As Lee Mark Jones delights in telling me, few stage performers manage to get an across-the-board mix of one, two, three, four and five-star reviews for their live shows. But that’s what the critics said at Edinburgh Fringe Festival when this self-proclaimed ‘nearly rock star’ trod the boards last year, A Rock’n’Roll Suicide described as ‘Marmite with crack on it’ and opinions well and truly split.
This in-your-face brutal telling of his life story includes entertaining anecdotes involving Lemmy, Slash, Axl Rose, Blondie, Joey Ramone, Joan Jett and many more scene luminaries, and is by turns glamorous, punky, anarchic and tragic, certainly pulling no punches.
The show was recently rewritten, redeveloped and reworked by Lee alongside award-winning playwright Chris Thorpe, with thanks to Arts Council England funding, and is produced by Lee’s Theatre of the Wild, Beautiful and Damned company, which specialises in chaotic and surreal contemporary theatre and performance, with dramaturgy by Dan Coleman (Dawn State Theatre).
His Still Alive 2020 leg was set to tour the UK from this month, taking in festivals, nightclubs, pubs, social clubs and community centres, but as the Coronavirus pandemic took hold of the UK this week, dates were rescheduled for October. However, Lee is raring to go all the same, with an over-riding notion to ‘take things back to the real grass-roots, to real people who may not have the chance to see live theatre’.
A Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide sees Lee retrace his career journey against a backdrop of videos and scenes from his early life, while belting out songs from his punk, glam and rock career, from the council estates of Kidderminster to Beverley Hills and back. And it’s also the story of a man coming to terms with himself after a late diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), something he feels on reflection has clearly defined his life.
“There is deep soul-searching, self-questioning, recriminations, rage and confusion but also hope and clarity, and understanding unfolds. Triumph over tragedy? You decide!
“I intend to attract a new kind of audience which doesn’t usually go to the theatre; an audience craving strange journeys of darkness, horror, suspense, and wonder. All these thrills we provoke into life, in the flesh, breathing and bleeding on stage, right in your face.”
The afore-mentioned Chris Thorpe said of the man himself, ‘I love Lee, he’s dangerous and doesn’t give a fuck,’ and after 25 minutes on the phone to him, I get that. Born in Worcestershire in 1962, Lee began singing in local punk group Regular Wretches at the age of 15, leading to a wild and crazy career progression involving various bands on the hazy edgeS of the punk, indie, goth and hard rock scene.
He’ll enthusiastically tell you he toured the world with the Ramones, Motorhead, U2, Black Sabbath, and many more, and as lead singer of The Gypsy Pistoleros released multiple albums and played sell-out international tours.
But these days it’s all about his new stage and screen career, and since 2014 his credits have included roles in Selene Kapsaski’s Spidarlings, five films by North Bank Entertainment, a Spaghetti Western TV series currently in pre-production, Miss Harper with Susan George, an ‘epic vampire trilogy’, and Mycho ‘slasher’ movie Pandamonium, which is newly out on DVD and ‘available in Asda and HMV’.
He’s certainly been busy since obtaining his Master’s degree in touring theatre at the University of Worcester, and remains a member of their award-winning Shenanigans theatre company. And what does he make of the reaction to A Rock’n’Roll Suicide so far?
“The reaction in Edinburgh was amazing. This was never made for your elitist theatregoers but loads of them loved it and loads hated it, and you don’t want people walking out saying, ‘Well, that was alright’. It’s the old Malcolm McLaren way – they’ve got to love it or hate it!”
‘Brilliantly shocking rock theatre’ – is that a fair description?
“I’d say so. I got a grant from the Arts Council, due to the reaction in Edinburgh, which meant I could bring Chris Thorpe on board, one of the biggest theatre-makers in Britain now. He honed it a bit but knows he can’t really change what I do. He tried to make it a bit more PC … which has sort of gone out of the window!
“It is what it is, and it’s all true. We’ve hidden a few names now, because at least one doesn’t come out of it very well, All of it happened, but I don’t want to destroy people. And Lemmy comes out of it a legend, which of course he was, so there’s nothing new in that.”
We’ll get on to the late Motorhead frontman, but let’s go back in time a bit first and his first band, Regular Wretches. How good were they?
“Ah mate, we were awful. We had five chords …”
As many as that? That’s not very punk rock.
“Well, we grew up at our Irish club (in Kidderminster), where we were all members, under-age drinking, and all the punk bands came through, and we thought some were fricking awful. So we just got up and did it, and our first gig was supporting Neon Hearts, who were a great band. That was the only place we could get in. We also supported The Damned in Birmingham (at the Odeon), and (drummer) Rat Scabies was cool, inviting us to use his kit. That wouldn’t happen nowadays.”
You only have to see the trailer for Lee’s show to know there was another important figure in his musical awakening, that being David Bowie. In fact, there’s a cardboard cut-out of the Thin White Duke on stage with him each night. I’m guessing Bowie and glam rock was majorly important to you?
“Yeah, I was into The Sweet and even Showaddywaddy! It was rock’n’roll, so at least we were on the right way. I’d hate to be a kid nowadays. I was never a Bowie fan, but I was a Ziggy Stardust fan. That was the one that changed it all for me, that period. I was fascinated by all that. The ultimate rock star that went out at the top. I can’t believe it was only one and a half years, and I know lots of people who were at that final gig when he announced that was the last time. To do that then … what! Imagine the record label’s response.”
The fact that you were so affected by that suggests the theatrical side of rock was always important to you.
“Yeah, I never held with the idea of wanting to look exactly like the audience. I thought audiences wanted escapism, something to take them away from the shit of normal life for an hour or so, give them something different to watch. That’s what I always took from it, which punk did to an extent – dressing and looking different.”
We spoke a little at this point about some of the clubs in the Worcestershire he played in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, with ‘around 250 people crammed into them places’, Lee insisting that’s why he’s now ‘taking theatre back into the rock clubs’.
“They always told me it was great to get 25 people to a show at Edinburgh, but if you were in a band in that situation you’d seriously question what the hell you were doing if that was all you could attract. The great thing about the tour I’m going on now is that most of these places hold 200/300 people. These are the bastions of rock, and that’s where I wrote this show for. I’ve no idea about most of them, The Ferret in Preston is the only one I’ve played before, and even then I got loads of theatre-goers going along.”
That previous work-in-progress style version of the show formed part of the Lancashire Fringe Festival last May, leading to Preston-based promoter Garry Cook getting on board. Meanwhile, Lee was more than happy to have been confirmed for a return to the Edinburgh Fringe.
“The weird thing is that Love/Hate are playing one of the dates, and Jizzy Pearl, who I know from our days supporting LA Guns, when he sang with them, is with them. It’s a small pond.”
And talking of ponds, how did he end up crossing the big one and hanging out in the Hollywood Hills of California?
“I was going out with Jane Dickinson, who was just divorcing Bruce (Dickinson). She was quite a player and set him up, getting him into Iron Maiden from Samson, and was part of Sanctuary. Actually, I tell some stories about all that too. We stayed for three months with Chris Squire, the bass player from Yes, a friend of Jayne, in Beverly Hills.
“There’s also a tale about a fight with (Guns’n’Roses guitarist) Slash at The Rainbow and a story about Axl Rose, but that’ll be in another show, how he called me into a listening pod before the release of the Use Your Illusion album.
“When he called me up, I wondered what I’d done, having only just arrived. But I was soon in a room with Axl, being asked to give my thoughts on that record. I told him it would make one brilliant album (rather than a double). He went berserk, and said, ‘I fucking knew it!’. The only reason he asked me was because he didn’t know me. I was outside of his bubble. He didn’t feel he could trust anyone to tell him the truth. When they become that big …”
The album was eventually released as two separate LPs on the same day in September 1991, going on to sell more than 11 million copies in the US alone within its first 20 years. Ah well. No accounting for taste. Anyway, Lee, where do the Ramones fit into all this?
“We supported them in 1993 on their Spanish tour (for Mondo Bizarro) and signed to their management company, Red Eye, who also managed Blondie and Talking Heads. But we fucked it up … most brilliantly. The guy who wore the gorilla mask and carried the ‘Gabba Gabba Hey!’ sign …”
I’ll miss the next bit out, but it’s fair to say Lee wasn’t a fan of tour manager and ‘fifth Ramone’ Monte A. Melnick.
“We were playing ‘Anarchy in the UK’ live, the Sex Pistols never played Spain, and it was going down amazingly. But he then asked, ‘Can you lose it? I don’t want you playing it tomorrow night.’ So we played ‘Pretty Vacant’ instead, throwing him vees on the stage as we did. He was their manager and was going to be ours …
“We got chucked off the rest of their European tour and the American tour and lost out on a deal with Sire Records. And I really wanted that fricking deal. We recorded an album as well, with John Walls, an engineer who worked on Never Mind the Bollocks. But that was ditched and we couldn’t get it back, because they’d paid for it.”
That was da brudders’ first tour with CJ Ramone on bass/co-lead vocals, replacing departed Dee Dee Ramone, Lee adding, ‘CJ, we loved, he played with us onstage for ‘Anarchy in the UK’.”
At the time, Lee was based in Zaragoza, Spain, with The Last Gang, who online sources suggest released a single in 1987 and an EP three years later. That led to Spanish engagements supporting not only the Ramones, but also Motorhead, Nazareth, The Cramps, UFO, Black Sabbath – with Dio singing – and Sepultura.
It’s rather confusing trying to piece together Lee’s band timeline, but I’ll give it a go, his initial spell in Regular Wretches followed by that singing with new wave/ goth rock outfit Cry of the Innocent (aka The Cry), managed by Chapter 22 label founder Craig Jennings (acts including The Mission, Pop Will Eat Itself, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, The Pastels), their claim to fame including support slots with The Alarm, Big Country, Spear of Destiny, and U2, the latter at Kidderminster Town Hall. Release-wise, there was a 1982 single and the Susan’s Story EP the following year, and Lee tells me their support band, Luv from Eden, included future members of the afore-mentioned Pop will Eat Itself and The Wonder Stuff.
Then came The Ice Babies, a period which included a deal with Sony, after initial success with their Someday Remember EP (more on that shortly) for French label La Stillette Disques. Having listened back in retrospect, I’d say they were somewhere between Killing Joke, U2 and some dodgy soft metal outfit, with lots of hair products involved as per that era. Lee also told me that Adrian Mills from Beggars Banquet drank his pint while offering his band a £15,000 deal in 1983, adding, ‘The Cult took that deal’. And that’s not a spelling mistake.
White Trash Soho were next, more down the thrash/hard rock line, I gather, followed by the Gypsy Pistoleros. That’s not quite the lot though, a further spell in a rebranded White Trash UK – who issued a retrospective ’greatest hits’ record (it says here) in 2010 – before further time served with the Gypsy Pistoleros, their product including 2012’s The Good, The Mad and the Beautiful LP, Lee also releasing solo material under his GP moniker in more recent times. Away from the acting, is he still recording or playing live as Gypsy Lee Pistolero?
“No, I own the name, and release stuff now under that, but after a four-year Master’s in theatre – finished last year – and a few horror films that have gone down really well, there’s this show, which is also going to be filmed this July by Mycho and made into a film. We’re filming in Shell Island in Wales (Mochras, Gwynedd), with Lemmy my spirit guide as I trek through a desert while telling this whole biographical story, all these scenes played out.”
And what do we learn about Lemmy that we perhaps didn’t know already?
“Erm … there was one night after a show, on the tour bus, where he’d just done his interviews and a signing session, had sex with his lovely groupie, as every night, showered, then came in and immediately put on a recording of that night’s show, saying it was his pension plan. He must have had around 8,000 live albums! He then starts polishing his bass (not a euphemism), chops four lines of speed coke and pours two pints of this Fuzzy Navel, basically snakebite with eight shots of Bourbon, Wild Turkey, JD, whatever. He was great. You could chat to him about anything, and I found the real legends were really approachable. The twats were the wannabes and people who think they’re something or think they have to appear or act that way.
“Anyway, I looked back and said, ‘Hey, Lems, is this all it is?’ And he looked straight back and went, ‘What else do you fucking want?’ So in the film I answer that in the end. At that time, we just wanted to be rock stars, and sometimes weren’t even bothered about that. We just wanted to get pissed for free and get free drugs.
“But it runs through the story that I’ve had ADHD and a borderline personality disorder all my life, only finding out a year or so ago.”
Was it important to get that diagnosis, put things into perspective and come to terms with all that?
“Yeah, thinking about some of the stupid things I did for no rhyme or reason, where there was no logic. But I wish I had known – I could have used that rather than it using me on occasions. That’s the regret, I suppose.”
You call this the Still Alive tour. Were there moments where you felt there might not be a tomorrow, with that lifestyle you were living on that scene?
“Oh yeah! There have been times when I’ve woken up and felt that. I woke up in a skip once. No idea how the frick I got there. That was just outside the old Astoria. Gods knows what I was doing.”
Is the show fairly settled now, or are you still changing things each night?
“It sort of changes every night, but it’s all linked to video clips and tracks I sing along to. It’s a real mix, and we finish with ‘Wild is the Wind’, which ties up with the Bowie stuff, because of my big stab at commerciality with The Ice Babies. We had this deal with Sony on the cards and were on the (BBC) Radio 1 rotation airplay list. But then they fricking banned it, due to a line about sex and drugs and meeting the pretty boys. Just one line!”
Hence the term nearly rock star, I guess. Were you happier in retrospect being on the fringes of it all?
“I think if we’d made it and got a big deal, we’d be dead. Two of my first band are dead and a load of other people I know. Those days, you didn’t just pretend … apart from the clever ones like Bon Jovi. The idiots like us wanted to be Motley Crue or the Sex Pistols. That was a complete way of life, and not a healthy one.”
While he talked about his first band knowing five chords, it’s worth mentioning that Lee never played, and still doesn’t, classing himself as ‘just a singer’. Although he did recently have a guitar endorsement.
“That’s with JHS. I just put it on, play a few chords, then admit I can’t actually play. I just pose with it instead. They found out about that, and they’ve sent me a fricking bill. But they sent it to Gypsy Lee Pistolero, and they’re welcome to take him to court – he doesn’t actually exist.”
Finally, your CV also points out that your first acting tuition involved a drunken London weekend masterclass with a certain stage and screen acting legend. Is that right?
“Yes! My gran was Trudie Styler’s godmother, who was born next door to my Dad in Stoke Prior (near Bromsgrove), and when I first went down to London I didn’t have anywhere to stay, and she told me to come around. I did, and she left me with her friend Peter, who I just knew from Lawrence of Arabia. I wasn’t into acting then. He was doing Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, gave me his script and asked if we could go through some lines. I got completely wasted on a bottle of port with Peter O’Toole … which is cool as shit, now I’m into all that! So the first time I ever did lines was with Peter O’Toole.”
I asked him at that point who was the last person he did lines with, and although he did tell me, he added, ‘We won’t go there, ‘cos I fell out with him’, so I’ll leave that out.
”That remained my only acting claim to fame until around the age of 53. But seeing as I was such a fricking success as a rock star …”
Incidentally, Trudie met husband-to-be Sting while at the Old Vic and dating Peter O’Toole, the pair marrying in 1992. But Lee’s not quite finished yet.
“I wanted to be a footballer before that, and got to the heights of playing for Kidderminster Harriers. I was in the reserves at 17, under the lights at Aggborough. I played a few games in the first team and in the FA Cup, but then they disbanded the youth and reserve team, and I was moving to London anyway, so that was that.
“Although I did play for Hendon for a bit. We were wasted on a Friday night though, and I had a few games on Saturdays where I didn’t even know I’d played.”
Lee Mark Jones is set to perform A Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide! from Saturday, August 8th through to Sunday, August 30th at Bannerman’s Rock Venue for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (12.15am onstage), then plays The Ferret in Preston on Thursday, October 1st, rescheduled from March 26th.
That’s followed by appearances at the Waterside Arts Centre, Sale (Friday, October 16th); the Subside Rock Bar, Birmingham (Sunday, October 18th); The Purple Turtle, Reading (Thursday, October 22nd); and Trillian’s Rock Venue, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (Wednesday, October 28th). For more about those dates, any others on his Still Alive tour, and information about his theatre company, try here. You can also follow Lee via Twitter. And for more about Garry Cook’s Enjoy the Show production company, head here.