Punky Gibbon writes:
Radio Stars were a delightful new wave band formed by Andy Ellison, Martin Gordon and Ian Macleod all of whom had previously played with glam rock go-nowheres Jet. Ellison’s career actually stretched back to the previous decade, when he’d been mouthpiece for John’s Children, chaotic psychedelic rockers who managed to outdo The Who in the sex-and-outrage stakes (but not sales). John’s Children also featured, albeit briefly, one Marc Bolan – more about him later. Bassist and chief songwriter Martin Gordon was ex-Sparks.
They got lumped in with the punk bands at the time but were not punks, although they are punky enough for me to include them on this site.
PUNK 77: The Radio Stars have one thing in common with punk and new wave and that is that they released records at the same time !!! Sort of uptempo quirky rock.
Okay, they weren’t punks – being too old was just the start of it – but they were definitely of the time. They purveyed unpretentious pop/rock with glammy riffs and funny, sometimes morbid lyrics, evoking the spirit of Sparks and Monty Python. Songs were mostly mid-speed to mid-fast, and rarely more than four minutes long. Live, they were very entertaining, with Ellison an extremely charismatic front man who would often be seen jumping off amp stacks with scant regard for his health. Some of their material was admittedly a bit on the shit side, with MacLeod sometimes resorting to cloddish riffing, but they also had some very winning material and lots of amusing ideas, and many of their songs were excellent: check out ‘No Russians In Russia’, ‘Good Personality’, ‘Boy Meets Girl’ and ‘Baffin Island’.
Martin Gordon (from the liner notes of Thinking Inside The Box): Jet was sort of a glam-rock episode but, to be frank, our underlying attitude wasn’t so far removed from the Radio Stars worldview. You could describe it as ‘serious stuff being dealt with as though it was trivial’, I think. I was just a bit too ahead of the game, maybe, in 1975. But the theme was always to bite the hand that fed. By the time we got to 1976, 1977, the tunes sped up a bit, but the basic approach was consistent. As far as speed goes, though, I remember seeing the Ramones at Dingwalls in about 1976 and they played twenty songs in as many minutes, and that really made an impact on me. We never achieved that kind of machine-gun delivery, I must admit. So we got faster and the songs obviously got shorter (there is a casual connection here, which the attentive will spot) and of course that meant that we used my songs up quicker, so I had to come up with more, and I took influences wherever I could find them.
This search for material led to an occasional flirtation with punky controversy: ‘Arthur Is Dead Boring (Let’s Rot)’ began life as ‘Elvis is Dead Boring’ and ‘The Beast Of Barnsley’ had to be self-censored because The Beast Of Barnsley was a real-life serial rapist and some people thought a jokey song about this was in poor taste. They also achieved some notoriety for unearthing an unrecorded Marc Bolan song, ‘Horrible Breath’, which had been written way back in the 60’s during the John’s Children days.
Martin Gordon, NME, January 1978: [‘Macaroni ‘n’ Mice’] about Greek menus. Everybody translates literally from their own language and you get some very curious translations. Things like macaroni and mice (which Andy actually saw), bowels stuffed with spleen…and various other delicacies. [The Beast Of Barnsley] was about the press coverage not the story itself. The song is as distasteful as the newspapers were. They were doing in-depth interviews with Reg Chapman’s cat. We met a friend of his when we were playing on the back of a lorry in Leicester Square and this bloke came up and said “Ere, you wrote a song about my mate Reg, didn’t you?” He thought it was great. Obviously a guy with a sense of humour.
I like them a lot.
The Radio Stars Story
Jet was formed in 1974 by Ellison (vocals), Gordon (bass), Chris Townson (drums, ex-John’s Children and Jook), David O’List (lead guitar, ex-member The Nice and Roxy Music) and Peter Oxendale (keyboards, also ex-Sparks). O’List and Oxendale were replaced by Ian Macleod after their eponymous 1975 LP was released, and it was this quartet which in May 1976 recorded a four song demo for a proposed second album, even though CBS had dropped them.
Ellison took this demo to Chiswick Records in early 1977, and two songs were immediately chosen for the Dirty Pictures 7″, which came out in April to rave reviews, being awarded Single of the Week in NME.
Martin Gordon (from the liner notes of Thinking Inside The Box): It’s probably worth pointing out to all those considering a career in music that ‘Dirty Pictures’ was described as “not worth bothering with, I’d get rid of that one if I were you” by the person who had got Jet into Island’s luxurious rehearsal/recording complex in the first place – namely Sparks manager (and one-time John’s Children bassist) John Hewlett. We treated his opinion with the amount of respect it deserved and recorded it regardless. Ted [Carroll, label boss] was the first person I’d met who considered anything on the tape to be at all commercially viable. The money side of things didn’t matter to us because we were broke already, so we’d carry on being broke, but at least we’d have a record out.
As Townson did not want to remain in the music business he was not granted a credit on the cover of the single, and on the subsequent German tour supporting lunkheaded Brit rockers UFO his position was taken by Gary Thompson, a brief tenure, because he too was soon replaced, by a bloke the band referred to as “the other Paul Simon”. Thompson did, however, play on the band’s first Peel Session that May, which contained a re-recording of ‘Dirty Pictures’, two cover versions (‘Horrible Breath’, an old song written by Marc Bolan as a jingle for Amplex Breath Freshening Capsules, and The Beatles’ ‘Dear Prudence’), and a witty new tune ‘No Russians In Russia’, which became one of their most popular numbers.
The new lineup recorded the four-song Stop It EP, choosing ‘No Russians In Russia’ as the lead song and housing it in a terrible sleeve which gave full reign to Macleod’s astounding haircut. The front cover idea – with the band in straight-jackets – was later appropriated by Suburban Studs.
Then fate intervened, when Ellison bumped into his old mate Marc. Bolan liked The Damned, and he gave them a shot on his television show. He liked the Radio Stars as well, and they also benefited from his patronage, getting to perform ‘No Russians’ in September.
Andy Ellison: One day, I bumped in to Marc down Kings Road where I was late and running to a Radio Stars rehearsal. This purple Mini with blacked out windows swung round and swerved next to me, the window wound down and there was Marc, “Hey, man”, he said, “What are you running from?” I explained where I was going and he said he had heard about Radio Stars and that he was soon going to have his own TV show and maybe we could appear on it. I told the others in the rehearsal and they all looked at me disbelievingly. But sure enough, two months later, our management got a call asking us to appear on the ‘Marc’ show. Marc looked surprisingly young and fit, as I had heard he had lost the plot a bit in his tax haven in Monte Carlo, taking lots of drugs and binging on Champagne. I think we did ‘No Russians in Russia’ on the show, and we had made tentative arrangements to meet up soon after his last show, but it was not to be. I was so happy for his success and it was great to catch up with him again, but sadly he died soon after. We used Marc’s song for John’s Children, ‘Horrible Breath,’ as the B- side to ‘Nervous Wreck’ which really pleased him. We appeared on the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ but Bob Harris didn’t speak to any of us, he really wasn’t interested in our style of music, he had many punk bands on the show but he never liked any of them. We recorded three John Peel sessions which were more enjoyable, and toured with Eddie and the Hot Rods and Squeeze. We also headlined our own tour but split up after our second LP.
Later that year an LP was recorded: Songs For Swinging Lovers, the cover of which attracted attention, even if it had been (sort of) half-inched and twisted from an ancient Peter Sellers LP, Songs For Swingin’ Sellers. (The original title, Bowels Stuffed With Spleen, was deemed by Chiswick as unsuitable for a pop album with chart potential.) By now the group had recruited a regular drummer, Steve Parry, although Paul Simon was present on at least one of the tracks. Early copies of the LP came with a free “greatest hits” single, containing ‘Dirty Pictures’ and ‘No Russians In Russia’. The album’s release was supported by a single, Nervous Wreck, issued on 7″ and 12″, which earned them a spot just inside the Top 40 and a cheeky appearance of Top Of The Pops.
Whilst awaiting the LP’s delayed release the group re-recorded four songs from it for a November Peel Session (‘Good Personality’, The Beast Of Barnsley’, ‘Don’t Waste My Time’, ‘Is It Really Necessary?’) and played with The Stranglers. The album was finally released in December to favourable reviews. In February ’78 they toured with Eddie & the Hot Rods and, at the bottom of the bill, Squeeze, allegedly blowing both bands off the stage on some nights.
Then it was back to the studio for another single, the absolutely classic From A Rabbit, which came out in April in two editions, both a bit gimmicky. The standard 7″ version came in a standard Chiswick company sleeve, but this was tucked into a printed PVC sleeve. The other version was a so-called “Special Hip Pocket Edition”, which was an inch smaller in diameter than the 7″ version and came in a plain, stickered sleeve. Both had the same B-Side, a remix of ‘The Beast Of Barnsley’. Despite being a superior pop/punk/new wave song and despite the support of BBC DJ Kid Jensen, it did not trouble the charts. In a different, fairer world, it would have reached the Top Ten.
Next up was a new album, Radio Stars Holiday Album, which was better produced than the first and contained some of Gordon’s best ever songs, namely ‘Boy Meets Girl’ and ‘The Real Me’. ‘Baffin Island’ sounds like ZZ Top, as does ‘(I’ve Got Dem Old) Sex In Chains Blues (Again Mama) Part I’, because Macleod really seemed to like riffing away, but the funny lyrics and giddy good humour elevates them above pure boogie. ‘No Russians In Russia’ was also dragged out for yet another airing, probably because the band was not happy with the original version. This time drumming chores were shared almost between Parry (who left the band a few days into the sessions) and newcomer Jamie Crompton, who was moonlighting from his day job with New Hearts. As with the first LP, Chiswick kept delaying its release, which meant that the tour which had been arranged to promote it had no product to actually promote until two weeks into it. This did not help its sales.
Two singles were taken from the LP. First off was Radio Stars. The LP version was 1:18 long, clearly too short for a single (yes, I am well aware of ‘Read About Seymour’ and ‘Love You More’), so the band cut an extended version, which was simply the 1:18 version twice with a middle eight shoved in between. The B-Side, ‘Accountancy Blues’, was like a musical version of Monty Python’s Lion Tamer sketch with an extended jazz jam tacked onto the end. The Real Me was more conventional and could have been a hit, and may have been if someone other than the Radio Stars had released it. It turned out to their last release for several years, partly because Gordon decided to leave the band at the end of November. Trevor White took over Gordon’s bass duties in the band and they soldiered on until Autumn ’79, including a stint as guests on Penetration’s UK tour in April/May. During this Gordon-less period they tried out new material here and here. These new songs were written by Ellison and some were even recorded in a studio, but none where released. Some of these efforts can be heard on the Good Personality – The BBC Live Anthology bootleg, which is worth tracking down.
Andy Ellison: After Martin had left the band we tried to continue but Chiswick Records refused to put out any more singles by us and also refused to give us any money towards tours or anything so we were financing ourselves literally and gradually we ran out of money. The Radio Stars just petered out into nothing. We never actually announced that we’d finished and couldn’t continue.
After the split, Gordon formed The Blue Meanies with Chris Gent (who had played saxophone with the Radio Stars as a session musician) and eventually became a solo artist, recording several albums from the year 2003 onwards, all released on Radiant Future. Ellison opted for the occasional John’s Children reunion, but issued an EP (Fourplay) in 2008. There is also a compilation, Cornflake Zoo, which contains a raft of Ellison material recorded between 1967 and 2005.
The Radio Stars reformed briefly in the early 80’s to record a one-off single, My Mother Said, which was released at the same time as a career retrospective, “2 Minutes Mr Smith”. The band has reformed a few times since, most notably in the early 1990s after German punks Die Toten Hosen included a version of ‘Dirty Pictures’ on their Learning English Lesson 1 LP. Ellison sang guest vocals on this, and the popularity of it spurred a brief reunion, which resulted in a handful of studio recordings, some of which were included on the career summation Somewhere There’s A Place For Us. They can be caught every now and again playing at punk nostalgia fests.
Vocals/Harmonica: Andy Ellison
Bass/Keyboards/Backing Vocals: Martin Gordon
Guitar: Ian Macleod
Drums (April-May ’77): Gary Thompson
Drums (May-June ’77): Jim Toomey
Drums (June-July ’77): Paul Simon (also in Ian North/Neo)
Drums (July 77-June ’78): Steve Parry
Drums (June – November ’78): Jamie Crompton
Chris Townson (ex-John’s Children/Jet/The Jook) drummed on the first single but was never a member of Radio Stars.
John Mackie (The Stukas) was a live drummer during July and August ’78.
Trevor white also played guitar live during August and November ’78.
Paul Simon subsequently joined The Civilians, then: Cowboys International, Girls At Our Best!, The Fallout Club (with Thomas Dolby). He later also drummed for Ken Lockie, Glen Matlock and John Foxx.
Lineup 2 (December 1978 – Autumn 1979)
Vocals/Harmonica: Andy Ellison
Bass/Backing Vocals: Trevor White (ex-Sparks)
Guitar: Ian Macleod
Drums: Steve Parry again
Lineup 3 (Mid-Late 1982)
Vocals: Andy Ellison
Bass/Backing Vocals: Martin Gordon
Saxophone/Backing Vocals: Chris Gent
Guitar: Tommy Willis
Cello: Hugh McDowell
Note: The only other Radio Stars release not listed are:
a 2001 CD called Music For The Herd Of Herring, which is credited to John’s Children/Jet/Radio Stars and documents (in edited form) a short series of concerts in 2000 where an all-star lineup of Gordon, Ellison, Macleod, Townson, Boz Boorer (ex-The Polecats/The Megatons etc) and Trevor White played songs from each band.
‘Eleanor Rigby’ 4-track 12″ promo, recorded in 1993 and released in 1994.
Singles / Albums
|Stop It (7″, 1977)||Songs For Swinging Lovers (LP/LP+7″, 1977)||Nervous Wreck
|From A Rabbit
|Radio Stars Holiday Album (LP, 1978)||Radio Stars (7″, 1978)||The Real Me (7″, 1979)||My Mother Said
|“2 Minutes Mr Smith” (LP, 1982)||Somewhere There’s A Place For Us (CD, 1992)||Something For The Weekend (2xCD, 2008)||Thinking Inside The Box (4xCD, 2017)|
Bootlegs / Demos / Promos
|Good Personality – The BBC Live Anthology
|Singles And Outtakes 1977-79 (CDR)|
Submarine Tracks & Fool’s Gold (Chiswick Chartbusters Volume One) UK LP 1977 (Chiswick): Dirty Pictures
Ce N’Est Pas De La Couille, Voici La New Wave – New Wave Greatest Hits France LP 1977 (Ariola): Dirty Pictures
A Deal A Day US LP 1977 (Import): Is It Really Necessary
Catch A Wave UK 2×10″ 1978 (no label): Nervous Wreck
Long Shots, Dead Certs And Odds On Favourites – Chiswick Chartbusters Vol. 2 UK LP 1978 (Chiswick): No Russians In Russia
Buy Chiswick Records Holland LP 1980 (Chiswick): Buy Chiswick Records
1-2-3-4 Punk & New Wave 1976-1979 UK 5xCD 1999 (Universal): Nervous Wreck