Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Soviets Era 1983-85

Dress made from an old bed sheet; coat and jumper - mum's from the 1960s.
 Hanging out in Newark Cemetery.

After my three years 1979 - 1982 in Sheffield, where I was only in bedroom-style bands, I moved to Leicester. The reason was to do a PhD in the Communication of Science using new Information Technology. In fact, with a colleague, I published the first ever academic paper on data downloading. It was a mystery subject back then in 1981 and my research found that hardly anyone downloaded anything, let alone knew what the word meant.

The Soviets: Simon, Richard, Ruth, Andy

I lived in a succession of bedsits, and was desperate to join a band. Before too long, I met other postgraduate students who shared my musical tastes and politics. Andy, Simon and I formed The Soviets - an overtly left wing political combo. We did have different bass players: Martin and Neil but they were less involved with the group ideology. There were similar groups about then; we were compared with the Gang of Four or the Redskins, and the music was a fast jangly guitar pop. After a while Richard joined us on  bass and guitar, which enabled us to sound slightly better and get some high profile local gigs at political events and Red Wedge concerts.

Andy - the 'vocal stylist' was an intense, probably screwed up and narcissistic tall guy, who liked the Joy Division way of things too much for his own good. He was studying American Literature and he had a great mind that he put to work living the life of a Poet. I am aware that a blog is a publication and so I need to be certain that my text falls into the scope of 'fair comment', particularly regarding people's musicianship. I contend that Ian Curtis was a much better singer than Andy, although no-one would have dared to say anything like that. There was always the insinuation that the desire to sing beautifully in tune was a bourgeois concept, so we shut up. I was not encouraged to sing, mainly because Andy didn't play any instruments and he wanted to be the singer. I was in a relationship with him and, under the Poet's spell,  I chose to pander to his self-image. There was also the coolness of being a competent female instrumentalist  and not the focal point of the group.

Simon the drummer was doing research into the portrayal of the Falklands War. Whilst the rest of us had met Marxism through studying literature and cultural theory, Simon came from a Labour Party background and had tried all the Socialist/Workers/Revolutionary/Militant groups that were active on university campuses then. We didn't join any of these, largely because Simon told us they were full of 'posh kids'. However, we were always keen to do gigs for them.

  cassette recordings 1984-5

Richard, the jangly guitarist, had previously been in bands in the North East, and was a great singer and songwriter in his own right. His presence brought more fun, and a fascinating personal style that consisted of immaculate politeness, hesitance, and constant apology. Richard had gentleness and an awareness of gender that created an alliance with me and gave Trotsky a rather cross look. Still, the hegemony (!) of the band did not allow Richard or I to sing.

 We played Leicester's De Montfort Hall several times for the May Day celebrations. The miners' strike was obviously a huge event though I can't remember whether we played any of the benefit gigs such as for the 'Dirty Thirty' fund. It is awful how I remember the intensity of my life back then but very few of the details. Anyway, our most high profile gig was on the Red Wedge tour at Highfields Community centre. We played in the middle of the day, but the highlight was a question and answer session with some of the 'stars' of Red Wedge. My whole attitude to the scene was changed by this event. We were poor students, playing in a venue in the middle of a really deprived community for nothing, not even any free food or drink. After hanging around all day, Paul Weller and his team were driven in to sit in front of us and answer questions. I couldn't take my eyes off him. His haircut and designer jumper would have cost more than most of the people there would have earned in six months. Weller's body language seemed arrogant and inappropriate and I felt talked down to. I think Rhoda Dakar was on the same panel and she was more human, but Red Wedge lost me on that day.

It's generally not a good idea to be in a band with someone you are having a relationship with. It's far better to be eternal good friends and I regret that my musical career has sadly ignored this principle. My relationship with Andy was turbulent and abusive. He could not manage his money; I felt he lived a true artist life style but it was not for me. In the days of no food banks, Andy would just eat egg and chips till they ran out, and would scramble roll-ups together out of butts he picked up off the street. When he did get a student grant, benefit or other windfall, his priorities in order would be to buy designer clothes, cigarettes, a large bag of potatoes and a dozen eggs. This was the '80s, clubbing had started, and it mattered how you looked. The rest of the band just wore charity shop clothes or old things bought by parents, but Andy was desperate to have the best clothes - maybe it was the Paul Weller influence?

I can't remember the Soviets splitting up. I guess it just fizzled out as we finished or abandoned our student lives. Since then, I haven't really kept in touch with anybody in the band, apart from a couple of one-off meetings in recent years. Playing in an 80's revolutionary pop-combo seems to have been a good preparation for proper jobs in academic and public sector leadership. Fascinating times; they have had a huge impact on everything that has happened since.


The Chaos Biscuits

For 3 years after leaving The Devices and going to Sheffield Polytechnic in 1979, I did not play any gigs. Mind you, I went to plenty. It was a great time to be in Sheffield; my first few weeks included going to see Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo and the Bunnymen, Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark, the Dead Kennedys, and The Human League at Doncaster Rotters club. I had chosen Sheffield for its music; my aim was to see Cabaret Voltaire, which I did - at the fantastic Psalter Lane Art School - supported by Clock DVA.

My three years as a student were a rich musical banquet. I revelled in the fact that you could go out to the Limit Club and see Martyn Fry of ABC or Phil Oakey of the Human League out having a good time, and sometimes they'd say 'hi' to you. Pulp's Jarvis Cocker was a well-known guy around town; often to be seen in the pub which had hundreds of tea pots around the ceiling. Does that still exist? After a night out, the 2.30am late bus to Totley (7 miles) was double the normal 12p fare, thanks to the Labour city council of the time; they played Abba music on the night bus to discourage people from fighting. The art school students made Sheffield challengingly creative and there were hundreds of confident, stylish and original young people to feast your eyes on whenever you went out. A particular favourite was one guy who used to wear tailored suits in different kids' curtain fabrics. I never spoke to him, but I loved his verve. A few new club nights started up - always on a Monday or Tuesday - never at the weekend, and they throbbed with electronic sounds and art-school poseurs. I loved it; I don't think I drank alcohol at this time, and the clubs didn't seem to be big on drugs or excessive booze; it was mainly about the carrying-off of daring style.

During this time, I did still write songs, though. I was in a bedroom band, initially called The Chaos Biscuits, but then changing to become The Pandas. It tended to include a biscuit-tin or drum machine rhythm section (hence the name), me on guitar and a twangy bass. Sometimes I sang, and sometimes Simon Knott sang. He is now a highly respected photographer and historian of East Anglian churches. Another member of the collective was Anthony Kershaw Wilson, who got progressively interested in horoscopes and the Tarot, and now, I believe does it professionally. One song by The Pandas is called 'Sunday', and it was later recorded by PO! for the album 'Not Marked on the Ordnance Map' under the name 'Better'. I didn't manage to get in touch with A.K.W. who wrote the lyrics, but I did credit him.

  Mike McKrell, Ruth Miller, Antony K. Wilson. I am wearing a 'Girls At Our Best' T shirt.
Ant with Simon Knott
David James - part of the biscuit tin rhythm section

Simon, Mike, Antony: the boys in the band doing the kind of thing we did back then.