At the end of September, late ‘80s/early ‘90s indie force and WriteWyattUK favourites BOB are finally releasing You Can Stop That For A Start, their long-playing follow-up to 1991’s Leave the Straight Life Behind.
The … erm … old new album, initially written and recorded in 1992, is accompanied by a selection of demo recordings from 1988/1994 on a 28-track release issued by Optic Nerve Recordings, arguably capturing the band at their peak.
Available in various formats, the songs were recently mixed by Simon Armstrong (vocals, guitar) and Richard Blackborow (vocals, guitar, keyboard), packaged in artwork conceived by the band, accompanied by period images and new sleeve notes.
Why the mega-delay? Well, in short, BOB were victims of the demise of Rough Trade’s distribution arm back in the day, limiting sales of their first LP and forcing them to tour for an extended period to recoup costs.
Disillusionment followed with the business side of the music industry, and despite having produced a large body of unreleased work, they disbanded early in 1995, with BritPop at its peak.
But by the time Richard moved away from the band’s old North London manor in 2002 for a fresh start in the West Country, he was determined to at least properly archive hundreds of demos the band recorded in their decade together, and one thing led to another.
The first fruits of that were seen in February 2014, cracking first LP, Leave the Straight Life Behind, re-released by indie label 3 Loop Music in a 2CD expanded edition featuring the remastered album plus a bonus CD of extra tracks – among them BBC sessions, three for legendary broadcaster John Peel.
Then in 2015 came follow-up collection The Singles and EPs, released by 3 Loop Music as a 2CD compilation of remastered tracks, featuring their Swag Sack collection and further Sombrero and House of Teeth releases.
On the back of those and renewed interest, they put on a week-long farewell tour last November, starting at Birmingham’s The Flapper then Hull’s New Adelphi before I caught them across the Pennines from my Lancashire base at Leeds’ Wharf Chambers (with my review here), then fittingly to Stowmarket’s John Peel Centre for Creative Arts before a London send-off at the 100 Club and a finale overseas at Hamburg’s Astra Stube.
Those dates featured a 21st century version of the outfit – Simon, Richard and fellow long-server (and previous WriteWyattUK interviewee) Dean Leggett (drums) joined by Arthur Tapp (bass), the band also releasing a limited-edition 30th anniversary 7” of indie hit, ‘Convenience’ on Optic Nerve, reaching No.18 on the UK vinyl chart this time. And now comes this follow-up LP.
You Can Stop That For A Start was initially recorded over five days, ‘as the hectic touring schedule that had kept us financially viable began to tail off’. As they put it, “What funds we could glean from occasional publishing deals were spent on studio time, in the hope of creating work that would eventually attract more substantial financial investment. As this never materialised, the songs have largely remained unheard since. But the hundreds of hours of stage time our many tours had given us by that point left us in peak form, and this clearly comes across on the recordings.
“Discovering more recently the multi-track tapes were beginning to deteriorate, we arranged for them to be baked and transferred to the digital realm, allowing for a slow process of giving the songs the final mix that studio time never allowed for, taking care to remain faithful to the original intention but leaving them sounding better than ever.”
To celebrate the release, I tracked down Richard to his clifftop base near Sennen in the Far West of Cornwall, home to him, his partner and their two young children. My love for that part of the world set us off talking about his surrounds and nearby St Ives, where my family’s links go back more than a century, inevitable talk of the pandemic, lockdowns and staycations following, not least bang in the middle of holiday season.
“I’m slightly overwhelmed by the amount of people who arrived recently. We were expecting torrents, and it didn’t actually kick in at first, but after that the floodgates have totally opened. In St Ives you’d think nothing had happened – they’re 10 abreast on the tiny cobbled streets, no one wearing masks, all jostling each other. It’s slightly horrifying. I’m staying well away.”
Richard works at the Belgrave art gallery in the resort, a modern/contemporary art specialist, the initial lockdown allowing him and partner Sarah an unexpected bonus of plenty of time with their children, Flora and Felix.
“They’re only two and six, but it’s amazing how much they’ve blossomed, being in each other’s company all this time, rather than one being at school and the other with a child-minder. My two-year-old’s language has improved massively. There have been fortunate upsides. We know how lucky we are to live where we do, and more or less spent the first six weeks of lockdown on the beach.”
I know that area well, and I’m jealous. Idyllic … on a good day.
“It’s extreme. You wouldn’t want to be here when there’s horizontal rain piling in off the Atlantic. It can be pretty hideous, but it’s so extreme I don’t mind, especially after London, when it was grey, unremittingly dull, and life was more of a grind.”
Of his move west, Richard told me, “I was about 35 and had been thinking about getting out of London. After the band finished I went to university, deciding my brain needed to be energised, doing a degree in philosophy. I was doing a job in a pub and deli to pay my way through college. I stayed on at the deli, working with really nice people and having the chance to eat good food and fine wine.
“That was in Highbury, serving people like Boris Johnson, a regular customer. If I knew then what I know now … But there was also Paul Whitehouse and many more, and it was a nice spot. I did that for a while, but was just earning to pay rent. Then I met a girl down here to do a painting course. I came to visit, and didn’t leave really. And while that relationship didn’t last, the relationship with Cornwall did.”
He’s not the first member of BOB to have that relationship with Cornwall, London-based bandmate Dean originally from around Redruth.
“I didn’t really discover Cornwall until I met Dean. A couple of years before, I had a girlfriend from Devon, and her favourite beach was down here, Porthcurno, quite close to where I am now. I had a two-week holiday with her, came down in a Morris Minor, then met Dean, and was down a couple of times with him. That sowed the seed, and when I was thinking of leaving London, it was always going to be Bristol if I was to stay in a city, or Cornwall.”
While Richard met his beloved, Sarah, in Cornwall, they both hail from Enfield, attending the same school – four years apart – the pair in a band for around six months before they realised. Meanwhile, Richard met BOB co-founder Simon Armstrong at that same school.
“There were six houses in our school year, those houses split into groups of three, so I only really saw him around the corridors, but we had a field centre for day-trips in Wales and though I don’t think we talked, we kind of acknowledged each other. When I passed him in a corridor we saluted each other, partly because he had the nickname, Sergeant. It was only as we approached fifth form that I heard he was a guitar player, playing with a friend.
“I also had a friend I was making music with, and by the end of the fifth form we’d made a demo with this friend, playing it on a tape player in the sixth-form common room, quite proud of it. We sent a message to Simon and his mate to come and listen, they liked it, and we got together to form a four-piece band for those sixth-form years, playing the school, church halls and parties, around half a dozen to eight gigs.”
That first outfit were Monday After All, which he acknowledges ‘wasn’t the best name in the world’. After sixth form, all bar Simon applied for university, deferring places for a year, ‘spending that year to try and ‘make it’. We didn’t, but played venues like the Rock Garden and the Sir George Robey. That was in 1984.’
That takes me back to my own visits to the Robey, Finsbury Park, in 1985/86, for That Petrol Emotion in their early days. And Richard told me he was there too for fellow Peel favourites like cult London-Irish outfit Microdisney and Birmingham’s Terry & Gerry, with BOB by then honing their own line-up.
“It became clear that me and Simon were clearly much more into it than the other two, and come the end of that year those two got their college places and went. Simon wrote most of the material at the time, and I was the drummer in the original school band, but always interested in writing songs, singing from the drum stool, a la Philip Collins … but I wasn’t very good at either!
“Towards the end of that year, I said, ‘I’ve written some songs, but they’re a bit flowery. I was primarily, aesthetically informed by punk rock, but had an older brother who was much more into a more muso scene, my songs kind of complicated in a Microdisney and Prefab Sprout kind of way, while Simon’s were more direct – more Billy Bragg, I guess.
“I suggested we got together to write songs, thinking his simplicity with words and my chords might make an interesting combination.”
You’ve always tended towards that perfect blend – either with you backing on his songs or vice versa, the harmonies sounding very natural. Was that there from the start?
“We were very lucky my brother had a little eight-track studio in his attic in Banwell, a village around 10 miles outside Bristol. A rural cottage, much more than I could have afforded. He had a good job. Simon wrote songs, I wrote songs, then we went down together to see what would happen, coming away from that first few days with seven or eight songs recorded together, the spark immediately ignited.
“I added keyboard to his songs, he added harmonies to mine, and vice versa, a proper collaboration, chucking in the odd line or idea, the seed totally sown in that period from around 1985 onwards.”
It was 1988 before I caught up with BOB, with two shows five months apart at Windsor’s Community Arts Centre, initially impressed by hearing them on John Peel’s influential BBC Radio 1 show. By then, Dean Leggett had joined, previously with Jim Bob Morrison and Les Carter in pre-Carter USM outfit Jamie Wednesday.
“I poached him from The Siddeleys. A very smart move – we had a perfectly adequate drummer, but when I met Dean socially, we just clicked, and felt he’d be really good for the band.”
The Siddeleys? There’s a Peel favourite I’d forgotten about. I reckon I saw them somewhere, but my gig-list doesn’t confirm that. Anyway, by the time I saw BOB again in March ‘89, also in Windsor but this time at splendid River Thames venue The Old Trout, I was … erm, hooked.
So, is Richard a believer in fate? I mean, becoming mates with Simon after that earlier saluting malarkey, then the initial Banwell link with the West Country and later passion for Cornwall, getting to know Dean and in time heading about as far west as you could, give or take America. It was meant to happen, wasn’t it?
“That’s right, it seems that way. And we set this precedent of – every time we had a bunch of songs – we’d go down to Banwell and record them. That’s what we did right until the last year of the band. That’s why I had this archive of 250-plus recordings – around 200 definitely, around 150 unique songs, covers or things we did twice, sometimes just a drum machine demo with me and Simon, then again with the band. But the extent to which we (initially) collaborated on songs peaked in around 1985. After that, it was entirely separate songs. But we always collaborated at the demo stage.”
It seems pertinent he earlier mentioned his Highbury days, seeing as that’s where I interviewed BOB for my Captains Log fanzine on May 1989, for a fifth edition that never quite reached the presses … despite carrying interviews with BOB, The Beautiful South (an exclusive when it happened) and The Chesterfields, among others. The gig in question was at The Garage, Highbury Corner, then known as the T&C2, supports that night including Hugh Whitaker’s post-Housemartins outfit, The Penny Candles.
Discussion followed around other BOB gigs I experienced, recalling how good I felt they were by the time of December 1989’s Old Trout, return, my favourite show, 30 years give or less a fortnight before their 100 Club UK farewell, including a stonking version of The Beatles’ ‘Rain’.
“We really enjoyed playing that. Personally, I don’t think we nailed it on the record, but did a good version live. But when we were rehearsing for that last tour, it didn’t even cross our minds to do that … although a few people afterwards said we should have.”
Myself included. There was one more BOB gig for me between December ’89 and November ’19, at Reading’s After Dark Club in July ‘91, by which time Jem Morris had left and Stephen ‘Harry’ Hersom, previously with Andy Strickland’s post-Loft outfit The Caretaker Race, had taken over on bass.
“Was that quite a small venue? And really hot?”
Sounds about right. It was a bit rough, and you came on well after midnight (the gory details are in my previous Dean Leggett interview).
“If it’s the same one, I remember a set of scales in the changing room. I weighed myself, then we went on, and I’ve never sweated so much in my life. I got back off and I’d lost about half a stone! That’s my only memory of Reading.”
Funnily enough, I recall Wharf Chambers being a hot night too, although it was late November. Must just be that small venue feel. What’s more, it’s something we’re unlikely to experience for some time in any COVID-19 world. You were out there at the right time.
“You’re right. We sneaked in, really. And thanks, I appreciate your support over the years!”
I enjoyed the ’88 appearances, but it was in 1989 I really felt you hit a new level. You were so good. Maybe I just didn’t get it before …
“No, I think that’s probably about right. We did enough touring in 1989 to become tight as players, but I’ve a few bits of live footage, recently unearthed, and I’m struck by how surly I am! I think I was just jaded by that point.”
Funny you should say that. I wrote in my Leeds review that the difference between you in late 2019 and back in late 1989, was, ‘Where I seem to recall back then they were more about indie cool and occasional surliness on stage, the passage of time has swept aside any perceived pretence’.
“Yeah – you’re absolutely right. We didn’t start like that. We were very friendly and chatty on stage. I think by 1991 we’d stopped being nice, after the album came out. At least I stopped being nice! Touring became less fun, more of a grind. Because of the Rough Trade thing, we were basically forced to tour. We did a UK tour, we did Europe, a tour of Germany, and would normally have stopped at that point, but came back again, did another UK tour then went back to Europe, which was stupid. But we had to do it – we had to earn money to pay back the money borrowed to do the record. That’s what killed the band really. In hindsight, we weren’t doing it for the right reasons.”
That said, I really must unearth the 1989 interview that never made it out there. There’s plenty of humour there … and precious little surliness.
“Yeah, the humour just became darker, from years of grinding it out in the Transit van. It’s just that we wanted to take that next step to better venues and being taken a bit more seriously. But we just got stuck on this plateau, going around the same venues. “
If that had happened, and you’d become huge, I’d have wished you well but would have made sure I let people know I was at the earlier gigs and you were much better then.
Two listens into the ‘lost’ (or ‘refound’) LP, I get the impression this was anything but a band running out of ideas or coming to the end of their time together. You were on top form. I feel aggrieved on your behalf. It’s sad, in a sense, that this never saw the light of day, initially. It deserved so much more.
“Yeah, I agree. We felt a bit like that when we heard it again. It was recorded around the autumn of 1992, a year after the first album. We didn’t have a deal, but had a publishing company interested in working with us, who gave us a small amount of money to go and record what we thought were possible singles, then knock out demos.
“Those recordings were just left on the shelf. For years I wanted to put the BOB archives in order. When I first moved here in 2002 I vowed to set up a studio and mix it all, not for any other reason than to get it all out of my system, put it to bed so I could move on, musically. So if I got run over by a bus, people would know what we did. But that never quite happened, and I had to find a job, never quite getting around to doing it.”
I think he means arranging an archive there, rather than being hit by a bus> Same applies, mind.
“A few years passed before I realised the tapes we recorded on, stored in a barn in Cornwall, were deteriorating fast. I told the rest of the band I needed to do this now, we got some money between us to do that, turning them to digital (format) three or four years ago.
“Then, when Flora was around three, with a little more time, I started mixing the material, Simon and I between us doing a solid year of mixing. Over that year we probably did 100 songs. Then Felix was born, I stopped again for another year or two, and then last year we had another push, managed around 50 more songs.
“We had two over-riding principles – that we were going to listen to everything before we decided what to release, and also that we wouldn’t change anything and wouldn’t be tempted to overdub or replace anything.”
The Beatles lasted around a decade, as you did too, but I reckon on the strength of this album, there were at least a couple more great records to follow, possibly more.
“Yeah, we didn’t realise at the time, but back then we’d reached the end of our tether with it all and stopped. Then BritPop happened, something at the time neither me nor Simon liked. It instinctively annoyed me. it was too laddish. I was more interested in the trip-hop thing going on around then. Retrospectively, I reckon if we’d stuck it out a little longer, we’d have been in a prime position to be part of that.”
“Well, anyway, we didn’t, and it’s kind of okay – it doesn’t bother any of us. We all went off and did other things. And it’s been nice – coming back to it now. In a way, it’s better to come back to it, when it doesn’t matter anymore.
“And having done around 150 of our eight-track demos, we started to realise now was the time to start putting things out if we were going to do it. I realised then what we hadn’t done was mix the stuff we recorded in those two studios at the time, so mixed those last year, and immediately thought that batch of songs would potentially have been an album.
“Of those, ’Say You’re Alone’, ‘Telepathy’ and ‘Queen of Sheba’ were the ones we recorded in the studio in Bristol as potential singles. The rest were recorded in Harlow, basically live, halfway through a tour, and we did the whole lot in two days, recording all the backing tracks live then overdubbing the vocals.
“We then walked away with a cassette, a rough mix done in around an hour. That’s what they would have hawked around if that had happened. But now we’ve taken a bit more time about it, spending probably half a day on each mix rather than doing them all in two hours.”
A good point to get on to the album, starting with opening track, ‘Telepathy’, which starts with the lines, ‘They say that deprivation is good for the soul; Well, I’m keeping an open mind, I’m keeping my mouth shut.’ Looking up a dictionary definition of deprivation, I got ‘an act or instance of withholding or taking something away from someone or something’. That’s quite apt considering the major delay in hearing this record, isn’t it?
“Ha! Pretty much, yeah. I hadn’t thought of that, but it had the right vibe, that song.”
Definitely, and it carries that vibe you had the last couple of times I saw you live before the split. I could say something similar about track two, ‘Say You’re Alone’, a track so much about where I was at in 1992, musically. And ‘Now’, which carries the air of later Monkees or a ‘60s US West Coast feel.
“Definitely. Simon and I almost saturated ourselves in ‘60s British pop and West Coast American pop. If the name began with B – The Beatles, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Beach Boys … – we were total nutters for it.”
Jumping ahead to final track, ‘Don’t Kid’, there’s a similar feel there – it’s a thing of beauty, and I hear something of where Damian O’Neill was at in places on his recent solo album. And funnily enough, seeing as you mentioned Microdisney earlier, Sean O’Hagan plays on that LP. So maybe there’s something in that.
“Well, Simon was a big High Llamas fan as well, around that time.”
That song goes somewhere else in the last couple of minutes, more Peter Green type late-‘60s blues territory maybe.
“It does, doesn’t it! There was always that about Simon. In all the demo sessions we did in Banwell, we generally did seven or eight each time, and you could guarantee four or five would be pretty solid, right in the BOB ballpark – three-minute songs with harmonies and stuff – while one would be a cover, sometimes just to get warmed up, and the others would tend to be quite unorthodox.
“We’d push ourselves to do something different, with some real esoteric numbers, like ‘Sink’ (on The Singles and EPs double-CD set) and ‘The Belly’ (on Leave the Straight Life Behind). They weren’t standard BOB songs. There were also songs like ‘Bloodline’ that we did at Banwell and for a Peel session, which weren’t very BOB, but we did just to ring the changes, maybe.”
I embraced all that, and on ‘That’s What Tomorrow Brings’, seeing as you mentioned a ‘60s obsession, there’s some nice Beatles-like bass, but also a Pixies feel perhaps.
“Well, all those things were going in, definitely.”
It’s difficult to get into the mindset of what was current when you recorded these songs, but this was a record ahead of the curve. ‘Round’ could pass for an Oasis song, two years before Definitely Maybe. There’s also Wedding Present-like Seamonsters-era bass there.
“Simon certainly liked the pre-grunge US feel of J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. at the time, and Teenage Fanclub.”
Speaking of which. ‘Plastic’ for me is perhaps where I hoped Haircut 100 might have headed next, with Simon’s voice Nick Heyward-esque but the band playing with Teenage Fanclub-like urgency.
“I think he’d quite like that as a reference!”
Then there’s that huge heavy riff thundering through ‘Sundown’. I may have upset Dean when I told him it’s a good job I’d been growing my hair over the lockdown when I first heard that headbanger. He seemed offended, telling me, ‘If Liam Gallagher put that track out today, people would say he was a genius. A very clever idea by Simon – one riff, six minutes’. Another BOB curveball?
“It is. It’s great. I don’t know where that came from. He tended to play me a song, I’d listen then chuck in what I thought might add to it, and vice versa. But when he first played me that … Christ, okay! Let’s do it.”
Time was against me now, so I didn’t go into the rest of the songs, but suggested ‘Queen of Sheba’ was another great indie pop song. Too good for the charts, but the band kind of got there anyway, 38 years later. And in a sense, it’s more early BOB than late.
“I agree, and I think ’So You’re Alone’ has a bit of that as well. When we were thinking about what might make a single – and we were never really great judges – there would always be those sort of songs. And ‘Telepathy’ is not a million miles from ‘Convenience’ in terms of length, brightness, all that.”
When we spoke, i hadn’t had chance to hear the second CD, but told Richard I kind of hoped there’d be a version of ‘Another Crow’ on the main album, as on the remastered, expanded first album package. Not least as they alluded to that track with the farewell tour publicity.
“We did. Yeah, and it was actually called ‘Tour Song’ at first. We did a version with just me, Simon and a drum machine, then did it again with the band. We chose some of our favourites to go on the companion CD this time, but there’s a lot more in the archive, and my feeling is that there’s one more double-CD set to come. Then that will be it.
“What we realised when we went back was that there was very little to be embarrassed about. Almost everything could be heard, having lost that self-consciousness about it. And if it doesn’t happen on a record, when I finally get my act together, I’ll make a website and people can listen to all that there.”
I’m guessing when it comes to writing credits, like Lennon-McCartney it’s broadly a case of working out who’s singing the song as to who wrote it.
“That’s basically it. We used to say whoever played tambourine on it wrote it, but actually whoever sung it, wrote it!”
So what’s next? Were those definitely farewell live dates last year? Or is this more of a Sinatra thing, with another final tour to follow?
“I don’t think so. That was it. I slightly regret making the announcement, not least as I fell arse over tit on the first night …”
You were struggling with your back at Leeds, for sure.
“My God, I was in agony. The show in London was amazing – it was choc-a and a lovely crowd. You couldn’t have asked for more. But I was dosed up to the max on huge painkillers and diazepam. I was flying. From that point of view, I’d like the chance to do it again. I was fluffy in the head. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the 10 days it could have been. I was in a stupid amount of pain, and people flew from America to see that gig.”
As it is, within a few months, the UK would be in lockdown. If you’d planned it all for this year, you’d have missed out.
“That’s true. Yeah, it was great, London was a real high, and we should leave it at that. However, John Hartley is writing a book about the band, and we had weekly Zoom chats with him during lockdown. That was fun, and he came down to the rehearsal rooms when we were preparing for the tour last year. So when that book comes out, we may get together, do a launch, and that might allow us to do something acoustic, a few songs in the context of a Q&A perhaps … if we could sneak that in without breaking the rules!”
‘You Can Stop That For A Start’ by BOB is available to pre-order as a vinyl LP, download or double-CD via this link, with the release date set for September 29th on the Optic Nerve label. And to keep in touch with the band via social media, you can follow these Facebook and Twitter links, follow Richard’s BOB account on Instagram, and head to the BOB/House of Teeth web link.