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Puritan Chapter 4

Wednesday 18th June, 2014

1989 - 1992: Once Around The Park

My dad, still with his eye on solid academic achievement, insisted that I at least consider university. Out of respect I applied for places on a number of courses, but the interview process was somewhat unusual, since the hardening of my ambition to be somehow involved with music had meant that the only courses I could conscience would be musical. However, if you flick back a few pages you'll find that I had no formal musical qualifications, outside of a grade 2 piano exam, having done 'A' levels in physics, maths and chemistry. I went for interviews at Liverpool, Salford, Brighton and some other place up north that escapes me now, and the conversations were similar throughout:
"So, you are applying to do music at degree level here"
"Yep"
"And you have 'A' levels in three totally musically unrelated subjects"
"Yep"
"Hmmm"

Despite this I must have somehow impressed at interview (or the courses were woefully under-subscribed) because I was offered places at Liverpool, Brighton and the other place up north that escapes me now. The only one that didn't offer me a place, which still rankles a little, was Salford. It rankles, and I found and still find it ironic, because of all of them it was the only rock / pop music themed course, and one that I would contend I have proven myself to be most suited to. Stupid pride I know, because I didn't really have any intention of taking up the place, but I do recall they asked for auditions on your first and second instrument. God knows why, but rather than say keyboards was my second instrument I opted for bass, which I had enthusiastically taken up a few years before by working my way through the Level 42 back catalogue as a way of teaching myself. The walk from Salford station to the college was along an exposed road that had what appeared to be a force 7 gale blowing at right angles across it; this was somewhat uncomfortable when carrying Rik's bass (that I had borrowed for the occasion) with it's big rectangular case acting as a sail who's only purpose was to try and break my wrist repeatedly. And then they didn't even test me on any bass playing, the bastards, so I carried it back down that same street and home again.

I was coached through my Brighton interview, which was for a course that was apparently well-regarded and much more 'straight' music, by Jonny Greenwood, who was well-versed in all of the academic musical strictures. I particularly remember that he gave me a swift primer on harmonising a tune, and exactly that came up in the interview. I still use the advice he gave me in that 60 minutes when arranging string parts now.

But really I felt I was interviewing them more than they were interviewing me. I knew what I wanted to do, and had a good idea of many ways of doing it. I wanted to know if they had anything that they or their course could offer. The place up north whose name escapes me now was OK, but the campus was miles from a major city and would provide little opportunity for gigging and gigging and networking and more gigging, so I counted that out. The guy who interviewed me at Brighton was inspirational and suited me well, and that would have been a great option if the course hadn't been quite so scarily 'real' music. Liverpool seemed the best option - good facilities including a recording studio, a course representative who seemed to have his head on his shoulders (less cool than the Brighton guy, much less of a twonk than the Salford guy) and a mile or so out of the city centre of a vibrant musical city. So Liverpool it was.

Or rather wasn't. I accepted the place, and then a couple of weeks later phoned up to defer for the following year, which happened without incident. Many friends were doing the same, intending to head off around the world / the U.S. / Asia / Australia for their gap year, but I could so not see even the remotest whimper of an iota of a scintilla of a point in that. Spend money? For no return? Eh? I couldn't fit a drumkit in a backpack, so there was really no question.

My brother's girlfriend at the time, a lovely lady called Abigail, had done some summer work at an archeological bookseller called Oxbow Books, and through her I got a job as their despatch manager (manager? ha! I packed up books and sent them to people who'd ordered them, as well as pootling around Oxford in a tiny little van to deliver local orders). I started in September 1989, a couple of moths after finishing school. I was also desperate for a vehicle of my own so, bless my middle-classness, the parents got me a van for my birthday that year. I do believe I chipped in some of my savings that had come from various Aunts and Uncles over the years to help buy it, but I had specifically requested the Mitsubishi L300 van because that's what Roger Nunn drove, and he was a drummer and had hair like Limahl and that's what we all wanted back then. It was nicknamed 'The Gubb' for reasons that escape me.

With this in place I embarked on a whole load of new musical adventures. Illiterate Hands sputtered out, sadly. Matt the guitarist was a bit of a handful, so we had done one final gig right at the end of my school career, which I had co-organised in the sports hall of the local college of further education. It was a fun show, but the most notable point was one of the support bands was called The Purple Rhinos, which had emerged out of Skag And The Gynecologists when Alan had been replaced by a different bass player called Jason Moulster, or Jase to his friends. I clearly remember Jonny and I stood beside the stage watching this guy play with jaws agape - he was a totally amazing bassist, good looking, a lovely fella (we'd find later) and pissed as a fart. After this final gig Illiterate Hands did have a smattering of rehearsals as a four piece, with Andy taking his first tentative steps playing acoustic guitar, and there were two songs that I still remember as catchy, wildly off-kilter acoustic indie things that sounded entirely unlike anything else. Somehow though with the end of school we couldn't keep any momentum going, and without any drama whatsoever it quietly faded out.

Kiss The Dirt were also still a going concern, still with Roger on drums and me on keyboards, with Betsy having been replaced by Beadie Finzi, the 'very cool singer-guitarist' with whom I had had a semi-relationship back in chapter 3, or 1987 depending on your perspective. We played a few gigs and I wore many hats. Not figuratively, actual hats. The keyboard parts were usually sparse and not too challenging, quite often being triggering samples at the right time, so rather than stand around looking like an embarrassed numpty while not playing for the first time I developed a stage persona, one that could loosely be defined as 'dickhead'. I had an enormous pile of headgear that I would bring onstage with me, changing multiple times throughout the set, and loon about whenever not tied to the keyboards - stupid dancing, attempting to hurt myself however possible, and in one case scaling a quite enormous lighting rig. I was still the same shy and slightly uncomfortable person I'd always been but, in keeping with my personality, there was a job that needed doing (in this case PERFORMING) so there was no question that I was going to do it.

I think I had also been slightly affected in this attitude by certain gigs I had seen, one a how to (kind of) and the other a how not to. Jesus Jones were one of my favourite bands of the time, a very exciting (or so I thought back then) melding of techno and rock that no-one else was doing, and their keyboard player was a total nutter, hurling his instrument around the stage while he played, heaving it over his head, anything to put on a goddamn show. I was also a big fan of Tanita Tikarem's first album, which I played over and over. Until that is she came to play at Oxford Apollo and I went to see it. It remains, bar none, the most boring live show I've ever seen. They came on, played songs off the album that sounded just like the album, and went off again. No-one moved. They didn't bring their own lighting rig. She mumbled to the crowd in that faux-folk humility that completely fails to ignite anything. And it made me want, deep down in my soul, to make sure I was never, ever that dull live, even if it went against all my personal instincts for down-beatness or made me look like a total dick. Better that than boring.

In fact, to pick up a thread from that last paragraph, lighting had become the second of the twin peaks of my life's passions. Iron Maiden had always had an eye for a terrific live show, and their Live After Death video had been a fixture on our VHS for some years. Vastly more influential than that on me though was Genesis. I burned through two copies of their Mama tour film from the NEC in Birmingham in 1983 because I loved the music and the performance, but I loved the incredible, scintillating, beautiful lighting just as much. I would still count it as one of the greatest pure lighting shows (as opposed to theatrical shows or shows that integrate video and other media) ever, with moments as elegant as a watercolour, aggressive as a fist fight and, in the middle of In The Cage, simply inspirationally eye-popping - that one moment, along with when the mellotron choir first comes in on the Seconds Out version of Cinema Show, became one of the things I felt my life was dedicating to reproducing, trying to put across that feeling in something that I do.

But for now drumming, my other passion, was in the driving seat. I was playing with a heavy metal band, who I don't think ever had a name, led by local P.A. builder Dee Kallie (that's a bloke by the way), alongside American singer Leslie Orinick, who I would later help out on a solo demo by playing drums, keyboards and bass.listen to an mp3 of this track{Up and Ready - Leslie Orinick} I played a couple of gigs with People Like Us, one of the school bands who had managed to continue after 'graduation', and drummed with a handful of other acts who needed a percussionist. And, at Dee's house, I recorded a lengthy demo for The Purple Rhinos, who I had been driving around in my van as a roadie for some time, and who had acquired a new singer, in the shape of Anita Wilson.

Not long after this their drummer Dan decided to head out to Australia for a lengthy 'gap year' visit, and they asked if I would step in temporarily so they could keep playing while he was gone, which I happily agreed to. After one rehearsal with two drummers in Dan's garage where I Iearned all the songs we were out and playing shows locally.

Even though it was me and Jim the guitarist who had been at school together, him a year above me, it was with Jason that I developed a swift and deep rapport. I guess that is often the way between drummers and bass players, the rhythmic engine room of any band, but it was also helped by Jase being the nicest possible guy in the world ever. Ever.


My favourite ever picture of Jase and me, at Alton Towers theme park

My favourite ever picture of Jase and me, at Alton Towers theme park


The band was also built around a social group who hung out together in an Abingdon pub. I enjoyed the company and counted all of them among my friends, but I remained a step leftwards of everybody, as only a teetotaller in a pub can. While everyone else would finish the night knocking back brewskis (does anyone actually say that?) around someone's house I would often duck out early.

The Purple Rhinos rapidly became an outfit with a propensity for gigging often and anywhere, and one that I was very committed to. As the time of Dan's return approached Jase became quite adamant that he wanted to continue playing with me. Jim, having played with Dan since Skag And The Gynecologists at school was much more conflicted, but ultimately was in agreement with Jase. I don't remember if Anita had a particular opinion about the whole deal, but then she was a bit of a dappy moo.


Anita Wilson, Purple Rhinos singer

Anita Wilson, Purple Rhinos singer


Dan returned and was given his marching orders by Jim. This turned out to be somewhat more physically dangerous than anyone had anticipated. Dan's closest friend in the social group we were part of was called Garwor, a fella who was as wide as three of me and a black belt in karate. After a show in Oxford he appeared to pursue Jason and Jim down the street and give them a (gentle, thankfully) kicking outside the cinema for driving a stake through the heart of the group, as he saw it. It was another important lesson for me however - to do this properly you had to treat it with the dispassion of a professional career, not an opportunity for amplified social interaction. Even though we were a piss-ant band from a market town near Oxford, you still should make decisions that will make the band better, even if it means pissing off your friends or being beaten up by an angry martial artist.

With the lineup stabilised we upped the pace a little. I was working during the day at Oxbow, rehearsing one or two nights a week with Purple Rhinos1, maybe one rehearsal a week with one of the other bands I was in, and at least one gig most weeks, barring the traditional gig dead time of July and August. On A Friday had discovered a village hall in nearby Clifton Hampden who were willing to hire themselves out to noise making bands to rehearse, so the Rhinos traipsed out there as often as we could afford. We picked up and dropped off the key with the strange lady who was guardian of the village hall and apparently some kind of local white witch. listen to an mp3 of this track{Blow - Purple Rhinos}

We booked all the shows ourselves, and being no-one we often had to organise minibuses of our local fans to far flung locations (well, London, Reading and Birmingham) to secure a gig. Heidi, a friend of ours, acted as manager but no-one in our team really had any industry nous, it was all just shooting in the dark. To put in my time of chasing promoters for gigs I had to head down to the nearest phone box with a pile of 10 pence pieces in my lunch breaks. One particular week we had already played the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and I was looking forward to actually going home after work on the Thursday and sleeping for a long time. At this point all of the other


Purple Rhinos live, L-R Jim Crosskey, Anita Wilson, Jason Moulster

Purple Rhinos live, L-R Jim Crosskey, Anita Wilson, Jason Moulster
members were on the dole and would thus sleep late after gigs, but I was working every day so would find myself somewhat sleep deprived. However Thursday morning someone called from Liverpool University asking what time we'd be arriving today. We'd sent them a demo and heard nothing back, but somewhere down the line they'd offered us a show that we either hadn't got the message about or that we'd forgotten about. Off we headed straight from my work at 4 p.m. (I worked through my lunch hour so we could get away early), got to the gig about 7, and after soundcheck discovered that it was a late student event and that we'd be playing at 2 a.m. Nice.

We played, with Jim getting repeated electric shocks off his microphone, and then headed for home, me driving my van and feeling somewhat worse for wear by this point. And since we're talking about drinking in this tome, yes, I did always drive, because everyone else always drank. Not that Jim or Anita were capable of operating a vehicle even when perfectly sober. I was so knackered I had to stop for a 'power nap' at a services on the M6, during which 30 minutes Jim and our lighting guy / roadie / mate Damon managed to win a ton of money on a fruit machine. Back on the road, we hit Oxford at about 7.30 a.m. and I parked the van outside Oxbow books. I crawled in the back for an hour's sleep while everyone else headed to McDonalds for a McBreakfast.

I was in and working by 8.30 a.m., but, joy of joys, the boss chose that morning to head off on a business meeting that he wasn't due to return from for some hours. I made myself a nest hidden behind various types of large packaging material and curled up for a nap.

I was awoken some hours later by the sound of starlings mating. Or was it police radios? In my addled state of mind I couldn't immediately make it out. When the sound receded I crawled out of my corrugated crib to find that while I had been unconscious the estranged husband of one of the ladies who worked across the other side of the warehouse style room (I was visually removed from them by bookshelves, hence being able to nest) had come in, smashed up a filing cabinet and thrown a couple of computers across the room. Holy shit. I had no idea, and felt kind of bad about it, but signally failed to learn any lessons about not mixing work and gigs.

Another justification for not drinking was crystallising as well. I was working hard at the day job and earning, for a first timer still living at home, a reasonable amount (about £110 per week after tax as I recall). It didn't escape my notice that everyone else I knew was spending a healthy proportion of their earnings (or dole in the case of my band mates) on drinking. I much preferred keeping hold of it and spending it on musical things - cymbals, microphones, drum skins and sticks, keyboards, compressors, reverbs. It didn't even seem like a hard choice to drink water and get better stuff to make music with.

As the summer of 1990 rolled around I clearly decided that I wasn't in enough bands, since when Phil Selway from On A Friday, who had now changed their name to Shindig, headed off to Ireland to woo Cait, his future wife, they asked me to fill in so they could keep playing over the summer, and I enthusiastically agreed. It was another idyllic time for me - I rehearsed regularly with Shindig, Kiss The Dirt and Purple Rhinos, and recorded with all three bands, with some of the Shindig stuff being amongst my proudest work. There weren't many gigs, as is traditional with the summer months, but I kept busy with music and packaging archeological texts. Towards the end of the summer, when for a while it looked like Phil might not come back, Thom (as he was now) and the rest of the band floated the idea of me being the drummer full time, and with my rapidly developing ear for a good tune and commercial sense of who was going to be successful I said I'd probably just stick with Purple Rhinos as my main band. And I think history has proven me to be in the right. Ish.

Lots of things happened in September. Phil did come back, and Jonny opted to take up a place at Oxford Poly (now Brookes University) to study music - not the best course that he was offered, but somewhere that would keep him close to the band. Ed, Thom and Colin had just finished University at Manchester, Exeter and Cambridge respectively and returned to Oxford to make a go of music, the band name having now reverted back to On A Friday. Four of them moved into a house together on Ridgefield Road in Oxford, and as they pulled together demos and gigs I stepped in to drive them in my van, and occasionally do live sound ineptly.

I stepped down from Kiss The Dirt and was replaced by a small black box made by Alesis.

While I continued working with books Purple Rhinos resumed their intense gigging schedule around the country, and we felt like we were beginning to make headway, with various promoters around the country now counting themselves as fans and putting us on again and again. That kind of support is invaluable to the morale of a rising band - when the road manager (and girlfriend of the lead singer) of New Model Army saw us she was impressed enough to put us on with them in Walsall, which was terrifying (bouncy dayglo guitar pop band playing in front of the hordes of unwashed political activism) but an amazing shot in the arm nonetheless.

At a show in London in '91 we managed to secure a distribution deal with Pinnacle, who at the time were amongst the biggest independent distributors in the country. We recorded an EP at Fleece Studios, a relatively expensive 24 track (financed by me and my ascetic ways, of course), and started trying to get everything in place for our first proper release.listen to an mp3 of this track{Once In A While - Purple Rhinos (from the Everything EP)}

At the same time OAF had attracted the interest of the owners of local studio Courtyard as managers, who in turn had used contacts they had to pull in record company interest. Within a matter of weeks they had every A&R2 man from the capital heading for a show at the greatest of the small Oxford venues The Jericho Tavern, from which they scored a deal with Parlophone. This could be revisionism, but I'm sure I had not even the remote st pang of jealousy - Jonny had been one of my three very closest friends (with Andy and Ian Patrick) for such a long time I was nothing but fabulously excited and pleased.

Purple Rhinos fought on, designing the album artwork with the help of some of the people at Oxbow books, and trying to pull together press and pluggers without even knowing who these people were or how to contact them. The only way to learn is to do, and this was frontline, if wildly inept, doing. Money flowed out, and already by that point I could see that even if we sold all 1,000 copies that we were pressing we (I) was going to be out of pocket, but it barely mattered: we were all possessed of the declamatory spirit of the hellfire preacher.



Purple Rhinos promo shot in my parent's back garden

Purple Rhinos promo shot in my parent's back garden


In May 1991 OAF renamed themselves Radiohead and released some remixed versions of their demo tapes as their first EP, Drill. I remember sitting on the floor at Ridgefield Road with the rest of the band early in the morning listening to their first Radio One play, on the Gary Davies show. It was the most inane introduction to a record this side of Smashy and Nicey, but the breakthrough was a huge rush of adrenaline, even for people like me who were just friends and volunteer employees. They went out on the road properly for the first time in their VW LT45 van that they had bought with their record advance, and I, while still working at Oxbow and gigging with the Rhinos, started showing up at any of the shows that I could get to, to roadie and do lights. The first show of the tour, and also the first with their new sound man Jim Warren, was at the long gone Barrel Organ in Birmingham. Jim told me later he had spent the night panicking because he couldn't find the backing vocals that were floating around quietly, until he realised that it was actually me bellowing along at the lighting desk. As I turned up more often and made myself useful it eventually became an official position, with pay and everything.

The Purple Rhinos EP fell apart not long after that. Just before a show at The Old Fire Station in Oxford we found out that Pinnacle were pulling out of the deal, citing rapidly declining sales across the board. Shell-shocked, we went on stage and fucked it all up. Jim drank a boat-load, and became my first experience of someone drinking until it impaired their ability to put on a show. Eventually Anita lost patience with the randomness of notes emitting from Jim's amp and left the stage mid-song, leaving Jim, Jase and me to soldier through a couple of other tracks with Jim singing. Anita returned so we could kind of finish the show, and we left the stage already fighting, with it becoming full-blown by the time we hit the dressing room (literally hit - a large mirror was destroyed in the ensuing fracas). I could immediately see the end - I think we all could - but no-one wanted to admit it. I could feel the black wave building behind me again.

Exerting her gravitational pull, I went down to Bristol to see X at University, appropriately since thoughts of her always seemed to accompany encroaching blackness. I think we were friends enough that me showing up to surprise her was not at all weird. Hope so. We hung out and chatted in her Uni bar (where I incidentally also bumped into Dhili Arulambulem, my friend from around the corner in Bickley who I hadn't seen since 1985), and I walked her back to her room and I didn't try anything. I think by this point I had met and was going out with the first great love of my life Alice, and while I don't recall any unfaithful intentions I couldn't resist the lure of the X.

In summer '92 Radiohead went to Chipping Norton studios, about a half hour outside of Oxford, to record their proper debut single with a couple of genial American fellows, Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie, chosen for their prior work with Pixies and Throwing Muses. As history has well recorded (ha!) the intended lead track was dropped mid-session for a song Thom had been sitting on since university called Creep. I have absolutely no pretense to having the 'golden ears' of an A&R guy, but it was clearly a magical piece of music. To horrifically mix a metaphor it also started uncovering the molten centre of the slowly growing X cancer - for reasons I can't explain the evening that Jonny gave me a cassette of the new song (with it's original 'leg of lamb' second verse lyrics) I ended up sat outside X's Abingdon home in my van playing Creep over and over again and crying my eyes out. And she wasn't anywhere near there anyway, being as how she was still at university in Bristol!

Purple Rhinos supported Radiohead at the newly-christened Zodiac club in Oxford in June, and quite soon afterwards decided to call it a day. It wasn't just feeling winded by the EP falling to bits, it was the beginnings of a rift in musical direction. Jase had started writing expansive and atmospheric pieces of music that had no place in the driving punk pop of the Rhinos, and I was getting interested in pursuing something subtler, perhaps inspired by REM's recent and awesome Out Of Time album. We had an urge to not just disappear, so we arranged a final show at The Jericho Tavern, in the usually dead summer months. Perversely we played 4 or 5 new songs at our final show, we sold out the Tavern for the first time, and tears were shed. The band I had put all of my wherewithal into for 3 years (which is a long time at that age) was done. I had no idea exactly what to do, so I thought I would buy myself a little bit of time. I quit Oxbow books, and offered to go out on the road with my friends Radiohead for a couple of months while I figured out my next move. This did not work out quite as planned.


susanw, Sat 28th June 2014, 04:04:33 AM
Excellent reading at 4am on a Saturday morning. Looking forward to the next instalment.


 

Footnotes:

  1. yep, I'd suggested that they should drop their 'The' as well
  2. Artists and Repertoire - the people at a record company who search out 'talent' to sign to the label, and shepherd them through the machinations of the industry. Until they lose interest and fuck your lives up.

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