After many decades lurking in the shadows this wonderful footage of The Boys on French TV has shown up:
I remember the day well. A Sunday, I believe, at the start of a French tour to promote Alternative Chartbusters, we’d flown in early. There was a bar just by the filming stage, always dangerous for The Boys, but all went well.
The show, “Blue Jeans”, had an eclectic line up. Mainly French pap but also legend Serge Gainsbourg https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serge_Gainsbourg . He had a new single out called “Sea, Sex and Sun” which Jack Black impersonated side splittingly for the rest of the tour. The single comprised young french women twittering away about the summer hols for a bit with an intermittent, chain smoking Gainsbourg coming in with a big, bass rumble of “Le Soleil” on the chorus. Jack’s take was perfect.
Talking Heads https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talking_Heads were on plugging Psycho Killer. They’d just stepped off the plane from New York. I gather having a conversation with David Byrne is not easy at the best of times. Trying to talk to him when he was jet lagged and a couple of vodkas to the good is one of the most challenging tasks I’ve faced in my life.
After the recording a very wet behind the ears me was walking back to the hotel for a kip. I stopped to ask the most gorgeous, black hooker, without realising her profession, what the hour was. The conversation went like this:
Me: “Do you have the time?”. Her: “Yes, follow me”.
I was left on the “trottoir” thinking “These good looking French girls are very forward”.
Looking back at the footage what strikes me now is: Didn’t we look great in red. Really ahead of our time.
PS: I’d forgotten Jack Black played the drums with 2 rolled up newspapers. That’s how you mime 🙂
Like many writers the majority of my songs are about me and my life. And these blog pieces are usually about my songs and, therefore, about my life. But there is a time I’ve not yet written about and perhaps I should.
What did I do in the years between 1981 when The Boys broke up and 2000 when we got back together to play Japan? In short I went back to the University I left after a day in 1976, then got a job, family and mortgage like everyone else.
However, in 1997 Andrew Lloyd Webber was rethinking his desire for global domination and talked of a simpler life, taking his Really Useful Group back to being a small theatre production company dedicated to his work in London and on Broadway. In that smaller company what would a guy who spent his days planning new ventures in film and television, opening up new theatre markets in Europe, Las Vegas and the like, and who was looking at managing non Lloyd Webber shows such as Riverdance do with himself? Get laid off was the obvious answer.
So I started looking around to see how I could keep a roof over the heads of my young family and stop the bank coming in to repossess our nice house which still had a pretty hefty mortgage hanging over it.
But I couldn’t just do anything. I have a very low boredom threshold and when I saw an advert which said “Premier League Football Club requires full time director” I thought: “Why not?”
200 people applied for the job at double European Champions Nottingham Forest (https://www.nottinghamforest.co.uk/) but I must have made a good impression. Experience as a performer is useful in many situations including interviews, which is why a drama degree is often undervalued (not that I have one). I remember being asked: “How does working for a theatre company make you qualified to run a footbll club?” to which my reply was: “I’ve been running venues, selling tickets and merchandise, negotiating media rights, and organising bars and food. It seems to me the only difference with football is the divas are a different sex”. It got a chuckle and maybe got me the job but I was wrong. I was about to go from a company that made millions of pounds while we slept in our beds from shows all over the world, to an industry based on financial madness, where clubs get relegated with a wage bill they can’t afford while their income is reduced to a fraction of what it was, and which requires Arab royal families, Rusian oligarchs or American billionaires for a team to be competitive. But more of that later.
Off I trotted home to tell my wife: “I’ve landed a new job”. “Oh, where is it?”, she asked.”Nottingham”, I replied.
We took the very sensible (with hindsight) decision not to take our daughter, Lauren, out of school, sell the house and move to Nottingham until we saw how the job worked out. So started 2 years of me living in Nottingham and Liz and Lauren coming up Friday nights after school till crack of dawn Monday.
I moved into a house rented by the club and previously used by a string of Scandanavian footballers like Alf Inge Haaland ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alf-Inge_H%C3%A5land ) who you may remember had his career ended at Manchester City by a particularly thugish tackle of Roy Keane’s.
I moved in during the close season when no matches took place and most of the news was about new players. It was known that this was a “Forest House” rented out to players and as I put the keys in the door for the first time I turned round to see a gaggle of little boys looking at me, eyes and mouths wide open, horror written across their faces. “Bloody Hell they are buying them small and old”, they were thinking.
So began two of the most fun and interesting years of my life. Nottingham was a delight to live in. People spoke funny but boy they were friendly. I fell out of bed a half hour before I was due in work, as opposed to struggling in to town for hours on overcrowded and often cancelled trains. Footballers themselves were surprisingly down to earth and often very intelligent (and teetotal!). Some were greedy, charging charities and schools money to turn up at open days when they earned so much anyway and had so much free time. But then there were others like Chris Bart Williams (https://www.nottinghampost.com/sport/football/now-former-nottingham-forest-midfielder-1228760) who I discovered ran and funded a free football academy for underpriveleged children in his spare time.
One thing I had never previously appreciated was how large a part pain plays in their lives. We always read in the paper “So and so has an injury”. It’s so common we take it for granted. But injury equals pain, and often surgery and crutches. These guys who run a half marathon twice a week and train in between live with it. Some of them constantly.
But they do get paid well.
The people who really impressed me were the managers. I never quite met Brian Clough (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Clough) the genius legend who took Nottingham Forest from the Second division, to English Champions and double European Champions in 5 years. But I heard some great stories most of which I can’t repeat. We organised a public dinner in his honour and invited most of the great champion team of 1979/80 to attend. Many of them were by then very succesful managers in their own right like Martin O’Neill (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_O%27Neill). To a man they sat white knuckle rigid with fear until word came through that Brian Clough was too “poorly” to attend (he was known to struggle with the drink). Hearing the news, all those years later and after Brian Clough no longer had any day to day hold over them, this group of successful adult men visibly relaxed and could enjoy the evening.
That was the old way of managing with techniques such as the Alex Ferguson “hairdryer” at half time, making the players scared of upsetting you with an undercurrent of potential violence. It’s been a long time since that worked.
Imagine you have a workforce of millionaires who have been on good money since they were teenagers. A workforce for whom the threat of the sack would represent an opportunity to get out of a contract and sign for another club with a massive signing on fee. And it’s a cold, wet, Wednesday in February with an away match at a lower team. That is why you see the Jurgen Klopp approach of I’m your friend and surrogate Dad, with so much emphasis on team building and playing for your mates. Not only do managers have to be great coaches and football tacticians, they have to be charming, master psychoanalysts and all the ones I met were an impressive presence in the room.
The best and worst thing about the job was the football itself, both on the pitch and around the match.
For my then nine year old daughter, Lauren, the first match was an ordeal. Clearly bored she spent the whole time looking at anything but the pitch and asking to go home. But the power of football won. At our third game I heard this little voice beside me say: “He was offside”. I was stunned. The offside law is one of the hardest for newcomers to get and the player had been offside. From then on she enjoyed an initiation into football spent visiting matchday boardrooms and liking it if the catering was up to scratch. At home games she had the run of the ground because all the security people knew her, and after every game she would make sure she got an autograph from Dutch international Pierre Van Hooijdonk (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_van_Hooijdonk) as we had a jolly time in the “Robin Hood” lounge where the players would relax post match. Pierre would chuckle as he signed what he knew must have been her 20th autograph from him.
I’m glad to say she knows now it was a bit of a weird way to get into football and is happy to sit in the stands like everyone else.
You might be an avid football fan. You might often find it tense, depressing or exhilarating. Imagine if you are running the place. If you’ve raised money to get promoted and know that there is no more. That while you are trying to get promoted that money is being burned through at a rate of knots as it goes out the door each month via the players payroll. And you know that if you don’t get promoted back to the Premier League that season then its over. There will have to be a fire sale and who knows what that will lead to. Believe me, life and, in particular, every match was an emotional roller coaster.
I remember a game at Manchester City. We had bought Pierre Van Hooijdonk the previous season from Celtic while we were in the Premier League and there was a clause that said if he scored 25 goals in a season we’d pay an extra £500,000. In the Premier League that would have been challenging for him. In the Championship (as it’s now called) he was like a thoroughbred racing against goats, scoring amazing goals left, right and centre. At Manchester City we were 3-0 up when awarded a penalty. Pierre was on 24 goals for the season. “Please don’t let him take it”, I prayed. As he stepped up to take the place kick I had to be restrained from running on to steal the ball.
At the top of this blog there is a picture of the squad with me front right sat next to Pierre van Hooijdonk. Like the alpha male he was he has his long, long legs wide apart taking up some of my room. “Can you close your legs a bit?, I said. “No”, he replied, “My bollocks are too big”.
Ultimately it was the business which defeated me. You can save as much money as you like on the paper clips but the money going to players is extraordinary. Back in the Premier League it was clear the team weren’t good enough and there was no money in the bank. Yes, there was a huge amount of TV income but the wages were even higher. Fans are unforgiving. We are so used to hearing about players costing £50 million, £60 million, £70 million that we no longer stop to think just what a huge amount of money that is! Sums that would fund hospitals spent on one footballer before paying hundreds of thousands per week on wages. But fans want “investment” (In most walks of life that means spending money on something which lasts a long time and increases your value. In football it means spending more money than you have and later going into administration).
In the autumn of 1999, and back in the Premier League, we invited some friends to a home game against West Ham. It was the early part to the season and there was still some optimism. But the fans, used to a recent history of success, wanted new players and started a chant of “Sack the Board”. “Who are they singing about?”, asked one of my friends.”Me”, I replied.
Plus, there is only so long you can spend living away from your family before the week nights start to feel very lonely, fun as the weekends and school holidays were.
It was time to return to London, with a heavy heart at leaving Nottingham and Nottingham Forest, but invigorated and refreshed by the experience. And, although I didn’t know it at the time, a new chapter was about to start as The Boys would be asked to reform to play a couple of shows in Japan, an experience we would enjoy so much that, having not even listened to anything but Football for years, my love of music would be rekindled after nearly two decades away.
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
On our first album, Little Big Head, there is a track, Rolling On, which contains my most autobiographical lyric to date. In three minutes odd it goes from childhood, through moving to London, falling into the punk scene, settling down, family and now.
For me, the most evocative part is the early verse dealing with my upbringing in Canterbury, a sleepy, provincial town in Kent. Sixty miles from London but part of a different universe altogether.
I grew up at the edge of town on the London Road Council estate. Uniform red brick houses, three small but adequate bedrooms, sporadic traffic, apple orchards out the back and the famous Canterbury Cathedral, founding place of Christianity in Britain, visible from everywhere.
Solidly working class but safe. No one was rich but no one was really poor. And from the rose-tinted perspective of many decades later, the sun, of course, always shone.
The best aspect of growing up there was that, by and large, we were free. A motley gang of 7,8,9, and 10 year olds always playing football in the street. If traffic came by, the ball would be picked up and, once the car passed, the endless game would carry on.
I say “always playing football” but that’s not quite true. There was always time for other escapades.
As July and August approached the apples in the orchards would ripen and it was time for the farmers to be on maximum guard as the “scrumping” season approached. Packs of German Shepherd dogs were bought in to patrol the crops and save them from the gangs of urchins who saw it as a badge of honour to strip the trees of their bounty of ripe red fruit. The farmers themselves would patrol with shot guns ready to fire at any tree infested with monkey like boys who were busy helping themselves to everything they could grab.
The operation was military in its precision. Small boys were sent ahead to reconnoitre for dogs and guns. If the coast was clear a Game of Thrones like charge of older, bigger, better climbers descended and the harvest began. Sometimes the dogs would hear us without the small boys seeing them, and a mad dash ensued with hounds after their quarry and shotgun blasts going off behind.
Usually though, all passed peacefully and a procession of scamps would be seen wending their way back through the estate, jumpers bulging bulbously with their illicit bounty. Mothers would wait at the door to give each and everyone a clip round the ear for being “naughty”, but apple pie was always on for “pudding” at “tea time”. Nothing was wasted.
Or there were the bike trips. “Where are you going?” our mother would ask as bikes were wheeled past the back door. “Just down the road” was the reply. But in fact an expedition was planned to Whitstable, 10 miles away and the nearest coast. The route would involve 20 or so imps often cycling down a dual carriageway to get to the sea. Swimming would follow, then drying off on the way back. No food was packed so we’d knock on the door of complete strangers and ask for a sandwich. An ordinary day dodging high-speed traffic, risking not just drowning but, from the viewpoint of this modern, paranoid age, abduction also.
“Where have you been?”, was the question on our return. “Nowhere”, was the reply.
I could go on with tales of organised shoplifting in the toy shops of Canterbury high street. The aim was to get one over on the security guards who knew exactly what we were there for, but never caught us. Often the booty was thrown away as it wasn’t really the point. Or playing chicken on the electrified main rail line from Dover to London. Raids to let the bicycle tyres down of kids from other streets. “Knock out ginger”, easy pickings fishing in local fish farms, fake dog turds left on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral to shock the tourists, breaking my little finger the one and only time I hit a boy who had just hit my little brother………. you get the picture: a childhood of adventure and “We were all in clover”.
But “time rolled on”, I turned eleven, and for complicated, domestic reasons I was torn from the family home and sent to a middle class world where I needed to mend my ways and hide my roots, else people would think less of me if they knew where I came from. But that’s a story for another song.
So what has bought on this orgy of nostalgic reminiscing?
Well on 23 July we play in Deal, a hop and a skip from Canterbury, in that delightful seaside town, remote enough to be saved from the weekend home buying Londoners that Whitstable has been prey to, but lively enough to enjoy a thriving live music scene. It’s also now my brother’s home and we appear at The Lighthouse, his local and a boozer I wanted to play the minute I walked in.
All sorts of family will be there and, if you want to join us at this free gig, the details are here.
So, in celebration of this rare and momentous return to Kent, may I urge you to give “Rolling On” a listen, either in pure, unsullied audio perfection here or with added audio-visual splendour here.
Thank you for your indulgence and company on this fond meander down memory lane.
Oh Boy, will you take a look at this! Dunc the Hunk as they quite rightly called me. Why oh why did I do it? Publicity of course. The age old young musicians, desire for fame, fortune and girls. I wasn’t the only one either. Billy Idol and Paul Weller were regulars at the time in teen girl magazines like this and Jackie. The latter had a “Hunk of the Week” chart which we all featured in regularly with David Hasselhof and Jason Donavon.
I remember this photo shoot well. I went there with a young lady from our then management company who took along a bottle of vodka which I may or may not have sampled beforehand. In any case I had blood shot eyes the whole afternoon which caused near panic with the people from the magazine. Hunks don’t get wiped out apparently. Gallons of eye drops were bought from the local chemist and, true to the traditions of The Boys, I was never asked to be a hunk again!