Glaxo Babies – Dreams Interrupted
In the Autumn of 1977 both Sounds and NME ran free Musicians Wanted ads. I placed an ad in both which read "Musicians wanted to take over where the Velvet Underground left off." It wasn't meant to be presumptuous. If I'd placed the same ad six or seven years later it would have attracted a bunch of Jesus & Mary Chain copyists. If I placed the same ad now, god knows who it would attract. People who want to make music for car ads perhaps. But in 1977 it was a way of attracting like minded individuals from those select few who knew, and cared, who the Velvet Underground were.
And it worked. A handwritten letter from Tom Nichols arrived in the post, inviting me down to the Dockland Settlement in City Road, St Pauls to check out his band. The Dockland was only five minutes walk from where I lived in Montpelier. It was a youth club during the week and on Saturday nights they had bands on and a reggae disco. I'd seen the Stranglers there a couple of years earlier when they all had long hair. I'd danced to Uptown Top Ranking there six months before it was in the charts. The Dockland was a cool place.
They had a rehearsal room for hire upstairs and on a cold November night in 1977 I walked in and there in one corner of this vast unheated room stood Tom Nichols and Dan Catsis, a bass amp and a guitar amp. "We've got one that goes like this" they said. "And one that goes like this" And so on, as they proceeded to play these angular little sketches to me. Some lasted three or four minutes. Some no more than 30 seconds.
They seemed a bit reserved and self conscious as they ran through the material. Dan, intense and hunched and fresh out of art school. Tom, tall and aloof and fresh out of school. I thought they were fucking magnificent. Half of it sounded like Trout Mask Replica and I knew straight away that I'd found my Magic Band.
They didn't even ask me to sing. With my suedehead crop and my long leather Superfly/Shaft coat (or my 'SS coat' as Dan interpreted it) they thought I looked the part. I asked where the drummer was. "He hasn't turned up" they said. Drummers and time keeping, eh?
Downstairs in the bar they weren't half as intense as first impressions had suggested. Ice was broken. Drinks were drunk. We spent half an hour pissing ourselves as we recalled old Monty Python sketches and agreed that the series they made without John Cleese was brilliant.
Dan explained that the band name came from these ads he'd xeroxed while at art college. Gl*xo made baby milk powder, the stuff you're weaned onto after mothers milk, or sometimes the stuff you were on instead of mothers milk. The caption under the photo of a smiling child said "smiling one year old Gl*xo baby". When you xerox a xerox of a xeroxed xerox you end up with a very distorted image and after a while he'd created this grotesque facsimile of a child, but underneath it still said "smiling one year old Gl*xo Baby. The juxtaposition appealed to me immediately.
Three weeks later we had our first gig, someones Christmas party at, appropriately enough, the Dockland. This was a bit of a bummer as The Hamsters (aka the Sex Pistols) were supposed to be playing at the Bamboo Club in St Pauls that same night as part of their secret tour, and I'd fancied seeing that. But as chance would have it the club mysteriously burned down the night before the gig, as clubs often mysteriously do.
For the Dockland gig we hastily assembled a rudimentary set of eight songs, including a couple of Beatles and Stones covers. Toms Mum had rather fetchingly sewn the name of the band into the back of his jacket, Rubettes stylee. It was all very homespun and raw. Afterwards, me and Dan went back to my flat and stayed up all night on amphetamine sulphate talking about how great we were.
We continued to rehearse at the Docklands and played our second gig at this notoriously hardcore punk venue called the BQ club. About 50 safety pinned clone-punks stood and watched us in grudgeful silence. Hardly anyone clapped. Some surly anthropoid at the side of the stage kept unplugging us, so the sound went off every five minutes. We were just glad to get out of there without getting our heads kicked in - or electrocuted. A year later people started coming up to us at gigs, saying "saw you at the BQ club. You were great." Half of them added "we thought you were really heavy. Really intense."
I suppose we were. We were fairly isolated from the "scene" at first. We didn't really know anybody. Tom knew some of the Clifton crowd, an amiable Cortina or two, and later on when we got more "accepted" it was nice to go round their houses after we got back from the pub. They all had trendy middle class parents, that Clifton lot, none of whom minded you skinning up in their pine kitchens. But initially we were outcasts and that was our strength. A rumour went round in the early days about all the warring and bitchy factions in the Bristol music scene. You know the sort of thing. "What about band A?" "Oh, they hate band B?" "What about band C?" "They hate band D". "What about the Gl*xo Babies" "Oh, they hate everybody." We didn't, we just didn't know anyone, but we were happy to indulge the myth. We weren't part of any clique. That's why we didn't sound like anybody else.
In March 1978 we played our third gig at Redlands Teacher Training College, supporting The Only Ones. It was our most prestigious gig to date and the place was packed. The Only Ones guitarist John Perry came up to us afterwards and said he thought we were really good. That gave us a kind of validation and confidence. We didn't really know if we were any good or not. We knew we were different though. When we played that night, half the room immediately drifted off to the bar and half the room came straight down to the front. That tended to happen a lot when we played.
Around this time Tom found us this amazing rehearsal space in a cave cut deep into the Avon gorge. You reached it through a series of head bumping knee grazing unlit tunnels with water dripping down and stalactites and shit. Ok I made the bit up about the stalactites, but it was a truly unique environment to work in, warm and womb like and soundproofed to the nth. We started rehearsing there three nights a week. That's when we started to get really fucking good.
In the entire time we were together we only played about half a dozen gigs outside Bristol, and only twice in London. One of these was at the Rock Garden in Covent Garden in the summer of 1978 supporting a group called Resistance, a nice bunch of lads with a sharp pushy manager. We were terrible. Three of us took too much sulphate before we went on. Me and Tom spent most of the set rigid with speed blam, with our backs to the audience. Dan, being the only together one that night, was deeply embarrassed 'cos loads of his old art school mates had turned up to see us and we sucked big time.
We slouched off back to Bristol with our tails - and our half chewed lips - between our legs. Initially there had been talk of us doing two gigs at the Rock Garden with Resistance, but we assumed that they wouldn't want us back for the return date. A couple of months later we get a phone call from the band. "Er, where were you last night? Did you forget the gig?" They thought we were great and wondered why we hadn't shown up. That was us all over. Still riddled with doubt. We knew we were different but we still weren't sure if we were any good.
We also played the Ashton Court Free Festival that summer. We were first on the bill, Saturday lunchtime. Our performance that day seems to have gone down in Bristol punk legend. All I can remember though was gazing out through my blue tinted mirror shades at a field full of disinterested hippies. That evening, however, we played one of the most bizarre gigs of our lives.
Our drummer Geoff Alsopp had got us a gig in a pub out in the badlands of Kingswood where he lived. The hours between our lunchtime performance at Ashton Court and the evening gig were filled with hedonistic excess of monumental proportion. You know that Dennis Leary sketch? "Lets get an eightball. It'll last all weekend. An hour later. Same four guys. Letsgetanothereightball. Letsgetanothereightball". That was us that Saturday. I think three separate trips were made from the outskirts of Bristol back to drug central in Ashley Road to satisfy our fighter pilot cravings. Now, throw a room full of Bristol Rovers football thugs and an aggrieved pub landlord into the mix and you have the makings of something very combustible. Altamont on cider. We got our heads down and played our avant-weird music for 45 minutes while some increasingly volatile football hoolies harassed our girlfriends and threw bottle tops and beer at us. Relieved to have got through the set we headed for the bar, where the landlord told us in no uncertain terms that we were "contracted" to play for 90 minutes. Reluctantly returning to the stage the Rovers fans resumed their belligerent touching up of our girlfriends while snarling "eer, play some Pistols, play some Clash" at us.
So that's what we did. We bluffed our jittery amphetamined way through approximations of White Riot, Pretty Vacant, Janie Jones, and anything else that we could half remember from the Pistols-Clash songbook. And they fucking loved it! A truce was declared the moment we went into White Riot. Mass pogoing broke out. Some of them even bought us drink afterwards. I can't be sure but they may even have stopped trying to tit up our girlfriends.
We played several gigs like that. Gigs that are about as far from the official punk blueprint as you can get. On another of the few occasions we ventured out of Bristol we played the annual barn dance in a Gloucestershire village called Iron Acton. The stage was on a 12ft high raised platform in a huge shed that smelt of stale cows milk and silage. The clientele seemed to consist of everyone who lived within a 20 mile radius. Local dignitaries well dressed ladies trailing their best evening gowns through the farmyard mud, rural bikers, children. A very English scene.
The promoter, I kid you not, thought that "new wave" was country music and had booked us and a clutch of other spikey haired malcontents on that very premise. No one seemed to mind. The bands were just a sideshow anyway, no more or less important than the hog-roast or the draw for the raffle. I remember about half an hour before we played we were sitting in a quiet adjacent meadow, discretely enjoying a pre-gig spliff or two, when Tom said "it feels strange to be sitting here like this, when in half an hour we'll all be going (approximates gl*xo style noise) nah-nah-nah-nah-nah." And as we gazed at the idyllic splendor of the rolling Gloucestershire hills it did sum up the incongruity of the situation. But Tom’s apposite observation still couldn't match the surrealism of the gig itself. The TV show Tiswas was very big at the time, and about halfway through our performance I gazed down from the raised stage to see an entire chapter of rural bikers doing the "Dying Fly" on the floor below. For the unacquainted, the dying fly was a dance popularised by Tiswas where you basically lay on your back and waved your arms and legs in an approximation of the actions of, er, a dying fly.
I don't know if you were expecting lots more stories by this stage about us hanging about backstage with Pere Ubu, or sitting around deciphering Wire lyrics, but believe me you have not lived until you have played your music in a cow shed full of rural bikers who are all doing the dying fly!
When our modicum of success came it came very quickly. We went from zeroes to ones in a matter of months. We'd heard on the grapevine that one local promoter had dismissed us with the words "who'd want to write a song about a **** like Bruce Lee?", so it came as a welcome surprise when in December 1978 Simon Edwards asked us to demo some tracks for him. We ran through the four songs that eventually appeared on the This Is Your Life EP, plus Avoiding The Issue. Dan was a tad detached and uninspired that night and I had an excruciating stomach bug which necessitated crouching in foetal agony between every number, but Simon liked what he heard anyway. Within a couple of months we were recording our first EP at Crescent Studios in Bath. I remember Geoff pointing out the exact spot where Eddie Cochran had been killed on the way there. By March 1979 we had an indie chart number one (although this was in the days before there was proper documentation of such things so you won't find verification of that fact in any punk encyclopedia or chart file. How very Gl*xo!)
Within weeks we'd done a Peel session, played the John Peel Roadshow at Bristol Polytechnic (possibly our best ever gig) and wiped the floor with the Human League at The Anson Rooms and Adam and The Ants at Salisbury Art College. Although still a couple of years away from his war painted pop-star prime Adam was already a star in his own head. I recall that he had his own dressing room even then and his band spent so long preening their way through the sound check that we were deprived of one. We were also ordered to play for 20 minutes maximum! By then it had become a bit of a speciality of ours to wipe the floor with headlining acts who had pulled rank or pissed us off mightily and that night we played the angriest most intense 20 minutes of music we'd ever come up with. We returned to our dressing room to find a couple of members of The Ants 'entourage' sniffing glue out of crisp packets. How terribly punk.
Although we'd formed during the punk era, and were all partial to the odd bit of new wave noise, none of us were that enamored with its overall agenda. We were of that scene but not in it. We didn't sound particularly punky, the reference points in our song lyrics were not in the least bit punky. And I'm pretty sure that no other band had a guitarist who was prone to playing the guitar with a vibrator! The posters and flyers that Dan individually designed for our gigs, and which we discretely pasted around Clifton, St Paul’s and Montpelier in the dead of night, didn't look like anyone else’s. We all despised the orthodoxy and apartheid that punk rapidly engendered. A couple of memory flashbacks to illustrate the point; one day early in 1978 I went round to Dan’s flat and as I walked up the stairs I could hear music playing. You could usually hear music playing when you went round to Dan’s flat. One day it might be Chrome or Throbbing Gristle. Another day it might be some Vietnamese folk anthology he had borrowed from Central Library. On this occasion though I was assaulted by the unmistakable strains of The Edgar Broughton Bands' Wasa Wasa, a record I probably hadn't heard for 7 or 8 years. "Far out" I exclaimed sincerely and unironically as I walked in the room. (We didn't have irony in those days, at least not the corrosive last-refuge-of-the-intellectually-bankrupt irony you get now. We meant everything we said, maaaan!) It wasn't the done thing to be listening to The Edgar Broughton Band in 1978, and it certainly wasn't the done thing to be saying "Far Out." Not in public anyway.
Similarly a few months later we were in the pub after a Cave rehearsal when Chic's Le Freak came on the jukebox. I spotted Toms foot tapping under the table and we began this hushed almost surreptitious conversation about the virtues of Rogers and Edwards immaculate stripped down funk. "I didn't like that yowsah yowsah one but this is great." "Yeah, listen to that bass." It seemed absurd that we should be having this clandestine whispered conversation in case some mohair-clad twat might overhear us and use it as evidence as crimes against the new wave, but that's how things were a bit.
In the early days we had a siege mentality that shored us up against those kind of people and that kind of thinking. That all started to change once we had a record out. People who wouldn't deign to speak to us before now wanted to make our acquaintance and be on our guest lists. Indeed a 1980 compilation of those early Heartbeat demo's and other Gl*xo miscellany was called Put Me On The Guest List, after a gig at Tiffany's in Bristol where, disgusted by the room full of freeloaders and liggers who seemed to make up half the audience, I'd changed the lyrics of Who Killed Bruce Lee from "put me in the picture" to "put me on the guest list".
For a while after the EP release we carried on in our own sweet isolated way. Sounds sent a local hack called Rab to interview us (our one and only encounter with the national music press.) Airey Neave had been blown up in the House of Commons Car Park by the IRA that very afternoon and me and Dan spent most of the interview discussing that instead of answering Rab's questions. Meanwhile Tom spent much of the interview cross-questioning me on the meaning of my lyrics. In one respect this was typical of our self-analytical approach. On the other hand it was a portent of things to come. Within a matter of month the original incarnation of the band was dead and buried.
First of all our original drummer, Geoff Alsopp was sacked. Not so much for musical differences as personal ones. Geoff was a bit of a veteran on the Bristol music scene - god, thinking back on it he must have been at least 28 years old! - he wore a defiantly un new-wave beard, had played in everything from pub bands to country bands and had a telepathic understanding with Tom. That's why our rhythm section was so shit hot. He could also roll a very quick and potent joint, especially when using someone elses stash! Unfortunately some of his friends were nobheads. The nadir was reached during a seemingly endless van journey back to Bristol after a gig at Dingwalls, when we had to keep stopping the van every 20 minutes to let one of his beer monster mates puke out of the window. It sounds trivial from a distance but when you've been in close creative proximity for the best part of 16 months these things start to stack up.
Tom's Dad had opened a record shop by this time, the snappily named Geoff Nichols Music, and we'd started hanging out in there all day. Tom helping out behind the counter. Me and Dan scouring the second hand racks and depriving legitimate customers from using the turntable. After a long prolonged "you do it" "no, you do it" conversation it was left to me to do the dirty deed and pick up the phone to tell our drummer his services were no longer required. "I'd been sort of expecting it" was Geoff's sanguine reply. Within a month I'd be on the receiving end of a similar phone call.
From hereon in it get personal and I'd better prefix the rest of this story with a huge "the following account does not necessarily reflect of the views of the rest of the band" disclaimer, scrawled in 36 point lettering. In blood. The demise of the original Gl*xo's was largely a result of a massive ideological rift that developed between me and Tom. He was becoming increasingly disenchanted with what he perceived as the nihilistic content of some of my songs. For my part I perceived a certain "sniff of the barmaids apron" approach to jazz developing within the unit. I was and still am vehemently opposed to this tendency, and detested the way it spread like a rash through post-punk music in the late seventies and early eighties. Jazz is a life long apprenticeship, not a stylistic indulgence and I thought our strengths as a band lay elsewhere. My days were clearly numbered.
The widening rift between me and Tom culminated with me walking out on the band after the first recording session of what should have been our debut LP. The circumstances of this have been a huge source of regret and hair shirt donning over the years, particularly between me and Dan, who both came to realise rather late in the day that neither of us had ever subsequently found such a satisfying working relationship. The amount of times I'd say "I've got this lyric that goes like this" and Dan would say "I've got this tune that goes like this" - and they'd fit! - was uncanny.
The whole situation seems doubly regrettable with hindsight, because during those early summer months of 1979 we were really starting to cook as a band. Our new drummer Charlie Llewellyn, who had previously been in Gardez Darkx, pleased us immensely when, at his first rehearsal, we asked him to "play like Neu" and he locked effortlessly into that primitive motorik pulse that was one of our guiding principles.
We also acquired the services of a sax player around this time. Tony Wrafter had previously been in a band called Peru. Indeed, as Tony himself sheepishly recalled, they were one of those bands who had pissed us off by pulling rank when we were accidentally double booked for a gig at the Stonehouse pub. "We've played Bath," they said, settling matters once and for all as to who should headline. We touched our forelocks and dutifully blew them off stage. Again, this gig seems to have gone down in Gl*xo folklore, partly because I smashed a wine glass while we were performing and finished the set covered in blood. It wasn't intentional self-laceration of the Iggy Pop or Julian Cope variety. I was just so intensely wrapped up in the performance, and numbed with Totterdown bikers bathtub speed, that I forgot I was clenching the glass in the first place. Didn't feel a thing
"Have you noticed," observed Dan, at some point during this period, "how most groups start off with a small set and add more and more songs as they go along? We seem to have less and less." And it was true. In the early days we had anything up to 17 songs in the set. Now we had it down to about six, all of which lasted 8 to 10 minutes. We were turning into Can!
Geoff Alsopp’s last session with us had been in May 1979 when we appeared on a local BBC West TV show called RPM. We were asked to perform the four songs off our EP and in order to accomplish this complex task we were required to "rehearse" all morning, and then ponce around all afternoon in front of a stage set straight out of The Lulu Show, circa 1969, while a hairy chested producer in an open denim shirt impressed us with his fake sincerity, a floor manager fed us really naff stage instructions, and bored and jaded technicians halted proceeding every two minutes because camera five had zoomed when it should have panned, or whatever. We got word that up in the control room they were hating us. The feeling was mutual. In fact such was the dispiriting effect of having to play our entire bloody EP a dozen times in one day that we immediately dropped it from our set. By the summer of 1979 our live set consisted of Burning, Flesh, (which had both been there in one form or another since the very first gig) an increasingly dub reggaefied version of Bruce Lee, It's Irrational, She Went To Pieces, and a new song called Christine Keeler (which had made its first spontaneous appearance in entirely ad-libbed form as our third encore at the John Peel Roadshow gig.)
Hanging out in Geoff Nichols Music one day, I answered the phone. It was some agent guy. "God, you people are hard to get hold of. I've been trying to track you down for ages" said this exasperated voice. "Would you like to play some gigs with the bands I represent?" "Maybe. Who you got?" I replied.
"The Leighton Buzzards?"
"Er, no thanks."
"What do we think about the Cure?"
Agreeable nods all round. Killing An Arab had just come out. We were partial to a bit of rock and roll Camus.
"Yeah, we'll play with the Cure".
So we played with the Cure in Cheltenham. It turned out to be our penultimate gig. Me and Tom argued in the back of the van all the way there. We played a stonker of a set though and as we sat in our dressing room afterwards two unassuming young guys dressed in black hesitantly hung around the door and told us they thought we were great before nervously melting away into the throng. We assumed they were fans.
Having never seen the Cure we went out to watch the main act. The two unassuming guys in black were Robert Smith and Lol Tolhurst.
On June 25th 1979 we went into Crescent Studios to begin recording our debut LP with the ideological differences between me and Tom still unresolved. It was as depressing an occasion as I can ever remember. The band improvised away happily while I sat around like a spare part, waiting to sing some of our songs. During a break in proceedings me and Tom were sitting in the lobby and started arguing again about the bands musical direction. I clearly remember seeing Tony out of the corner of my eye, scurrying off up the stairs to tell the rest of the band that it had all kicked off again.
Somehow in the middle of all this we managed to fit in a version of Christine Keeler. It was nothing more than a token run through to appease me, and I cocked up my diction in a couple of places ("hopening and closing the same old doors" indeed!) Tony played some blinding sax on it though and a few months later it was Record Mirrors Single Of The Week. But by then there wasn't a band to promote it.
The day after the session I phoned Tom in vaguely conciliatory mood to see if there was anything we could do to patch things up. I had the early Pink Floyd in mind and cited it as an example. Syds songs coupled with long exploratory improvisations. "We're not compromising," said Tom. And that was that.
A few months later I picked up a fanzine in Rough Trade called Allied Propaganda and was walking along Portobello Road reading it. The Gl*xo's album Nine Months To The Disco had just come out and there was an interview with the band. "Rob was a good guy," Tom said. "but he was into 'songs' and we weren't."
They'd put inverted comma's around 'songs'.
I hope you enjoy these 'songs'. I hope you enjoy all of it. We all did. For a while.
Rob Chapman. January 2006.