My Back Pages
I got a phone call from Nick Egan of The Tea Set inviting me to join the band. The Tea Set were already established as an up and coming indie band with their latest single Parry Thomas doing well in the alternative charts.
I was still technically a member of Clive Pig and the Hopeful Chinamen but that wasn't a regular gig, especially as Clive regularly performed solo. I made a promise to Clive that we could carry on working on projects (which we did) and packed my bags for Tea Set land.
First up was a session for John Peel. Four songs were thrashed out with great energy, enthusiasm and not a little anarchy. The band played live together for the basic tracks adding a few overdubs afterwards. The BBC's Bob Sargeant produced the session and managed to capture some of the hyper energetic, angsty spirit of the band at its best. I felt very at home playing in the band and things seemed to click in terms of sound, personality and creative direction.
Shortly after the Peel session was broadcast we were informed that Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers had heard the Peel session while in Pentonville following a drugs bust. Cornwell loved the band was keen to try his hand at producing so we were duly booked into Wessex studios to record a single with him. Most people who follow the band have heard my version of how it went already: we began with what was intended to be the B-side of the single, our version of Keep on Running by Jackie Edwards, made famous by The Spencer Davis Group. Hugh was very slow and methodical, recording every drum separately to a click track, next up were sequenced synths, then bass, my guitar and Nick Egan's vocals. I sat around feeling bored, waiting for my turn and when it came I found the backing track very uninspiring. The guitar tone sounded really weak to me but we were already running out of time and hadn't started to record the A-side yet so there was no time to work on it. It was quickly becoming clear that the budget had been used up on the B-side, which, it was decided, would now have to be the A-side. I think Hugh wisely abandoned his ambitions to become a producer after this.
Years later I read David Byrne’s book ‘How Music Works’ in which he describes his struggle against the orthodoxy that had grown up around recording a band in a studio. Engineers and producers would insist that instruments had to be put on one by one to prevent sound from one instrument track leaking onto another. Byrne and Eno broke with this convention by recording musicians playing live together in the studio. I was fascinated by music production and the techniques that were being pioneered in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Unfortunately, I lacked both the technical knowledge and the strength of personality to put my sound ideas for the band into practice at this stage.
The band hurriedly put together a new B-side based on the punky 'Acid Pop', to which I added an ironic folk intro leading Cally to christen the new hybrid track 'Flaccid Pot'. It was a great shame we didn't get to record the song Contract Killer as planned. In keeping with most of Ron West's songs it had very witty, whacky lyrics which managed to namecheck Brunswick, Regal Zonophone and even Arhoolie records in the tale of band who get get royally screwed by their record company.
By this time we also had a new manager, Art Bennett, who got us touring with The Stranglers and The Skids. At many of the venues The Tea Set went down a storm, although there was one awkward moment when Nick told the audience in Glasgow he'd heard they were the best audience in England.
There were major London gigs supporting The Skids at The Hammersmith Odeon (capacity 5,000 punters) and XTC at the Hammersmith Palais. Much of this was due to the work put in by Art Bennett who had forged a good relationship with Ian Grant and Alan Edwards, The Stranglers' management. As a result of this, The Tea Set were given a week to record an album with producer Steve James at Parkgates Studios in Hastings...to be continued next post!
My back pages 3: October 6th-12th 1980, The Tea Set were booked into Parkgates Studio in Battle, Hastings with producer Steve James. Our mission: to record an album's worth of material in an extremely short time ostensibly for release by EMI. Things got off to a good start with a day's rehearsal during which a number of things were tightened up.
There was no nonsense about recording the drums individually this time, instead we all played together while the drums were recorded and then the different instruments were replaced one by one. That worked quite well. The bar in terms of production values was set considerably higher than we had been used to and some marvellous sounds were coaxed from the expensive polyphonic synth that Mark Wilkins was able to use for the session.
I was encouraged to get creative with my guitar pedals and let rip on my solo for Sawtooth, returning to the playback booth to find that collective jaws had dropped and faces were beaming at me. At one point, Steve suggested that I might do some session work for him which was pretty flattering for a wet behind the ears twenty one year old to hear.
Some years ago I said in an interview that I was very unhappy with The Tea Set album and that I didn't get on at all well with our producer, Steve James. Looking back, that's not really fair or true. Steve wasn't difficult to get on with on a personal level and given the time we had available he worked marvels with the band, coaxing our best performances yet from each of us. We emerged from our week with him much more disciplined and confident. However, I was unhappy with the results for two reasons.
Firstly, the sound, while very impressive, was very different to everything we had done until that point. The Tea Set's sound was a slightly chaotic mix of primitive rock (Nick Egan drew from The Clash and The Pistols, I was drawing from 50s rockabilly and 60s psychedelia) and what I guess you could call post-rock, the influence of bands like Wire, Swell Maps, Neu, Cluster and Harmonia. It's a very tricky balance to represent the contradictory forces at work in the band (retro and futuristic at the same time) but it started to feel as though the balance had been firmly tipped away from the rock centre of gravity and with it some of the raw edge and excitement of the live band.
Perhaps the most obvious difference lay in Steve's preference for a very 'dry' sound with little reverb added. When I played live, my guitar was often drenched in reverb to summon up the ghosts of rockabilly, psychedeliaand surf guitar bands. On the album mixes the guitar is dry most of the time. The same went for the instruments and vocals.
However, it's important to note that the album remained unfinished: we were listening to a very rough mix quickly put together by Steve because we'd run out of time to do a finished mix. With time I've grown used to the sound and can appreciate it on its own terms, Steve did a very good job but he did it his way rather than the way I might have liked it. A finished mix by Steve would have sounded a whole lot better anyhow. The real tragedy is that the album was never properly finished and never released. If it had been I'm sure it would have been found an enthusiastic audience.
When we recently got back together to record the song Pharaohs, produced by our friend Richard Norris, Mark Wilkins said to me that it was the first time that one of our records hadn't sounded either too wet (echoey) or too dry. I think it was also the first time that we were all completely happy with one of our records but it's a crying shame that The Tea Set album never saw the light of day, there is some cracking stuff on it.
At the tender age of 22 I was on tour with a raucous, red blooded, punky, boisterous and edgy bunch of lads. I was also gay, mostly closeted and chronically shy. I was bookish, hated football and loved folk music. The bands we toured with (The Stranglers, The Skids) were pretty laddish so It should have been an obvious mismatch but somehow it wasn't.
The fact is that it was enormous fun making an unholy racket at high volume and hurling down powerchords like thunderbolts. If I’d thrown in my lot with the burgeoning gay disco community I would have felt doubly alienated: I liked rock but I was also coming to enjoy what might perhaps snobbishly be described as intelligent dance music. Before long Talking Heads would unite authentic rock and synthetic dance music under a joyously inclusive umbrella and after that it would be left to a slightly cranky minority to insist on a cultural apartheid between the two. In a way, The Tea Set were an early manifestation of that inclusiveness too.
Numbers like Parry Thomas, Sawtooth and Kungetmatone fused a mechanical, sequenced Krautrock with punk rock in way that was becoming a feature of many of the leading bands at that time such as Magazine, New Order, Simple Minds, and of course, the daddy of them all, David Bowie. At the height of our success, we supported Iggy Pop at the Rainbow Theatre - another figure whose appeal was beginning to render the distinction between lads and fags outdated. Not only that, the band's backing singers making their stage debut that evening were none other than Siobhan Fahey, Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward, better known as Bananarama.
However, inside the band things were starting to unravel. Our figurehead, Nick Egan, had become increasingly taken up with working for Macolm McLaren and before the year was out, would design the sleeve for Bow Wow Wow's first album, 'See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy', which was styled after Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (I recently saw the artwork on display at an exhibition of the greatest record sleeves of all time in Copenhagen). Nick's growing social network brought some benefits too. His friendship with The Clash helped us to secure a support slot for them at the Lyceum, one of our most memorable gigs. On the other, hand we received the unwelcome news that the unfinished Tea Set album recorded for EMI would now remain unfinished and unreleased. We'd also fallen out with Waldo's records which left awful bitterness and lingering bad feeling. This was a real low point in terms of relationships and one which has unhappy memories for me.
I think it was clear that we were all starting to drift apart. I had been writing my own material and was beginning to strike out in new directions musically so when the band finally called it a day there was an element of relief as well as disappointment that all the time and energy invested in what seemed like a credible bid for big time success had dissipated into a kind of collective lethargy.
Next up: my brush with infamy working for Malcolm McLaren and guesting on a Psychic TV record.