Cast your mind back three decades or so. My diaries suggest I saw 148 gigs in the last three years of the 1980s, so inevitably recollections of some are cloudy. But many stick in the memory, not least those documented in print as head honcho of Captains Log fanzine, a few involving one of my live obsessions of that era, the mighty BOB.
I use the term ‘mighty’ with a wry smile. If they’d crossed over, getting the commercial success I felt they deserved, I’d have been pleased for them but possibly then sidled off and left them to it … job done. But they were mighty alright, in the way just a small handful of somewhat underground, indie-pop outfits resonated with this perennial just turned 20-something.
It was John Peel who brought them to my attention. Listening back now to the first session this North London collective recorded for his show at Maida Vale, broadcast on January 7th, 1988, I more or less know every note, to the point that the final recorded versions of three of those songs were never quite the same. But listening again this last couple of weeks I’m appreciating them all the more.
The BOB story proper started in 1985, Simon Armstrong (vocals, guitar) and Richard Blackborow (vocals, guitar, keyboards) recording and writing at home, Jem Morris (bass) joining the following year, their first release arriving soon after, a three-track flexi-disc single released on their House of Teeth label, tracks including ‘Brian Wilson’s Bed’. And then came a real break, bumping into Peel in the Rough Trade record shop, the legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ going on to play it several times.
Gary Connors joined on drums in 1987 and they made the ‘What a Performance’ single for Sombrero Records, that indie label’s link to the Cool Trout Basement, Great Portland Place, London W1, leading to regular gigs there, with a few more around the capital and on Jem’s old patch in South Wales.
That first of three Peel sessions followed, the band given just a couple of days’ notice after another pulled out. A further BBC session was broadcast for Simon Mayo in early March, with second single, ‘Kirsty’ next, those singles and the early flexi then collected for Sombrero’s Swag Sack compilation.
I guess that’s where I came in – along with fellow Guildfordian Alan and Windsor-based Steve taking in our first of seven BOB gigs, at Windsor’s Community Arts Centre in late April, supported by the wonderfully-named Nine Steps to Ugly. By then Dean Leggett, originally from Redruth, Cornwall, was the drummer, previously serving with BOB’s Sombrero bandmates The Siddeleys and The Pink Label’s Jamie Wednesday, the London outfit led by ‘Jim Bob’ Morrison before he formed Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine with Leslie ‘Fruitbat’ Carter.
Another cracking Peel session followed in early February 1989, and I saw them in Windsor again the following month, by which time it must have struck me just how prolific they were, so many great new songs in the set. That time they were at the Old Trout, River Street, one of my favourite venues of that or any other era, now long gone, an appreciation group on Facebook reminding us it was ‘heartlessly destroyed and turned into a Furkin monstrosity’.
BOB were great that night, as they were when they returned a fortnight before Christmas ’89, us by then with two more gigs under our belt, one on my patch at the University of Surrey, the other on theirs at the Town & Country 2, Highbury Corner, London N5 (now home to The Garage, where I saw the reformed Undertones in the early 2000s).
In his notes on the Leave the Straight Life Behind reissue, Simon writes, ‘Dean’s telephone skills and formidable address book meant that tours of venues all around the country, now mostly long gone, were now possible every couple of months. Over the next few years BOB played hundreds of dates, improving most of the time; and on a good night, a good night was had by all. On a bad night, there was always tomorrow; most likely a long way away. These tours were always shoestring affairs, made possible only by the kindness of strangers (and promoters) when it came to accommodation.’
Those gigs helped pay for studio time too, releases by then solely via House of Teeth, their demos mostly recorded DIY style in a converted studio in the attic of Richard’s brother’s place in Banwell, Weston-Super-Mare, ‘sleeping all day and recording all night’.
A third and final Peel session proved to be another cracker, broadcast in early September ’89, with Jem soon away, replaced by Stephen ‘Henry’ Hersom, previously with The Caretaker Race. But Jem was still involved when I caught them back at the Old Trout in mid-December, writing a review that night for my fanzine, the semi-legendary fourth edition that would have included interviews with BOB, The Beautiful South and The Chesterfields among others, but somehow never saw the cold light of print. One missed deadline led to another, financial and work pressures for me and my designer playing a part, instead putting my energies into my world travels, disappearing from the scene for around nine months.
I’ve still got the interview (that will follow online as soon as I get time) and my ‘in not more than 250 words’ review from that December night follows. In hindsight I wouldn’t have been so harsh about their most recent single. I think it just seemed an unlikely choice after their previous release, the mighty ‘Convenience’. But this is what I wrote.
“After the lacklustre ‘Esmerelda Brooklyn’ single, this band had to perk up our often wild interest in them and they couldn’t have any better than they did in their signing off the decade gig tonight; all complacency ridden off with a stormer in which Simon (guitar, vocals) warded off flu and fatigue with the help of a hankie strewn from the mic. stand and plenty of guitar pedals (early Christmas presents?).
“Tonight was a far cry from the early ‘Backbone’ days, the crowd might have been pretty sparse but only really meant more dance space for those of us who hadn’t yet gone down with the flu. Simon fought through everything from nasal congestion to sore throat for songs ranging from ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ to ‘I’m a Believer’, snatches of ‘Eye Know’ and ‘Stand Down Margaret’ thrown in for good measure, all in all a positively rocked-out yet funky set-up.
“But none of their songs tonight surpassed the charge of ‘Convenience’ and their show-topping cover of The Beatles’ ‘Rain’, giving it all the hallmarks of a being a BOB classic, with Richard and Simon’s harmonies and Jem’s mega-loud plodding bass. Nothing else could please us more than BOB becoming synonymous with the ’90s, the first step of which would be their getting to grips with the studio in the same way as they did with ‘Convenience’. Stroll on!”
Funny I should end it like that, seeing as the next release, the first with Henry, was the ‘Stride Up’ EP, released that next year. I should add though that five months prior to that festive Old Trout show I met my better half on a Turkish holiday and was soon spending alternate weekends up in Lancashire. Something had to give, dropping a few of my many nights out in and around London catching live music and writing about it. And within a year I was off to Thailand and beyond, at a time when BOB were on the brink of a breakthrough that sadly never truly came to fruition.
I saw them live just once more, with Alan, my fanzine designer Malcolm Smith and his pal Jimmy at Reading’s After Dark Club in mid-July ’91. When I mentioned that gig to Dean, I said I couldn’t remember a lot about it. But I’ve since looked at my diary, and while it makes for just a few lines, it’s worth adding.
“A classic evening in a West Indian club with shitty support bands, a manager who banned us taking glasses into the corridor, no BOB until 12.30am and only then after five Bobbies were in and out with two locals and a blood-caked train driver. Bob weren’t on top form but probably because they’d have rather played at 10 and with a better sound system. Rattleback and Colour Mourning were appalling. Home at 3. A good night in a strange sort of way.”
A bit harsh on the support acts, but blame that on my 23-year-old self. Interestingly, by that point they’d recorded the album, and there was another single that year, ‘Tired’. And the following year, Backs Records of Norwich put out final single, Nothing for Something’. However, in Simon’s words, ‘nobody seemed to notice’. The story almost over, the original duo soon resorting to home-demoing on an ailing eight-track machine, back where they started.
But wait up … fast forward 28 years, and I’m back in touch with Dean, calling him in Aberdeen before a gig at The Tunnels, the first of four nights with One Eyed Wayne supporting WriteWyattUK favourites The Wedding Present (with Glasgow, Newcastle and Birmingham shows to follow) on their Bizarro 30th anniversary tour.
I started by pointing out that I saw two shows on the original Bizarro tour, around the time I saw my fifth and sixth BOB shows at the tail end of 1989. But while The Wedding Present were on a roll, cementing their position among indie royalty, BOB’s own crossover appeal was destined never to be properly realised.
That was the year I got to interview Dean, Simon, Richard and Jem for my fanzine in Highbury Corner, on a night when Hull outfit The Penny Candles were on the bill and ex-Housemartins drummer Hugh Whittaker pointed his cartoon likeness out on a ‘There is Always Something There to Remind Me’ t-shirt I happened to be wearing backstage. And as Dean reminded me, BOB were managed by Paul Thompson, who previously looked after The Housemartins and went on to direct The Beautiful South’s operation.
“We did actually go to The Beautiful South’s first gig at the T&C2, around that time, then went to an after-party somewhere near Camden, where there was a bit of trouble. Ha! We didn’t think they were very good.”
As previously recalled on these pages in a 2014 interview with Dave Hemingway, I too saw a very early Beautiful South show at Aldershot’s Buzz Club, interviewing them before. They liked a bit of chaos, I suggested to Dean, and it was almost as if they were trying a bit too hard to be edgy at the time.
“Yeah. I liked Paul, and really got on with him, but the rest of The Beautiful South at that time, at this after-party, were quite full of themselves. I think their first single had charted by then … and y’know … things went on. We didn’t really get on with them very well, which was unusual for us really.”
Come on then, spill the beans. What happened?
“Well … me and their drummer had a bit of a set-to. Not a fight. But it was alright in the end … no harm done.”
When I saw you back at The Old Trout in Windsor in December ‘89, I was convinced you were on the way to the next level, success-wise. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and I only saw you once more, a few weeks after returning from my world travels, at Reading’s After Dark Club.
“Ah, yeah. We stayed the night with a good friend of the band who was the accounts guy for Rough Trade. A lovely chap. He had this cupboard of Rough Trade records, test pressings and all sorts, and gave me a copy of The Smiths’ ‘Reel Around the Fountain’, with ‘Gene’ on the B-side, which never got released and is now the most expensive Smiths record you can buy. Somebody offered me 2,000 Euros for it a couple of weeks ago, but I refused. It’s such a nice memory, I thought I’d hang on to it.”
But it turns out that Reading date wasn’t my final BOB gig after all. Because now they’re back for what’s been billed as one final tour, the band gearing up for rehearsals in the Far West of Cornwall when I called, Richard having moved there some time ago and based not far from Land’s End. Actually, I popped in to see him at the art gallery he helps run in St Ives two summers ago, at which point he was working on archiving various BOB recordings.
Looking at my interview from 1988 (I’ll get that published on here at some stage soon) – conducted after an earlier failed attempt at the nearby Ferret & Firkin (or some such North London boozer, a local muso opening his set and drowning us out) backstage at the T&C 2, until we were drowned out for a second time by main support The Unbelievers – I see hints were dropped about EMI Records interest at the time.
“Yes, and Richard recently rediscovered the demos we did for them. Around 1991/2 we did a couple of big UK and European tours and were writing lots. We’d written the third album – I say that, but the second in reality, as Swagsack was a compilation – but when Rough Trade collapsed, with our Leave the Straight Life Behind album with them, we were looking for something else.
“Someone from EMI talked to Paul Thompson, wanting to do something, wanting to work out what sort of deal they could offer us. We were all very excited about that, but it fell through. He had three projects on the go – Duran Duran, Radiohead and ourselves, with us and Radiohead at the same level, about to be taken on in progression-type deals.
“But Duran Duran were spending (I think he actually said ‘spunking’, but it was a dodgy line) loads of cash on their comeback album and he was told by the execs he was spending too much money and couldn’t sign both bands. Presumably there was a toss-up between us and Radiohead …”
And the rest is history.
“Well yeah, but he was only there for another two months, so obviously wasn’t happy that his ideas had been taken away from him. And he was about 50 at the time, so wasn’t a young A&R man. He was one of the old school. But now we’ve found the tapes, they’ve all been remastered digitally, and Richard’s mixing those – around three or four tracks – plus a bunch of others recorded in Harlow at The Square club, recorded live straight through to the desk in a room at the back, and now remixed.
“They’re live but with some overdubs, so we’re looking at 12 properly-recorded brand new songs no one’s heard on the vinyl version of the album, and there will a double-CD as well, featuring that album and loads of unreleased demos and other songs we were working on that never got further. Actually, there’s nearly 200 tracks, believe it or not, in various forms, that never came out, and we’ve whittled them down to around 50.”
I don’t doubt that at all from such a prolific outfit, and strongly recommend the two double-CD packages BOB have released via 3 Loop Music (distributed by Cherry Red Records), a Leave the Straight Life Behind reissue from 2014 with four extra tracks and a 20-song The Complete BBC Sessions included, and from the following year The Singles and EPs two-disc compilation, Richard and Simon providing exhaustive notes for both.
I think I appreciate the Leave the Straight Life Behind album – recorded in March 1991 and released via their own House of Teeth imprint later that year – a lot more these days. There’s some belting tracks there, across both retrospective packages. At the time, I wasn’t sure they’d fulfilled the potential I saw in them live or heard on those Peel sessions. But that sounds harsh in retrospect. Putting this feature together, I’ve re-immersed myself in those packages, and could write loads of glowing copy about so many of those songs.
“We were good live – there’s no question of that. I think with studio albums, the edge can go off a bit. I think this album feels live though. It’s got the energy, having just plugged in and played the songs after coming off that tour, a few of which were aired on those dates.”
When we spoke, there were around 140 copies left (after barely a fortnight of sales from an initial batch of 800) of an eye-catching 7” vinyl single of BOB’s big indie hit ‘Convenience’ (No. 31 in John Peel’s 1989 Festive Fifty) re-pressed in red, amber and green and re-released by the Optic Nerve label. Those are sure to have gone by the time you’re reading this, but by all means check via the band’s Facebook page (linked below).
And as well as that and the new LP, with the working title Another Motorway, Another Crow, which follows next February, there’s this forthcoming six-date tour, taking in Birmingham, Hull, Leeds, Stowmarket, London and Hamburg, although I understand it was initially set to involve just one night in London.
“Erm … yes! Grant (Holby), the promoter who runs Mute Elephant, had been asking a few years if we’d do a gig, but we declined as we’re all busy with other things. So when Optic Nerve said they’d press the single reissue for their next series, we said OK, and why don’t we do a gig to help push that? We were quite reluctant to play the 100 Club, as it’s quite big, worried if anyone would come or even care. But clearly they do, and it will sell out (it has now) with a few weeks to go.
“We then decided to do a warm-up gig and Simon suggested we do a few, so I put out a few feelers and a few people came back, said, ‘Yes, please!’ And there we go – it’s like a mini-tour!”
Initially disappointed there were no North West dates, I splashed out on a ticket for Leeds’ Wharf Chambers instead. But it turns out that the demand has seen the band contemplate future dates now, Dean – who also mentioned a possible warm-up in a Cornish pub or somewhere in the Midlands – confirming, ‘It’s not necessarily the end,’ even if they are all busy doing their own thing.
“Richard has two young kids, as have I. Simon plays a lot around Walthamstow and with a couple of bands, and I’ve got my band now, going well, Optic Nerve putting out a 7” single in February – two new tracks – then our third album in May, our most commercial and ‘guitary’ so far.”
That’s the three long-serving members, but you had Jem on bass when I interviewed you in ‘89, and then there was Stephen, aka Henry.
“Yes, Henry was also in The Caretaker Race and stayed with us until the end. But we couldn’t find him – we tried, but I got the impression he’d stopped playing anyway.”
Accordingly, Arthur Tapp (‘Arthurman’, according to Dean) from Birmingham features on bass for these shows, having put the band on back in the ‘80s a few times, a big fan who plays guitar too and played a couple of BOB gigs in 2014. And this run of dates includes Stowmarket’s John Peel Centre, of huge relevance to the band.
“It is important, and they actually rang and asked if we’d go there. That was great, we’ve never been before, and after the sessions we did for John and the fact that his wife, Sheila, will be there, that will be great.”
And it seems that BOB are going full circle, putting out a flexi-disc for this final tour, apt considering it was interest in their initial flexi that got them up and running, thanks to Peel’s interest.
“Yes, we’re doing a blue flexi-disc in a special cardboard sleeve that you can only get at the gigs, with the little girl logo from the early Sombrero releases, including a previously-unreleased track , ‘The Queen of Sheba’, which we’ll also be playing live.
“There will of course be the album after, but it’ll be something for the people at the gigs to get their hands on. And there will be four new t-shirts with the classic BOB logo, in red, blue, green and vintage white, as well as posters and enamel BOB logo badges.”
Here endeth the sales pitch, but not the full BOB story. Time is clearly ripe to snap up that back-catalogue then feast on the new releases, catch a show, and stroll on.
BOB’s November 2019 dates: The Flapper, Birmingham, with The Proctors – Saturday 23rd; The New Adelphi Club, Kingston-upon-Hull, with My Life Story – Sunday 24th; Wharf Chambers, Leeds – Tuesday 26th; John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, Stowmarket – Wednesday 27th; 100 Club, London, with The Popinjays – Thursday 28th; Astra Stube, Hamburg, with Red Letter Day – Friday 29th. For more information and to keep up to date on everything BOB, head to their Facebook page, or check them out via Twitter.