The History of Automatic Dlamini

When John Parish joined Winchester new wave band Thieves like Us in 1979, the group thought they were getting a drummer. The nineteen-year-old from Yeovil had answered an advert in the Melody Maker and travelled up to St John’s Rooms in Winchester to audition. They had no idea that before long it would spell the end of the band, because John’s creative input and determination would immediately become so influential and upset the internal balance. Within weeks he was contributing his own songs and suggesting changes to the arrangements of existing ones, and it was already clear that this was going to be beginning of a long and productive career.

In 1981, after the record deal they signed turned out to have little value, the band split and John returned to Somerset with new, different ideas in mind. Browsing in WH Smiths in Yeovil, he was recognised and approached by drummer Rob Ellis, who worked behind the counter. Ellis had been impressed by the fact that John was one of a small handful of people from Yeovil to have appeared on a record (TLU’s Mind Made in 1980). The two became friends and formed a band called The Headless Horsemen. Initially, it was a six piece, including Mark Vernon on keys. Vernon later became PJ Harvey’s short-lived first manager, but the Headless Horsemen quickly settled into a format featuring Parish on vocals and guitar, Ellis on drums and Dave Dallimore on bass.

The trio gigged extensively in the Somerset and Dorset area and made a fine demo tape, three songs from which were featured on a South Of England compilation called Burnt Offerings. Standout tracks were a fairly straight version of the Beatles’ Drive My Car and an extraordinary slow song called Hopeless, whose sparse instrumentation and deep-thinking lyrics pointed to a way forward. The band’s only vinyl appearance was on the now-legendary 4-track Sheep Worrying EP (on a local label), which featured their song A Glimpse Of Heaven. Parish’s outfit of choice on stage in Headless Horsemen times was a bright red Spiderman jumper. He was an avid collector of Marvel comics. Also during this period, and for several years after, Parish was known by his nickname Scott Tracey, because of an alleged resemblance to the Thunderbirds character. Ellis, meanwhile, was known simply as Rabid. These names persisted well into Automatic Dlamini days, being used in official press releases, interviews etc.

In 1982, Parish wrote a song called Whose Business Is It Anyway?, in which he abandoned his guitar and instead, played drums and percussion along with Rob Ellis, and the two of them sang in harmony all the way through. The sound was very unusual and the song got an immediate reaction when played live (in venues such as Salisbury’s Cathedral Hotel). That song marked the genesis of the Automatic Dlamini sound and coincided with Dave Dallimore leaving the band to go travelling. Rather than continue as they had been, Ellis and Parish decided to start a new band with a whole new set of music that was based entirely round the sound of double drums and percussion, plus bass and vocals.

Initially just Parish and Ellis started work on the project as a duo.  Rob Ellis recalls, “There were a good few months after the end of Headless Horseman when John and I functioned basically as a recording-only two piece, and made a home 4-track cassette set of three or four songs, not limited by having to be performable live. We were very much inspired by our both loving The Dreaming by Kate Bush and the percussive and vocal and experimental abstract sound of that (which was a big factor in establishing the sound of Dlamini as it became). We actually sent the tape to Ms Bush at the time and received a lovely complimentary letter back from her!”

Their search for a bassist came up with Jamie Anderson (who’d been a guitar pupil of John’s) just in time for their debut performance, at the TDK Battle Of The Bands contest in Plymouth. Encouraged by the reaction (all the other contestants, apart from the winners obviously, opined that Dlamini should have won), the trio holed up in a rented cottage outside Crewkerne to “get it together” in the time-honoured tradition. Eventually, they had created enough material for a full set.

It was by no means a casual project, and it involved a great deal of hard work. John Parish’s reputation of determination and perfectionism was a deserved one. Jamie Anderson (who is now an estate agent in France but still plays music) remembers: “The idea was quite clever. John believed that a lot of people would not like either the sound or the look of the band, as it would be perceived as being too different at the time. If, on the other hand, we played everything perfectly every time, and the band was supremely tight, then people would feel comfortable with that and listen to what was being offered, and look at what was going on. We adopted that theory and found that, just by rehearsing to the level where we couldn’t get it wrong, we could carry an audience with us, that might otherwise have been hostile towards the band.”

When ruminating on what to call the band, Parish remembered a story which gave him an idea. “At the time, a friend of mine was working as a soil scientist in Swaziland, where Dlamini is a very common surname. Some of my friend’s co-workers had unusual first names, Automatic being one of them. He had a brother called Torquewrench. We just liked the sound of it.” 

The band looked and sounded unlike anything else around at the time, which enabled them to establish a strong local reputation. Parish/Tracey was stage front, leering rather frighteningly as he walloped his collection of ‘found’ percussion instruments, which included a Castrol can and a plough share, emphasising their bucolic environment. The bass was the only melodic instrument and innovative use of head microphones gave them freedom of movement on stage. Meanwhile, the harmonies were other-worldly and the stage outfits ever-more eye-catching (varying from track suit bottoms held up with braces over T-shirts to brightly coloured one-piece boiler suits). In this format, they gigged at venues such as the Antelope Hotel in Sherborne, before a major break in the form of an appearance on the Bristol TV arts show RPM. 

In 1983, Rob Ellis discovered the Wall Of Voodoo album Call Of The West and both he and Parish became obsessed with it. A friend of theirs knew Richard Mazda, the album’s producer, and offered to send him an Automatic Dlamini demo. A couple of months later, Mazda called Parish up out of the blue, said he loved the Automatic Dlamini stuff and offered to cut some demos with them at IRS studios in London, which he could blag for free, as he was associated with Miles Copeland at the time. Sadly, the masters of these recordings have been lost. “It’s a shame”, says Parish, “because I think these were some of the best recordings the original three-piece ever made. Those couple of days in the studio with Richard were also foundational for me as a producer and informed my understanding of what a producer could bring to a session”.

Over the next few years, the band continued playing shows, building a cult following around the south west, but never achieved a breakthrough. Recordings were issued sporadically. A song called I Don’t Want To Hurt My Father was included on a local compilation vinyl LP called Class Of ’83, which was memorably launched at a riotous party in Milborne Port. Their most prominent release was a four track 12” EP (The Crazy Supper EP), which was self-produced apart from Me And Judy, produced by Richard Mazda. They followed this up with a 7” single, I Don’t Know You But, again on their own DforDrum Records.

It was at this stage that the band flirted with the mainstream music industry. Jamie Anderson takes up the story: “After a gig in Taunton, we were introduced to Carlin Music by a management team that wanted to produce us. One session with them proved that we wouldn’t see eye to eye with them, but we had the deal. They gave us a creative manager called Kip Trevor, who was great fun and enthusiastic, but who wanted us to sound like Adam and the Ants. However, he agreed to sessions at Bram Tchaikovsky’s studio in Lincolnshire and sessions at Crescent, where we recorded the Crazy Supper EP. Kip used to try and visit during the sessions, much to John’s horror, so I got press-ganged into taking him to the pub. But it was the Carlin deal that enabled us to do the Crazy Supper and I Don’t Know You But… EPs.”

By 1986, band leader Parish was growing tired of the three piece drums/percussion/bass sound and wanted to introduce another instrument. Giles Smith, who was later to become a sports journalist and author of Lost In Music, joined on guitar and percussion and the first four-piece Dlamini show was at Yeovil College in December 1986. The line-up then went into a state of flux with Andy Henderson (later of Echobelly) replacing Rob Ellis, who went on sabbatical for six months. Jamie Anderson was replaced on bass by Ian “Olly” Olliver, a Yeovil musician who later went on to a career in the police force.

In April 1987, after years in fairly sordid and invariably freezing rented farm cottages, Parish, Ellis & Olliver all relocated to Bristol. A couple of months later, Giles Smith left the band and was replaced by Jeremy Hogg on guitar/slide guitar, whom Parish had met through Maria Mochnacz. Hogg was to become a long-term collaborator with Parish and indeed is still in the John Parish band today. Rob Ellis rejoined the band at the same time and the new four-piece line-up remained in place for the next year, issuing a 7” single called I Don’t Know You But …

With the help of Carlin Music, the band graduated to the Idea record label in 1987, issuing Me And My Conscience on 7” and 12“, followed the same year by the album The D Is For Drum, which collected together all the single/EP releases, plus four previously unreleased tracks. This was a vinyl-only album, self-produced apart from one song, Your Idea Of Heaven, produced by Richard Mazda.  The D Is For Drum was a high point for the band, being licensed to labels in Germany and Spain, and being renowned for the sprayed graffiti of the front cover, which will always be the emblem of Automatic Dlamini. The sleeve, designed by Rob Ellis and photographed by Maria Mochnacz, featured the now four-piece band cavorting in front of Bristol’s old prison gates on Cumberland Road. The painted album title was prominently visible on the gates for years to come.

By 1988, Rob Ellis had become unhappy with the guitar-led version of the band and decided to leave. Andy Henderson again returned to replace him and at the same time, the band was augmented by an 18-year old singer and saxophonist called Polly Harvey. She had been turning up at Dlamini shows in Dorset and presenting the band with cassettes of her songs. This represented a stylistic turning point. The first show of this short-lived line-up was in the summer of 1988 at the Moon Club in Bristol. After only a couple more shows, however, Olliver and Henderson left the band to pursue other interests, leaving Parish, Jeremy Hogg and Polly Harvey to form the core of Automatic Dlamini Mark 2 (1988-1991).

Dlamini had been invited to play in Warsaw and Berlin (where a German label had licensed the first album) in October 1988. As the shows took place behind the Iron Curtain, it wasn’t possible to take money out of Poland, so they decided to spend the fee on a recording session in Warsaw, where they recorded three songs, including Giraffe in Warsawa. This was an iconic song which arguably encapsulated the archetypal Dlamini sound, with strong vocals (Parish singing lead but Harvey beginning to make her presence felt in the background), loping, fragmented percussion and bizarre lyrics. It ended up on the unreleased Here Catch… album. On the Poland trip, they were joined by Jerome Ball from Parish’s old school band Godot (keys/drum programming/vocals).

After a series of auditions in early 1989, they finally settled on a new rhythm section consisting of Ben Groenevelt on bass and Japanese percussionist Ichiro Tatsuhara on drums. This line-up was arguably the strongest and certainly the most memorable of Automatic Dlamini’s career. They played frequently in1989, including a three-week tour of East and West Germany and a two-week tour of Spain, as well as many UK club dates, but, returning from a Spanish tour, they found themselves stopped by immigration. Drummer Tatsuhara, not having a valid visa, was immediately deported to France. It took several months for him to get the necessary papers to get back into the UK, and meanwhile, Dlamini had gone into Chris Baylis’s VM Studios in Oxford to record the second album, Here Catch Shouted His Father. Alan Hodgson from Oxford drummed on the first sessions, but Tatsuhara was back in time to drum on the later tracks.

The album was finished by early 1990, but they failed to find a label to put it out, so the band began to lose momentum. This seems an extraordinary state of affairs, when you consider the huge worldwide success to which the core of the band was to go on. It also makes little sense when you listen to the album, which is a thrilling combination of innovative songwriting and imaginative playing, but it’s a familiar tale in the music industry. Few people have heard the record other than in bootleg form.

For several years, John Parish had been developing his parallel career as a record producer, working with west country bands like The Brilliant Corners and The Chesterfields. Again though the Richard Mazda connection, he had become friends with Wall Of Voodoo, playing percussion on the Seven Days In Sammystown album. In early 1991, he joined Wall of Voodoo guitar player Marc Moreland’s new band The Ensenada Joyride, while Polly Harvey started putting together her own band with ex-Dlamini members Rob Ellis and Ian Olliver. This (with Steve Vaughan replacing Olly during its recording) was to become the original PJ Harvey trio which was to record Dry, and later Rid Of Me. For a while, the two bands existed alongside each other, as an extraordinary situation developed regarding record releases. The last show of Automatic Dlamini Mark 2 was on June 7 1991 in Stokes Croft, Bristol, but this wasn’t quite the end of the story.

In July 1991, Parish, Jeremy Hogg and Polly Harvey recorded three tracks at Press House Studio, with Mark Tucker engineering, for a radio session. All three songs ended up on the final Automatic Dlamini album, From a Diva to a Diver. The rest of that album was recorded in Yeovil in the latter part of 1991 by Parish and Hogg, with contributions from Harvey, Andy Henderson and Ian Olliver. The album was engineered by Martin (Bastie) Beresford, except for the three radio session songs by Mark Tucker. Meanwhile, other things were happening. Parish took a job as a lecturer at Yeovil College on a new Performing Arts BTEC course, and his classes were taught at the Ice House, which was the new studio opened by Dick Bullivant in Yeovil. Affectionately known as Head, he was and remains a vital part of the PJ Harvey camp, being in charge of her live sound to this day.

The previous album having failed to attain a release at all, Parish was determined this wouldn’t happen again, and went about finding innovative ways of getting it out to the public. His wife Michelle Henning came up with a stunning sleeve design. An old friend of Parish was running a publishing business for schools, so had access to CD duplicating facilities and was able to finance the manufacture. As for the parallel vinyl release, that was taken on by a local label based in Street, Somerset, run by Jon Mates and called Big Internation. Thus it was that From A Diva To A Diver was released on the Revilo/Big Internation labels in September 1992. It was a happy affair, because stocks sold out quickly, leading to re-pressings and no one being out of pocket. It was fitting that Automatic Dlamini should leave a final recorded legacy and it’s a product that everyone involved views with satisfaction.

A final version of the band toured to promote the record, doing several shows at venues such as The Gardens In Yeovil and the Bristol Bierkeller, supporting the PJ Harvey trio. PJH mania had already broken out and many in the audiences probably had no idea of the history of everyone involved. The shows were emotional affairs as Parish, Olliver and Ellis again shared the stage – but not necessarily in the same band! This five-piece Dlamini consisted of Parish, Jeremy Hogg and Elisa Young with Olly back on bass because, by now, he’d been replaced in PJ Harvey by Steven Vaughan. On drums was James Powell, Georgie Fame’s son, replacing Andy Henderson.

The remaining final dates weren’t a triumphant swansong. The last show was in late 1992 at the Louisiana in Bristol, but prior to that was a gig at the Kennington Cricketers in London, where there was a total of one paying customer. But far from being a sad end, it once again signalled a new beginning, and this time on an incomparably bigger scale. Parish started to write more abstract instrumental music, initially for college theatre productions, and that led to the Dance Hall at Louse Point collaboration between him and Polly Harvey in 1996. Since then, with a few ups and downs in between, they have been pretty much inseparable musical partners, producing seven PJ Harvey albums together and touring the world. Parish’s production career has gone from strength to strength, with albums for the likes of Eels, Tracy Chapman, Aldous Harding and many, many others. Plus he still has his own band with a new album in current production. Meanwhile, Rob Ellis, too, has gone from being PJ Harvey’s long-term drummer to carving out a distinguished production career in his own right, working with Anna Calvi, Marianne Faithfull and Placebo.

Asked what he had gained from his youthful days in Automatic Dlamini, Ellis gives a revealing answer: “I learned how to play drums loudly and as a feature in a band and actually hone my ability to play the drums and sing at the same time, which came in pretty useful later on in the PJ Harvey days. One thing I remember fondly is very early on, maybe at our first ever gig, we played at a party in someone’s garden and we did a cover of Human League’s Don’t You Want Me Baby with just drums, percussion, vocals and bass, with me and John doing the duet exchange. That was an amusing and inventive twist on the original version.”

The one remaining mystery is the Album That Got Away. The much-bootlegged Here Catch Shouted His Father has never received an official release (Cherry Red expressed interest but nothing came of it). When quizzed about this, Parish replies in typical fashion: “There are several reasons. I have so much stuff going on now that I’m really interested in, that I find it hard to commit any energy to something that for me is the distant past. Also, there are so many different people involved at different levels in the various Dlamini recordings – many of whom I lost touch with years ago – and trying to figure out the mechanics seems like way to much effort for something that feels done to me. Plus, any interest that a Dlamini compilation would spark now would be mainly because of Polly’s involvement – and I don’t think that’s fair on Polly, or me really!”

Always looking to the future and seldom backtracking – that’s John Parish in a nutshell.

Automatic Dlamini discography

Class Of ’83 – one song, I Don’t Want To Hurt My Father on compilation album, Rapp Records 1983

The Crazy Supper EP – DforDrum records 1986. 4 song 12” EP. 3 songs self produced, 1 song (Me and Judy) produced by Richard Mazda

I Don’t Know You But… B/W I’ve never been that colour anywhere before – DforDrum records 1987.  7” single  

Me And My Conscience B/W Me and My Conscience (family edition) 7” and 12” single – Idea Records 1987  (12” single also has two mixes of Love Smarts.)

The D Is For Drum – Idea Records 1987         (licensed to Ear-rution in Germany 1988, and Fly in Spain in 1989. Vinyl only album. Self produced except for two songs Your Idea Of Heaven and Black & White, produced by Richard Mazda

Johnny Pineapple B/W Whose Business Is It Anyway? Both produced by Richard Mazda – Unreleased 12” single – due to be released on Roustabout records in 1988, but distribution fell through at last moment.

Here Catch Shouted His Father – Unreleased (but much bootlegged) second album from 1990

From A Diva To A Diver – CD/Vinyl album. Big Internation/Revilo Records 1992

BoysGirlsMenWomen – flexidisc single. Big Internation 1992