A few weeks back, this blogger got in touch with Raymond Gorman and tackled the London-based guitarist on his That Petrol Emotion days and their latest incarnation, The Everlasting Yeah.
It would serve two purposes – so I could wax lyrical about a band that proved a major inspiration in my teenage years and beyond, and also help spread the word about an exciting new venture to help ensure it sees the light of day.
What followed went on to take up more than two hours of digi voice recorder memory, involved two long conversations between Lancashire and London, and took an age to transcribe between paying jobs.
But it was well worth the effort, even when I realised I had to add a lot of back story to fill in the gaps, turning it into an epic read I felt would be best split into three – the first section of which hopefully you’re about to start reading now.
What’s more, it gave me a chance to set down something of the inside story of an outfit that deserve their place in any hall of fame as well as the genesis of an emerging band with similar in-built spirit, comprising four-fifths of that final TPE line-up, while plugging their highly-anticipated first album, Anima Rising. But first …
I feel I should start this feature with a bit of a historic pre-amble, first turning the clock back to June 1985.
As I wrote in my fanzine of the time, Captains Log, it was one night that month in Kings Cross that I ‘found life after The Undertones’, having travelled up from Guildford to see a new band featuring my Northern Irish song-writing heroes John and Damian O’Neill.
That night proved a seminal moment for this starry-eyed 17-year-old, and if anything That Petrol Emotion were even better when I caught them upstairs at the Enterprise in Chalk Farm soon after, caught in awe just behind a front row linking arms to try and keep the rest of us off a stage barely 12 inches high.
A few TPE gigs later, on St Valentine’s Night, 1986, having by then snapped up their first two singles, Keen and V2, and devoured two John Peel radio sessions, I was at the Hammersmith Clarendon for their last date before they headed to South Wales to record debut LP, Manic Pop Thrill.
By then we’d sought out a fair few off-the-beaten-track venues across London and felt we knew American vocalist Steve Mack, guitarist Raymond Gorman and drummer Ciaran McLaughlin almost as well as we did the O’Neill brothers.
Again quoting Captains Log, I added: “The rest should be history, but we’ll never forget the early days’. It’s fair to say I’d become somewhat obsessed.
I’ve hinted at some of this in previous pieces, not least my recent Jo Bartlett feature, her first band Go! Service having supported TPE at the Enterprise and hosted the band the first time I caught them outside London, with The Mighty Lemon Drops in November ’85 at Camberley’s Agincourt.
There had also been my brother’s drunken conversation with Andy Kershaw at the Pindar, up there in our own peculiar folklore with the night our Al turned from the bar and spilled beer on Feargal Sharkey’s suit at the Marquee a year before, while watching Damian’s pre-TPE band Eleven. In fact, I seem to recall Feargal wearing that same whistle on Top of the Pops while performing Listen To Your Father with Madness soon after. Heady days.
From Bay 63, Tufnell Park’s Boston Arms and Camden’s Electric Ballroom to Kennington’s Cricketers and Finsbury Park’s Sir George Robey, we were there. It was a special time, and we’d pogo dementedly to The Deadbeat, V2, It’s A Good Thing, Fleshprint, Can’t Stop, Lifeblood and Tightlipped, then flip out to Cheapskate and inspired covers like Pere Ubu’s Non-Alignment Pact and Captain Beefheart’s Zig-Zag Wanderer.
When Manic Pop Thrill came out, this A-level student lived and breathed the album, and while we felt at the time it never quite captured the essence of those early gigs, in retrospect it wasn’t too far off at all.
I’ve tackled my love for The Undertones elsewhere on this blog, so will leave that to one side for the most part this time, instead quickly trying to summarise the story from there. And I mentioned Eleven before, and think they’re part of this wider tale, so I’ll briefly relay how I twice caught Damian and fellow ex-Undertone Mickey Bradley plus US pair David Drumgold and Fred Ravel at the Marquee in the summer of ‘84.
I was 15 then, and it was just a year after I witnessed The Undertones’ last UK gig at Selhurst Park. They also did a mighty Peel session before giving up the ghost. At least I thought it was. As it turned out Mickey went back home to study then became a Radio Foyle DJ, not far from where his old band-mate John O’Neill – who had already brought so many fantastic songs into my life – was supposedly sticking tails on to sweet mice. John later said: “It was only when I got back there that I really grasped how grim it was and how I just had to get away.”
As it turned out John met up with old friends Mickey Rooney and Raymond Gorman, and they pooled their record collections and started the legendary Left Banke Club. John and Raymond (they were using the gaelicised form of their names, but I’ll stick with these versions, if that’s okay) began writing songs, and with a girl singer and a drum machine they played a couple of local gigs. Ciaran McLaughlin, fresh from college, then took over on drums (history doesn’t relate how the drum machine reacted), and in September 1984 the band relocated to London.
Within a couple of months Damian joined on bass, having turned down a chance to join Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and after a little more experimentation they recruited vocalist Steve Mack, at the time set on earning enough to get home to Seattle.
The name they chose told you much about the band, and was described by John as indicative of the ‘frustration you feel when you’re living there (Derry), an anger and frustration about the whole thing’. And while The Undertones tended to steer away or at least tackle more subtly the politics of their homeland, this band were more likely to take on the issues at full throttle.
It wasn’t party-political, but more a willingness to spread the word about day-to-day struggles against discrimination and second-class citizenship, trying to explain – if not condone – what might have driven the extremists to take up arms. If anything, their own world view was socialist, an idealist vision of uniting warring communities behind a common goal of self-governance.
Whether the London-based music press and everyone else was ready for that message was another matter, but this was a band with plenty of passion and lots to say, and it came over in the music. And what a live band they were too. One NME journalist described how the guitarists ‘crouched like road-sweepers’ mid-song, and I could see that. They were a sight to see and hear.
Yet, among the more abrasive and impassioned songs or more off-the-wall moments, there were unadulterated love songs like A Natural Kind of Joy. These were my people, and made up for the fact that I only got to see The Undertones live a handful of times.
That first album went on to sell 30,000 copies, with the band increasingly eager to push further. Steve Mack said: “We’re very ambitious. We want to see the world. We want to play, play, play – we’re not content living on £10 a week and eating chips.’
The beginning of that dream came as these former Pink Label artists – whose former stable-mates included good friends The June Brides, McCarthy and The Wolfhounds – signed to Polydor. Some of the songs on resultant second LP Babble slipped slightly below the bar, but maybe I was just feeling aggrieved that I had to share my band with a growing audience – those earlier gigs giving way to bigger ones like those at the Town & Country Club and Kilburn National.
On the other hand, stand-out tracks like that pop exclamation mark Big Decision or the surging Swamp and Creeping to the Cross ensured appearances on The Tube, and I followed them to Glastonbury ’87 too. They still hadn’t reached the Top of the Pops studio, but success appeared to be around the corner, and that year we were left disappointed by at least one wasted journey, with a ‘sold out’ sign outside the Mean Fiddler.
For all those face-to-face encounters though, we had some peculiar notion that these lads wouldn’t want to talk to us, and kept our distance if we saw them in a bar before. We didn’t want to learn they were arseholes. We’d occasionally nod, but it never came to much more. However, I finally broke away from all that and shared a few words with John as he walked around Glasto with his young child. As I should have expected, he was nothing less than friendly and engaging.
Furthermore, I interviewed the man himself at Guildford Civic Hall in 1988 during the tour for the End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues album, for a feature that appeared in the third issue of my fanzine, Captains Log.
As it turned out, that was John’s penultimate gig with the band before returning home, and while a little tired, pensive and under-stated, he couldn’t have been more helpful. I’d properly met one of my heroes, and while sad at him leaving, I could at least understand his reasons.
What I didn’t pick up on at the time was a major sub-text. I’d stumbled across the band at a far from happy time. And judging by Raymond’s spin on it all, John’s decision to quit – or at least the timing – went down pretty badly within the Petrols camp.
Despite all those underlying problems, I still think Millennium was a cracking album, one that certainly stands the test of time. There was plenty of maturity in those compositions, and the strength of the song-writing is plain to see. It wasn’t just the John O’Neill show either, with Raymond notably chipping in, Ciaran having truly arrived on that front, and Steve and Damian also commendably credited.
The band re-grouped from there, Damian taking on John’s guitar role while John Marchini was drafted in on bass, before Brendan Kelly took his place for the last album. Those final two albums were splendid affairs too, albeit with the last released on their own label after Virgin dropped them.
In fact, the quality of the music was strong right up to the end, the standard continuing to soar. And if anything Steve’s voice was better than ever before. There are some truly searing moments on there.
Yet the appetite didn’t seem to be there outside the camp. The indie market had moved on, and for whatever reason TPE didn’t seem to be in vogue in an era in which the music media seemed obsessed with everything Britpop instead.
Theirs just wasn’t the right vibe for the times, and again luck seemed to be against a band somewhat ahead of their time.
They folded amicably in 1994, after emotional Clapham and Dublin send-offs, fittingly captured on the live splendour of Final Flame, the band seemingly deciding they could no longer afford to take a chance in such a fickle industry.
I still had great affection for them and each album stands up to this day, but I’d moved on in my own life, and my London days were behind me. And while I love the later albums as much as the earlier ones these days, those early gigs remain among my most revered.
I got a sense of all that again with the first Undertones reunion gigs in 2000, particularly at the Mean Fiddler the night before the Fleadh – seeing four of my schoolboy heroes together again, including in their set a wealth of songs I’d only truly experienced on record before.
In the meantime, John had been busy back in Derry with Rare and various community projects, but I missed out big chunks of the other members of the band’s story back in London. Until now.
And where better to start than where I finally caught up with Raymond one weekday morning, strolling around the London borough of … erm, Borough trying to find a quiet place to talk, the area where the TPE story on this side of the Irish Sea properly started.
The reception on Raymond’s mobile phone drifted in and out somewhat, and by his own later admission the fact that he’d had two big cups of coffee that morning made it hard work getting the conversation all down. Add to that the fact that after two decades living in the capital, he still has a pretty strong Slash City accent. But those are just excuses, and this is largely how it all unfolded (with Raymond’s responses in bold) …
“I’ve been walking for a bit trying to find somewhere, and I seem to have come across our old stomping ground of 20 years ago, in Borough.
“I lived here for 21 years and it was our band headquarters as well. I remember doing a photo session where I am now.”
You weren’t wearing that infamous John Francome-style jockey jersey I remember from live shows and press shots, were you?
“My girlfriend at the time bought me that and it was pure silk – it cost a fortune! It was one of those things that when you see it in the flesh it looks different to when you see a photograph of it.
“It didn’t photograph well at all. It looks like a jumper, but was actually a really light shirt. Someone was saying you really have to watch what you wear when you’re in a band, because it might just haunt you for the rest of your life.
“Pete Wylie took the piss out of me mercilessly, and used to call me a jump jockey. Around that time we shared the same manager, and he was always hanging around backstage. When we played Liverpool he was there as well.
“He was great fun. I was drinking quite a lot around then, so although I’ve had all these nights with him I just remember laughing my head off but nothing about what actually happened. I’ve got a few stories like that, unfortunately!”
Raymond and I were on nodding terms back in those early days, but I don’t think we ever really came and said hello. There was this fear that your heroes might not turn out how you expected, and that included Damian and John. I wish I had now.
“Well, I think you should have, because the O’Neill brothers were always very approachable. I never really had that problem, having known them so long.”
In fact, Raymond was at school with Damian, and their paths crossed regularly in short trousers.
“There’s a picture somewhere and me and Damian on our first communion day. We were at primary school together for the first four years, this fantastic mixed boys and girls primary school.
“We then got put into different all-boys schools and we really suffered. That first school was kind of special and really encouraged creativity. I loved music and loved everything about going to school back then.
“When I went to this new all-boys school I found it very tough, got bullied on the first day, and it took me a while to acclimatise. But we always talk about this idyllic time we had before.”
But Raymond’s friendship with Damian survived, and they kept in touch in later years too, when The Undertones were enjoying success.
“They’d be off to do their thing before coming home again, and Damian was always very frustrated, and realised they should all be living in London really, taking advantage of being in a band.
“But the rest of them were such home-birds, and he couldn’t persuade them. I’d see quite a lot of them around the pubs, and whenever I talked to Damian he was always telling me great stories about their adventures. He really fired up my imagination.
“I’d been travelling as well, and couldn’t wait to get out of Derry. I’d been to France and he was keen to hear about my adventures too.
“Back home if you told people about going away they’d think you were getting a bit uppity and above your station and try and cut you down to size. But that wasn’t the case with the O’Neills. In fact, all The Undertones were refreshingly down to earth.”
That seems to sum up the boys-next-door appeal of The Undertones and why I could equate with them more than Stiff Little Fingers, who seemed more ‘in your face’ than the more subtle approach of The Undertones. Unlikely as it might seem to some, I got the feeling these five lads might as easily have lived on my council estate in rural Surrey.
“Well, for a start, Stiff Little Fingers had their lyrics written by a journalist, Gordon Ogilvie, and he trotted out every cliché under the sun in Barbed Wire Love and stuff like that.
“And I think if The Undertones had talked about politics to the level of That Petrol Emotion, people would have just told them to shut up.
“We needed a release at that time, and wanted to forget about all that shite. If you see any photos of Derry around that time it looks like Warsaw in 1946. I am shocked now, looking back.
“At the time I’d walk through the Bogside to go to school. It was so dangerous. I remember walking to school one day and a policeman had been killed, yet I walked right past, thinking he probably deserved it. That’s so cold-hearted! But that was the environment at the time.”
I guess you created a bit of a shell around you to deal with all those horrors.
“Our school was just overlooking the Bogside, and there was a primary school below it. One time the IRA put a bomb in the grounds of the primary school and it went off, a 200lb bomb, and I was in a classroom 300 yards away.
“It was the most massive explosion I’d ever heard. We were around 12 or 13 and all going crazy, yet the teacher just turned around and said, ‘shut up, calm down, it’s only a bomb”. The caretaker of the school was killed in that explosion.
“If that was to happen now, people would be getting therapy for years after. So I think all of us have got psychic scars, and I know I couldn’t wait to get out.
“I still have a lot of love for the place, but think the problems are still there. Everybody pretends everything’s better, but the things that are wrong keep bubbling up again.
“There are two sets of extreme views and no middle ground at all anymore. I’ve no time for any of the politicians there.
“I was watching Good Vibrations the other day, and there’s a brilliant sequence where you see all these explosions and stuff that was going on at the time. I just started crying, thinking about how all those people died for absolutely nothing.
If you’d said that to me at the time I would have disagreed, but when you look back with the benefit of age, wisdom and hindsight, it was such a waste … and it’s still going on.”
Moving forward to your arrival in London, do you remember the Pindar of Wakefield gig in Kings Cross, in what was my first TPE live experience?
“I do, and it was actually a very good venue.”
I got dewy-eyed mentioning the gigs that followed then, not least the Enterprise, Kennington Cricketers and The Clarendon in Hammersmith, before the band recorded Manic Pop Thrill.
“I think we played The Clarendon a few times. It was a bit more of a goth crowd there. We did get that kind of crowd for a while, not least because Steve’s voice on those first two singles was quite deep and seemed to suit that sound. Some of that crowd stayed on for Manic Pop Thrill, but not so many.”
I’m not sure if Manic Pop Thrill ever really reached the height of that live era for us – but maybe it wasn’t too far off.
“The thing about Manic Pop Thrill is that it’s never been remastered, and I’m sure it could sound a lot better. I remember being disappointed by the vinyl version, with quite a significant loss between the master tape and the vinyl.
“There was a CD version a year or so later and I was speaking to Damian about that the other day, saying we should have held back a few of those songs, because at the time of Babble we didn’t really have that many.
“I find Babble quite hard work. There’s a couple of songs there I’m ashamed of now, that just shouldn’t be there. They’re not good enough. But we didn’t have anything else. We had two or three of the most well-known songs we ever had, but there’s some stinkers on there too. I can’t understand why some people love Babble so much.
“I couldn’t listen to Millennium for quite a long time, but when I could I thought it had better songs on it, even though the making of that album was completely disastrous. It’s a miracle it even sounds as good as it does.”
That gets us on to the touchy subject of the recording of End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, a period in which John threw a spanner into the works, announcing he was leaving, with Raymond – already in something of a state after a long spell of party excess – taking it all very badly and ending up hospitalised.
“The engineer was caught in the middle of all the stuff that was going on, and told me he used to go in each morning and would just do some kind of primal scream at the roof, to try and get rid of some of the tension.
“There was so much tension, you could cut it with a knife. We were staying in this fancy residential place, while John was holed up with his wife and his child. We only saw him when he came in to do his parts. It was a strange time, and lasted for ages.
“It became very toxic, and that happened on tour as well. We should never have let that happen. But we were young, and we didn’t really talk among ourselves. We do now and wonder how we let that happen.
“It took me years to forgive John for telling us he was leaving when he did. He could have waited until we had everything recorded, and then told us. I don’t know why he did it like that. It killed the vibe and made it very uncomfortable for everybody.”
At this point I recall my interview with John at October 1988 at Guildford Civic, and how the circumstances all make a bit more sense now in retrospect. At the time the official line was that Raymond had a really bad bug, so John Marchini – set to replace John O’Neill at the end of the tour – came in a few weeks earlier than expected, with a few swapped roles within the band accordingly.
The former Undertone was expecting his second child at that time and was set for his final gig the next night, at Cardiff, with gigs ahead of that planned for mainland Europe, Russia, then America.
“Well, we had to cancel a lot of that. I was supposed to go to New York to do some press and was looking forward to it, but then couldn’t go, so I was gutted. But I needed the rest. I was in a very bad way.
“I was gone by then. I was in a really bad state. I remember Ciaran was really frightened. He could see I was going down very quickly. I’d been medicating for some time, but was very fragile.”
So this ‘bug’ was drugs, booze, and a bit of everything, was it?
“Yeah it was. I’d been feeling it for a long time, and it just kind of caught up with me. I was very emotionally fragile and really worried about what was going to happen, thinking we were going to break up, instead of thinking about it positively.
“By that time, Ciaran was really coming into his own as a song-writer, and I was as well, so I should have been pretty positive, thinking we wouldn’t miss John. But because we weren’t talking I wasn’t aware of how anyone felt about anything. Classic sort of men stuff, you know.”
You shouldn’t have been too worried. That was, after all, the album when we realised Ciaran could write great songs too.
“Yeah, and it made me up my game too. I wrote a few songs for the first album but then got a little complacent. I should maybe have had a couple more credits on Babble, ones I didn’t contest, but I don’t think that was anyone‘s fault.
“When they were set to re-release Babble, I was on the phone to John about Big Decision, saying I should get some kind of credit on that this time and he agreed. But it never happened as it was just an iTunes-only release.”
Despite having heard all that and seeing Raymond’s point of view entirely, I can still understand John’s thinking – he wanted to get home and do the best for his family. He wasn’t enjoying it and just wanted out.
“Well yeah, but it was him who wanted us to come to London in the first place. So I just thought it was really weird that he lasted about two years before deciding he wanted to go home again.
“I hadn’t wanted to come over in the first place. It’s funny how your life pans out though. I had a great girlfriend in Derry and was really happy there and thought we should at least try and record something there before coming to England. But he was adamant we needed to go over and was probably right actually.
“That decision chanced my life forever. I hated it that first year. It was pretty miserable. We had no money and we didn’t know anybody. And before playing with John I was in another band and DJ-ing, having one of the best years in my life.”
Was that the Left Banke era?
“Yeah. that was responsible for kicking John up the backside and getting him back into song-writing. He was really adamant he wasn’t going to do anything to do with music. I had bags of enthusiasm and energy and was gee-ing him up, not necessarily to start a band, but getting him back into music.
“Those days were fantastic. There were maybe only 50 people who ever went. We kept the prices really low and were told we needed to charge more and encourage more people to come. But we didn’t want that.
“These were people who didn’t really have a lot. But talk to those who were there and they talk about it like it was a religious experience! It was amazing and I even wrote a manifesto for it!
“Can you believe that? It was basically slagging off all these horrible DJs of the time with their fake American accents, playing shite music. I mean bloody hell – a manifesto for a disco? That’s a bit intense, you know!
“We would meet up on a Tuesday night and come up with a set-list of what we were going to play – the three of us, including my friend Mickey Rooney – all taking turns to play some tunes.
“Sometimes I would do the lights as well. We’d go out and have a dance ourselves too. It was just such a brilliant time, and so creative.”
“Well, that was my first band, I was about 22, just out of university. I’d always wanted to be in a band, but it had never really happened until then. I think I under-estimated my abilities. It was brilliant when I look back now. We were really fresh, and didn’t really sound like anyone else.
“After I left their sound changed, with one less percussionist and the guitar not so loud. We were more like Echo and the Bunnymen or Adam and The Ants. The guitar was much heavier, with me being a loud bastard!
“It was more poppy after I left, more like REM. That came to the fore with the two singles. But with the first, they used all our equipment, and John produced it as well, so there was a bit of a Petrols vibe about it.”
And I believe Bam Bam had a song around that time called That Petrol Emotion.
“We did. They had it when I joined, but never did it. I changed the whole feel of it. I was into John McGeoch at the time and added a really heavy reverby sound.
“John O’Neill obviously saw all this. I was seeing plenty of him as a friend, and we were listening to records all the time. Our focus was all music. It was a great time. We had no responsibilities, no kids, everyone just enjoying themselves.”
Getting a brief word in, I asked if Raymond ever came to England before his move, aiming to ask if he ever saw Eleven. But I only got as far as asking the first part.
“I only came through London once, on the way back from France. I was a real Francophile and was very snobby about England. I had no time for the place.
“I was the same with America, funnily enough. Everybody at our college said about going to America, but I was going to France, working there, going over for three months with £40 and coming back with £40. I was smitten with the place.”
Undeterred, I tried again. Did he ever see Eleven play?
“John and I had just started playing together at that point, and to be honest when we heard their John Peel session we were deeply unimpressed, thinking they’d got it completely wrong!”
I finally got to my point, how Eleven did a song called Love’s a Perpetual Emotion, and how I always wondered if it was that track – rather than the Bam Bam song – that inspired the name – a mis-heard lyric and in-joke that sowed the seed.
Raymond laughs at that, but insists that wasn’t the case.
“No, for the record it was definitely from a Bam Bam song. We tried all these different names. I can’t remember them all now.”
Before you relocated to London, I believe That Petrol Emotion had a girl singer.
“That first singer was actually my girlfriend in Derry. She looked great. She was great looking and really lovely … but she couldn’t sing. But John was convinced at the time she was the next Debbie Harry!
“I remember doing A Natural Kind of Joy with her, but she could never quite come in at the right place. I think maybe I put her under pressure a bit as well.
“After that it was me singing for a while, and then we did a gig over here at the Fire Station, where the Jesus and Mary Chain had their riot.
“We did one there and one in Derry that Christmas with me as the singer, and then we did one at the Mean Fiddler, where Damian sang a couple of songs that I couldn’t sing while playing guitar.
“I remember playing with the June Brides and Jon Hunter said, ‘You’ve got too many songs! We were playing for about 50 minutes, everything we had, and it all lacked cohesion – there was too much for people to take in the first time.
“Around that time Steve came in. He was John’s choice, whereas at the time I felt we should have held on. But it was taking time finding somebody. Every last one was absolutely useless!
“I remember one Scottish guy, dressed head to toe in leather. He had a copy of the Melody Maker and the NME, which he then put down on the floor, as if to say, ‘Here I am, I look good, and I’ve got all the music press’. Yet he couldn’t sing to save his life. I couldn’t quite work out why he’d bothered!
“Perhaps a lot of those who might have been up for the job might have lacked the confidence, but all those turning up hadn’t got a clue.
“And to be honest, I think it took Steve about a year to come good.”
Well, from the first moment we saw you, we were amazed … and Steve did seem to be the perfect front-man.
“I think he definitely became that. When we reformed, we had a gig at Hop Farm where we were on at midday, and I’ve never seen anyone work quite so hard to get the audience going.
“We were in our late 40s by then, yet his energy levels were phenomenal.”
I’ll wrap it up there for now. With part two of this three-parter following tomorrow, starting with Raymond on The Undertones reformation, his memories of that seminal band’s Casbah days, his relocation to London, TPE’s political stance, and the PledgeMusic campaign for The Everlasting Yeah debut LP Anima Rising.
In the meantime, to find out more about the new album and how you can play your part in ensuring its release, check out this link.