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Monthly Archives: December 2009

Now, this thing of bands getting back together. I’m always in two minds about it…

Peter: That’s why I was not sure about it. Because it’s normally not a good idea. Most bands that were once quite good; you see them back together and you think ‘why do they bother?’

Well, I would pretty much refuse to go and see the New York Dolls… you know, I mean, you guys split up the year I was born… the guy that introduced me to you, I’ve got his memories, I’ve got other people’s memories, I’m happy with second-hand memories, I’m happy with Nina’s book, other people’s pictures. I’ve always veered away from seeing bands that reform ‘cause I think… I don’t want to be disappointed. I don’t want the myth ruined…

P: Well, the New York Dolls to me, without Johnny Thunders in it, isn’t the New York Dolls. I mean, they haven’t got Jerry Nolan even, do you know what I mean…

Alan: And I think that’s the other thing as well. I don’t think we’d have done it if one member hadn’t have been around. It had to be the original members, really.

Well, I think you played Manchester a while back and I resisted. But now it’s like, ‘aaagh, no, they’re playing on my doorstep, I’m not going to not go’.

A: the main thing is, a lot of people have said. ‘we just never ever thought that we’d get to see you…’

(and yep, hands up, I’m guilty of putting that exact phrase into one of my original emails to Alan…but you know, here’s the dilemma: As much as I’m anti-reformations and anti-revisionism, I’m also very much anti-ageism when it comes to music and I despise the restrictive life-span that the music press put on all but a precious few musicians in this country and actually, The Only Ones aren’t just poodling around the UK churning out the old classics, they are writing new material that is every bit as rousing as anything they wrote before I was thrust upon this planet).

… people that have grown up with the music. Younger people, that just thought ‘I’ll never get to see them’. And so far, it’s been really well received.

Do you get a lot of younger people coming to the gigs?

P: I think it’s a mixture, normally, you can tell there’s the people that have seen us the first time round, tall grey haired…

A: Yeah. You sell quite a lot of Large t-shirts.

P: In Japan, it was nearly all people in their twenties and teenagers. I don’t know why Japan is so different.

A: Yeah, a lot of young people

I think people really do their research out there…

P: They’re really into Western music.

A: Very emotional audiences, a lot of guys just watching in tears.

So how do you find the audiences are now, as compared to 30 years ago?

P: Well, obviously, 30 years ago, it was quite riotous, you know. The audiences… you know…

A: They’d be quite wild and then sometimes we’d get caught in…

P: The spitting was bad.

A: Oh yeah, that was horrible. Especially for Peter, when he’s singing (gestures to an open mouth, a prime gobbing target…)!

Presumably you don’t get spat at much now?

P: No! No…

A: It was really uncomfortable, you know, you’re just thinking…

Was it normally a sign of affection?

P: It was them enjoying themselves. It became this ritual among this certain type of punk. The ones that had read about it in News of the World, do you know what I mean? Some people said it was the The Stranglers (that started it), who weren’t even a punk band, you know.

A: It lasted for too long, anyway.

P: After a while it sort of died down and you wouldn’t get it anywhere until you did a gig in Middlesbrough and there’d be one person who’d only just read about it. When there was only one person spitting, you could take off your guitar and go and sort them out…

A: To be honest, I didn’t start making music to be spat at. It was too bizarre.

P: It only happened, really, at hardcore punk gigs. Our audience, the people that actually came to see us, didn’t spit.

Did you find it frustrating being lumped in with a lot of punk bands?

P: Well, soon after it happened, they invented the term ‘New-Wave’, which meant new music that was exciting, but wasn’t three chords at 90 miles an hour.

Were you a bit more comfortable with that tag, then?

A: Yeah

P: Yeah. I mean, people hate to be labelled because they like to think that any option’s open to them, musically. It was good to be part of something new and exciting.

A: I think it got all of the record executives out of their ivory tower, to come down and see bands. Because they would never even come out of their offices before – they were a bit scared of what was happening. All the super-groups they kept putting together, no one was interested in anymore. So it was really healthy. It definitely changed, shook the industry up.

I think it needed it. When all those bands like Yes and Blind Faith and all these super-groups were around, it was becoming really stale.

P: It was all really self-indulgent, horrible music. I guess the only good thing that happned was like, David Bowie and Roxy Music that was quite interesting in the early ‘70s.

So, for you guys, was forming the band a way of trying to break away from that tedium?

P: I just wanted to get a group together because I had a group in the early ‘70s and that’s to do with what I was talking to you about earlier, you know. Xena went around to record companies and lots of them said ‘sounds a bit like Lou Reed There’s not room in this music business for one Lou Reed, let alone two Lou Reeds.’

It’s funny now… I went through the thing of people with lots of enthusiasm but not much musical ability. So, I’d gone beyond that and wanted to get people that could actually play quite well. So that’s why we were a bit different from the punk bands that had just got together. I suppose I was older… well, I was younger than Joe Strummer, but you know, it had got to the point where I could appreciate the musicianship.

How do you find it, playing songs that you wrote 30-odd years ago?

A: It’s just as much fun. I think we’re trying to have fun with them, trying to add something extra into them as well.

Do you feel like the songs mean the same thing to you, or, as you’ve experienced different things in your lives, have they taken on different meanings?

P: Well, I feel, you know, I still enjoy singing the old songs, you know. I think they’re great songs, lots of them, you know. Obviously, I think the new songs, I feel more for because, as a lyricist, I think I’m better than I was back then. As you get older, you get a lot more experiences, a lot wiser; you get better at your craft. We used to stick to the same old songs for ages, then we’d occasionally resurrect something we hadn’t done for a while. But in Japan, the last time we went, because the guitar that Gibson had supplied me wouldn’t stay in tune, there was lots of time between numbers so we got talking to the audience a lot and they were asking for things that we hadn’t played for 30 years… someone even shouted out for ‘Silent Night’ and John started playing that.

Do you get to meet your fans?

P: Yeah

A: Especially in Japan…

P: Because they have an organised signing after the gig, they let you have half an hour, three quarters of an hour, you know…

A: To meet anyone that’s bought a poster, or CD or whatever

P: They take their photographs with you, you know. They come up, sort of shaking with emotion, you know. It’s sweet. They’re unique, compared to any other, they’re unique as a race. And one of the most attractive things about them is their humility, I think.

How about your British fans? Do you meet a lot of them?

P: Not as much.

A: They don’t organise it quite as well as the Japanese! I think you meet quite a lot through email as well, but not face to face. If someone asks to come back to the dressing room, we usually say yes, give us 10 minutes or so…

Do you have any obsessive fans?

A: Not so much now.

P: No. You get people that turn up to nearly every gig.

A: There’s a few on email, they have to have everything and know everything about what we’re doing. There’s fans that write to each other. Even some of the Japanese shows have already gone to Canada. Some people just watch what we’re doing all the time, so I guess that’s obsessive. But it’s not ‘obsessive’ meaning ‘scary’.

Not crazy, then?

A: No.

P: We used to though.

What kind of obsessive fans did you use to have then?

P: I particularly remember a girl in Holland that had my name tattooed all over her. She jumped on the bonnet of the car to try and stop us from leaving.

A: It was a bit scary.

In the gap between being in the band in the ‘70s and now, did you all remain in music?

P: In the ‘90s?


P: ’94 – ’96 but that’s ‘cause I got straight then. I hadn’t been totally drug free since the ‘70s. ‘Cause I always told myself, I wanna get totally drug free first and really, that was a horrible trap that I laid for myself. Once I told myself that I want to get drug free, I more or less cut out music from my life, really. Because it took me so long to get drug free, I wasted so much time.

I wish in some ways that I’d just been like Johnny (Thunders) and just carried on doing (music). At least when you’re doing it, you haven’t got that much time to take drugs. Now, music is like therapy for staying away from drugs, I think. ‘Cause they’re the two big passions in my life, you know. One’s totally disruptive and one’s totally enjoyable. It’s a pity they had to compete really, I should have just battled on with music really.

Obviously, the legacy of The Only Ones is massively embroiled with your drug use. A lot of people associate the band with drugs, do you ever regret that…

P: Well, it’s annoying for Alan because he never took them.

…but do you ever feel like the drugs have become more of a legacy than the music?

A: Yeah

P: Well, that’s worrying because lots of people assume that every song is about drugs…

A: It became too much for me… it felt like drug use was pulling the band down… the American tour was degenerating really badly and it just seemed… I remember being at Tropicana with a girlfriend (I recall a story from Nina’s book and believe this is the young lass that looked like Olivia Newton-John..) and just everybody was stoned, everybody that was around the band…

P: People with needles hanging out their arms.

A: That’s right, both John and Peter weren’t interested in needles but there were some girl fans who enjoyed doing that and I just happened to be sharing a room with John… and that’s the problem, you sort of lose your perspective and I was with a girlfriend he walked past me with a needle in his arm, and I was just like ‘oh, for fuck’s sake, John’. That seemed to be one of the points where I thought ‘this has now gone too far’. Not just that incident, but everybody in the road crew and the fans…

P: John had to wear, like, three overcoats onstage ‘cause he…

A: He was withdrawing…

P: No, he wasn’t withdrawing, it was a dirty hit.

A: But, do you know what, it felt like everybody was losing the plot. I was robbed in the hotel room, Peter was robbed outside the hotel room. It just felt like time to go. So I went to Peter and Xena’s room and I just said ‘it’s time to go, I can’t do it anymore’. And Peter said ‘well, if you’re gonna leave then I’m…’, I think he said he was thinking of going on his own as well…

P: I found it hard being in a band with John because I was still trying to keep drugs away from when I was working, you know, sort of, go to America without any drugs, to be straight for the tour. But then, it’s difficult…

I dunno if you’ve seen the film Clint Eastwood did about Charlie Parker? Bird. It’s a good film. And Charlie Parker had the same thing, when he was trying to stop taling heroin, in his band was this guy Red Rodney and Red Rodney was just getting into the heroin when he was trying to stay away from it. That’s the way I felt with John because I still felt that when you’re around heroin all the time, it makes it that much more difficult to stop and that’s the main reason.

A: That hotel room in New York, That was really the end of the band.

P: I wanted to carry on as a solo artist, get a new band together. But when I came back from New York, I got hepatitis and that knocked me, for the ‘80s. I didn’t get proper liver function back, well, I got clean at the end of the ‘80s. Hepatitis B. I mean, now, everybody’s Hepatitis C and I mean, to me, I can’t see the point, ‘cause it ain’t… people don’t even know they’ve got it, the symptoms are so… but Hepatitis B, that really does knock you sideways, that.

A: So, that hotel room in New York was the end of the band, even though we carried on playing a cat and mouse game with CBS.

There’ll be more about that cat ‘n’ mouse game in part 3!

I recently attended a round table talk, as part of Yorkshire’s Digital Week. It was chaired by John Robb of Goldblade and focused mainly on how artists / labels / journalists can actually make a living out of their art, or business, in this ever-evolving digital age.

My thoughts on the issue have been (and still are, really), fairly jumbled. I won’t download music for free, unless the artist has put it there purposefully for my taking. Yet, I’ll quite happily accept a copied CD off of someone. I’m utterly precious about the importance of print media. Yet, since the magazines that I used to write for turned to dust, I stopped buying magazines full stop. I can’t remember the last time I bought a fanzine, yet I will extol their virtues until the sacred cows come home.

Facebook depresses me and I baulk at the idea of using it to share my writing with others (OK, that’s largely because I do a lot of swearing and I already use Facebook for the Day Job) but I’ll happily use Twitter to do just that. Maybe it all just got too complicated. When I started writing about music, about 8 years ago, it was simple: Send article to editor of cool magazine. Hear nothing. Send editor mildly abusive reminder. Land job. And from there, it went on.

Now, it’s as though someone’s ripped down the stage curtain and shoved us all on stage, butt naked, with the house lights up and nobody to hold our hands. Last (wo)man standing. May the strongest artist/writer/critic/label survive… you’re your own editor now. And your harshest critics are a mere click away.

These musings are, however, a mere backdrop to the meat of this piece. During the round table chat, I gravitated towards talking about Kristin Hersh and the way that she has adapted to the change in the way that we consume and produce music, in a really positive and inspiring way.

Recognising the origins of folk music – and harking back to a time before record labels existed, before cats got fat off other people’s hard work and creative output – Kristin joined forces with Cash Music music and started giving her music away for free, for people to enjoy, share, pass on, download, remix, mess around with and re-post their own versions online for other folk to enjoy share, pass on… and on it goes. There’s an online tip jar for those visitors that recognise the need for an artist to eat, feed and clothe her children and keep a roof over her head.

Kristin didn’t stop there. She (with the aid of her manager-husband Billy) carried on figuring out innovative ways to connect to her audience, without a record contract either facilitating, or obstructing that mass conversation. Strange Angels is Kristin Hersh’s subscription service. For $30 a quarter, her strange angels get a new song every month (no writer’s block allowed, I guess!), a guest list to any of her gigs that you want to go to, a free copy of any physical releases and access to extra online material (videos, photos). Oh, and she’ll give you the phone number to her studio, in case you fancy a chat.

It’s real encouragement for anybody looking to harness the benefits of this new digital age that we live in, or striving to connect with people and fight off the isolation that comes with staring at a laptop screen for 23 hours a day.

Look here for her music:

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