A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF THE RECORDS 1978-1982
BY WILL BIRCH
The Records 1978 - 1979
John Wicks (guitar/vocals) Huw Gower (guitar/vocals) Phil Brown (bass/vocals) Will Birch (drums)
I first met John in 1977 when he auditioned as rhythm guitarist for the Kursaal Flyers. John was ideal musically, but his image was a no-no, so our singer, Paul Shuttleworth, conducted a makeover. Two days later John looked like a Sex Pistol.
Together, John and Paul wrote a great song called Moral Fibre. Inspired by John’s grasp of pop melody, I sought to co-write with him following the Kursaals’ demise. John and I spent a number of afternoons together where I would have a snooze on the couch whilst he grafted wonderful tunes to some of my more juvenile lyrics. Early titles included Teenarama, Up All Night and one called The Weather In My Mind, thankfully, not a keeper.
It was plain we had been listening to ‘Revolver’, plus lots of stuff by the Raspberries, Big Star and Badfinger. Gradually, the direction for our fantasy group evolved. We envisaged a classic four-piece of uniform height and head to body ratio. John would play rhythm guitar and sing; I was on the drums. To fill out the group we placed a carefully worded ad in the Melody Maker and found Phil Brown, whose sympathetic bass playing and infectious grin got us through the trauma of recruiting a lead guitarist. We auditioned over two-hundred. An early choice, Brian Alterman, made all the right noises but, after a few weeks, lost his nerve. Eventually, Huw Gower materialised. He played great left-handed Gibson 345 and had heard of Spirit. His party trick was simulated backwards guitar. We should have called ourselves The Void and waited fifteen years, but The Records we became.
1978 was a great year for the un(der)signed. Let me digress… As The Records were preparing themselves for world domination, Dave Edmunds had put a tune to my lyric A1 On The Jukebox and, more importantly, recorded and released it; John and I wrote Hearts In Her Eyes, which would soon be recorded by The Searchers, the group that had invented the sound we were mad for, and Rachel Sweet, a sort of new wave Brenda Lee, picked up another of our compositions, Pin A Medal On Mary. It was like falling off a log.
We also had a strong new song called Starry Eyes, which was a shameless re-write of Eddie and the Hot Rods’ Do Anything You Wanna Do. When we were asked to join the Be Stiff Tour, as Rachel Sweet’s backing group, we confidently stated out terms, i.e. ‘give us our own spot in the show’. Stiff agreed and we were on the train. No wonder we were feeling pretty cocky when the record labels came knocking. For a brief moment we were red hot, or at least, fairly warm.
The Be Stiff Tour was the perfect launch pad for The Records, especially when we all went to New York to play four nights at the Bottom Line and we had some freshly-pressed copies of Starry Eyes up our sleeves. Virgin Records signed us. In early 1979, with Starry Eyes getting US airplay as ‘an import’, we started recording our debut LP, ‘Shades In Bed’, with producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange and engineer Tim Friese-Green. Mutt and Tim worked endless hours honing the sound and although the Boston-style harmony guitar lines came as a bit of a shock, the whole thing sounded like a real record.
A few words about the songs: In addition to Teenarama and Up All Night, which were originally demoed with the aforementioned Brian Alterman on guitar, John and I wrote Insomnia and All Messed Up And Ready To Go, the latter with Wreckless Eric in mind. Girls That Don’t Exist, an old Kursaals song co-written with Richie Bull, was substantially overhauled in the studio by Mutt Lange. The Phone was largely Huw’s creation; it features a Jane Aire cameo vocal and was recorded at the eleventh hour to replace Rock’n’Roll Love Letter, which had bombed as a single.
Another Star was a re-write of another early song, Held Up High, whilst Starry Eyes was re-recorded for the LP. Huw and Phil contributed much to the arrangements throughout. Huw shared the songwriting credits on Affection Rejected, our attempt at a Badfinger-style rock-a-ballad, whilst Phil had a hand in Girl (our Cheap Trick moment).
We also recorded a bonus EP (‘High Heels’), with four cover versions of favourite songs on which we each took a lead vocal. In the USA, our LP would be distributed by Atlantic, who represented the Virgin label there. The Americans re-titled the LP ‘The Records’, and re-vamped the sleeve. This involved Atlantic’s art director and a photographer coming to London, carrying an illuminated ‘The Records’ sign. The photo session took place in the wholly unique atmosphere of Dobell’s record shop in Shaftesbury Avenue.
In May we went on a UK tour as support to The Jam. We were a few years older than Paul Weller and Co and his young audiences didn’t really take to us, but the experience was invaluable as preparation for our first full American tour. This was the realisation of a long-held dream – eight whole weeks in the land of neon.
America was an eye-opener. Acts whose records I had previously collected, such as the Dbs and the Rubinoos, opened for us! Conversely, we supported others, including a number of dates with Joe Jackson and opening for The Cars in New York’s Central Park (a real buttock-clencher). The Virgin/ Atlantic publicity machine never slept as our debut LP scaled the charts. In every town we visited we did a dozen interviews, two radio stations, an in-store appearance and a more or less sold-out show.
I’m sure it’s a familiar story for any group ‘breaking’ America. Your record company’s Vice-President of record promotion accompanies you to numerous radio stations. You discover that he is on first name terms with all the disc jockeys and you ask yourself, ‘how come this guy has so many friends?’ Writers whose songs you’ve covered turn up at your shows, sometimes bearing tapes. In our case Tim Moore (Rock’n’Roll Love Letter) and Blue Ash’s Frank Secich (Abracadabra – Have You Seen Her). You meet stars: in LA, the legendary Kim Fowley; on Long Island, Billy Joel, who comes backstage for a spot of tie-swapping (and you get lumbered with Billy’s kipper). Flo And Eddie show up everywhere, and in Cleveland your phone rings at eight in the morning and a female voice asks, ‘which one are you in the photograph?’
The Records 1980
John Wicks (guitar/vocals) Jude Cole (guitar/vocals) Phil Brown (bass/vocals) Will Birch (drums)
Following our 1979 US tour we commenced recording our next LP with producer Craig Leon. We had met Craig in Toronto where he was producing The B-Girls and I knew his name from early LPs by The Ramones and Blondie. Craig came to London and we cut some tracks at Air Studios. We also played dates in Europe, opening for Robert Palmer, but soon after this Huw left the group. The trouble had started a few months earlier in Detroit. I vividly recall the moment when we knew that Huw had become a loose cannon. It was on stage, halfway through the song The Same Mistakes, which Huw had introduced veering wildly off-script. We rode it out for a while, but when things got too intense, Huw was summoned to a ‘group meeting’. Huw, the last to arrive, walked in and said, ‘Don’t tell me… I’m fired.’
Our manager replied, ‘Well Huw, er, The Records, that is John and Will, have decided, er, they no longer require your services.’ Red faces all round, but what the hell were we going to do now? On mature reflection, it was a mistake, one of two big ones we made in the aftermath of our fairly successful debut album. (The second, lesser mistake was to split with producers Mutt Lange and Tim Friese-Green, although I’m not sure they would have stuck around.) Coming back to Huw (and groups in general), I do think that if you have a dissenter on board, but he/she is part of the original magic that made it happen, no matter what it takes, find a work-around. Separate cars, planes, underpants, whatever, but don’t mess with a winning team. Maybe.
In early 1980, with backing tracks for ‘Crashes’ captured (with the help of former Kursaals’ guitarist Barry Martin), we sought to replace Huw. Craig Leon suggested 19-year-old Jude Cole. I’d seen Jude, a great guitarist and singer, with Moon Martin at The Marquee. Jude flew in, and instantly clicked, his soaring vocals enhancing our songs. We recorded at The Townhouse, with The Jam in the adjoining studio, working on ‘Sound Affects’. We invited Paul Weller to listen to playbacks of Spent A Week With You Last Night and I Don’t Remember Your Name, both heavily influenced by The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’. ‘I don’t think you’ll get away with it,’ were Weller’s only words. Weeks later, The Jam released Start, even more Revolver-like than our efforts!
A US tour was arranged to promote ‘Crashes’ and its offspring 45, Hearts In Her Eyes. In direct contrast to the previous year’s outing, there was scant promotion. Whereas in 1979 a stretch limo met us at the airport to whisk us into Manhattan, we now had to board a public bus, equipment in hand. Whereas in 1979 we did seven interviews a day, we were about to do no interviews in seven weeks. Maybe ‘Crashes’ was a turkey; maybe it was because our debut album had been the first release under a Virgin Records/Atlantic Records pact and ‘Crashes’, merely one year later, was the last, but the honeymoon was over. Never mind, we got to play Chicagofest, opening for Alice Cooper (I think).
After the tour, Jude stayed in the USA, whilst John, Phil and I returned home, unsure of the next move. We’d fallen out with our manager and the inevitable court case followed. It dragged on for months. Our barrister was named Gordon Bennett! We won, but now down to a three piece, with no live work and just a ragged portfolio of new, bitter ham-fisted songs, we were on the verge of disintegration. Amazingly, Virgin picked up its option for a third album! Wha! And indeed, Hey! We rehearsed, we demo-ed, we plotted and we auditioned. We decided, perhaps unwisely, to recruit a ‘lead singer’. His name was Chris Gent. We also enrolled a guitarist by the name of Dave Whelan and proceeded to make our third album.
The Records 1981 - 1982
John Wicks (guitar/vocals) Dave Whelan (guitar) Chris Gent (lead vocals) Phil Brown (bass/vocals) Will Birch (drums)
I was tired of playing drums and, as the ‘producer’ of the new album, enrolled the great Bob Irwin to thump the tubs on my behalf. In 1981, we went to The Manor and ‘laid down’ tracks. We toiled at The Townhouse for weeks, overdubbing and mixing, but we knew in our hearts what little magic we had possessed two years earlier had waned. A single, Imitation Jewellery, was released. The LP, ‘Music On Both Sides’, despite a great Barney Bubbles sleeve, languished on Virgin’s shelf for a year before it was pressed up and distributed.
As a quintet, The Records played two last gigs in London in 1982, before calling it quits. Virgin released a compilation CD entitled ‘Smashes, Crashes and Near Misses’. A CD of our early demos, ‘Paying For The Summer of Love’, was released in 1990 and reissued in 2001 by Angel Air. We attempted to re-form the group on several occasions, the last being in 1992 when we played one date in Kingston-on-Thames.
These days, John lives in California; Huw is in New York; Will remains in London, UK. Phil sadly died in 2012. ‘Shades in Bed aka The Records’ and ‘Crashes’ and ‘Music On Both Sides’ have been reissued on CD by On The Beach Recordings. Air Mail Recordings (Japan) has released ‘The Records Play Live!!’ (recorded in Evanston, Illinois in 1980).