Psychedelicised questions in the house of Fire (Part 5)

1 What was the first record you bought and where from? And can you remember the price?

“I was initially into soul music in the early 1970s. The first single I bought was ‘I’ll Take You There’ by Staple Singers; I was also digging Temptations, Four Tops, Undisputed Truth, Sly Stone and that cool vein of psych-soul with fuzzy guitars and spaced-out lyrics. This led to an interest in rock music, so my first albums were ‘Who’s Next’ by The Who, and Led Zeppelin’s 4th LP. I probably bought them at WH Smith in Solihull, where I’d go shop-lifting for magazines as a school-boy. I later bought my records at a cool shop called Heavy Head Records in Sparkhill, Birmingham. owned by Bev Bevan, the drummer of The Move and ELO, who would often serve me in person; I admit that I might have been a little rude to him about ELO! The original Virgin shop in Birmingham was great as well, run by these hairy freaks, who knew their music and sold the underground press; I’d get my prog-rock albums from those two places. Reddingtons near Moor Street station was great for second-hand discs, especially old-time rock ’n’ roll; I’d go there to trade in LPs I’d got tired of, or bought in error!”


2 What was the record that changed your life and how did it do so?

“My big brother Dave had the first Shadows album and the first Rolling Stones LP, plus one by Buddy Holly; I was puzzled by this pop star who like me wore horn-rimmed spectacles, which was decidedly unglamorous and this image seemed atypical of your average pop star or musician, but maybe I subconsciously felt that if he could get it on, then maybe I could have a go. When he left home, Dave left behind a few albums, so I played them in my early teens. He left me ‘Disraeli Gears’ by Cream, which was a heady intoxicating psychedelic concoction for such a suburban child as myself. He also left ‘Wee Tam And Big Huge’ by Incredible String Band, which I couldn’t get my mind around at all, but I got into them in a big way about 30 years later! Actually the record which REALLY changed my life was my first single, with my little circle of friends; we called ourselves Swell Maps. It was called ‘Read About Seymour’. It was a considerable leap of faith, saving up the money, then getting the session organised, recorded, designed and released on our own label, Rather Records. We were a sort of multi-media art collective. When we heard John Peel play it on the radio for the first time it was mind-blowing! It was one of the proudest moments of my life, and it seemed to validate what we had been working at for the previous five or so years. We didn’t really think very far ahead, because we were too engrossed in the process of creation, and planning the next release, but it ultimately opened many doors for us collectively and individually.”


3 What’s your driving playlist and who, if you had the chance would be riding shotgun?

“Nowadays, I just grab my portable player and a few CDs, and sling them in my VW camper if I’m going on a long drive. The last few times I drove down to Kent I remember grooving to Can, Nina Simone, Moondog and ‘The Who Sell Out’. I would sometimes drive into Birmingham with Epic or Phones when I was a teenager, or just cruise around; I was the only one of our little circle who had a license, and access to a car. I remember once hearing Captain Beefheart for the first time, while I was driving with the radio on. It was a single called ‘Too Much Time’ from the ‘Clear Spot’ album. I was driving along the Stratford Road, and I recall the thrill; I was heavily into soul music at the time; strangely enough it sounded like one of my beloved Stax singles. It’s nice driving around with my own gang; last summer I went with my band The Demi-Monde to Whitstable in Kent, for what turned out to be our final stand; we played unplugged on the beach along a ley-line known locally as The Street, as part of a Pagan performance devised by my artist-friend Helene Williams, then we did a gig in the local Labour Club. That was one of my favourite recent “on the road” experiences.”


4 What’s your favourite Elvis song?

“I particularly dig ‘Crawfish’ from the soundtrack of King Creole. I did a version of it on my first album ‘Pincer Movement’. I was obsessed by crustaceans at the time, which partly explains it, but I liked the swampy rhythm and the spooky feel of it. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is dead cool as well. Dan Treacy wrote a great song called ‘She Loves It When He Sings Like Elvis’, which was for a single b-side. He explained to me that it was inspired by a story that he heard about a woman who could only get in an amorous mood when her husband sang an Elvis song to her!”


5 Who’s your favourite Beatle and why?

The Beatles presented such a unified image as a band, it was difficult to isolate them individually. The Beatles were an important part of my life as a child – my sister would play their first couple of LPs on a chic little modern contraption called a Dansette gramophone. However, I particularly admired the work of John Lennon; I’d enjoy those desperate songs that he’d sing like ‘Help’, ‘Misery’ and ‘Chains’. Later, I’d especially like his ‘Plastic Ono Band’ LP in particular. I’d play a cassette of that when driving, the thought of which is slightly disturbing now. I got into the idea of primal scream therapy through him, in my early 20s when I was struggling to express myself, and I was going through a “difficult period”. My friend from Swell Maps, Epic Soundtracks, typically managed to pick up the more obscure Lennon/Yoko albums!”


6 If you were commissioned to write the theme song from any TV programme what would you choose and how would you tackle it?

“I was into TV dramas about the supernatural and science fiction when I was a child; I could dig some of the American series like Mission Impossible, Man From UNCLE, but mostly I seemed to be into the British programmes. The music was a big part of the appeal: Doctor Who, Quatermass, Tales of the Unexpected, The Tomorrow People. I also loved the Gerry Anderson puppet shows: Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, and so on. The name of my first band Swell Maps was actually derived from dialogue in Stingray. I also loved The Prisoner, The Avengers, Adam Adamant, and all those spy dramas. I loved John Barry’s scores for things like the Persuaders; it was a tacky show, but it used great theme music featuring gloomy minor chords, a hammered dulcimer and heavy synthesiser. I also loved those very English feature films like Ealing comedies, and the harpsichord theme from the Miss Marple films featuring Margaret Rutherford is still a favourite. I’d love to provide the music for a mystery drama series or a vampire film, so I could use some of my favourite sounds: a real harpsichord, my hammered dulcimer sound, and my Theremin and analogue synthesiser.”


7 Which song have you always wanted to cover but never quite managed yet?

I’ve always loved ‘Windmills Of Your Mind’, it knocked me out when I saw the original Thomas Crown Affair at the pictures. I love it especially when sung by Dusty Springfield, but it’s got too many chords for me to handle! I’d have to tamper with it somehow to make it more elemental and droney. I’ve covered a few Sun Ra tunes, but I would like to have a shot at ‘Satellites Are Spinning’, which would be a challenge; it uses strange harmonies and peculiar chords.”


8 What, after a social evening, is the one album that you insist your fellow socialites should hear before they leave?

“After I’ve had a few glasses of wine with a few people around, I often put on Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s first LP, which is red-hot! ‘Some Velvet Morning’, ‘Sand’, and ‘Summer Wine’; what an album!”


9 Which film do you wish you’d had a cameo in?

“I love the old Ealing comedies, so I’d loved to have had a small part in The Lavender Hill Mob or The Ladykillers, but they were well before my time. Maybe a minor role in a David Lynch film, or The X Files might have suited me. Believe it or not, Mark Sheppard, the original drummer in the TVPs, emigrated to Los Angeles in the 1980s and ended up acting in major parts in several episodes of The X Files!”


10 In the biopic of your illustrious career who plays you in the movie?

“I was often likened to John Hurt when I was in my 20s, which puzzled me for a while, especially considering the first films of his that I was aware of were Naked Civil Servant and Elephant Man! Watching his hatching scene from The Alien was particularly disturbing to me for that reason, and others which are too complicated to explain here. Dan Treacy used to say I looked like Rex Harrison, which was flattering, so I’d sometimes sing ‘Talk To The Animals’ from Doctor Doolittle…”


11 If you were on a night out with Ozzy Osbourne where would you suggest you went?

“I’d probably avoid LA, where he seems to live these days, because I don’t care for it much myself, having gone to California to play a few gigs last year. I’d favour a mooch around Birmingham, because I haven’t returned there for decades. Not that I am nostalgic for the place, mind you! Just curious, and I’d like him to show me where he grew up, and check out how the city has changed.”


12 If you were asked to cover a Simon And Garfunkel song in the style of Frank Zappa who would you rope into the band to get it nailed?

“I might try a version of ‘Scarborough Fair’, the arrangement of which Paul Simon apparently nicked from Martin Carthy, who I’ve come to dig a lot over the last ten years. I’ve slowly come to appreciate British traditional styles, and I’ve even recorded some of these ancient tunes, and performed some of them live, but I inevitably add my own warped sensibility and primitive approach into the mix, so it might end up unrecognisable! Actually I really dig the first two Mothers Of Invention albums, but I cannot get into all the Zappa stuff after that. Too “clever” and self-indulgent! I have discussed this with a few people who assume that I was into Zappa in a big way; most of them are also into Captain Beefheart. I much preferred Beefheart, myself; a very instinctive and distinctive artist, lacking the pretentious, cynical traits that turned me off later work by Zappa, who seemed to be trying too hard to be outrageous, and he bored me with all his tedious long guitar solos, so even if he was still alive he would be overlooked for a start! Anyway, my new band Infernal Contraption has such amazing players I need look no further: Catherine could play some bowed saw and Theremin, Lee plays fine bass and sings useful harmonies, Ravi is an inventive drummer, and Cos might play some wild E-bowed guitar. My pal Jasmine (from our duo project Eleventh Hour Adventists) would also be invited to wield her wicked electric cello.”


13 Pete Townshend had pictures of Lily, what did you have on your teenage bedroom wall?

“I remember I had a black-and-white poster of Bowie from the ‘Man Who Sold The World’ LP, which I played a lot. I also had a few posters of bands; there was one given away at a Led Zeppelin concert I went to with Adrian (aka Nikki Sudden) in about 1974; that was a very exciting show. I also had a psychedelic poster of Jimi Hendrix, whose music I also adored, by Martin Sharpe the Australian ex-pat who was involved in the underground scene in London. Before I got into music-making, I started getting into painting, and I made pictures based on ancient Egyptian, Mayan, Aztec and Assyrian images. I couldn’t afford fancy art paper, so I used cut up pieces of old left-over wall-paper that I scrounged.”


14 Did you ever join a fanclub? If so, tell us about it?

“I wasn’t into joining any fan-clubs at all! I admired many musicians, particularly Brian Eno, Robert Fripp (King Crimson), Hendrix, Don Vliet (Beefheart). But I never idolised anyone; that seemed rather too juvenile. Nikki, for example, had good taste in music on the whole but he adored Marc Bolan, so he was totally indiscriminate in his judgement of T Rex records, which I found baffling; they were all, in his opinion, brilliant, and he’d routinely play me the new releases for me to admire, or so he hoped. Most of Bolan’s early records are certainly excellent, but the quality gradually declined, so some some of the later ones are simply awful! Personally, one of the original punk ideals that I still adhere to is the “no more heroes” philosophy, and I distance myself from the tendency of people to accept the role of passive uncritical consumer or devout worshiper at some holy site.”


15 What’s your most treasured piece of memorabilia?

“I still possess my first electric guitar, a cheap Italian Eko, which made a fine racket, dispensing growling feedback! I can’t bear to part with it, despite it being somewhat dilapidated these days. I also still have a copy of the original pressing of ‘Read About Seymour’, on our Rather label, which is a marvellous thing. I don’t have any stuff by other bands which I treasure on that level; memorabilia is not something that I can get into like some people. Collecting signed copies of everything that their favourite bands made, making shrines to their favourite singers with autographed photos and so on, but I understand the appeal. I have read The Golden Bough by the anthropologist Frazier, and this kind of behaviour is equivalent to what he identifies as “contagious magic”, whereby holy relics are worshiped as potent divine symbols.”


16 What’s the best gig you’ve ever been to?

“That is a tough question. The first few concerts are obviously very memorable. I went to see Mott The Hoople (supported by Queen), Humble Pie and Led Zeppelin in 1973, with Nikki Sudden. Later, I went to the Roxy Club in Covent Garden (when it was still tatty and neglected) with Nikki to see The Adverts and The Damned, which was my first punk gig, in late 1976, or early 1977. That was exciting in a completely different way, and altered me to the limitless potential in me and the rest of our little scene; if they can get up there, then so could we! It was also an indicator of how easy it might be to put on gigs, and run a club. I also went to one of the first gigs by Public Image Ltd, at The Factory in Manchester in 1978; it was a secret word-of-mouth job, a thrilling evening; it was free, as well! I was also thrilled to witness Nirvana at their peak in 1989; when I was in Television Personalities we supported them at the Astoria, which has since been demolished, sad to say.”


17 Which gig did you wish you’d seen?

“I wish I’d been to a Sex Pistols gig; I set off for one when I lived in Manchester that I heard about by word of mouth, as many of them were, but I arrived and it had been cancelled; at least, there was no-one there! It seems unlikely these days, given how jaded the public and the media seem to be, but in the mid-1970s, the Sex Pistols in particular were actually banned from performing all over the country by various local authorities, because they were considered to be so corrupting and dangerous; it was considered that they might cause civil chaos and revolution!”


18 John Lydon – hero or villain?

“I admired Lydon when he was young Rotten, and I loved the Sex Pistols’ records; I still have a bootleg of early demo-tapes. Actually, when I first heard “Anarchy in the UK” I was slightly deflated, because it seemed to be slower than I expected and lacking a certain spark, but I got into the b-side first: ‘I Wanna Be Me’. It was what I was waiting for – loud, primitive, splenetic and deranged, but also unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Lydon was right to get out of the Pistols when he did, and start something more innovative with PiL. It was great timing. He left all the careerist punks behind to recycle what the Pistols had started, and was brave enough to start something different. The current nostalgia for punk in its debased and homogenous form is repellent to me, and seems somewhat reactionary and contradictory to it’s original values. Having said that, the first PiL album wasn’t too hot in my view, but the sound of all that later ‘Metal Box’ material was very influential; ‘Flowers Of Romance’ is brilliant too. With Swell Maps, we would often sound-check with our version of ‘Death Disco’; I loved playing that wicked bass-line that Jah Wobble came up with. They managed to fuse the sound of Can with that of dub reggae and their own characteristics, to create some new, challenging and vital sounds. I didn’t bother going to the recent Sex Pistols reunions – I’d have gone to see the original band like a shot if I’d had the opportunity. Some people are disrespectful of him, for doing butter commercials on TV, and “reality TV”, but what the hell, eh? I am surprised that he might need to do that financially; probably he doesn’t. He is such a show-off, he probably missed being the centre of attention! I think that he is an excellent collaborator, and when he is in the right company he is excellent. There is a lesson for us all there!”