This is a chapter from my book VOLUME:
A surprising thing happened in 1978. I bought a house. This certainly wasn’t anything I had intended to do. House buying was something rare in Germany, and I was still in a German mind-set. But we were finally being asked to leave the House Share From Hell, because the owners were returning from abroad. Not knowing what to do, I looked at some modern terraced houses that were being built at Badger Farm, just on the edge of Winchester. Today, it’s a massive estate, complete with its own out-of-town superstore, but then it was just one half-built row in a mud bath of a building site. A smooth-talking lady in a Portacabin said that if I gave her £100, she would reserve one for me. Easy! A town planner called Bill Blincoe had moved into the old house-share when the nymphomaniac music teacher left. Bill and I got on great because he was a big fan of the Clash and the Buzzcocks, so he moved into one of the three bedrooms. Birgit, now training in Basingstoke, moved in as well, and before long, 107 Maytree Close became the headquarters (and dormitory) for my band-managing operations. It was during this time that Birgit and I were putting on the gigs at the Riverside. One day, I was slightly miffed to spot in the Chronicle an advert which said that a band called Thieves Like Us would be playing there on a Tuesday night. What must have happened was that they had seen it was being used as a venue, rung up the landlord and booked themselves in independently. I would have gone along anyway, but they rang me up and invited me down. I presumed that they wanted a Chronicle review or an interview with Solent, but they actually had other plans. Thieves Like Us needed a manager.
It was not surprising that this band caught my imagination. I was in a state of musical schizophrenia, still listening to my Camel and Caravan albums while being entranced by punk bands like The Clash and The Damned and being really proud of local punk heroes The Ba. TLU were an amalgam of the two styles. The bulk of their set consisted of hilarious cod-punk songs with titles like Sex and Violence, Rabid, Repellent and Life Is A Downer, played with enormous skill and at breakneck speed and with a uniquely flamboyant stage manner involving costume changes, masks and much shouting and charging around. But in between, there were a few slow, Genesis-style ballads such as Mogadon, and there were even a couple of instrumentals. Crucially, even the two-minute punk thrashes always had an ear-catching keyboard riff of some kind. I thought this band was just wonderful.
Any sensible, experienced manager would immediately have spotted a fatal lack of defined direction and declined to become involved. But I was a stupid, inexperienced manager and thought that there must be masses of people like me who would welcome the kind of punked up-Camel crossover which the band skilfully represented. They were very good, and they were unique. They looked right, too. The singer, Tim Barron, was just in the process of joining the band, who had met him at a gig at UEA, where Tim had been studying, many years later than me. Tim was good-looking and tall, with an almost operatic voice and a cheerful willingness to carry out any daft theatrical ideas which came up. On bass was Mark Meredith, a heart-throb with a golden voice for backing vocals and a bass-playing skill which was acknowledged by all musicians to be second to none. These two were the easy ones, the reliable, unflappable bedrock which any band needs in order to survive. The drummer was a youngster from Winchester called Paul Bringloe. He attracted attention from other drummers because he had such highly-developed technique. His role models were drummers like Bill Bruford and his style was extremely ornate, some would say flashy. I was impressed, particularly as this kind of drumming was a rarity in the punk era. He was also handsome, but oddly nervous. Paul was a well-known figure in Winchester and spent a lot of time round the pubs, drinking pints of bitter. Tony Oxley couldnt have been more different. To look at him, you’d never have imagined that he was a conservative sort of chap with a public school background. His parents owned an antique bookshop in Alresford, and it was here that the band rehearsed. Tony’s father had a Volvo Estate which was used to transport the band’s equipment. Tony was as thin as a stick, had a perm and liked to dress up in skin-tight red PVC trousers, as he tossed off his lead guitar lines in a casual way that belied the speed and skill involved. Tony had a penchant for Jimi Hendrix which would emerge at frequent opportunities. The other Volvo belonged to the family of the band’s main songwriter, Chris Stonor. Chris had a little stack of keyboards including a Korg synthesiser which he sometimes wore round his neck for forays into the audience. Chris, too, was prone to dress up in day-glo outfits, normally involving teeth-grinding clashes of colour. He attracted attention because of his attacking style of playing. He looked completely out of it, but wasn’t, of course. Chris was mild-mannered and totally committed to the success of the band. His supportive mother was also a crucial element, bailing the band out of financial crises on a number of occasions.
I was flummoxed, on first meeting the band, by their niceness. This was a rock and roll attitude that I hadn’t come across before. I was also unnerved by the plummy public school accents which abounded, all the more peculiar because, in fact, only Tony and Chris had been to public school. My own awful schooling had led me to be a lifetime opponent of elitist education systems, so this was quite important. However, I also felt that a public school background hand’t hindered Genesis or Joe Strummer, and today it hasn’t done Radiohead much harm either. So I decided to say yes when they asked me to be their manager.
The public-school joshing which went on between Tony and Chris could sometimes be hilarious, as was demonstrated in an early interview on Radio Solent:
Chris: Our approach is very theatrical. We have quite a few props, ranging from catapults and masks to a fly with detachable wings and legs.
Tony: Not to mention the make-up, of course, to cover up our spots.
Chris: And my synthesiser, my mini-Korg, I have a strap over it so I can do my Angus of AC/DC and go whizzing around the venue.
Tony: He’s absolutely lethal on stage, my God!
Chris: And obviously, I’ve got lots of other ideas, like I always had this idea of learning the tightrope or being shot out of a cannon …
Tony: You’re far too fat!
On the face of it, managing Thieves was a piece of cake. As the live act was so strong, we all agreed that the band’s policy should be to gig, gig, gig, in the hope of attracting attention and building up a following that way. They were in a uniquely strong position for a young band, in that they not only had transport but also a P.A. system, an unusual but quite effective Bose set-up which Tony had bought. It was light and easy to transport, also small enough to be set up almost anywhere. And it could be used for recording demo tracks. I, also, was ideally positioned to get work for the band, in that each week I was ringing up all the venues in the South for the gig guide on Radio Solent. I don’t think I abused my position exactly, but it was quite simple to throw in, ”Oh, by the way, I know a really good band you might like to consider booking”.
Gigs started to roll in, but first there was the little matter of Jonx. Jonx was Chris Stonor’s elder brother, and he had so far been standing in as caretaker manager. He had a policy which, while being quite clever, I considered to be disastrous for a band trying to break into the mainstream. He was booking the band into public schools. The thinking behind this was that public schools had a captive audience and also had money. Therefore the gigs were always successful and always paid well. When Jonx came to hand over the paperwork to me, he was proudly clutching a sheaf of testimonials which he thought I would find useful. Some of them were almost beyond belief:
I am not personally au fait with the world of this type of music, but from the people I spoke to who were there and who do know something about it, I understand that the group were, as well as entertaining, of a high musical calibre. It was thoroughly enjoyed by all the girls.
Bet it was. My favourite came from the headmistress of a school in Sussex:
We found them most friendly and easy people to work with, people who understood how to entertain happily and sensibly some two hundred enthusiastic young girls. I am not competent to offer any comment upon their music, but numerous members of School and younger members of staff assure me they were very good.
Bless her! But I assured Jonx that this was not a policy I planned to continue, and I steadfastly refused to attend any of the small number of school gigs I inherited.
The first few months were a honeymoon time and my happiest period of working with the band. I set to work feverishly, trying to build up a regular and reasonably-paid circuit of gigs on the basis of the good local venues I knew. This worked a treat, because the band was always invited back for better money wherever they went. The Old Mill in Holbury became a regular haunt, as did the Pinecliff in Bournemouth and the minuscule Magnum’s Wine Bar in Basingstoke, where the band had to play to a brick wall. We worked our socks off for the whole of 1979. Audiences loved the band because of their theatricality, venue managers loved them because they pulled in crowds and, although punky, were musically good enough to impress the most beard-tugging of critical musos. The Bose P.A. was clear and not offensively loud. For the first few gigs, ex-vocalist Gary Carter had the mixing desk out front, doing what we called then mime mixing, and would now no doubt be called virtual mixing, i.e. hovering above the knobs and looking authoritative without having the slightest idea what he was doing. From then on, Tony mostly mixed the sound from the stage, which almost always meant that his own guitar playing could hardly be heard, which frustrated me greatly. My job was to operate a small set of stage lights, which I did quite well when sober and less well when drunk, which was most evenings. The lyrics weren’t easy to discern, and perhaps that was just as well. Lyrics were never TLU’s strong point. To get a flavour of the kind of thing Tim was singing, peruse the following examples:
I don’t want your nine to five, I don’t want your talking jive, I don’t want your Aristotle, I wanna get lost in a bottle. (Life Is A Downer.)
Well your socks they’re running away, While the lice come out to play, Yeah you pick your nose with your tongue, As the sulphate collapses your lung. (Sex And Violence.)
The – er – questionable nature of these words didn’t matter much. Firstly, the lyrics were very much of their time, and secondly, people were entranced by the stage act. The band would start up as a four-piece, with Tony singing Hendrix’s Can You See Me?, before Tim came bursting onto the stage, dressed as a naughty schoolboy, firing boiled sweets dangerously into the audience with a catapult and threatening all and sundry in a rowdy song called Bully Boy. Then came a few uncostumed songs, including the rocking Strike Out and Touch Your Love, a slow interlude with the unfortunately-titled but atmospheric Mogadon, a pointless instrumental called Samba and the grand finale, Murder In New York, in which Chris for some reason donned a horror mask and disappeared into the audience for a long and spectacular solo on his Korg.
Audiences were invariably gobsmacked by this performance, ten times better and more interesting than any pub rock they had encountered before. The gigs piled up and I inaugurated a policy of placing box adverts in the NME on a regular basis. The advertisement manager was a helpful guy called Brian B., who gave us a discount for bulk advertising. I invented spurious titles for tours, such as the Nuts In May tour and the Loon In June tour. This had the intended effect of raising the perceived importance of the band, and in return, the music papers listed all the shows in their gig guides and forthcoming tours sections. ”I saw you in the NME” would become a familiar phrase.
An entire book could be written just about that year’s gigs, but here are a few highlights. The White Horse, Rogate, was a tiny pub in a village near Petersfield, where Paul Bringloe fancied the landlady. The first gig went excellently, but during the second, drummer Paul did something he would do ever more frequently: disappear off stage for a piss in the middle of the set. He had a weak bladder, to be sure, but he made things worse by calming his nerves with several pints of bitter before going on. At the third White Horse gig there was a tense atmosphere caused by the arrival of a gang of skinheads, and the fourth was a disaster because Tony had a romance problem. But that’s another story.
Through Robyn Hitchcock, I got a prestigious show supporting The Soft Boys at Alex Wood Hall in Cambridge. This was a high-profile home-town gig for The Soft Boys, but more importantly, lots of industry people were present on account of the other band on the bill, Dolly Mixture, a trio of young girls being chased by the record companies. Paul Bringloe was going out with a woman much older than him who was a member of the middle of the road Eurovision group Guys and Dolls. Somehow, she got talking to the ultra-cool Robyn Hitchcock, who operates in a different sphere of existence from the rest of humanity. I nearly died of embarrassment as I overheard her saying, “I do so hate drinking wine out of plastic glasses, don’t you agree?” Hitchcock’s reply was not recorded, because onstage something awful was happening. Mid-set, drummer Paul disappeared through the back curtain in search of a toilet but, in the unfamiliar surroundings, he couldn’t find one. The interlude lasted five minutes, as the band at first stood around looking embarrassed and then played an aimless drum-free instrumental. Not for the last time, an important gig had been blown.
At the Royal Oak, Passfield, someone in the crowd poured a pint of lager over Chris as he writhed on the floor during Murder In New York. For a second, the unworthy thought entered my head that we might get some publicity if Chris, like Les Harvey, were to be electrocuted on stage, but on balance it felt as it if would be better if he remained alive. At the aptly-named Nowhere Club outside Bicester, the only people in the audience were two Scorpions fans who left after three numbers, and at the Plume in Hungerford, someone (it had to happen eventually) took exception to the spoof abuse meted out by Tim during Bully Boy, stood up and nutted him on the nose. The trusty instrumental swung into action as Birgit administered first aid in the kitchen. The offending punter was shown the door and Tim completed the show with a handkerchief clutched to his highly swollen nose. But, beggaring belief, both these latter venues requested return bookings. We declined.
The most important thing to do was get gigs in London so that record company scouts could see the band in action. Unfortunately, the main London venues such as the Nashville and the Hope and Anchor were in the stranglehold of the Albion agency. No amount of phone calls to its boss Dan Silver would persuade him to try us out. It was rumoured that these venues operated a pay to play policy, but I couldn’t possibly comment. At any rate, you had to know the right people in the industry, and we didn’t. Our break came courtesy of the Lesser Known Tunisians, who owed me a favour after I wrote a review of them in Sounds. They introduced me to Bob Keene, a small-time London agent who ran two venues, the Swan in Hammersmith and the Windsor Castle in Harrow Road. The Swan was the try-out gig and the Windsor Castle the real one, although we always found the Swan better. He offered us a try-out and we mobilised every fan we could think of. Since the Swan was packed, we were at last into some sort of regular London work. The dressing room at the Swan was upstairs, so Tim’s Bully Boy grand entrance was even more spectacular as he bounded down the staircase. The method of payment at the Swan was a convoluted percentage of the bar takings, worked out by the landlord on the back of a beer mat. I was always too drunk to comprehend, but Birgit kept her beady eye on the situation, and we always came away with a good wad of cash. My personal contribution to this success was to lay a trail of tantalising posters leading from the exit of the nearby Hammersmith Odeon, through the subway and all the way to the Swan. In this way, at about ten thirty, the place would get packed with concert goers who emerged from the Odeon, desperate for a drink. Birgit was also in charge of selling badges, a job which, being so pretty and approachable, she performed with great success. My job was to stick stickers on people. In theory, people might have taken exception to this, but in practice they never did.
The Windsor Castle, by contrast, despite having a higher profile, was a dive, normally full of disinterested and mildly aggressive drunks. It also paid well, however, on the basis of door money. As it had a late licence, we worked out a good strategy whereby, if the band played early enough, they could be offstage by the time the late-night boozers arrived from the other local pubs, and yet still profit from their entrance fees. It was the only venue where it was actually better to support than to headline.
College gigs in London were less successful. One at the South Bank Poly was booked by a student who had seen the band in Bournemouth. However, she had over-estimated the band’s pulling power in London and there was practically no one in the large hall. She was embarrassed and expressed this by being unfriendly. Worse still was the London School of Economics. As we arrived, the snobby social secretary immediately came up to me and demanded, ”Let’s get this sexist song weeded out”. He had heard that part of the act entailed Tim leafing though a copy of Playboy. In a variation on the Pictures Of Lily idea, the song was called Get Down And Love Me, and it was obvious to any cretin that it was intended ironically. Not to this cretin, though. To make life easy, we agreed not to play the song, but once again there were few people there and at the end of the evening they refused to pay, claiming that Paul Bringloe had knocked over a can of heating oil in the dressing room. Although he denied it, my tail was up and I wasn’t having this treatment. A hilarious exchange of solicitors’ letters followed:
“We would point out that the Contract specified that the Students’ Union would provide dressing room facilities for the Group, and it can hardly be said that a boiler room full of oil cans qualifies as such. Furthermore, we understand that the boiler room which was provided as a so-called dressing room gave on to a corridor which was much used by persons unknown to our clients and that furthermore, members of the Students’ Union and other persons freely used the boiler room to talk to the Group and so on, so that there is absolutely no evidence that our clients were responsible for the spillage which you allege, and furthermore, our clients strenuously deny any such charge… (etc., etc., ad infinitum).
All the while, we were searching for a record deal. The band was undoubtedly good enough, but I now realise we went about it in entirely the wrong way, sending out a demo tape designed to demonstrate their versatility. Versatility is the last thing record companies are looking for; they want a direction. But, as it happened, negotiations were already under way when I met the band. By a coincidence so strange that I interpreted it (wrongly) as a sign, the band was already talking to a record company three doors down from us at Badger Farm. Well, the record company, Ember, was based in Brighton, where Chris Stonor had approached them, but Ember’s scout lived in Winchester. His name was Chris Denning. Now anyone who, like me, had kept a close eye on the music business for a number of years, would know about Chris Denning. He was one of the original Radio One DJs, and a very good one at that. If you remember the famous photo of the Radio One DJs outside Broadcasting House, you could probably say what became of most of them. Some, like Mike Raven and Kenny Everett, passed away, some are on other radio stations, and one, John Peel, remained with Radio One until his death. But Chris Denning just disappeared. So what was a big shot DJ doing living in a tiny house on an obscure estate in Winchester? I knew what had happened. He had been sacked from Radio One because of an indiscreet remark he had made on air: ”This morning I woke up feeling like a sixteen-year-old boy. But where do you find a sixteen-year-old boy?” His alleged keen interest in male youngsters had led to his being disgraced. In the interim, Chris had worked with the likes of Gary Glitter (gulp) at Bell Records (remember that name) and now worked in A and R for Ember while also running his own printing business in Winchester. Chris was a very kind and friendly neighbour. His passion was cats, of which he had a smelly houseful on account of the sexual appetite of his un-neutered black and white tom. This creature twice impregnated our female cat Harry and she had two litters of lovely kittens. Chris helped us to rear them when Harry was run over just after having had the second litter. Chris Denning (who later spent several years in a Prague prison for paedophile activity in the Czech Republic) had a plan for Thieves Like Us, but it was not a good one. Ember had what they laughably considered was a good song with which to jump onto the punk bandwagon, and they were looking for a band to record it. Ever eager to please, Thieves had made a demo of it in Tony’s shop. The song, called I’m Dead, wasn’t exactly promising: “I’m dead, I’m dead, Bored out of my head, I find that I’m Bored out of my mind. Of course, what was needed was a sneering, Johnny Rotten style vocalist for these gripping lyrics, but Tim’s dulcet tones sounded completely un-threatening as well as completely un-bored. Any other record company would have sent a curt rejection or simply not written at all. To demonstrate just what a nice chap Chris Denning was (at least regarding rejection letters), here is what he wrote:
“A problem arose in that I originally found Thieves Like Us when I was looking for a band to record a one-off single and, although their demo of the song is more than competent, two thoughts kept haunting me. Firstly, the song I wanted to record required a basically moronic approach and I think Thieves Like Us are, both intellectually and musically, a little too intelligent to get the right feel and image across. Secondly, I felt that the group would really be at their best if given a chance to develop as an album-orientated act, recording their own material. Having been unable to find support for this within the company, I must reluctantly opt out of any further discussions with the band.”
To be rejected for not being moronic enough was a backhanded sort of compliment, but a rejection it was, nonetheless. As were the letters we received from all the other record companies we approached. In those days, record companies actually wrote polite (if patronising) letters of rejection rather than just ignoring you:
Arista: After a careful evaluation, I am sorry to say that I do not hear the commercial potential so necessary to effectively launch a new artist’s career.
Jet: Although enjoying the stage act tremendously, I feel that the material is not directly commercial enough to consider the band for Jet Records.
Warner Brothers: While there is some merit in the work, we feel it does not meet the needs and requirements of Warner Bros Records.
A and M: After listening, I don’t feel strongly enough about the group to express any interest at this time.
Polydor: Although the time and effort spent on this project are greatly appreciated, we do not hear the commercial potential so necessary for launching a new band’s career. (Do you think he used to work for Arista?)
Criminal: Thank you for sending us your tape, but on this occasion we feel we must pass.
Phonogram: Unfortunately, after careful consideration by the A and R Committee, it was decided that the material was not viable for us therefore I am sorry to say that we pass.
Ariola: After careful consideration, I have to advise that we do not feel the material is suitable for Ariola at the present time.
Only one company sent us a duplicated rejection slip. It was RCA (boo). So, in the fine tradition of then and ever since, it was time to do our own Indie Single. For this, it was over to Jonx, who was providing the finance in the vain hope that the record would make a profit. Only the best for Jonx, who booked the band into Surrey Sound, the very studio where the first two Police albums were recorded, and with the same producer, Nigel Gray. God knows what it must have cost him, but inevitably, there wasn’t enough money to complete the job and we ended up putting out a record on which only the title track had been mixed down, and even that in a cursory way. The quality of the record was terrible, although not from a performance point of view. The title track was a committee decision, taken because nobody could agree which song to do. ”Do It” was a collection of different tunes and time signatures which appeared to have been thrown together haphazardly. As a choice for a single it was absolutely the wrong song, but I didn’t feel qualified to argue against it. The lyrical drift was ”don’t get stuck in a dead end job” and it started: “I’m pedalling along unending roads to work, I try to be late, Rank on rank of faceless men, I hate them but then again they’re my mates.” Pardon? It was that old lyrics problem again. Track 2 was Touch Your Love, a new-wavish song which would have been my choice for lead track, plus Murder In New York, for people buying at gigs who wanted a souvenir of a stage favourite.
Never mind that the recording was obviously inadequate, there was also an amazing palaver with the sleeve. Rather than employ someone who had experience in making record sleeves, a printing firm was chosen which used a quite unnecessary laminating procedure, managed to put the hole in the wrong side of the sleeve so that the record kept falling out, and also used too much glue, so that a good percentage of singles had sticky blobs of glue all over them, rendering them unplayable. Apart from that, everything was great.
In actual fact, many benefits flowed from this record. Because most people had heard of the band, we managed to get a couple of distributors to buy quite a lot of stock to be sent out to indie record stores, plus masses were sold at gigs. There are a few still in the shed today, but eventually, we sold the bulk of the 5000 pressed. But, far more importantly, what would the industry think? The reaction, as it was to everything that TLU did, was mixed, but we couldn’t possibly have got off to a worse start. With entirely well-meaning intent, I sent an advance copy to Gethyn Jones, to be played on his Saturday morning show, which had a New Release section with a panel of local critics. Obviously, I requested that he shouldn’t mention that I had a connection with the station. As we tuned in with bated breath, this is what we heard:
John Thompson:I don’t like this. I think it’s an attempt to be a bit clever musically and electronically. It just hasn’t come off, if you’ll pardon the expression. I don’t think very much of that at all and it certainly won’t see the light of day.
Pete Cross:I think that’s the worst we’ve played today. This is really too bad to make it. There’s nothing going for it at all.
Frantic Fran: I thought it was rubbish. Come from Winchester? They should stay there. Being released next week? I don’t know why, ’cos its a waste of time. Thieves and who are they called? Rubbish! It’ll never do nothing. (Voted a unanimous miss.)
Luckily, a more cheerful response was just around the corner, as a journalist called Simon Tebbutt made the record Single Of The Week in Record Mirror. Such recognition in the national music press was all we had dreamed: ”Tempering raw, brash energy with a deep respect for melody and musical dexterity, they exude an irresistible and enigmatic quality”. Blimey! Couldn’t have put it better myself, although, purely objectively, not even I would have claimed it was worthy of Single Of The Week. It couldn’t last, of course. The local press were very kind, keen for a star act to emerge from their neck of the woods. “Do It will be listened to and appreciated for the excellent song it is”, said Steve Keenan in the Evening Echo, while Graham Garnett in the Basingstoke Gazette rather oddly called the band ”stimulating and tongue-tingling through your electronic voice box in the living room”. In the Bournemouth Bugle, Barry Lane, a cheerful bloke who adored the band, noted that the single had “more hooks than a fisherman’s tackle box”. Yes, Barry, that’s the problem. Not all the national papers were beastly, and we were thrilled when Chris Difford from Squeeze, a songwriter we all liked, called it ”good and eventful” in Smash Hits. In Superpop, a readers’ panel declared, ”I can’t believe anything as awful as this has made it to the studio”, and Sandy Robertson of Sounds, of whom we had had high hopes, talked of ”much sincerity and thrashing to no purpose”. The NME ignored the single completely, and John Peel played it once, without commenting. That meant he didn’t like it. It was becoming clear that the band was polarising opinion. You either loved them or hated them. An example of how essentially the same performance could be interpreted in two completely different ways can be seen in the contrasting reactions to the live show of two different reviewers. A character called RAB saw the band for Sounds at Crocker’s in Bristol, while Simon Tebbutt of Record Mirror attended a show at, guess where, the Windsor Castle:
Record Mirror: They are as intriguing to watch as they are exciting to listen to.
Sounds: It’s the same old shallow thrash they’ve been hawking round the country for nine months.
Record Mirror: They provide something completely different, incorporating wit, entertainment and drama in a first class set.
Sounds: When it gets caught up in the singer’s ham acting and the shallow, easy shot lyrics, not to mention the cheapo cheapo props, the whole exercise becomes nigh-on unbearable.
Record Mirror: The songs are powerful and compelling, abrasive new wave energy and strong melodies. Do It is the most notable.
Sounds: A more shapeless, forgettable meander than Do It I have yet to bump into.
Record Mirror: They’re not some cheap cabaret act. They’ve got intelligence and artistry and what’s more, they aren’t afraid to use it.
Sounds: The music is grab-bag rock. They can play two bars of just about anything.
So you paid your money and you took your choice. Let’s just say that all the best bands cause differences of opinion. Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in the ranks. Paul Bringloe was continuing to be unreliable and there was an unpleasant incident after a gig we did as a favour to some guys who used to run a pub called the Fighting Cocks in Winchester. They had taken over a country hotel near Petersfield and wanted the band to play for a party. Against my wishes (it seemed a pointless gig), they rehearsed a set of covers and played the gig. Paul then got uncontrollably drunk and on the way home was yelling obscene abuse at passers-by out of the car window. Not long after that, he was attacked by someone in the street one evening in Winchester. He valiantly played on with his broken jaw wired up, and even got a mention in NME, but it was somehow symptomatic. Paul was the kind of guy people liked to hit. By August, for a whole variety of reasons, Paul had left the band, but finding a replacement was easy. From a huge list of applicants (maybe reflecting the minor buzz that was around), it was obvious that John Parish was the drummer we needed. Only nineteen, John was intelligent, keen, serious-minded, reliable and, above all, not a show-off. He was keen on the band and we knew immediately that we wanted him. After a few weeks of rehearsal, the band was interviewed for a lengthy feature in Musicians Only, written by Richard Newton. To my surprise, he started off the article with something that had never crossed my mind:
“It seems to be a growing habit for bands to enjoy an amazingly casual relationship with their management. Take Winchester band Thieves Like Us, for instance. Their manager is a reasonable chap called Oliver Gray. He fulfils his function admirably, after all, the band are playing an average of fifteen gigs a month. But ask what percentage he’s on, or even if there’s a signed management contract, and he’ll merely reply that they don’t work like that. They prefer a more relaxed set-up. It certainly seemed relaxed. When I arrived to interview the band at Oliver’s abode, he was still in bed. One or two Thieves were sunning themselves in his lounge, drinking his coffee and nicking his fruit (presumably living up to their name).
Gosh! But it went on to be a well-written analysis of our situation. Having made a point of mentioning the public school connection (huh!), Newton went to the heart of things:
“Comparisons are difficult because every song seems to shoot off at a tangent. It is this lack of continuity which is their main weakness. They seem to be exploring various avenues but are reluctant to make a decision about which to pursue. Perhaps this is why that magic recording contract remains just beyond their grasp.”
Yes, well. None of this seemed to matter too much, because, in November, Tony Oxley left the band. There isn’t too much to say about this, because it was very simple: His girlfriend made him leave. Now, Tony says he deeply regrets what happened, but we all know how it is when you’re in love. The girl in question, a highly possessive person called Vanessa, who worked as a waitress in a Winchester Burger Bar called Alice’s Restaurant, simply said, “It’s the band or me”, and Tony had no choice. He did, however, give notice. The tense last few gigs, during which Vanessa would insist that Tony stayed outside in the car with her except when physically required to be on stage, culminated in an emotional farewell at the Swan, Hammersmith. The relationship didn’t last and it was years before Tony would look me in the eye again, because his departure meant the beginning of the end of the band. But before that, there were lots more traumas to be experienced.
In went the advert to the Melody Maker, back came a stream of applications, and into the St. John’s Rooms in Winchester we went to audition a select few. There were instant thumbs-downs for Norman from Potter’s Bar, who had a long beard and shoulder-length hair, and for a member of another South Coast new wave band, who arrived in a state of cocaine-induced confusion and was incapable of playing. The job went to Barry Mizen. He was by far the best choice from the available options, because he was a good, individual-sounding player, he had experience and he looked great: feather-cut hair, tight trousers and, like the rest of the band, not averse to a spot of make-up. The band said yes, but there was something about him which I found untrustworthy. Also, I knew that his background in Cockney R and B bands meant that he wouldn’t fit in socially. This was a fact rather than a value judgement. I was all for placing another advert, but I was out-voted. Things were urgent because (cue celestial choir) we had got our record deal.
I still think it’s a great story. In August, we were doing a run-of-the-mill show at (guess where?) the Windsor Castle. It had been a very trying gig because a couple of drunks, in an attempt to provoke me, had been fiddling with my lighting board all evening. I was therefore in no mood for what I assumed was a tramp, when an old bloke in a brown raincoat came over to me and started talking in what I thought was a spoof American accent. He was the president of a record company, he said, and he was interested in signing the band. Yeah, sure. I thought if I ignored him, he would go away. After a while, he pressed a business card into my hand and told me to ring him if I was interested. It wasn’t until we were packing up that I thought to look at the card. What I saw was quite a shock: Private Stock Records, New York. Private Stock was a name I recognised from conversations with Chris Denning. After quitting Bell Records (yes, Bay City Rollers, Gary Glitter et al), Private Stock was the label that boss Larry Uttal had set up in its wake. And what was more, it was the label which had discovered Blondie.
I made a mental note to quiz Chris Denning about it the following day. In fact, Larry rang me at 9 o’clock the next morning. He definitely wanted to open negotiations with the band, he said. When could he come and see them again? I suggested a forthcoming gig at Salisbury City Hall. In the meantime, I consulted Chris Denning, who was equivocal. On the one hand, he said, we’d be unlikely to get a good deal; Larry would drive a hard bargain. On the other hand, as his track record demonstrated, he was damn good. Chris counselled that we should be careful, take good advice, but certainly not reject Larry’s advances out of hand. Larry took the train down to Salisbury shortly before Tony left the band. Unfortunately, I had chosen an awful gig to invite him to. For a start, Vanessa virtually held us to ransom over Tony, refusing to let him play. We spent much of the day chasing the pair of them round the lanes of Hampshire. A local promoter had hired the cavernous City Hall and of course there were only about twenty people there, one of them a stoned punk who lay in the middle of the floor and slept throughout the performance. Larry’s enthusiasm was un-dampened, however, and he had a point. If the band could put in a good performance in such circumstances (which they did), they could obviously handle any adversity. Me, I had to handle some adversity that very night, because of course the promoter couldn’t pay us. We had a contract and, more to the point, an obligation to pay the cost of the large P.A. we had hired in an attempt to fill the big hall. Frantic negotiations took place in a dark alley at the back of the hall as the hapless promoter emptied his pockets of every penny he had. Things, I hoped, could only get better.
Just for a brief while, they did. Larry wooed the band, sometimes ringing me up several times a day. We hired a lawyer who claimed to understand music business contracts (he didn’t) and eventually, in Larry’s suite in central London, the contract was signed. I remember the day because my car broke down in Twickenham and Larry was offended because we were late. For some reason, he had prepared some scrambled eggs and was upset that they were spoilt. The contract was no use to us, we very soon found out, because the percentage to the band was far too low, and because it obligated Larry to do nothing at all other then to make recordings and then promote them. But TLU were a live band, and, what was more, a live band without a P.A. or transport, now that Tony had left. Chris found a solution to the problem of transporting the gear by buying an ancient left-hand drive German post van. Luckily, I had found the perfect P.A. company in the form of One-Two P.A. Hire, run from Bournemouth by a languid Welshman called Tommy Winstone. Tommy had worked with the Freshly Layed Band and its various offshoots, and was the best sound engineer any of us had encountered. He was also a mine of salacious stories about his past, which I won’t dwell on, on account of the fact that he is now married to a barrister. He took a liking to TLU, but he cost money.
It is unfair to be completely negative about what Larry Uttal did for the band. Everything about the single (well, everything apart from the sleeve) was superb. The band was whisked into a smart London studio called Marcus Music and recorded with a young engineer called Mark Wallace, who created a very bright, sparkling production of a perfect song for the job, Mind Made. This song, with its chugging pace, its ear-catching but not embarrassing lyrics, its strong chorus and false ending, was a true high point of the band’s career. In its way, it is a minor classic, in that it wasn’t just of its time, it still sounds good today. This song was representative of the new maturity that John Parish had introduced to the band. Many miles from being just the drummer, John was immediately influential in all areas of TLU, notably the songwriting. By the time the record deal was signed, the live set had some marvellous new songs, such as the crazy echo-fest of Trampoline and the almost-funky Golden Handshake. John had a strong influence on all these, and a whole lot more too. When Larry visited the recording session, he caused some consternation by questioning some of the lyrics:
“Guys, I’m not sure about the Pig Farm”.
“The Pig Farm?”
”The line which goes ”She’s got a pig farm”.
”No, Larry, the line is ”She’s got opaque form”.
“Oh? Well, I still don’t like it”.
I believe that, if things had gone right at that stage, Thieves Like Us could have made the transition into being a serious band. This was, rightly in my opinion, the direction that John wanted to take them in, and Tim and Mark were in agreement. Chris, I think, saw John as a threat, likely to take his band and change its character. And the audience, well, the audience wanted the band to stay as it had been, complete with Bully Boy and Murder In New York. So all that happened was that the live set became an even more incongruous set of inappropriate contrasts than it had been before. Barry Mizen, like Larry Uttal, was a double-edged sword. Although his brief spell with the band was a disaster, his playing was crucial to the quality of the single. The guitar figure he played characterised the whole of the A-side, while his solo on the B-side, Strike Out, is brilliant, a model of brevity, taste and attack. But that was about it. As we continued gigging, Barry turned out to be hopelessly unreliable. In fact, he missed more gigs than he actually played. When he did play, as at the opening gig at John Parish’s alma mater, Yeovil Technical College, he looked and sounded great. But, more often then not, he subjected the band to the humiliation of having to play as a four-piece with Tim on guitar.
The end of this brief and unhappy spell came with a horrible, horrible evening at King’s College Hospital in London. This was by far the most violent gig the band ever did. Extraordinarily, considering that it really was a hospital, there seemed to be some kind of gang warfare going on. Whatever else the audience wanted, it certainly wasn’t Thieves Like Us. From my position on the balcony, wielding a spotlight, I could look down on the vicious brawl taking place below. Our poor London P.A. man, hired because Tommy was unavailable, was hauled from his mixing desk and beaten up. As I made my weary way backstage, the first thing I saw was Barry and some other band members, gathered interestedly round some chopped-out lines of coke on a mirror. I immediately assumed that Barry must have been responsible for the introduction of this new pastime.
”What the fuck are you doing?”
“Mind your own business, you public school creep.”
No words could have provoked me more.
“It is my fucking business. I’m not going to let you destroy my band!”
He wanted to hit me. I almost hoped he would, because Barry is the only person in my life that I would have really been keen to hit back. But we were both restrained and that was that. Appropriately, the corridor to the exit was literally flowing with blood.
Barry was out, and so, I decided, must I soon be. At this stage, I was managing the band, writing for the Chronicle, writing for Musicians Only, doing the Solent gig guide, organising school exchanges and holding down a full-time teaching job. Something had to give. By the time the single was launched, we had a new guitar player, recruited by the trusty MM advert. Norman from Potters Bar applied again, but we didn’t call him for audition. Instead, we did this time find the perfect person in the form of Craig Whipsnade. This was the ear-catching stage name of David Hubbard, a tiny, thin man who played the right style of guitar, wrote good songs and had contacts in the business. Craig had previously been in Screeens, a band we had supported in Salisbury. He had even had a Christmas solo single out, called It Looks Like Rain, Dear under the name The Antlers. What more could we want?
This was a strange period indeed. Craig was joining a band whose single was about to be released although he hadn’t played on it. Indeed, Craig’s second gig was the Grand Single Launch, held at the Tower Arts Centre in Winchester. As Larry was unwilling to help in any way (he didn’t even attend the show), poor Mrs Stonor had to stump up for the food and drink. The show was great, but I felt out of my depth. Larry had hired a new press agent called Howard Harding, who was next to useless. I couldn’t believe how little press coverage a paid agent gained compared to what I had managed, unpaid, with the previous single. One thing Howard did do was persuade a trendy journalist from The Face called Neil Norman to follow the band around for a while and document it, in theory, for the Observer magazine. We doubted whether this would ever come to anything, and indeed it didn’t. It did, however, encourage me to keep a diary of events and send it to him. Here, then, is the diary that Neil Norman never used, starting with a reference to a dire and misconceived showcase gig supporting Doll By Doll at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead.
Dear Neil, We last saw you on Monday, the night of the Moonlight gig. As you know, Chris’s van with the equipment in it broke down on the way to London, and we only just managed to get there. Actually, his exhaust pipe had also fallen off, but we decided not to tell him that, as he has been getting so depressed about the van. Doll By Doll did a ninety-minute sound check (actually a rehearsal), which left us with five minutes in front of an incoming audience and only a few square inches of stage space. Still, the omens didn’t seem bad. It was fairly full and we’d worked with the sound people before, though it turned out they knew who they were working for tonight. Things which were totally impossible for us, such as a bit of echo on the vocals and putting the drums through the foldback, magically appeared during Doll By Doll’s set. But we know all about the support band blues, and the band played superbly, not putting a note wrong and getting quite healthy applause from an audience consisting entirely of press and business people, plus fans in Doll By Doll T-shirts (who later didn’t even ask Doll By Doll for an encore). Anyway, the band came off feeling really happy and were instantly thrown into depression by people such as Howard Harding and yourself coming up and saying, ”You weren’t as good as on such and such an occasion”. Nobody has yet put a finger on why the general reaction wasn’t very positive, so we’ll just have to call it one of those things. As we left the gig, the van packed up completely a mile down the road. It was totally knackered, so we eventually left Craig and Chris to sort it out. For them, this entailed getting the AA, who couldn’t do anything, getting two hours sleep in the van, finally being towed to a ripoff garage and hiring another van, thus incurring huge bills which none of us has the wherewithal to pay. On Tuesday, I’m going to have another go at getting some money out of Larry (which will no doubt be as unsuccessful as other attempts.)Meanwhile, John and I got to Winchester at 4.30 am, and I was up at seven to go to school, not in the best of moods (it’s exam season). At break, I gave Larry a call and was very nearly rude to him when he stated that the band had played badly and would have to try harder (!), which I thought was pretty clever of him, considering he hadn’t been there. It turned out that Dan Silver of MAM didn’t like the band. Well, he’s never liked them right from the days when he was with Albion, and if I’d known Larry was going to invite him, I’d have told him not to bother. We had a slightly strained conversation. Wednesday at the Greyhound and it looked like nightmare time was approaching again. Through a series of misfortunes too boring to relate, we had to support an unknown band but still use our hired P.A. Inevitably, Tommy broke down somewhere near Southampton, so no P.A. materialised. (Tommy rang to say ”The water pump is fucked!”) There was a prevailing mood of blow it out, which really got my blood up, as it’s so bloody difficult to get these gigs in the first place. I said we were going to do the gig even if it was acoustic! It turned out there was a house P.A of sorts, normally used for the disco, and the manager was really helpful, conjuring up some mikes and stands from a friend down the road, so the show went on. Thieves always rise to a challenge, and really won over the smallish audience to the extent of a real encore. So strange: This time the reaction from the business people was very enthusiastic, despite several mistakes and an appalling sound. PAN agency now seem interested, as are Bron. Brian Harrigan was impressed and will, I think, give us a good write up. Howard Harding was happy again. I don’t think he liked being surrounded by hundreds of rather uninterested Record Mirror staff at the Moonlight. Thursday was newspaper day, and we were all amused to see Record Mirror call it a lightweight pop song, while New Music News called it heavy and doom-laden. My pal on the Evening Echo did us proud with a huge piece and an interview with John, including this gem: ”Having Neil Norman in the dressing room is a bit strange”! The Brighton Evening Argus reveals that “Brighton-born Chris Stonor is set to follow in the wake of David Cassidy and Gary Glitter”! We never did have much credibility, but that’s ridiculous! Distinctly unglittering were Friday’s and Saturday’s gigs. On Friday, we depped for The Limos at Southampton Rugby Club. This was an all-ticket affair in something resembling a scout hut, but sadly not many people had wanted to see the Limos. They were rather over-awed when we appeared, having all read the Echo and thinking we were superstars. Some of them zoomed round various pubs telling people TLU were at the Rugby Club, but nobody believed them! Saturday was at Bognor Regis College, again a last-minute thing organised too late for me to send them any publicity. Now this is a teacher training college and Saturday was the second day of half term, which hadn’t struck the social secretary as a disadvantage. Naturally, anyone with any sense had hightailed it out of Bognor the day before. However, despite small audiences, both gigs were very good, double encore jobs, and the band has a zappy new short set for maximum impact. The week was ironically quite good for pulling everyone together. Craig is now really part of the band (he stamped TLU on his guitar case on Saturday), and we work very well with Andy and Tommy (P.A.Hire). They are really involved now, and not only because their fee is always 90 percent of the gig money. During my half term, I spent a few days in London acquiring a distinct distaste for the business side of things. For this reason, I have been encouraging the band to get involved with a management company which is interested in them. They have a sort of sentimental attitude that I should stay as manager, but I think they are now aware that I don’t have the experience or desire to get involved in the business and couldn’t possibly do justice to them. Also, Larry wants to work with an established company, although he’s going to get a shock when people start to stand up to him! Anyway, back to the diary:
June 3,4,5: The whole band was doing session work in Southampton in order to pay a few of the debts …
6th: Windsor Castle. A good gig. Larry came and his faith was reaffirmed despite the venue being less than pleasant to be in. The promised journalists did not appear.
7th: We spent the day in London, sorting out the details of the journey to Bremen. This is the sort of thing a management company would sort out. Details too boring to relate. The Swan in the evening was a goodie as usual. The TV people were there working out their cues and tactics. The promised journalists did not appear.
8th: A lovely little gig in Southampton overcomes P.A. problems and is a big success, showing that local support hasn’t waned.
9, 10, 11: By all accounts, the trip went well. The arrangements worked, the TV show went down a storm (3 encores). It’s been sold to several companies in various countries already. I missed the next three gigs, being on a school trip, so will relate reports.
15th: A big disappointment. Returning to their favourite venue (the Pinecliff in Bournemouth), they found that noise problems have made its future dodgy. They are too loud and the management is very annoyed (i.e. Don’t come back!)
18th: I thought this one was likely to be a repeat of the Moonlight fiasco, supporting Supercharge at the Venue. But no, the band went down excellently. The promised journalists did not appear, but PAN agency did, and said they have decided to sign the band. A major problem is going to be the following: PAN have several acts going out in the Autumn for which TLU would be a good support, but it is now standard practice for large sums of money to change hands in order to secure support slots. Larry has laid it on the line that he will not put up money for anything other than the record side of things, and isn’t interested in live performance at all. And we certainly haven’t got any money.
21st: Goodbye to another old favourite gig, the Cellar Vino in Weymouth. Now that the band is so scattered and we have to hire a P.A., we lose on all these small gigs. Tim’s props case was stolen at this gig, causing him much fury, but giving me a chance to zap out a press release.
28th: Gig at the John Peel, Gosport, almost had to be called off when the P.A. people broke down, but I managed to get hold of a substitute at the last minute. A potential disaster turned into a minor triumph.
30th: Keep quiet about this one. I sweated blood to get this gig (supporting Kokomo at the Thomas A’Beckett in London), but the turnout was poor and the promoter, Jazz Summers, sneaked off without paying either band. We daren’t make an issue out of it because he runs several other venues in London. Understand why I want out of the business side?
4th: Windsor Castle. A fairly standard gig.
5th: The Swan. Ditto. A prevailing feeling of not being any further than a year ago. I have no more gigs lined up, because we expected an agent to have stepped in by now, and there had been the hope that the single might just take off. John and Tim have got themselves jobs for the summer, as the crock of gold seems a way off yet and we can’t do much more than wait and see what happens.
The reviews of the Moonlight gig could hardly have been less helpful. Here’s an example, from Chris Westwood in Record Mirror: ”Thieves Like Us are the sort of cabaret stock-rock I thought had become extinct years ago. They attempt to stab and parody rock and roll rigmarole, showbiz, theatre pop, all that stuff, but look like nothing more than a symptom of the problem, whatever it is they’re poking at.” New Music News was at least entertaining in its comments, comparing the gig to “watching open-heart surgery on a teddy bear”. Ouch! On the other hand, we were still happy with the single. Although it only got one play on Radio One (courtesy of a DJ called Adrian Juste), it was released in a variety of picture sleeves all over Europe. Larry also kept his promise of a live TV special in Bremen. I nearly died with frustration at not being able to go with them to my old stamping ground, but at least made sure that all my old friends and ex-pupils went along, together with Birgit’s brother Harald. That programme was sold all over Europe as well. But the band was broke. I had a sad conversation in Weymouth with Craig, in which he explained that, unless something happened, he wouldn’t be able to afford to stay on. I made various begging phone calls to Larry until he eventually said he would consider it if I wrote a detailed request. Remember that most bands at this stage would have had at least some kind of recoupable cash advance. We had nothing. Not one penny. The list I sent to Larry was completely ignored, but here, for the record, it is:
1. The purchase of a small P.A. system, in order to reduce the present crippling cost of hiring a P.A. for each performance and each rehearsal.
2. The purchase of a satisfactory drum kit for John Parish, whose present mongrel kit tends to collapse at every gig.
3. The purchase of new stage clothing for the entire band, in order to avoid their present gear falling from their bodies any moment now.
4. The repayment of debts incurred from promotional material production, P.A. hire, rehearsal room hire, petrol and travelling expenses, telephone bills and sundry other band expenses incurred by begging and borrowing, mostly from Oliver’s angry bank manager.
The one thing Larry didn’t mind paying for was recording, and so it was that the band went into Park Gate Studios near Hastings in order to record the ”album for release in Europe”. Even this was unsatisfactory. We all wanted Mark Wallace, who had done such a great job on the single, to produce the album, but for some reason, Larry didn’t. He tried to inflict Andy Scott from The Sweet on us, but we eventually settled for Steve James, whose doubtful claim to fame was that he’d worked with Peter Skellern. Birgit and I drove down in our very unreliable VW van to visit the recording sessions. In the garden, we found John Parish and Mark Meredith busy re-writing the lyrics to one of Chris’s songs, Three Day Week. The way they were being changed showed just how the power structure and attitudes within the band had shifted. Re-arranged musically in such a way as to be almost unrecognisable, the song was just as good in its way, but very different: This was how Verse One had started out:
“The idea was good, The Government said, Three days in the week, The working man’s dead, Computers and robots are here.”
And this is what it became:
“My front door is red, It serves as a warning, Don’t trespass at breakfast, I’m worst in the morning, Time’s leaving me poorer today.
Entering the studio, my eyes were immediately attracted to tell-tale razor blades and rolled-up banknotes on the mixing console. Maybe the band was using them, maybe it was the studio staff. I didn’t care. Either way, this was’t the sort of environment I wanted either the band or me to be in, so Birgit and I simply drove back home.
The album, with whose recording quality I personally was less than satisfied, was, of course, never released. It had some good parts and even a prospective single in the form of a cover of Todd Rundgren’s I Saw The Light, which was recorded at Marcus Music. Larry was keen on the idea of a cover version, but nothing ever came of it. I’d love to release the album on CD or online, but of course we don’t own the rights to the recordings. I tried desperately to fix up a support tour of the UK with Fischer- Z. This band, Big In Germany, seemed perfectly compatible with Thieves, but a buy-on was required, along with accommodation and transport costs. Larry refused to offer any money and, in any case, Chris Stonor said that he wasn’t willing to do the tour. There were tensions between him and John and his band had changed almost beyond recognition. It was over.
In 1998, eighteen years after they split up, Thieves Like Us reunited for my fiftieth birthday party: John, Mark, Tim, Tony (back in the fold and wishing, ironically, that he’d never left in the first place), plus Mark’s brother Guy on keyboards because Chris hadn’t felt he could do it. The audience, few of whom had ever heard of the band, was as amazed at their power as people had been back in 1978. Several of them came up to me afterwards and suggested that I should consider managing them. I told them I’d give it some thought.
Thieves Like Us Where Are They Now?
John Parish has a flourishing career as a record producer. He is renowned worldwide for his work with PJ Harvey, co-producing several of her albums including the award-winning Let England Shake. In 2002, he joined Eels and produced albums for Goldfrapp and Tracy Chapman. John also has a successful solo career.
Tony Oxley runs the family bookshop and picture framing business.
Mark Meredith is a successful graphic designer in Southampton.
Tim Barron has spent the entire interim as a professional actor, with TV credits and lengthy spells in the West End.
Chris Stonor has had major success in Japan and the USA with his albums of ambient relaxation music.
David Hubbard (Craig Whipsnade) is a prolific producer of TV jingles and library music. He wrote the Eggheads theme!
Paul Bringloe, now teetotal and a thoroughly good guy, works for an advertising agency in London and still plays drums for a prog band called The Far Meadow.
Barry Mizen was last heard of as sound engineer on Channel 4’s The Word.
Tommy Winstone is one of the UK’s leading tour managers, working with Mansun, Cast and Faithless, among many others.