Digging Gold from Rock’n’Roll
Back in the 80s we used to go to watch the Sperm Wails in places like the Bull & Gate, Sir George Robey and the Camden Falcon. They played with bands like A C Temple; A Strange Desire; A Witness; And So To Bed; Bad Tune Men; Bible For Dogs; Blimeys; Bloody Marys; Bodines; Crane; Critical Mass; Dandelion Adventure; Death By Milkfloat; Dog Faced Hermans; Dr Phibes; E.G. An Ice Cream Man; Flowershop; Fra; Goats Don’t Shave; God; Greed; Hobgoblins; Hypnotics; Jackdaw With Crowbar; Jasmine Minks; Jesse Garon; Laugh; Live Skull; Locomotives; Lush; McCarthy; Mega City 4; Midnight Choir; Milk Monitors; Mousehounds; Mute Drivers; Mystery Plane; Oi Polloi; Playground; Pointy Birds; Poppies; Poppy Fields; Primitives; Rover Girls; Ruben Kincade; Senseless Things; Shoot; Shredder; Shrubs; Silverfish; Spit Like Paint; The Legend; The Wigs; Thrilled Skinny; Tongue; Under A Gun; UT; Very Dabs; Voice of the Beehive; Wasp Factory; We Are Going To Eat You; Wolfhounds; Worry Dolls and Yeah God. The band were Steve Colmer, Nick Herbert, Mark Lawrence, Elvina Flower and Rob Bartram. 25 years later we decided to write about ’em, again. Vocalist Rob Bartram talks to No Class.
How did the band form?
Nick and Steve had known each other for years and had messed around with various bands. They put an ad in the NME. It came out on the 3rd May 1986: “Voice and Drummer wanted Fall, Sonic Youth, J.A.M.C. Call Steve after 7pm”. I’d sung and played bass and guitar in a few bands but had never been a lead singer and quite fancied giving it a go. We met up and got on and started working on ideas. It took us quite a while to find a drummer. We did try out a few, but they were ‘proper’ drummers using full kits which didn’t really fit the ‘anti-rock’ sound we were going for. So we asked a guy called Mark Lawrence, who we knew from the Bull & Gate, to have a go. The good thing about Mark was that he’d never played drums before, but was full of enthusiasm! He turned out to be great! He just played a kit consisting of a floor tom, snare and a couple of cymbals and played standing up. It really worked and was just what we were looking for, and helped define our sound. Mark played quite a few shows with us and played on a few recordings, but as we started getting some attention and were playing bigger shows Mark decided he didn’t have the time to carry on and said we should find someone who could make more of a commitment, which I thought was pretty cool of him. He thought he might hold us back but he carried on drumming until we found a replacement. And so we met Elvina. She was a Sperm Wails fan and had written about us in her fanzine so asking her to play drums seemed the logical thing to do. And, like Mark, she’d never played drums before. She fitted in straight away. And that was the line-up we had until the end. Both Elvina and Mark made big contributions to the band and were as much a part of our sound as Nick’s guitar and Steve’s mad stage antics.
What’s the story behind the Kilburn National gig, supporting Sonic Youth and Mudhoney?
As far as I remember Sonic Youth were in town doing an album signing and Sperm Wails bass player, Steve, went along and gave Thurston Moore one of our records. When they next played London they invited us to support them, which was cool. At last that’s how I remember it. For all I know Steve gave Thurston Moore a big envelope of cash, or offered sexual services. But whatever, we got the gig and it was the biggest show we ever played. I didn’t enjoy the show that much, the Wails always worked better in small venues where the audience were right in your face and you could smell them. It just didn’t work for me playing such a big venue.
Did you have any celebrity fans?
I’m not sure we had any fans! My Bloody Valentine always liked us and were very kind to us. And John Peel played a couple of our singles but not sure if he was a fan.
What memories do you have of supporting / being billed with other bands in the 80s?
The best supports we had, and the best fun we had, was when we played with My Bloody Valentine. We were their sister – or brother – band for a while and we played loads of shows with them. They even took us on a UK tour with them and gave us £ 50 a night out of their own money which was a nice gesture and much appreciated. They also helped out with places to stay and let us use their van. I really remember the first night of the tour which was in Oxford. We had a proper dressing room filled with food and booze and even got interviewed by the student magazine. All new experiences for us. In my opinion we blew My Bloody Valentine off stage that night: they were a bit rusty and we were all hyped up. They wiped the floor with us the rest of the tour!
How do you reflect on your time with the Wails?
It was great fun, but one of those things that I wished I’d appreciated more at the time. I’ll be the first to admit that I used to just enjoy getting drunk and making a fool of myself on stage. I didn’t take it seriously at all and it was all one big laugh and an adventure for me. But I looking back now, I realise that we were – or could have been – a good little band and wish I’d have taken it bit more seriously. I don’t know if we could have got bigger or achieved more, but looking back I think we could have pushed the band a bit more. It was also the first time I’d sung in a band and found I really enjoyed it. I’m quite a shy person by nature so loved having the opportunity become someone else on stage.
Did you ever get approached by record labels, big or small?
No we never had any offers alas, from major or independent labels. There were rumours for a while that Creation were interested and Alan McGee saw us a few times, but nothing came of it. I’m not sure that if we had been offered a deal with any label we’d have taken it as from the start we were determined to put our own stuff out. Probably a great mistake! It might have helped if we’d had some sort of manager but we insisted on doing things for ourselves.
Were The Fall an intentional influence on you?
I’ve always loved The Fall, but at the time I don’t think they were an influence, consciously anyway. But listening to some old Sperm Wails rehearsal tapes I can hear a Fall influence, mainly my rambling stream of consciousness lyrics. Steve and Nick were much bigger Fall fans than me so maybe it influenced their playing a bit.
The band struck me as an outfit that got things done; should the Wails have made a greater impact on the world?
Steve and Nick got things done, I was busy getting drunk and making a fool of myself, but I guess at the start we had a bit of drive. We wanted to record and put our first single out before we’d even had our first rehearsal. All the records we put out were self-financed and self-released: we were too impatient to wait for other people do things for us. I remember Steve driving to the pressing plant and coming back with his Mini full of boxes of records. Then we’d all sit around putting the sleeves together and sending them out.
As to gigs, we were really lucky; we never had to run around hassling promoters for gigs. As soon as we started playing live one gig always lead to another. And bands we’d play with would offer us other shows. Then we reached the level where promoters started contacting us. As to an impact, this might sound rather corny, the fact that a few people still remember us after all these years is enough impact for me. One of the nicest things that happened to me over the last few years was when an American label (SS Records from San Francisco) got in touch and wanted to re-issue one of our old singles, and they did. They put out Lady Chatterley’s Habit and the previously unreleased Mr Wonderful as a seven inch single.
I think Nick and Steve had more of a vision for the band than I did. I was just enjoying the ride. I’ve always played in bands for the sheer pleasure of it. That’s why I’m still doing it. I’ve never had any ambition for it to be anything but a fun hobby. Not that I’ve ever had the chance, but being in a band full-time and doing it for a living doesn’t appeal to me at all. It’s the sort of thing you should do because you want to rather than because you have to.
Was the Carry On single a posthumous release?
I’m pretty sure the Carry-On single came out when we were still together as I remember selling it at shows, but it was near the end of the band. I wasn’t happy with the single at the time and argued against releasing it. The song and B-side are basically slowed down versions of Golden Age of the Casual which was the reverse of our Boy Hairdresser single. In fact it was the same recording! I thought that we had so many songs it was a waste to put something we’d already done out. We should have recorded something new. But I was out-voted. I still don’t like the single too much, I don’t think it was representative of what we were doing. But I’m a big Carry-On fan so still enjoy listening to the samples but no, we didn’t get permission. I don’t think it even occurred to us!
Was there any connection with Scottish band, Boy Hairdressers?
None at all. I was a big Joe Orton fan at the time and Boy Hairdresser was one of his early plays. I just liked the title.
What were the songs about?
I always started with the title which I usually found in a book, or newspaper headline or from something I’d heard on TV. Then I’d make the lyrics up as I went along. I’ve got a really bad memory for song lyrics, which is why I don’t usually sing the same words twice: it’s not improvisation, it’s just bad memory. It was only when we recorded the song the ‘final’ lyrics would stick. Most of my lyrics are just meaningless rubbish. I’m to blame for all the lyrics. The music we’d work out between us. One of us would come up with a rough idea, we’d jam it, and it would magically turn into a song.
Has there been any talk of a retro CD?
There’s probably enough material with various demos and rehearsal tapes as well as the official releases but we haven’t had any offers. The thing that does seem to have got us some retro-cool is a video of us playing Lady Chatterley’s Habit on YouTube. It had over 47,000 hits last time I looked. 47,000 hits isn’t that much compared to the amount of hits you’ll get for a kitten playing with a sock, but for a band I thought had been long forgotten it’s not too bad! And lead to the American single coming out.
Don’t think you did any cover songs.
We did try a couple! We played a punk version of Peggy Sue, re-named Peggy Screw at a few gigs and attempted a version of Bad Leroy Brown which never made it out of the rehearsal room. We were writing so many songs of our own we didn’t really bother with covers.
Who helped the band, in particular?
Well apart from My Bloody Valentine, Jon Beast was our biggest help. He gave us our first gig at the Timebox Club at the Bull & Gate, and pretty much gave us gigs whenever we wanted them. And paid us. One of our really lucky breaks was when we got reviewed in Sounds on our second ever gig at the Bull & Gate. We were on at about 6.30pm; first band on just after the doors had opened. I’m not even sure what a reviewer was doing at a gig that early! But out of all the bands on the bill we were the only one to be reviewed. It wasn’t a great review but it made us sound interesting. And I can’t tell you the thrill of starting off in a band and after a couple of gigs getting reviewed in the national music press. In those days Sounds and NME and Melody Maker were the bibles of what was happening. To get a review so early in our career really encouraged us.
John Robb was always good to us. We played with the Membranes a few times and he kindly put us up in his flat when we played in Manchester. I seem to remember we spent half the night looking through his record collection.
Why did the band split?
Would you believe musical differences? Nick wanted to take the band in a more melodic direction and we recorded some stuff with cello and clarinets. But it really didn’t work for me. Of course bands should move on and experiment, they stagnate otherwise, but I felt we were going too far too soon. We were just making a name for ourselves and it seemed the wrong time to change our sound. There was time for that after we’d established ourselves. Also I think we’d peaked as a band. We’d gone as far as we could – it didn’t happen for us – and we were on a downward spiral. If nothing else we always enjoyed playing live, but we even stopped enjoying that at the end. We’d gone stale.
How representative were your studio recordings?
Apart from Lady Chatterley’s Habit, I don’t think anything we recorded captured the real Sperm Wails sound. Most of our recordings were too smooth and polite in my opinion. I think our strength was playing live. Until near the end, no two gigs were the same and they’d be chaotic riotous affairs. You can’t really capture that on vinyl.
Is there a story behind the Shelter video?
I’m not sure how we got on that. I guess we were part of that scene at the time and had a video already recorded and fate and luck did the rest. There is also a video we recorded for Boy Hairdresser out there somewhere. I had a copy but an ex-girlfriend taped Coronation Street over the top of it. If anyone out there has a copy, I’d love to see it again!
What are you all doing now?
I don’t see much of Steve or Elvina but we stay in touch. I think Steve works for The Guardian, and still dabbles in music. I’m not sure what Elvina is doing for a living but like me, she’s constantly played in bands since the Wails ended, most notable the wonderful London Dirthole Company. I wasn’t in touch with Nick for ages but a couple of years ago he got in touch and we’ve been working on a band together called Blowhole. We’ve done a few shows – and still play a few Sperm Wails numbers in the set – and have put a single out. We hope to record some new stuff soon. It’s been fun writing songs with Nick again, although we’re still probably pulling in different musical directions! But maybe that’s what makes it work.
I’ve been playing in bands non-stop before and since the Wails. My ‘main’ band are called Chester who play good old fashioned dumb pop punk type stuff. We’ve done a couple of albums and are working on our difficult third album right now. I’m also a bit of a band whore and play with any old band who need a bass player or guitarist. I’ve just done a nine date tour of Germany playing bass with a band called the Derita Sisters who are based in Santa Barbara, USA. I’ll be 50 this year and I’m just glad and privileged I still get the chance to do stuff like that at my advanced age.
As to what I do in the real world, I’m a doorkeeper -not a doorman- at the Houses of Parliament. It’s a pretty odd job, but as I’m fascinated by politics it’s a great place to work. Like having front row seats for the best show in town! And I get to wear a silly uniform.
If you contact me via No Class I’ll send you a free 7″ Blowhole single.
Blowhole is Rob and Nick, plus Rick Weller and Dee Ahakpo. The 7″ is on Cooler King Records: Experiment Number One coupled with Consumer Protection Racket, which is a new recording of an old Sperm Wails tune. It’s a fine record that serves as a fitting continuation to the Sperm Wails back catalogue. Strangely enough, Experiment tips a rhythmic nod to Blur’s Girls and Boys.
Sperm Wails Discography:
(i) Grim / Stroke EP 7″ flexi Spurt Records
(ii) Boy Hairdresser / The Golden Age Of The Casual / Old Rockers Never Die (They Live Forever On The Guest List) 12″ Spurt Records
(iii) Golden Age Of The Carry On / The Golden Age Of The C.A.S.U.A.L. 7″ Spurt Records
(iv) Lady Chatterley / Lighthouse Keeper 7″ SS Records
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