Sunday, February 15, 2009

Interview: Jeff Hill

For the uninitiated, Jeff Hill's original claim to fame was "I Want You to Dance with Me," the seminal glitter-punk 45 issued by Chiswick Records in the dandy year o' 1977.  

The debut single was largely a studio concoction -- Jeff backed by a random gang o' "jobbers" -- and, unfortunately, it didn't quite meet with the high level of success the label's financial guru had forecasted (see below).  However, Jeff (see far right) had the gumption & gusto to soldier on, and just two years later, he had formed a sturdy power-trio, the Jeff Hill Band, and released an even better (though incredibly scarce) 45, "Something's Wrong with My Baby," on the band's own imprint, Balloon Records.  Jeff recently parted his rocker locks and was kind enough to entertain us with some of his stories...

Eric/Attacking the Beat: How did your relationship with Chiswick Records start?  What were you doing before you teamed up with them?

Jeff Hill: Oh, this could sound like a Bryan Adams lyric, if I'm not careful.  "Got my first real six string..."  Enough.

To cut a long story short, I guess it's the same tale that most musicians would tell, you know.

Hanging out with the guys from school and terrifying our frightened parents on too-loud out-of-tune guitars while were were learning.  Hey, we didn't have PlayStations.  They were only invented in order to stop kids forming garage bands and annoying the neighbors.

From '72 to '76, it was a series of local "bands" as we "perfected" our craft.  Yeah, in our dreams.

I'd been in a typical mid-'70s band -- we were only 16 or so -- then another local band called "The Jets of Air" supported us on a local gig.  I was amazed.  They were doing covers of the New York Dolls, Iggy, Lou Reed, etc. -- on crappy guitars from Woolworth's.  Their guitarist lent me the first Ramones album and that was that.  He was Pete McNeish.

Our band was booked into a studio in Covent Garden in London in late '76...  For some demos, I think, which turned out to be...  Well, a bag of crap, to put it mildly.  The producer and our then "manager" and myself went to the Opera Tavern in Drury Lane to regroup.

It didn't take us long -- or much beer, in fact -- to decide that what we really wanted to do was make something exciting.  It was a time of cathartic change.  You know, like the end of the Jurassic period or something.

We got back to the studio after a couple of pints and knocked our great new idea around, and the other three guys in the band said "NO WAY!"  So...

We all went back to Cheshire.  The band split and I knocked out a couple of tunes onto a cassette recorder, which the producer and manager liked, and they were the songs for the Chiswick single.

I knew it may be OK when I read in the NME that Pete had changed his name to Shelley and was now a star.  We were making the same kind of noise.

No, I can't remember what happened to the Ramones album.

I do know what happened to Pete's Woolie's guitar, though.  He took a saw to it and chopped off the top bit of the body.

ATB: Can you describe the session that yielded the "I Want You to Dance with Me" 45?  Did the drummer really only have one arm?  Were you happy with the session and the single?

JH: Oh, jeez.  The manager rang and said, "Get yourself down to London today."  So I wrote the chord charts on the train.  I was so nervous, 'cause apparently the guys on the session were all pros, and I was a schoolkid.

We all met in the Opera Tavern before the session.  I couldn't believe it.  They were several pints ahead of me and it looked like something from I don't know...  Barnum's Circus.  The bass player was a very large black guy from a reggae band and nearly broke my hand when I shook his.  He had no idea of white-kid pop, but he was willing to learn.  Lovely guy.  And then there was the drummer.  I think his name was Lionel.  He was an Asian guy and... oh, there's no way to say this politically-correctly, but...  The guy had one good arm and one which just... kinda dangled.

Seemed that he'd had an accident -- kind of like the guy from Def Leppard -- on the very eve of the tour and, instead of chopping the thing off, they just left it hanging there like some sort of ghost limb.  He twirled the stick in his one good hand and batted everything else with his feet.  Bizarre situation.  The red light goes on, I'm a beer-influenced guitarist and singer, the bass-man speaks only Jamaican, the producer is well-oiled on London Pride beer...  Let's make some noise.  It was like, "Welcome to the asylum, young man!"

We did those first two songs in, I guess, two hours, all mixed.  Then went back to the pub.

Amazingly, Baz, the producer, got a noise that worked, and Ted Carroll from Chiswick took it up within the week.  

In all, it was like a liberating experience for me.  Throwing off that stale '70s stuff and bashing the guitar within an inch of its life.  I'd loved the Ramones record and now -- wow, I was doing it.

ATB: How many songs did you record that weren't released?

JH: Ted booked me into a small 8-track studio in north London called Pathway to put down demos of other songs that I had.  The Stiff and Chiswick guys used it all the time.  The Damned, Motorhead, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury -- you name 'em.

It was a tiny place, like a lock-up garage.  Quite fitting, I suppose, but they got a wonderful "live" sound.  The bass player and drummer on that session were from the Love Affair -- another "wow."  They were so cool and we put down a dozen more tracks in the day.

Ted liked them and made plans for the album.  Trevor White from Sparks was going to produce it.  Hey, I'm over the moon now.

While I was in the studio, apparently Ted and the engineer spoke on the phone and the next thing, I'm putting a couple layers of, well, honestly, thrash guitar on two Motorhead tracks...  Eddie being unavailable, for reasons best left.

ATB: Wait...  You recorded guitar tracks for Motorhead?  Were you hanging out with them at the time?  Do tell!

JH: It was literally an afterthought on a session I did at Pathway.  The engineer changed the tapes and I bashed rhythm guitar parts onto it.  Two tracks, one of which was "Motorhead," I remember.  The other, no idea.  I don't think they even knew about my little contribution.

It came about as Eddie was unavailable.  Apparently, he and Phil used to fight like cat and dog, and this led to some injuries here and there.  On this day, I was just available.

I did, of course, meet them eventually.  There was a rehearsal facility under the arches near Waterloo Station.  Pat from the Vibrators ran it.  We left the "hole in the wall" pub and Pat opened the huge metal door and... shit.  This enormous wall of noise hit us.  The air displacement could kill.  That was just Lemmy and Phil.  No Eddie.

My recollections of Ian (Lemmy) at the Chiswick office are of a guy who didn't want to be on the label.  I think they went to Gerry Bron.

I saw Lemmy again at the NYC Roxy in, I think, '82.  It was the "Ex-Pistols" or Professionals or whatever.  We had a shandy or two.

I remember Ted taking me to see a "new band from Dublin" on their first London gig -- the Boomtown Rats.  Ted, myself and Phil had a few beers.  Weren't too impressed, though.  Ted said, "I can officially say the Boomtown Rats suck."  Phil was trying to get the money out of Ted for a bigger drum kit he wanted.  Then there was a problem, a bit of a ruck.  That happened, then... Phil joined and got arrested.  

Never a dull moment.

ATB: How was the single received, locally and abroad?  And how did your expectations of how the single would fare compare with its reception everywhere?

JH: Haha.  VERY locally -- my old folks were still confused.  They'd warned me about associating with undesirables, and now I'd become one of the people they'd warned me against!

They were SO supportive, though, and without them... who knows?

Lots of nice things followed.

It was funny...  Ted called me down to London for a photo session with Chris Gabrin.  My girlfriend insisted on coming, too -- she had the make-up stuff.  We got to "Rock On" and Ted is in a state.  He dumped us with Chris and left saying that he had to go bail out Malcolm McClaren, who'd been arrested on a boat in the Thames the night before.

He got back to the photo studio, having bailed out the folks, looked at the pics and said, "You look like fucking Marc Bolan!" and left.

So much for Jubilee Day.

A journalist in Manchester picked up on a white label, and I was, I suspect, the first "new wave" artist to be interviewed in the provincial BBC.  Peely played the single and it sold, but not in the quantity that Ted's accountant/partner would have liked.  Trevor Churchill now had the "yes or no" decision on the next single and the album.  I think you know what that was.

As for abroad, I would have never known.  Apparently Sweden seemed to like it, but who wants to go there?  Too damn cold and expensive.

The A-Side did get onto the Chiswick Chartbusters album.

I'd had enough of London for awhile and headed home.

ATB: Did you play any shows with the studio line-up?

JH: Oh, wow...  That WOULD have been funny!  Unfortunately we only played on that one session.  I'd never thought of it before, but it would have been like the best freak show hitting town.  Shit.  Trying to get a one-armed drummer set up (never mind getting him to the gig) with a ganja'd-out Rasta and Ian Hunter's love child.  Can you imagine?  Feckin' bizarre.  And the catering, ha ha -- jerk chicken for the bass-man, curry for the drummer, and fish and chips.   Oh jeez.  I don't have too many regrets, but not having toured with those guys is now one of them.

ATB: Given some of the more rough 'n' tumble bands on Chiswick's roster -- performers like Skrewdriver, Motorhead, the Hammersmith Gorillas -- were you worried that you might not fit in?

JH: Yeah, Chiswick wasn't so much a label as a hostel for the creatively-insane.  I suspect that was down to Ted's enthusiasm rather than a business principle.  You're right to say that there were... diverse, shall we say, acts on there.  For my part, I was just so happy to get a record deal at all.  Who wouldn't be at that age?  It never really occurred that I wouldn't "fit in."  They had pop people like the ex-Sparks guys, the Radio Stars...  Martin Gordon had been in a band with Bolan.  So, no problems, then.

The Radiators were pop, too.  Yeah, there was pub rock.  Joe's 101ers, Twink from the Pretty Things, Motorhead, all sorts of stuff.  The one I worried about was Skrewdriver.

They were from Blackpool, just about 40 miles from my home town in the northwest of England... and they were SKINHEADS!!!  Ted really liked them... OK.

The politics of the time are important here.  Joe and the Clash were very left wing -- very -- and there was a movement called "Rock Against Racism," which I supported.  Not that I'm "lefty," but it just seemed sensible.  Skinheads, by nature, nurture or association, are very right-wing... almost neo-nazi.  Oh, shit!

The National Front was a growing force then.  Jackboots and armbands, and violence at gigs, too.

So, we are playing at Tony Wilson's club, the Russell, as we did.  And Ian Stuart, the singer from Skrewdriver, came into the dressing closet and introduced himself very charmingly.  We're labelmates, of course.  He wanted to get up and sing with us, so we did a couple of songs together at the end of our set, which went down hugely well.  The audience loved it -- just R&B standards, can't remember...  "Route '66" probably... that stuff... great... lots of sweat and applause.  Ian was cool and not at all what I thought.  We chatted and he was a great reggae fan and into black R&B big-style.  The guy from Rabid, at the bar, bollocked me for "singing with a fascist," whilst admitting it was good rock 'n' roll.  I don't know what happened to Ian after that.  We never met again.  I heard he died as a skinhead icon.  How would I know?  He didn't strike me as a racist.  So much for "fitting in"... with whom?

ATB: How did you meet Dave Buckley and Roy Humphries, who would eventually become permanent fixtures in the Jeff Hill Band?  

JH: [I met Dave] on the way back home, in fact.  The train was too expensive, so I got the English equivalent of a Greyhound.  The bus stopped and I got chatting to this guy who's been on a drum audition in London, and, well, there we are -- nothing by chance, then.  He knows a bass player who's looking for a gig, and -- guess what? -- he's got a Ford Transit.  Band formed, then.

We jammed that week in a local rehearsal room and, hey, band sorted.

Dave wanted to call it...  Oh, some stupid name.  But that's his sense of humor.  I insisted that it was under my name.  He capitulated, reluctantly.

ATB: How did this line-up compare with the line-up of the Chiswick single?  What were early shows like with the three-piece?

JH: Er, "chaotic" is a good word.  No one outside of London had a clue what this was all about.

I remember sitting in an important Northern agent's office and he gave us a gig.  He warned us that the Buzzcocks had "emptied the room in five minutes" the week before.  It took us ten!

Slowly, folks got a bit more turned on to what we were doing, but there were only a few venues which we could work.  Eric's in Liverpool was a breeding ground, of course.  Not that many, apart from the College circuit, which we did.

They were all a bit mad.  Too much spitting... Horrible on the receiving end, but I guess they meant well.  It was supposed to be a sign of acceptance.  Disgraceful way of showing it, though.

Oh, yeah...  There was one "direct hit" I remember.  We're rocking at 90-miles-an-hour and it's the first song.  They're all pogoing and this sort of, well, spit hits us like a tidal wave.

Most missed, of course, but one little shit managed to get a -- don't know what you call it -- a piece of phlegm exactly between my thumb and forefinger... bullseye.  Plectrum flew away, can't hit the guitar now, gotta wipe the stuff on my trousers.  Ooooh.

And then, at the end of the gig, the actual fallout of the fucking spit-tsunami would be apparent.  It's in your hair, on your guitar, all over the stage cables.  Yuck.  Hepatitis on a stick!

ATB: As you saw it, were you guys a new wave band, a glitter band, a punk band, or...?  What kind of band did you consider yourselves?  And what impact did punk and new wave have on you guys?  What bands influenced your songwriting and playing?

JH: Surely, yeah, "new wave" is the best description, but it's interesting that you mention "glitter."  I was a massive fan of Bowie and Bolan and carried that with me.  The original "punk" thing had been and gone with the Pistols and the Damned.  It all moved on so quickly.  The Clash were exploring politics.  We, I guess, were in the business of writing "pop" songs, albeit with a different attitude, but still with the mixture of punk in mind.  Sixties melodies, but, how can I say, distorted-like guitars.

Yeah, "new wave" summed it up for all sorts of bands in our time.  It was the most amazing time to live through and every new band you heard threw new coals onto the creative fire.

OK, I now sound like some old shit and I'm sorry for that.

Actually, NO, I'm not, on reflection.  It was fucking wonderful!

ATB: Please elaborate on Gary, your roadie.

JH: Liverpool has a habit of producing what we would probably euphemistically call "characters."  Gary was definitely one of them.  We met on our first gig at a USAF base in Warrington.  The locals had no idea what we were about, but a guy wearing leather and all sorts of punk hair and metal stuff dangling from just about everywhere did.  Well, he hired himself that night.

He'd stage-dive, throw rather dangerous things at people who spat...  Oh, just do all sorts of lunatic stuff -- possibly best left.  Over the time the band toured, he'd be ever more a part of our live shows.

He'd climb on the PA stacks wearing ever-more bizarre stuff and ranting "Pretty Vacant."  Even Pete Burns struggled to compete at Eric's.

The last-but-one track on the live side of the Dutch LP [the Low Down Kids 12", compiling all manner of Hillian rarities and treats; released some years back, and now sadly outta print -- ed.] had to be Gary doing his party-piece.

I guess you had to be there.  But, there's a mad scouser (Liverpudlian) jumping all over peoples' tables, kicking their drinks over and throwing boiled sweets at those he can't physically reach, whilst screaming into the mic.  Of its time, I guess.  Lots of fun.

Oh, by the way, he knew nothing at all about gear.  The setting up of... the stripping down of... jack.  He was along for the ride, and we were glad to have him.

ATB: So you found out that your Chiswick single was deleted through a column in Sounds?

JH: Yeah.  Trevor got his way and the next single and album were cancelled, and the single was deleted.  I only found out when I read Sounds that week.  They didn't bother to tell me.  Why should they?  I'm only the artist.  Bugger all to do with me.

I know now that it wasn't Ted's doing.  He was really keen on the album.  So I rang Tony Wilson, who'd become a good confidante, and he suggested I meet Martin Hannett, and so...  back to the asylum!

Martin's house was like going onto the set of some dope-influenced '60s movie.  There were people hanging around that even he didn't know.  And some strange herbal odours, too.

The upshot was that Martin wanted to do a cover of "Why," the B-side to "8 Miles High."  And I was the guy to do it, apparently...  So, demos, then.

I had "Something's Wrong with My Baby" now.  Oh, gosh...  '78, I guess.  But Martin was on his Byrds-quest.

We did "Why," which he was so confident that he/Rabid could lease to EMI.  They didn't seem to have the Hannett-vision necessary, and that was that... again.

So, the band and I decided to record "Something's Wrong" anyway and went to the "cool" studio near Manchester.  Originally, it was going to be done with Martin at the desk, but the studio owner wouldn't hear of it.

"That bastard blew my monitors up.  He's bloody crazy.  Don't bring him anywhere near here.  He's banned!  Fucking madman!"  

That was when I knew Martin would be a GREAT producer.  Like a '70s Phil Spector, I guess.  He was doing Joy Division already... enough said.  In retrospect, I'd love to have held out and him produce "Something's Wrong" just to see what would have happened.  I may not have survived, but...

Anyway, the record was made.  I had a B-side, but Dave Buckley, being Dave, insisted that his song go on the B-side.  He's very insistent, and I agreed...

ATB: What happened with your manager, Keith Roberts?

JH: Keith was an old contact/friend of Ray, the bass player.  He'd been in the Escorts in the early '60s and knew a bit about how to...  I dunno, proceed in the business of music.

Dave hated him on sight, because Keith saw what was going on.  I'd had the record out, Ray was cool about being along for the gig, but Dave saw everything from day one of our jamming as a "band" thing, which meant that his songs were at least as important, if not more, than mine.

Keith Roberts, like any business-guy would do, promoted what he saw as "the brand," "the label," if you like.  Whatever was most salable.  He saw that as me.  OK, that's a manager, for you.

ATB: Why did you guys decide to release the "Something's Wrong with My Baby" single on your own label, Balloon Records?

JH: Oh, after the Rabid/EMI saga, there was only one alternative -- put it out yourselves.  Fashion had moved on so damn quickly.  We were up against the Mod revival, ska and even the start of synth-pop.

It's a new decade, and I knew that our time was up.

The record was received very well, but too late.

No, we didn't hear Peely play it -- probably freezing our butts off in some God-forsaken toilet of a gig somewhere.  

The demise of the band was, I guess, inevitable, but the timing of the record coming out was... Quite sad.

Balloon had loads of demos sent to us, but it was all academic by then, unfortunately.  We may have discovered some great stars, who knows?  I'm sure they've done well enough without us, though.

ATB: Do you have any regrets?  What would you have done differently with the band?

JH: That's a difficult one.  Circumstance and other peoples' agendas had everything to do with our journey.  There's not a lot I could have changed, really.

I would spent more time in London.  Yeah, that would have been beneficial.  But then, I may not have worked with Martin.  Oh, it's all hypothesis now.

I would have followed up the Balloon demos to see what was in there...  With the benefit of hindsight.