Up, up and away – a late introduction to Magic Roundabout

Once upon a long ago, there was a band – described by their modern-day label as ‘criminally-unheard Manchester noisemakers’ – that borrowed its name from a hit UK children’s TV show that itself started life in a very different form in France.

In the case of this particular ‘80s post-punk indie outfit – originally from neighbouring Bolton – though, fame was not forthcoming. But enough people appreciated them down the line for their memory to live on.

And now, three and a half decades after Magic Roundabout’s first live outings, The White Stripes’ Jack White’s US label Third Man Records has released their debut LP, Up.

According to their press, ‘Like so many other disenfranchised kids in the heady days of the mid-‘80s, Magic Roundabout came armed with leather jackets, charity shop instruments, singles by The Fall and Buzzcocks, good haircuts, a healthy Velvet Underground obsession and a little psychedelic inspiration.

‘Influenced into existence at early gigs by The Jesus and Mary Chain and Shop Assistants, The Roundies wanted to change the world, or at the very least make some noise, shake things up and be a part of the happening’.

Moving into a house in Nottingham in early 1986, they began rehearsing, recording and gigging, with memorable shows following as support to The Blue Aeroplanes, The Pastels, Spacemen 3, Loop, My Bloody Valentine and Inspiral Carpets. And rumour has it that Noel Gallagher roadied their final show.

Just one song was released though, ‘She’s a Waterfall (Pts. 1 and 2)’ appearing on Oozing Through the Ozone Layer, a compilation cassette put together by future Pulp guitarist Mark Webber in his fanzine days. There was also talk of a flexi-disc, but that never saw the light of day, and by the end of the ‘80s the band had all gone their separate ways, their recordings lost forever.

Or so it seemed, Magic Roundabout’s 1987 recordings recently unearthed by Pale Saints singer/bass player Ian Masters for Third Man Records and given the ‘treatment’ by Warren Defever, the resultant album heralded by a brushed-up version of that prior-mentioned track, ‘She’s a Waterfall’ (its accompanying video linked here). But is their resultant, much-delayed debut album 34 years too late or perfectly steeped and presented at just the right moment, as their label suggests?

With that and many more questions needing answers, I tracked down Magic Roundabout survivors Linda Jennings and Nick Davidson for an online video interview, and we were soon on to the subject of The Shop Assistants, the Edinburgh indie outfit they saw at Blackburn’s King George’s Hall and who proved a huge influence on them making that step up from imaginary to real band.

Nick: “When we saw them, we were like, ‘Whoah!’

Linda: “It was a case of, ‘We’re not worthy!’. They were great and had that quirky sort of pop thing.”

While The Shop Assistants were part of the C86 scene, named after the NME compilation that helped spread the word about so many emerging indie bands from that era, the mystery to me on hearing Magic Roundabout’s recordings now is that – for an outfit at times carrying a Girls at our Best joining forces with the Mary Chain feel – Alan McGee didn’t seek them out and sign them to Creation Records. Surely they’d have been right up his street. How did he miss them?

Linda: “We didn’t really have a quality recording. Just this demo, which was a bit naff on a cassette. We did get one to Tony Wilson, when he was watching a band at The Boardwalk, where we were rehearsing. But he was quite cold on the night. I didn’t get anything back off him. He was a bit smug and nonchalant.”

Nick: “We took turns giving out demos, usually me and Linda. But didn’t really send demos of anything on this album. We were recording really fast, and by summer ’87 we were so into what we were doing that we didn’t have so much time to think about where we were going.”

Linda: “We weren’t chasing anything. We were playing gigs, supporting people, thinking, ‘Wow, we’re playing with them!’.”

For so many bands I love, there was what some saw as a lack of ambition, but sometimes it was just about enough to feature alongside other bands you loved, get on John Peel’s show, and make a couple of singles, rather than landing five-album deals. Anything else was a bonus.

Also, I suggested to Linda and Nick, maybe when they approached Tony Wilson, he’d already found his new direction. Besides, that wasn’t what they were about, that whole Madchester scene. Creation would have made for a good fit though.

Linda: “Yeah, definitely.”

Nick: “There wasn’t really a scene in Manchester, at least not music of the same kind. There wasn’t really anyone else into the same stuff as us. We were friendly with Inspiral Carpets, they were really good to us. But we had more in common with King of the Slums and Dub Sex, that sort of band.”

I was on the London and South East scene at the time, and got the impression at the time that when the A&R men went to Manchester, they were more likely looking for another Stone Roses or another Happy Mondays.

Nick: “We were a little bit before that as well …”

Linda: “We split up at the wrong time! We should have stayed together.” 

I was very much into That Petrol Emotion at the time (I still am, of course), yet you could argue that they never got the kudos they deserved until it was too late, being touted as an influence by bands like My Bloody Valentine after they finally broke through.

Nick: “I saw them {My Bloody Valentine} on my 18th at The Boardwalk, with Dave Conway singing. I loved what they became, but I loved them then too. Great band. But a lot of the bands we liked were seen as a bit lame at the time, like Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine …”

Two examples of bands perhaps better appreciated further down the years.

Linda: “I think people were a bit behind that vibe. It’s now seen as cool, but back then in our second-hand clothes, we didn’t want to follow the mainstream at all, and were always trying to find another band to listen to. But our influences were also ‘60s bands like Love, and obviously the Velvets.”

I hear the latter on tracks like the lead single, not just the Nico-like vocals, but the way it’s put together, not least with those guitars.

Linda: “I just wish it had been in tune!”

Don’t get me wrong, but as a half-baked bass player of a garage band that never quite left the garage, I can listen to a couple of those tracks and think, ‘That could have been me!’. But rough and ready as it seems in places, there’s definitely plenty of spirit captured on those recordings. Do they sound different now Third Man Records have polished them up?

Nick: “Yes and no! It’s really good mastering, but Warren kept in touch with us and was keen to not mess with it, really. But a lot were second generation tapes anyway.”

Linda: “My cassette copy that got used for this, they tried to master it to get a good copy, but it still had some of the hiss on it, and it was so difficult. But he sent what he’d done to Third Man, and they managed to take away all the hiss. We were like, ‘How did they do that?’. But there are tiny fragments that you could never recreate on that original cassette.”

Nick: “And mastering is a dying art, as I understand it.”

So how did it come to this? Was it a case of a missing tape unearthed, or is that just record company spin and some romantic notion?

Linda: “A bit of a romantic notion.”

Nick: “We’re not sure where some of that came from, but we played in Leeds in this upstairs room at the Three Legs pub, one of the roughest then. It was around April/May ’87. We supported Loop that night. They lost their licence the next day, because it was so loud!

“There were only about 20 or so there, but Ian {Masters, his band Pale Saints hailing from Leeds} liked us, approached us after, and we swapped addresses. We’ve been friends since. He’s been a great supporter of the band.”

At this point, Linda disappears, and before I have a chance to work out how I’ve upset her, she returns to show me the original cassette, labelled catalogue number 18, apparently put her way by Nick after the band split. Why did they split?

“We were together for around two years, but for around nine or so months it was really intense. For some mad reason we decided we’d live in a band house, moving to Nottingham. We just thought that was what bands did … like The Monkees! We left Manchester, because we didn’t like the Happy Mondays and all that shite! But it was the death of us really.”

Linda: “Yeah. It was all, ‘Your turn to wash up!’, ‘No, you do it! I’m making tea!’. It was like The Young Ones.”

Nick: “We were 18 or 19. We had no social skills. We had rehearsals in the house, brought dustbins in and played them.”

Linda: “I missed all my friends as well. I was homesick for them … not my parents.”

Why did you choose Nottingham?

Linda: “I think Nick just stuck a pin in the map!”

Nick: “We did actually get quite a lot of material that we didn’t record. But living together put the mockers on it all, really. The last thing we did together was ’Song for Gerard Langley’, the B-side of the single. That was recorded there.”

Linda: “I think that’s of a better quality, the way we recorded it. Showed some promise. If we’d stuck in Manchester, maybe …”

I was intrigued by that Gerard Langley link, not least as the frontman of The Blue Aeroplanes – and past WriteWyattUK interviewee – also gets a mention on mammoth LP closer ‘Alice’s Paper Plane’. And it turns out, their first gig was with the cherished Bristol outfit, as depicted in Simon Beecroft’s splendid comic strip creation telling their story (far better than I can, probably) up to the time Karrie Price joined the band.

Nick: “That was our first gig, and it was a grand one. It went really well. They were lovely. We couldn’t have asked for a better gig. We didn’t know them. I hadn’t even heard of them. But they were brilliant.”

Linda: “Me and Paul, the bass player, went to Glastonbury that year, and saw them there.”

Ah, Glastonbury Festival ’87. I was there too. Amazing, weren’t they.

Linda: “Yeah, and I saw Stump there, and Julian Cope, with his weird mic. stand. We were sleeping in the car, and I had a Walkman to record on. I recorded Julian and quite a few others … until my batteries ran low.”

Stump were also great, though somehow I missed Julian Cope. Perhaps he was on that Friday evening, before New Order, while we were still waiting in Castle Cary for my mate Steve’s smashed windscreen to be replaced. Another abiding memory of mine though was Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction’s van getting stuck in the mud, left there and eventually torched.

Linda: “I’ve got a black and white photograph I took of that! An iconic shot.”

I wasn’t venturing too far beyond London back then, and assume most of your dates were north of Birmingham.

Nick: “We got down to Bristol. Rocker from The Flatmates put us on a couple of times, promoting gigs there and in Birmingham. But not London. That’s perhaps one of the reasons … I found a diary and we had some gigs set up that never happened, including one with Spacemen 3 in London.”

Linda: “We played with Ozric Tentacles in Birmingham …”

Nick: “That was a gig! A tough punk crowd. But we went down alright once we’d got through a couple of songs.”  

I imagine you were a rather intense outfit live. Did you tend to end – as on the LP – with ‘Alice’s Paper Plane’?

Nick: “Sometimes that was the only track we played! I don’t know why now, looking back. But when we supported The Darling Buds in Bristol, that went down like a lead balloon!”

I never leave gigs early if I can help, but half-way through that I would have been looking furtively at my watch, worried that I might miss the last bus or train.

Nick: “Yeah, we cleared a few places!”

Linda: “It does go on and on and on! I think that’s where we had differences … and split. I wanted to play tunes, while Nick wanted to be more experimental. There didn’t seem to be any middle ground between us.”

That approach works for me. Take the Velvets with Nico. A mixture of a couple of styles. Proper chemistry.

Nick: “Well, we never hid the fact that we were massive Velvets fans. I still love them.”

Linda: “Classic tunes. You don’t really get anything like that. And I love the Warhol thing.”

Nick: “We wouldn’t have dared say that then though. You’d just get slated … although it’s as obvious as anything.”

Linda: “And the title track on this record is about Andy Warhol’s death.”

Nick had just turned 19 when the band split, having been friends with bandmate and fellow co-founder Paul Chadwick since school. Meanwhile, Linda turned 20 in July ’87, the band’s oldest member along with later addition Karrie, who came in to play violin and extra guitar. And while it was Nick and Paul’s first band, Linda had played guitar from age 10 and seen service elsewhere.

Linda: “I ended up having classical guitar lessons at school and was singing in a choir, doing three-part harmonies. And me and a friend would play guitar in our bedroom, learning songs. I’d go up to Horwich Folk Club when I was 15 and 16. And Nick and Paul lived in Bolton.”

Nick: “We started in Bolton in ’86, but there was no real scene there, so we shifted over to Manchester, and The Boardwalk was key to us. I found in the back of the (Manchester) Evening News that there was rehearsal space there. And it was cheap. When we started rehearsing there, they gave us membership cards and we got in to see everything for free.”

Linda: “There were some great bands rehearsing there. Nico was supposed to be rehearsing there in ’87, James were there, and needed a bass player at the time. And if I were a bass player! And the Mondays rehearsed there.”

I think James co-founding bass player Jim Glennie, on board since 1982, might take issue with that. In fact, it may have been a guitarist they were looking to recruit. Either way, she missed out. How about The Fall (of whom Jim Glennie was a big fan)? They rehearsed there too.

Nick: “We never saw them. We’d be looking around for Mark E. Smith though. Paul later ran a newsagent’s in Reddish, and Mark would rehearse there. He’d come in asking for 20 Embassy No.1, every rehearsal!”

Were you Fall fans?

Nick “Oh, massive! That was the only band in Manchester for us. To me, I’d come to think they were better than The Velvet Underground as time went on, lyrically and … they seemed to fore-shadow so much to me.”

Linda: “Massive fans! It’s just that character of Mark E. Smith. And his accent. Manchester … with an arr! Just awesome. In a way, I didn’t think it was that Manc. It’s just how he intonated the lyrics.”

Nick: “And in my experience, Manchester was the sort of place where no one likes each other. It’s very competitive, but that’s maybe just typical Mancunian.”

Linda: “I think they’re a bit more hard-edged in how they sort of deal with people. Scousers are more friendly or comical.”

As for what happened next, Nick’s now in Shipley, bear Bradford, and Linda’s back in the North West, while it turns out that bandmates Paul and Karrie took another direction and went on to become breakbeat specialists.

Nick: “I trained as a nurse in Leeds and Wakefield, and that’s what I did for the next 30 years. That’s partly why the record’s coming out now. I retired a couple of years ago and had a bit more time, thinking surely we could license some of these tracks. That’s how the project started rolling. But I always kept involved in music, working with Ian and on underground stuff. And Linda’s certainly been active.”

Linda: “I joined another band who needed a singer. We were called Your Ticket Explained. We didn’t last long! I was going out with the guitarist, but then started going out with the bass player, and married him … so the guitarist split the band up! Just one of those things. But I stayed in music as much as I could.

“At one point I was going to a poetry group, doing paintings, singing at blues and folk nights, and got asked to sing with this jazz band on Sundays, a jazz breakfast at the Old Angel … mostly for people with big hangovers coming in for a big breakfast to drown their sorrows from the night before.

“I was also in this rock’n’roll band, playing guitar, while I had an 18-month-old (child). That got a bit too hard, but I carried on doing gigs on my own and found a popular music college course and ended up moving north to go to Salford Uni, ending up in bands up here.”

So you’ve now got the Pennines between you?

Nick: “Yeah, but we’ve worked together for the last 20 years. I got back in touch as I was doing some recording, asking Linda to do some vocals. And we’ve recorded on and off for years. For the past 10 years we’ve also had this project called The Objects, with a recent-ish album available on Bandcamp. And we like writing together.

“A bit like The Fall, if it’s me, Linda and your granny, it’s Magic Roundabout! And Paul and Karrie have been involved with dance music – once rave came along, then jungle – called Backdraft, with the label Botchit & Scarper. And we’ve all kept in touch, pretty much.

“We did lose touch with Nicola (Mckenzie) and Maria (Gomez Brown), who (both) played tambourine, but managed to get in touch again with the album coming out. And we’ve had people send us some songs we’d forgotten about, on tape … so yeah, things are started to come back to us!”

And will there be live dates to help promote the record?

Nick: “We’re looking at that at the moment. Depends if anyone will pay us, really. We’re a bit old to do it for nothing anymore! But yeah, hopefully.

“We’ve also been having a think about trying to finish off some of the things we didn’t manage to. By the end, we were listening to Love all the time, and Nuggets, stuff like that. And I’ve bought an organ in the last year.”

For more about Up and how to order a copy, head here. And for more about Magic Roundabout, check out their Bandcamp link and follow them on Facebook.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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