When JJ joined Hugh and Jet in Guildford, Brian (shown right) spent a lot of time with the band, both at home and their gigs. Desperately in need of someone to assist with the general day to day running of the band, Brian volunteered to become their part time manager in 1975.
He helped out with promotion and touting their demos to any record company that would let him through the door. With Brian’s help and through the band’s sheer hard work and determination, they came to the attention of Derek Savage in London and things started to gain momentum. We caught up with Brian to find out about the part he played back in the early days of the band…
How would you describe JJ to someone who hadn’t met him?
He is as loyal as hell, if you were close to him he would share his last Rolo with you but, if you weren’t close, then you had to prove yourself. If you showed any sign of weakness, he would destroy you, either physically (more often than not) or intellectually, either way would do. I guess any internal or external strife The Stranglers have had over the years would always have had JJ at the centre of matters. He is a strong, very intelligent individual, not to be messed with. I went to a Karate competition with him many years ago I think in Northampton, it was a non contact match. JJ was unfairly hit by his opponent and his reaction was instant. I didn’t even see the move, just saw the guy hit the floor with lots of blood spilling from his face.
You had known JJ since primary school and obviously were aware of his passion for karate & motorcycles and his desire to pursue both as more than just pastimes. What did you think when you heard that he had scrapped those plans and decided to join a band in Guildford?
He never scrapped those plans, just kept them on hold, motorcycles and Karate were his main passion nothing much else counted. His joining the band was a great surprise to me but, as with anything JJ was involved in, it was going to be done properly, to excess but done to the best of his ability and on his terms. JJ is a perfectionist, he just doesn’t realise it. It’s natural to him to be the best.
No, not at all. It suited him down to the ground – he has, due to his classical guitar training, the necessary finger dexterity and ability to use the bass in ways others before had not attempted. It’s a powerful instrument that, in truth, had not been used to its true potential by most bass players, who were just part of the rhythm sections. JJ had a different viewpoint to this. For him, it was to be a major part of the band’s sound and it was to be a part of him, an extension of his own power, projecting the power of his persona. As you will be well aware, countless bass players have since copied or used his style of playing, he is greatly admired for his playing.
I managed Simon Gallup out of The Cure for a two year period in the eighties. After he had left the band, we set up “Fools Dance” and toured Europe and Simon was a huge fan of JJ. We got JJ to play on one of our tracks on a mini album or EP we produced and got it released in Holland and France. Simon also uses his bass in a similar manner, it’s all about power, strength & energy.
JJ joined ‘Wanderlust’ in the summer of 1974, with their name soon changing into The (Guildford) Stranglers. When did your involvement with the band start?
When they moved into the house in Chiddingfold. I was just paying visits, going to any gigs and being there in rehearsals, just hanging out. The whole band seemed very focused although I dont even know if they knew what that was at the time, other than they were intent on getting a record deal, getting gigs etc. I guess it’s what made them sign “the weirdo” deal with Safari Records. I think Jet was the business brain in many ways. He was trying to get the gigs and get interest going. They all played their part except Hans (Warmling) who just practised non stop scales & “licks” six plus hours a day. He was a nice enough guy and played really well, but he wasn’t like the others, he didn’t fit in in my opinion. I could see explosive situations looming with JJ and him…
Initially, were you simply attending the band’s gigs or were you helping out with roadie type things?
I was just JJ’s mate coming along to see what was happening, hanging out with them and seeing what trouble I could get myself into.
The gigs they did do didn’t turn out that well. Audiences generally disliked the band. The pub managers insisted they should play things people knew hence they started taking the piss with tracks like “Tie A Yellow Ribbon (Gibbon) Round The Ole Oak Tree”. However Walk On By came out of this and, when I first heard them play it, I was impressed. I remember hearing this track in a Kent Miners Club soon after Dave had joined in the band. Well, wow and double wow!! This was fucking brilliant. Everything, the power of the bass, the keyboard sound and playing style was so different. Hugh’s vocals, Jet’s drum style, everything was fabulous. I thought “What the hell were they doing playing here?!”
You became the band’s manager in mid 1975. What did your managerial duties involve?
By that time Hans had already been been kicked out. The sax player had come and gone and, by the time, Dave joined, they were really getting more hungry but frustrated. That’s when JJ offered up my services. I would say I was a part time manager!!! I really wanted to help the band but didn’t have the knowledge or power needed to do so, although I did try really hard. I got them to get a photo and biography together along with a tape which we could use to approach record companies. I did what I could to find gigs or get in touch with agents, the band continued getting whatever gigs they could. I was far too naive for this business…
How would you describe their music at the time? The Melody Maker advert Dave replied to referred to them as a ‘soft rock combo’.
Before Dave joined, it was more an R n B band, searching to find the sound that suited them I guess. I don’t think anyone really knew what they were seeking but, when Dave joined, it was pretty instant!
After Hans ‘decided’ to leave, the search for another musician started. Having no specific sound in mind, the band initially recruited a short-lived saxophone player who was simply known by the nickname ‘Igor Saxophonich’. Can you remember anything about him?
Ha ha, did he ever exist? Perhaps they ate him, there were food shortages at this time in the house…
Igor left within a few weeks and the band decided to recruit a keyboard player with an advert being placed in Melody Maker. Amongst the auditionees was a jobbing musician Dave Greenfield. How obvious was it that he was the man for the job?
Well, if you didn’t look at his moustache and just listened to his playing, then I would say instantly. He is a fabulous musician. He was good, fucking good!
What effect on the band’s sound did Dave’s arrival have?
He completed the sound, the missing link, the final part of the jigsaw. He knitted the whole band sound together and turned it into The Stranglers that we all know. The whole sound stepped up and the songs took on a different character. I don’t believe they were ever a punk band, they were in the mix long before all that started. They were leaders in their own field and I believe they were plonked into the “punk” genre because it suited the business and media.
At that time, the band were trapped in a fruitless but binding contract with Safari records with promises of a single release which never materialised. The band needed to be freed from that contract so JJ & you came up with an idea. Can you elaborate?
They had already met Reg McClean of Safari and signed their dodgy deal to get studio time but it was a record contract and clearly Reg wasnt going to handle this very well, he was good but reggae was his thing. JJ and I hatched the plan of me getting a job in Safari so I could get the chance to steal the contract, so that’s what I did, I got the job and set about finding the agreement and all the papers, tapes etc. It wasn’t going to be easy as I learned that there were more directors involved, one of whom lived in Birmingham and it was he who held the contracts.
With your insider knowledge of the company, you realised that they were in financial trouble and the band had to escape their contract. How did you manage this?
I simply sat them down and told them that the band were rubbish, the wrong thing for the label, we couldn’t possibly do anything with them, in fact everything that all the other record companies’ A&R men had been telling me about the band! Eventually they agreed to release the band and that was that.
Note-JJ recently mentioned that this wasn’t actually the last they heard of the Safari deal. In mid 1977, when the band were achieving success with Rattus Norvegicus, Safari reappeared, threatening to release tracks from that TW studios demo tape. Only the prompt action of the band and Albion halted the release…
With the band finally free of their Safari deal, you set about touting their TW demo tape around a multitude of record companies. What was the response?
I took the tape of Strange Little Girl and My Young Dreams around to twenty plus different record, publishing and production companies-all the mainstream companies. Later I went back with the acetate (see below), pictures, biography and a bit of gig history, all to no avail. Each time, I was told that the name wasn’t to the liking of a lot of these companies as it didn’t fit their image or brand, that they didnt get the style or simply just didn’t like it. In fairness we weren’t talking “punk” at this point, the record companies didn’t know what was about to hit them.
I remember one company, possibly A & M records, sat me down and asked for the tape. Before playing it, took one look at the picture and the name of the band and said “No, not interested”! That’s pretty well how it was for me, I used to get the door firmly shut in my face over and over and mainly because of the name, people hated the name.
Holy grail for collectors?
Of interest to Stranglers’ record collectors, Brian got a single sided EMI Disc acetate pressed up of the TW Strange little Girl demo to play to A&R men. This 1975 acetate has to be up there with Jet’s recorded debut single (more info here) as one of the major band rarities…
So their chosen name proved a major problem?
It still is to some idiots! Yes, the name was a stumbling block, it didn’t bother me as it was their chosen name but it sure bothered record companies at the time. I couldn’t understand why as I thought it was perfect for them, but what have those jerks got to say for themselves now!!
During this period, financial times were tight for the band. How were they surviving at the time?
On shared food mainly cheese on toast (without the cheese!), bowls of soup and half pints of beer. They even attempted to grow their own food in the garden… They were in a very bad place financially so, when I visited them, I guess bringing them the odd pint of milk or loaf of bread was always welcome.
Desperate to hone their live skills, the band played some incredibly unsuitable gigs at the time, literally anywhere that they could secure a booking. Can you recall any specific gigs?
Yes, one on the Euston Road. I fell out with Dave over his then girlfriend, Jenny. I attacked him outside the venue and the rest of the band had to hold me back. I think JJ kicked me in the head to stop me, I was probably a little drunk or something. I did regret it as Dave is a really decent, friendly bloke and I hope that we put that behind us. I think we did.
There was another one at a Kent Miners Club. I remember it was this gig that a little old man came on stage with a small podium table, stopped the band playing and asked the audience if they wanted to play Bingo. They replied “No” so the band played on. Hugh used to do his neck wanking thing, foaming at the mouth. It was impressive but the audiences were shocked in places like that, which was funny as hell.
Any other eventful gigs spring to mind?
There was a memorable gig in Aldershot, home of the British Army. From what I can remember, they played a Squaddie pub there which ended up with all the Squaddies fighting amongst themselves, probably induced by the band’s attitude to their audience. Once a Squaddie starts fighting there is no way of stopping them tearing a place part! I don’t think it wise to quote more info about gigs I think it’s more likely to be bullshit as I simply only remember snippets and can’t for the life of me piece one thing to another – perhaps this says a lot for my state of mind at that time!
It wasn’t reliable but, with no money for repairs or replacement, it was beg, borrow or steal. The PA guy Dick Douglas must have torn his hair out trying to keep it going. It was a task and a half just moving Dave’s keyboard rigs around and in an ice cream van too!
The band’s forays to London brought them to the attention of Albion management who booked some of the best known pub venues in the capital. Were they immediately interested in the band or did it take persistence?
I can’t really answer this. I know they were interested as Derek Savage spoke to me and asked if I would keep trying to help but I knew he was playing me. Albion had the power to do what they eventually did and take the band onto the all important London pub circuit. The rest is history. I guess The Stranglers were in the right place at the right time and prepared enough as a unit for Albion to push them into the limelight. Albion were showing an interest and I couldn’t see how I could help further so that was the end of my short, part-time managerial involvement.
Eventually, in April 1976, the hard work paid off and the band signed up with Albion as their managers. Was it a relief that you could finally hand over the managerial reins to someone else?
This wasn’t really how things were. I didn’t consider myself their manager at this stage. I was just really pleased for them and was even more delighted when JJ sent me a copy of their first single Grip. He was buzzing and I still think it’s one of their best singles as it seems to have everything in it that is so much The Stranglers. Keyboard riffs, powerful bass, great lyrics and great backing vocals (or ‘Ooohs’). It’s a really underrated single and should have been number one!
Was this the end of your involvement with the band?
Yes, I had no place with the band after that. I had my own thing to get on with. JJ has remained my oldest friend, my best man when I married, Godfather to my first child. Our families were close, our kids all remain friends together. I have attended gigs wherever I could and supported them all the way through. I was proud to have been a small part of it all.
Were you surprised that the band went on to such huge success?
No. I would have been more surprised if they hadn’t. They should have enjoyed even greater success but, at the end of the day, they survived when most didn’t and they survived when too many thought they wouldn’t.
Thanks very much to Brian for his time and his memories of that dim & distant period. Thanks to him also for sharing is own personal pictures for this interview.
Dave the dude photo-Garry Coward-Williams