I love our uber fans. No, not people who arrive at gigs using mobile phones, but those wonders of the modern age who know more about us than we do, are familiar with every single thing we’ve recorded even if never released, and who will journey to the ends of the earth to see us.
People like this guy who stopped me in the street in Osaka to say he had traversed the length of Japan and here was his screensaver:
But different types of fans present a challenge. At one end of the spectrum there are those who would be happy with an entire set of unreleased rarities and complain if Boys’ songs are included to the exclusion of Big Head originals. At the other end are older hands who will riot if “First Time” and “Sick on You” don’t make an appearance. (It was different in Korea, by the way, where no one had heard of “First Time” and the audience seemed to be comprised largely of Prog Jazz fans! But more of that another time perhaps).
So when, a couple of months ahead of our recent Japan dates, a gentleman messaged to say that “No Joke” by The Hollywood Killers is very popular in Japan and we should play it I thought: “Silly sausage. Thank you kindly for knowing so much about a band I’d almost forgotten I was in, and a record which was never released, but how can that song possibly be known in Japan?”
Now: “Who are The Hollywood Killers?” I hear you ask:
Shortly before moving to London at the age of 17 I hung out with my school friend Neil Aplin in Canterbury. We both liked some pretty dodgy music and would jam for hours on end at Neil’s house on the posh side of town, the council house I lived in being way too close to the neighbours who would have had no truck with teenagers noodling away all afternoon like Crosby, Stills Nash and Young. Neil had a friend, Jim Penfold, whose parents ran a pub outside Hastings and who was a bit of a go getter. Jim was a big MacCartney fan and wrote very Beatles influenced songs. Neil and I joined his band and I remember a few gigs around Hastings including a support spot with The Heavy Metal Kids and a college date promoted by Simon Fuller (who would go on to manage the Spice Girls and create American Idol).
But soon I was bored with provincial life and packed my bags for London, where another school friend, Jack Black, persuaded me to drop a job in a posh frock shop in Knightsbridge to join him at a T Shirt Factory managed by a certain Honest John Plain. He took Jack and I to 47A Warrington Crescent where the likes of Mick Jones, Billy Idol, Tony James, Brian James, Steve Jones etc would gather on Sundays to play the intro to Slow Death by the Flamin Groovies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QU91FmqJZ6w) all afternoon because no one was good enough to move on to the rest of the song. All of this well before they all went off to form the Clash, Sex Pistols, Generation X and Damned.
And as a result of hanging out at 47A Jack and I were in The Boys.
Fast forward from 1976 to 1981, The Boys were in the last year of their first life when I went to see Jim Penfold and Neil Aplin, for the first time since 1976, in their latest incarnation at Dingwalls in London.
I loved it and joined the band, initially known as The Speedos, whose line up was topped off on keys by Lino Robinson (http://www.lionelrobinson.com/music.html) and drums by Paul Tully.
It was very much Jim’s band and he decided on the name change to “The Hollywood Killers” which fitted the 60’s Doors type vibe we had. We were a kind of Psychedelica meets Bubblegum pop band (You’ll of course be surprised beyond comprehension that I would be in a band with a poppy bent).
A couple of things happened:
A: we became very, very good, and
B: we became very, very successful -but only in the strict confines of the rich London areas of Kensington, Fulham, Mayfair and Chelsea.
Here’s a clip of us playing one of our psychedelic pop songs recorded at the Golden Lion in Fulham:
We played plenty of “proper gigs” and supported the Lords of the New Church (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lords_of_the_New_Church) on one occasion at a BBC Radio 1 In Concert Session.
We also played a whole variety of very well paid aristocratic Balls. We were a pretty handsome bunch and Jim, in particular, was tall and very good looking. The rich totty went mad for him. It was almost as if he was constantly surrounded by busty, posh birds in ball gowns. What a terrible life.
The biggest and most prestigious of all the Debutante Balls was the Berkeley Square Ball (https://www.montcalm.co.uk/blog/berkeley-square-ball-returns-to-london/), held each summer in the Mayfair location of that name. The theme that summer was the sixties so we were booked to play, together with another psychedelic pop band, being pushed as the next big thing by the music press at the time, whose name escapes me.
We played our set, Champagne flowed, busty girls in ball gowns were admired as they chased Jim, chinless wonders in penguin suits were derided and I was plastered as I started my car to head home. Setting off I turned a corner to head the wrong way up a one way street, coming to a stop directly in front of a police car with two of London’s finest staring straight at me.
Now, was it the fact they knew I had just come from the Berkeley Square Ball and might therefore be very well connected which ensured that, while staring directly at me, neither shifted from their seats as I put the car into reverse, backed down the street and headed home, all the time praising my luck? I shall never know.
On another occasion we played a Convent School to two hundred frustrated and highly charged 15 year old girls, who hadn’t seen a male under the age of 50 for two months. We made it through 2 songs before they stampeded the stage, ripping the clothes from our backs and thrusting hands into places their mothers would not have approved of. The nuns came flying to our rescue, like black clad ravens hauling the girls off to bed with no supper amid admonitions of what they could expect in the after life. The Mother Superior was very kind, apologised profusely and gave us a glass of wine.
Suddenly we had a record deal with the independent label, Creole Records. But by that time I had made the momentous decision to quit music, accepting an offer to study Materials Engineering at Imperial College (https://www.imperial.ac.uk/), a very prestigious part of London University. At school I’d been good at English but hated History and all of the other “arts” subjects. I had an aptitude for Maths, Physics and Chemistry and, despite being lazy, ended up with decent A levels. Five minutes after finishing the last exam the headmaster ordered me to go home because he wasn’t having me hanging around with nothing to do, suspecting, possibly correctly, that I was connected with his car finding its way into the aisle of the school chapel with it’s fuel tank siphoned empty.
Hence, with those qualifications, it had to be a science or engineering degree. I had decided, at the ripe old age of 23 that I no longer wanted to be a penniless musician. I had no idea of the impending emotional hit to my self esteem which would come from the transition to student, but I still had a year till it started. When I told Jim of my decision he learned, on the same day, that he had the record contract he had always craved but would lose his side kick, which was what I was.
In The Boys, Casino Steel had always called me the front man, which was indeed my role. This didn’t mean I was leader of the band. I couldn’t be because, in a songwriting sense I’ve always said I was the student learning at the feet of masters. I was co lead singer, but the man at the front of the stage getting the crowd going and visually being the focus. In the Hollywood Killers I had more of a Mick Ronson (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mick_Ronson) role which was very enjoyable and carried a good deal less pressure.
I wrote, with Lino Robinson, a couple of songs in the set and one of them, “No Joke”, was pencilled in to be recorded in a five song session with legendary producer Mike Vernon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Vernon_(record_producer)).
And boy did that make me excited. I was a huge fan of early Fleetwood Mac, the version lead by Peter Green (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4703771/Shall-I-tell-you-about-my-life….html). Green was on the verge of morphing from straight forward blues into something seriously original when, like Syd Barrett (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syd_Barrett), his mind was fried and his genius stolen by a tab of acid, spending the rest of his life tormented by mental illness. But before he was lost he left behind the saddest and most beautiful song ever.
Don’t underestimate Mike Vernon’s contribution here together with his amazing work on records like “Albatross” where, through the guitars and cymbals, you can almost hear a bird flying over ocean waves.
I learned so much about production from Tony Barber when we came to make “Little Big Head”. At the outset, in typical Tony fashion he said: “We can make this record like a Ramones record or we can make it interesting”. Tony wasn’t being rude about The Ramones. Their early records are straight forward. The sound is almost the same on each track. The end of the track sounds the same as the beginning with no variation in between and they have almost no harmonies. The Ramones can do that and make a great record because they are so perfect and their songs are so superb. Thousands of eager young punk bands have since taken the same approach and made boring records because they don’t have the same genius.
Compare that approach to “Man of the World”. The genius of Peter Green, the artist, is not imposed on or hindered in any way, unlike for instance Phil Spector or Trevor Horn who dominate their records by producing their sound (and a great sound it usually is). But in “Man of the World” listen to how the sound and the instrumentation changes. A little bit of Spanish guitar then it’s gone. Heavy reverb on an electric guitar then it’s gone. Heavy reverb on a vocal then it’s gone. Heavy distortion on a bass then it’s gone. A distorted guitar line then a clean guitar line and on and on go the variations, being “interesting” indeed. All the modern technology in the world could not make that record any more perfect than it is.
And Mike didn’t disappointment with us. Time with him in the studio was an easy going joy. We decamped for a few days to his mansion in the Cotswolds where he had a studio in a barn and a barrel of beer in the recording room. The Boys wouldn’t have made it to the end of the session.
There was something so professional and calming about this man with the country bumpkin accent. He did a great job, the results of which are here:
And for good measure, showing what a great live band the Hollywood Killers were, here is a live version of “No Joke” from that Golden Lion show:
And so we fast forward from 1982 to October 2019 and Pop Pizza (https://poppizza.business.site/) in Kyoto Japan, one of those basement music bars so typical there, run by Dan, an American and sometime member of M.O.T.O (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M.O.T.O.) (check out “I Hate My Fucking Job“, one of the best American punk records of all time).
Dan says he has to close his club when he’s on tour because the Japanese can’t cook pizza. I couldn’t possibly comment.
Remember the kind man who had reminded me of “No Joke” by the Hollywood Killers and who I had dismissed as a well meaning but delusional soul for telling me it was popular in Japan?
We’d played our set at Pop Pizza and were mingling with the crowd, signing albums and bowing back as they respectfully bowed at us in that shy Japanese way which is so beguiling. Nick Hughes gave me a tap on the shoulder and shouted above the music: “What’s this song the DJ is playing. It’s really Elton John but I’ve never heard it”. I listened. “Fuck me”, I said, “It’s me!”.
I rushed over to the DJ shouting: “What is this, where did you get it?”. “It’s a 7 inch released in Spain” he said, “It’s very popular here”.
And the same thing happened in Okayama the following night, then in Osaka and then at our first gig in Tokyo. “No Joke” was everywhere.
Our second, smaller gig in Tokyo was an acoustic affair in the intimate Poor Cow bar, a wonderful place run by Fifi, a great singer fronting a great band in his own right. The bar is based around his vinyl collection and, of course, he had a copy of “No Joke”. The clamour to play the song was too great so we learned it in the sound check. When we played it a huge cheer erupted and at the end of the set, instead of the traditional Japanese communal shout of “One more song” the shout was a collective “No Joke”.
So we played it again, largely messing it up but still getting a resoundingly positive reaction.
Across the Sea of Japan the Koreans didn’t know the song, of course. They were busy listening to jazz. But what an unexpected bonus from the trip. A song, forgotten in the mists of time, restored to its rightful owner, together with memories of a couple of happy years, my last as a musician before the transition to student, businessman, husband and father.