Brand New Age
In which Alvin's powerful punk pontification, post audition, secures his Subs tenure... before he plays his first shows with the newly enhanced band, and prepares to record the album that gives these memoirs their title... but beware, a past hero of our hero appears before him to teach him a pre-fame lesson!
uditions are strange events. You travel to some generally unknown venue to meet people you’ve almost certainly never met before in order to play music that you’ve most likely haven’t even heard a single lick of until that very day. This was pretty much the state of affairs when I turned up at the Rose and Crown pub in Wandsworth on a June afternoon in 1980 to attempt the acquisition of the bassist role in the U.K. Subs… but not quite.
I had actually witnessed the band on two occasions previous to this personal encounter. The first time I saw them was in the flesh, so as to speak, when I caught them opening up for Generation X and The Fall at the London Lyceum. There was the insistent chant of their name from a sizeable portion of the crowd that proceeded and followed their performance, which had me thinking: ‘this is a band on the up’. I certainly liked their energy and the directness of their songs, but in all honesty it wasn’t as if I was so impressed that I’d go out of my way to catch them in concert again and I filed them away in my musical mind dossier under: ‘OK, but not particularly distinctive’.
The second time I got to see them was in a celluloid format. Karen and I had gone to a Saturday afternoon screening of the borstal drama, ‘Scum’. We were the only two souls in the cinema and I sensed there was some kind of numinous meaning to this fact. Back then, before the main feature, there was usually a B-picture to be sat through that was generally unworthy of your time and vision. My favourite of this genre was a laborious piece of high-brow nonsense hilariously entitled ‘Fine Artistry in Soup Terrines’, which happened to be the filmic offering I endured before finally getting to see ‘Blazing Saddles’ at the Croydon Odeon in 1975. A friend of mine once caught another fine submission from the BFI entitled ‘Bananas Unpeeled’ (I kid you not), which was the moving story of the growing process behind this most versatile of fruits before tracing its way from humble tree in faraway land to greengrocers on high streets and markets up and down our green and pleasant. This poor sod had to suffer an hour of this supposed educational gibberish before his actual film of choice was screened.
Anyway, thankfully, this time it wasn’t one of those but an interesting movie featuring the U.K. Subs called ‘Punk Can Take It
’. There was a fair bit of live footage taken from a Lyceum show and I even recognised a few of the songs played on the occasion I’d seen them there. I enjoyed it, and as a result, my appreciation of the band moved up a notch. Still, none of this would avail me much as I climbed the stair that led to the Subs’ rehearsal room above the specified public house. I was totally unprepared musically. I hadn’t listened to any of their material for the simple reason that I couldn’t justify investing money in buying their two albums on the low wages I’d been earning with the Hellions. The audition might not go my way and that would be £10 spent on two records I didn’t especially aspire to own. This is how you think when you’re financially hard-up and emotionally indifferent.
They had a Marshal Bass amp and cabinet set up ready for my use. I plugged in my black Fender P-bass while Steve Roberts adjusted his drum kit and Nicky Garratt utilised a traditional tuning fork to prepare his guitar for the session. Charlie meanwhile was sat on a stool eating a meat pie and taking sips of lager from the pint glass he’d bought up from the bar downstairs. ‘Right’, announced Nicky, ‘this song is called ‘C.I.D’, it starts with a lot of noise before going into an E twelve bar’. With that Steve launched into the kit, Nicky’s Gibson SG sprang into thunderous life and I thrashed away at my bass until the dramatic stop which signals the entrance of the main riff. Charlie, like a seasoned basketball player, perfectly pitched the remains of his pie into a bin across the room, and while still clutching his beer in one hand grabbed the microphone stand with the other and sang ‘See that man dressed in black…’
I started to enjoy myself. Nicky kept calling out song titles and offering the keys - ‘this one is in A, the middle-eight goes to F#’, etc - and I would study his hands on the Gibson fret board to observe where the changes occurred. I’d already decided I liked all the guys, and now, upon hearing the songs in this close and personal environment, began to appreciate that their music was so much better than I’d originally thought. I wanted the job.
After wading through a dozen or so songs Nicky signalled the end of proceedings by un-strapping his guitar and switching off his amp. Chutch, a friend of Steve Roberts who had come down to London with him from York to work for the band, got up from the flight case he’d been sitting on during the entirety of the audition and promptly returned from the pub bar carrying a tray with some kind of soft drink for Nicky and beers for the rest of us.
Charlie and Steve were smiling, which is always a good sign on such occasions; but Nicky was not really giving anything away. I felt somewhat deflated then, when he declared: ‘Well, we’ve already tried out a few bassists and we’ve got a bunch more to see, so we’ll let you know’. Thus, as a desperate parting gesture, I embarked on a 20 minute speech on the subject of why I believed Punk had saved rock ‘n’ roll and why it was important that bands like the U.K. Subs should continue to deconstruct rock music in order to revive and maintain the true spirit of the genre. It was a truly pretentious piece of rhetoric, and upon finishing this absurd cri de coeur I placed my Fender in its case and made for the door.
As crazy as it may seem, my Hail Mary sermon actually worked. I hadn’t even managed to reach the ground floor bar before Steve Roberts came bounding down the stairs shouting at me in his broad northern accent ‘Hey, mate, we liked your playing and what you said about rock music, and that. We want you in the Subs. Do you want to join?’
I celebrated that night with various friends at the Marquee Club, sank a lot of beers, and other alcoholic concoctions, and ended up sleeping on a couch at Howard Bates’ flat, which was conveniently situated on Oxford Street, five minutes by foot from the Marquee. Bates, who was bassist for Slaughter and the Dogs, had become one of my regular Soho drinking buddies. He kindly provided me with numerous cups of black coffee the next morning before I set off for the Subs’ management offices to sign contracts and receive the lowdown on wages, impending recording and concert obligations, and to meet with the people who would now be handling my career as a U.K. Sub.
The offices of Ramkup Limited were situated two floors up from a private members-only drinking club across the road from Blackfriars’ Bridge. My first impression of both the premises and the two main men who ran the company, Alistair Primrose and his pipe smoking partner (that’s not a euphemism by the way) Peter Jefferies, was ‘sleazy’. Now, I know when I later disclose what kind of people these jokers turned out to be you’ll be thinking ‘Oh, that’s just Alvin retrospectively being wise to these men’; but honestly my friends, that was both my initial and lasting impression of messieurs Primroses and Jefferies.
Basically they were a pair of reasonably successful accountants who did some work for a song publishing company and therefore, upon deciding that accountancy wasn’t sexy enough for them used this tenuous connection to the music biz to set themselves up as a managerial organisation. Of course though, having just got the job, I wasn’t about to disclose my instinctive evaluation of these people to Chas, Nicky and Steve. Instead, I dutifully signed the contractual documents handed to me, listened attentively as they welcomed me to the ‘Ramkup family’, as they greasily put it, and decided I would try to get along with my new management team as best I could.
The two people I met there that day that I did warm to were the pretty and very sweet young woman who ran the UK Subs Fanatics’ fan club, Joanne Slack, and the man who had been assigned the job as our day-to-day personal manager by the sleazoids, Mike Phillips. Joanne was the sister of the former Subs bassist, Paul Slack, and the current girlfriend of ex-drummer, Pete Davies. It’s her photo that attractively embellishes the front and rear covers of the ‘Tomorrow’s Girls’ single
. She asked me to write something about myself for inclusion in the next Fanatics newsletter, and later Mike took me aside to disclose all the date schedules for the coming months, starting with rehearsals and demo recordings for a new album and some warm-up shows to introduce Steve Roberts and I to the fan base and the broader gig-attending public.
ere it was. I’d put my signature on contracts binding me to Ramkup and the Subs’ publishing and record companies, having been told they didn’t require either my personal perusal nor the inspection of a lawyer as they were identical to those that the other guys had signed and were each perfectly satisfied with. I was in no position to challenge this at the time. I guess we were all pretty naïve about the possible machinations of the business side of our profession back then, but these were matters for the long term. The plus side of endorsing these documents was that within a week I had received an advance publishing cheque made out for £2,500 (back then a seemingly huge amount of money), as well as being immediately placed on a £50 a week retainer along with the rest of the band. In 1980 £50 a week was a reasonable wage, and Mike told me that when we started touring there would be an additional £10 per diem for every day spent on the road. I had suddenly gone from a position of near penury to one of moderate affluence.
After a couple of rehearsals back at the Rose and Crown room we convened on the 3rd of July at Phoenix Recording Studios to begin laying down demo tracks for the planned album. It was a small 8 track studio, which became even more compact when Captain Sensible, Morgan Fisher (the final keyboard player with Mott The Hoople before they split) and Kevin Nixon (a pal of Steve’s who had auditioned for the Subs) along with his latest paramour, Lovely Previn (the daughter of the famed classical conductor, Andre Previn), all turned up simultaneously to see how things were progressing.
Despite such distractions we pressed on over a three day period and recorded basic versions of the songs ‘You Don’t Belong’, ‘Confrontation’, ‘Fall of the Empire’ and ‘Just Another Jungle’. Both Charlie and Nicky immediately started encouraging me to write material for the forthcoming album. They really wanted another band member contributing songs on a par with themselves. I duly sat down in my room in Croydon and using the road scarred Gibson SG Nicky had just sold me for £200 (his spare) wrote the music for the three songs that would eventually be entitled ‘Time and Matter’, ‘Gangster’ and ‘Face the Machine’.
Following these demo recordings we met up in West London for a photo session. We drove over in a mini bus to the Science Museum in South Kensington where numerous shots were taken amongst the exhibits. My personal favourite is a photo of us posing around on a mock-up of the Luna surface complete with a NASA Moon Lander in the background. This was rapidly turned into a large colour poster for distribution through the fan club. We then ended up in Hyde Park for more group and individual photo opportunities before winding the session up to travel together to see Slade play a fine set at the Marquee.
On the 14th of July, Steve and I made our debut appearances as the new rhythm section of the U.K. Subs before an expectant paying audience. This occurred at the 101 Club in Clapham, South London, with ex-bassist Paul Slack’s new Reggae orientated outfit, Allies, supporting. Despite it being an unpublicised event the place was crammed and we received a very enthusiastic and reassuring response from the hardcore Subs crowd. We properly celebrated, post show, at the Music Machine, then Charlie’s favourite place to drink and catch live bands. Two days later we performed at the Star Pub in Croydon. Despite it being another secretive affair the massed ranks of pogoing Fanatics again managed to uncover our covert plans and filled the venue to capacity.
We were starting to bond as a musical unit and collectively looking forward to the forthcoming official live unveiling of the new U.K. Subs.
That occurred in August at Charlie’s venue of choice, the Music Machine. It was a sellout. Twelve hundred people watched and listened as the rejuvenated Subs offered up their fresh take on familiar material and premiered a couple of new tracks for their consideration. The reaction couldn’t have been more reassuring: two encores enthusiastically demanded and given. We then redirected our focus from the live arena onto the imminent album. Pre-production rehearsals at an excellent facility near Smithfield Market, B.A.N, had been booked and dates at the twenty-four track Alvic Recording Studio reserved, but who was going to produce the record?
Naturally, I pushed for my friend Guy Stevens to be awarded the job. I set up a meeting attended by Charlie, Nicky, Guy and myself at Guy’s mother’s house. On the train ride to Forest Hill with Harper and Garratt I kept thinking ‘please don’t act crazy Guy, please don’t put on some music while we’re there and start smashing up stuff with that hammer you keep in your bedside cabinet, please be rational!’.
Well, actually, Guy was, by his standards, fairly rational and coherent. But occasionally he would say something deliberately provocative and kept disappearing to another part of the house to, I assume, swig some alcohol kept in a secret location in order to assuage his nervousness. It was by no means a disastrous encounter; but despite Charlie and I still wanting to grant Guy the producer’s role, Nicky declared he just couldn’t work with someone who was that much of a loose cannon, and, to be fair, it was an entirely understandable point of view.
In retrospect though, it’s intriguing to imagine how ‘Diminished Responsibility’ would have sounded if Guy Stevens had been at the helm. I do believe, despite Guy’s eccentricities and his sometimes bonkers methodology, that we would have accomplished a far superior album with his involvement. Instead we went with Mike Leander.
The circumstances that led to Leander being involved are as follows: having dismissed Guy as a candidate for the rationale already given, we had a meeting at the record company’s offices in Bayham Street, London, to resolve the issue. Our company, Gem Records, was a UK subdivision of RCA. All singles and albums released in Britain would have the GEM label affixed to them, while in Europe, the USA, and other territories worldwide, it would be the RCA label that would adorn the records.
All four Subs, Mike Phillips, and three of the company’s most significant executives, sat together in the GEM boardroom to resolve the producer problem. Various names were mentioned by the company people that were instantly dismissed by the band as ‘completely unsuitable’. It became obvious from the category of producer they were suggesting that they wanted a ‘name’ personage attached to the project. One of them then threw up the name Mike Leander.
Now, with the revelations concerning Gary Glitter’s alarming sexual predilection for children and his subsequent pursuit of young victims to gratify his predatory paedophile desires, this man has rightly become the subject of much abhorrence and anger. In 1980 none of this was known, and both Glitter and his music were much admired by Charlie, Steve and myself… he was far too lowbrow for Nicky’s tastes. Indeed, ‘Rock and Roll, parts 1 & 2
’ was, and still is, one of my all-time favourite singles (we must separate disgust for the man from the excellence of the music), and the U.K. Subs were utilising the ‘Come on!’ chant from his 1974 release ‘Leader of the Gang’ as intro music before taking to the stage.
As architect of the Phil Spector-ish wall of sound that had awarded such a distinctive edge to all of Glitter’s output during the 1970s, Leander seemed an intriguing choice. He also fitted GEM’s requirement of a known talent to attach some gravitas to the project. Charlie and Steve immediately voiced their approval. Nicky wasn’t so enthusiastic, but conceded it was an interesting idea. I, having thought about it some more, came to the conclusion that the material really needed someone with a more rock orientated edge. But with two of the band enthusiastically in favour and with Nicky taking a semi-positive position, I said ‘Sure, why not? Let’s give him a go’.
From the 1st to the 7th of September we rehearsed and arranged material for the album at B.A.N. On the 8th we started the recording process.
On day one I took a taxi to Alvic Studios. This would be my first album recording experience and I felt a wave of excitement ride through my body at this prospect after paying the cabbie and making my way towards the studio entrance. Adjacent to Alvic was a second hand shop. It sold tables, sofas, old ovens, fridges and suchlike. I noticed a man with long hennaed hair lifting various pieces of heavy furniture onto a truck that had parked up outside the store. He seemed familiar to me but I couldn’t figure out where I’d seen him before. I carried my bass into the reception area of the studio. There was an extremely attractive middle-aged woman sitting behind the reception desk who smiled and welcomed me to Alvic. We got chatting and I said to her ‘There’s a guy out there loading stuff onto a truck. He’s got long reddish hair. I’m sure I know him somehow’.
‘Oh yeah, I know who you mean, it’s the former guitarist of Mott The Hoople
, Ariel Bender’.
‘You’re kidding!’ I exclaimed.
‘No. I’m serious. He’s been working there loading in and carrying out old furniture for a couple of months now. He can’t be making much money doing that’, she concluded.
I was a huge fan of the brilliantly unconventional guitar style and incendiary sound of Ariel Bender. Here was a former celebrity who had rode in limos, stayed in five star hotels, appeared on Top of the Pops
, performed over five consecutive nights at the Uris Theatre on Broadway in New York, played and recorded with the legendary Spooky Tooth and then contributed his considerable musical talents to three albums with Mott, now reduced to shifting secondhand wares into and out of a shitty little high street shop for basic remuneration.
It was a profound warning about the fragility of fame and the capriciousness of our industry. I have never taken anything for granted since.
First published 13 May 2014.
TUNE IN NEXT TIME FOR...
>>> Alvin participates in the making of a top twenty album and receives his first experience of appearing on that historic music BBC TV institution entitled Top of the Pops; returns to Europe in a headlining capacity and receives an important lesson regarding the difference between fine and bad German wine while simultaneously discovering the comforts of some wondrous European women who were commonly and erroneously referred to in the past vernacular as 'groupies’; starts living the high life in a flat off Chelsea’s King's Road, and comes to realise that drummer Steve Roberts has been invaded by the malevolent spirit of Keith Moon... <<<