1996 – Murder Ballads – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

Nick Cave

‘Magical’ is one of the ways to describe witnessing the birth of your first child, though nerve-wracking fits pretty well too.  Having gone to work as usual on the morning of Friday 16th February, I received ‘the call’ at around 8.30am, “Come home now, it’s started!” I drove us up to Jessops Hospital in Sheffield and at six o’clock that evening, somewhat reluctantly and only after Mr Norman, the consultant, had tried all sorts – forceps, ventouse and good old encouragement, James came into this world.  He needed a load of stuff cleaning out of his lungs and did need to be put in an incubator overnight, but he was here, right on time (to the day) and looking as beautiful as only a baby can. The delivery room had been packed with midwives, doctors and even a class of students who were keen to observe the birth, so it was quite a dramatic change, after everything had been checked (he had ‘a roof to his mouth and a hole in his bum’; my mum’s definition of a healthy baby) to find ourselves alone in a room with a tiny person who needed dealing with! After ringing friends and family with the good news (and after having been propositioned by a prostitute on my way back to the car!) I drove home later that night and slept more soundly than I had for weeks. It wasn’t until the next day that we found out how at six o’clock the previous evening, exactly as James was being born, there’d been a ‘Mother Of Pearl’ sky over Sheffield (Nacreous clouds apparently), a pretty rare phenomenon this far south, with lots of beautiful and strange colours. We maintained that it meant he was destined to be special, but our Neil said, “Check behind his ears,” suggesting that, along with the three sixes in his time and date of birth, it was an omen and he could well be a ‘devil-child’! When James was first put onto Wendy’s chest, he’d pushed himself up with his arms and appeared to be looking around the room, the midwife declaring, “He’s not supposed to be able to do that!” Not a devil-child, but certainly not average.

Within days, it was difficult to ever imagine there’d been a time without him and I quickly adapted to functioning in a state of constant exhaustion. When you hear stories of parents murdering their children, you obviously can’t condone it, but there are times, times when the screaming seems to go on for ever, that you can certainly understand it!

“Murder Ballads” by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds contains some of the darkest, most disturbing lyrics ever written, set to some of the most beautiful melodies. “Henry Lee” and “Where The Wild Roses Grow” are the two most obvious songs where Cave’s murderous vocals juxtapose with the smooth melancholy of P.J. Harvey and Kylie Minogue respectively. Elsewhere, the album goes from the cabaret-style music and almost comic-book violence of “The Curse Of Millhaven” where the protagonist, after countless murders, exclaims, “They ask me if I feel remorse and I answer, ‘Why of course! There is so much more I could have done if they’d let me!” to “The Kindness Of Strangers” on which the woman’s sobbing is so mournful it almost breaks your heart. “Murder Ballads” is darkly humorous with a sombre, literary and passionate heart; perhaps the perfect soundtrack to accompany the few months when my son was joyfully taking his place in this world as my father-in-law was leaving it. He died in August.

After a week in Cornwall which followed the funeral, The Rogues, who’d never stopped playing (I was always tired anyway so I figured I may as well) got together for a couple of days at ‘Sight And Sound’ studios in Bolton on Dearne to record our second tape. We did most of it live on the first day, with just a few overdubs, then mixed it on the second. It was engineered by a bloke called Andy Seward, who’d apparently worked with various people at the BBC and in the folk world and who we thought could pass on useful tips and maybe put our name about a bit. He did tell us not to smoke ‘skunk’ because, “It does your head in!” but as far as I can remember, that was it. Good bloke though and the songs sounded better than on our first cassette. As usual, I was left to sort out the artwork and found the perfect picture in what was often my first port-of-call when looking for inspiration: the book ‘Entertainment’ by David Kennedy. It was an illustration from 1848 by George Cruikshank called ‘The Drunkard’s Children’ and seemed to capture perfectly the spirit of our audiences at the time. I called the cassette ‘For The Drunkard’s Children’ and delighted in the fact that I’d been able to get a classic piece of artwork into the consciousness of people who ordinarily wouldn’t have looked twice at it. We sold a few hundred copies and, had we been able to afford it, could have made and sold many more.

I would often come home late after a gig, have a quick shower to try and get rid of the smell of cigarette smoke and end up sitting in the darkness with James in my arms, giving him his bottle and reciting sections from Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’, which we were doing at school and which I’d managed to learn off by heart. He never slept a whole night through until November, when he learned to walk. On that first day of walking, he slept the whole night, as indeed, did I.  At last. No more murderous thoughts.

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1995 – 20 Mothers – Julian Cope

1995B - 20 Mothers

“The ancient stones watch silently in the still light of the early morning; this is one of the best times to visit Avebury and absorb the magic wisdom of this temple, so very different from the grim gloom of Stonehenge.” These were words from “Mysterious Britain” by Janet & Colin Bord that I’d poured over since buying the book years before.

I’d grown up being regularly taken to see air shows, zoos and sites of geological or archaeological interest so it was inevitable that I’d pick up on some of those things later in life. An interest in stone circles and burial mounds had resurfaced whilst at college after lengthy discussions with a girl called Angela and more recently with the albums “Peggy Suicide” and “Jehovah Kill” by Julian Cope. His latest, “20 Mothers” continued in a similar vein, including songs called “Stone Circles ‘n’ You” and “By The Light of The Silbury Moon”. Having grown up in a house where the kitchen regularly smelled of photographic chemicals and with both a mum and dad who always had a camera with them, it was perhaps also inevitable that I should become interested in photography at some stage. It was only a matter of time before the stones and the photography collided. The words from the book kept coming back to me, Avebury at dawn it had to be.

I borrowed my dad’s camera, a Canon EOS 650, and loaded it up with Kodachrome 64; I’d read that that was the best film to use for landscapes. I planned my route, got my gear and set off at two o’clock in the morning, having estimated it’d take me about three hours. It’s always quite exciting to be out and about when everyone else is still in bed but once it started getting light, I realised I’d have to get a move on if I wanted to see the stones at dawn. Soon, I was racing the sun as it started breaking through the early morning mist. I sped past the impressive Silbury Hill (vowing to come back there later) and went past the official car park to get into the village where I’d read the stones were and then…whoa! Two huge monoliths reared up in front of me. I screeched to a halt in the car park at the side of the cricket club hut, grabbed my camera stuff and scrambled over the barbed wire fence and up the steep bank of the henge. In front of me was a more astonishing sight than I could ever have imagined and I stood taking it all in. I was the only person there. It was mine. For the next couple of hours I rushed around breathlessly setting my camera up at various places; in the stone circle, on the Avenue, at the Cove, everywhere. I laid down, knelt and crouched, trying every possible angle. At one point, the mist rolled in making the sun appear as a mysterious, hazy disc low in the sky but then it burned through and the rays shone gloriously onto the craggy, ancient stones. In the whole time I was there, I only encountered one lady walking her dog. Eventually, I ran out of film and even though I was sure I’d got the shots I wanted, nothing could ever convey the truly magical experience of that first visit to Avebury.


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1995 – Mirrorball – Neil Young

1995 - Mirrorball

There is only so much “Diddley Diddley” music you can stand. The Rogues have never really been a true Irish band, a folk band or a Country-Rock band, having always maintained that we are a punk band in the true spirit of the word; we don’t care what we play or how we play it, if it’s a good song, we’ll do it, whatever the genre and whoever the audience is. Irish diddley stuff at a bike rally? Rock music at a wedding? Yep, we’ll do it.

However, I was spending a lot of time playing banjo or mandolin-led music and it was perhaps in response to this that I bought Neil Young’s latest album. Now, he’s never been a laugh-a-minute kind of bloke noted for his lighthearted approach to song writing, but “Mirrorball” is a particularly weighty record full of heavy riffs and intense themes. Using Pearl Jam as the backing band, it has some great tunes on it and features Young’s distinctive, chiming guitar sound, but it’s not what you’d want to listen to on a Summer’s day driving through the countryside. It opens with “Song X” a dense, grungy sea shanty that sets the tone for the duration. On “I’m The Ocean” Young declares that, ‘people my age, they don’t do the things I do’ which is exactly what makes him such an exciting, curmudgeonly old sod who never does what people expect him to do. And which is why The Rogues have never really fitted into any musical pigeonhole. Where we differ in attitude is that on “Mirrorball” none of the proper songs are under four minutes long and many are a good deal longer, whereas we’ve always tried to get them over and done with in under two minutes. That’s what you get for having seen the Ramones I guess.

I decided that seeing as how I’d been singing about Ireland every week for a couple of years, it was time to go and experience the real thing. Which was why, in the summer, a fairly newly pregnant (phew) Wendy and I flew on a Fokker 50 (the pilot separated from the passengers by a drawn curtain) and hired a car to travel around Southern Ireland to visit as many places in the songs as possible. We picked the car up in Dublin (home of Molly Malone) driving through Mullingar (“Rocky Road To Dublin”) to stay in Galway (“Galway Races” etc) for two nights. There, we went to a few pubs, one where we saw a few blokes, surrounded by Spanish tourists, playing traditional music but looking totally bored and really just going through the motions. In the hotel bar that night we watched a Country & Western band. Next day we went out to the Connemara National Park (“Hills Of Connemara”) which was truly beautiful. From there we took a very circuitous route through Athenry (the fields were particularly low-lying) onto Limerick (where there was an old lady) to Tipperary (it was a long way) before ending up in Cork (near the ‘sweet Cobh’ mentioned in “The Irish Rover”) for the night. We saw a band in the hotel bar – playing Country & Western. After a couple of nights there, we passed through Waterford, up to see “The Curragh Of Kildare” (a racecourse) called in to the Newgrange monuments on the River Boyne before going back into Dublin for a couple of nights. On one of the nights we’d been invited to a wedding by Louise and Carl, two regular Rogues fans. We knew nobody apart from the couple but were absolutely welcomed with open arms by everyone there, all asking me to sing them a few songs. I declined. It didn’t feel right that a lad from Sheffield should sing Irish songs to a load of Irish people living in Ireland. Next day, on an early morning stroll around Dublin, we stumbled across a film crew shooting scenes for a forthcoming film about Michael Collins starring Liam Neeson. At least I now knew what I was singing about but as for the music? Well, there’s only so much Country & Western you can stand!

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1994 – Definitely Maybe – Oasis

1994 - Oasis

Playing rowdy Irish music at a time when ‘laddish’ culture suddenly blossomed? We couldn’t go wrong.  The residency at The Station was steadily building a pretty solid fan-base; people coming one week then bringing their friends along the following week.  We met Keith and Vi who were nearly always there, along with two women whose names we never did find out. We had regular gigs at The George And Dragon in Wentworth that were always frantic and fabulous, including a St. Patrick’s Day which was absolutely packed to the rafters with people dancing on tables, breaking chairs and using the legs to bang on the floor or the window sills and literally drinking the bar dry! They really did run out of beer that night. We had gigs at The Charter Arms in town that, as with The George, were boozy, sweaty and brilliant. At one outdoor gig I was complimented on my “percussive and original” style of banjo playing by an old “folkie”. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was simply because I couldn’t play the traditional finger-picking way and had had to take off the fifth G string because it kept getting in the way.

All the best bands hold out their hands and scoop all their influences up, before smashing their hands together, mashing things around a bit and then seeing what comes oozing out between their fingers. Then, either by design or, more frequently, by inability, try to play the ideas and come up with something new and exciting. That is exactly what Oasis did with the sneer of The Pistols, the Manc drawl of Happy Mondays and the bright, crunching guitars of 70s Glam Rock. Kicking off straight away with their declaration of intent in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, it leads into the Coke advert rip-off of “Shakermaker” with talk of building houses out of plasticine and later, the T.Rex riff on “Cigarettes & Alcohol”. “Live Forever” is, for me, possibly their best song with its call-to-arms for anyone who’s ever felt they, “see things they’ll never see.” Whilst the album helped redefine “lad culture” started mainly by other Manchester bands, I never bought into it and knew it was all part of the image game, sibling rivalry and petty punch-ups. I knew because everyone thought The Rogues were drunken lads banging out chaotic Irish Stomp instead of a bunch of talented musicians with a singer who could remember song words and shout a bit. But then, when your audience finish the night in a drunken stupor and try to be your best mate, they assume you’re as drunk as they are!

Perhaps because I’d hardly bought any new music the previous year, I was back on track collecting again.  Oasis were pure rock and roll but I listened to a huge variety of other stuff with albums including “Dummy” by Portishead (fairly dark and sombre) “Snivilisation” by Orbital (electronic trance-dance) “Sleeps With Angels” by Neil Young (dirty country-rock) Pulp’s “His ‘N’ Hers” (Sheffield through and through) and “The Snake” by Shane MacGowan and The Popes, an album full of Irish trash from which I took a couple of songs to do with the Rogues. Part of my Saturday routine was to go to Contour Gym for a couple of hours, have a protein shake then go down to Circles Record Store on Wellgate in town and flick through the new seven and twelve inch singles, looking for coloured vinyl or picture discs. I’d always been told that the sound wasn’t as good as the standard, black vinyl but I didn’t care, it’s the look that’s just as important.

The vastly differing styles of music reflected the ups and downs I went through this year.  After losing our first baby through miscarriage at around twelve weeks the year before, Wendy became pregnant again. Things seemed to be fine until the scan at around twenty weeks when the nurse told us to be prepared, it was twins! We were gobsmacked but absolutely elated. The rest of the day was spent in a blur telling parents and close friends, in the meantime being told it shouldn’t really be a surprise as twins were quite common in my extended family. It was the next morning when we had a call from Jessops Hospital asking us to go back to see them that we began to get a little nervous, but never once expecting what came next. They took us to another, more detailed scanner to show us and break the news that the twins were in fact conjoined. Some high-up consultant came to explain what could be done; they could be born, hopefully naturally, and then at some time in the future, undergo an operation to separate them which may or may not work. He explained that the rarity of the situation (one in every two million or something) would mean news coverage. Coverage that would involve reporters camping outside our house and the consultant performing the operation, of course becoming famous. I somehow remained remarkably clear-headed and asked many questions about such things as likely quality of life for the twins and what exactly would the operation involve and what might the consequences be. The decision in the end was easy – no chance. We were not prepared to subject two little ones to all that, simply to satisfy the desire of some avaricious consultant doctor wanting to experiment with ground-breaking surgery. Within a few days it was all over; the twins (girls) were delivered, photographs were taken but we didn’t want to see. It was undoubtedly the best and worst few days of my life so far. Did the music help? Maybe? Definitely.

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1993/1994 – The Rogues

Rogue Logo

The Rogues unwittingly caught the zeitgeist. We started playing Irish music just as landlords were deciding to have Irish themed pubs and bars, and wanting live music. We also developed a unique sound by mistake; the acoustic guitar went through a Marshall amp because that’s all we had, I played the banjo like a guitar because I couldn’t really play the banjo properly and, after that first gig, we used a drum machine because Craig was busy playing with another band. We’d tried with me playing my bass drum whilst singing, but I couldn’t keep the beat going for long enough before my leg ached, so scrapped that idea. We’d augmented the band by adding the other Martin (from the Rhythm and Blues band) on guitar so that I could play more twiddly bits on the banjo and mandolin and we’d learned loads of new songs. We even had a rehearsal at my school after work one day. Another feature people loved was how we all swapped instruments for different songs; again a happy accident because none of us could sing and play bass so ‘Big Martin’ (as we ended up calling him, as opposed to ‘Little Martin’) and I had to swap depending on who sang lead vocals.

We managed to get a second gig when ‘Big Chris’ who was landlord at The Charter Arms moved to take over The Tabard on Herringthorpe Valley Road. He wanted to put on an Irish night and asked us to play. We treated it more as a practice really as we hadn’t actually worked out what key everything should be in, we just guessed – but we had another great response from people there and decided to try and make a proper go of it.

We determined from the start that we weren’t going to use an agent if at all possible (17.5% for a phone call? No chance!) so Martin (big) and I spent a few nights going round the local pubs who we knew had live music, saying we had an Irish band and offering to do a gig. We said we’d do it for next to nothing, but unfortunately, no one was willing to take a chance on a new band so it was back to the open-mic nights.

Then we got the chance. Martin had a phone call from Pete Jones, an established local Country artist that he knew through his dad, who said he had a gig at the George And Dragon pub in Wentworth, but was ill and wasn’t able to do it. He’d heard that we’d got a band together and asked if we wanted to fill in for him. It was a Monday night so the money wasn’t great but we could have it if we wanted. We wanted. When we arrived, the place wasn’t really busy at all but there was a group of about nine or ten lads from the village, sitting round where we had to set up, feet on the chairs and pints on the tables. Somehow we knew it was make or break. From the very first song, “I’ll Tell Me Ma”, they were with us, clapping along, stamping on the floor and banging their pint glasses on the tables. They chatted happily with us between sets and said how refreshing it was to have something different. It became the first of many lively (sometimes to the point of dangerous) nights at the George And Dragon and prompted many phone calls from people who’d heard about what a good night it was, asking us to play at their pub. Early in 1994 we were asked by John, landlord at The Station in Parkgate if we fancied having a residency there every Thursday night. We played there for over two years, whilst offers of gigs came rolling in from all over the place. The Rogues had arrived!

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1993 – Original Dubliners (1966 – 1969)


In a desperate attempt to keep the Holy Rollers going, we decided to try and get another singer. Craig, the drummer, said that his sister had a mate who was a good singer and was looking to join a band. We had one rehearsal in Craig’s infamous ‘shed’ where it became obvious to everyone that it was never going to work. She could sing well enough but it just wasn’t right; her voice didn’t fit our songs and the songs she really wanted to sing didn’t fit our ideas for the band. We called it a day.

Early in the year, Grahame asked Craig, Martin and myself to play in the band for a production of “Grease” being performed by Malby Minors Youth Theatre Company at Rotherham Civic Theatre. I’ve always loved playing in the band for shows, but there is a lot of sitting around whilst the actors and technical crew sort stuff out and especially when there is a matinee followed by an evening show. It was times like this that we took our instruments into our little dressing room and started playing a few songs to stop us getting bored. When I brought the mandolin along, we started playing through bits of any Irish folk songs we vaguely knew; me doing most of the singing. Things started very quickly falling into place and we realised we could be onto something here, we just needed to learn some more songs.

The first thing I did was buy the book “Folksongs and Ballads Popular In Ireland – Volume 2” and then go and have a look in the ‘World Music and Folk’ section in the record shops, not a section I’d ever even thought about looking in before.  I knew of The Dubliners, of course, but couldn’t really name any of the songs, and I knew The Pogues but had never got any of their stuff. In the end I bought the “Original Dubliners” double CD which had fifty six tracks on – that should be enough! I sifted through to see what to learn, in the end going for songs based on two simple criteria; they had to be either easy to learn or have the potential to sound raucous. “Poor Paddy On The Railway” was an immediate hit for me, followed by “Whiskey In The Jar” and “All For Me Grog”. Research showed me that The Dubliners had been considered ‘dangerous’ and ‘left-field’ in the Sixties but I couldn’t see it, they sounded tame and a bit dull to me, but at least there was enough material to make a start. I discovered that actually I knew quite a few songs already, either learned from my mum when I was little or from times spent sitting round campfires as a teenager at Boys Brigade Camp in Skegness. I also found that there were loads of different versions of the same song, so it didn’t matter if I got the words wrong, no one would really know! I then bought the “The Best Of The Pogues” to try and learn a few songs with a bit more ‘thump’. “Sally MacLennane”, “The Irish Rover” and “Dirty Old Town” were definites and there were a couple of others to think about for later.

With five or six songs under our belts (though not rehearsed – start as you mean to go on!) Martin and I started going to Fagin’s in Sheffield on a Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night when they had sessions. Local musicians and singers would just turn up, get drunk and play together. It was fabulous! No matter how drunk they got, they could still play brilliantly and they all seemed to know when to change in the middle of a set of tunes without anyone actually ever saying anything. At first we just went to listen and watch but pretty quickly started taking our instruments and joining in, being accepted immediately. We also started going to sing-around sessions on a Thursday night at The Stag – a pub in Rotherham, and to open-mic nights at The Charter Arms in the town centre on Sunday nights. I usually took my mandolin and Martin took his guitar. We soon became pretty well-known around the local ‘acoustic’ circuit and found we were actually generally much better than most of the people who got up to sing, having performed in the somewhat unforgiving Working Men’s Clubs for years, rather than sitting in a bedroom practising a song specially for the night, as most of them seemed to do.

I decided that if we were going to do this Irish thing properly, I also needed a banjo. Years before, as a nine or ten year old boy, Auntie Dora had said she would buy me a banjo one day, so it was a shame she never lived to see me play one but I often think about her. I went up to a folk instrument shop (again, something I’d never dreamed of doing before) called The Music Room in Cleckheaton and got a second hand Epiphone five-string G banjo. I didn’t know if it was a good one or not but it sounded like a banjo, so that was fine by me. I got a hard case for it from a swap shop in Sheffield.

It had been a pleasant surprise at Christmas last year to have been given a drum kit. I always knew I could play since we’d kept one at our house when I was a teenager, but now I had one of my own to bash about on. It took me a few days of wondering why it didn’t feel right before I thought about moving the kit around and trying everything on the opposite side to the usual. That was it, it all fell into place. I was a left handed drummer! Martin (a different Martin from the bass player) had started a Rhythm and Blues band with his mates and they wanted a drummer. I wasn’t particularly busy and went along to their practice room on John Street near Bramall Lane in Sheffield to try out for them. When Pete, their bass player, said after a while that he wasn’t sure who was auditioning who, I knew I’d done alright – I was now the drummer in a band!

The Rattener’s Rest in Sheffield was to be our first gig. They decided that to make it a ‘proper’ gig, there should be a support band too, so I suggested I could do a few of the Irish songs I’d been playing with the other Martin. They loved the idea and the date was set; July 24th. Martin and I roped in Craig, our old drummer, and just told him to bash along, we didn’t need a practice. About half an hour before we were due to play, we were sitting in the bar when Martin decided that we ought to have a band name. I’d recently learned a tune called “The Rakes of Marlow” and suggested ‘The Rakes’ as a name. Craig looked at me and said, “The Rakes? You can’t call a band after some f**king garden tool!” It was Martin who suggested ‘The Rogues’ saying that it sounded a bit like The Pogues, arguing that we did play a few of their songs.

And so, The Rogues played our first ever gig, just five songs. We went down a storm. It was the start of something special.

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1992 – Magic And Loss – Lou Reed

1993 - Magic & Loss

“Magic And Loss”, Lou Reed’s new album was advertised on Radio Hallam early in the year. The song featured in the ads was ‘What’s Good’ and it certainly did the job, I was hooked immediately. I’d not heard much from him for a few years and it was completely at odds with the current style of music I was listening to, yet it was somehow familiar: clean, plain chords, fretless bass and simple drums topped with typical Lou Reed not-quite-singing vocals. The lyrics, too, are what you’d expect, making ordinary situations into urban poetry, this time it was about his friends dying of cancer. He manages to make it poignant and intimate yet graceful and uplifting, turning loss into magic: “Magician Magician take me upon your wings and…gently roll the clouds away” from ‘Magician’ and “I see you in the hospital your humour is intact, I’m embarrassed by the strength I seem to lack” from ‘No Chance’. My favourite track is ‘The Sword Of Damocles’ with its insistent acoustic guitar, rolling drums and simple but stirring strings. “To cure you they must kill you, the Sword of Damocles hangs above your head”.

In April, Justin and I had enough material for Short Supply to venture into the studios again. The Powder Room had closed down (we heard the people who were looking for Jason had found him!) so after looking around I chose Priority Studios, which were located in an old warehouse in Sheffield, mainly because it was relatively cheap. It was run by Steven Singleton (formerly of ABC) and a bloke called Andy Lewin, whom I realised used to live round the corner from our house on Elm Lane. He was a year younger than me and even though we’d not met for about twenty years, we both recognised each other the minute we met. We recorded five songs and got a much better sound than previously. As well as being the engineer, Andy acted more like a producer, offering suggestions and subtle ideas that really added something to the vision I had.  We still pre-programmed the drums and bass so it was recorded pretty quickly. He was also much more proficient at using sampled sounds and suggested we use the drum sound he’d got from ‘Alright Now’ by Free to give the songs a more realistic ‘live’ feel. They sounded great and we wanted to do something with them. I didn’t have the money for another single so we had a cassette produced, which I sent to loads of record companies. I’d been reading up about submitting material to people and decided to send it to various publishing companies too. We’d been rejected so often that I was really quite shocked when I received a letter from one of the places offering me a publishing deal, saying they were impressed with the songs and they would like to try and ‘place them’ with other artists. Much as I regret it now, at the time we were only interested in performing them ourselves, so didn’t take them up on the offer. Oh well, you live and learn.

The Holy Rollers were still going, playing every weekend and still getting great reviews in the Rotherham Advertiser. We’d started playing “Rawhide” as a last song (like The Blues Brothers) mainly to try and get people to stop dancing so we could get off home. It didn’t work, they loved it and danced to that too. I’d recently bought an electric mandolin and more as a joke than anything else suggested playing some Irish tunes in the last spot to see what the audience would do. They danced! It seemed we could do no wrong, but we knew things were beginning to change.

One Saturday, I’d been feeling a bit rough but played a gig anyway and got through it ok. We weren’t particularly late home but I was shattered and went to bed straight away without the supper I usually had. In the middle of the night, I woke up sweating and shaking but, more worryingly, with pins and needles down my left arm and bad chest pains. I tried to breathe deeply but it wouldn’t go away so I had to wake Wendy. She immediately drove me to A&E at Rotherham hospital where I was quickly rigged up to various machines and rushed to the Coronary Care department. In the end I was there for four days, wired up to a heart monitor and having regular blood tests where they concluded that it wasn’t a heart attack but a virus that had affected the muscles around my heart. I’d even stopped being scared after the first day and would delight in seeing how I could get my heart-rate up (have a wee) and then if I could keep it steady at a given rate. A couple of months later, I had to have a treadmill test to check everything out. They decided I was possibly the fittest person they’d ever had there! After the summer holidays it was back to work and gigging as usual until things changed again.

Justin had met a girl and his behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic: so much so, that towards the end of the year it was becoming unworkable. We always used to pick him up in the car to go to gigs, but on a number of occasions we had to go looking for him, finding him hiding round the back of his house. Twice he didn’t turn up at all and because we didn’t want to cancel, we had to muddle through with Grahame and me singing as much as possible. By the end of the year it had finished. The magic was lost.

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1991 – Peggy Suicide – Julian Cope


1991 - Peggy Suicide

I was absolutely convinced that “The Day The Earth Stood Still” was a good song but knew something was missing. The bass line, the piano part and the hook were great, it just didn’t have the energy I wanted. So, the rethink: speed it up, cut the crap (make it as near the golden three minutes long as possible – or shorter) and simplify the drums. That worked but it still lacked an ingredient that I couldn’t figure out. With that one on a back burner, Justin and I kept recording demos of new songs, an obsession with Marilyn Monroe led me to write, “Pump The Drug”, whilst a flick through a poetry book, picking out random lines and phrases which I then assembled into an order that sounded meaningful (but which was, in truth, utterly meaningless) resulted in a song called, “Everybody Will Shout”.

It was the new album by long time favourite Julian Cope that made me realise what I’d been missing all this time. Harmonies. Why on earth I’d never realised sooner I don’t know; I’d spent six and a half years in a close-harmony band and was currently singing backing vocals in The Holy Rollers so it wasn’t as if I didn’t know what harmonies were, I’d just never thought to put them in my own songs!

“Peggy Suicide” is a typically bonkers Cope album that swings between often pretentious-sounding nonsense and out-and-out brilliant rockers with choruses that fly. He’d incorporated ‘baggy’ in some of the drum beats, along with classic organ sounds and fuzzed-up guitars in songs that are at times basically long, drawn out jams (“East Easy Rider”) whilst at other times perfect pop songs (“Beautiful Love”). However, I don’t know why and perhaps it was because they’re very loosely (or clumsily?) done, but it was in the chorus of the fifth song, “Safesurfer” that Cope’s harmonies, singing, “You don’t have to be afraid love, cos I’m a safe surfer darling”, suddenly leapt out at me, building up in a way that was reminiscent of ‘Twist And Shout’ by The Beatles. Then, on “Soldier Blue” they’re there again, tighter this time but still obvious.

We went to see him play at The Leadmill in Sheffield in May and, apart from noticing he used a very cool red, Gibson ES-335 guitar, I was struck by the backing vocals. That was what we needed to put in our songs.

And we did. On the new and much improved demo, the chorus of “The Day The Earth Stood Still” now had four parts to it and sounded great. At last, it came alive.

So much so in fact, that I decided to go one step further. It was time to go back into the proper studio but this time produce our very own 7″ vinyl single. I booked some more time back at The Powder Rooms with Jason & Co. and explained what we wanted this time. We’d all learned a lot since the last time and I’d pre-programmed all the music so raced through and recorded four songs, including “Pump The Drug”, “Everybody Will Shout” and a new one called, “Diamonds”. Getting the music done quickly meant we had more time to get the vocals right, including, of course, the harmonies. I was also keen to feature my new guitar, a Gibson ES-347 that I’d recently bought from Carlsbro Sound Centre on City Road in Sheffield. The humbucker pick-ups were really meaty and gave a great rock sound which sounded great on “Diamonds”.

The Gibson gave the band a more rock edge too. The Holy Rollers had changed. Fran, the “drummer” got married, Scott left to try his luck as a solo artist and Nicola left because, she reasonably said, as a nineteen year old she didn’t want to spend every Saturday night in some Godforsaken Working Men’s Club when she should be out clubbing with her mates. Justin and I had been going to the Hook, Line and Sinker pub in Kimberworth Park every Monday, where Morris Croft (The Wayne Vincent Sound) ran the night, singing his country songs in between inviting members of the audience to get up and do a bit. We regularly got up and sang a couple of songs from our set whilst Morris’ son, Martin played along on his bass. We went down really well and naturally got talking. It turned out that Martin had a band too called Debut. They played their own material in and around Sheffield and were doing ok, though not getting paid. Justin and I were asked to take part in a charity event where we did our bit, along with a few others, before Debut finished the night off. Martin played bass for us along with their band’s drummer Craig. It was great! We asked if they fancied joining The Holy Rollers, playing the clubs and getting paid for it. Despite being warned by his current girlfriend, “Don’t get involved with those two, they’re nutters!” Craig was in immediately! A couple of quick rehearsals later, we were off – Justin as sole frontman of a totally live band – at last, no more backing tapes. Perhaps stereotypically, the women in the audience generally loved Justin because he was a good looking lad who could really dance, whilst the men in the audience wanted to punch him because he was a good looking lad who could really dance and was attracting the women! To his eternal credit, Justin was utterly unaware of all this and just lost himself in the performance – one of the best front men I’ve ever seen.

Meanwhile, everything was sorted. The test pressings had been approved, the labels designed (I took the ‘dancing couple’ logo from an old book called “Entertainment” by David Kennedy) and printed and the whole package paid for. In October, I received the shipment of ten boxes of thirty 7″ singles from the vinyl pressing plant at SRT. We’d made a single and I could play it on my turntable. Wow, my own single! The A side, naturally, was “The Day The Earth Stood Still” whilst on the B side we opted for “Pump The Drug”. (On the label I put a little number 2 after the band name to distinguish this incarnation of the duo from the original one started at college with Robert.) Now the hard part: I sent copies to loads of record companies and released it independently, which meant arranging for it to be sold in local record shops, all promoted with self-designed flyers and posters. It never made much money but we did sell a couple of hundred copies and it appeared at the bottom end of the charts one week. We were delighted and I knew I’d been right to believe in the song, especially now I’d recognised the power of harmonies. From now on, they would be like dog-muck in Bridlington. Everywhere.

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1990 – Pills ‘N’ Thrills And Bellyaches – Happy Mondays

1990 - Happy Mondays

Going under the name of The Holy Rollers, we managed to secure our first gig at the beginning of February at the New Lonsdale WMC in Whiston. Fran, the new music teacher at Wingfield School, had recently played the drums in the band at a school show. She wasn’t very good but an idea had come to me, one that appealed to my indie-rock mentality. The Jesus And Mary Chain and The Stray Cats both had a stand up drummer playing just a snare drum. Why couldn’t we? We’d still use the backing tracks but turn the tape machine around so no-one could see it and have Fran stand centre stage and hit a snare (she’d manage that!) Everyone would assume we’d got a live drummer. She was up for it and joined us for our last rehearsal.

The first gig was a real success. Somehow, we got a review in the Rotherham Advertiser the following week. A review by the so-called ‘Clubman’ could make or break any act, particularly a new one. Under the headline, “Local talent set to keep on rolling” he said, “Last week I saw the first performance of a new act, The Holy Rollers, a six piece group from Rotherham.” He went on to say, “These performers were deeply engrossed in the sheer enjoyment of the project of performing,” and, “if they continue like this they will be around for years to come.” He finished by describing the, “terrific ovation” and the “three encores.” We’d made it! Bookings came flooding in from then on and we even played some of the bigger clubs at the time, clubs like Greasbrough and Silverwood WMC. We had other reviews too, saying how we’d “captured the imagination of the club going public.” We just loved playing every week, even the longer journeys to clubs further afield. On these occasions, we’d usually stop at the motorway services on the way back and watch all life passing before our eyes. We’d see other bands having a drink, wedding parties, young lovers and old married couples. Justin usually had a coke and spent the rest of the journey home with the empty coke cup in his mouth shouting, “Get out of bed, it’s time for breakfast!” out of the window. No particular reason, he was simply full of nervous energy.

It was on one of these evenings that he and I hatched our latest plan. After a few Holy Rollers gigs we decided we’d take the songs out and do some busking. York seemed like the place to go, I’d seen loads of buskers there over the years and even done a bit of street theatre. Our first attempt was in the February half term holiday when we just went in jeans and T-shirts and made about one pound fifty! On the way home we wondered why. Of course, the image game again! For our second attempt, we dressed in our stage clothes of Blues Brothers suits, white shirts, black ties, pork-pie hats and dark glasses and made an absolute killing. Justin danced and sang his heart out, I played and did backing vocals and in our first thirty minutes we’d made forty five pounds and been invited to a party by some stranger! That was it, we went pretty regularly after that. The plan was simple – play some songs, make some money, go to Jack’s Record shop and spend it all.

We had to cut down on our busking when Justin eventually got a job working at a place selling home entertainment systems, but at least he was able to get me a discount on a decent CD player. I was still buying vinyl but recognised that the new format was becoming increasingly popular. The first CD I bought was Led Zeppelin 4, not because I particularly like Led Zeppelin but because I thought I ought to have it and didn’t have the record. I’d made a vow that whilst I would embrace the new format, I wouldn’t ever duplicate the albums I’d already got on vinyl. (I’ve since broken that vow with music by The Smiths!) The next CD I bought was “Pills ‘N’ Thrills And Bellyaches” by Happy Mondays. The lack of crackle was astonishing, the instruments were so clear.

Shaun Ryder’s not-quite-singing of urban rhymes comes on sounding like Lou Reed with a Salford drawl. With a lazy, baggy beat and a rock guitar, you just know they’re taking copious amounts of drugs and barely managing to stay upright enough to play. Its danceable (“Step On”), sexy (“Bob’s Yer Uncle”) and chilled (“Donovan”). For me, “Loose Fit” epitomises the whole feel of the album and pushes to the limit the baggy genre they’d tapped into on their earlier “Bummed” album that I’d bought on cassette – it’s The Stone Roses times ten and Madchester at its best. With lyrics like, “Son I’m thirty, I only went with your mother cos she’s dirty” and, “We were born to the woman whose husband did quite well” it’s got the same humour and poetry of the mundane that The Smiths had – “Manchester, so much to answer for” as Morrissey once sang. It was excellent.

Or “the dog’s bollocks” (sometimes shortened to “the dog’s” or “the bollocks”) as Jason and his mates at The Powder Room studios in Rotherham were fond of saying. Tired of getting a somewhat tinny and ‘narrow’ sound on the Tascam four track tape machine, I had decided it was time to go into a studio to do some proper recording. After looking around in the local papers I opted for the studio offering the cheapest rates. Justin and I arranged to go down to the place which was in an old warehouse on Masborough Street, just to meet the bloke who ran it and talk about what we wanted to do.

The studio was a jumble of equipment in dimly lit corners, the walls carpeted in grey. Jason himself was a bundle of restrained energy, constantly pushing his long hair behind his ears and always smiling. He languished behind the mixing desk in a battered office chair and chatted happily with us along with Steve and Spud, two other members of the rock band he sang in. We told him what we were after and he was keen to do it because it was so different from what he usually did. He’d only really recorded rock bands before so was excited about the prospect of using drum machines and samples. In the end we spent a few nights in the studio recording “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and our baggy-style dance version of an old Dave Mason song called “Give Me A Reason” into which I’d put a short rap along with a sample from a Frankie Goes To Hollywood song and one from my beloved Bonzos. They didn’t charge us for half of the time we were there, as we all just spent ages drinking tea and laughing at their band’s exploits – Jason was apparently ‘wanted’ by at least three jealous husbands in the area for getting “a bit friendly” with their wives! The lads all called us “the hip hoppers” and assumed we were regularly taking ‘E’ and going to raves. The tracks sounded fabulous on their huge studio speakers, but, playing the rough mix on a cassette in my car on the way home, we were always a bit disappointed at how flat everything sounded. I know we were all learning, including the lads in the studio, but I wanted it to sparkle and shine like the Happy Mondays CD and it never really did. Back to the drawing board.

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1989 – Three Feet High And Rising – De La Soul

1989B - De La Soul

The idea of a ‘slacker’s revolution’ is that you don’t have to be violent and confrontational to be subversive. Whilst N.W.A. were creating Gangsta Rap on “Straight Outta Compton” and Public Enemy were telling us, “Yo! Bum Rush The Show”, De La Soul were taking intelligent samples from everywhere and anywhere and using them along with raps that advocated peace, harmony and a return to the “D.A.I.S.Y. Age”. It wasn’t all hippy nonsense though, just a more chilled out call to arms for those who didn’t like the increasingly misogynistic attitudes being touted on most rap and hip hop records at the time. The drum beats and bass lines were no less funky and there was still some swearing, but it wasn’t angry and that made a massive difference. Rather than being hammered home, the hooks eased their way into your brain and stayed there awhile. There was the whistling on “Eye Know”, the guitar line on “Say No Go” and they even used the phrase, “Ecoutez et repetez” from the Longman Audio-Visual French language lab that Robert and I had used in one of our Short Supply songs. Perhaps what sums up the mood of “Three Feet High and Rising” most is when, on “Me, Myself and I”, they say that if someone is really getting on their nerves they’ll, “Calmly punch them on the Fourth of July”. Different drugs from N.W.A.?
I took up my post as deputy head teacher at Roughwood and within weeks, the head told me she’d been invited to attend a six week course during which time she was not allowed any contact with school whatsoever. That meant I was to be acting head for six weeks and I’d only just got the job as deputy! She gave me a list of instructions and things I should do and when I should do them and off she went. As a class teacher you’re used to doing a million things all at once and never really stopping all day. As a head it’s different. I’d been told that the office post came on a Monday lunchtime and I should leave the afternoon free to read it and deal with anything that needed dealing with. Well, by about ten past one on my first Monday, I’d read the post, dealt with it and sat there thinking, so, what do I do now for the next two and a half hours? I had a realisation then that you don’t always get paid more for doing more, rather for what might happen and being ultimately responsible for it. I also realised that actually, given the choice between sitting in a meeting with ninety other head teachers or being in a classroom with thirty or so children, I’d take the class full of children any day. Every head’s meeting I went to, I would look around the room and think, I have nothing in common with these people. They probably had holidays in caravans touring the wine-growing regions of France, I had holidays sitting in seedy Spanish bars with a load of nutters playing ‘Heel’. They probably spent Saturday evenings having dinner parties discussing the latest educational philosophies while I was out playing rock ‘n’ roll in some grubby Working Men’s Club. Hmm, not much in common really.
Our band, “Special Mix” had come to an end when Grahame and Jean separated but we’d already hatched a plan.The Blues Brothers had a song in the charts that had suddenly caught on. “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” was being played everywhere and gave Grahame and me an idea. Justin and Scott (who’d played Danny in the school production of ‘Grease’) had just left school and were dead keen to keep singing, so jumped at the chance of putting together a Blues Brothers style of band to play in the Working Men’s Clubs and make a bit of money. Nicola, who’d played the part of Sandy in ‘Grease’, also had a good voice and wanted to join too, as a backing singer. I’d put together some backing tapes with drums and bass on, so in the summer holidays we all got together in the school hall and knocked out a set: Blues Brothers songs, Motown and Soul classics and a few more recent pop tunes. Nicola proved to be an ace tambourine player too, so we kept that in the act. Justin and I kept recording at every available opportunity and, from somewhere, between us came up with the name for the new band – The Holy Rollers. It felt right, the rest of the band loved it, the music sounded great and we knew we were onto something. All we needed were a few more rehearsals to get things polished and we’d be ready.

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