THE TEA SET
Watford, Hertfordshire, 15 miles from London, with a population of 75,000. It's the late 1970’s.
The Tea Set were formed in 1978 after the demise of one of Watford’s most popular punk bands, The Bears. Singer Mick North and Road Manager Pete Dallimore were both tragically killed in a motorcycle accident. At first the band tried to re-group with a new singer, but drummer Cally and bassist Ron West decided it was better to move on from the cliched punk sound and form a new band that had more musical scope.
So they formed the Screaming Ab Dabs, only to find out that that was an early name of British psychedelic legends, Pink Floyd. After mulling over a few other names they settled on the quintessentially British sounding name The Tea Set (not "Tea Set" as some people referred to them), only to find out that once again this was another incantation of what was to become Pink Floyd. This time they decided not to fight what seemed to be destiny, and kept the name.
They first drafted the talents of keyboard/synth maestro Mr Mark Wilkins to add that new element missing from the previous band, as the tool of experimentation and an additional layer to their new musical direction. After they secured Mark’s services, they turned to fellow Watford Art School student Nic Egan as front man. Even though he had never sung before, he had the right 'look'.
It was with this line up that the band made their first record - the "Cups and Saucers" EP. This was released on Waldo’s Records, a local St.Albans-based indie label created by artist and lover of obscure and innovative music, Phil Smee. Phil and his wife Angie noticed the rise of musical talent in the area and saw the opportunity to bring this music to a public who were craving something new and different.
Phil had a creative vision for his bands, especially The Tea Set.
“Phil wasn’t just a record label, he was much more than that. He was to us what Andy Warhol was to the Velvet Underground. Instead of The Factory we had The Fab Four Liverpool Road, Waldos HQ (Phil was a huge Beatles fan). I learned so much from Phil. His knowledge and encouragement gave us the confidence to express ourselves with our music and our visuals. There were no rules as far as Phil was concerned. Only an artist would appreciate how much that meant.”
Waldo's first release was "On Me" by The Bears, followed by "X-Encounters" from the abstract musical genius, Nigel Simpkins. The ad for Simpkins' first release went like this:
“Crazy riddums and a soup of sound, now acknowledged as a classic of its time.”
Waldo’s Records became the flagship for emerging talent. They also released records by Clive Pig and the Hopeful Chinamen (Nick Haeffner played guitar for The Chinamen), The Bodies, Tanya Hyde, Manic Jabs, Bongo Joe (a project that combined members of the Tea Set (Nic Egan and Nick Haeffner) and members of The Hopeful Chinamen
The Cups and Saucers EP was the third release on Waldo's, and transitioned The Tea Set from their punk origins, "B52G", to their first experimental song, "Grey Starling". "On Them" showed their rocky style, and "Sing Song" their humorous side. It was well received by the music press and fans alike, and ended up selling out of its first run. Probably the best part of this "half an album for a quid" was the sleeve itself, a booklet of random non-connected imagery that was pure art school.
The Tea Set released three more singles, the biggest of which was "Parry Thomas / Tri-X-Pan", their last Waldo's release. After “Parry Thomas”, bass player Duncan Stringer, left. The band recruited legendary St.Albans guitarist Nick Haeffner, and Ron moved back to bass.
"Keep on Running (Big Noise From The Jungle)" was released on Modern Records, and produced by Hugh Cornwell from The Stranglers.
Their final record was "South Pacific / The Preacher", released on Clive Banks’ Label, Demon Records.
The band's first ever gig was in 1978 at the Voxtrot battle of the bands at the Verulam Arms, Watford, where they performed as The Third Button On Your Waistcoat Is Undone. They came in second, predictably, to a local heavy metal band.
Art School was the place to be back then - a cultural zenith, an educational dumping ground, not good or serious enough for University but too clever for the workspace. A place of ideology and experimentation, self proclaimed outsiders, revolutionaries, seeing what they could get away with, the style-makers of a generation. Watford was a small provincial Art School, with less than 100 students. However it managed to have a credibility not usually associated with the provinces. Peter Schmidt, well known painter, and long time associate of Brian Eno (he designed Eno’s early album covers) was a lecturer there. Schmidt was respected in the music, commercial and art worlds and together with Eno, created a card-based method for promoting creativity called “Oblique Strategies”. Eno was a regular visitor to the Art School in the late 70’s. Post punk band Wire were also students there; in fact Ron West played in a local band called Overload with George Gill, who later became Wire's guitarist.
The Tea Set were what you would identify as the classic art school band.
Music was an art experiment, mistakes and wrong chords were always part of the creativity, making noises, narrated vocals and objects as instruments. Customised and theatrical thrift shop clothing. The Tea Set created record sleeves more ambitious than any others at the time. Nic and Cally were the main visual stylists creating propaganda and spreading it across the land, including the infamous 'welcome home Tea Set' graffiti on a bridge over the M1 Motorway, it can’t be estimated how many millions of motorists saw this emblasened on the concrete bridge as they returned to London. Cally created the Prep School anti hero images, turning the classic English public schoolboy, with its Tom Brown School Days dialogue, into an anarchic parody.
The band brought this chaotic theatre to their live show with pastiche style sound intros, giant photographic backdrops and an eccentric larger than life front man in Nic Egan.
Three other students from Watford Art School were also part of this collective. The band's logo, record sleeves, posters, art direction and comic book style illustrations were primarily done by Phil Smee (an ex Watford Art School Student himself) and Francesca Cassavetti. The flamboyant and colourful stage clothes, worn mainly by Nic, were put together out of nothing by Heather Johns.
Phil had a friend who was a photographer by the name of Mick Young. He photographed all the Waldos acts, but again it was Mick’s work with The Tea Set that was the most memorable. Pretty much any photo you see of the band was a Mick Young photograph. He captured the essence and personality of the band in the same way Pennie Smith did with The Clash. The song “Tri-X-Pan” (a black and white film stock Mick used) was a tribute to Mick.
"These were groovy times for an ageing hippy! The fun was to be part of a collaboration between a very creative group of musicians and a very good graphic designer and facilitator in the shape of Phil Smee. This was an interesting band in interesting times and if any of my pics have any merit it's because of that. Long live Tri-X Pan!"
“He just had that way of capturing the band at the right moment. Part of the reason was you barely noticed he was there, which is the sign of a great photographer, so we always acted naturally around him. He let things just happen instead of trying to orchestrate them."
The Tea Set were the complete package. Every aspect of their persona was acted out, making them a popular live act. Evolving from colleges, pubs and halls in Hertfordshire, to playing established London Clubs like the Marquee, the Rock Garden, the Hope and Anchor, the Embassy Club and Ronnie Scott’s. They also attracted interest as support act for such notable performers as The Clash (ironically at the Hammersmith Palais), U2 (for one of U2's first UK shows at the Nashville Rooms), Iggy Pop (where they were joined on stage at The Rainbow by three female backing vocalist, later to become Bananarama), Echo and the Bunnymen (at Eric's in Liverpool, formerly The Cavern), XTC and many others. They also opened for The Stranglers and The Skids on two successful U.K. tours. But it was a three night stint at the famous Gibus Club in Paris that was their most triumphant. Their debut on foreign soil saw an almost empty club, with two nights still left to play. Following a small but enthusiastic article in the French newspaper Libération the next night the club was full and the last night they were turning people away from the door.
"You're these five guys on stage surrounded by electricity, literally and metaphorically"
This constant touring meant the band were developing musically, sounding as good live as they did on record. This was helped by owning their own lighting rig and PA system, operated by their sound engineer Charlie Cook, who used delays, tapes and sound effects both live and in rehearsals. 'Chas' was like the sixth member of the band.
Ron was the main songwriter, with contributions from Cally and Nick Haeffner, and a little later Nic Egan, who co-wrote “Pharaohs” with Ron. Each song was uniquely original and eccentric, writing about British historical figures like Lord Nelson, Parry Thomas and Scott of the Antarctic. There was even a song about a pilot crashing after being shot down in the Battle of Britain, seen from the pilot’s perspective. They were un-mistakenly English and were often compared to a contemporary version of Hawkwind, borrowing from psychedelia, soul, reggae, funk and rock - each song different from the next. This studio savvy, along with the band’s live energy, was captured on what many considered one of their greatest studio recordings, the 1980 John Peel Session, which continues to be played to this day.
The Tea Set broke up in 1981 and in a short space of time they evolved into one of the more creative and original bands of that period, but like so many innovative artists, they were a little too ahead of their time.
They have managed to keep a loyal following after all these years and some of the original singles are valuable collector's items, and extremely rare.
It is over the last 4 or 5 years that the band have been finding an even bigger resurgence in popularity, leading to a deal with the respected Cleopatra Records, one of the biggest, truly independent, record labels left in the world. This summer Cleopatra will release, on CD and vinyl “Back In Time For Tea”, a collection of the band's singles as well as two tracks not heard before:
-“Walk Small”, recorded just before they broke up and possibly their best song, shows just how far they had come in such a short space of time; from three-chord punk, to beautifully constructed ethereal pop.
-“Pharaohs”. In 2017 the band members got together in London for Nic Egan's birthday at the Elgin Arms. It was then that they decided to go back to the studio to record again. Choosing crowd favourite “Pharaohs”, produced by Richard Norris, who was at the same party. They all shared a common heritage and Richard was the first and only choice.
Nic and Cally sang backing vocals on Richard's band The Innocent Vicars’ first record. Not long after that Richard became one of the UK's most promising producers, working and collaborating with the likes of Joe Strummer, Robert Fripp and Icelandic opera singer Finnur Bjarnasson.
He is also one of Europe’s best remixers, having re-mixed such artists as Soft Cell, Black Grape, Joe Strummer, Saint Etienne, Shakespeare’s Sister and more.
"The Tea Set were one of the reasons I got into music. They were a few years older than me, part of a thriving local scene that included gigs, fanzines, small runs of seven inch vinyl - the first big post-punk DIY explosion in the UK. I admired their mix of art school design, off kilter humour and short shouty tunes. Crucially, they played a lot live, so it was easy to see them at St Alban's Art School, where the Sex Pistols had played, or supporting the Stranglers at the Rainbow, even though I was only 14 at the time. They took me and my band the Innocent Vicars under their wing, with Cally playing drums and Nic providing handclaps on our first single, with the boss from the band's label Phil Smee producing. Our record got to Rough Trade and John Peel at the BBC, a path trodden by many a DIY teen hopeful, and I've been working in music as a player and producer ever since. It was an honour and a pleasure to produce them recently - it was nice to return the favour. It was a joy to watch Ron, Cally, Mark, Duncan and Nic sound pretty much exactly as they did at their peak. Unfortunately Nic couldn't make it, Hackney Road being a long way from Los Angeles, however a bit of intercontinental vocalising added his trademark dulcet tones to the mix and Pharaoh's was complete. God bless the Tea Set, and all that sail within."
So put the kettle on and sit back and enjoy ‘Back In Time For Tea’ by The Tea Set.