The Shrew Kings are a six piece band from South London comprising two singers (Jef Harvey and Bill Tidnam), two guitarists (Noel Byde and Michael Hughes), plus a bass guitarist (Ian Nixon) and a drummer (Eoin Shannon). I spoke to them before the Timebox gig at Kentish Town’s Bull and Gate which was to be Noel’s last performance. Noel helped to form the group with Jef at the tail end of 1983 and together they were responsible for writing such songs as All Dressed Up, Paradise, The Bird Has Flown and Dr Love; these songs make up over half of the mini LP Sad But True. Their first single consists of two songs written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill: Mac the Knife and Alabama Song. Despite having a very individual Shrew Kings sound the group have been tagged “Brechtabilly” as a result of this record. I asked them if they objected to this.
J: It’s the “abilly” that I don’t like.
But although you have your own style, songs such as All Dressed Up and Dr Love do have a “billy” feel.
J: We started off like that. Some of the songs we play still have got that feel, but that’s not conscious. None of us look it, do we? Now it’s probably veering towards more poppy sort of songs with Mike’s guitar.
So who is interested in Brecht?
I: No one. It was more because they were good songs.
J: I thought (Alabama Song) was a Doors song! I didn’t know Bertolt Brecht wrote it. Brecht is really accidental: it’s only cos we could happen to play the songs. It wasn’t there before. Since we did ’em Bill’s become more interested in his ideas.
B: The sons are a way of getting interested in it. It is quite interesting but it’s not a major musical influence. He’s a dramatist who wrote some words to some songs that somebody else had set a tune to.
M: A lot of people have covered all that stuff before anyway. There’s that album that came out recently, Lost In The Stars, with all popstars doing Kurt Weill covers.
The Jacques Brel track that the band cover – Funeral Tango – also has a similar Brechtian feel to it.
B: I don’t think it’s that Brechtian.
M: Jacques Brel was an artist in his own right. It’s quite dramatic.
B: That’s probably much more of an influence than whether it’s Brel or Brecht, the fact that it’s quite dramatic and you can do more with it.
Both Bill and Jef have have very theatrical singing styles and Jef is interested in theatre stage sets as well; the band sometimes project slides to supplement the live show, as well as using a Shrew Kings backdrop and various other stage decorations.
E: My idea to do that set was from the film Cabaret, you know instead of just going up and seeing…..to be more interesting than just standing in a band playing away.
To coincide with the release of the LP the group made a 3 track single featuring an edited version of Dr Love coupled with This Is The Land and Train On Time but the record was never released as Rough Trade (the manufacturer) felt that as a 7″ single it would not sell. Being that This Is The Land will accompany the Alabama Song and a re-recording of Mac The Knife on the B side of their new – as yet unreleased – 12″ single I feel that it was probably a wise move not to release the 7″: Train On Time is not a patch on the group’s usually high standards. Green Eyed Kid and One Day In Hell will be on the A-side of the 12″ single and they mark the songwriting debut of Ian Nixon, the bass player; the latter song also marks his introduction as the third singing King. Apparently One Day In Hell wouldn’t fit Jef’s dulcet tones! It was recorded in Wapping’s very popular Elephant Studio with Nick Page from the Rain Gods at the controls:
B: Ideally we’d like to know enough about (producing) to be able to do it ourselves, just because we want to get what we do over better.
Coincidentally, King Kurt whose first single Zulu Beat was released – like all Shrew Kings material – by Thin Sliced Records, have done their own loony version of Mac The Knife as one of their Stiff Records. Zulu Beat will probably be re-released by Thin Sliced in the near future, with some unreleased live tracks on the B-side, in order to pay off some debts. This label, the best named record company ever, was also responsible for releasing a single by the VDUs, featuring a young Michelle Brigandage, Freight Train by Helen and the Horns, as well as records by Lester Square, of the Monochrome Set, Invisible Ink, the Rain Gods and a Northern bloke called Ada….
Where do you see yourselves within the independent ‘scene’?
We want to get ourselves out of it. It’s a dead end really. If you’re going to make records , I’m not saying you have to sell ’em by the truck load, but at least get them heard. Not really to be rich but to be known, rather than just being stuck in the independent scene.
Are you going to try to get a deal with another company?
If the right offer came along, yeah. We haven’t had any offers as such.
Have you done any radio or television work?
About a year ago we did a radio session for Janice Long: The Bird Has Flown , Losing My Cool, Dr Love and Sitting Here, which hasn’t been released. They’re quite nice versions, we got paid for it, met Janice Long, they’re good quality, it still sounds good now.
M: When you go to the BBC to record it, in Maida Vale, they’ve got this enormous flash studio with a computer logic desk. You get a floppy disc when you’ve finished and you get your master tapes with a pre-programmed mix. The technicians you get are really good – the BBC have got a very high standard and a good reputation for sessions with bands and most of them are really good, most of the stuff I’ve heard. All the John Peel and Janice Long stuff is done at Maida Vale. It’s very immediate; you have a certain time to do it , basically half a day to do it – four tracks. You know that Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow album, that’s all John Peel and Kid Jensen sessions. I don’t really like The Smiths – I hate their albums – but I quite like that one because it’s got a really good feel about it, for the reasons I’ve just said. The BBC own those tapes lock, stock and barrel. If you want to release it on any other label than the BBC you have to pay for the tape – you have to buy it.
Is Janice Long well into your music?
B: She was well into the first single. She claimed that she liked the session, but I have my doubts. She didn’t play the album so I don’t think she’s thrilled about the whole thing. I think she liked the single because it was jolly. She was probably disappointed with the rest of what we came up with.
I: I think she’s really into what she’s doing. She goes to see bands a lot. Apart from John Peel, most Radio One DJs – especially the daytime ones – they don’t give a toss about what they’re playing. I think at least she is quite enthusiastic about it.
to be continued……..