Whatever happened to The Farmer’s Boys? Those early ‘80s, Norwich-based, unlikely pop stars who found affinity with influential broadcaster John Peel, scoring three indie hits before signing for EMI Records and having a somewhat unexpected crack at the big time.
Somehow they were never quite as big as this teenager at the time felt they deserved, but they certainly flirted with commercial success, with plenty of national TV appearances (vowing to never return to Pebble Mill at One, but enjoying Crackerjack and somehow surviving kids’ game show Hold Tight, despite wobbling, mid-performance, on scary individual risers at Alton Towers – if you’re brave enough, watch the shaky VHS footage online, Baz’s trademark ironing board the only rigid prop) and national radio plays and sessions, even if the label number-crunchers and PR movers and shakers investing in their rise to fame didn’t get the returns they felt their promotional efforts deserved, assigned to an A&R man whose sole interest was his recent signing, Marillion.
There was also that moment when they reached No.44 with Cliff Richard cover ‘In the Country’ and were lined up to do Top of the Pops, only for Alphaville, slightly higher, to fly in from Germany at the last moment. Needless to say, ‘Big in Japan’ became a hit, while they slipped back down. And despite going along with various odd promo requests, often involving half-arsed, patronising agriculture-related ideas, the bottom line was that this somewhat awkward combo (signed to EMI the same day as Kajagoogoo) never felt comfortable with that corporate music industry world, far less interested in fame once the novelty allure faded, and totally disinterested in units sold.
Accordingly, two cracking LPs were largely overlooked, but after an inevitable split, lead singer Baz (by now trading as Barry McGuilty) and bass player Mark Kingston continued in harder-edged four-piece The Avons, prior pressure regarding record sales seemingly behind a band perhaps fittingly with Létharge Records, releasing an LP and a 12” single, describing their sound as ‘new Waveney’.
Later came The Great Outdoors, FBs guitarist Stan returning (his real name’s in the public domain, as is the case for Baz and Frog – who hopped on to Strawberry Switchblade then Julian Cope’s band -but those rock’n’roll monikers suit them), another LP following, again never seeing more than cult success. And these days they’re out there again in another guise, maybe one they were truly destined for, The McGuilty Brothers’ take on (whisper it) country and Americana a direction that always appealed. And their first two LPs – 2016’s Songs to Leave Home To and now Redemption & Rust – are a joy to behold, prompting me to track down Mark and talk about their musical past, present and future.
Before making that call, I flicked through my dog-eared copies of Farmer’s Boys’ fan club mag Griff, and press clippings squirrelled away from those teenage years regarding that band and post-split outfit, The Avons. And, I told him, that included Mark’s Portrait of a Farmer’s Boy as a Consumer entry. He had cracking taste in those days, so I’m guessing he still has.
“Ha! I can’t remember what it said. It was a long time ago.”
Well, the favourite records section alone included The Mekons’ ’Where Were You?’, David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, The Teardrop Explodes’ Wilder, Roxy Music’s Country Life and Stranded, Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom, Squeeze’s East Side Story, and The Fall’s Hex Enduction Hour and Fall in a Hole.
But as ABC’s Martin Fry put it in the same year The Farmer’s Boys released splendidly-titled debut LP, Get Out and Walk, that was then but this is now, and it’s been an odd two years for everyone. In fact, I reckon we all lost at least 12 months en route.
“Yeah, we were going to release an album in March (2020). It was all ready to go, then it was like, ‘Oh no, not so fast. So it sat on the shelf for a year.”
Was the pandemic lay-off a productive spell, all the same? Did you start on a third album while waiting for the second to drop?
“I’ve got loads of new stuff, and now we’re playing again. The current album’s almost old news for us.”
Well, it sounds fresh to me. I was late to the party for Songs to Leave Home For, but I’ve had a chance to get into that and Redemption & Rust since. How does the songwriting process happen, anyway?
“I sort of come up some ideas, the singer and I get together, make sure he can sing them and he’s happy with the words I’ve written, then we present them to the rest of the band, say, ‘This is the key it should be,’ … and we’re back in that process at the moment.”
In Farmer’s Boys’ days, there were four of you on the credits – ‘Baz, Frog, Mark and Stan’.
“It was always very democratic, everything split four ways, irrespective of whether someone had more input than any other. That was fine. But Barry and I used to do a lot of sitting in the corner of a pub playing covers and things, just for fun, then a few new songs crept in. We were going to put together a band of different people. But it just so happened that we said, ‘We can’t seem to find people who we like’. Ha! So we suggested this to the others, and they were up for it.
“That’s how it evolved, really. As far as writing goes, I don’t know how it’s worked out this way, but you write more and more, and they just expect you to write the stuff. So although we’ve got about two songs written by others, the rest are sort of mine. But that’s just how it’s worked out. I keep saying, by all means come up with some songs … but I think they’re quite happy to work on these. And because they’re so good, they pick it up straight away.”
You certainly sound like a proper band, and you can tell you’ve played together a long time. With an element of tongue-in-cheek, do you now see the ‘80s, ‘90s and Noughties as your Hamburg apprenticeship?
“Trouble is that back in the day, we’d sit in a room for hours, noodling, until something came up. Looking back, that was probably the wrong way to do it. I’d say the songwriting was quite hard in the end, trying to come up with something in a democratic way. Sometimes that just doesn’t work.”
As for musical direction …
“We were sitting, doing our own thing, and a lot of what we were doing was country music anyway. We had a book full of country songs and stuff from The Byrds or Gram Parsons.”
The cooler end of the range.
“Yeah, but even back in the ‘80s, we all loved country. So unfashionable! Whenever we tried to do anything like that it was really frowned upon. We’ve always loved it, but that’s probably more to do with … how shall I say this … country music’s quite popular in East Anglia, always has been, and lots of people sort of grew up on it. Certainly, in the ‘80s though, it was really uncool!”
Fellow Norwich-based post-punks Serious Drinking’s ‘Don’t Shoot Me Down’ B-side piss-take springs to mind there.
“Ha! Yeah, but when Barry and I were doing our stuff, we wanted to do something that had a slight country edge. I know, if I’m honest, the newer album’s probably less country than the first, but that’s probably just because we’ve got a bit more confident about what we do.”
Perhaps to spread the word outside East Anglia you should just use the term Americana. I admit, I’ve had a problems with the notion of country in the past, then at some point realised that’s really what Bruce Springsteen did, what Steve Earle did, and so on. Then there was an appreciation of the likes of Emmylou Harris, Gretchen Peters, and more. Maybe it was initial snobbery on my part.
“I think so. The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo was quite influential, certainly for us. The other for us was The Gilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Brothers. Another big, influential album. Also, bizarrely, ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville’ by REM. I think that was a turning point in that we thought, ‘Actually, this is more what we might want to sound like’.”
True, and there’s lots of good stuff out there. Maybe it’s just down to hearing and accessing that.
“I think it is. And just by adding pedal steel to something, you can make it sound country.”
Talking of which, your son, Laurence (now studying songwriting and performance in Brighton) often guests with The McGuilty Brothers, and he’s credited on the new record for guitars and pedal steel.
“Yeah, when he was about 12, we used to get him up for a song, he’d play a solo, and we thought that was cool …”
He was clearly a great player from an early age.
“Yeah. Difficult for me to say, because I’m his father, but gradually he’d join in more, then we thought, ‘Let’s just get him in the band!’. He’s been with us on and off since. Now he’s 19, he’s got a pretty good solo career. He lives in Brighton now, down there at uni.”
Was that bad timing, this delayed record coming out and your guest guitarist not around to play tie-in live shows?
“Not really, he just gets a train up, if we’re playing London, and we meet him there. We don’t rehearse with him. He just turns up, does his thing. That works fine. He’s still into doing it, and it’s nice having a youngster in a band, that gives you a little bit of bite. He’s a very good session player. You can tell him what to play, he’ll get it, he’ll do it, and always brings something else. It’s great having him in.
“I know lots of people who get younger players in, and it does change the dynamic of a band. He’s doing his own thing though, with a couple of albums out on Spotify. He does more gigs than we do, he’s got his own band, and writes his own stuff. He’s having a great time, and he’s my youngest, so I’m kind of used to them doing their own thing. He’s got a really good little group of friends, fantastic musicians, goes out as a solo artist, they back him, and it works really well. He was doing well up to the pandemic, getting more and more gigs. Then, just as he was starting to get a bit of traction, it all stopped. But it’s the same for everyone. I know lots of bands who literally didn’t have any money.”
As for the regular line-up, it’s the same five-piece as for the first LP, Barry (lead vocals, mandolin), Mark (bass guitar, backing vocals) and Stan (guitars) joined by Rob Masters (drums, percussion) and Justin Fisher (keyboards, guitar), the latter recording both albums at Stable Sounds.
“I’ve probably known Rob for 45 years, he and I were playing in bands, messing around years and years ago. In the ‘90s he was with us in The Great Outdoors, as was Justin, an old schoolfriend of Stan. We’ve known him years. When we set up, Justin and Rob got involved, and it’s been the same people ever since really.”
I was late to The Great Outdoors. I have 2001’s Fading Fast EP on CD, but that year’s What We Did in Our Holidays LP was harder to track down, going for a lot of money last time I checked. Not changing hands for as much as second Farmer’s Boys LP, With These Hands, mind.
“I think it’s available on digital and on Spotify. When The Great Outdoors started, we were originally with Fierce Panda Records.”
Simon Williams’ label?
“That’s it. We knew Simon from Farmer’s Boys days, and when Baz and I were in another band, The Avons.”
Among my clippings there’s an interview from his Jump Away fanzine. Around then, we bonded at a London gig when I was selling my Captains Log fanzine, him somewhat astounded I’d run a retrospective Farmer’s boys feature in the first issue. Soon, we were swapping correspondence and ‘zines, just before he started writing for the NME.
“I can’t remember how we ended up knowing him, but when we split, Baz and I formed The Avons, and he was very supportive of us. We ended up doing two singles on Fierce Panda. We also did a gig with Coldplay when they were still playing the back of pubs. Ha! Little did I know then … After that, we got Backs Records involved, who put the first Farmer’s Boys record out.”
Not only do you go back a long way with that Norwich indie label (and before that Waap, the cost of recording early ’82 debut 45, ‘I Think I Need Help’ £80, apparently), but also with Essex boy come good, former Norwich scene luminary, much-hired session supremo Terry Edwards, memorably described by Mark Adams as ‘the Jimmy Page of brass’, who turned up on several Farmer’s Boys records (and played for The Higsons – fronted by ‘Switch’, better known now as The Fast Show’s co-creator and author Charlie Higson – and Serious Drinking, plus Gallon Drunk, PJ Harvey, Ian Dury, and countless others).
“Last time I saw him was about a year ago. He came along to a gig we did in London. Terry’s great, we used to regularly play with The Higsons, and he ended up joining in on songs now and then, brass and stuff.”
It wasn’t until I re-found my copies of Griff that I recalled its Farmer’s Boys family tree (produced in Pete Frame style) and read about predecessors, The Ordinaires (originally La Ville Ordinaire), links to The Higsons, and much more.
“The Ordinaires was a strange kind of band. You didn’t know what the line-up was until the night. People just turned up and plaedy. When you look at that family tree, it splinters off everywhere! That was probably a bit before The Higsons. They met at UEA (University of East Anglia, Norwich), about the same time as The Farmer’s Boys started. That’s how we knew them. They played in Norwich, we’d go along, and we’d see a lot of gigs together.
“Although there was a Norwich scene, it was really just The Higsons, The Farmer’s Boys and Serious Drinking. The rest we didn’t really have much to do with … and they didn’t have much to do with us.”
According to that ‘rough family tree’, The Ordinaires not only included Stan and Mark, but also Rob (March to May ’81, ‘best described as chaos … responsible for foul tunes on the Casio, and all gigs being banned from the Prince of Denmark pub, Norwich’), while Stan and Justin were previously with Bang Goes My Stereo (1980 – March ’81, ‘a legendary pop combo, Stan used to wear a dress on stage and all the songs were less than two minutes long’). Meanwhile, Mark was previously with Dissolute Youth (1980-March ’81, ‘Dereham’s No.1 garage band, spent a long time supporting The Higsons and Screen 3’), bandmates including his brother, Paul, and future Avons drummer Ed Street.
While we’re talking FB predecessors, I’ll throw in Baz and Frog’s The Marauders (1978-80, ‘at one time hailed as Suffolk’s leading punk band’), and a short spell for Baz, with Justin on bass, in The Per Favors (May ’87, ‘not really a group, just three drunks who gatecrashed an Ordinaires gig one night and insisted on playing ‘Y Viva Espana’’). Furthermore, Frog was with the Gay Gordon & the Cumberland Squares ceilidh band before joining The Farmer’s Boys in February ’82.
While Mark says there were just three bands on that main Norwich scene, Channel 4’s Switch music magazine show, aired between series of The Tube, ran a memorable mini-feature involving that illustrious trio plus Popular Voice, who I recall as part of a four-band live package at one point.
“Yeah, if we did a tour, they’d support us. They were great. Good fun.”
Anyway, sorry, I’m in danger of veering way too far down Memory Lane.
“That’s the trouble when you go back 40 years! We worked out a few months ago it was the 40th anniversary of the first Farmer’s Boys gig … which is a bit frightening really. Royal Wedding day, in the back of a pub, the Prince of Denmark. Stan’s local. He lived up the road, and they said, ‘The Royal Wedding’s on, I hear you’ve got a band. Do you want to play?’, and he said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got about six songs’. I think Charlie Higson turned up, did a little review in the local paper.”
So there you go, Charles and Diana’s true legacy was not so much about producing an heir and a spare as inspiring the Prince of Denmark to commission the debut of the legendary Farmer’s Boys.
They were a three-piece then, Baz, Stan and Mark, ahead of Frog’s arrival a few months later. They had been a four-piece in rehearsals, but we’ll get to that later. Instead, back we go to Redemption & Rust, which I told Mark gets better with every listen, from opening track ‘Cigarettes & Gasoline’ on, bridging country and rock, as fellow Norwich band The Rockingbirds did, songs like ‘Better Apart’ almost with a Richard Hawley guitar feel, on a record chock-full of quality songwriting.
“The thing is, we started recording, got halfway through, I had all these songs, and we hadn’t really played them. Normally, bands would play them live a lot, then record them. We kind of went about it a different way. We had enough for an album, but the guys didn’t really know the songs that well. We sort of piled in, then it was, ‘Hang on a minute, is that the best arrangement for that?’. So we’ve actually recorded different versions of these songs, which is why there’s two versions of ‘Better Apart’ (on the LP). There are different versions of four or five songs. We’d say, ‘Actually, that should be a fast song’. What we got was not what we originally set out to do.”
In the old days, you’d have put those other versions as extras on 12-inch singles.
“Well, I’m always a bit mindful of putting stuff out you were never originally happy with.”
‘Last to Know’ provides a fine example of the close harmonies that work so well. Is that you with Barry?
“Yeah, that really came about from he and I sitting in the corner of a pub. We harmonise all the time, something we kind of developed later on. In the early days, certainly with The Farmer’s Boys, he’d do the majority of the harmonies, double-tracking.”
Barry’s certainly got a range on him, thinking of past tracks like ‘Soft Drink’ and ‘Heartache’.
“Not so much now, but he did. But we love harmonies. That’s why we love The Byrds and people like that. It’s a big part of what we do now.”
‘Getting Somewhere Now’ is another great example, while ‘World on Fire’ is perhaps the closest to a Farmer’s Boys song. As if it was from a third LP that never happened. I also see ‘Until the Roses Die’ in that light.
“Funnily enough, ‘World on Fire’ was written by Justin! It was something we had hanging over from The Great Outdoors, just before we split. We never recorded it. When we came to do this, it was like, ‘Hang on, we’ve still got this great song you wrote, Justin,’ so we kind of resurrected it. He wrote the music and Baz wrote the words. It’s from the ‘90s, but …”
It’s all pretty seamless. And then there’s the epic, ‘Path of Least Resistance’, perhaps the closest to where you were with The Avons.
“I wouldn’t disagree with that. Ha! It’s a pretty depressing tune, but …”
Almost a dirtier cousin of ‘Whatever Is He Like?’. Despite a more sombre outlook.
“Ha! Yeah. And everybody’s got to have a song about drugs, I suppose.”
I won’t go into the song meanings. That’s often down to interpretation. But ‘Ghost of You’ jumps out. I mentioned Richard Hawley, and there’s a bit of him there, but something else nagged away at me until it came to me – traces of Catatonia’s ‘Dead From the Waist Down’. Maybe that piano lick. Either way, that’s another song I love.
“Ah, I appreciate that, and again that was another where it was completely different at first. When we originally recorded it, it was quite syncopated. Then it was like, ‘Hang on, we just need to play through it’. That’s why it’s got quite a lot of acoustics and stuff on it. At the time, it was, ‘Think of ‘Tequila Sunrise’. Ha! It didn’t quite happen that way, but it’s that sort of strumming we liked.”
And it’s a brave thing to do, covering The Bee Gees, in this case ‘To Love Somebody’. But it works. Has that been in the set for a while?
“That was one of the songs we used to do, sat in the corner of a pub. We’d do anything really from that to Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones … even did a Kylie Minogue song! It’s one of those songs we’ve always liked, and not actually very similar to the original, so we’re happy with that.”
I was a few lines in, thinking, ‘Oh, I know this! What’s this?’. That’s a good sign. You made it your own, in the way Al Green made ‘How Can you Mend a Broken Heart?’ his own.
“The thing about covers… quite often, it’s best not to listen to the original. I couldn’t even remember what that sounded like. We had the chords in front of us and sang it how we thought it was done. And when the band did it, it was like, ‘Well, this must be how it goes’. Then I remember hearing the original, thinking, ‘Oh, crikey, they’re completely different’. There are hundreds of versions, of course, and probably one out there similar to the one we did. But we were pleased with it, and we’ve no issues with doing covers. I mean, we did a Flying Burrito Brothers cover on the first album.”
That was ‘Wheels’, written by Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons.
“That was another song Baz and I used to do, just the two of us. Most of the covers we do now are like Creedence (Clearwater Revival) or Gram (Parsons), things Baz and I used to do, and we’ve been playing them for years.”
A friend’s band who went down the Americana line covered Dylan’s, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’, and I could hear you covering that.
“Funnily enough, we did! We had a songbook with about 100 songs in it, and we’d sit there and go, ‘Shall we do that one next?’. We never had a set. If it went down badly, it never got played again!”
Returning to the LP finale, ‘Better Apart #2’ sounds like it must be a cover … but it’s you covering your own song, featured eight tracks earlier!
“We re-recorded it as more of a rock version, then thought, actually we can stick it on the end, because it’s quite a charming version. We had a mate who plays accordion, and he played on there.”
Is that Martin Mc?
“Yes, every now and then he’ll come and play with us. Never rehearses with us. Just turns up, we fill him full of beer, he sits on a stool with his accordion … and he’s got this fantastic ear. He can play to anything. An Irish guy, really funny. When he turns up, he has us in stitches!”
An honorary McGuilty brother?
“Kind of. He hasn’t done the last couple of gigs, but he’s got a small child who keeps him busy. But if we’re doing a gig and he’s about, he’ll turn up. He’s great. So, sometimes we’re a seven-piece, but most the time we are six.”
I see Stan still hasn’t got a surname on the credits. Is that a throwback to post-punk days, struggling musicians claiming dole, trying to keep their heads down, keeping real names out of the equation? Your ‘BazFrogMarkStan’ days suggested that.
“Yeah … and to be fair, mine’s the only one that isn’t a nickname! But he’s always been known to us as Stan. Everyone calls him that, I think, apart from his wife. When we did this, there was a conscious effort we didn’t want to be like The Farmer’s Boys. But he said, ‘I don’t care. I’m happy just to be Stan’.
Regarding Stan, there were also spells under pseudonyms Dr Fondle (backed by an East Anglian version of the Love Unlimited Orchestra) and Alan Christchurch, and he appeared in the bands Mulch and Arthur Thirkettle’s Blues Breakers, all of which suggest entire other stories for a fella who once offered up his dodgy Mini for a ‘Win a Car’ competition run by their best-known band and EMI.
Anyway, we touched on how we shouldn’t really be surprised by the music direction taken, and there were hints down the years, not least ‘The Way You Made Me Cry’ on the first Farmer’s Boys LP, and the gloriously miserable ‘Heartache’ on its follow-up, which I always loved.
And when I listened back to early B-side, ‘The Country Line’ … that’s almost an earlier version of ‘Heartache’.
“Erm, well … that was nearly going to be the A-side. I don’t know why, but we decided to do the other one, ‘More Than a Dream’. But John Peel played ‘The Country Line’ more. He really loved it. Baz, Stan and a couple of mates had this thing, Baz and the Bluegrass Boys. Every now and then they’d do a gig, and it was just country. ‘The Country Line’ came from that. The thing about us, we’d have happily done a whole album of that stuff, but the record company said, ‘No way!’.
Furthermore, listening back now, I hear traces of Edwyn Collins, way before he went that way.
“It’s a funny thing. If you say to someone you like country music, they immediately think of Charlie Pride, Don Williams, Jim Reeves … They have a fixed opinion in their head. Worse still, they think of things like Garth Brooks, ‘Achy Breaky Heart’, or whatever!”
Thanks, Mark. Now I’ll be singing that dreadful song for the rest of day.
“Sorry! But that’s the thing, like saying all pop music is ABBA, there’s so much more depth to it. And some of it’s just wonderful. And we quite like the naff stuff as well – it makes us laugh!”
I’m guessing ‘Heartache’ was recorded with tongue firmly in cheek.
“Ha! Oh, it would have been, yeah, but if you’re gonna do a slow country song, it’s got to be miserable!”
I love both LP sleeves too. Regarding Redemption & Rust, where’s Dante’s Discotheque? Dereham?
“That was a photograph that was taken, then we added that bit. We just thought it looked like hell! Ha!”
It reminds me of the The Avons’ Four Songs EP sleeve, four of you outside King Street Fish Stores, Norwich, which I had my own pilgrimage the year after. There’s a dodgy photo of me unable to keep a straight face, stood next to where Baz was, seemingly dressed by Man at C&A, August ’87, still just about a teenager.
“Ha! That’s funny. And that was quite an iconic picture for us.”
Three of us did the Norfolk Broads that week, so to speak, and that was most likely the same day we attended a pre-season friendly at Carrow Road, Norwich City vs John Toshack’s Real Sociedad (I mention this, knowing full well Mark’s an Ipswich Town fan … he doesn’t bite though). I’m guessing that shop’s long since gone.
“I assume so. I just remember a photographer was going to take some pictures, and we didn’t really want to do it. We were bored, but it was like, ‘Oh, this will do’. I don’t think it even occurred to us. We just stood in front of it, and he took this picture really quickly.”
A subsequent Google Maps stroll along King Street suggests it’s now ‘Hair & Hound’ (‘purveyors of fine haircuts’). In case you want to do your own pilgrimage, possibly as part of a Farmer’s Boys East Anglian Sightseeing Experience. That would indubitably bring in tourists.
Back to the present, I missed out on the debut McGuilty Brothers LP first time around, but I was hooked on the band after a couple of plays of the wondrous ‘Things Will Change’. If ever there was closing credits music to a film version of your story … What’s more, I played it in the car returning from dropping my eldest daughter as she headed to uni in last autumn, both girls now having left home, the song taking on a whole new emotional meaning. As if it was written specifically for me.
“That was destined to be the end of a record. But again, it was one of the really early songs, recorded on a laptop or something, then I played it to the others, they did their thing, and they always, somehow … I think their arranging skills are fantastic. They always make something sound much better than I ever thought it would. They’re really good at just bringing out a song.”
Couldn’t agree more, the build-up sublime. Maybe that’s why I was quite surprised that lots of these songs started with Mark and Barry. They often sound like band co-writes.
“I think we’ve found from experience that different people do different things in different ways. But certainly, we found if you all stand in a room and go, ‘Right, we’ve got to write a song,’ that’s a painful process. Then you’ve got to be very diplomatic if someone comes up with something that nobody really likes. Although, because we’ve known each other 40-odd years, that doesn’t bother us anymore. We can say to each other, ‘Actually, that’s not very good,’ and no one takes it personally. With the time available, it’s easier to say, ‘Here’s a complete song, I’ll play it to you on an acoustic guitar. Tell me if you like it’. That’s a good starting point, it seems to work for us, and gets things done a lot quicker.”
When we spoke, the band had just played The Boogaloo in Highgate, North London, part of the Gospel Brunch Sunday series set up by close friend and resident DJ Andy Hackett, of Rockingbirds fame (also part of Edwyn Collins’ live band).
“I’ve known Andy’s since the ‘80s when we lived in Norwich. He was in bands with my brother. He then went to London. My brother was in The Rockingbirds at first. We got to know that band, did a few gigs with them. First there was Come Down and Meet the Folks, arranged by Alan Tyler, their singer, bands playing Sunday afternoons, a bit low-key. Andy’s doing a similar thing, and The Boogaloo’s a great pub, a proper London pub. I believe it was Shane McGowan’s local. It’s great to be part of. Andy said, ‘I’m going to find about six bands I really like and put you on rotation’.
“The first one went down really well, with an appreciative audience, a really nice feeling about the whole thing. Andy plays records, and the bands are a real eclectic mix, such as (Jose McGill and) The Vagaband, from Norwich, worth checking out. And he’s got a rock’n’roll, skiffle-type band, effectively Americana. It’s doing really well.”
While life moves on for The McGuilty Brothers, their past is never far away, and recently an excellent 74-track compilation from Cherry Red, The Shines Here, included ‘Whatever Is He Like?’, the early single version, their first for Backs Records (and the first with Frog on board). Cherry Red also helped put out the two McGuilty Brothers LPs, both released on its Franks Wild Ears Records label imprint.
“They’re good like that. They’ve been very good with the McGuilty stuff. They were quite happy to put it out, and we just published the songs. It was very easy. Then we just tend to get our own CDs done, mainly for gigs and promo. It seems to work pretty well.”
Talking of Cherry Red, I was recently impressed by their Aztec Camera boxset, covering Roddy Frame’s outfit’s 1984/95 WEA recordings, the sleevenotes and artwork reminding me The Farmer’s Boys and Martin Stephenson’s band, The Daintees, supported them at The Lyceum, London in late ’83, a month before the release of High Land, Hard Rain. Do you recall much about them that night?
“I know we liked them. We were big fans all that Postcard Records stuff. We did quite a few of those Lyceum things. We played with Orange Juice there as well, a couple of times. I remember Aztec Camera being really good. But I don’t think it was the right venue for them. They were one of those bands that would probably benefit from a smaller, more intimate venue. And that was a big, cavernous place.”
Incidentally, my 12th ever gig was The Farmer’s Boys at the University of Surrey in my hometown, Guildford. about five weeks after I saw Serious Drinking support The Fall there.
“Ah, okay. I can’t imagine Serious Drinking supporting The Fall.”
It was a strange night. I’ve spoken about this with Serious Drinking’s Martin Ling, how there were lots of dodgy Nazi skinheads in, causing trouble. Aged 15 at the time, I was yet to ‘get’ The Fall, having gone along for the support. But it was the intimidating idiots – there just for the aggro – that left the biggest impression that time.
“That could be quite intimidating. I remember seeing The Cramps, a similar kind of thing. I’ve never been so petrified in my life. There were people punching each other the whole evening. But Serious Drinking were great. When we first started The Farmer’s Boys, Andy Hearnshaw was in the band. There was four of us originally, Stan playing a little Casio keyboard. Then Andy had to leave because he was at the UEA and …”
He’d run out of money from his grant, hadn’t he?
“Something like that … or he hadn’t done any work on his degree! He hot-footed it back to his parents, back in the South West or somewhere, buggered off to kind of salvage his degree, and we carried on without him. When he came back, he (co-)formed Serious Drinking. We never did a gig with him. I think we had about three or four rehearsals. It’s probably 20 years or so since I last saw him.”
I got the impression there wasn’t really a Norwich scene as such … until Peel’s interest created one.
“There wasn’t really. But I think it’s because we all knew each other and were good friends. None of the bands sounded like each other. We didn’t sound like The Higsons and none of us sounded like Serious Drinking, although we did a lot of gigs together, and they were always good fun. I think that was the sum token. Popular Voice were different again. Everyone was making out it was like Liverpool, but it wasn’t anything like it!”
Much as I love the raw early stuff and the first LP, I also love With These Hands, the same way I love The Undertones’ The Sin of Pride, maybe built on nostalgia for a certain time and place in my life. Those days when you live and breathe music, learning all the words to songs from repeat plays. Whatever it was that hooked me, I’d really love to see a re-release. Is that right Cherry Red could be working with you on that?
“I think they’re looking at taking over all that stuff. Initially, digitally, and dependent on whether there’s demand for CDs … they might. They put out the first album, then a Japanese label put out the second on CD … or was it just vinyl?”
There was a CD, from Vinyl Japan, but it goes for silly prices. It’s certainly hard to come by.
“I think Cherry Red are going to do all the indie singles and everything. So hopefully, yeah … we also did a reissue, probably in the late ‘90s, including John Peel and Kid Jensen sessions, demos, and so on. I think they’re going to put that out (again) as well.”
That was the splendid 19-track Once Upon a Time in the East (The Early Years 1981-1982) from Backs Records, while the equally good Get Out & Walk Cherry Red 2009 reissue included 10 extra tracks.
By the way, in that 1986 Jump Away fanzine interview with The Avons, Baz told Simon Williams, “In 10 years I hope to be singing country and western in the corner of a pub … songs about rivers and fishing.” As it turned out, it’d be a few more years before that came to pass. But I only reminded myself of that after our chat, and I’d already kept Mark, not long home from work, on far too long (his day-job is in design and marketing). He’s clearly still loving being part of all this though, alongside old friends.
“It’s just something we do, I think mainly just so we keep in touch with each other.”
That really comes over with so many bands of your vintage I’ve interviewed that are still out there. Doing it for the love of it, no longer worried about chasing the next hit or best-selling record, with no pressure from record companies, marketing companies or men in suits higher up the chain, just having fun, better appreciating their audience, their audience better appreciating them.
“We have little gaps where we stop doing it, but it’s almost like you’re compelled to … it’s a weird thing. Gigs-wise, we’ll be having a bit of a push now, as they’re more freely available. We don’t tend to do many though, just ones we think are going to be good rather than just taking anything.”
“It’s so easy when you get to our age, with all the other distractions of life … Baz and I live quite close to each other, but the others are in Norwich, and I don’t think I’d see much of them if I didn’t do this. I think that’s the reason why we do it. If you ask any of us, they’ll probably tell you that. And when we do it, we just love it, because we get on. That’s a big part of it.”
And long may that continue.
For more on The McGuilty Brothers, including details of their two albums and forthcoming live shows, head to their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/themcguiltybrothers and their website http://themcguiltybrothers.com/.