MIKE BARSON: Born April 21 1958, Edinburgh
The son of two art teachers, Mike grew up in Kentish Town and Muswell Hill. His father left when he was young, so Mike and older brothers Ben and Dan were raised by his mum under straitened circumstances. They each tried to outdo each other on the piano kept in the hall, with their self-taught efforts becoming quite accomplished – Ben playing modern jazz with his hippy mates and Dan with his rock ‘n’ roll band.
MIKE: I went to Brookfield School, between Kentish Town and Highgate. My favourite subject was science because we had a good teacher. Then in 1975 I went to Hornsey Art School because I wanted to become a commercial artist. I used to like advertisements and things like that. I never particularly liked any great works of art, I preferred commercial art and cartoons. But I only completed the first year foundation course and didn’t get in for the next part because I fucked it up a bit. I didn’t really like it there – they were all sort of ponces. Art schools don’t really seem to be into art, they’re more into talking about it. It shouldn’t be to do with how many ‘A’ levels you can get, because they don’t have all that much to do with intelligence at all – they just reflect your abilities to learn things. But that’s all they seem to want, so they do a lot of talking at them. A lot of those people are really useless at drawing or painting. They just have a lot of waffle. Being able to talk about what you’re doing has a lot to do with how impressed people are about it. If you talk really confidently about what you’re doing, people think that maybe it is good-people tend to agree with what they’re told. So anyway, I didn’t really like it, and I didn’t go in very frequently. Quite often I’d just go in and spend the whole afternoon playing the piano in the hall. I applied for another three-year course at the London School Of Printing, but I turned up two hours late for the interview and they never let me in. But I wasn’t really that bothered, I was more interested in just practising and trying to get better on the piano. I never bothered to read music or try to learn classical stuff – it never sounded any good, even if you could play it properly; Beethoven and the rest seemed out of tune to me. And you only need to read music if you want to play other people’s tunes. I suppose I was trying to keep up with my brother Ben, who was a brilliant musician. He played all the instruments himself – a bit of a wizard. But there was no rivalry between us; he’d just always been better than me. Ben was into modern jazz and had a five-album box set by Keith Jarrett, which as far as I could hear had one good song on it. He also used to get a lot of old reggae – things like Tighten Up Volume 1. So I used to listen to that and old Tamla Motown – it was the old cliche of my elder brother having the records and me listening to them. I used to listen to Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, and I also liked Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Fire In The Hole by Steely Dan had a really nice piano solo on it which I listened to again and again, although I never tried to play it; Steely Dan’s a bit complicated. I also liked Robert Wyatt and Soft Machine – their album Third is great and Moon in June is a great track. And of course, there was The Beatles. When I was a little nipper, about six or seven, we used to go on our summer holidays to my granny’s in Lewis on the train from Victoria. Me and my brothers used to stick our heads out of the window and sing A Day In The Life at the top of our voices.
CHRIS FOREMAN: Born August 8 1956, London
His father John – known on the folk scene as a music hall revivalist – tried to teach a young Chris to play guitar, but he soon got bored. At the age of 17, he bought a cheap second-hand guitar and became more enthusiastic when he began to learn chords. He then acquired a Fender Telecaster for £20 with a tax rebate, at the urging of Thompson, so he could join rehearsals in Mike’s bedroom.
CHRIS: I’ve always lived in London. I was born in the University College Hospital and brought up in Kentish Town. I don’t think I come from a particularly working class background, although we did have an outside toilet. My old man was a teacher and a singer, doing gigs every now and then and performing traditional Cockney songs. He always used to try and teach me guitar when I was a kid, but I was never really interested in things like Bobby Shaftoe. Mike’s mum knew my parents and Mike used to live near me, so over the next few years, we would occasionally nod at each other in passing. I must have been about 10. Then around 1971, kids from the Highgate Road in Kentish Town area amalgamated into groups. In my particular group were John Jones, Paul Catlin, Lee, Mike and myself. We used to walk from the Lido up this hill and set fire to all the rubbish bins on the way. We’d get to the top, look down and survey all these glowing rubbish bins, which was quite fun. The park keepers used to chase us in vans at night. I went to grammar school in Islington – Dame Alice Owens. It’s been knocked down since but Alan Parker and Spandau Ballet went there. Best times ever. Oh what fun I had as the song goes but at the time it… actually didn’t seem that bad. One big laugh, but it was a crap school. My music teacher was awful and I never had much interest in the subject. Instead I bunked off and went to Haverstock, Lee’s school. I went in the classroom and the teacher’s going, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’ve come from Birmingham’ So I actually got expelled from Lee’s school! I used to listen to a lot different types of music at school, but Roxy Music were always my favourites. My teenage years were Roxy, Alice Cooper, the Kilburns, Motown, reggae, Hawkwind, Alex Harvey… the lot, really. I feel lucky to have grown up in the 60s and 70s as the music was so good (although there was plenty of mush too). I also loved the Beatles, but that was compulsory really. In fact I later wrote a very Beatles B-side called Please Don’t Go. Anyway, I wasn’t a great student and only got one O Level – English. I finally left in 1972 when I was 16. Well, I was asked not to come back actually. During the summer holidays, I had seen a gardening job advertised in a newsagents, which I successfully applied for. After the holidays, I eagerly returned to continue my education which was sadly not to be. So I stayed at the gardening firm for about two years. I then worked for the glorious London Borough of Camden as a gardener with Lee. We were both quite interested in music and were always saying we’d start a band. We also used to wear donkey jackets with LBC on the back, and if people asked what it meant, we said London Brick Company (or the more fruity London’s Biggest C**t). Having by now learnt a tremendous amount about gardening, I then applied for a job on the Camden painting and decorating department and got sacked after about six months for turfing someone’s front room and wallpapering their window box. Gardening was great fun – I still go and look at the bits of wasteland we turned into gardens.
LEE THOMPSON: Born October 5 1957, London
Lee’s dad, Fred, was a safe-breaker and was often away at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Between 12 and 14, Lee himself was a regular in court, mainly for an ingenious scam on the old grey GPO phone boxes – insert a bit of cardboard and you could walk away with up to a pound. There was also a little light housebreaking and shoplifting of records. Eventually he was sent to a Chafford Approved School for wayward boys. On his release, he began knocking about with Kentish Town neighbours Chris and Mike, with a favoured pastime being jumping freight trains.
LEE: I was a right naughty boy – very cheeky and a ringleader according to my mates’ parents. They thought I was a lout and some wouldn’t let their kids hang out with me because I was a bad influence. In the 57 years my dad was alive he spent 25 in prison, so Mum didn’t have much control and couldn’t really handle me. From about nine or 10 upwards I was a very, very bad boy. I got into burglaries, but never violence – I’ve never committed violence. I was a bit of a Tasmanian devil, all over the place, no concentration span. I’m still the same, but I’ve sort of refined it a bit. I was at Gospel Oak originally, then I moved from Highgate Road in Kentish Town to Holly Lodge estate. Everything went downhill when we moved. I was never bullied, which was a problem for some kids. I used to turn up, get marked in and go straight down the arcade. I remember being stuck in a bin for putting a magnet on a tape recorder. It erased all the information. Miss Durham made me sit in a bin all lesson. I also lost my virginity just down from the police station, in a big metal container which held smashed windscreens. I climbed out half an hour later with a lacerated bottom and knuckles and her arse was like a tramline; ripped to shreds because I was on top. I used to knock around with a chap called Robbie Townsend – God rest his soul – and we used to get into some pretty serious trouble. Between the age of 10 and 14 I was in and out of bother, and clocked up 13 court appearances in my heyday. There was an estate near me at Brookfield Park being knocked down. We’d wait for the removal vans to go, then wallop! Through the window and off with the old meters. That’d get you through a couple of weeks, pair of dogtooth loafers, a jar of Brylcreem. I was meant to be at Ackland Burleigh school but I didn’t go much. I wasn’t really that interested and probably spent more time off than in the classroom. I went in for a few exams but I was only really interested in English and Art. I also had a little gardening job and I used to like it so much that I’d be off doing it even when I was supposed to be in class. So I was going down that wrong road and it came to a head in October 1971. On my 14th birthday I bunked games and went to Whitton Hospital, opened a locker and nicked a bag. When I opened it there was 130 quid inside, which worried me. That was big time. I gave my mates at the local youth centre a lot of 50 pence pieces and five days later I was grassed up and taken to the station. They took six other charges into consideration and gave me a good hiding, which I deserved. The Holmes Road constabulary in Kentish Town had had enough of me and Robbie so we got split up, just in the nick of time. Bob was sent to one place, and I was put away in a school out of London from November 1971 until January 1973, which was fortunate because it nipped things in the bud in that respect – I was going down a dodgy old path. I was remanded in Stamford House and then Chafford School, where I was in a dorm with these right heavy blokes. It gave me order, which I needed, and discipline – though you could never tell. It was there that I started listening to music; the stuff that stood out on the radio to me was mainly Motown and reggae. Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay was another big influence and I had pictures of him all over the wall. Although I had a breakdown there I’ve got some fond memories of the place, but I never want to go back. Mike and Chris came to visit me once and when they left I got very tearful. So when I was sent back into the smoke I started hanging around with them.
CHRIS: Lee used to come home at weekends – he’d get out on Fridays and we’d spend the weekend with him and see he got back on the train OK.
LEE: I’d known Mike since we were about three or four – I think we went to see Bridge On The River Kwai together. It was a fortunate privilege to have met them when I did. They weren’t into the serious things I was and I think if I hadn’t have met them I would’ve gone down the pan. They took me by the hand, pulled me to one side and said you should try music as opposed to a crowbar – and the rest is history. Rather than getting up to no good and being very bad, we were more into petty shoplifting, and graffiti and jumping freight trains — y’know the usual stuff. We went to France once – me, Si Birdsall and Mike – in Autumn ’74 and jumped the freight trains over there. We got as far as Toulouse and Dijon. We also went to Paris and got half way up the Eiffel Tower. Getting up was OK, but coming down was very difficult as we happened to find an open door with crates and crates of lager in it. Those were the days.
MIKE: There was always something about railways. They were at the back of everything somehow, round the back of houses where nobody went.
LEE: On bank holidays, we used to take off on a freight train, up to Leamington Spa, mainly northwards. We ended up in Leigh-On-Sea once, near Southend. Jumped out, pitched the tent, woke up to find cows nibbling at the strings.
MIKE: We used to build little camps over the railway, and we’d hide in them and when a freight train would come along, we’d run after it and jump on the back, go over to Willesden or Tottenham on little shoplifting sprees.
LEE: By this time I’d left school and was doing the gardening with Chris. But I could never hold down a job full time. I’d work for, say, nine months of the year and have the rest of the time off.
Kix, Mr B, Cat and Columbo
Using their distinctive signatures of ‘Mr B’ and ‘Kix’, Mike and Lee express their early artistic identity on the walls of North London, along with two pals ‘Cat’ and ‘Columbo’ (Si Birdsall – more of whom later). Lee’s full tag – J4 KIX 681 – stands for ‘just for kicks’ and the house number where he lived. The gang’s notable canvases include the Lido swimming-pool off Hampstead Heath and Highbury & Islington tube station. They also spray their nicknames on George Melly’s garage door, prompting the jazz star to write a newspaper article declaring: “If I ever catch that Mr B, Kix and Columbo, I’m going to kick their arses.” A later book on London graffiti by Melly, Watching The Wold Go By, features a photo of Barso’s work – a car crash scene with a blood-drenched hand hanging from a car window.
LEE: I first remember seeing an ad in the Sunday Times colour supplement around ’73 that had a piece on graffiti carried out in the dead of night on the New York subways and trains. So to pass a little time, we acquired some aerosol cans and got to work.
KERSTIN RODGERS: ‘Kix’ was a common graffiti around Hampstead, Gospel Oak and Camden. I knew his tag before I even met him.
SI BIRDSALL: I used several names – ‘Columbo’ from the TV series, ‘Sha Na Na’, ‘Sneaking Sally’ from the Robert Palmer album. I think what brought an end to it was we went up to Woolworths in Hampstead and went crazy. We got carrier bags full of spray paint, three or four of us with two carriers each. We hid them in a cemetery, and for a week after we just overdid it – we just got fed up with it. Mike was very good at drawing and did a good one at Highbury Station, from the Kilburn & The High Roads album. It’s still faintly there.
MIKE: Lee was quite well known among all the parents, they knew he was a bit of a rascal. He would always have to wait around the corner because our mums and dads didn’t want us to hang around with him. He was a bit of an influence on us, but we were a bit of an influence on him too. He was heading towards a heavyweight life of crime because he was mixing with the wrong kind of people, then he started mixing with us and we got a little bit involved in a lightweight life of crime.
CHRIS: We were quite bad but we didn’t go round mugging people; it was mostly vandalism and a bit of shoplifting. Barso could never run very fast, so he always got caught.
LEE: I had a massive record collection, most of which was pinched from Woolworths and various shops that had the albums sealed in their packaging, which was the norm back then. Cameras were virtually non-existent or were those massive Dalek head-type dome eyesores, that were normally positioned over by more desirable items like electrical goods. I was once hoisting along with Chris, Mike and an old ringleader John Jones. John and myself grabbed a chocolate mousse each, I climbed on JJ’s shoulders and put the mousse cups over the eyes of the Dalek — fun and games in South Kensington via shoplifter’s dream, in Biba. The power cuts of Christmas ’73? (or was it ’74?) must have cost the economy pound notes that winter.
CHRIS: We used to use this shop back in the day called Ben Nevis Clothing, on Royal College Street, NW1. One day, Thommo nicked a Harrington that was hanging on display outside. The owner chased him all the way to Highgate Road but he never caught him. After that Thommo was banned from the shop.
MIKE: We also used to hang out in the Perfect Dry Cleaners in Highgate Road, plotting low-level anti-social behaviour we were too lazy to do.
LEE: We liked it cos it was warm and you had a roof over your head 365 days a year.
MIKE: We used to look out the window and see the freight trains going past, which we used to jump on. You could see the signal, and when it went up, that meant there was a train coming. The train would go over the bridge, we’d run under the tunnel, up the side of the embankment, quickly have a look where it was going and jump on.
CHRIS: We were just mates living near each other in Kentish Town – nothing to do, no real plans.
LEE: We started to get into music like Roxy Music and David Bowie – I actually remember trying to dress up as Bryan Ferry. I once climbed up on the roof of the Rainbow theatre with Si to see Roxy, supported by Leo Sayer. As I’ve pulled myself up to this window, there’s Leo painting his face in the mirror. When we got in, we were up above the band with all these dead pigeons and gunge; when we got down we looked like a couple of kids from Oliver. That was when pub rock was big and we went to see live bands and artists such as Ian Dury, the Feelgoods and the like. We used to go and see bands at Dingwalls, the Nashville, the Roundhouse and the Hope & Anchor; it was about 50p to get in. If we couldn’t afford it, we’d bunk it. The doors were a lot easier to get through in those days. That’s how we got in to see people like Gary Glitter. I also went to see Alex Harvey down the West End somewhere with Mike, Chris, Si and a couple of pals. We walked in and there’s this character on stage with a stocking over his face and a big wall that he smashed through. Just his antics and the visuals really took me.
CHRIS: One time, me and Lee even bunked in to see David Bowie at Earls Court.
LEE: It was when he was promoting Aladdin Sane – it was levitating.
CHRIS: I borrowed some eyeliner off his cousin Lorraine just to blend in and get past security. We looked quite good actually.
LEE: Chris had a navy blue satin jacket and I had a cream one. On the back it had a Japanese garden. Chris also wore sailor trousers – bell bottoms and navy blue – and I wore white ones. We did take some stick – it was a bit difficult, what with our hair having gold and silver spray in it too.
CHRIS: I’ve still got some photos of me in loon pants. We also dyed our hair red with vegetable dye and Mike dived in the lido and it all came out. Of course, that was when we had hair.
LEE: From going to all these gigs, we liked what we saw and decided to get into it ourselves. So the three of us decided to stop hanging about at bus stops, doing this and doing that, and form a group. I got myself an old sax held together with elastic bands and helped Chrissy Boy get a guitar. We popped into a shop and changed the price tag on it as he couldn’t really afford the £50 they wanted. So he got himself a guitar for 15 quid.
The first rehearsals
Mike, Chris and Lee start rehearsing at the Barson family home in Crouch End, North London. Playing along to shoplifted Fats Domino and Temptations albums, they rehearse in a guitar/sax/piano formation three times a week. Mike, who’s had a few classical piano lessons and years of self education, teaches Chris to play guitar, while Lee, originally a clarinetest, practises on a stolen sax. Lee’s huge collection of ska, reggae, Motown and Atlantic soul and singles play a major contribution to their early sound. But the varying degrees of talent regularly lead to tension, with Lee often walking out for weeks.
CHRIS: Lee and I used to go round to Mike’s house to play records and muck about, which is where the group idea started. Lee and me then started to learn guitar and sax in Mike’s front room. Mike’s mum was tremendously understanding, though at times we nearly must have driven her potty.
MIKE: Nobody could really play anything for quite a long time. We just played the records we liked and stuff we’d heard from older brothers – a few ska records, lots of Coasters, Love Potion Number Nine and Poison Ivy.
CHRIS: Lee and Mike nicked an old Fats Domino LP and brought it back so we could play along with that too.
LEE: I had an oboe at first, which was impossible, then moved on to the clarinet in 1975 when I was about 18, because that’s all I could find. I had it for about six months but I didn’t like the sound of it, it was too jazzy. At the time I used to listen to a lot of Andy Mackay and he inspired me to start thinking about taking up sax seriously. He was like a God and I loved his style of playing – not too busy, not too John Coltrane, not too technical either. I wanted a big gold sax like his. I was also listening to The Coasters, Little Richard and a lot of Fats Domino and his contemporaries and that got me going too – it was just the music I was into. All the American R‘n’B I loved had sax on it, and I guess I’d always always been drawn to that breathy, organic sound. Whenever I went along to see a band, I would always prop myself up in front of the sax player. The sound just made me levitate, so I swapped my clarinet for a battered old Boosey & Hawkes tenor sax down Dingwall’s Market. It was a silver-white broken down old thing and I sort of taught meself how to play on it, playing along with old Roxy Music albums and a lot of black R‘n’B from the 50s. All I had on my mind was the saxophone and getting to learn it.
TRACY THOMPSON (Lee’s sister): Mum used to say, ‘You’re blowing that thing and giving me a headache.’
LEE: There was a resurgence of all things 50s. At the cinema it was The Lords of Flatbush, Badlands and American Grafitti. Fashion was, other than soul boys and disco (with punk round the corner) very 50s again. Flip and the flea market were importing American retro bowling jackets, shirts and trousers at reasonable prices. Sha Na Na, Rocky Sharpe and the Razors (later Darts) and of course Bazooka Joe were playing a genre of music that I was drawn to and that featured a lot of saxophone. I spent a lot of hours in front of the mirror mimicking, if not mastering, a lot of Fats Domino tracks. His music and certainly his saxophonist session men inspired me no end.
CHRIS: Mike was really good on the piano and always seemed to be able to play, right from when I first knew him. But he was lucky – he came from a musical family and had had some musical training. His eldest brother, Ben, was really good too and had played with lots of people. He also had lots of equipment, like guitar amps and a piano, so he just picked it up as he went along. I really only took up the guitar when I got a tax rebate and Lee suggested I buy one. I got a Waltone semi-acoustic – £20, a real cheapo Woolworth’s type thing – and started mucking around with it round at Mike’s. I wasn’t really that interested though; I never took lessons or tried to play the thing except when we were together. I just used to play these notes, one string at a time – I wasn’t very interested in it. It was only when I got the sack as a painter and decorator that I started to play by listening to Dr Feelgood. And then I started playing chords and that was what really started me off. I later lent the guitar to an old school friend in the 80s, but he doesn’t know what happened to it.
LEE: I suppose I first got into a group because I wanted to be like Gary Glitter. I thought it was great the way he came over so positive and full of confidence. He knew his image was outrageous, but he wasn’t pretending he was the second coming. He just acted like someone who was genuinely grateful to have show business as a job. I kinda felt like that. Plus I’d always been in a gang, ever since I got out of nappies.
CHRIS: In the beginning, we were just jerking around in Mike’s bedroom, listening to old reggae and rock’n’roll records and trying to copy them. We tried being serious but it never worked.
LEE: We started practising in school halls, though we’d always end up back at Mike’s mum’s house, and then we all managed to get better instruments. I had some friends who used to go to a club at Centre Point and one night they came out in the early hours and they walked up Hampstead Road towards a shop called the Fender Soundhouse. My friend got on his pal’s shoulders — I wasn’t there of course, honest guv — and they climbed in through the window. One guy handed out a twin-necked Fender Stratocaster, and was just about to hand out a saxophone when they noticed the policemens’ helmets coming from the distance. So he couldn’t get out, and he couldn’t go anywhere else because there was a brightly-lit board behind him. So the other two stood on the edge of the pavement, boisterously mucking about to get the coppers’ attention, and the fella — Pete Kennedy, God rest his soul — stood stock still like a profile mannequin with the sax in his mouth. My wife was good enough to pay the £100 to purchase it from Postman Pete, which I still owe her. That was the same sax that I played on our first album, One Step Beyond.
MIKE: Because me, Lee and Chris all grew up together, we all had quite a lot of similar tastes. We used to listen to Motown a lot, so we used to try and do that in the early days – we did Shoparound, See You Later Alligator, that sort of stuff, all other people’s music. I’d had a few lessons, but most of what I know I taught myself during those sessions. We learnt different set pieces; rock’n’roll on the left hand and fiddling round on the blues scale on the right hand.
CHRIS: We were just having fun. Mike was pretty good on the piano, Lee couldn’t really play the saxophone, and I had a cheap guitar with an instruction book. Sometimes, those books have dots to show where you’re supposed to put your fingers – but this one had photographs that showed the fingers in position, so it was easier. It took me about a year to get anywhere. Mike nurtured me and Thommo really – he knew where all the chords were: ‘C? Hit that one.’
LEE: Originally I was happy just to poodle along to records by Roxy Music, Fats Domino, The Coasters and people like that. Then I got my new Selmer and began to get more serious about being in a group. I had my one and only sax lesson at Highbury School. The geezer who was teaching told me to play something in the key of E and I didn’t know what he was on about. Then he noticed the serial number was scratched off the back of the sax. It had been nicked, of course, so I never went back. After that I got meself a couple of books and the old Roxy albums and I’d sit indoors and play for about ten hours a day. It actually took me about four months to get out of all the bad habits I picked up by learning that way. I’ve probably still got a lot.
MIKE: The very first song we ever played, in my brother’s bedroom, was Carole King’s It’s Too Late Baby, which was a very unorthodox approach – very melodic, very naff. A strange choice, but at least we could play a song. That was the first time we had all our instruments out and it actually sounded like we were playing the same song.
CHRIS: At that time there wasn’t anyone I really emulated but I did like Wilko Johnson, and as he used to play a Fender Telecaster, I eventually got one of those. It cost me about £130. As I got better I was influenced by him, Chuck Berry, Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music), Angus and Malcolm Young (AC/DC), Mick Jones (The Clash), Bo Diddley, Nile Rodgers (Chic), Ernest Ranglin… and that’s just for starters. I went to see AC/DC the first time they came to England, at the the Marquee – the proper Marquee, none of your rubbish. Angus was just rolling around the floor and I thought it was great. Back then it was Chuck Berry and Duane Eddy for me. The first record I bought was The Beatles, I Feel Fine, B-side She’s A Woman.
LEE: My musical heroes were Fats Domino, The Coasters, Chuck Berry, black American music, ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and ’60s Britpop. Reggae also moved me. When reggae used to come on the radio. I could never understand the lyrics but that off-beat sound ‘umm-che-umm-che’ really stuck out. It really grabbed me by the earholes. Way back in ’67 just when Radio One started, I had a paper round and to keep me company I had a Solid State radio. I think it was about £1 2s 6d or something. It was a bit of a lump — about double the size of a packet of cigarettes, with an earphone. And while I was delivering the papers one morning, Tony Blackburn played Tears Of A Clown by Smokey Robinson. The production and the singing really stood out — it just brought me out in goose pimples. I also remember roller skating to Return Of Django at The Alexandra Palace on Saturday morning. It has special memories of youth, foolish behaviour and happiness.
MIKE: As well as Motown, we were influenced by bits of rock ‘n’ roll, Stiff Records, Elvis Costello – everything really. I definitely had a Motown book with all the chords in it, but I was such a lazy bum that I never learnt how to read music, so it took ages.
LEE: The Kinks would prove to be such a big influence on all of us later too. I love a song with quirky lyrics. Lola is about a transvestite and at the time, I thought, ‘Woah, that’s pretty risqué’. I mean, I was a fan of The Kinks anyway, but this really turned it round for me — bit better than The Bay City Rollers! Tommy Cooper was another influence, although I didn’t realise it til later. He was always my favourite comedian. I used to get taken to see him when I was a kid, but I never really got it then, it was later that I realised how brilliant he was, the way he could crack you up with the slightest movement.
Kilburn and the High Roads
Kilburn and the High Roads were a British Pub rock/rock and roll band formed by Ian Dury in 1970. The band consisted of Dury as lead vocalist and lyricist, pianist Russell Hardy, guitarist Nick Cash (real name Keith Lucas, a member of 999) and bassist Humphrey Ocean. The band released their debut album Handsome in 1975. After the release of their second album, Wotabunch!, in 1977 the band split, with Dury leaving to form the Blockheads.
MIKE: Ian Dury and Kilburn and the High Roads were another big influence. We used to go and watch them regularly and see how they performed, how they played certain songs. When you saw them sitting round before the gig, there was a real mystique to them. They looked like a band, and you wanted to be in one too. It all looked pretty exotic. They were all characters, all individuals. If you watched just one of them all night, it would be a complete show. We definitely got a lot of inspiration from them and learned a lot about a band of characters where there was always something to look at. There was a lot of cross-fertilisation.
LEE: It was going to see them that made me get a sax – the only thing I’d go for was the sax player Davey Payne. He was so good and so lively on stage. He used to have smoke coming out of his sax, he’d throw things at the audience – he was having fun up there as well as playing. I got a lot of the fun element of the group from watching him – he was certainly a big influence on me.
MIKE: I wouldn’t say that Davey was an influence on Lee. What’s the word? Yeah, he used to copy him a lot. In various ways. No one was doing rock ‘n’ roll back then like Ian Dury and the Kilburns were. They had so much variety and strangeness and mystery. Some of those art school bands were a bit too arty-arty, but Ian’s lot were cool, with real music.
CHRIS: We started following them around – we thought they were brilliant, both visually and musically.
LEE: I’ve always been big on eccentricity and Ian had it in every department. From the moment he walked on stage you were transfixed – he wouldn’t allow you to go to the toilet or bar, not in his time anyway.
IAN DURY (Kilburns singer): We used to have to get changed into our stage gear in the toilets and once I can remember Lee climbing in through the toilet window and seeing us lot with our trousers down.
LEE: I was bunking in as I was too young to get in to the pub, but I caught my trousers and was left hanging there. Suddenly this upside-down face appeared and said, ‘What do you want?’ And this hand unhooked me – SPLASH! – straight into a load of pee. I met Ian again later when I’d come out of Dingwalls with Chris and Mike and he just happened to be there. I ran up behind him and said, ‘Hi Ian, can I have your autograph?’ And he said, ‘No. Fuck off.’ Which I thought was fair enough.
CHRIS: Ian and the Kilburns and that whole pub rock thing helped us a bit, but it was really punk that made us realise that you didn’t have to read music, or be that good at playing your instrument.
MIKE: Punk meant nothing to me, even though all the other bands at that time were getting on a bit. I remember going to The Rainbow and seeing these three guys who were supposed to be brilliant, but they were so dull. I thought at the time, ‘We can’t miss’. Then suddenly the Pistols came along and stole our glory. Their attitude was good but I don’t think any of us really liked their music – I like it when people know what they’re doing. I loved the spirit of rebellion, the kicking over of statues, but I missed the musicianship. It reminded me of when I was doing my foundation course at Hornsey – the way in which technical skill was frowned upon. The lecturers would be really withering about the students who were good at drawing or painting, which I thought was stupid. I suppose punk was a bit like that. When I heard all those punk things coming out I thought, ‘Well, it can’t be too difficult.’ So my brother Ben taught me bits and pieces and I picked the rest up by listening to records and trying to work out how it was done.