I’m rather ashamed to say that I owned no means of playing vinyl until last year when I was sent the test pressings for Bombs Away. “It is your responsibility to make sure there are no mistakes and all is in order” said the attached note. “Heavens, I’d better buy something to listen to them on”, I thought, and did.
And so I was inducted into the expensive and inconvenient world of vinyl. But – boy do they sound good, with a depth and separation you just don’t find on other means of playing music. Thus, when Steve Metcalfe sent me the recently released “splatter” version of The Boys first album, I had something to hear it on as opposed to just look admiringly, as had been the case with previous Boys reissues.
And it does look great as you can see:
Believe it or not I hadn’t listened to any Boys albums all the way through for decades. That may sound shocking and probably is but, to borrow an analogy from the late, great John Peel, the feelings I have toward my career in music are similar to those I have for football: results from 40 years ago have a certain interest but what really consumes me is next weekend’s fixture.
But as I put the needle on the first grooves, the opening riff of “Sick on You” came blasting out accompanied by a raft of memories from those far distant days when we were all young, skinny, leather be-trousered, and blessed with thick, jet black hair topping off undeserved good looks. And with the unshakeable belief of youth that this was the start of world domination, when our current obscure penury would be transformed into fame, riches, and a stream of never-ending hot and cold women carrying all the drinks we wanted.
The album started in an odd way for me on the sticky bar carpet of The Marquee, after one of our many sweaty gigs there. A beaming, familiar looking, expensively dressed, mature (to my young eye) lady approached through the throng of leather jacketed urchins with smiling husband in tow. In a rich, husky voice, she told me how wonderful the gig had been. “You aren’t the normal type of girl who says hello after a show”, I thought, as I tried to remember where I’d seen that face before and work out why someone who wouldn’t be seen dead at a punk gig was being so nice.
In fact it was Elkie Brooks who was then a world superstar with a huge international hit titled “Pearl’s a Singer” to her name. The smiling husband was a chap called Pete Gage who was forging a career as a record producer. The two of them had previously been in the band Vinegar Joe with Robert Palmer (whose “Johnny and Mary” is one of my favourite electro pop tracks as it happens), and Pete had been put forward by the record company to produce our first album. “Funny old choice” I thought when I found out later but, “What the hell, it’ll be alright”. I could be relied on to get most things wrong in those days.
And so we gathered at Morgan Studios in Willesden on the first day. This was serious stuff. The studios had been used by Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Pink Floyd ………. the list goes on (although Wikipedia doesn’t see fit to mention that one of the most important early punk records was made there). Recording was nerve-wracking, especially as engineers at the time looked down on punk bands. We were given a Frank Zappa look-alike who was enamoured with the fact that he’d been working with ex Thin Lizzy guitarist Gary Moore. While he was setting up he played us some recent sessions just to show how technically excellent it all was. Yep, -that certainly set me at ease.
Modern digital recording is the best thing invented since the baby mop (seriously: check it out). If you make a mistake you go back and, in the same way you correct spelling on a word document, you just repair it. You have the freedom to take risks knowing that it’s OK if you mess up. But in those analogue days of huge, two inch thick, reel to reel tape recorders, where edits required an engineer with a razor blade, you had to do it again and again until you got it right. And time was money. It was all a little daunting and stressful.
We set up altogether with drums, bass, guitars and keyboards and hammered out the basic backing tracks. Stifling as the atmosphere was, we had been playing those songs live regularly for months and rehearsing as a collective, playing them over and over until we were tight. When we listened to the first results back on powerful, state of the art audio equipment it was like a rocket in the blood stream. We were buzzing and this was going to be great. Even Frank Zappa was won round and became a willing and supportive accomplice.
And in those days we were quick. I believe it was all done in something like a week. We moved somewhere else for vocals, maybe a studio in Soho. Sometimes Matt or Cas would put backing vocals on by themselves where it was just a harmony on top of the lead but, as often, those trademark Beatles bvs would be a group effort, albeit under Cas and Matt’s direction, with everyone round one or two mikes. I particularly remember Soda Pressing with Matt and I singing a dual lead vocal (very Everly Brothers) and Cas coming in for a three part chorus, all of it doubled up so that three singers became six. “Stunning”, I thought.
And then a pivotal moment. We gathered at the record company, NEMS, to hear Pete Gage’s rough mixes. It was shocking. In place of Matt and John’s dual guitar attack the mix was dominated by a wanky Hammond organ. It was as weak as Theresa May in a determined mood. There were fisticuffs with the record company. To give him his due, Ken Mewis our manager fought our corner like an untamed beast: no mean feat for an effeminate ex-hairdresser more used to carrying a handbag than attacking with it. We wanted to go back in to add overdubs and remix. In the end, Ken won the day.
The album became what it was because of that decision. Most of the band were there most of the time with the occasional exception of John and Jack who were always subject to the pull of the pub and bookie. In one of those absences we discussed how weak the guitars on First Time were. Matt went back in and put down a really loud and meaty overdub which comes in after the first two chords played by John. I know John was really upset by this at the time. First Time was his song on the album and now you couldn’t hear him play. But, in my opinion, the new guitar was totally right for the track and helps make it the classic which John should be so proud of.
As it happens, including the joint effort on Soda Pressing, I sing lead on half the album. But First Time is the only vocal I’m really happy with. I hadn’t yet found my character and it shows as I too often try to be the hard young punk I was not. Something a good producer would have spotted and put right? Who knows? It’s frustrating in hindsight that by the time I was capable of great vocals (check out the version of Terminal Love with my voice, Jimmy Brown on Odds n Sods and Silver Bells on The Yobs Album) singing opportunities were rare in The Boys. But First Time was just right.
However, we made one crucial, huge mistake. All of the vocals were mixed too low. It’s generous of Matt and Cas to take the blame for this by being listed as producers on recent editions of the album. They really shouldn’t be so tough on themselves, 😉 , because it was a group decision. We were all there in the mixing room. There is one exception to this. To his great credit, and how I wish we had listened to him at the time, Jack Black fought till he was in tears to change everyone’s’ minds and make the vocals louder.
At low volume on a deficient system you can hear them. But I remember the first time I heard the record at the Speakeasy, with big speakers in a big room. The singing had disappeared. All the people on the night looked at me as if to say, “have you made an instrumental album?”.
There was one meeting where Jack argued furiously for a remix. Our publicity guy, a man renowned for locking himself inadvertently in the toilet, countered Jack’s arguments by pulling out a copy of “LAMF” by The Heartbreakers. “It’s alright”, he said, “Listen, this is how punk albums sound”. And so the day was won by listening to possibly the worst produced album of all time and deciding ours was better and therefore OK. And anyway, Jack was a drummer so he wasn’t to be taken that seriously.
But, modern digital mastering techniques have managed to bring the vocals a little more to the fore and there are so many great things that make this album the classic that it is:
First, the song writing by Matt, Cas, John, and bits by Andrew Matheson, is beyond compare.
Second, the ensemble playing is as tight as the bra on a “before” picture in a Weight Watchers ad, and as hot and powerful as South Carolina’s Reaper Pepper. To add to this, Matt’s lead playing is right up there. Check out “Living in the City”. The most efficient solo ever?
Thirdly, Matt’s lead vocals, my vocal on First Time and all of the backing vocals are inspired and inspiring. The element that set The Boys apart from all other punk bands at the time and which, whether they know it or not, was imitated by a whole generation of Pop Punk and Power Pop bands.
So: a classic album, flawed certainly, but a classic nonetheless. Probably bettered by Alternative Chartbusters but an album which, together with other ground breaking albums of that year, changed the course of music forever.
The “Splattered” version of The Boys’ first record is available on Fire Records
Hear the first album on Spotify: