It’s been a long month, and with Spring arriving deceptively early in late February (if only on a fact-finding mission), that last day of January when The Stranglers turned up at one of my old haunts seems an age ago.
Founder members Jet Black (and it’s good to see him relatively fit and well), Jean-Jacques Burnel and ’75 arrival Dave Greenfield (replacing Swedish original Hans Axel Wärmling) brought long-time frontman Baz Warne along to the venue where it supposedly started for them, The Star in Guildford, unveiling a new PRS plaque marking the location of what’s believed to have been their first proper show 45 years ago.
While I heard the blast from Guildford’s pub bombings in 1974 from my village (two miles down the A281), I wasn’t even seven, so I can hardly vouch for the noise a band then known as The Guildford Stranglers were making that same year on nearby Quarry Street.
I said supposedly before as JJ Burnel can’t seem to recall any details, and no date seems to be recorded, for all the mentions here and there on the internet. But as a 14-year-old I was at the Civic Hall across town for their La Folie tour, and recall Hugh Cornwell asking a packed house – ‘Golden Brown’ topping the UK charts at the time – how many of us were at The Star in ‘74. Inevitably, around a thousand reckoned they were, something I find hard to fathom seeing as in April 1988 the band I mismanaged, His Wooden Fish, sold out a charity night there and were only allowed to accommodate a 99-strong audience.
In fact, that particular swivel-rock trio (don’t ask) played there twice, while the band that eventually followed them, True Deceivers, followed their lead, playing on a bill with fellow reformed locals (so to speak) Sammy Rat’s Big Big Blues Band, of whom frontman and local author/journalist David Rose wrote a great piece about the venue’s sketchy history as a music venue in this Guildford Dragon feature. What’s more, in my fanzine days The Star was an unofficial HQ for a while, even interviewing bands in there.
If you haven’t heard yet, the reason this is all semi-relevant is that there’s a campaign endorsed by The Stranglers to ‘Save Our Star’, with this prime town centre venue under threat from a noise abatement order, despite a long history of live music happenings and as a platform for so many emerging musicians over the decades.
It’s still a thriving music, comedy and theatre performance venue, but the borough council allowed a property developer to build flats in a neighbouring ex-office block, and that’s where the trouble started, not least after he complained to the council about noise from the back room venue last May. The Star were given eight weeks to comply with a noise abatement notice, one they felt would force them into stopping host live acts completely from December. But in October, the pub confirmed it intended to challenge the notice, after legal counsel confirmed there were sufficient grounds to launch an appeal.
Star Inn manager Georgina Baker said: “When the planning application went in five years ago we pointed out it was ludicrous to put flats next to a live music venue overlooking a pub courtyard, but they wouldn’t listen. Now, sure enough, the developer has complained and the council has finally realised it might be a bit noisy in the flats.
“Small live music venues are the lifeblood of the music industry as well as an invaluable cultural and social asset, they can’t just be swept aside for luxury apartments. We’re part of the historic fabric of Guildford, but if the council issues a Noise Abatement Notice, that’ll put us out of business.”
Georgina has called on all music lovers to sign a petition in a bid to persuade the council, and you can get involved via this link. If like me you’re 240 or so miles away, you might feel it’s got nothing to do with you, but this seems to be the tip of the iceberg, with so many venues up and down the country and across Britain in similar jeopardy right now. A report by ITV News arts editor Nina Nannar about the campaign estimated a third of Britain’s small music venues had already been lost. So think of my hometown as Anytown UK. The time seems ripe to have a say and get involved.
I missed out on The Stranglers’ Star return, where a short set included an acoustic stroll through ‘Strange Little Girl’, a 1982 UK top-10 hit but in the set right back in ’74, a band co-write in which the afore-mentioned Wärmling gets a credit (he died in 1995 in a boating accident). But I was back on my old patch a fortnight later, sampling two more happening pub venues, the Boileroom (The Elm Tree in my day, part of a town crawl from my mate Al’s nearby flat) and Suburbs at the Holroyd (the plain, poky Holroyd Arms when I was working in town, an occasional lunchtime watering hole now knocked through and also creating a great live room).
That Friday night – the first of two nights back in Al’s company – provided a good example of just what’s on offer on the scene in this day and age, as it involved Bristol-based Clash tribute act, London Calling. You’ll know from these pages I tend to avoid such shows – there’s so much original talent out there, why not support bands doing their own songs instead? But I’ve been known to show up at such events, even recalling a night in Blackburn’s King George’s Hall watching entertaining Australian faux-Swedes Bjorn Again as early as 1998.
Look down the list of acts appearing at most venues these days and there’s often little on offer but derivations on the tribute theme. But with my Clash book not long out I eyed a chance to savour a band afforded great reviews and currently playing the London Calling double album from start to finish, four decades after its release year. And I knew it would be a neat place to catch them, having seen The Wedding Present in this intimate setting two years ago.
I could have done without the eyebrow-raising bar prices (£10 for two pints? You’re having a giraffe!), but fair play to any venue still operating in these testing times. Besides, I was intrigued by London Calling, and sure enough it made for a top night out, their 19-track wander through a classic record followed by an encore of ‘I Fought the Law’, ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ and ‘White Riot’, enthusiastically received by a young-ish crowd … or at least mostly too young to catch The Clash first time around. I’d get far more excited seeing Jones, Simonon and Headon back out there, but that ain’t gonna happen, and this outfit are impressive – a class act as much as a Clash act.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, and the track-by-track album concept meant they started with ‘London Calling’ itself, not the easiest song to cover convincingly. But from ’Brand New Cadillac’ onwards – that rockabilly rumble suits them – they had me on their side, unable to resist. I could have done without ‘Koka Kola’ and wouldn’t have been upset if a couple more were missed, but my only real quibble was the lead singer’s need to introduce his guitar sidekick as ‘Mr Mick Jones’ a few times. Why do that? It’s plainly not. He’s a great player in his own right – celebrate that (for the record, credit should go to Reg Shaw as Joe, David Devonald as Mick, Zep Guatieri as Paul, and Shane Tremlin as Topper).
Any name-check for my favourite songs on the night would just echo my favourite tracks on the album, but I also particularly enjoyed their runs through ‘The Right Profile’, ‘Clampdown’ and ‘Guns of Brixton’.
Actually, they do look the part as well as sound the part, but not in a lookalike way thankfully. That would be pointless. ‘Joe’, ‘Mick’ And ‘Paul’ had all the affectations and facial expressions that suggest they’ve done their homework and come at this from a place of love, carving a pure connection with the originals and a respect for their craft. And ‘Topper’ got it just right, putting his energy into just sounding the part, what it should be about.
Incidentally, one of my highlights involved their reaction to an awkward stage invasion on ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’, an amused Reg suggesting the enthusiastic audience member jumping up and joining ‘Mick’ on his mic. might not have supplied the greatest harmony, quipping, ‘There are only five (or so) words in that chorus, and she didn’t seem to know any of them.’
By all accounts they were a hit on the Give ‘Em Enough Rope tour too. Wish I’d seen that. Not sure how they’ll tackle a Sandinista tour, but I recommend they don’t attempt a full-blown 36-track affair. As for a Cut the Crap tour … let’s hope for the lead guitarist and drummer’s sakes they’ve been sacked by then.
In short, I’ll revise my advice and suggest there are some very good covers bands out there, London Calling offering a great service and reminding us – if we need it – how good those songs are, 37 years after the last great Clash record.
And then came Saturday night on the edge of my hometown, the Suburbs at the Holroyd venue having put on several fine nights in recent times, not least hosting Guildford legends The Vapors and fellow Surrey stars The Members (with Eddie and the Hot Rods). And it was nice to see Members’ guitarist/songwriter JC Carroll there, not least as the pub rebrand carries its own respectful nod to his biggest hit – hence me wearing a coveted Members t-shirt.
This was definitely a proper Mod crowd, far better turned out than the previous night, in several cases oozing ‘60s style. After a busy day – also involving a home game at Woking FC – my last-minute arrival meant I barely had time to shake Sha La La’s drummer John Piccirillo’s hand before he worked his way through a packed-in crowd and clambered up to join his bandmates. But while I was stuck near the bar at the back, the atmosphere came over loud and clear.
It’s always great to see John and frontman Darron Robinson (and you’ll find plenty about his band on these pages, starting with this May 2018 feature), and all these years on – several personnel changes down the road – it seems they have things just as they want them. Back in the ‘late ‘80s and early ‘90s (as A Month of Sundays, then Sweet Life and Fools Like Us), there was often underlying tension and a feeling it might just kick off, a relentless push for success – and they deserved it – driving them on. Now they seem to be totally enjoying themselves, adding to the excitement factor from a band where the musicianship was never in question.
Their Jam meets Redskins fire always worked well, distancing them from being Style Council copyists and drifting towards a pop soul market. And in more recent years they’ve added more Dr Feelgood, Otis Redding and Small Faces-like R&B and ’60s spirit to the mix, Darron’s voice and the band’s sound all the more honed. That’s something you earn and need to properly build towards. And they do just that, more recent additions Vere Osborne (bass) and John Lee (keyboards) a perfect fit.
They started as they meant to go on with new single ‘You Got Me (Wantin’)’, never looking back, building on a friendly audience vibe in an 11-song set in which they never slipped from that early benchmark, my highlights including earlier 45s ‘Before I Let You Down Again’ and ‘Soul of the Nation’, plus supreme B-side ‘Hold On’, then finishing in style with a 100mph crowd-pleasing take on Temptations classic ‘Get Ready’, perfectly setting us up for the headline act, Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band.
Yep, ever-sprightly Geno (interviewed on these pages in July 2016, linked here) is now 75 years young but shows little sign of flagging, and despite only really having one hit single to his name in his adopted country, this Indiana-born natural entertainer – a regular on the UK circuit since his days as a USAF serviceman in the early –‘60s – has enough about him to work any audience. When he started out he faced stiff competition, but as the decades have passed his contemporaries have dropped by the wayside while he’s still going strong, a Duracell bunny with soulful attitude.
When Kevin Rowland sang about him in ’79, he was talking about a live inspiration who had perhaps lost his mojo, but four decades later I see no sign of that. If anything, he’s as good today as when I first caught him live in South London in late ’87. And there’s good reason for that, because while there’s no doubting his continued stagecraft, workmanship and star presence, it’s the Ram Jam Band that give him the platform and ensure he’s still a force to be reckoned with.
How many members of that band there have been over the years is anyone’s guess, but the current line-up has got it all going on and could lay claim to being the finest soul band still treading the boards. Think the Cutting Crew, the MG’s and the Famous Flames, and you’re on the right track. At the heart of it all, there’s Steve Bingham (bass), six years Geno’s junior, a rich past including spells with The Foundations and Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, with whom he’s still involved. Add to that the supreme guitar of Greg Lester, the twin tenor sax assault of Nick Blake and Alan Whetton, and drumming colossus Geoff Hemsley, and you get the picture. For on that soulful foundation Geno is truly at home, his repartee and charm hard to resist. He’s funny, he’s a flirt, he’s a blast, and that voice still grabs you.
You don’t have to be a 60s aficionado to know most of the set, and while all bar one song belonged to others, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting this is also a tribute band …and yet I guess they are – a tribute to that Philly sound, Stax, Tamla, and so much more. Steeped in proper soul.
From the band’s ‘Philly Dog’ instrumental opener to Geno’s showtime arrival onwards, they barely drew breath, charging through (among others) ‘Ride Your Pony’, Everything’s Alright (Uptight)’, ‘Roadrunner’, ‘Hold On I’m Coming’, ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose’, ‘Land of 1,000 Dances’, their own ‘Michael the Lover’, ‘Midnight Hour’, ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’, ‘I Feel Good’, ‘Sweet Soul Music’, ‘Knock on Wood’, ‘Everybody Needs Somebody’, ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ … Did I miss some out? Indubitably. That’s not important.
I can’t pretend I was back in ’68 in a sweaty club’, but this did very nicely, with Geno still capable of being our bombers, our dexys, our high, and the Ram Jam Band still offering a mighty lesson in performance to any band cutting their teeth on the live circuit. And long may that live circuit continue to exist and those venues remain. Rant over.
For more about Clash tribute act London Calling, including the remaining dates of their extensive tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of the album of the same name, head to their Facebook page here. For all the latest from The Sha La La’s, including details of new single ‘You Got Me (Wantin’)’, head to this Facebook page, and for more about the wanderings of Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, try here. There’s also a Save Our Star page on Facebook, linked here, and you can find details of The Stranglers’ Back on the Tracks Spring 2019 UK tour right here.
With thanks to esteemed photographer Derek D’Souza for several of the photographs featured. For more examples of his work, head to www.blinkandyoumissit.com.