-on, easy going kind of personality and we three ex-Subs and Wesson decided to invite him to join our new and yet nameless band with a view to starting rehearsals two weeks hence after we had individually written some appropriate material to play together.
Mel Wesson and I then became a writing team as I was still not entirely comfortable about composing both music and lyrics at that point. He had a basic four-track recording machine at his flat in South Croydon and the first three songs we wrote together and recorded over a couple of evenings onto this device were entitled ‘Articles of Faith’, ‘Sell the Wind’ and ‘Think of Me’, this latter title still being my favourite track from the pool of material from that period. Meanwhile Garratt started writing on his own, as did Kenny.
Our first rehearsal was at a facility called the Sunday School at a now forgotten location in London. I do recall though that Scott offered up a song that we worked on called ‘Fishes’. Nicky also had a new tune to share entitled ‘The Things We Saw’, while Mel and I taught the rest the three titles we had composed together. It went OK for a first run, and we went to a local pub afterwards to throw around some ideas for a band name. Kenny had prepared a few ideas on a scrap of paper, the only memorable one being The Sheep Look Up, which has wedged itself my brain’s recollection zone simply because it was so bad. A couple of other possible designations were banded about but nothing stuck.
Charlie Harper and I may have had a falling out over the way he’d so crudely put Nicky, Kim and I in a position where we had no other choice but to quit the Subs, but we had remained friends and stayed in touch. He ’phoned me one evening about a month after that fateful ride from the airport following the Polish tour to ask if I would be interested in playing bass for a series of shows with the Urban Dogs. Getting back into playing music for remuneration was what I sorely needed and here was a great opportunity to do just that in a live setting.
After one rehearsal at Pat Collier’s Alaska Studios situated underneath the arches of Waterloo train station, Chas, Knox, Matthew and I played a show the subsequent evening at the Venue in Victoria Street supporting our friends Hanoi Rocks. This was followed by a series of gigs that included headlining at the 100 Club, the Fan Club in Leeds, the Palm Grove in Bradford and an undocumented venue in Cambridge, about which I’d noted in my 1983 diary ‘really good gig, got paid £20’, thus indicating my satisfaction with both the show and my share of the fee. It was wonderful to be on stage again with my low-slung Thunderbird bass, playing that mixture of Garage rock, Punk and revved-up Blues we Urban Dogs excelled at. After this enjoyable run of performances I told the guys I was up for playing any other proffered gigs in the future.
In the interim, my other still nameless outfit continued to write and rehearse. Then Kim Wylie resolved to quit in order to start his own pine furniture and wood flooring business, sometime later getting into aviation and, I kid you not, eventually becoming a co-pilot for KLM airlines. A meeting was hastily arranged to decide his replacement. Kenny pushed hard for his brother and fellow ex-member of Wasted Youth, Andy Scott, to be the new drummer. It made sense. We agreed. We were five again.
However, I was beginning to have issues about Kenny’s reliability as a band member. He was starting to turn up late for rehearsals and then had all kind of reasons for needing to leave early; was continuingly borrowing records and books and garments such as leather jackets but wouldn’t return them and when you insisted on getting your stuff back, he always had an excuse as to why it wasn’t possible at that given time. I slowly figured out he had a drug habit and was selling these borrowed items on to fund it. I also had a good idea what kind of drug it might be, although I only discovered the truth when I confronted him directly over a beer one evening at the St. Moritz club in Soho when we found ourselves alone at a table with no danger of being overheard.
He confessed he was using heroin but claimed that he utilised the opiate merely for creative purposes, had total control of his consumption and could quit whenever he wanted – which is what just about every junkie in denial asserts regarding his or her addiction. Having come clean, he then started a non-stop under-the-radar campaign to get me to try some with him and his brother Andy, who was evidently also heavily involved in this activity.
There is nothing more appealing to an addict than ‘turning on’ a non-user and slowly integrating them into their circle of enablement and dependency. And Kenny cleverly tried to rationalise my entrée into this seedy society by insisting it would improve my musical ingenuity. Johnny Thunders, Iggy Pop, Keith Richards, plus musicians I also admired from the world of Jazz – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Chet Baker – had all utilised the drug to inspire and enrich their remarkable creative productivity, he claimed. ‘I mean, look at all those amazing people who’ve used over the decades, writers, poets, and all the great music that has resulted from opiate stimulation’, was his continuous, glib pitch.
I duly resisted all attempts to get me to share a needle with him and his brother, but he kept chipping away at my resolve and the more I resisted the more he argued the case for just trying it the once saying ‘Hey, you know, if after you’ve tried it you decide it’s not for you, then so be it. Just give it a go. What have you got to lose?’
Now I must confess that I wasn’t an entire novice when it came to this drug at that time. Via the utilisation of a tube for inhaling, I had smoked various amounts of the stuff off a square of baking foil one evening with Andy McCoy at his new flat in Little Titchfield Street, Fitzrovia – a methodology that aficionados of the brown risibly glamourise by bestowing it the title Chasing the Dragon. This resulted in my spending a lot of time in his bathroom throwing up, which is not my idea of a good time. Again, in the company of McCoy, I had inadvertently snorted some that he had chopped up into lines on a mirror while thinking it was cocaine. The effect was the same, a lot of vomiting and nothing to recommend the experience, nor its repetition. Kenny though insisted directly injecting heroin was a very different proposition, one that was infinitely more desirable than merely smoking or snorting the drug. What he didn’t say was that it was also substantially more dangerous.
Nicky Garratt and I discovered that one of the office employees we had become friendly with during our tenure at the former Subs’ label, Gem Records, was now an A&R man at EMI. Nicky made an investigative ’phone call to him regarding the possibility of getting our new band onto that very desirable label and managed to arrange a meeting with him at EMI’s head office complex on Manchester Square, West London, the following day. Seeing as we both knew the A&R guy from our former time with Gem, it was decided that just Nicky and I should attend this rendezvous.
After hearing us out he offered our still unseasoned and still unnamed outfit the opportunity to record demos in the studio that resided in the basement of the building with a view to seeing if the music that resulted from this new project would be a suitable prospect for the label. We were ecstatic. A chance to record demos for free at EMI studios and a possible deal if he liked the results, the outcome of this meeting had surpassed all our expectations. These demo sessions were then booked for the nascent summer of 1983 over a two day period, June 6th and 7th.
EMI House, as it was formally known, had serious music history form. This was where the Beatles had been famously photographed on the balcony of the office block as fresh faced, besuited mop-tops in 1963, and again, in that identical location six years later in 1969, having by then, embraced the hirsute hippy look of that era. Both photos were used on the front of the album sleeves for the compilation LP’s The Beatles / 1962-1966 and The Beatles / 1967-1970.
Only two other bands were allowed permission to pose on that same balcony for photographs thereafter, one being the Sex Pistols following their infamous EMI signing in 1976, and Blur in the 1990s. David Bowie, the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder and the Supremes had all been snapped in and around EMI House in the 1960s and 70s, along with many other eminent artists and bands attached to the label. I was very excited about working there and quite content to be an insignificant part of that building’s evolving history.
After a series of rehearsals over the prior week which yet again saw the Scott brothers jointly arrive late and distracted, we got ourselves and our instruments down to Manchester Square for the first day of recording. Andy wasn’t too unpunctual and somehow managed to transport his drum kit to the studio in its entirety in a black cab, which was a relief. Kenny was absent, but that wasn’t a problem as we were just going to focus on laying down the backing tracks for the agreed upon songs for our initial session – ‘King for a Day’ and ‘Think of Me’, written by Mel and I, and ‘The Things We Saw’, composed by Nicky Garratt – assigning the second day to accomplish all lead and backing vocals, guitar overdubs and then the conclusive mix of the tracks.
The elder Scott brother did eventually turn up in the mid-afternoon and directly took me aside to a quiet corner of the studio’s consul room to share some news.
‘Hey Alvin, I’ve picked up some gear that would be perfect for you to try for a first experience’ he whispered conspiratorially. ‘Yeah, this stuff is really, really mild and mellow and perfect for working on music with. It will loosen you up and allow your creative juices to flow’.
‘What’ I countered, ‘you’re surely not suggesting I should shoot up some smack here in the EMI building?’
‘Yep, exactly’, was his retort before trying to reassure me by adding ‘I’ll give you the first hit, make sure you’re fine, then do some myself. You’re gonna love it’.
I rejected his offer but Kenny spent the next t four hours repeating his pitch like some evangelical proselytising missionary beseeching his mark to ‘see the light’ and join his blissful congregation of opiate worshipers. On and on he sermonised until, in an instant of deformed judgement and as a means of simply getting him to finally shut the fuck up, I said ‘OK, enough. I’ll give it a go. But just a very tiny amount, you understand?’
‘Of course, don’t worry’ he assured, ‘you won’t regret it’.
The opportunity to do the deed arose in the early-evening when the sound engineer insisted on a dinner break for an hour. Nicky Garratt, completely unaware of what was about to occur, went off in search of some vegetarian food while Mel, Andy, Kenny and I held back and then made our way to EMI’s communal men’s toilet facility - of all places - reasoning that at that time of the day most of the office staff would have already vacated the building. And indeed the large room that contained around ten separate cubicles, each being suitable for our purposes, was staff free.
Kenny chose the furthest one from the entrance and gestured for me to join him in the confined space. After making sure the lock was firmly bolted he produced a tablespoon from a pocket of his jeans followed by a newly bought syringe, a ziplocked packet of heroin and a some water in a small sealed plastic container, all of which he had squared away in the large inside wallet pouch of a leather jacket – this being a leather jacket that I’d loaned to him to wear over a month before, still unreturned.
He then laid out this paraphernalia on the lid of the toilet and set about cooking up some of the brown powder and water he’d dispensed onto the spoon with a zippo cigarette lighter. Having extricated this now viscous mix into the syringe he asked me to roll up the sleeve of my shirt and took off his belt which was to serve as a tourniquet, to increase the blood supply in a suitable arm vein thus making it easier for the needle to pierce the skin and propel the substance into the bloodstream.
He carefully tied the belt around my forearm and then tightened it; but being the truly dedicated adherent of the drug that he was, suddenly changed his mind and told me he was going to take the initial hit himself instead. I was actually pissed off at this change of plan. I’d girded myself for the experience and now he was giving me the old junkie two-step and selfishly tending to his own necessity to get high.
‘Look’, he said ‘it’s no big deal. Just go out and keep a lookout with Mel and Andy and I’ll call you in for your taste directly afterwards’.
I grudgingly left him alone in the stall to stand guard with the other two while Kenny set about feeding his dependency.
After a number of minutes of ominous silence from within I asked Andy if it was normal to be so quiet for so long a period after shooting smack?
‘No, not really man’, was his odd reply.
I then hauled myself up to the apex of the locked door and looked down into the cubicle. Kenny was sprawled out of the floor unconscious, his skin had taken on a distinctly blue-ish tinge and it was evident he had badly overdosed and was in need of immediate assistance.
I lowered myself down into the stall and unbolted the door.
‘Come on!’ I screamed at Andy and Mel, ‘help me get him onto his feet and out of here’.
Andy must have witnessed this kind of thing a number of times before, seeing as he was very calm and knew exactly what needed to be done to save his OD’d sibling. This entailed slapping his brother vigorously across the face several times and splashing large amounts of cold water over him in between the three of us carrying Kenny up then down the restroom in order to get him functioning again. After what seemed like infinity he finally regained consciousness and we helped him to a comfortable couch in the foyer of the building and sat him down. A couple of EMI staffers passed us by and aimed quizzical looks at us but we didn’t care, the essential thing was that Kenny had survived his overdose and in the aftermath of that reality record deals and such like had now become far less important.
Though still groggy from his drug induced collapse, he was now able to speak and I asked him why he had experienced such an unforeseen and extreme reaction to the heroin. I was far from happy with the explanation.
‘Oh man, that gear is so strong. I only prepared half of what I would normally take because I was going to give you the first shot, but even that amount was too much for me to handle’.
‘Hang on’, I snapped back, ‘you told me the stuff you were going to inject into my bloodstream was really, really mild and mellow; where did that assessment come from then?’
‘The dealer I bought it off told me that. I’d no reason to believe he was lying’.
‘What the fuck! You mean you didn’t actually try it yourself to make sure it was suitably weak for a first timer like me?’
‘I trusted that guy, what can I say?’
‘And if you hadn’t abruptly decided to inject yourself first and had hit me up instead, what would have happened?’
‘I’m a regular user’ he confirmed, ‘my resistance to heroin would be far greater than yours and yet look what it did to me. If I’d injected you first you would have certainly died the very moment it entered your body. I guess you got lucky’.
What appalled me the most was the unemotional, matter-of-fact manner in which Kenny explained he had almost been the instigator of my early demise – I would have departed from this world in these squalid circumstances, in a toilet cubicle at EMI House, at the mere age of twenty-five if he hadn’t been so greedy to satisfy his own principal requisite for opiated oblivion. He wouldn’t have been entirely responsible for my death of course, I would have been as much to blame for believing the bullshit of a seasoned junkie; but after this scarring incident I couldn’t trust either of the Scott brothers again. It also considerably altered my initial regard and comradeship towards the pair.
It would also be the last time I’d ever consider allowing any drug to be intravenously administering into my body apart from those directed by a qualified doctor for medical purposes. This near-death experience has, not unreasonably, fashioned my utter hatred of a substance that cruelly terminates lives and destroys people’s careers and relationships. There are some people who should never take drugs, and there are some drugs that people should never take. The EMI episode and subsequent tragic events involving friends and acquaintances who’d fallen for the glamourisation and mythology of this poppy derivative has led me to conclude that heroin is the most sinisterly seductive and corrosive drug of them all.