‘What became of the man who wanted so much more … than just grazing his knee on the ground?’ (The Man Who Jumped from the First Floor)
If you’re reading this in the hope of catching The Dubious Brothers live sometime soon … sorry. That’s something you’ll have to take up with Monty (and like Adele, Bjork, Donovan and Prince, we won’t bother with surnames here). But you only have to read a few recent social media threads to realise that this revered frontman is getting plenty of pressure to do it all again.
That’s in no short part due to the success of his pretty much unique collective’s most recent farewell in mid-November. ‘Most recent farewell’? Yes, apologies to Monty for that, but I think we’re all still in denial about it all being over … again. And he did shoot himself in the foot by making it so bloody good (adds a bloke who was 215 miles away at the time, unfortunately).
He’s even got a new Time Machine (the best ever by all accounts), so it seems a shame not to use that again. And then there’s The Dubious Brothers: The Next Generation – Monty’s new youth wing, the choir that introduced a memorable final show. We wouldn’t want them back out on the streets, doing urchin-like stuff, surely. No pressure though, Monty. It’s your call.
Anyway, I’m hoping you’ve come to this feature after reading the ‘part one’ feature that pre-empted (just about) that historic Islington Assembly Hall goodbye. That being the case, I shouldn’t have to do so much of an introduction for those who don’t already know The Dubious Brothers. You can just back-click and start there, because it doesn’t get any easier explaining the whole concept.
‘Dream a thousand dreams of censored scenes of Valentino in Baghdad. The night burns like a Turkish cigarette. I’ve lost my heart, now I’ve lost my appetite’. (My Goodness! This Bazaar is Like a Jungle)
As I suggested in my last piece, this is a more personal nostalgic retrospective of the band, alongside a bit of a potted history of the life and times of Monty – before, during and after the DBs. And now we’ve got that housekeeping out of the way, let’s properly start ‘part two’, in which I carry on where I left off, having just cherry-picked the pre-Islington stuff from our conversation last time.
I will go over a little of that old ground first though, in reference to the 10 times I saw the band between mid-July 1987 and the end of March, 1990, as nostalgically shared over the phone with Monty. And the first and last of those dates were two of six DB gigs I saw at the Fulham Greyhound, along with one at the nearby King’s Head …
“That was a good gig. I remember that. I think we either did one or two at the King’s Head. That was a really good night, and we got signed that night by our management company.”
Then there was one at Guildford’s Lockwood Day Centre, the charity gig at which I interviewed you – 27 and a bit years ago, frighteningly – for my Captain’s Log fanzine. And I saw you supporting The Corn Dollies at the Marquee.
“Oh yeah, I remember that. Janice Long was there. She played our stuff on her show.”
‘He said, ‘You’re going to Christmas Island for your Country & your Queen, so get up & join the ranks & watch the Atom Bomb’. I tried to appeal to his gentler side, but he hadn’t got one – I’m sorry, I tried.’ (Britannia’s Grand Machine)
My other Dubious Brothers happening in those early years was at midnight (or thereabouts) on the Saturday at Glastonbury Festival in the summer of 1989.
“Ah, you came to Glastonbury, did you?”
Absolutely. I can’t pretend it was just for you, but …
“Just a happy coincidence then.”
It was definitely one of the major draws for me that year. In fact, that was my second Glastonbury, and somehow I haven’t made it back since.
“Well, I’m actually looking at a poster for that as we speak, having managed to track one down recently.”
Yes, it appears that there’s quite a market out there for the band’s memorabilia all these years on, not least with the vinyl – their two albums – reaching big prices on certain internet auction sites. The good news though is that I still have my vinyl copies of debut album Absolute Bethlehem, follow-up The Foresight Saga (recently re-issued on vinyl by German company Fire Station Records, the initial batch of numbered copies quickly selling out) and the 12” of The Dog Ate My Poll Tax Form.
‘Travel in time with me, Inspector Le Strade – from Whitehall 1212 to New Scotland Yard’. (Inspector Le Strade)
There’s clearly plenty of call for cut-out features from the music press too, flogged online. Which is worth thinking about for all those scraps I still have at writewyattuk hq. But let’s go back a bit further, getting Monty to tell us a bit about his ‘80s alternative dance synth-pop disaster’ Promises Promises.
“Oh, did you never hear us? I’ll tell you what, someone put it on YouTube … and it’s definitely not bloody me!”
Mmm … I’ve since listened to Monty’s sole Promises Promises waxing from 1984, Can You Take the Risk? And despite the odd good line and nifty chord change, well … yeah, think of it all as half-baked electronic pop. Heaven Eight and a Half, maybe (and that’s quite a generous mark in the circumstances).
“Basically, we were just starting out, doing our thing, getting into bands, and three of us formed our own – myself, Dave Bird (a future Dubious Brother) and Rachel Flint. We had a single out – a-side pop, b-side dance … whatever. Just horrific. But you’ve got to learn, haven’t you.”
‘The padre he preaches, he does what he pleases. He thinks God’s an expert on nervous diseases.’ (Absolute Bethlehem)
You set up your own ‘bedroom label’ for that single and the first two DB singles and album, Fend For Yourself. Forget all this modern PledgeMusic palaver – you were a true indie spirit way before all that. Was this the ‘do it yourself’ message you took from the punk years?
“Well, at first we got distribution from Probe Plus up in Liverpool, the Half Man Half Biscuit people. They were fantastic and pressed all the vinyl for us.”
Yes, and in our last interview all those years ago you reminded me about the tale of a band practising in the next room when debut HMHB album, Back in the DHSS, was made – later asking for royalties, as you could hear them in the quieter bits. But that’s another story.
And between Promises Promises and The Dubious Brothers you had the Third Spiritual Foundation as well. I won’t even attempt to explain the concept behind the latter here, but Monty does on the sleevenotes to the band’s Antiques best of CD, so I suggest you just shell out for that and find out for yourself.
“That was my best idea ever … apart from the music, which was still a bit synth-poppy. This is my great failing – I want to go all weird, disturbing and mysterious, but couldn’t not have a catchy tune in there. Visually it was fantastic, complete with two shop dummies. But I missed a bit of a trick there.”
‘I’ve got a new car phone that goes with my vasectomy…’ (Falling Masonry)
Those were different times, for sure. But in an era when the industry was seemingly seeking out more C86 type bands, you didn’t quite fit in with what the record companies were looking for. Your influences were a little more theatrical, shall we say.
“I remember talking to A&R men on the phone, them telling us our type of music was never going to make it, with one talking about trying to coerce this band to sign, The Mighty Lemon Drops, who he said everyone was desperate to sign. But every band I saw just seemed to be the same.”
I could take issue with Monty there, seeing as I particularly loved the first Droppies album and truly rated them live. I take his wider point though – there was room for bands far removed from that scene, not least his own inspirational collective, who he saw of as more in the spirit of more theatrical bands like Cardiacs and The Tubes. How did it come to all this though? Was there a lightbulb moment when he realised where he’d be heading next, forming The Dubious Brothers?
“Definitely – it was The Singing Detective. That pretty much changed my life, certainly musically. The way Dennis Potter juxtaposed the old music and made it darker. It was chirpy, sweet, 1930s’ and 1940s’ innocent music, yet he put it in a context of something that was much darker.
“That was one of the catalysts for what we eventually became. We were still synth-poppy, and didn’t really change until the first album. South America got a bit more swingy, but that darker old music hall, ‘decaying Britain’ thing didn’t really happen until that first album.”
‘But Lord, if you are up there, when no one else is looking – me, them, five minutes & an iron rod.’ (Revenge)
I read somewhere that you never made a connection with The Doobie Brothers name thing though. I can’t believe that. And there was me thinking that was the one of the greatest-ever name puns in music.
“I didn’t make the connection at all. Do you know, there are about five bands called The Dubious Brothers now? That includes a hip-hop band in New Zealand and a covers band in Wiltshire. I know about them because when Michael Eavis was thinking about booking us for Glastonbury he noticed that The Dubious Brothers were on in some pub, so went to see them with his wife. But when he got there he realised it wasn’t the band he thought it was.”
Blimey. I bet they were getting a bit excited at the prospect, I add, prompting Monty’s … erm … dubious Somerset accent, imagining the excitement of that band at realising Mr Eavis was out there in the audience.
“God knows how old they are now, but I think they’re still going. Then there’s some band in Singapore, another in America … there are around three or four Montys out there as well, so I’m not quite sure how I managed to get away without using a surname.”
‘And when we die we think that’s heaven’s like a golf club – all the undesirables will be left out. And special angels will administer the spankings – there’ll be queues to join without a doubt.’ (An Englishman’s Home is his Toilet)
Am I right that the very first gig – involving three DBs and a drum machine – was at the Riverside Club in Fetcham (not far from Monty’s Banstead and Epsom roots and one of my favourite venues of days gone by)? I saw some great bands there. Not you though.
“Well, there was one I did there by myself as The Dubious Brothers too, pre-dating even the Third Spiritual Foundation, if my memory serves me correct. And the Riverside Club was just such a part of growing up for me.”
At this point I digress and talk about bands I’d seen there, dusting off my anecdote about the night The Wedding Present turned up only to find they’d been double-booked. They decided to leave, leaving an apologetic note for their travelling fans, someone soon half-inching it (not me, unfortunately).
So was Monty nervous for those early shows, or was he a born showman?
“The fridge light comes on and I do 20 minutes (at this point Monty leaves just long enough for a comedy drum lick). Being on stage has never ever bothered me. I probably do get nervous but maybe it manifests itself in different ways, like getting ratty. But I don’t feel nervous when I’m there.”
‘Now you deal with Krugerrands, & your blood money drips through your bloody hands’. (South America Welcomes The Nazis)
“The only time I can think of is probably two minutes before we were due to go on in Wuppertal, as I suddenly realised where we were and that I was wearing a British Army outfit, Steve was wearing an RAF uniform, we had gas masks on, and I’m about to sing a song called South America Welcomes the Nazis. I just hadn’t twigged, because we were so excited about our first tour of Germany, but then suddenly realised this could all go horrendously wrong.”
But as it turned out, they loved you out there, I seem to recall.
“They absolutely loved us. A lot of those places were just fantastic. We would be going off after about 45 minutes in those days, and they’d be asking for ‘more, more, more’, expecting us to do two sets. We had five encores, because they just expected that.”
The other day I was checking something out about one of my favourite bands, The Blue Aeroplanes, and was astounded at the list of personnel involved over the years. That made me wonder how many people have played with The Dubious Brothers over the years. For example, how many surgeons have joined you on stage?
“Surgeons? Not that many – probably half a dozen. With surgeons it used to be a case of whoever’s available. They didn’t have to do massive rehearsals. They just had to be free that day … and tall.”
‘My Daddy, he bought me an electric guitar for my birthday … but I want to be a yes man!’ (Yes Man)
While we’re playing the numbers game, you mentioned a gig in Nottingham where just two punters turned up, and this at a time when you’d always be hopeful someone in the crowd would offer the band accommodation that night to avoid a long drive home.
“Yeah, we used to wing it, just assuming someone would put us up for the night. That evening we were waiting and waiting for the audience to turn up, and eventually there were just two, who told us they only came because their friends had seen us in Colchester.
“The boys were saying, ‘Well, we can’t do the gig then’, but I said, ‘We have to – they’ve turned up and paid!’ So we did it, and at the end I asked, ‘Is there any chance we can stay with you tonight?’ The husband said, ‘Yeah, absolutely’. His wife was just looking at him, incredulous.
“So we piled back to their house. But the van we’d hired didn’t have a lock on the back door and we had all our gear in there, so we drew straws and I ended up sleeping in the van, waking up with the taste of oil in my mouth and with snow coming down. It was just horrific and I was wondering why we were doing this – we’d just driven all those miles to play to two people, there I was sleeping in the back of a van, and it was snowing.
“I went into the house the next morning and everyone was up, with the husband and wife waiting to go to work. And the husband said, ‘Alright lads, just let yourself out when you’re done,’ to which his wife said, ‘You’re kidding! Get out!’ And there was our guitarist asking, ‘Any chance of a cup of tea?’”
‘I haven’t seen a magistrate since I was 17. You must believe me, Constable, I’ve kept my nose clean.’ (Could Have Been)
“But that sort of stuff happened to us, and in our first gig at Warwick University – where we went on to have so much success – a stone went into the windscreen on the M25 and totally shattered the screen, at which point we decided to go home and go up in three different cars instead. And we were only getting paid around £50. So we went all the way back, loaded up our cars and tried again, turning up late but doing the show, going down well and being re-booked.
“It was similar at Colchester Arts Centre, where they told us we were brilliant and asked if they could persuade loads of people to come down if we would play there again. We said, ‘Yeah, what date?’ and they said, ‘No – do it now, a bit later tonight’. So we went on again at about 11, for about 50 or 60 people. And by the time we finished we were selling out there.”
You mention having to play balls at Oxford, big corporate shows and so on. Surely you hated those gigs, performing in front of the sons and daughters of those fox-hunting families you were singing about, those future freemasons …
“Well, yeah, because at any kind of ball you’re just the entertainment, so they haven’t come to see you but just be entertained by someone, and with some of these corporate dos we’d do a song like Inspector Le Strade, with a Latin beat they could dance to, probably not even knowing who we were. The money was good, but it was fairly demoralising.”
‘Soon you’ll high jump in our Olympic team, ‘cos we put Ex-Lax in your Bristol Cream.’ (What a Lovely Day for a Hunt Sabotage)
In our first interview all those years before, you told me that outside your Dubious Brothers existence you were writing songs for El Records. Did that carry on for some time?
“I came in at the end of El Records, so I was never one of their artists, but I did write for their compilation albums, including Abracadabra – The Magnificent Triviality, for which I did Mr Inconsistent. I wrote about eight of those tracks, including two for a fantastic singer called Her, singing Imran Khan and Eligible Bachelor, plus a glam rock one, and various others. And after all that I wrote lots of songs for Mike Alway, who ran El Records, for his new label Exotica, writing a lot of football records.”
That should have been a good experience for a big Tottenham fan like yourself.
“Well, the best-selling one was Ryan Giggs We Love You.”
Since our conversation, I’ve found that on the net, recorded under the name of The Rainbow Choir. And it’s bloody awful, as I might have expected. Perhaps even as unsettling as the sight of the Wales and Manchester United maestro’s chest wig during that 1999 shirt-rotating run following his FA Cup semi-final replay wonder goal against Arsenal.
”I did refuse to do their Arsenal album, but did all the others. And I also did TV themes.”
‘She pursued me up the chimney & she chased me up the flue, & the sun doesn’t shine anymore!’ (Oh! Mother Borden)
That brings me nicely on to the fact that I’m quite surprised you’ve never gone down the staged theatrical line with The Dubious Brothers. I could see you adapting those songs into some form of musical, one far removed from the hideous world of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Think Lionel Bart’s Oliver! mixed with the best elements of Mel Brooks, Noel Coward, Eric Idle and Neil Innes, maybe.
“Dubious Brothers – The Musical? Well, I’d always quite fancied writing a musical, but I’d want to write something completely different. And then The Book of Mormon happened, and then Avenue Q … so that avenue is probably closed to me now. I would have wanted to take the piss out of the musical, but South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is so good you can’t really do that now. They got Les Miserables so fantastically well, there are so few places to go with it now.
“Maybe we should go back to a traditional one now, doing a musical dead straight instead of taking the mick. It was something I thought about, but then came my three solo albums after the band ended, so that was that.”
‘And we can conclude that irony’s a funny old theatrical device when you become the first Aryan on Mars.’ (You’re Wernher von Braun & I Claim My Five Pounds)
Speaking of which, there was talk about another Monty solo album to follow 1993’s A Typical Scorpio (which I had first time around, albeit taped by a mate), then 1996’s The Napoleon Complex and 2006’s The Judas Window (which I’m only just catching up on now, via Monty’s website). Have I missed that fourth album coming out?
“You haven’t missed it. I’ve been writing it for nearly 10 years. I have an idea, but it won’t be an album by me. Well, it will be by me, but no one will know it’s me. I said before that the Third Spiritual Foundation was the best idea I ever had, but this is probably just as good.”
He’s teasing us there, I reckon, and certainly being mysterious, but I’m sure we’ll learn more over time. So is this … erm … latest Dubious Brothers farewell gig just the end of another phase in the rather skewed career of Monty?
“Yeah, it’s not the end of me, but you can’t go on singing about the Poll Tax forever. We won that victory, you know! We released a 12” single about it and the Government abolished it the year after. The Dubious Brothers’ influence just extends beyond all musical boundaries!”
He’s got a point. Take that, Midge Ure and Bob Geldof – because we’ve still got poverty, haven’t we.
‘Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no sinner. Don’t think I’m reluctant to pay. But if you send the bailiffs round when this Bill goes through, my doggie is going to eat you.’ (The Dog Ate My Poll Tax Form)
I was reminded from looking back at our last interview that Monty used to work for The Stranglers, which is rather apt seeing as I interviewed Hugh Cornwell the previous week. So what kind of phase was that?
“A kind of schoolboy phase! I was 16 or 17. It was a part-time job, and I got fired, I think. I used to be obsessed with The Stranglers, which is very strange listening back now. The music is fantastic, but some of the lyrics were unbelievably retrograde. No one would get away with doing what they did today.
“Lyrically, they were so childish, but when you are a child, you don’t think about all that. The combination of the bass and keyboards was so menacing, but then you get a song about Iran, and what they felt was going to happen there. ‘We shall see’. Mmm … such incredible insight.”
Talking of issue-led songs, I was a bit surprised that What a Lovely Day for a Hunt Sabotage was not on 2009 Dubious Brothers CD compilation Antiques. Was there some kind of problem there?
“Yeah, we just thought it might be a little dodgy. But it’s satire … it’s just me being slightly over-cautious, and it’s back in full force now.”
‘In the quagmire of your mind you call emotion, the harpoon in your heart will disappear. In the time it takes to walk the Blue Whale, the path is crystal clear’. (The Blue Whale)
How about further The Foresight Saga favourite The Blue Whale? That was also missing. I always loved the concept of that song, the idea that your life’s worries will be put into context and realised as being truly trivial in the scheme of things once you’ve seen the colossal plankton king ‘whose beguiling eye sees all’ in the Natural History Museum. A top tune’n’all.
“Well, people do love The Blue Whale. It’s not my favourite. It’s just a bit too Eric Idle for me. That said, I actually went to see it recently for the first time in years, with Joe actually.”
That’s his son, I should add, who as well as a cameo part in Oh! Mother Borden during the Islington send-off (as mentioned in part one) had further input in the last live gig, something I left out last time as I didn’t want to give too much away. But as Monty told me at the time, “He comes on at the end for a moment I’ve been waiting 28 years to hear. I say, ‘Joseph, have you got anything to ask your Dad?’ And he says, ‘Daddy?’ And I say ‘Yes, son?’ And he says, ‘Is that a Messerschmitt?’ And I say, ‘No son, that’s a Heinkel’.
A beautiful moment, as I’m sure all British fathers and sons of a certain age will agree.
‘I’m 10 years ahead of my time … must be Martin Peters.’ (Martin Peters)
I could carry on a bit from there, and mention the first album’s synth-heavy Martin Peters too – something of a Carter USM prototype arguably – and how its general theme of being ‘ahead of your time’ sums up Monty so well, not least the fact that somehow he’s not a mainstream success … for all his creative genius.
But he probably won’t want to hear that, so instead I’ll leave it there and just finish with a respectful nod and a ‘God bless you, guv’nor. And please come back soon.’
‘Oh thank you very much for being such a bunch of kind & lovely men. Thank you very much, I’m glad you kept in touch, you drove us round the bend.’ (A Heck of a Dubious Day)
- With an extra ‘thank you very much’ to Ashley Jones for the live shots from Islington Assembly Hall (with a Flickr link here), and Monty for permission (of sorts) for the reproduction of his wondrous lines.
- And to catch up on the back-catalogue and see where it all goes next, head to Monty’s webpages here.