People from the era tell their stories.
» Mike Crawford
Hi, this is Alex from the Jeli Sound Archive in collaboration with Bristol Archive Records . In this interview I am going to be talking to Mike Crawford who has over the years performed solo as well as in a number of Bristol bands including The Spics, The Viceroys, The Night Caps, The Crazy Trains, Crazy Bones and Apache Dropout.
The Spics were your first band, how did that come about?
I was helping out at some gigs my brother was doing. He was already in a band and he needed a support act. He knew I had a couple of my own songs. He said, “we will back you and you can be the support. You sing your songs and a couple of covers and you'll be the support act.” This was at a place called The Stonehouse which is defunct, it's where the spectrum building is now. So I got up on stage and did four numbers. It was the first time I had ever actually appeared in front of a band. I had done some solo stuff but nothing like that. As soon as they got off Nick Sheppard came up and said to me “Do you want to be in our band?” He had this band called the Tesco Chainsaw Massacre. They were looking for a singer. I said “yes, sure.” We started chatting and the more we talked the more we realised we had a lot in common in terms of a love for r'n'b and soul. The rest of the band were people that he knew. I didn't know any of them up and till that point because he was born and bred in Bristol. I actually come from Glasgow believe it or not and I didn't grow up in Bristol so I didn't know all these other musicians. Basically everybody that wanted to joined the band, joined the band. So there was eleven of us all together. Gradually that whittled down to those who could do something or weren't too busy to go to rehearsals and it ended up as a nine piece.
The biggest surprise was that people liked it. It was punk in that we did it all ourselves and it was quite fast. To start with I think we had one or two original songs and the rest were like speeded up 60s soul covers. Gradually we filtered more and more of our own material into it. It wasn't musically at all like punk as it is known - The Pistols, The Damned - but it had the same ethos. When punk first started, it was the ethos of do-it-yourself that was important. There wasn't a formula. You could be what you liked but as soon as people saw The Pistols and the publicity started everybody began sounding a bit like The Pistols. It became much more regimented. We actually started in '79 or '78 I think. We just went down very well and that is always an incentive to keep going. So we played loads and loads of gigs and were quite successful on a local level.
Where did you play, where were your haunts?
We played Trinity a couple of times; we played the Locarno three times, twice as a support for The Only Ones and once in our own right; we played the Anson rooms twice, maybe three times; we played a bar upstairs at The Anson Rooms a lot; we played The Hot Bear, which was The Bear pub in Hotwells; we played in London in some university hall and even went on a brief kind of tour. We played all sorts of places with varying results. It didn't always go down well. With Bristol we were sort of caught up in what became the mod revival, which was actually just a load of skin heads. That didn't really happen for us.
Tell me about your only release with The Spics, the single You And Me. It was the only release from that time wasn't it? Subsequently you've had some demos put together for Midnight Girls, isn't that right?
Midnight Girls was the first original song that The Spics did and the bass player John Shennan quickly came up with most of You And Me. He needed a chorus or something and I managed to provide that. They were the most successful songs in the set to start with. Then I wrote Bus Stop and that kind of brought it on a little bit as well. People just said, you ought to release this but there was nowhere that wanted to release it. We actually got single of the week in NME when it came out but we couldn't get any label interested. Thomas Brooman set up Wavelength Records primarily to release it and then at the last minute for some reason we ditched Midnight Girls and went with You And Me and Bus Stop. That was it really, by the time it came out we had virtually split up. As is the way of these things. It takes so long from the inception to the delivery that things can change very fast.
So what was the actual recording process of that like?
It was great. I think we did it in 24 hours in a place in Bath. The studio was owned by a guy called David Lord. I just remember he had made all his money from writing the music behind the speaking clock or something. He had this studio. It was a very peculiar process for me because I had never recorded in a proper studio before and was fraught with the usual nerves and stuff. I think we did the whole thing in 24 hours and everyone was quite pleased with the eventual result.
So tell me about The Viceroys.
Well The Spics split up, basically because we seemed to sort of run out of steam. We couldn't work out where we were going to go. By the time we did our last show at the Anson rooms we were doing an almost totally original set and we had set up our own record label and rehearsal studios in old market. I don't know what was going on. I had various personal problems, my mother was very ill. I couldn't really concentrate on it. We just started rowing. I just remember it was one of those classic, “Oh right I am leaving the band,” sort of things and nobody stopped me.
I kept on writing songs and I can't remember how much later but I met up with Andy Franks who had been in a band called The Wild Beasts. He is now a very important person in the Coldplay management and is a lovely guy. He and I got together with Kenny Wheeler who was the drummer in The Wild Beasts and owned Sound Conception Studios. Kenny also had some contact with Fried Egg Records. Andy Leighton ran Fried Egg and I met him while I was in The Spics because his band at the time was Shoes For Industry, they had supported us or we had supported them - one or the other. We did some demos for Fried Egg and they put one of them, Angels In The Rain, on a compilation on white seven inch vinyl. It was too long to go on and because it was a compilation there was a very brutal edit on that track. Angels In The Rain was actually written for The Spics who do the best version of it. It is floating around somewhere.
I have seen you doing that song on a television show.
Yes, but we actually recorded it in a recording studios in Old Market, Steve Street recorded it. That version is far superior to the one I did with The Viceroys. The Viceroys had Nick Sheppard in it and Paul who played Keyboards. We did a few gigs. It was all right. It was a kind of progression on from what I was doing with The Spics but with a keyboard player, which is what I really wanted and without the percussion and the girl backing singers. Nick got offers from other bands, he was a great guitarist and you could see why they wanted him. In the end he kind of drifted off. So that fell apart.
That was the Fried Egg World Tour was it?
Yes, I didn't actually do that because that was after we split up. I think the untouchables did that.
Sorry, I thought that was what the recording was put on. I thought it was put on a compilation called the Fried Egg World Tour E.P.
Yes, it might have been but I think world tour was just a way of selling it. There certainly weren't any gigs from us, there might have been one at Dingwalls but other than that there wasn't a tour to go with it that I knew of.
Dingwalls is one I haven't come across before.
Dingwalls in London, it's on Camden Lock.
Ok, that explains why.
It's a legendary rock and roll venue. It's kind of gone down the tubes a bit now but it was a sort of entry level venue. When you went to London and you had never played a gig in London before, if you could get a gig third on the bill at Dingwalls you were doing all right.
So tell me about Fried Egg Records.
Andy Leighton is the person to talk to really but I think it was set up so that they could release some of the Shoes For Industry stuff and The Exploding Seagulls. Andy Leighton knew our bass player and Ken Wheeler our drummer was also the engineer at Sound Conception Studios. I think that's where Fried Egg did all their demos. They heard the demos we were doing and liked them. That was ongoing but either we split up before there was a single or I seem to remember them saying they weren't going to release the single and me getting really pissed off about it. So all we ended up with was a track on their E.P.
You took up the tenor saxophone whilst playing with The Nightcaps, how was the transition to that from being a singer?
Well, I had always felt like a spare prick at the front without something to do. I played the guitar but not well enough to play guitar with The Spics and sing. I just wanted to do something else that was a little more musical. I got to the end of the writing I was doing. I was doing a building job and I saw a second hand sax for £150-£200 and I bought it. I just started teaching myself because I can't read music. It was really laborious. I went for one lesson with Larry Stabbins who was a really good tenor player in Bristol at the time and he told me the basic fingerings and then I went away and practised. I knew pretty instantly that if I didn't get into a band my game would never improve, I'd never get any better. I just started talking to people about doing the kind of music that sax worked in best, which was a sort of swinging blues with a little bit of Jazz. As it went on it we started incorporating a little more Charlie Parker and a little less George Fame. It started off as a kind of swinging blues thing, a lot of the people that had played with me in The Spics came in and guested. Jo Swan and Wendy Partridge sang on a few numbers and Nick Sheppard played with us a bit. We started off with a residency in a night club in Clifton and we would play under a different name every week, Bing and the Putters one week, The Nightcaps the next. There were a load of different people playing with us, a lot of horn players who couldn't play very well. It was actually that era in the early 80s in Bristol where you weren't anybody if you didn't have an out of tune saxophone and a bongo player - sorry, percussion player. So we fitted right in as far as that was concerned. All sorts of really good players passed through it as well, Rob Merril who later played with Roni Size played with us for a bit, Nick Sheppard, and a guy called Arnie Somogyi who is now a really credible jazz bassist. He lasted about four weeks before he could see that he out classed us considerably and went somewhere else. It was a fun gig to play, we started to write our own material.
How long did that go on for?
About a year I think, we went through various incarnations. We had a girl singer at one point, we dueted. Jamie Hill played with us who had been in Mouth and I vaguely knew through that.
After that I think I started DJing at the Moon Club to supplement my non-wages. I had just become a dad and we needed the money. The Moon Club didn't want to pay me, they were in arrears for about four weeks. For one reason or another they offered me time in their studio. So I worked out some material with The Nightcaps and took it into the studio and recorded it with an engineer called Mark "Sooty" Byrne. For no purpose other than I thought it would be worth getting the songs down. A club promoter in Bristol called Dave Darling who ran a goth club called The Bastille took the recording up to London and played it to a publisher. The publisher happened to have his American partner over who offered me a deal off the back of these three tracks. And all of it happened because I wanted to use up some money that the Moon Club didn't want to pay me.
So is the Bastille a club in London?
No, The Bastille was a club in King Street in the cellar, it was desperately trying to be the Bat Cave. It was for over made up boys and girls to go and listen to Gene Loves Jezebel records. I'd known David for a long time and he had always fancied himself as a manager. He had always said “I can manage you,” and I just said, “prove it”. I gave him the demo and he did. He proved it.
So tell me about your 1990 solo album King of Tears which featured Booker T Jones.
Well, as I said the demo went to London and this American publisher heard it. He liked it and sent me a letter saying, did I have any more songs? I said “yes.” Of course I didn't but I was writing the letter with one hand and the songs with the other. Originally it was going to be done in Bristol, then London, then he said, “why don't you come over to LA and do it?” So I went over and he said, “who would you like to produce it?” I've always been a massive soul fan, I actually said Willie Mitchell who produced Al Green's records but either he didn't know who Willie Mitchell was or he couldn't get him so he said how about Booker T. It turned out Booker T was between jobs at the time so I said, 'Yeah, great fantastic.'
I flew over to LA, got to meet him, he seemed like a really nice guy. We had a chat he was slightly surprised that I knew any of the stuff he was on. I played him some demos of us rehearsing and he decided that instead of using a bunch of session players, which is what the American record label wanted, I could use the band I was already working with. That gave me a certain amount of confidence as I was scared that if I got over there and it was only me representing my music it would get changed a lot. I have subsequently changed my mind about session players - if they are any good they are really good.
So we flew over to Los Angeles in 1990. We recorded for six weeks with Booker T in a studio that Elvis and Frank Sinatra had used on Santa Monica Boulevard. We did what's called the tracking,which is putting down all the backing tracks, all the instrumental tracks. The band went home and I was asked to finish it: do all the vocals, supervise the over dubs, horns, girl singers, percussion, so forth. That took another couple of months, maybe three months. Then they got cold feet and sent me home, umming and arring about whether they liked it. They asked me to come back and write more material.
When you make your first record American record companies like there to be a cover of somebody else's song - a well known song - so that they can release that as a first single. It provides an easy way of people getting into your music. So they asked me to choose some material, I settled for a cover of a Tom Waits song called Downtown Train. Despite the fact Tom Waits is from California nobody knew who the hell he was. They might have known him more as an actor than as a singer. He sold very very few records but I had always been a massive fan. I knew that Downtown Train could be a huge hit single because it has a beautiful melody. We rearranged it and restructured it and I came home. I think it must have been just before Christmas, my wife at the time was the manageress of the Bristol Virgin Records store, I hadn't seen her so I walked down to the shop. As I walked towards Virgin Records there was a huge display in the window of Rod Stewart's new hit single, Downtown Train. Completely unknown to me he had recorded it three weeks after we had and about two miles from our studio and basically pissed on my birthday cake.
They didn't want to release the single. Obviously there was no point in releasing it if he already had. So that's why I had to go back to America and write more. They just got more and more nervous about it. It's very weird to spend $180,000 on a record and then decide not to release it. I'd never done anything on that level before, we had an apartment in Hollywood and a car. It was great but at the same time it was very depressing because the record didn't come out. The way they fire you is they just stop taking your calls. You never actually get a letter saying we don't want to work with you any more, it's just the guy is always busy. You talk to his secretary, you send letters off, nothing comes back. Gone. So contracts aren't worth the paper they are written on unless you have enough money to sue. I didn't really want to go down that route anyway so I was back here, very pissed off and depressed.
Fortunately the engineer that I worked with on that project with was on my side. He cut me a tape copy of the rough mixes. It wasn't even finished mixing because they fired Booker T as well. They decided he was doing a bad job so they were going to get someone to mix it instead and they never did. I got this tape back with me, which was how I was able to subsequently get out something to release. I got back to Bristol and I was really at a low ebb. I had written 15 songs, they weren't coming out, they were the best that I could do at the time and then this band, The Crazy Trains, asked me to play sax with them.
So the The Crazy Trains then?
They have also got some stuff out on Bristol Archive Records. They were an archetypal sort of Flammin' Groovies type rock and roll band. They wrote their own material, wore pointy toed shoes, very tight trousers, and had elaborate hair dos. They were great and they wanted a sax player so I started playing with them. Then rhythm guitarist left so I started playing rhythm guitar as well. They decided they wanted to release a CD. In order to raise money for the recording we started doing gigs under a pseudonym as a covers band, just to raise the money. Although The Crazy Trains did good business they were doing their own stuff and they couldn't make the sort of money that suddenly we found a covers band could. We joined up with Spider [Steve Croom] from The Seers and called ourselves Crazy Bones. We started playing all over town doing 60s garage punk covers by bands like the Chocolate Watchband. We ended every night with Louie Louie [Richard Berry] and Gloria [Van Morrison]. This was all quite a long time before 60s garage music actually became hip again. Although it was all covers it was a great band and we made loads of money that we used to release the first The Crazy Trains CD. Then The Crazy Trains promptly split up, so we just kept going as the Crazy Bones because they were more successful as a band. We became a covers act.
The covers were really eclectic and the idea was that we would do numbers we liked, not numbers that would please the audience. We hoped that there would be a cross over: that we had enough knowledge of music and good taste to introduce audiences to new songs they didn't know but would subsequently like. It went on like that for quite a long time.
What happened to the CD that you had produced?
Well, nobody really wanted to pick it up, we sold a few copies at gigs. As is the way with these things I've got loads of them still under my bed. We then did a live Crazy Bones CD recorded at the Horseshoe Inn on Downend Road, which is pretty good. That again didn't sell very much. Part of it was down to us not pushing it hard enough at gigs. I've also got a few of those somewhere.
I was doing that at the same time I met Rich Beale [ex-singer of Head]. He brought his children to one of my children's birthday parties and we got talking. He needed somebody to do some recording with and I misunderstood him - I thought he played an instrument and he didn't. When we next met up I was waiting for him to show me the chords and he said, 'Oh, no I just sing.' So from the first time we worked together I had to start making stuff up to go behind his vocals, which is kind of how we got into it. The first track turned out really well and so we did a few more, gradually we accrued a band around us and started doing gigs. It was a troubled bunch of individuals shall we say, there were all sorts of pressures, internal and external. It was very hard to keep together. Reg Evans who runs a successful audio visual company in Bristol was kind enough to put up the money to actually record the album. We recorded it in this house. That hole in the ceiling there [points] is where all the cable came through. The desk was upstairs, [points] that one there. Its hard to believe now but this room was completely empty. We did, drums, guitar, vocals, piano out there [points] and we did some guitars in the garden.
When we were finished, I was ecstatic it was exactly how I wanted it. Corin Dingley was the engineer and Angelo Bruschini who played for The Blue Aeroplanes and Massive Attack was the producer. This might be beginning to sound familiar but again nobody wanted it. In the interim period we did a few more gigs and sent it out a bit more. Then we got an offer from Alan Horne who founded the Glasgow record label Postcard Records. Postcard released Orange Juice and the Fire Engines and people like that. We went up there and they remixed the album, made it sound a lot better. Then Rich promptly left. He had had a lot of problems with alcohol and he'd decided to get himself sorted out, which he did. He felt at the time that going out and playing, especially in licensed premises was not something he wanted to do while he was sorting himself out. So that fell apart as well. Fortunately, I kind of knew Mike Darby from years ago, he had heard the Apache Dropout album and wanted to release it. Kind of as a sweetener he said, “well, I'll release your solo album if you give me the Apache Dropout album.” So that's how they came to be released.
Do you have any humorous anecdotes involving notable people that you've worked with?
When I was making the solo album in Los Angles I tried to do the sax solo on one track, I think it was on New Pair of Shoes. I really wasn't cutting it. He said, “don't worry, we will get this guy in.” The guy was Ernie Watts, he came with a list of recommendations as long as your arm. He had worked with Al Green, Aretha Franklin and The Rolling Stones. He was the biz. He was this big black guy of about 60. He came in, sat on the stool in the recording room, we rolled the tape and he played the solo. It was a perfectly nice solo but there was nothing special about it. I said to Booker, “look would it be all right if I asked him to do it again?” Booker said, “yes.” I pressed the button to talk to him and said, “ Ernie, would it be all right if you did that again?” Ernie said, “I'll get it right if it takes every dollar you got!” Which was great actually. It made me really like session players because I thought they were going to be up themselves, like, “Well, we don't give a fuck about your music.” In fact they were totally the reverse, the horn section that I used were the same section they used on the Tonight Show and the trumpet player had worked on Thriller. They were so respectful and quick. I don't write music and I had to sing some of the horn parts to one of them. He would just go, “right, key of G,” and write it down. In five minutes it was arranged and in ten minutes they were playing it. If it is a good idea, then that's the best you are ever going to hear it. They were just fantastic and really nice guys.
What do you remember of the political climate from the 70s to the eighties?
There was a sort of reaction to everybody's older brother who had been a hippy or a mod or something like that. We were all a bit young for that. There was nothing specifically ours. My mother let me go to the Isle of Wight when I was 15. I saw Hendrix, The Doors, Miles Davis (who I hated, which is a bit of a shame really as it was Bitches Brew), The Who, Leonard Cohen. So I was exposed to a lot of this stuff quite early on but these people were like gods. They weren't like normal human beings, you couldn't imagine yourself doing it. I had always wanted to be a musician but I couldn't see how I could get on board. I remember going to see Led Zeppelin at the Colston Hall and thinking, nobody sings like that, how do you sing like that? That's impossible?
The thing about punk was the people you saw in punk bands were only slightly better than you, which gave you some impetus to start your own. Also everybody was thoroughly disgusted, it had become very them and us, actually quite like it is now. The dole had drawn a line between people in work who had stuff to protect and people out of work who had very little. It prompted people to make their own stuff instead of throwing bricks. Any old amplifier would do, the terrible shit that you would use for a guitar, it was almost a badge of pride because it showed in the music. It wasn't a £2000 Gibson it was a 50 quid Zenta. That's who you were, you made 50 quid Zenta music rather than £2000 Gibson music. The whole anti-racist thing was almost a given because part of the punk scene in Bristol was going down to listen to reggae at the Bamboo where they didn't mind what we looked like and no one would beat you up. Being non-racist was an absolute given. I think also there was a lot of gay people who just found the alternative way of dressing to be liberating. We were all a bit weird and we all wore eye make-up, gay or straight. So when you are being chased down the street it didn't really matter whether you were gay or straight, you were all in the same boat.
Can we talk a bit about some of the work you are currently doing as a stage manager?
Sure, I got into it because I suddenly realised that somebody would actually pay me to do the job for them that I was doing for myself: setting my equipment up, checking the leads, tuning the guitars. I didn't know it until afterwards but I did Goldfrapp's first gig at The Big Chill and then I worked for a band called Witness that had some of the Blue Aeroplanes and a great singer called Gerard Starkie in it. Just little splinter tours where I was driving, tour managing and setting the gear up. Then I got a job as a guitar tech.
It's funny, it's totally different from playing the gig yourself. You can get involved and you get an excitement level and you want it to succeed in the same way as if it was your gig. That's how I get involved and that's how I get enjoyment out of it. I've had musicians ask me for jobs and I've given them to them and some of them have been useless at it because they just resent net being the performer. You can't do that. You are not the performer, they are the performer and what you have to do is be the support system for the performer. My job is to make sure that when people walk on stage that all they are thinking about is playing the gig. They are not thinking, did he plug that in? Is that in tune? Are my shoe laces done up? It doesn't matter how trivial it is. I've done everything. I've stuck rubies on rhinestones slippers, I've sewn up costumes and I've changed the valves in amplifiers. Whatever is involved that I can do to make the thing happen properly I am quite happy to do. I've got to meet some very nice people on the way. The great thing about musicians is that they are all the same, in the sense that they talk about the same stuff, they all have similar life experiences: most musicians have a backlog of not being successful before they are successful. There's a level on which you can relate to each other and I find it quite relaxing to be around them.
Cool, we will end the interview there. Thank you very much.
I didn't say I also get paid?
Is there anything else you want to add?
Yes, I want to plug my new album.
Go for it.
I had been touring for other bands for the last 10 years and last year it all stopped - came to a screeching halt. There was absolutely no work, it was very odd. I did Amy Winehouse's first tour and then I did Massive Attack, then it just stopped. So I had nothing to do last year, I was sat around at home, so I got talking to Richard [Beale] and we started writing songs again. We worked out some demos, the idea was to maybe write another Apache Dropout album after 15 years. I had been doing some work for Adrian Utley whose the guitarist in Portishead, he had done some solo work and he needed somebody to do guitar tech and also to produce on it. He said, “can I hear your demos?” I played him the demos and he said, “why don't you record it here?” He's got a lovely recording studio in his house with some great gear. So we started recording last year, what is now called Masters. It was kind of convoluted because we could only do a little bit here and there. Unlike the first Apache Dropout album, which was a band - five people plus guest musicians - This was just me and Rich, getting people in as and when we needed them. I played bass on some numbers, Charlie Jones from Goldfrapp and Jo Allen from Strange Love played bass on others; Clive Deemer from Portishead is on drums; fat Paul from the Croft is also on drums; Adrian plays guitar on it; Stew Jackson from Robot Club and Phantom Limb mixed it. It's a fantastic mixture of people. It turned out very well but it has been met with the usual deafening silence.
I'll be out of the country for at least the next two months, I think we are not going to release it until January. Then I can find somebody to make a website for it and get a live unit together to play the songs and try and get something going behind it. That would be the idea anyway.
When you say that you get a deafening silence after you release an album, it's just a piece of plastic and some paper, it cant cost that much to get them produced...
No, it doesn't. What there is, is too much music. I mean the outlets are inundated. I could remember in the early eighties going out to London and getting paid for an afternoon at Mute Records and I was put in front of a cardboard box, [gestures] that wide by that deep, full of cassettes. I mean to the brim! You had to play them and throw them away, if there was anything promising you would put it to one side. The depressing thing was that of that whole box there were two things that were vaguely interesting. The fact is anyone can be a musician, and anyone is. Nothing has made it simpler than computers. Dance music is the same and I am not having a go at dance music but basically you nurture your talent through learning a skill like playing an instrument. Quite often you can hear that all people have learnt to do is turn stuff off and turn it on. It's not that that can't produce results there is some incredible dance music out there but there is also some absolute rubbish because there is no process through which to filter. You don't develop specific tastes, specific anything. That's why producers are paid so much money to make something saleable.
The interaction of one musician playing with another produces a third thing. I mean there is nothing better than getting a talented bunch of people in a room and going, “go,” because you will come up with something that wasn't there before. There is a magic about recording where you press a button and perform a song that you have rehearsed, you know when it goes right: it has a quality, something has crept into it that wasn't there before. Something that isn't just the combination of those drums, that bass, that guitar and that keyboard. Something else has happened and that is what is so exciting about it. That's the stuff that keeps me coming back, it's like crack.
It doesn't matter if it sells... I mean it does matter if it sells because I would really like people to hear it, but its not going to stop me. Why would that effect me? It has never sold! I mean I haven't ever sold anything. There is no point stopping, that's not going to change things, I might as well keep going.
Rich and I had a great time making this record. For the first time in a long time we had more numbers than we could use, so we might actually put out all the rest next summer. There's no reason not to. Rant over!
Alex Cater Nov 2011