We are so Boring!

Just to show you how boring we are live, here’s a promo clip from our last show in Buenos Aires:

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A Splattered Classic!

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:

Splatter

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.

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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.

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Young, skinny and undeservedly good looking?

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.

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Jack trying to persuade the rest of us the vocals should be louder

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:

The Story Behind the Song Part 5: Another City

Looking out on a freezing London spring my mind drifts back to a day spent with my great friend, supporter and talented artist, David Apps , taking photos for the album cover of Little Big Head.

It was a cold day, then as now, and I had the bright idea of taking snaps on the Thames Clipper, a fleet of boats which pass up and down the River Thames, through the heart of London, as part of the public transport system. If you visit London the Clipper is the best few pounds you can spend. First take the Docklands Light Railway from Bank to Greenwich. This is pronounced grenitch in that illogical way that Londoners invented purely to mystify American tourists -see also Marylebone, pronounced marlibone with no Mary in it, and Madame Tussaud’s, pronounced two swords. At Greenwich wander round this historic oasis of old world charm, a rare South London survivor from the ravages of WW2, and then past the Cutty Sark, a preserved tea ship which looks like it ran aground from The Pirates of the Caribbean.

From there you’ll reach Greenwich Pier and can alight the clipper in the direction of Embankment, to partake of the best near free show in London. The Thames viewed from the river is magnificent. Best seen at night, some inspirational lighting shows off such treasures as The Tower of LondonTower BridgeShakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and a host of other beauties too numerous to mention.

 

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“Riding on the Clipper”: it was cold!

 

 

Much to the curiosity and amusement of passing tourists (“who are you?”, “What are you doing this for?”, “I love your shoes!”) Dave and I took some snaps around Greenwich, The National Theatre, and on the clipper. But the best was reserved for the jetty at Embankment.

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Posing at Greenwich
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And the National Theatre: “I love your shoes!”

At that casting off point on a Saturday, party boats galore take gangs of Hen Parties and Stag Dos off down the river for bacchanalian nights of drunken reverie. At about 7pm the evening had not yet started so hens were not yet mingled with stags. Rather the two were in separate groups, eyeing each other from their own territory, the boys drinking cans of beer and the girls laughing as they waited for the boat. We took some shots but by this time I was frozen right through to my eyes.

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Frozen to my Eyes in front of Hen Party girls from Glasgow

Shivering by the water, we called it a day and strolled across Trafalgar Square and up St Martin’s Lane to The 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street, previous centre of London’s  Music Land. Most of Denmark Street has now been redeveloped and certainly the 12 Bar is no more. Back then it was a dark refuge for London’s rockers and home to the highest, smallest and therefore easiest to fall off stage in the world.

And so I thought: “I can’t call another city home” a line which stuck with me and grew into the song “Another City” on “The Difficult Second Album”.

For those of you blessed with Spotify you can hear the song here:

 

If you don’t have Spotify you can hear it on our bandcamp page HERE

 

The Story Behind the Song Part 4: I Can Fly

One of the New Year bonuses for us has been the multitude of “best of 2017” reviews where our third album, “Bombs Away”, featured highly. Completely at random, we had the No.15 spot in Vive Le Rock’s albums of the year (total bollocks, of course: we should have been No.1 🙂 ) and even as far as New Zealand that man of taste and distinction, Steve Scanner, had us as one of his highlights (See here).

Vive Le Rock2017The majority of retrospectives have picked highlight tracks as “The Man on the Desk” (which I wrote about here) and “I Can Fly”, neither of which we currently play live. So: February will see us in the rehearsal studio trying both out to see if we can bring them into the set.

But in the meantime there lies a spot in France on the border with Spain at the western end of the Mediterranean,  where the Pyrenean mountains tumble into the sea. There’s a Spanish flavour to the area. In the local markets you’ll find paella vans plying a brisk trade, selling take away tubs of that rich mixture of rice, saffron, chicken, seafood and chorizo. The restaurants specialise in fish grilled “a la plancha”, palm trees abound in the capital Perpignan, and the locals keep their superb wines to themselves: both sweet and dry muscats, and rich, smooth reds which are better than most wines from more famous regions.

In a place I call the garage (because it looks like one) you can take your own bottle and they’ll fill it up from a pump for three euros a litre. The same wine, if you buy it in a bottle on a supermarket shelf, will be in the expensive section for 15 euros.

The odd graffiti you come across will declare, if you can decipher the language, “We are not French, We are not Spanish, We are Catalan”. Rugby is big in the area (both Union and League) and attending a match at Perpignan (or USAP as it’s known)’s Stade Aime Giral is like being at an international. It’s “Us against the French”. They even sing the Catalan national anthem.

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The Catalan Regions with the French Part in Dark Green to the North

As you might guess by now, I go there often. As often as I can in fact. And not just physically. If I’m having a tough day, if some cad has said something nasty to poor, little sensitive me, if it’s raining and howling outside, if Nottingham Forest have once more lived down to expectations, if Rebellion have ignored my emails , if I have this damn Australian flu that’s doing the rounds and can’t think, if …………….. (you get the picture)  off I fly in my mind to the land where the Tramontane blows, where the beaches merge into the horizon to the north and mountains to the south, where the colours are blood and gold, where the exiled Picasso paid for his supper by sketching on the back of cheques so that restauranteurs wouldn’t cash them, and where the days merge into a slow reverie of sun, wine and the rosemary tinged scent of the garrigue.

And so I must thank Anna Donarsky, first guitarist in the Big Heads, and now guitar tech to Ron Woods, Pete Townsend and other sundry superstars, for giving me the musical inspiration for my love song to the “Pays Catalan”. Anna provided a gorgeous, haunting bridge and chorus to which I added intro, verse, instrumental passage and, of course, lyrics.

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Anna Donarsky

If you have Spotify you can hear “I Can Fly” here:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/2Zl04Hi267ohkZBByRIFpu

Otherwise you can hear it for free on our Bandcamp site (here) where you’ll also find the lyrics.

Happy flying!

The Story Behind the Song Part 3: That’s Just the Way it is

Most songwriters write about themselves, things that happen to them in their lives or people they come across. After all, what do we all know the most about? Our own lives and thoughts of course.

But I don’t know Jed Lifeson. Like so many people these days he’s just someone I came across on the internet. Not even a facebook friend, just someone on YouTube.

He’s had a hard life. Moved to Hamilton, Ontario from Serbia as a kid and hated it. The people seemed so hard, miserable and cold. It was only later he realised the only hard thing about them was their lives. They were down trodden but capable of great kindness. When Jed was near rock bottom he discovered they would treat him as a human being and lift him up.

And he had hard times. He fell into drugs and ended up in jail sleeping on concrete.

But the hardest time was when he came home to find his mother in a diabetes induced coma, on the point of death. Jed prayed that if God would allow him one last chance to tell his mum how much he loved her he would mend his ways. So when she recovered, Jed ran out into the street, dancing all the way home.

He hasn’t stopped dancing since then. He sees it as an act of positivity to brighten the days of the hard pressed folk of Hamilton. So now, he doesn’t see sad people because everyone who sees “the dancing guy of Hamilton” is smiling. And they see him dancing everywhere because that’s what he does – all the time. Waiting for the bus, at the shops, in the street: he’s dancing.

Here’s a great little film about Jed. It’s well worth taking 10 minutes to listen to Jed telling his own story much better than I can:

 

And have a listen to this: the song inspired by Jed’s story:

Or if you don’t have Spotify please follow this link:

https://duncanreidandthebigheads.bandcamp.com/track/thats-just-the-way-it-is

 

 

 

The Story Behind the Song Part 2: Wouldn’t Change a Single Thing

In 1975 I left school. I’d been to a place where if you didn’t work they beat the shit out of you. That, combined with a bit of ability, meant that, having spent hours smoking in a local cafe, playing pinball and listening to Slade, I still left school with some average to good qualifications. Just about enough to enable me to apply for Cambridge University, one of the best colleges in the world where it was generally considered that graduates were made for life.

So I left the council house in Canterbury I’d grown up in with my mum, to move to London to live with my Dad in the embarrassingly named and therefore to be lied about on all occasions: Ponsonby Terrace. The idea was that I would go to a college which specialised in getting oddballs into Cambridge. But I was sick to the back teeth with school and did no work whatsoever. They didn’t beat the crap out of you there and I duly failed the entrance exam.

Needing some money, I joined old school mate, Jack Black, working in a T shirt printing factory where the boss was a Rod Stewart look a like northerner called John Splain. The day generally started with a cup of tea and a joint and carried on with more joints while listening to the rare decent music on offer in 1975 (mainly the Faces who our leader had modelled himself on).

Our trustworthy boss spent most of the day bunking off, hiding upstairs on a mezzanine floor where he could throw things down onto mine and Jack’s heads, thinking we didn’t know what he was up to even though he was giggling uncontrollably at the hilarity of his actions.

One day, on hearing that Jack played drums and I played bass, the to be renamed Honest (on account of his oft used phrase “I did, -Honest!” while telling porkies) John Plain invited us over to “jam” with his mates Casino Steel and Matt Dangerfield. They were forming a band to be called “The Boys” who were going to be the next Beatles, if not bigger. An antidote of short, catchy songs to blow away all the rubbish infecting the airwaves and concert halls at the time.

And so I arrived, 18 years old, at 47a Warrington Crescent. There should be a blue plaque there. Inside this damp basement, mould growing on the kitchen wall, was a tiny, four track studio. The electricity was hooked up to a lamp post outside, bypassing the meter. Various intimidating (for this youngster) “adults” (none older than about 26) were taking turns to play the intro bars to Slow Death by the Flamin’ Groovies for about four hours at a time. One of them was a curly haired, confident local called Mick Jones. A good looking fella called Billy Idol had made the long way over from Bromley, a quiet Brian James lurked along with various others who would coalesce over the coming months into various bands.

1976 was a hot summer. I remember it being the USA’s bicentennial and a bunch of Americans held a large party in the communal garden to the back of 47a. All the nascent punks gatecrashed this feast of free booze and burgers and I ended up passed out on the grass dressed from head to toe in white which by 4 am, when I woke, was various shades of green.

But the summer ended and a deadline I had been pushing to the back of my mind approached. In September I had a place to study Chemical Engineering at University College London. Not Cambridge, but a very good university all the same.

So I left the job printing T shirts and went to register for my course. At the end of the first day I went back home  and told my father I had made a decision. With all of my 18 years of worldly experience I had given University a look and didn’t like it. I wasn’t going back because The Boys were going to be a big band and being a punk was what I was going to do.

My Dad was delighted (Ummmm – no he wasn’t).

So, off I trotted to the dole office to see if I could get any money to live on. They decided that, as I had left my job voluntarily and was living at home, they would give me the princely sum of £5.50 per week. Not unreasonably, and as an incentive to get a job or go back to college, my father decided to charge me £5 per week rent. So I had 50p per week to myself and had to get to Warrington Crescent every day to rehearse with The Boys in that little studio, as well as play cards, drink tea, and see if anyone was generous enough to buy me the odd pint in the pub.

So, no choice, I had to walk there and back every day, a round trip of almost three hours as the following Google Maps screen shot shows (it appears that 47 Warrington Crescent is called Venetian House now that all the old Italians, squatters and church property renters have been moved out to make way for the rich of London).Ponsonby Terrace to Venetian House - Google Maps-1

Through sun, wind and rain, in the morning and in the dead of night, a young man, head full of dreams of fame, fortune and women, looking like a star but still on the dole (to paraphrase Ian Hunter) would make his trek to eventual, hoped for success, past some of London’s most famous landmarks and richest neighbourhoods, with not a penny in his pocket.

Sometimes I tried hitching but had to ask to be set down immediately as most of the rides were given by old men who wanted something in return I wasn’t inclined to give. Boy I was innocent.

One day on my trek up the Edgware Road Mick Jones came running up behind me, ruffled my hair and shouted “Hello Dunc, Alright?” as he ran on and jumped on the number 6 bus which would pass near Warrington Crescent, the place I was headed to. The Clash had just signed to CBS and so he was on a weekly wage. “You rich bastard”, I thought, “Being able to afford a bus” as I trudged on.

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The young author far left: Dream realised?

But good comes from everything, and forty years later, thinking back to those days of penury a song emerged. A song of hope and dreams.

You can hear it here:

 

If you don’t have Spotify listen here on Bandcamp: Click here

I hope you like it. I’m particularly proud of the last chorus with its answer vocals. And with the guitar riff, if Led Zeppelin played power pop this is how I imagine it would sound!

 

That Puts it in Context

Downtown Lincoln, Nebraska (for those of you not familiar with it)
Downtown Lincoln, Nebraska (for those of you not familiar with it)

I had to share this with someone so I thought I’d share it with everyone.

You know, when you do this writing songs, jumping around and singing lark, you sometimes think: “Am I really any good?”.  Well, we all have doubts from time to time.

And then, out of the blue Dave Bundy from Lincoln, Nebraska sends you an email which says:

“Duncan,

Gotta tell you how much your music resonates with me. I can’t stop playing it. Tunes about growing up with regrets, tunes about growing up without regrets. Great characters. Love Not the Kind of Guy. All the rockers rock. Just Because You’re Paranoid was so funny I woke my wife up to listen to it, and she wasn’t even mad.

So here’s a little back story about why great music matters so much to me. Thirteen years ago, just as my twins were born, I beat Stage 4 colon cancer. Last fall I was diagnosed with a new, inoperable and rare cancer. Bile duct cancer. I’m being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. So I do a ton of driving. And I listen to a ton of excellent power pop on the road. Your music is my cancer soundtrack. And either I beat it again or I die trying. And I won’t feel bad either way. I got 13 bonus years with my family. But when I’m not feeling as fearless or philosophical great music like yours lifts me up. I probably owe you as much as I’ve paid for three weeks of radiation and 18 chemo treatments. I’ve got great insurance, so that’s one less worry. But the music has its healing power, too. Thanks, Duncan.

Dave”

I mean, where the hell is Lincoln, Nebraska anyway and how come someone there is using my music as a soundtrack to fight cancer? I can tell you, it certainly makes all this malarky worthwhile and makes you even more determined to carry on the fight to bring Heavy Melody Power Pop Punk to the world!

Thank you Dave and you carry on your fight too. It’s much more important than mine!

PS: Dave is actually a great writer and writes amazing blogs about his life. Well worth a read. You can find a couple of his pieces here:

A Joyful Holiday

Radiation and kindness. Both good medicines

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Dave Bundy making light of his chemo!

What a Weekend!

We have had some great times in this band and last weekend was up there with them. Gridlock in London on Friday made us late to The Lighthouse, Deal but the welcome made the 5 hour journey worthwhile. Then thanks to everyone who crammed into The Black Heart for Camden Rocks on Saturday. There wasn’t the same full house for all who played there.

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Steaming at Camden Rocks

 

Pride of place, though, goes to the people at Wychwood who stayed in the pouring rain to cheer us on. Not one of you heroes left when the heavens opened and it made us feel so humble. Thank you!

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Our youngest fan ever at Wychwood. There was hell to pay when Sophie tried to take her guitar back!