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Hellions (Part 1)


In which Alvin goes past 'midnight to Stevens' with an extraordinary Guy, has many clashes with his new friend, even hearing about Anthony Perkins' new psycho moniker, becomes a bass Brain but then sees his latest musical venture damned by Iggy Pop...

H

aving initially mistaken Guy Stevens for the local madcap and a wretched Tourette’s sufferer rather than the celebrated, creative svengali who had put together and produced records for one of my all time favourite groups, Mott the Hoople, I speedily and respectfully made amends for my error by buying him drinks aplenty. Guy liked to drink. A lot.


He was only about thirty-five years old at the time but looked at least a decade older, a kind of Dorian Gray figure in reverse, with the customary deterioration of mind and body that a regular consumption of vast quantities of alcohol, along with the post effects of the numerous drugs he had ingested as a younger man, all conspicuously present.


Having stated that though, Guy, when the mood took him, could be a very entertaining raconteur and his intelligence would shine through when he broached subjects like philosophy, history and politics; but at that first eventful meeting it was stories of mentoring and recording bands such as Mott, Free, Spooky Tooth, and as in-house producer at Island Records in the late 1960s and early ’70s that I was eager to hear about. Guy Stevens - click to enlargeTo this end, after last orders were called at 10.30 pm, I invited Guy back to the house to continue with the anecdotes about his life that he had begun to share with Karen and I in the pub that evening.


“Have you got something to drink back at your place then?” he enquired.


I accurately figured he was after something more motivating than tea or coffee so I looked to Karen who confirmed that there was an unopened bottle of cider back in the kitchen, to which news Guy enthusiastically demanded “What are we waiting for?”

He told us he’d started off his career in rock music as the main DJ at the famous Mod hangout, the Scene Club, in the mid-1960s, suitably situated in the Soho district of central London. He would habitually buy all the new R & B and rock ’n’ roll  record releases from the USA by mail order and would have the likes of Pete Townshend from the Who and Steve Marriot of the Small Faces coming to the club to hear the latest sounds he’d spin on his turntables.


Mott The Hoople enjoy Guy Stevens' impression of Chuck Berry's famous duck walk - click to enlarge“I flew to America to in the sixties to get Chuck Berry out of Jail”, he casually revealed. Berry had been put away for crossing a state line with an underage girlfriend in tow. No one in white mainstream USA really knew much about Berry or his music at that time nor were they willing to put up the necessary bail money for his release; but Guy loved his records, flew from London to where Berry was incarcerated, laid down the necessary release fee out of his own pocket, and upon meeting Chuck for the first time after his liberation took him for a meal and paid out for Berry’s fare home. Some weeks later, over at Guy’s place, he showed me a photo of the two of them shaking hands, taken the very moment they met outside the prison by a photographer sent by a local newspaper. Guy, smiling, looking very young and healthy; Chuck, smiling, looking suitably grateful.


Karen, although somewhat intrigued by Guy’s tales of meetings with rock ‘n’ roll legends and the other remarkable events from his life that were being unveiled, eventually took her leave to get some sleep. I meanwhile continued pouring out the cider to keep Guy churning out his anecdotes of dinner dates with Mick Jagger, encounters with Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, the making of the first four Mott albums, plus other juicy accounts that had me sitting there like some wide-eyed acolyte hanging on every word uttered by his guru. Eventually the bottle became empty and the wall clock signalled it was sometime past 4 a.m. Guy left, after swapping ’phone numbers and arranging to meet for a drink the following evening. I joined Karen beneath the bedclothes, exhilarated by this fortunate encounter. It was the beginning of a treasured if sometimes difficult friendship.

Despite being in his mid-thirties, Guy still resided with his mother at her house no more than a fifteen minute walk away from my place in a distinct area of SE London called Forest Hill. There he had a room full of books and records and other personal possessions. The first time I visited I noticed a very large photo of Guy when he was at the height of his powers, framed and displayed on a wall. It depicted him sitting behind a studio mixing desk. He was directly facing the photographer, gaze aimed straight at the lens of the camera in such an intense and powerful way that it dramatically conveyed all the charisma he must have possessed back in late 1960s when this portrait was taken. It was hard to reconcile the sharply dressed, authoritative man in that picture with the Guy of the present: a disorderly figure that on occasion would not have looked out of place among the vagrants who begged for change and cigarettes at West Croydon bus station.


I always took a few cans of beer with me when I went over there and we’d drink and talk over some of the choice cuts from his record collection. Sometimes he’d get carried away by a favourite track and pull out a hammer, kept specially in a chest of drawers for such occasions, to noisily replicate the beat of whatever song with it on the wooden floor, or on a piece of furniture, or a wall. Eventually, Lillian, his septuagenarian mother, would be forced to throw open his room door and order him to discontinue the incessant hammer blows “for the neighbours sake Guy, if not for my own sanity”, as she would commonly put it. Like some reprimanded infant he would apologise and sheepishly return the hammer to its draw for another day.


Watch out for Anthony Fucking Perkins! Click poster to enlargeOne night I happened to be watching a late showing of Hitchcock’s classic thriller, ‘Psycho’, on the TV. The ’phone rang and I reluctantly left the film to pick up the receiver. “ANTHONY PERKINS, ANTHONY PERKINS, FUCKING ANTHONY PERKINS!” Guy obviously owned the voice at the other end of the line.


“Yeah” I repeated, without attempting to emulate his crazed tone “Anthony Perkins. So you’re watching Psycho too?”


“BRILLIANT, BRILLIANT, BRILLIANT, he’s FUCKING BRILLIANT! I’m coming round…”
“It’s almost one a.m. Guy,” I remonstrated “I don’t think it’s a…”


He’d already slammed the telephone down and was charging towards my house, no doubt screaming ‘ANTHONY FUCKING PERKINS!’ at any passers by encountered along the way. Sure enough, a quarter of an hour later the back door sounded like a medieval battering ram was being used to smash it down. Guy was kicking the shit out of it with his steel toe-capped Doc Martins and upon letting him in, the loon shoved straight past me into the lounge where he proceeded to smash up one of the dining table chairs against a wall whilst howling…


…well, I guess I don‘t need to repeat what name he was howling!


“For fuck sake Guy, calm down” I protested while prising what remained of the ruined chair from his grasp. He grabbed another chair. I threw myself at him in order to prevent its demise and more splintered wood on the lounge floor. We kind of wrestled around for a bit and Guy managed to shatter a wall mirror with his elbow during the fracas and nearly knocked over the TV set, on which ‘Psycho’ (appropriately) was still being screened. Just as I managed to get Guy into a rudimentary chokehold the lounge door flew open and Karen joined us in her dressing gown, having been awoken by the sounds of fractured wood and shattered glass. She had gone to bed two hours earlier as, unlike Guy or myself, she had a regular job and needed to be up at 6 a.m. to make the journey to work.

“What the hell is going on?” she demanded.


Guy attempted to explain himself - but only unintelligible noises came out of his mouth - due to my forearm still being pressed tightly against his throat.


“Let him speak” she ordered. As soon as I loosened the chokehold he started to scream “ANTHONY PERKINS, ANTHONY PERKINS” all over again. “That’s it”, I told him “you’re out of here.”


Mick Jones (The Clash) and Guy Stevens - click to enlargeMick Jones (The Clash) and Guy Stevens - click to enlargeI dragged him to the back door, Guy still doing his utmost to resist. Having manhandled him there I prised the door open with my foot and pushed him out into the back yard. He tried to re-enter but I managed to slam the door in his face before he achieved that aspiration. After a few kicks and curses he set off back home leaving me to clear up the wreckage from his unsolicited visit.

The next day Guy ’phoned me and profusely apologised for his behaviour and the damage. He offered to pay for the chair and mirror and at one point during the conversation even started to cry, saying “I haven’t got many friends Alvin, and I don’t want to lose good people from my life like you and Karen because of my stupidity, can you both forgive me?”


It was impossible to remain mad at Guy for long. When drink and chemical free he was so vulnerable, generous and sweet that even when he had these maniac moments you just couldn’t bring yourself to turn away from him. A hell’s broth mixture had been his root problem that ‘Psycho’ night: drinking all day and evening, then adding some amphetamine sulphate into the mix, procured from one of the local pubs. I assured him our friendship was sound, but that I would have to work on Karen for a bit being as she had declared that she was never going to allow “that basket case” (her exact words) in the house again.


The inscribed title page of the book Guy gave me just prior to him producing 'London Calling' for the Clash. I later cut out and glued in the press cutting from Record Mirror, in the Summer of 1979. Click image to enlarge.Eventually, after much reassurance and diplomatic work on my part she relented and we had Guy over for dinner after a few weeks had passed. He bought flowers for Karen and a copy of one of his favourite philosophical works, Ernest Becker’s ‘The Denial of Death’ for me, which he’d signed and charitably inscribed ‘To a very caring human being’. He behaved impeccably during the meal, sipping the wine we’d bought, chatting amiably, being very articulate and totally charming. It is one of my fondest memories of the man: Guy sitting at our dining table, reconstituted as the intriguing, attractive figure he once was, as portrayed in that studio photo of him up on his wall; smiling, being very entertaining, eventually returning home without damaging any of our property or a manic tantrum requiring physical intervention.


Actually, Guy and I had plenty to be happy about that night. Sometime before the reconciliation dinner with Karen I’d made a casual visit to his Forest Hill house. Lillian let me in and forewarned that Guy was in the midst of a telephone conversation but said it would be OK to go into his room anyway. Sure enough, having done what his mother suggested, I saw he was talking animatedly on his ’phone shouting into the receiver “Yeah Mick, we’re gonna kill ’em, we’re gonna fucking kill ’em.” When he clocked my presence he gestured for me to take a seat while adding “those people at CBS won’t know what’s hits ’em. It’s gonna be great!”


Guy ended the call and turned to me. “That was Mick Jones of the Clash on the ’phone” - he paused a moment for dramatic effect - then posed me the question: “guess who’s going to produce the next Clash album?”


The Clash's iconic album cover for London Calling - click to enlarge“Your mother” I answered dryly.
“Very amusing Alvin, don’t expect a freebie when the record’s done, you arsehole!”


From the sheer excitement evident on his face I could tell he was not trying to feed me a piece of bullshit but genuine news. I got up, gave him a hug and said “Fantastic, they couldn’t have picked a better man.” He insisted we celebrate down the pub on his coin. As we downed one beer after another he talked eagerly about all the ideas he’d already formulated for the recording sessions that would emerge as one the optimum albums to gain entry into the Punk pantheon, ‘London Calling’. I didn’t want to add a sour note to this celebration or deflate his enthusiasm, but I did say to him that it would be sensible to lay off the drink while he was taking the producer role in such a significant project, one that could very well reboot his career and lead to even greater ventures. He ignored my comment, got up, and swiftly made for the bar to buy another round of lagers.

At the same time Guy’s career was being revived my own took an upturn too, by my having quickly got myself back into a gigging Punk rock band following the split from the Users. I’d achieved this via the tried and tested method of setting up auditions by calling the contact telephone numbers in the ‘Musician’s Wanted’ ads in the back pages of Melody Maker. For the second of these try outs - the first being for a band called the Hollywood Killers which came to nought - I visited a central London rehearsal facility with my bass guitar ensconced in its hard case under my arm.

The Physicals ‘All Sexed Up’ EP. Click image to enlarge.Having been directed to the correct room in the complex by an employee, I recognised the three musicians who drank coffee whilst taking a break before the next candidate arrived for a stab at joining their latest project, in studio 8. John Towe, the ex-Gen X, Rage and Adverts’ drummer delivered a warm greeting but evidently hadn’t identified me from our brief meeting from two years before. Also present was Alan Lee-Shaw who I recognised as one time guitarist with the Rings and from the sleeve of the ‘All Sexed Up’ EP, released in ’78 with his band, the Physicals. I loved that EP. Loved its New York Dolls’ inspired approach and killer tunes, especially that title track and another glorious piece of unashamed rock indulgence entitled ‘Breakdown on Stage’. As if this wasn’t promising company enough, the last of this trio was the ex-guitarist of the Damned, Brian James, who took me aside to explain that I was auditioning for what, in effect, was his personal band, Brian James and the Brains. He then explained that if I succeeded in getting the job I would have to find another outlet for my song writing as the monopoly on the provision of material was his, and his alone.


The offical Brian James & the Brains publicity photo from 1979. Click image to enlarge.I told him I was fine with that and we got down to the serious business of playing through some of his new and not so recent tunes together. I know we started out with a composition entitled ‘Living in Sin’, an outright raucous piece of Punk rock that perfectly fitted the template of the type of music I wanted to play. We also did a couple of his Damned classics, ‘New Rose’ and ‘Neat, Neat, Neat’, with Brian taking the lead vocals and guitar breaks while Alan, John and I provided a solid, rhythmic wall of sound from our respective instruments. Having performed as best I could on several songs, Brian called a halt to the proceedings. From their smiles and proffered compliments I knew I’d made a very positive impression on the trio. The next evening Brian ’phoned and offered me the job as his bass Brain. I was, as they say, back in the game.

I take centre stage at my inaugurel gig with Brian James and the Brains at the No. 1 Club, Islington, London, 1979. Click image to enlarge.I started rehearsing with the Brains two days later in the basement of a large terraced Georgian house in Maida Vale that was in sad state of disrepair and in need of a major makeover to return it to its former eighteenth century grandeur, owned by a now forgotten member of the band Hawkwind. After just two or three rehearsals there, we had worked up a strong set of songs for public consumption and, according to my 1979 diary, consequently played our debut gig at the No. 1 Club, Islington, London, on the seventeenth of July that year (see picture left). The set list from an especially fine Brian James & the Brains' show at Central London Poly in 1979. Click image to enlarge.It was a good gig and our second headline performance at the Nashville Rooms eleven days later went even better, with Stewart Copeland, drummer for the increasingly popular band, the Police, turning up to film the event on his movie camera. Flyer for the Brains' Nashville Rooms gig, London '79. Click image to enlarge.His brother, Miles Copeland, who’d become wealthy by managing the highly successful bleached blonde trio, had taken Brian on as a client with a view to furthering his post-Damned career. There was a solid connection between the Brains and Sting and co. that, as you will later read, eventually paid out interesting dividends.

We also got ourselves swiftly into the studio. Miles picked up the bill to record three of Brian’s new songs for an intended EP due to emerge on Miles’ Illegal Records label; also, incidentally, the label on which the Police’s first single ‘Fallout’ was released. The tracks in question were the high velocity R & B influenced ‘Dancing on Sand’, a more traditional riff-rock offering ‘I Get Wet’ and a somewhat angular three minute piece entitled ‘Polka Dot Shot’. The Brains, supporting the Photos & John Cooper-Clarke, Central London Poly, 1979. Click image to enlarge.I really didn’t think any of these songs were obvious single material, certainly nowhere near as captivating as Brian’s first solo 45 ‘Ain’t That a Shame’, so it came as no great surprise that Miles decided to shelve the results of these sessions and advised Brian to concentrate on writing more engaging songs for a future record release.


Lee-Shaw and I provide the Neat, Neat, Neats for the classic song of that name, Central London Poly, '79. Click image to enlarge.Just prior to these recording sessions I part exchanged my beloved Burns’ Concorde for a pristine black Fender Precision bass at the Rock Bottom music store, in deepest West Croydon. Alan Lee-Shaw and Brian James shake some action, Central London Poly, '79. Click image to enlarge.As much as I admired the way the Burns looked, I decided I needed an instrument with additional bite and clarity and the new Fender provided me with both of those attributes, and more. I played and mistreated it live for the first time when we supported John Cooper Clarke and the Photos (fronted by the very striking Wendy Wu) at Central London Polytechnic, a week or so after we’d recorded that subsequently shelved EP at TW studios in the Fulham Palace Road. It was a very, very good gig for us. The Brains play the Nashville Rooms, Kensington, London, the Summer of 1979. See also the flyer for this gig above. Click image to enlarge.The place was packed and we received a far better reaction than either of the headline acts would later reap. I recall we played two encores and were prevented from doing another by someone switching on the house lights while at the same time the PA mysteriously seemed to turn itself off.
 
Apart from the setback with the EP, things were going very well for the band. I was really enjoying the work and looking forward to our forthcoming round of shows. But having assembled in the Bristol Gardens’ basement for our next rehearsal, Brian disclosed some news that on the face of it would bring to a halt all the positive momentum we had amassed as a working unit so far. Throwing some good shapes on stage was never optional with the Brains! Nashville Rooms, '79. Click image to enlarge.He told us that Iggy Pop had invited him to do a tour of the USA as a stand in guitarist. Unsurprisingly, he’d accepted and as a consequence would not be available to play further gigs until early in the New Year when the tour ended.

All four of us were big Iggy fans so we naturally understood his acceptance of such a prestigious offer; simultaneously though, I was gutted that we would have no work for at least two months. Brian sugared his sour news somewhat by telling us that Iggy’s management would be paying us each £30 a week to make up for the money we wouldn’t be earning while he was away on Iggy duty. Alan Lee-Shaw takes over on lead vocal duties while I, in wine-red jacket to his right, try to get the best out of the Burns' bass at the Nashville Rooms, London,_'79. Click image to enlarge.Now, £30 a week clear, devoid of the usual deductions back in 1979 was still a viable wage. What I hadn’t anticipated though was that the absence of Brian James would also fortuitously provide John Towe, Alan Lee-Shaw and myself with an opportunity that would become one of the most enjoyable, indelible experiences of my entire career.


Tune in next time as...

Alvin gets to play his first UK tour and consequently acquires a taste for a certain product distilled in Lynchburg Tennessee due to the generosity of fellow bassist Phil Lynott, a Irishman of some repute and charm; returns to Paris, although this time not in search of an allusive femme fatal but to shake some action at the Palace in support of that most excellent beat group, the Cramps; witnesses the UK Subversives both in the flesh and upon the silver screen before giving up his Hellion ways and becoming their newest recruit...

 


Alvin on stage again - click to enlarge

First published 18 October2012.

 

This chapter is dedicated to the memory of Guy Stevens 1943 - 81

Below: Footage of Guy Stevens in the studio with the Clash...

The Clash and The Damned were both recording at the legendary Wessex Sound Studios in London when this video was shot. The Damned were working on 'Machine Gun Etiquette' while The Clash were doing the same for 'London Calling'. In the video, Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies, Joe Strummer, Topper Headon, Mick Jones and producer Guy Stevens are seen enjoying themselves during some down time.

 

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