Sunday, 22 September 2019

A Visit To The Pub With Terry Chambers

I interviewed Terry Chambers in Swindon in September 2019, for the XTC Convention 2020 Facebook group. All words and images (c) Darryl W. Bullock

Now, I know that the man needs no introduction here, but it’s impossible to frame an interview without an introduction of sorts, so here goes. I was lucky enough to spend an evening recently in a rather nice pub near Swindon with XTC’s former (and only permanent) drummer Terry Chambers and his lovely partner Lynn. We had met briefly before on a couple of occasions (some of you may remember Lynn selling TC&I t-shirts at the live shows last year), but this was the first time that I’d had the opportunity to sit down with them for a proper chat, ostensibly to talk about next year’s convention but – as is often the way – we ended up covering a lot more besides, including his favourite cheese (“Extra mature cheddar from Aldi: I buy it all the time, lots of it!”) and his pet hate, which is “All the rubbish in town. One of the biggest shocks when I came back to the country was how much litter there was around. We should bring back the Keep Britain Tidy campaign... what was wrong with that?”

But, far from being a grumpy old man concerned with litter, he’s a genuine, warm and funny man who is only too happy to talk about his life behind the drumkit. So, as Maria von Trapp would have it, let’s start at the very beginning.

Terry was born on 18 July 1955 in the same nursing home as future XTC guitarist Dave Gregory. The youngest of three children born to Peter and Eileen Chambers, his sights were originally set on a career as a professional football player, but although he had a trial for Swindon Town Football Club, his life soon took another, altogether different direction. Before he had reached his 15th birthday, he had decided that he rather liked the idea of a career in music.

“I wanted to play piano” he says. “But my father said, ‘we can’t afford to have that great lump of furniture in the house’, and that was the end of that! But I still wanted to be part of this. I was in town one day and I saw a drum kit in Kempster’s, and I thought ‘I might be able to find my way around this’, so I plunged in. That was about 1969. Suddenly there was all this great music about, this early rock stuff. The very first Zeppelin album, the first Deep Purple album, Black Sabbath, Cream... those heavier groups. They took a different approach to drums. Prior to that it, other than Dave Clark, the drummer was just the guy at the back in the gang of four; the rest of them were the good looking blokes in the suits with their guitars. It was like that from the Beatles onwards… Herman’s Hermits, the Tremeloes, the Searchers, all of those pop groups… then suddenly all this underground stuff started.

“I suppose it had the same effect on me as punk did when it came about. I jumped on that; I thought, ‘this is really going for it’. This wasn’t the stuff people were playing on Top of the Pops. It was a little more meaningful, to me anyway. This was real, it was raw. they were touring bands on the road, and that’s what triggered it for me. I saved the money up myself: I had a part-time job stacking shelves in the local shop. I was 14 and getting about 15 bob a week [15 shillings, the equivalent of 75p in today’s money] but as a kid you haven’t got a lot to spend money on I suppose. I said to dad, ‘look, I’m thinking about buying this drum kit… can you pick it up for me?’ Anyway, because I’d saved the money up myself he must have thought that there was something in it, and he allowed me to do it. He had no idea that these drums would be crashing and banging and all the rest of it.”

It was certainly a lot noisier than the piano would have been. It was certainly noisy. “I did the old tea towel routine to try and calm the thing down, but I still annoyed the shit out of the neighbours! My next door neighbour was a retired schoolteacher: my mum came home one day and said, ‘I don’t know what’s up with John next door. He’s going up and down the yard out back banging this biscuit tin with a stick!’ I think it was a case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’! She said, ‘I think he’s gone mad’, and I said, ‘I’m sorry mum, I didn’t hear a thing’! We had a few problems like that, but my dad wouldn’t take any nonsense off the bloke because we were there first and they moved in afterwards.”

Who were his chief influences? “Mainly English rock drummers, Ian Paice, John Bonham, Brian Downey, Simon Kirke, Bill Bruford… those sorts of guys. that’s what kicked it off initially, but since then I’ve come to appreciate guys like Dave Clark and Ringo, Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa and those sorts of guys. Louie Bellson is another. I didn’t want to listen to them to begin with, I was living my whole rock ‘n’ roll life with the blinkers on. It’s not until later that you think to go back to the guys that your heroes were influenced by. I reckoned that if they were influenced by these people maybe I should start listening to them too, to find out how they got to where they were.

“I can’t really remember the first proper band I saw, but I do remember when I was about 16 and I wanted to get into McIlroys [the Swindon department store had a Ballroom above the shop that doubled as a live gig venue; the Beatles played there in July 1962]. Atomic Rooster were playing and the guy on the door said, ‘you can’t come in here!’ You had to be 18, but there wasn’t a big turnout for this Atomic Rooster show – it was midweek in Swindon, pissing down with rain. We said we’d sit in the back and not do anything, and so they let us come in. Their first single, Tomorrow Night, was in the charts around that time [if Terry’s recollection is correct, that means this took place around February or March 1971]. I didn’t know much about them, but I went anyway.

“I left school and got a job working at a place called Bamberger’s, which was a builder’s merchants –dad said, ‘you’ve got three months to get a job or else!’, so I made sure I had a job, albeit selling paint and wallpaper. There was a guy who used to come in there and buy paint on an industrial scale, and he had a nephew whose dad ran a pub, the Bolingbroke Arms near Hook. He found out that I was playing drums and he said, ‘my nephew plays a bit of guitar. Are you in a band?’ I said ‘no, I’m not’, so he introduced me to Steve Philips, and that was the first guitar player that I ever played with. he had this guy called Brian Mills, who later became a roadie for the Helium Kidz. He was trying to play a bit of bass, but he wasn’t particularly good, but by that time I’d met Colin at a pub we used to frequent, and I said to Philips one day, ‘look I know this bass player. He’s a good guy and he’s got some really good equipment.’ He had a great big WEM stack so you could tell he was serious. You can always tell someone’s intention by the gear they had: if they had shit gear then usually their intentions were not full on, but if you had pretty good gear but were hanging around in rags because that’s where all of your money was going it was a pretty good indication that you were serious about what you were doing.

“So, Philips said, ‘yeah, great. get him to come along.’ My brother used to shuttle us and our gear about in his Mini, to the Bolingbroke pub where we rehearsed; it used to close at 2pm in the afternoon on a Sunday and reopen at 6pm, so we had a four-hour window where the landlord would allow us into the pub, set our stuff up, play like crazy, and that’s when Colin and I got together. Within weeks the landlord, who was also Steve Phillip’s dad, kicked us out having discovered that one Sunday afternoon the three of us had helped ourselves to shots of every spirit on the top shelf! As a result, we then began to rehearse at Hook Village Hall costing one pound sterling for a full Sunday rehearsal. Later Star Park, Helium Kidz, and I think even XTC used the hall for rehearsals.”

The group was having fun, but there was little sign of a financially rewarding career on the horizon. Then a young fellow called Andy Partridge came into the frame. “Colin knew Andy from school and at some point suggested that we give him a go,” Terry recalls. “Steve Philips wanted to do Rolling Stones covers and that sort of thing, but we wanted to do something a bit more experimental, a bit heavier. Partridge had a WEM Copicat, it was all echo-y: he was into effects and was pretty experimental right from the start [the Copicat was an early, tape driven effects unit], and I thought, ‘yeah! This is really happening’.”

But there was a complication. “Andy already had a group. Star Park were a group at that time, and he was sort of courting Colin to try and get him in as their bass player. So, he had Dave Cartner, and Colin said, ‘well, I’ve got this drummer that I’ve been playing with,’ so he dragged me into that. That’s basically how we got together; that group was still known as Star Park for a little while because they had a bit of a name, but it wasn’t long after that we thought we needed a change. The music had changed quite considerably, and we thought we needed to start afresh. The band was called Star Park, but everyone knew them as Partridge’s Mob, and we all wanted to get away from that!” This line up of Star Park played their first gig, supporting Terry’s heroes Thin Lizzy, at Swindon Technical College in May 1973.

Other temporary members would come and go before the nucleus of the band was finally decided upon. “Andy’s girlfriend knew this guy from Purley [near Croydon] – how she knew him I can’t remember – but he was a singer and Andy was a sort of reluctant singer, and he’d be the first to admit that. We were doing some covers at the time in order to get some gigs, but we were shovelling in some of our own stuff as well – Neon Shuffle goes back to those days – but Steve Hutchins wasn’t really delivering the vocals the way Andy wanted them delivered. He was more a traditional-style vocalist, but we were interested in him because he claimed to know Gerry Shepherd, the guitar player in the Glitter Band [Gerry sadly passed away in 2003]. Anyway, we went up there and did some Helium Kidz demos in somebody’s house [Steve Hutchins recalls this as being the home he shared in Wallington with his former bass player, Alan Parkin, in December 1974]. We stayed up there over the weekend and when we went out that night with Hutchins, Gerry Shepherd came into the pub, a girl on either arm. The whole idea of taking on Hutchins was so that we could get this cassette to Gerry Shephard and that the rest would take care of itself. That’s how naïve we were, but whether or not Hutchins ever got that cassette to him we’ll never know.

“On the strength of that we managed to get people like Tony Gordon, an agent-cum-manager in London, to see us. He was reasonably interested in what he’d heard [Gordon and Hutchins were involved in arranging another Helium Kidz demo, for Pye, in 1975], but nothing was being offered to us. In the end I think that Andy decided that Hutchins wasn’t the right fit and so he got Colin to ring him up and sack him! And that was the end of that."

“So, we were back to what we were, and at this point – on the strength of this cassette - we had the opportunity to go and do some demos," Terry says. "I don’t remember getting any gigs on the back of that cassette [Andy recalls at least one show, at the Greyhound in Fulham, around this time; while Hutchins was still with the group he funded a demo that was recorded at a studio near the Greyhound], but we were invited back up to London to do these demos [Colin remembers this as a session for Decca: this would predate the Sun Studios demos by more than two years] but Cartner was forbidden to go by his wife and his mother-in-law because it would jeopardise his job working for the post office. We went and knocked on his door and said, ‘listen Dave. It’s all on tomorrow and we’re all going no matter what the consequences,’ but he said, ‘I can’t go’, so we went up and did this demo as a three-piece. Obviously, Andy couldn’t do both guitar parts, so things fell to bits and that blew it, and Cartner was never forgiven.
“This all took place in three or four years, which is not a long time, but it seems like forever when you’re trying to get a group together.”

It was after Dave Cartner was forcibly evicted from the band that they decided to get in a keyboard player. Enter Jonathan Perkins. “We felt with Cartner gone we should do something different, so how about we get some keyboards? We felt Jon Perkins would take us in a bit of a different direction.” The addition of a keyboard player was accompanied a change of name, to XTC.

The rest of the story is well known to most people reading this. Jon Perkins left the band to concentrate on his own group, Stadium Dogs, and Barry Andrews joined to fill the void. XTC took off and it looked like they were really going places, but tensions partly caused by Barry wanting more of a say in the songwriting process caused him to quit after the release of their second album, Go 2. I wondered if Terry had ever felt any need to contribute any of his own songs to XTC. “Not really, because other than the drums I don’t play an instrument. People like Phil Collins and Don Henley who sing, play piano and play other instruments other than the drums very well really piss me off!”, he laughs. “How dare they! They’re not in the Drummer’s Union as far as I’m concerned, they’re lead instrument imposters! It shouldn’t be allowed!”

It was at this point that guitar virtuoso Dave Gregory joined the band and the classic line-up was completed. Their first chart hit, Life Begins At the Hop, soon followed, and four months later Making Plans For Nigel consolidated their hit-making ability. Things were looking rosy but, as we all know, after three more gruelling years of tour-album-tour to increasing success but little financial gain, Andy’s health brought their ascendant star crashing back down to earth, and the world tour laid on to support the hit album English Settlement and UK Top Ten single Senses Working Overtime was abandoned. “After the tour was cancelled I went straight to Australia,” Terry reveals. Although he returned to Swindon to begin sessions for the follow up to English Settlement, things ground to a sudden and unexpected halt when Terry decided to leave the band.

“I remember we were rehearsing some of those songs, like Ladybird, and I sort of had this rush of blood to the head. I still do believe that those songs weren’t a good enough follow up to the English Settlement album. That’s my opinion. Andy was playing more acoustic guitar, they were going down this more pastoral path, he wanted a change. Each of the records, he wanted to change things a little bit, which is progress I guess but I didn’t think it was right. From Drums and Wires, through Black Sea and English Settlement I thought we were progressing in a good direction.

“We were in a lot of debt as a result of the cancellation of the American tour. We had to pay compensation to the sound company, the lighting company… financially it nearly killed the band.” Finances were always a sore point for XTC: their management deal and record contract far from making them rich kept the band in debt, and the individual members on a wage of just £52 a week each. “I never received any royalties from XTC for 18 years after I left,” Terry reveals. “A lot of that was due to the fact that they had a five-year standoff with Virgin. I never got any money because they never had any money! I had to go out there and do an honest day’s work to keep myself and my family going.

Settling in Australia, Terry tried to keep busy. “I demoed for Icehouse. At that point it was just Iva Davies and perhaps one other guy. They were originally called Flowers and they supported us in Australia, but Iva sacked the rest of the group, which I thought was a bit harsh, and he was doing the demo with [drummer and producer] Keith Forsey, who went on to do Flashdance. I did the original demos for the album that became Primitive Man - Great Southern Land, and all those songs – but in the end they used a drum machine on it! They paid me for the session, picked my brains but then did it all electronically without having me anywhere near the place! But that’s session work I guess.”

Tantalisingly, that means that somewhere out there are demo sessions for that album that feature Terry’s live drumming. “I did one studio album with Dragon, and I was on the whole of their live album. I did part of the Body and the Beat album; I’m in the video for their single, Rain[a Number Two hit in Australia], although I didn’t actually play on that track, but I think I’m on about half of that album. They sacked their drummer and I had about two weeks to learn all the parts, after not having played for 18 months. I was as rusty as shit! I didn’t have a drumkit, I just had a pair of sticks and I learned the whole set playing in the lounge on a couple of pillows! I went down and they still had the drumkit from their original drummer, so that was the first time I’d actually played on a real drumkit with this band: we had two weeks to get ready for a tour and during that time we finished off this album that they’d already started recording.”

He’s not joking. When he moved to Australia he left his drumkit behind. “When I left XTC the drumkit stayed where it was. I think the kit got put into storage and eventually they went to get all of the equipment back, but they didn’t have the money to pay for it, so the guy who owned the storage place took the gear instead! They lost everything apart from their guitars.”

Peculiarly, Terry was in a slightly better position, at least equipment-wise than the rest of the band. “After 1979 I got a deal with [Japanese drum manufacturer] Tama: we went to Japan, and they were kind enough to give me a kit. I must have still had a little bit of clout with them because I got a Tama kit in Australia when I was playing with Dragon too! they had a good manager who used to be able to make things happen, unlike [former XTC manager] Ian Reid! I was going through quite a lot of drumsticks, as you would if you played a lot, and Ian Reid suggested that I glue them back together! That’s how tight he was. He had no idea: some of the things he came out with were unbelievable!”

I asked him if he kept up with his former band after moving and, if so, what did he think about the musicians who temporarily filled his seat? “I spent 34 years in Australia, and I had very little to do with XTC while I was out there. I didn’t have the wherewithal to go out and buy these things and they never sent me any, so I never really heard them until I came back three years ago. I might have heard the odd song - Mayor of Simpleton,Peter Pumpkinhead – somewhere, but I really wasn’t familiar with any of their stuff at all: there was no reason for it.

“I did have a copy of Mummer, which I’m only playing on two songs [Beating of Hearts and Wonderland: Terry also drummed on Toys, issued as one of the B-side tracks to Love On A Farmboy’s Wages and subsequently included on the CD edition] and I thought Peter Phipps did a good job. I wouldn’t have played what he was doing, he’s a jazzier player.”

Phipps, like Shepherd, had also been a member of the Glitter Band, but apparently that tenuous connection was not how he got the job: “He actually got the job because he had played in a group called Random Hold and they supported us on one of the tours [Random Hold played several dates with XTC during the Drums and Wires tour]. He was a good guy and played well, and Dave liked him, so they brought him in to finish the record.”

After more than three decades in Australia, most of it outside of the music industry, Terry found himself back in Britain. It wasn’t long before Colin suggested that the pair, and their partners, go out for a drink. Their friendship had endured, and once he had made the decision to move back to Swindon he quickly renewed contact with the other former members of the group. Things began to happen very quickly after that. “Colin asked me what I was doing, and I told him that I was in limbo,” he admits. “That’s when he told me that he was doing this solo record; he already had a drummer, but one evening when we were out he asked me if I’d be interested in doing it, and it didn’t take me too long to think, ‘you know what? It sounds like a bloody good idea!’ I thought, ‘you’re dead for a long time, and I don’t want to die wondering about it.’ I didn’t want to turn him down and spend the rest of my life thinking, ‘what if…?’ So, when the opportunity came up, I thought I’d jump in, boots and all, and see where it would go.

“We started recording it in Colin’s shed. I had Lee’s [Colin’s son’s] kit, because I had no drumkit here, but it all started from there.”

He’s the first to admit that the interest from fans in all things XTC-related took him by surprise. He is also very moved by how fans think of him as central to the XTC sound and story, despite not being involved in any of their albums after 1983. “I used to speak to Colin and Dave and Andy periodically on the phone, but I never had any idea of what sort of fan base there still was. I thought by that time that Gregsy had left that the whole thing was sort of dead in the water: nobody was coming out with any new stuff – at that point I thought that the thing had gone, that people would naturally keep hold of what they had and move on. To find that people were still interested surprised me immensely!”

Terry and Colin were both surprised by the warmth that met them when they attended the 2017 XTC Convention, and even more so by the demand for Great Aspirations: “We put this thing out there not really knowing how it would go and it was received quite well,” he says, modestly. How soon after recording the EP did the idea of taking it out live come along? “Well, I didn’t see it coming,” Terry admits. “We’d recorded this thing and that was it. I was ready to play but had no idea what might happen next. I think that Colin must have just woken up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘I wonder what it would be like to play all of these songs that have never been played before in a live situation?’ He put it to me, and I said, ‘yeah! If we can get some other people on board then I’ll be in it, but who can we get to play?’ The first person we asked was Dave Gregory, naturally. Obviously we knew that Andy wasn’t into doing the live thing, so he wasn’t even asked, but Dave said he’d be interested in doing it if Andy was involved… but that’s about as close as it got.”

Putting a live band together brought Steve Tilling into the frame, and he and Terry soon became firm friends. Steve quickly deciphered Dave and Andy’s guitar parts and did a magnificent job bringing them to a live audience, but was it hard for Terry to have to learn other people’s drum parts? “Yes, that was very difficult,” he admits. “There were some great players on those records, you know. Dave Mattacks, Prairie Prince, Pat Mastelotto, Chuck Sabo, they’re all great players and some big shoes to fill. Obviously we’re all different, but I just tried to pick as much as I could out of the original songs and do it in my own way. I tried to get them as close to what I felt I could play and customised them a little bit, hopefully to Colin’s satisfaction! I just sort of did my own thing, and in fairness to Steve and Gary I thought that they did a great job as well, especially as they hadn’t played on any of them; at least I was fortunate enough to have played on some of those songs originally! It took me a while to get some of the songs, things like King For A Day, because I’m not a ‘swing’ player; that’s not a thing that comes easily to me at all.”

Rehearsals went well but the duo, and their band, had yet to face a proper audience. A few nights before the Arts Centre shows, Colin and Terry stepped onto the stage at Swindon’s Victoria pub, the first time that the pair of them had faced a live crowd together since 1982. “We did two shows at the Vic: we wanted to have a bit of a workout but didn’t want to put anybody under any extra pressure, so we did those for family and friends really. It was good to have some people stood there: we didn’t charge anything to get in and let the Vic keep the bar… it was a Tuesday and a Wednesday night, when they wouldn’t have had anyone on anyway.”

“I was very surprised at the reaction,” he says when talking about those live shows. “When we started the Arts Centre gigs we initially booked two nights, thinking that’s 500 people assuming that no one turns up twice, which a lot of people did! Originally we were thinking of doing just one show at the Mecca, but Stuart Rowe told us that the Mecca isn’t very good for sound. That’s one of the reasons we picked the Arts Centre, because that was one of the first places we ever played anyway but it was also a better venue to record live – and we didn’t have to put on a massive firework display there to get it to work. We also knew that it wouldn’t be full of teenagers, people wanted a bit of comfort with a bar there and whatever… But we had the two nights then added another two so we had this block of four and that was going to be it then they sold out immediately and so we added two more.”

Most recently he has been in the studio with Stu Rowe, working on the mixing and final track selection for the limited edition TC&I live album Naked Flames. Sadly, because of technical issues -and Steve suffering from laryngitis for the first few nights – the only recording that was serviceable was from the last night of the six shows. “The reason some of the other songs didn’t make it was because there was some interference in there, or feedback or some tuning issues,” Terry explains for those wondering why the whole show could not be put out. “We picked the best songs performance-wise. The problem with mixing a live album is that you don’t have the isolation; if somebody plays a bum note it contaminates everything else. As good as we liked to think we played at those shows, under the microscope when Stuart and I went into the studio to listen to this stuff and isolate each instrument there was always something coming from somewhere else, and often it was a case of ‘we can’t get rid of that’ so those things didn’t get used. We used the best of what we had, and that’s why that running order is the way it is. Most live albums are recorded over three or four nights, but the first four nights were buggered anyway [due to Steve’s loss of voice], so that only left us with two nights really.

“Dave said to me that he’s listened to the CD and commented on how good a job Steve did in authenticating the original sound… and Gregsy’s not played some of those songs live either. It was a challenge, and in fairness to Gary and the others they did a really great job and held it together very well.”

Sadly, shortly after the live shows, Colin decided that he was going to put TC&I on hiatus but, as I had discovered when I recently interviewed Steve Tilling, Terry has plans to work on a new project that will see our favourite powerhouse drummer back on his stool at venues across the UK. “It’s going to happen,” he says firmly. “We had a rehearsal on Tuesday, and we’ve got another next Tuesday, we’re working with two other guys and need to give them time to get their head around some of these songs. We’re working on nearly all of the songs that we did in the TC&I set apart from about six, which we’re going to replace with six of Andy’s songs.

“We haven’t completely finalised the line-up yet, but it’s going to be a four piece outfit. It’s still in the embryonic stage at the moment but we’re looking at some gigs out of town. It looks like most of this will be in the spring, but we want to do maybe half-a-dozen gigs in the lead up to Christmas and see how the thing goes. Hopefully it will be reasonably successful. These things can be a little bit iffy, but if they go well we’ll probably do quite a few more in the spring.

“Steve and I are going to try and keep this thing going, and there’s an open option if ever Colin feels like doing something. I’ve got to keep going; I always wanted to play live, that’s what I enjoy doing, more so than the others. They prefer to record but I want to play live, it’s the whole thing. Songwriters always want to get that song perfected: Andy has said to me on a few occasions that ‘you wouldn’t expect Rembrandt to keep duplicating his paintings around the world’. I understand that: he’s thinking, ‘I’ll do my one masterpiece and move on’, whereas I like to get out there. Dave’s very much like that: he loves to play live.

Was it hard finding other people to join you? “There are a few people that can be relied upon, but there’s others, as there are in every town, who think they’re better than they really are,” Terry says. “There are timewasters, and Swindon is no better or worse than anywhere else. We auditioned some guys from out of town, but I just felt that the distance and the logistics of getting everyone together to rehearse was going to prove troublesome.

“We needed people who had nothing else to do. If they’re holding down another job then that’s another disadvantage,” he explains. “I want to do this, and I want to do it for real. If it’s going to be done then I want to do it properly. If I’m getting people involved to promote and put these gigs on then I want people I can rely on. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong and you’ve got to be confident that the three of four individuals that you’ve got are on the same page, have the same mindset. You’re only as good as your weakest link in any situation.

“I’ve done a lot of stuff in my time and I’ve always gone with my gut: if there’s a shadow of a doubt in something I’m gone, but with Steve I’m absolutely confident that he’s there for the long haul. I want that same feeling from the other guys. It’s a gut thing. Like any relationship you want to be as certain as you possibly can that this is the right one. It’s like a marriage in a sense, in that you’re relying on them.”

Will this new outfit, which Terry sees in some way as similar to bands like Bruce Foxton’s group From The Jam or Brian Downey’s Alive and Dangerous, stick to XTC material? “As it stands at the moment, yes. Mainly because Steve and I know 26 of these songs, and we’re going to put some of Andy’s in, like Mayor of Simpleton, Peter Pumpkinhead, Sgt Rock, This Is Pop, Senses Working Overtime, that sort of thing. We think that will add a little weight to what we’re doing because these are quite popular songs! It will strengthen the set. You have to remember that some of these are covers for me, but there’s going to be a lot that I originally payed on and that’s about the best that I can do.

“Unfortunately, these days, in these sorts of bands there’s only one individual or two at best still involved.” It’s good to hear that both Andy and Colin approve of Terry’s plans and, even if they’re not going to be involved, have given their blessing.

Do you see a point where you and Steve might be writing new material? “That’s where we’re heading,” he admits. “We’re going to do this in the beginning, get the group together then start introducing our own stuff. It’s better than starting on the first rung of the ladder: if we can gain anything by what we achieved last year, then it’s by using that as a platform to launch from. That’s the big picture: Steve’s got some good ideas, and I’m more than happy to incorporate that into what we’re doing together.”

I wondered if having spent so many years apart and having avoided the difficulties that finally split the band had made it easier for Terry to maintain a friendship with all of his former bandmates. “I’ve seen Andy a couple of times recently. We saw him when Todd Bernhardt was over [Terry, Lynn and Todd went to see King Crimson together, which gave Terry the opportunity to meet Oranges and Lemons drummer Pat Mastelotto for the first time]; it was one drunken night in the Tuppenny, and Andy was on magnificent form. He’s one of the funniest human beings I’ve come across in my life.

“There’s something about my relationship with Andy. I’m not a particularly funny sort of guy, although I have my moments, but he seems to be the catalyst that just triggers things off. It was an hilarious night. Recently I was out with Steve and we saw him. It was his son’s birthday and he was out in Old Town – Harry’s birthday is the same day as Colin’s – and we had another riotous few hours. I saw Dave recently too: he came ‘round because I had a record that needed to be signed by everybody [a 12” copy of Senses Working Overtime, to be presented to Swindon Town Football Club, who have recently taken to playing the song every time Swindon score a goal]. I’ve been in touch with Andy and I’ll see him to get it signed later.”

Saturday, 17 August 2019

A visit to the pub with Steve Tilling

Earlier this week I met up with Steve Tilling, leader of the group CIRCU5. Steve also played guitar for former XTC members Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers, otherwise known as TC&I, for the series of live shows they gave in their hometown last year, the first time the duo had played together on stage since 1982. The TC&I album, Naked Flames: Live at the Swindon Arts Centre, came out yesterday and is available now from Burning Shed

This interview originally appeared over three days at the XTC Convention 2020 Facebook page.

Words copyright Darryl W. Bullock; live images copyright Lou Dommett Young.

Quietly spoken, Coke drinking (rather than coke-sniffing) and self-effacing: not very rock ‘n’ roll, is it? But then Steve Tilling is not your average rock ‘n’ roller. Part of the extended XTC family through his work with three quarters of the band, Steve and his own group CIRCU5 (pronounced Circa Five, for those who, like me, have wondered), which currently features former TC&I member (and a certain bass player’s son) Lee Moulding, will be one of the highlights of the 2020 XTC Convention.
Gearing up for a homecoming gig on September 21, I caught up with him recently for a natter at the Tuppenny, the pub where so many of us gathered last year ahead of the TC&I shows at the Swindon Arts Centre. Before we had even sat down, his phone rang, the screen lighting up with the name Terry Chambers. But more about that later…

Swindon born and bred; Steve grew up on the same estates and the same streets as Andy, Colin and Terry, although being a generation younger he’s happy to admit that XTC were not his first musical influence. “Abba,” he laughs. “I was about three years old when they were on the Eurovision Song Contest performing ‘Waterloo’. Apparently I was jumping up and down on the sofa telling everyone that they were going to win!”

Obsessed with music from a young age, he was initially attracted to the trumpet before being taught to play classical guitar, which he continued until he was around 12 years old. Then something happened that brought about a change in musical direction. “I was a bit of a space cadet when I was about 12, I was into things like Gong and Yes: I was a little hippy really, old school prog and space rock. A mate of my dad’s lent me a couple of albums – it’s all his fault. I feel I missed out on the classics, The Beatles, The Who and the like. It’s odd because I was never really exposed to them: I went straight into weird! Being a musician, the self-doubt creeps in, you know, should I have been weaned on the Beatles, but it’s who I am. You can’t go back and change those influences.
“As a teenager, I was into bands like Iron Maiden, but I soon grew out of that. It always seemed like a bit of a Boy’s Own club, very strange... all a bit Dungeons and Dragons. Then in my 20s, I got into bands like XTC and Jellyfish… I love harmonies, nice plump guitar sounds, big drums. I grew up through the 80s, with Duran Duran and that tinselly stuff, but my ears were more attuned to the70s. That’s probably why my own melodies are a bit proggy or space rock-y.”

After a few years playing in Swindon-based metal outfit Bardiche, music was forced to take a back seat. The arrival of children meant that he needed to find a proper job, one that would feed and clothe his offspring. Now the kids have grown up he has returned to his first love. Sadly, there’s not a lot of money to be made music these days (unless you’re Ed Sheeran, that is) but working as a freelance copywriter allows him the time to concentrate on writing and performing while still being able to earn an income. “It’s a struggle,” he admits. “Everybody’s listening to Spotify and the other streaming services, but people of my generation don’t really use them. For me as a musician my income mainly comes from live work, then there’s the CDs and t-shirts. But I think the secret of happiness is in creating something – whether that be gardening, writing or making music – just create! There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction in creating.”

Before setting out to record his own album, Steve played with singer Johnny Warman in his 60s tribute act Magic Bus. Warman, who has had a long association with Ringo Starr, has his own XTC connection, both appearing on the 1989 charity single ‘Spirit of the Forest’. It was through Steve that Dave Gregory got involved in the band. “We needed a guitarist, and I got in touch with him through Facebook Messenger! I told him what we were doing and asked if he’d be interested and he said, ‘Yeah! I’d love to!’ But, being as it’s such a small world, Johnny and Dave already knew each other. In the late 70s, Johnny had a band called 3 Minutes, and they’d supported XTC several times on the ‘Drums and Wires’ tour.

“We became friends, so when I started working on the album, I asked if he could come and add some of his magic to it. I gave him a blank canvas, and when it came back to me I was blown away. His melodic sensibility is unbelievable. It’s almost orchestral. It was beyond anything I could have imagined, and I didn’t change a note. He’s such a talented bloke. It’s great playing with Dave: he’s got a rack of vintage guitars; the finest gear and he knows everything. He’s just perfect and you just bathe in his sound!”

Had he been an XTC fan? “My earliest memories of XTC were seeing them on Top Of The Pops, around the time of ‘Making Plans For Nigel’. I remember thinking, ‘My God! They’re from Swindon!’ then later, when ‘Senses Working Overtime’ was a hit, I remember being in the playground at school, everyone singing along. I loved the singles I heard as a kid, but I came to them, in terms of buying their albums, quite late. It was 1992, and the first album I bought was ‘Nonsuch’.”

Like most musicians, Steve finds difficulty in labelling or limiting his own music. “Before I released it [the CIRCU5 album] people were saying, ‘this is prog’, and I’m thinking, ‘is it?’ I know that there are elements on there, so I focussed on the prog audience, and they’re all scratching their heads going, ‘Well, there aren’t any 24/18 time signatures’! ‘Where are the nose flutes?’ But I’ve never really liked the pastoral style of prog rock. In my mind, I had things like the Jellyfish album ‘Spilt Milk’: it’s not got that level of production, they threw the kitchen sink at it, but in terms of hooks and harmonies… music should be enjoyable to listen to, and a lot of prog rock is hard to get through. I wanted something a bit easier going. Everything should have a point; you shouldn’t be meandering in music. I mean I love Yes, but some of their stuff is hard work.”

Most XTC fans will know Steve from his stint playing live with Colin and Terry at the Arts Centre last October and November. He was initially approached by Stu Rowe, who has worked on a number of projects with Andy in recent years (Monstrance, Gonwards, Lighterthief and the as-yet unreleased Clubmen album) as well as with Barry Andrews’ group Shriekback and with Colin and Terry for the TC&I project. “My immediate reaction was ‘no’,” he candidly admits. “I’m a bass player, live, although I do play guitar. That’s a typical example of that lack of confidence that local musicians seem to have. But he talked me round.

“So, we met up, and I had about a month to learn the songs before I went around to Colin’s and began rehearsals. They were happy with me so that was it. It was really daunting, but I just spent every minute I had learning the songs. I put all the tracks into Pro Tools, which helped me to pick out the guitars. The night before the first rehearsal I didn’t sleep a wink – I had a big dose of panic. It was pure terror!”

Asked if it was difficult, coming in as a third wheel to a relationship that had existed between Colin and Terry for more than 40 years, Steve says that the duo were just as worried as he was. “I think they were lacking a bit of confidence too, so we all seemed to be on the same level. They were not sure if it was going to work and just grateful that I was part of it. I was amazed at how modest, and unsure, they were.”

The TC&I gigs were incredibly well received, perhaps unsurprisingly when you consider that the pair had not played together in front of an audience for 35 years. But what was it like, as an outsider, coming in to join one of the world’s best-loved rhythm sections? “I felt like a rabbit in the headlights at that first rehearsal,” he admits. “The first notes I played were the ‘Bungalow’ intro and then into ‘Day In, Day Out’, and I’m just trying to make a good impression. At every rehearsal we went through the set list as if we were doing it live.

“Terry was really keen to go out live, and Colin wanted to give these songs of his an airing. Terry’s drumming was such a big part of the early XTC sound; he’s got a very distinctive style, these solid rhythms. He didn’t seem to struggle with the songs that he had not originally played on, he just made them his own. Colin and Terry are really humble and modest, which is great, but I think it also made them worry about people actually turning up!”

Clearly he had some big shoes to fill, and not everyone was going to give him an easy ride. “I loved it, but I was petrified. I was trying to do both Dave and Andy’s guitar parts, and then I lost my voice, so I couldn’t do any backing vocals for the first few nights! You’re always going to get people who say things like ‘huh! I didn’t enjoy it He’s no replacement for Andy or Dave’. There were a few of those, but I know that: I wasn’t trying to compete with Andy, I just wanted to do the songs justice.” Luckily for us, the live album, Naked Flames, captures the performance from the last night of the shows, by which time Steve’s voice had returned. “There were a few technical difficulties with the other nights, a few niggles here and there,” he says. “Colin and Terry were really limited to what they could choose from. But I’m really happy with it[ST1] . It sounds great and captures the ambience of being there. It’s quite an intimate sound.”

As we all know, the set list was the same at every concert. That may have disappointed a few fans, but there was a very good reason for this, as Steve explains: “I don’t think that either Colin or Terry realised that people would buy tickets for multiple nights, the thought was that it would probably be a different audience every evening. There were other songs that were considered, and I even suggested some, but they weren’t that keen. We jammed a few disco-ish things, like ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang, and some stuff by Chic… we even did ‘Masters of the Universe’ by Hawkwind, just noodling about. Terry had a drum pattern, something cyclic, a bit like ‘Travels in Nihilon’, and we jammed along with that. I thought that might turn into a great XTC or TC&I type song, because he’s great with those looping beats, but it wasn’t to be.”

Due to personal circumstances Colin felt the need to put TC&I on hiatus, however Steve and Terry have become close friends and are looking at doing something musically together at some point soon. “I was gutted when it finished, because by that last night it was getting really good. We were getting tighter and tighter, and it would have only got better.” Yet although Colin may have decided that, for the present time at least, he’s putting things on hold, Terry may have other plans. "He’s a great drummer and I really want to play with him, do something productive and keep things moving,” Steve says. “He’s one of my best mates now: we talk every day. I love him to bits. You can’t escape the XTC legacy; it’s something to be proud of. You can’t help but want to get a band together and go out and play some of these songs. I don’t know how it would be received, with Terry as the only founding member of the band, but we just want to do it and see how it goes. Ultimately we’d like to write our own material as well, which is something I’m really looking forward to: I fancy writing something in a different vein. It would have been great to continue with Colin, that would have been perfect… or to get Dave and Andy involved, but that’s not going to happen. I’ve lived in this town all of my life and I’ve never even met Andy! (Note: two days after this interview, Steve met Andy Partridge for the first time, and the two got on famously.)

“I love Terry and I want to play with him. He’s a brilliant drummer and he’s having a rebirth, and I want to give him the opportunity to go out and do it. We’re both really keen to get out there and do what we love doing, which is playing live. That’s what I live for.”

I asked Steve if he thought about asking Dave Gregory to come along. “We did ask Dave,” he admitted, “But he’s got a hell of a lot of work with Big Big Train he doesn’t want to get involved in another band. I’m still very good friends with Dave…” Then he dropped the bombshell, something that would be news to the majority, if not all, XTC fans: it certainly was to me. Last summer, Colin and Terry asked Dave if he would like to join them for the Swindon Arts Centre concerts. “When we first met, we were sat down talking about me joining them, and I know how much XTC fans would have loved to see Andy or Dave rather than me there, so as an act of self-sacrifice I said, ‘Do you want me to ask Dave if he’ll do it?’ And they said ‘Well, we’ve already asked him’. [ST2] It’s a tantalising thought: for a moment, just the briefest of moments, there was the slight chance that we could have seen three members of XTC on stage again, for what may have been one final hurrah. Since I spoke with Steve, Terry has confirmed that it was he who initially reached out to Dave, and that Colin was happy with that.

"It would have been great if Dave was involved, but unfortunately that was not meant to be. I’m a massive XTC fan and all I ever wanted was for XTC to get back together. It would be like the universe had aligned. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Colin’s always said, ‘never say never’, and as a fan I would have loved to see Dave up there.”    

Still, right now the focus is on CIRCU5 and his project with Terry. In these days of instant gratification, digitally downloading everything, why did he decide to release the CIRCU5 album on CD? “I wanted a proper release, rather than a download, because I wanted something physical. You never know what might happen, and this could be my one shot – I might get run over by a bus tomorrow! So, I thought, ‘If I’m going to do it, I want to do it properly’, you know? I wanted something tangible. Financially it’s madness, but I think it has more value; downloads are so ephemeral, disposable… if your computer buggers up it’s gone. Seeing your name on something physical, it’s a real high, isn’t it? He admits that several people have asked if the album will be available on vinyl, but he feels that the costs would be prohibitive.

On September 21 Steve and the band, which also features former Tin Spirit Mark Kilminster, play a one-off gig at Swindon’s Level Three, showcasing the album as well as throwing in a few covers and some other songs. “There’s so much talent in this town,” he says. “It was hard in the pre-internet days because you didn’t know anyone, and there was this idea that to be any good you had to come from London. Now you’ve got people like Mark, Lee, Chris O’Leary (formerly of the K Band) and so on… these people are as good if not better than the so-called premium musicians from London. It’s the Swindon disease, thinking you’re not good enough, but they are. The musicians I’m playing with now are the finest I’ve ever played with. People like Lee, Mark and Chris really put the time and the effort in. They’re amazing.”

Then, after a break – which will probably be spent writing – there’s a new album to consider. “I’ve got a lot of songs nearly finished, and ideas for a lot more, so I want to take some time to go through all of those and see if I can make something of them.“ His mobile phone has become an audio notebook: “I’ve got about two years’ worth of ideas on there,” he reveals. “I don’t know what would happen if I lost them all: I’d be twitching in a corner before they carted me off to somewhere secure!

“We’ll probably do the odd gig here and there, but I’ll be easing off for a while to give me a chance to write. But I’m really looking forward to playing at the Convention next September: I can’t wait! I wasn’t at the last one, but I know that Colin and Terry were, and I think one of the motivators for getting them back on stage was their attending the last Convention. I don’t think Colin was aware of how popular the band still were until then. When I told my kids that I was doing something with members of XTC they told me that there were loads of kids walking around college wearing XTC t-shirts. Lots of bands have dated, but XTC haven’t. I think that’s partly because they didn’t fall into that 80s trap of cheesy synthesisers. It’s still relevant. And they were ahead of their time.”

Tickets for CIRCU5 and friends at Level Three, Swindon, are available now at

Monday, 23 July 2018

An update

Hello. Hope you're all having a great summer.

I apologise for not having kept you up to date with my efforts, but it's been a busy few months.

You may have heard me blathering away on BBC Jersey, BBC York, BBC Bristol and/or BBC Devon recently. That's because David Bowie Made Me Gay was recently issued in paperback here in the UK (and, I understand, is selling quite well), and I've been doing the rounds of various BBC radio stations to promote it. I also took part in a couple of 'in conversation' events in Rough Trade stores in Bristol and in London's Brick Lane, which were fun and gave me the opportunity to catch up with a few friends I had not seen for a while.

To celebrate the launch of the paperback edition I started a new blog, to carry on the story, update any information and correct any mistakes. It's also an opportunity for me to write about some of the great LGBT artists I missed. You can read David Bowie Made Me Blog here

My new book, The Infamous Cherry Sisters, is coming out in the States in December. I've not seen any UK release date yet, although Amazon is importing it. I shall let you know as soon as I hear anything: I certainly hope that the UK price comes down a bit!

The Cherry Sisters were a fascinating phenomenon, five sisters from Ohio who decided, on a whim, to put an act together to entertain their neighbours and ended up having a career in vaudeville that lasted for more than four decades. Their story has fascinated me for years, and I hope my biography, the very first to tackle the Sisters, does them justice.

Finally, I'm currently writing a new book (my sixth!) which is a companion of sorts to David Bowie Made Me Gay. I can't tell you too much about that just yet, but I'll have more details on that once the contract is signed. Sorry, that 'finally' was a bit premature: finally, here's a link to a Pitchfork article I recently contributed to:50 Songs That Define the Last 50 Years of LGBTQ+ Pride. I wrote about Bowie, Jobriath, and John Grant... who got in touch after reading it to tell me that he loved my words! he's playing in Bath in October and I'm hoping we'll have chance to meet up for a chat.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Out of Tune

My biography of Florence Foster Jenkins is being issued in paperback in the US next month. This great review, by the best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith, appeared in the New York Times last year.

The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer
By Darryl W. Bullock
Illustrated. 198 pp. The Overlook Press. $24.95.

One of the daunting aspects of biography, from the reader’s point of view, is length, which is why we like obituaries. An obituary gives us a life in under a page — and for some lives that’s as much as we feel we need. The 600- or 700-page biography, complete with lengthy lists of sources, can be tough going. Under 200 pages, which is the length of Darryl W. Bullock’s charming “Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!!,” is just about right for those who want to know more about the world’s worst opera singer but might not want to know absolutely every detail.

The story of Florence Foster Jenkins is quite astonishing. Born into a wealthy Pennsylvania family in 1868, she showed a strong early interest in music and the arts and succeeded in graduating from a music academy. She made an unsatisfactory marriage to a physician, and when this ended in divorce she enjoyed the life of a socialite in New York. After her father’s will “mysteriously vanished” from his office safe, she succeeded, with her mother, to his extremely large estate and took up residence in a Manhattan hotel. There she conducted the life of a patroness of the arts, assisted and encouraged by an English actor, St Clair Bayfield, with whom she entered into what the couple described as a secret marriage.

Then the performances started in earnest, and over the years she established a considerable reputation for singing at the soirees of the various clubs and societies she supported, attracting an enthusiastic audience of well-heeled New Yorkers. They loved her. They loved her elaborate, ridiculous costumes; they loved her overdramatic gestures. They presented her with bouquet after bouquet as well as expensive jeweled trinkets to show how much they appreciated her efforts. But she couldn’t sing. She was gloriously, spectacularly, irredeemably out of tune.

Not that this stopped her. She once observed that although some people said she couldn’t sing, they could never say she didn’t sing. Nothing was too difficult for her to attempt — not even Mozart’s notoriously demanding “Queen of the Night” aria. Higher and higher she would go, squeaking and clinging on to the notes, taking her audience with her in sheer ­delight at her audacity. And when it came to recordings, she tackled these in a single take, apparently believing the excruciating results were incomparably good.

Bullock deals with all this in a thoroughly readable and entertaining way. His explanation of how she got away with it is convincing: She was loved, she was magnanimous, and she brought happiness and laughter to those fortunate enough to get tickets to her concerts. Why shouldn’t one get away with something like that, if that is the sort of person one is? We all love sheer slapstick failure, particularly when it’s clothed in camp and presented as high art. Florence Foster Jenkins was Tintin’s Bianca Castafiore and Groucho Marx’s Margaret Dumont rolled into one. What’s not to love in that?

This appealing little biography — which arrives just as a film version of its heroine’s story, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, has been released in the United States — is warmhearted and delightful. At its core is a touching love story, as well as a message about the human spirit. Florence Foster Jenkins was generous in her outlook and seems to have brought joy and light into the lives of many. In a world where slickness, ambition and greed have destroyed the spirit of amateurism, here is the great and utterly hopeless amateur filling Carnegie Hall. What a message for our times.

Still Glad To Be Gay?

A feature I wrote back in the summer for The Quietus abut the need for Pride events

Still Glad To Be Gay: Does Pride Need To Return To Radicalism?

Writer Darryl W. Bullock looks back at the politically radical roots of the Pride march and asks if, in an age of continuing homophobia, it should make more effort to honour them.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Pride season is upon us again. An excuse, as if one were needed, for members of the LGBT+ community to don their finery and shake their collective booties for all they are worth. Although we’re celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK this year, the backlash following Pride in London’s recent and ill-advised poster campaign (sample slogan ‘Being homophobic is sooo gay!’), shows that there’s still a split between LGBT+ people who want to party and those who feel the need to protest. It’s great that Pride has been embraced by the mainstream, but has the original message been lost?

Pride grew out of civil unrest. In the US violent protests had taken place at all-night coffee shop Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles in 1959, and at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966; when the NYPD entered the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, Greenwich Village’s LGBT+ community fought back, and the demonstrations that erupted are now enshrined in history as the most significant event in the struggle for LGBT+ rights in the United States.

Post-Stonewall polite requests for better treatment of LGBT+ people were quickly replaced with more militant action: a week after the riots the Gay Liberation Front was formed in New York, and on the first anniversary we saw the world’s inaugural Gay Pride marches, held simultaneously in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In October 1970 a British branch of the Gay Liberation Front was established, and in 1972 (the same year that Gay News was founded) London saw its first Gay Pride march. Within five years of the Wolfenden report being enshrined in law LGBT+ people were taking to the streets to demand their rights. Violence against LGBT+ people was met not with acquiescence but with defiance: after years of oppression people were angry and no longer prepared to be quiet about it. ‘They were called Gay Rights marches because that was what were fighting for,’ one man told me recently. ‘I remember going on marches in London in the 1970s and having stones thrown at me.’

Pride and politics were inextricable. Reacting to a high-profile campaign led by singer Anita Bryant to deny LGBT+ people equal rights, tens of thousands of people marched in cities across the United States. In San Francisco more than 100,000 protested; a Pride parade along New York’s Fifth Avenue attracted at least 25,000, and there were demonstrations in Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver. Protests were held in London, and in Amsterdam 2,000 people marched through the city carrying banners that read ‘Against the American witch-hunt on homosexuals’. Then, in February 1978, a song about the real-life experiences of LGBT+ people made the UK Top 20 and Pride gained its anthem.

‘Glad To Be Gay’ by the Tom Robinson Band was my coming out song. The angry, venomous solo performance Robinson gave at Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Ball fundraiser in June 1979 sparked the beginning of my gay life. I was 14 and I had already attempted in my own clumsy way to come out, and when the music from the show was issued the following year I pulled my pocket money together and bought a copy. ‘Glad To Be Gay’ changed my life; I’m sure it changed many other lives too.
‘Glad To Be Gay’ was inspired by an increasingly violent series of police raids on gay pubs in London. In 1975 three coach loads of police officers made a midnight raid on Rod’s Club in Kings Road, Chelsea; the following night a similar number of police raided Earl’s Court pub The Boltons. Other LGBT+ drinking haunts were singled out, and agent provocateurs were used to entrap gay men in popular cruising areas. Robinson himself was caught up in a raid on the Coleherne Arms in Old Brompton Road. ‘By the summer of ‘76 the police in London were completely out of hand,’ Tom explains. ‘They were using the Sus Laws - you could arrest anybody on suspicion of anything - and so black people in Notting Hill Gate and Brixton were being arrested for being black and in charge of a motor vehicle, stuff like that. They were able to swan in and make easy arrests because they figured that gay men in that climate and at that time were very unlikely to contest an arrest in court. It was clear that the police were our enemy, and they were a common enemy for other oppressed minorities at the time too.’ This was Britain’s Stonewall moment, and the continued abuse of the Sus Laws against the black community would lead to the early 80s race riots in cities including Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds.

As if dealing with the police wasn’t enough, in January 1978 20 fascist thugs from the National Front smashed up the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of London’s longest-established gay pubs. Similar attacks would inspire LGBT+ people to join the Anti Nazi League, established in 1977 to oppose the rise of the far right. Pride became an opportunity for the community to show solidarity with other minorities, to demonstrate that we were not going to be oppressed.

Yet the arrests continued: during the Pride march in London in 1980 ten men were charged with misdemeanours including obstruction and minor assault, and one with possessing an offensive weapon - a prop meat cleaver worn as part of his headdress. But police oppression and attacks from right wing hate groups were not the only issues facing the LGBT community. Britons were starting to become aware of a new disease that was decimating the gay community in the United States; AIDS education quickly became the number one priority within the international LGBT+ community. Pride gave us the opportunity to speak out against ignorance, prejudice and a world that seemed not to care if our people were dying in their thousands.

Pride was essential in giving young people a space to be themselves, and the support of musicians happy to wear their political colours on their sleeves was important for young LGBT+ people in Thatcher’s Britain. The members of Bronski Beat were openly gay, insisted that their music would reflect this and used their clout to support minorities, miners (as immortalised in the hit movie Pride) and the socialist movement. In return for the LGBT+ community’s support trade unions marched alongside us at Pride in London in 1985, and at the Labour Party Conference a motion to support equal rights for gay men and lesbians was carried thanks to the votes cast by the National Union of Mineworkers and their allies. On leaving Bronski Beat Somerville formed The Communards with Richard Coles, and the pair joined Tom Robinson, Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and others in the socialist musicians collective Red Wedge.

Yet as we slowly gained more rights – including the equalisation of the age of consent, the introduction of civil partnerships, same-sex marriage and the introduction of the Equality Act (which finally outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation) it seemed that there was less to protest about, and the desire to celebrate with our straight friends took centre stage. As Pride events grew, so did the cost of running them, and the political element was somewhat subsumed by commercial necessities. Many Pride events were in danger of becoming little more than mobile adverts for certain alcoholic drinks producers, but Pride has always had to balance the need for income with the desire to protest, as Dale Wakefield, co-organiser of Bristol’s first Pride (held in 1977) explains: ‘There have always been those who think the event is political and those who think it is too commercial, but Bristol Pride would have never happened had we not had the backing of the clubs and pubs. From its very inception Bristol Pride was concerned with families, attracting the general public and using entertainment to change attitudes. Politics was of immense importance to the organisers, but not necessarily to the participants.’

In 2017, in countries including Turkey and Russia, even attempting to organise a Pride event can land you in jail... then there are countries where simply being LGBT+ can be a death sentence. With the number of LGBT+ young people attempting (or, sadly, succeeding) suicide on the rise (LGBT+ teens and young adults have one of the highest rates of attempted suicide worldwide) perhaps its time to put the politics back in to Pride. Gay filmmaker and former councillor Christian Martin certainly thinks so. ‘I am all for celebrating but sadly I feel that the politics has been lost. Equal rights have advanced, but when a British Government fails to raise international voices of concern over Chechnya or tackle the DUP’s vetoing of equal marriage in Northern Ireland then something is wrong,’ he says. ‘We are still falling short on equalities here and abroad.’ Clearly neither the fight nor the party are over yet.

Darryl W. Bullock is the author of the book David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music, published by Duckworth Overlook on September 7, 2017. You can order it here in the UK and here in the US

The Pansy Craze

A feature I wrote recently for The Guardian. The first photo comes from the JD Doyle collection, and is used by permission. 

The lights over the Ship Cafe were still advertising the “Last Night of Jean Malin” when, on the morning of 10 August, 1933, the main attraction, his boyfriend Jimmy Forlenza and fellow actor Patsy Kelly piled into his car to head off to a party at the Hollywood Barn.

Tired after finishing a fortnight-long booking, Malin accidentally put the sedan into reverse, sending it off Venice Pier and into the water. Forlenza and Kelly escaped but Malin, trapped under the steering wheel, wasn’t so lucky. The brightest star of the Pansy Craze – a spate of wild parties full of drag queens and bawdy songs – was dead at 25.

The roots of the Pansy Craze stretch back decades, at least as far as the first of New York’s infamous masquerade balls, held in Harlem in 1869. The city already had a number of gay-friendly bars, including Pfaff’s Beer Cellar (favoured by Walt Whitman) and the Slide, which Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Evening World labelled “morally the lowest in New York, Paris, London or Berlin”. But the popularity of these drag (or fag) balls was such that by the 1920s, as many as 7,000 people of all colours and classes were attending. Prizes were awarded for the best costumes and Malin was often among the prizewinners.

The 1920s also saw an increase in the number of bohemian enclaves in rundown areas, such as New York’s Greenwich Village. Painters, poets and performers were lured by the cheap rents and by an increasingly wild and lawless lifestyle. Prohibition had given birth to a black market for booze and a bustling underground scene, where bright young things slumming it in mob-run nightspots developed a taste for camp, cutting repartee.

LGBT people were flocking to cities as much for the nightlife as for the ability to connect with others. Soon, Variety was reporting that Broadway “will have nite places with ‘pansies’ as the main draw. Paris and Berlin have similar night resorts, with the queers attracting the lays.” In Berlin, you could hear singers performing Das Lila Lied (The Lavender Song), one of the earliest songs to celebrate homosexuality. “This song became the gay anthem of the time and still has status today,” says singer Ute Lemper. “The lyrics are witty and ballsy, quite unbelievable.” You can hear its influence in the work of Rufus Wainwright, Marc Almond and others.

Every European capital, and several major US cities, had similar scenes: London had Douglas Byng and Noël Coward, who once admitted: “I should love to perform There Are Fairies in the Bottom of My Garden, but I don’t dare. It might come out There Are Fairies in the Garden of My Bottom.”

Performers, including the acid-tongued Malin, quickly eclipsed the drag acts that had been a stage staple for decades. Malin began his own career in drag, as Imogene Wilson, but it was as the tuxedoed MC of Club Abbey that he “gave Broadway its first glimpse of pansy nightlife”, as Mark Hellinger of the Syracuse Journal put it. At Club Abbey, Malin ditched the dresses and reinvented himself as a high-camp, waspish, obviously gay man – and it was this that singled him out. For possibly the first time ever, an entertainer’s entire act revolved around an explicit queerness. “What was novel is that he did not bring a drag act to the club, but instead performed in elegant men’s clothing, and brought with him the camp wit of the gay subculture,” explains LGBT historian JD Doyle. “If he was heckled by men at the club he knew how to cut them to shreds, to the delight of the crowd.” At 200lbs and over six feet tall, few would argue with him anyway.

“Malin was a tremendous success and other club owners followed the lead,” Hellinger reported. “Before the mainstream knew what happened, there was a hand on a hip for every light on Broadway.” Songs with titles such as Masculine Women, Feminine Men and Let’s All Be Fairies were all the rage, and Malin’s innovative style was copied by dozens of others with varying degrees of success. Gladys Bentley, dressed in a white top hat and tails, kept punters happy in Harlem belting out risqué versions of popular songs, but Malin was the undisputed queen of the Pansy Craze.

Prohibition had forced legitimate bars to shut up shop, and the mob-run speakeasies that sprang up in their place were openly flouting the law. Crooked cops took backhanders to look the other way, but with serious violence breaking out between rival gangs keen for a slice of this lucrative pie, the authorities had to do something. And as many of these clubs had floor shows starring LGBT acts, it must have seemed that wherever the pansies went, trouble followed.

In January 1931, mobster Charles Sherman was shot and stabbed at the Club Abbey, female impersonator Karyl Norman (appearing in a revue entitled Pansies on Parade) was caught up in a police raid on Manhattan’s appropriately named Pansy Club, and on the same night, police shut down the Club Calais speakeasy, another popular pansy haunt. Sherman survived the attack, but four years later his corpse was found buried in a pit of quicklime.

Tired of the trouble the pansy clubs attracted, New York’s police commissioner Edward P Mulrooney stationed a cop at the door of every known pansy nightspot and barred female impersonators from the local clubs. Some acts tried valiantly to cling on but Malin, effectively barred from working in New York, went to Boston where, according to the front page of scandal sheet Brevities: “Queers seek succor! Fairies cruise in daisy beds of Boston, making the city a lavenderish camp of love.” Gladys Bentley took her butch lesbian act to San Francisco, but Malin, after briefly trying to re-establish his career in New York, decided to try his luck in Hollywood instead.

He appeared in a couple of films, but after seeing the rushes for one of them – Double Harness – RKO Studio president BB Kahane sent a memo stating: “I do not think we ought to have this man on the lot on any picture”, and Malin’s part was recast. When, following New York’s lead, Los Angeles also issued an edict banning female impersonators, it was time to move on.

“Pansies Blow US”, Brevities announced. “Prominent pansies of this country are scramming for Berlin and Paris [where] they have found a freedom not granted them in America.” London’s law enforcers were as intolerant as commissioner Mulrooney – in December 1932, more than 50 men were arrested at a private party in Holland Park Avenue, after undercover officers had watched them dancing and, they claimed, having sex dressed as women. More than 100 people were arrested at queer-friendly club The Caravan after locals complained of it being “frequented by sexual perverts, lesbians and sodomites.”

But Paris had a reputation for its laissez-faire attitude, and queer performers were encouraged by the success enjoyed in the city by American performers including bisexual dancer Josephine Baker and gay trapeze artist Barbette. Berlin, too, had been a mecca for LGBT people for decades before Brevities reported on the “queer resorts” where “patrons, either lesbian, fairy or normal sexed are welcome”. Ute Lemper, whose 1996 collection Berlin Cabaret Songs ignited new interest in the songs and stars of the period, says that she was “stunned by the array of songs that expressed freedom of sexuality, and also proclaimed emancipation and women’s rights.”

Like New York, Berlin’s regular drag balls made it a popular destination for LGBT tourists. Yet many regarded this tolerance as a sign of the country’s decadence, and Hitler’s rise to power saw countless bars, clubs and cafes closed. Nazi stormtroopers tore the heart out of Berlin’s cabaret scene, arresting anyone deemed entartete: degenerate. Max Hansen, who recorded War’n Sie Schon Mal In Mich Verliebt? (Weren’t You Ever In Love With Me?), in which a drunk Hitler made passes at a Jewish man, had to make a quick exit from Germany, and other cabaret stars either followed or went back into the closet. Willy Rosen, Max Ehrlich and Kurt Gerron (the star of Weill and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera) all died in Auschwitz. The bawdy, openly gay Paul O’Montis died in the Sachsenhausen camp, just 25 miles north of the stages he once commanded. “At the time of their creation, these songs were kind of shocking and anarchic,” adds Lemper. “Today, nothing can shock any more but these songs can still entertain and provoke.”

Hailed by Variety as “the best entertainer in the Village joints along the pansy lines”, Malin’s death in 1933 signalled the end of the Pansy Craze, and the repeal of prohibition that same year closed the doors of many speakeasys. The scenes he had filmed for the upcoming Clark Gable and Joan Crawford feature, Dancing Lady, were consigned to the cutting room floor. With the Hays Code effectively banning Hollywood from portraying homosexual characters (or “attempting to keep the dual-sex boys and lesbos out of films” as Variety put it), and war in Europe on the horizon, the LGBT performers who had dominated nightlife for more than a decade were driven back underground. It would be decades before we would see anything as outrageous again.