It’s 1975 and I’m about 3 weeks into a new job at Island Records, working as an a&r scout, when I read that The 101-ers and Eddie & The Hot Rods were alternating as headliners every Thursday at a West Kensington pub called The Nashville Rooms. The Hot Rods came from the Southend/Canvey Island area, east of London and were the younger ‘siblings’ of Dr. Feelgood, a sharp-looking, and even sharper sounding pub-rock band whose guitarist, Wilko Johnson, had an unusual but wonderfully distinctive, choppy sound. On stage, Wilco moved like a demented, bug-eyed robot, while their singer and harmonica-player, Lee Brilleaux, went for the ‘spiv’ look in drainpipes and thin-lapeled, and rumpled (slightly soiled) suit jacket but he could belt out the rhythm & blues in a way no one else was doing in the UK at the time…fast! ‘Down By The Jetty’, their debut album - recorded in mono(!) - had set a new standard for pub rock and it was one the younger, brattier and even speedier Hot Rods would embrace with gusto. Barrie Masters, their 18 year old singer, had a face that could get away with murder and he could charm the pants off anyone within eye and earshot. The first time I saw him, he wore a dark pinstriped suit accessorized by one boxing glove, which he’d beat with a drumstick while he sang and usually, by the end of the set, once the jacket and his shirt had been torn off, he’d display the physique of someone who’d been a junior boxing champion in the UK. Steve Nicol was a fantastic drummer straight out of the Keith Moon school except on twice as much speed. Bass player, Paul Gray, looked like he should still be doing his homework and bespectacled guitarist Dave Higgs had obviously picked up some of Wilko’s traits, jaggedly attacking his instrument, inserting economical lead licks to complement his frenzied rhythm playing. He seemed like the sensible, experienced member of the group, despite the occasional lapse such as when he appeared on stage once wearing a monk’s habit. Completing the ensemble, Lew Lewis (frequently sporting a khaki raincoat), blew a harp so brilliantly, so furiously that, by the end of each set his mouth would often bleed. Along with their own songs like 'All I Need Is Money', 'Double Checkin’ Woman', 'Get Across To You', 'Horseplay' and 'On The Run', they’d carefully choose covers like '96 Tears', 'Wooly Bully', 'The Kids Are Alright', 'Shake'' and 'It Came Out Of The Sky', then they’d play everything as if they were being chased by the cops. The energy on stage was infectious and it wasn’t long before they started to attract decent sized audiences at all the pubs and clubs around town. Me? I had no real reference point as to what the hell I was doing. I didn’t know if they were going to sell records. All I knew was I liked 'em. A lot. They played the kind of music I grew up with but gave it a rawer edge and a life-or-death intensity that was hard to ignore. Their shows were thrilling. Back in the office (in the basement of 22 St. Peter’s Square, Hammersmith) I told Richard Williams that I’d seen something that I really liked and asked if he would come along and give a second opinion. Uh...and a green light.
Richard was the first in a series of excellent bosses I’ve been lucky to work for. As a writer (then editor) of Melody Maker, he was known for his scholarly approach to jazz and rock and brought a deeper appreciation for some of the more substantial musicians out there. The Velvet Underground, Roxy Music and Bob Marley benefited greatly from his enthusiasm and support. His 1972 biography of Phil Spector, ‘Out Of His Head’ (recently reprinted) remains to this day an essential read and some will remember him as the first presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2. He introduced Roxy Music to Chris Blackwell, who signed them to Island and, in return, Chris offered him a job as head of a&r. Richard brought in John Cale, Nico, Pete ('18 With A Bullet') Wingfield and a remarkable, teenage UK reggae band, Aswad, while overseeing releases by Richard & Linda Thompson, Brian Eno, Robert Palmer and Sandy Denny amongst several others. In offering a distribution deal to NYC's Fania Records, he was the first to bring salsa music to Britain and somehow managed to get Hector Lavoe to play the Nashville Rooms. Later, Richard would edit Time Out (London) and write for The Times. His books on Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and Ayrton Senna are all worth a read but if you’re only going to check out one thing by him, pick up 'Long Distance Call: Writings On Music' and read the chapter on 1965 where he makes the case – one that’s hard to disprove – that there’s never been such a great year for popular music.
These days, he’s chief sports writer at The Guardian but back then he was getting hassled to check out a bunch of noisy scruffs at the invitation of someone who had little idea of what he was doing. A nervous week or so went by, then Richard came to see the band at The Red Cow. Ed Hollis, the band’s novice manager, was a good talker and had the (necessary) powers of persuasion (and I think Richard genuinely liked the band enough to give me the necessary rope to get one under my belt) so a reasonable deal was arranged and, just like that, the Hot Rods became a rather untypical Island act. (Paul’s parents had to sign the contract, as he was only 16 at the time). Rehearsals were set up round the back behind Island’s canteen (where Burning Spear or the Wailers could occasionally be found playing table football when they weren’t in prolonged, herbalicious meetings with studio manager, Suzette) and two songs were chosen to be the first single. Vic Maile (who’d started his career in the Pye Mobile truck, engineering some of the best rock acts around) got the producer’s hat, largely because he’d done such a good job with the Feelgoods and knew how to make a band sound great. Photos were taken, more gigs were booked, equipment was bought, hopes were high and Caroline Coon gave ‘Writing On The Wall’ a decent mention in her Melody Maker singles column. The record flopped. It might have got one play on John Peel's show. Looking back, I don’t think anybody in their right mind would have picked either of these songs for a B-side, let alone an ‘A’. I told you I had no idea what I was doing. I asked Chris Blackwell to have a go and he tried his hand at producing 'All I Need Is Money' but, surprisingly, that didn't work so Roxy Music's Andy MacKay came in to produce ‘Wooly Bully’. Guess what? Another stiff...probably because it marked my debut on disc as one of the congregation belting out “Wooly Bully-y-y-y” in the chorus. The (considerably better) B-side, ‘Horseplay’ featured some wicked harp playing from Lew, but this was to mark his last contribution to the band as not long after, he was let go for his "erratic behavior". My memories of Lew are vague, but I do remember us all speeding back from a show in Cheltenham (where they’d opened for fellow Southenders, The Kursaal Flyers) when, all of a sudden, Lew opened the van’s side door and proceeded to relieve himself, holding onto the driver's seat while his mac flapped in the breeze (and piss). He had a kid, maybe two, and was always getting evicted from the places he lived, ending up on people’s floors, or lord knows where. The Lew Lewis Band recorded a couple of singles in the late 70s and then, as Lew Lewis Reformer, he released ‘Save The Wail’ on Stiff Records. In the 80’s, he held up his local Post Office (the teller recognized Lew through his mask) and ‘escaped’ on his bicycle. It didn’t take long for the law to catch up and Lew ended up doing a 7-year stretch at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Brixton Prison for armed robbery. He’s been in and out of hospitals and rehab ever since, but he still plays occasionally and hopes to record again soon. More about Lew, here…
In August 1976, the Hot Rods were invited to headline the First Annual International Punk Rock Festival in Mont de Marsan in southern France. Other bands on the bill included Roogalator, The Damned, The Gorillas, Pink Fairies, Nick Lowe, Sean Tyla, Telefon, Bijou, Shakin Street and it took place in a bullring during a heatwave. The locals didn’t know what to make of the sight of this lot sitting, sipping coffee at the tables outside their hotel. The Damned were only playing their 5th gig and had arrived with virtually no equipment. The 16 year old drummer in local band Telefon was persuaded to lend them his new drumkit and was moved to tears when Rat Scabies proceeded to beat the hell out of it, ending their set by kicking the drums all over the stage. Attendance for the festival couldn't have been much more than a few hundred and as the first day progressed the promoter, Marc Zermati, developed a severe limp. The next day, he was using a cane, complaining about the pain in his foot and then he sort of 'disappeared'. I'm fairly sure some of the bands didn't get paid as much as they were promised. Despite crummy record sales, the Hot Rods’ live reputation was building by leaps and bounds and soon they were headlining the Marquee on a regular basis. Pretty quickly, they'd become a fabulous live attraction, so we recorded a show and released the ‘Live At The Marquee’ e.p. and that, finally, charted at #43. Not great, but good enough to greenlight the album. Ok, the songs were all covers ('96 Tears', Bob Seger’s 'Get Out Of Denver' and the stringing together of 'Gloria' and 'Satisfaction') but it was a start. They set a new attendance record at the Marquee, subsequently snatched by AC/DC, then regained during a very hot summer, where temperatures in the packed, very damp club were close to 100F and an album, 'Teenage Depression' was assembled using some new songs, some old, a new recording of (the now Lew-less) Horseplay and a couple more songs from the Marquee show. Things were now moving in the right direction at last, and the picture sleeve to their second live e.p., ‘The Sound Of Speed’ featured the destroyed seats of the first 4 or 5 rows at the Rainbow, in Finsbury Park. Hot Rods fans were rowdy, vocal and liked to ‘express’ themselves. Ex-Kursaal Flyer, Graeme Douglas joined the band on lead guitar and to assist in the writing. He and Ed Hollis, (who helped write the lyrics to many of their songs) duly delivered the powerpop classic ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ in ’77, which finally got them into the top 10. Around that time, within 4 days of meeting MC5 singer Rob Tyner (who had flown to the UK from Detroit to write a piece on punk rock for the NME) I quickly arranged a one-off deal where the band would back him on a couple of his tunes '(Til The Night Is Gone) Let's Rock' and 'Flipside Rock'. This ferocious, legendary performer turned out to be one of the nicest - and kindest - musicians I've had the good fortune to meet and later, when I worked for Elektra, he was happy to contribute to the repackaging for the cd release of 'Kick Out The Jams'.
I left Island in 1978, but always relished my association with the Hot Rods, whose commitment to their audience has never waned. They always put on a dynamic show and that brings us to just a month ago, August 10th, when they played NYC for the first time in nearly 30 years. The band has changed considerably, with only Barrie from the original line-up, but back in the drum stool sat Steve Nicol’s nephew Simon Bowley. It must run in the family, because Simon propelled the band with all the energy, fills and clout of the old days. ‘Dipster’ loomed large on the bass while guitar duties were executed with panache by Chris Taylor and (erstwhile John Otway collaborator) Richard Holgarth. Playing a set that included 'Teenage Depression', 'I Might Be Lying', 'Ignore Them', 'Quit This Town', 'Why Should I Care', 'Love Love Love' (both from their latest album, 'Been There, Done That'), 'The Power & The Glory' and 'Life On The Line', they put 100% into it and those that made it out to the Knitting Factory that Sunday night had a blast. Barrie was in great shape and on top of his game (he really hasn’t changed at all, except for a few lines here and there…probably caused by a few lines here and there) and I was happy that the whole exercise didn’t seem like a band well past their sell-by date attempting to extort a few dollars out the pockets of their old fans. No, they played like they were just starting out and enjoying every minute. Barrie said every date on this tour (except Cleveland and this one had sold out) and that they'd be back in the Spring of 2010. Here's a few photos from back in the day and below, is a clip from last month