RTH: Those artists may have been lost in America without the British bands.
MB: Yeah, for myself as well. The first time I heard “Smokestack Lightning” was by Manfred Mann, and then I heard Howling Wolf, and that was something else that changed my life. There’s nothing new under the sun, so they say. There are things that turn things around. Rock ‘n roll, in ’56, turned things upside down, and I guess it was the first music specifically for teenagers. Their parents didn’t like it, which made it all the more attractive. And that carries on today, with kids who like rap music. If I had any kids and they liked rap music then I would force them to wear headphones. It’s the same thing, really, it’s better if your parents don’t like it.
Right now I love loads of different stuff, but it’s generally old stuff. The new records I like that have come out in the last couple of years are not by new artists. The best new albums I’ve heard recently are Levon Helm’s new album and Ry Cooder’s last album and Dylan. [laughs] Bob Dylan is probably the peak for me. I’ve liked everything he’s done from the beginning. I liked him when he was a folksinger, I liked him when he became rock ‘n roll. I love the fact that he’s never, ever done what people either expect or would like him to be. He’s only followed his own star.
So…if you get me started I just start rambling.
RTH: That’s fine, that really fits the tenor of Rock Town Hall.
MB: Back to The Guest List: I wanted everybody to do covers, so it was kind of an even playing field, because some of the people were not well known and some of the people were pretty well known. There were some songs that I’d always wanted to do and other songs that some of them had always wanted to do. For example, there’s a track sung by a guy called Geraint Watkins, I don’t know if you know him.
RTH: A little bit, yes.
MB: Well that song is called “Island of Dreams.” That was originally a hit in 1962, I believe, by The Springfields, which was a folk group that Dusty Springfield came out of. It was a great song, and Geraint gave it a great treatment. Nick wanted to do the song that he did, and Paul Carrack always loved that Louvin Brothers song that he sang. Carlene wanted to do that song by her mother.
There’s a song on there called “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” the last one, which is a really old song. I did actually say at the gig, I said, “This is the oldest song we’re doing tonight, and that’s saying something!” There’s something about that song – I never knew who it was by. I got the sheet music from a BBC library, and it says it’s from some film I never heard of…something Holiday. I heard the song somewhere and just loved it, something dreamy, old-fashioned, pre-rock ‘n roll…
The song that Johnny Nicky sang – I call him soul music’s best-kept secret – that song that he does I found on a compilation blues CD. It’s by a guy called Earl King, who’s a New Orleans blues-soul guy, it’s called “Time for the Sun to Rise.” I always loved that song, and I played it for Johnny and he loved it.
So it’s a bit of an indulgence, in some ways, to pick these great songs and get great singers to sing them. And I sung two myself – and that was more because somebody felt I should. I picked “Get Rhythm” because I just loved Johnny Cash, and I’d been doing that song onstage for years, whenever it was my spot in a set. And the other was “I Viberate,” which was by, believe it or not, by Conway Twitty when he was kind of rockabilly. It’s actually the same tune, the same chords – it’s identical – to “Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Fire,” but with different lyrics.
Belmont discusses the fact that album is not yet released in US, and that a search of a US label is ongoing. He did not know that the album is available in the States for digital download, which is how I bought it.
RTH: I was able to buy it from eMusic, but then I don’t get all the goodies, the booklet and stuff.
MB: So it’s a download. Yeah, I download things every now and then, in my teaching, ‘cause someone says, “Can you show me how to play such and such as song,” and I’ve never heard it and I don’t want to spend much money on something I know I’m not going to like very much. When I get a CD it goes back to vinyl albums. I like looking at the cover and reading the notes. I like all the details.
RTH: I didn’t know that you were a roadie for Brinsley Schwarz.
MB: Yes, I was, but not for very long. [laughs] I really didn’t like it – no, it’s not true. When I first did it was exciting, it was a completely different lifestyle. I was in art school, and I left in 1970 and moved up to London, ‘cause this was down in the provincial southern coast of England. A friend of mine who left college before me met Brinsley Schwarz and their organization and a couple of other bands who belonged to this organization. Through him I get this thing that they’re looking for a roadie. You don’t get any money but you get to live in this house with them – everybody lived in a big house – and you get everything paid for. The next day I found myself traveling to Glasgow for a one-off gig and then back again. That’s like 800 miles. But nobody thought anything of it at the time, we’re like 21, 22 years old.
RTH:Sure, that’s what life’s for then.
MB: It’s exciting. So yes, I was a roadie for something like 8 or 9 months. I met Sean Tyla. He was on the fringe of this same group of people…that’s right – Brinsley Schwarz’s (the band’s) publicist, a chap called Dai Davies, sort of, kind of suggested that me and Sean ought to start a band. We used to talk at Dai’s flat about all the stuff we liked and found out we were compatible musically. Then I got ill and it got put off for a bit. I had meningitis. I recuperated and we got this band started. Dai was the manager, and we started playing the pub circuit in London. That would have been the summer of ’72. We all lived in a big house that was in the center of London in what was called a squat. Do you know what squatting was? I don’t know if you have that same term in America.
RTH: Yeah, at some point, probably in the punk era that’s been the adopted term for us as well. [A week later and I still can’t remember what we called it before then. Maybe this was always the term and I never heard it until I was a teenager reading about punk bands living in squats. Oh for the love of my hometown’s most well-known and controversial housing activist of my youth, Milton Street!]
MB: The original bass player in Ducks Deluxe was already living in this place. It was a three-story house that today, by the way, has been renovated and gentrified and is worth probably 2 or 3 million pounds. Back then was fairly dilapidated, but we had running water, we had electricity, and we had a room to practice in and rooms to sleep in. It was fantastic. We had no overhead. We didn’t pay any electricity or water bills or anything. They just kept letting us use it. It was very odd. I don’t know how that worked.
[The house] was very close to the first pub we played, just up the road. We had, like, two AC30s and a bass rig and a drum kit, and that was it. We started out doing pubs and we gradually broadened out, we started making forays out of London. By the next year, 1973, we’d got a record contract with RCA! At that time it was David Bowie’s label, Elvis Presley’s label…one of the big ones. And this is some little shit-kicking band from London doing, you know, rock ‘n roll! I don’t know, maybe it was easier to get record deals in those days, but also you did it by getting people to come and see you live. It wasn’t like now, when you make a tape on your home computer – not a tape – look at me! You make up your own recording on your own computer, quite sophisticated, and you put it out yourself or you put it out on MySpace and you get played, and then occasionally a big company will pick you up. But there’s no going out to see bands with the purpose of signing them. Most of it’s not done like that now. I know a young guy who got a deal with Sony BMG, one of the big, big corporations, and he was so excited. He has one single and spent a lot of money recording it, getting it publicity and everything, and it did nothing. They dropped him straight away. There’s no sort of idea of development anymore.
You think about – in America it was great, with companies like Warner Brothers in the late ‘60s, with people like Randy Newman and Ry Cooder would get signed up. They would never make vast amounts of money for those companies, but that companies knew that they were good, and their other acts, who did make tons of money, were be financing these acts that the guys just knew should be recording. I don’t think that would happen today.
RTH: From what I’ve heard of Ducks Deluxe over the years – it’s always been hard to get my hands on releases, they’ve always been imports – you were a very rocking, straightforward, aggressive band. [Belmont agrees emphatically.] Historically we talk about a “Pub Rock scene,” a “movement” – at that time was there any sense of being part of a “movement” or was it simply a matter of being happy doing what you were doing?
MB:Well, we were happy doing what we were doing and the fact was, when we started out, we played in pubs, and we found new pub venues, as did several other bands at that time. We’re talking about ’72, ’73. Brinsley Schwarz band started doing pubs as well.
It was kind of all sparked off by an American band, called Eggs Over Easy, who had moved to London for some reason – I don’t know why – and decided to stay. There was three of them, and they all played everything: they all played keyboards, they all played guitar and piano. Their drummer was John Steele, who was the original drummer of The Animals, way back in “The House of the Rising Sun” and the lot. Somebody said, “You’ve got to come and see this band, they’re playing at this pub in North London.” People did, and the Brinsleys went to see them. And everybody was knocked out because they were doing stuff that you would have considered yourselves, the Brinsleys particularly, would have considered themselves too…not cool, but Eggs Over Easy would play anything. They’d do “Brown Sugar.” They would do anything, you know, things most bands would steer clear of: It’s not obscure enough for us to do it! But they would, and it was great. Suddenly the audience was like, All right, this is great. Just do it! We all liked this stuff, and Ducks Deluxe was very much based around Sean Tyla’s songwriting. All of his songs were about America, as if he was a native American. They’re all full of American names and diesel trucks. It’s his fantasy. Musically it was Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan… All that sort of stuff. We had a 3- or 4-year run: two albums for RCA, then they dropped us. The last recording we did was an EP, four tracks, which we recorded for a French company, Sky Dog.
Then we broke up; that was 1975. The same year – the Brinsleys had broken up before us – myself and Brinlsey and Bob Andrews, who was the keyboard player in Brinsley Schwarz – we thought were going to get a band together. We found this bass player and drummer [Andrew Bodnar and Steven Goulding, respectively], who were a bit younger than us, from another London band. We started just rehearsing, just trying stuff. Dave Robinson had this little 8-track studio above a pub, and this guy called Graham Parker had come in to do some demos. Dave heard this guy and thought, Uh oh, this guy is good. This guy needs a band. And he thought I’ve got a band that needs a direction. And that’s how that came about.
RTH: I was curious to know if the Rumour had already formed or if you were formed to support Parker.
MB: We were already formed, but before we met Graham all we’d done was rehearse. We worked on some songs, some originals, some covers. It wasn’t very long, maybe 2 or 3 months. Then Dave came in and played me the stuff he’d recorded of Graham’s. There were about three tracks. One was called “Between You and Me,” which was a demo that was what was eventually used on the first album. We tried to re-record it when we did the first album, but it never sounded as good as the demo, so we put the demo on it. One of the other ones was “Don’t Ask Me Questions.”
Throughout our talk the admiration and camraderie Belmont still felt for his old bandmates in The Rumour came through. This was a relief – I couldn’t be sure if he’d be sick of talking about that point in his career. The pride he feels about the band after all these years is refreshing. Then he would blow my mind with the prospect of a film being made on Graham Parker & The Rumour.