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Andy Leighton's Fried Egg Story

I’ve been promising Mr Archive some words on Fried Egg Records for some months now. I started but couldn’t finish, writer’s block of some kind. Just how far back do you go in your mind to get to the origins of something you started 30 years ago? The wind up gramophone your granny bought you when you were 9 years old. The best concert you ever saw in your life – The Stax Roadshow (Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Arthur Conley, Booker T and the MG’s et al) at the Colston Hall when you were 16 years old ? the list could continue, mixing love of music and Bristol but it was something posted (Thanks Dave Alex Riddett) on Facebook yesterday that reminded me of what was probably the true spark of Fried Egg Records. Some photos taken at the Ashton Court FREE Festival 1977 of The Crystal Theatre of the Saint’s musical set being interrupted by the ‘Spivs from Space’, a street theatre pisstake of Close Encounters. It was the first time Crystal Theatre had incorporated a band into their theatrical repertoire, one of those seminal moments, and I wasn’t even there.

I arrived in Bristol later that year exhausted and burnt out from London where I’d spent the last 2 years editing and publishing that famous anarcho-hippie rag, IT. Previous to that I’d been an independent Record Producer in the good old days when you could make the record, invent a band name, knock on the door of the A&R dept like a brush salesman and sell your record; sort of the reverse of what Simon Cowell is doing today. It was fun at the time, John Peel got it and played most of our novelty output, and my proudest moment was when we sold our summer surfer record to Micky Most’s RAK label only to get swamped out that summer by the Rubettes’ ‘Sugar Baby Love’. Perhaps our surfer record entitled ‘Tuff Little Surfer Boy’ by Truth and Beauty was just too much out of line; The second verse went “If Jesus was to come again, he’d come on a board/ No need to walk on water when there’s surf for our Lord”. Various factors made me decide to ‘retire’ from the music biz after about 4 years. Firstly I’d never been able to take the music biz seriously for any length of time, there were too many assholes involved and I didn’t want to become one of them and finally another record label owner of similar stature to Micky Most had decided to close down his label because it was costing him too much money to buy his records into the charts ! Time to bid farewell to the music biz or so I thought.

I’d become friends with Crystal Theatre a few years before I settled in Bristol. I’d seen a double header of their shows at the ICA in London in 1976 ‘Rooms’ and ‘Ideas are Animals’ and it had blown my mind. A visiting American theatre critic thought pretty much the same. There were only two pieces of theatre worth seeing in London and one of them was the Crystal Theatre she wrote “…they are making these incredible bricks with little or no straw. They receive no funding from the Arts Council and they are all on the dole.” And that was why Paul B. Davies, leading light of the Crystals, came knocking on my door, the Arts Council did in fact want to give them money but wouldn’t do so until they had an administrator, apparently I fitted the bill. Eventually I succumbed to Paul’s pleas and the next thing I can remember is going through the budget for a week long gig at the Festival of Death at a theatre in Rotterdam, Holland. The numbers didn’t add up, The Crystals had incorporated 2 musical numbers into ‘The Secret Garden’, the show they were taking to Holland, and we couldn’t afford to take all the band members at which point Paul turns to me and says you can play guitar can’t you and suddenly I’ve become a guitarist/administrator, the two songs from the ‘Secret Garden’ sound pretty good and a bit punky and there I am again sitting around thinking up names for a band. In the two years since I left the music biz, Malcolm MacClaren, Rough Trade and Stiff Records amongst others had turned things upside down and it seemed perfectly natural to record, release and live the rock ‘n roll dream DIY style.

Some friends of mine, two brothers, Chris and Anthony David owned a basement recording studio off Ashley Road, Sound Conception, which is where we recorded the first Shoes for Industry and Fried Egg single. The resident engineer was Ken Wheeler, drummer with another band , The Wild Beasts, who recorded the second Fried Egg single. I can’t remember who chose the name Fried Egg but I’m pretty sure it was Ken who became a lynch pin of Fried Egg not only as recording engineer/producer but as art director for the label and sleeves. Third single was by The Fans, George Smith’s outfit, through the Sound Conception connection and so on, that’s how it started with Sound Conception as the base of operations. Gerard Langley has written about the Fried Egg output elsewhere so I don’t feel the need to add to his words of wisdom only to say that who would have predicted back in 1979 that of all the Fried Egg Artists it would be Gerard who had the best trajectory and longevity. Not bad for a humble poet. Hats off to you mate.

I’ll also doff my hat to all those promoters of live music in Bristol at the time, mainly Mark Simpson and his never ending Ashton Court FREE Festival benefit gigs that kept all the Bristol bands live and kicking and competing with each other in friendly rivalry. Also those Laurel and Hardy look-alikes , Martin Elbourne and Dave Cohen, President and Social Sec of Bristol University Union respectively, who sent us off round the country on the ‘Be Limp’ tour (crazy name, crazy people). The first gig was at Oxford Poly, rough and tough with gobbing and stage invasions, I remember bouncing for the Spics during their set as the allure of the Spicettes drew too many admirers on stage. It certainly sharpened up Shoes for Industry’s act and probably the other bands as well with plenty of Spinal Tap memories along the way. And that was probably the key to the Bristol music scene at that time, plenty of gigs and the freedom of expression that went with it. Juan Foote ‘n the Grave predating the Blues Brothers, the Untouchables more energised than the original Dr Feelgood, The Spics with the best Springsteen cover ever, Fire; the psychobilly punk of the Stingrays, the neo modness of Joe Public, the slickness of Various Artists, the danceability of the Art Objects to name but a few. Variety being the spice of life and the best formula for a party and no need to listen to demo tapes when you could see the band live. Some years later in an interview in Time Out magazine on the release of their second album Massive Attack were asked the question - It’s 3 years since the success of your debut album don’t you feel any pressure ? The reply – ‘No that’s the best thing about living in Bristol, all that bullshit passes you by’. The rest of the world may have taken the view that we all had straw behind our ears but actually we were secretly having a ball, maybe it’s a west coast thing.

Whilst all this was going on Crystal Theatre continued their theatre activities in parallel to Shoes for Industry. We occupied a wedge shaped victorian warehouse building at the Temple Meads end of Victoria Street built in the Bristol Byzantine Style and we used to rehearse and preview our theatre shows there before going out on tour. So it seemed the logical progression to put on gigs there as well. Although I say it myself, at the time it was the best party in town and totally illegal with no music or booze licence whatsoever, a warehouse rave. This is where we got Trevor Horn of Buggles, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Seal fame to see Various Artists for the second time, he wanted to sign them and record them. This was the hope for most aspiring record labels to take it to the next level that one of their acts would break out big time. We had no trouble shifting enough records to cover costs and pay for the next release as the indie distribution network was strong and varied at the time. A play on John Peel helped but a spin on Geoff Travis’s turntable at Rough Trade was usually the key and the first port of call, if he took a few hundred you could go up the road to Spartan records who distributed UB40 and say Rough Trade just took x amount and they’d usually take the same. Also a call at Virgin’s import/export company Caroline Records would mean your records could be in New York record stores the next day. We used another export company for Europe and a couple of other London distributors and of course good old Revolver Records in Bristol for Wales and the West and all from the back of my battered Volvo Estate. But the dream remained for a break out band, unfortunately Jonjo of Various Artists turned Trevor Horn’s overtures down and the main chance was gone. I’ve always been fascinated by ‘artistic integrity’ and have nothing but respect for it however perverse it may seem. What you have to remember at all times in the music biz or any form of the arts is that the raw materials you are working with are human beings and there’s nothing so queer as folk. Or, as Jean Paul Sartre said rather more brutally ‘Hell is other people’.

Could this have been the beginning of the end ? Maybe but it was really the state of Crystal Theatre that determined the demise of Fried Egg Records from my point of view. On the eve of their tenth anniversary the funding from the Arts Council seemed to be having a reverse effect, the spark was gone and an implosion was occurring. I can’t remember the exact moment when Fried Egg records ceased to be active, the last single being The Electric Guitars but I can remember the moment when in December 1981, in London at the New End Theatre in Hampstead, I started calling round cancelling the few January dates that were left of the Crystal Theatre’s last theatre tour. Sometimes you just know when a good thing has come to an end and it’s time to move on. What had started out as a bit of vanity publishing, albeit of the audio variety, for Crystal Theatre had turned into a vinyl snapshot of Bristol in the late 1970’s. The fact that Heartbeat and Wavelength were doing the same thing at the same time just proves how strong the Bristol music scene was back then.

It was a couple of years later when I noticed the writing on the wall on the corner of Meridian Place and Park Place in Clifton , a massive colourful Wild Bunch graffiti. Something fresh was stirring in the Mild Mild West.

Andy Leighton, August 2009 – Founder of Fried Egg Records