‘Catalyst bands’: What do you mean, you’ve never heard of them?
They’re the groups who never became stars—but inspired countless other musicians, or laid the groundwork for something bigger. Meet the ‘catalyst bands’
Thu 21 Jul 2011
It’s one of rock’s most familiar stories: the band that toils away in obscurity, loved by a bare handful of fans, that splits without ever being noticed, or whose career just sputter out; then, often years later, their name crops up again and again, cited as an influence by scores of young bands. Some of these bands—the Velvet Underground and the Stooges—go on to take their places in the rock canon, and are able to see their catalogue reissued and reform for the high-paying gigs they never got first time round. But what about those bands whose influence was great—who might even have changed pop history in their own way—but who never made the leap into the music history books, who remain known only to those few people who saw them at the time and a handful of keen-eared musicians? You might call them “catalyst bands”—but what’s it like to have been in one? Let the musicians themselves explain.
Ruthless Rap Assassins
Who were they? A Manchester rap collective of the late 80s and early 90s who gave hip-hop a British voice.
They paved the way for: Homegrown hip-hop acts such as Roots Manuva, who says: “After 20 years the Assassins are as relevant as any hip-hop. They put a UK black tilt on soundscape and dialogue. I would say that their music is the roots of grime.”
The band member: Paul Everton Leveridge aka “Kermit”, rapper
“In the 80s I got totally immersed in hip-hop and really lived the life. I joined a breakdance crew, Broken Glass. Morgan Khan put us on an album called Street Sounds UK Electro. We convinced him there was a UK hip-hop scene. In reality no one else was doing it. One day I was playing music at home and between tracks I heard banging tunes coming from the flat below. I looked out and this guy was looking up at me. That’s how I met Anderson Hinds and then his brother Carson, and we became the Rap Assassins.
“We didn’t know we were breaking ground, although we knew we were doing something different. I’d grown up with reggae and soul, but loved Black Sabbath and AC/DC. Anderson knew every kind of music. So our music was a stew of things. We didn’t want to be American. We rapped in British accents about our experience.
“We’d started doing underground gigs in colleges and clubs and we were signed very quickly, but EMI didn’t know what to do with us. They’d send a track off to the Mase from De La Soul to remix, or Tony Visconti and we’d go: ‘No, we’re not feeling it.’ We wanted to keep it real, but it killed us commercially. Critics loved us and John Peel was a big champion, but we didn’t sell a lot of records and started having arguments. I was taking a lot of drugs at the time, and after a big row in Canada, I stormed off at the airport. We didn’t speak for years, but not long ago we talked it through. I’m very proud of what we did. We were ahead of our time, and I hear echoes of what we did everywhere, whether it’s Tinie Tempah or Roots Manuva. I meet artists now and they say ‘Listening to you made us do this.’”
Hear them: rapassassins.f9.co.uk
Ruthless Rap Assassins’ debut, Killer Album, is reissued on Original Dope.
A Certain Ratio
Who are they? Mancunian stalwarts of the Factory label, whose late 70s experiments invented “punk-funk”.
They paved the way for: Every jerkily rhythmic act from Talking Heads to LCD Soundsystem, whose James Murphy once said: “[ACR’s] Do the Du was on a MiniDisc of songs I made people who were gonna play with me listen to. I heard it about the same time I met the Rapture, and was just freaking out.”
The band member: Jeremy “Jez” Kerr, bassist and vocalist
“Most of what we did was accidental. We were into Wire, which was monotone and heavy, and Brian Eno and George Clinton’s funk. I’d come from a northern soul background, but got into punk and strange music, such as Throbbing Gristle. We enjoyed music out of the comfort zone, music that made people think. Most of our good songs were mistakes—someone would forget their guitar and play something else. But how you react to that creates your best stuff. We played a year without a drummer. Tony Wilson was managing us and we told him we wanted the funkiest drummer in Manchester, so Donald Johnson was found. At the first rehearsal he said: “What the fuck is this?” But when he played over it, it sounded great. None if us had had any training, so we were just being ourselves, which made us different.
“After we got Donald, the press coined the phrase ‘punk-funk’ and called our image ‘Demob chic’. We had very short hair and clothes from Oxfam. You could pick up a grandad coat for 50p. We did six gigs with Talking Heads. Every night, David Byrne was at the side of the stage watching us. He asked us who we were listening to. He’d never heard of George Clinton, which seems comical now, but they were coming from a punk background. Their next album, Fear of Music, was funky, and their guitar was very similar to ours—but we’d nicked it off Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and added a funky drummer. Soon afterwards Sire Records boss Seymour Stein wanted to sign Madonna, and she supported us in New York so he could watch her. She came on with two dancers and a backing tape, but was absolutely fantastic. You could tell she was big-time: we had to move all our gear off the stage. Not long after that, Simon Topping, our singer, left and we changed our style from gothic darkness to Brazilian music, and people were baffled.
“You do think ‘What if .…?’ but I wouldn’t change anything. I worked in the post office for 11 years and did music for adverts. Now I’m a solo artist and we play five ACR gigs a year. But if we’d had a hit, people would have known us. Now, people still ask: ‘Who are they? Continue »
Hear them: myspace.com/acertainratio
Jez Kerr’s solo album Numb Mouth Eat Waste is out on 11 September on Higuera. He tours the UK in September.
Who were they? A mid-70s Liverpool art-glam band of whom music journalist Paul Du Noyer once said: “In the whole history of Liverpool music, two bands matter most: one is the Beatles and the other is Deaf School.”
They paved the way for: Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! and a host of 1980s Liverpool acts including Frankie Goes to Hollywood, whose singer, Holly Johnson, says: “They revived Liverpool music for a generation.”
The band member: Steve Allen, aka Enrico Cadillac, singer
“We got together in 1974 for the art school Christmas dance. Anyone who wanted to be in it could be. There were about 13 on stage at that time. No one could play—it was based on people we thought were interesting. At the time everything was big hair, tight jeans, but we wore retro clothes from Oxfam, slicked hair and made a mad noise. Back then, Mathew Street wasn’t Beatle city like it is now and the Cavern had been flattened. Post-Beatles, Liverpool was dead. We were into Bowie, Roxy, 40s Hollywood movies; it was desperation to break out of where we were.
“We were soon packing houses in Liverpool, but not getting out of the city. Then the bass player, Steve Lindsay, mentioned an early 70s leftover called the Melody Maker rock and folk contest. We won the bloody thing and were suddenly a big deal. We signed to Warners because their A&R guy, Derek Taylor, had been the Beatles publicist and when he saw us rehearsing in Mathew Street, he cried his eyes out.
“We created our own universe. Jayne Casey [Big In Japan], Pete Burns [Dead or Alive], Paul Rutherford, Holly, Julian Cope, Ian McCulloch, Pete Wylie and Steve Strange [Visage] were all outsider kids who came to Deaf School gigs. The first album charted, but we were swept away by the punk tsunami. Suggs married our other singer, Bette Bright. Kevin Rowland used to see us in Birmingham—his little moustache came from me!—and our bassist Clive Langer produced Dexys’ Come on Eileen.
“Sometimes it does feel like everyone who saw us did something important. Malcolm McLaren once told us it was just as bad to be too early as too late. But we can still play to hundreds of people in Liverpool today and they sing every word.”
Hear them: deafschoolmusic.com
Deaf School play the Port Eliot festival, Cornwall on 24 July. They release the mini-album Enrico + Bette XX on Deaf School Records on 29 August.
The Flowers of Romance
Who are they? A legendary pre-punk outfit who never played a gig or made a record, but whose fluctuating lineup was a “who’s who” of future punk legends, including Sid Vicious and Marco Pirroni, of Adam and the Ants.
They paved the way for: The Slits and Public Image Ltd. John Lydon said: “The Flowers of Romance had about 40 fucking members. [PIL’s] Keith Levene was one and I gave them the name. I wrote a song called The Flowers of Romance, about people who pretend to be friends and all they want is to leech on to a good thing.”
The band member: Bassist Viv Albertine
“We never even wrote any songs, but when journalists realised something was beginning to happen [with punk] they followed us around. We looked great and we’d tell them our name, which was different to all the other punk names at the time, which were ugly, rebellious or aggressive. For us, the meaning was that we were the flowers of a more romantic era.
“I’d been at the Chelsea School of Art with Mick Jones, and saw the Sex Pistols play there. I was completely inspired even though I’d never played an instrument. I remember I was wearing a brown leather jacket and thinking: ‘This is wrong, it’s brown!’ I got rid of it immediately.Continue »
“I met Malcolm McLaren, who was very charming then. It was such a small scene; I was walking along with Mick in Ladbroke Grove and met John [Lydon] and John [Beverley], who later became Sid Vicious. They looked like bookmarks, blonde and black spiky hair, very handsome. My grandmother had left me a couple of hundred quid so I bought a bass guitar. Sid said: ‘I’ll form a band with you.’ At the time, there was no precedent for boys and girls forming bands together. It just didn’t happen.
“We jammed all summer of 76 in Joe Strummer’s basement. Sid on saxophone and vocals, Palmolive [who later joined Albertine in the Slits] on drums. A girl called Sarah Hall, who’s since died, was also on bass, and Jo Faull, who never played anything but was an enigmatic, beautiful young girl who went out with Steve Jones [of the Pistols]. I think Sid liked the novel idea of being in a band of girls.
“I remember a lot of squawking noises. It was agony, actually. We emerged in September, absolutely pale, without a single song, although Sid invented the pogo in that basement, jumping up and down. Then he decided that he wanted a ‘proper’ guitarist and Marco Pirroni replaced me, then it fell apart. Sid went on to be an icon in the Pistols, Marco went to Adam and the Ants and I formed the Slits. It’s funny, really. Something that lasted a short time has never gone away.”
Hear them: You can’t.
Viv Albertine is looking for pledges to help record her debut solo album. Details: vivalbertine.com/
John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers
Who are they? A blues band who gained a reputation in the mid-1960s as a “nursery group” for rock legends, and helped kickstart the British blues boom, alongside the likes of Alexis Korner.
They paved the way for: Their ranks have included Fleetwood Mac founders Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Peter Green, Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, Free’s Andy Fraser, Cream’s Jack Bruce, and Eric Clapton, who once said: “Bluesbreakers: John Mayall with Eric Clapton was the album that really brought my playing to people’s attention.”
The band member: John Mayall, guitarist and singer
“It’s weird the way it’s worked out. I’d been in the army and started bands in Cheadle Hulme, but moved to London, where I was soon playing seven days a week. I’ve never been able to explain the role of a bandleader or how I recruit musicians. I’ve always just gone by instinct, and picked people who are compatible. The main thing is you get to call the shots. John McVie was a young bass player who was recommended. Eric Clapton had walked out of the Yardbirds and was available, and wanted to play blues. Once he had the right environment to do that, he came on in leaps and bounds. His impact was revolutionary and he changed the sound of the band. He was incendiary, out there, on fire.
“When Eric went to Greece to do something with his mates, we got Peter Green. I didn’t think: ‘Oh here’s another guy who’s going to be a major figure.’ It’s about finding people who bring something to the table. When people leave, it’s just the cycle. Jack Bruce replaced McVie, who formed Fleetwood Mac with Green and Mick Fleetwood. Then Eric came back. I didn’t necessarily expect it to be permanent. He’s a restless person. In 2003, for my 70th birthday, we got Eric and Mick Taylor on the same stage, and that was very exciting. A major player has their own recognisable identity; you know them within the first few notes. Something original to say, and personality is a big part of it because on tour you’re together 24 hours a day. The friendship and the good feelings come when the music takes off. I’m not paternal, but I’m proud to have been associated with these people. Now I’m playing under my own name, but whatever band I put together is very exciting for me. Spotting players seems to come naturally. I think the band I’ve got now is the best I’ve ever had.”Continue »
Hear them? johnmayall.com/listen.html
John Mayall tours the UK in October. Details: johnmayall.com/tour.html
Who are they? A 1980s Sheffield “industrial funk” band whose ex-members went on to bigger things and whose FON studios set-up was the centre of the city’s scene and sired the 1990s “Sheffield sound”.
They paved the way for: Most especially, Warp Records, but as linchpins of the Sheffield music scene they contributed to the careers of many artists with no apparent musical similarities, such as Richard Hawley. Dave Taylor, of FON Records, once described Chakk as “like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Prodigy, but in 1983".
The band member: Jake Harries, vocalist
“We moved to Sheffield to make music because of the Human League and Cabaret Voltaire, who were electronic and leftfield where bands from other cities tended to be rock. We were also into funk, people such as James ‘Blood’ Ulmer and George Clinton and A Certain Ratio. Being on the dole gave us the time and imagination to get really good, and Sheffield’s industrial decline meant there were loads of places to rehearse, cheap. We built our own gear, but money was tight. Once, our rehearsal room flooded and all the equipment was floating, and, of course, we weren’t insured. Amrik Rai started writing about us in NME and wanted to manage us. He wore check suits and what he called a ‘Sikh warrior turban’. Record companies had never seen anything like him. Amrik put it about that we signed to MCA for £500,000 but it was nothing like that. But we realised that it would actually be cheaper to build a studio [Fon] in Sheffield and record there than go to London.
“The album was vital and energetic, but MCA refused to release it. We’d recorded the Out of the Flesh single [in 1984, for the indie label Doublevision] really quickly, and it got the labels after us before we’d hardly done any gigs. But suddenly we were put in with different producers, doing take after take. Then MCA decided they didn’t like the new version of the album either. Amrik swears they played him a tape of the original one they rejected, and said ‘Why isn’t it like this?’ The rerecorded album eventually came out in 1986 with very little fanfare. One article compared us to the Sex Pistols’ The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, but said: ‘At least the Pistols made a good album for the money.’
It was a huge disappointment for everybody and we were dropped soon afterwards. We all started doing different things to put it behind us. I formed [early chill-out act] Heights of Abraham. Two of the others started bands with Richard Hawley. Mark Brydon [later in Moloko] and Rob Gordon [of FON] made Krush’s House Arrest , the first British house hit. They produced Yazz and Age of Chance, and Rob made the Forgemasters’ Track with No Name, the first Warp record. Fon became the studio where everyone wanted to work. Chakk was an 18-month blip in our lives where a single came out, we got signed and got dropped, but ever since it’s been hard to escape it.”
Hear them: myspace.com/chakk
Holly Johnson pays tribute to Deaf School
I was a T.Rex and David Bowie-obsessed teenager when Deaf School suddenly appeared on the cover of Melody Maker. The photograph was very intriguing, leading to a sort of crush on their singers, Bette Bright and Enrico Cadillac, both of whom wore eye shadow. The pseudonyms the band adopted added an air of mystique and glamour, and the art-school connection a touch of Roxy Music romanticism. Before that, Liverpool music had been about Merseybeat and the Beatles, who by then lived in some far off dimension, or Yellow Submarine. Deaf School were real and in my hometown.
“When I finally heard What a Way to End It All from their first album, with its odd lyrical bent and colourful cabaret aspect, I was transfixed but transformed. This was the benchmark that had to be transcended. Someone had to make a bigger splash.Continue »
“I started my first band, Big in Japan, using Deaf School’s equipment. They’d become almost as absent as the Beatles, but become the absent leaders of a new scene. After the ‘big bang’ of the 1960s, they were the touchstone that inspired a wave of creative rebellion and musical ambition that revived Liverpool’s music scene for a generation.