The Radio Stars Story!
John Tobler, ZigZag, November 1977
GREAT NAME, and both their records so far have also been pretty neat. There’s an imminent album, and a third 45 coming out about the time you read this, and that obviously makes this lot one of the more active bands around.
On stage, there’s still a certain lack of clarity, but it’s hardly noticeable because of the action, mainly led by Andy Ellison, who has had ten years as more or less a star. The theory is that Kris will be talking to him about John’s Children, in which the late Mr. Bolan played guitar behind Andy’s vocals. Listen to Andy and you may wonder who actually originated the bopping elf voice… The other two members of John’s Children should be mentioned here, John Hewlett on bass and Chris Townson on drums, because they’ll be making cameo appearances in this story, which is about Martin Gordon, who has shared several adventures with Andy, and is also in Radio Stars.
Martin came to music having been a technical author. “Writing manuals about how to stop oil tankers blowing up at embarrassing moments”. Although he’s got GCEs, that seemed quite a responsible job, but the reason for taking it (‘my sixth job in four weeks’) was that his desk came complete with a telephone, and on that very instrument, Martin offered his services as a bass player to Sparks.
Ron and Russell Mael had just arrived in this country with John Hewlett as their manager (see above), and needed guitar, bass and drums to back them. “I went for an audition, but I had long hair then, ‘cos I was suffereing from post-hippie. We talked for a bit, but I didn’t hear anything for eight weeks, when they phoned up out of the blue, by which time I’d had my hair cut and made a more favourable impression”. Of course, the advertisements by which Sparks acquired their first British backup group were inevitably in Melody Maker, although the Maels later claimed that they got the group as a result of the fact that the Kennedy clan (John F., Bobby etc.) were great fans of Sparks, and had invited them to a party where an unknown band (Martin +2) were playing songs from the two Sparks/Halfnelson Bearsville LPs. A somewhat typical piece of overstatement, it might be unkindly thought.
The other two engaged at the same time as Martin were Dinky Diamond (real name Norman, and more recently a promo man for Private Stock, although he was thinking of getting back into drumming), who, according to Martin, had played in cabaret bands in Germany, and Adrian Fisher, who worked for the Robert Stigwood organisation in some fairly lowly capacity, but had also played in Skid Row with Gary Moore, and been in the short lived Toby, which was Andy Fraser’s post Free band.
While I find it difficult to enthuse about the latter day Sparks, I must confess to being wiped out by ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ in 1974, and it still sounds pretty much a killer single. It had reached my ears that the particular and very distinctive sound of Sparks had been something to do with Martin…”I was involved very heavily – my thing then was arrangements, and neither of the Maels are accomplished musicians, so they brought me the songs, and I’d pretty much arrange them single handedly. I arranged that first hit, all the gaps and everything, and it was all done in rehearsals, so by the time we went into the studio, it was already there. When I joined the group, I was told that it was to be a cooperative thing, and Ron told me he was looking for a writing partner to do a Lennon/McCartney, unquote”.
But as soon as the single was released, and after one appearance on Top Of The Pops, Martin was fired. “We were rehearsing, and I was playing my Rickenbacker bass, which I’m very fond of and has got a distinctive sound, but they got this funny idea that they wanted me to use a Precision bass for live appearances. I was very dogmatic in those days, and I just refused, and said I’d rather not be in the group if I couldn’t use my own bass. But I gather that they weren’t too happy with my level of contributions to the group, because I was definitely involved in it much more than Dinky or Adrian, and suggested musical ideas, which seemed to jar with them. So they got Trevor White on guitar and Ian Hampton on bass, who would do as they were told for the required amount of money. Trevor was brought in to replace Peter Oxendale, who had been on keyboard”.
Oxendale is sometimes credited as Sir Peter Oxendale – the rumour used to be that he acquired the title when he went to audition for Sparks, and when asked his name replied ‘My name’s Peter, but you can call me sir’. According to Martin, this wasn’t quite true. “When they asked him his name, he said ‘Here you are, here’s my card’, and in typical Oxendale fashion it said ‘Peter Oxendale B.Mus., L.R.A.M., A.R.C.M.’ and all this stuff (which refers to formal musical qualifications, you understand)’ and somebody said ‘Ere, you should be Sir with all these bleedin’ initials’.” Another piece of Oxendale trivia I’d heard was that although he played keyboards in the band, the Maels considered him too ugly to appear with them in full view on stage, so they hid him behind a curtain. “Well, no, because he never actually appeared on stage. But when we did live rehearsals, they stuck his Hammond right at the back behind one of the PA columns so you couldn’t see him. So at the end of every number, Peter used to troll out from behind his organ, and wander up to the middle of the stage to ask what number would be next, just so that his girl friend, standing at the back of the hall, could see that he really was playing with Sparks. Sort of sums Peter up pretty well…”
Having been in Sparks from September 1973 until May 1974, and appeared on the only (so far) significant album that group has made, Martin put an ad in the papers indicating his availability, which was answered by Chris Townson, who at the time was in Jook. “They were another John Hewlett brain child, and when Chris first phoned me, the idea was that we should carry on with the Jook idea, because RCA were interested”. Jook, for those who might not know, were a “1970’s John’s Children”, who had several singles on RCA, and were quite highly thought of briefly in 1974. A report in The Rock Marketplace (father of New York Rocker) indicated that an abortive line up of Jook was to include four of the five original members who became Jet, which is the next group in which Martin was involved. “When I’d get together with Chris, he said ‘I’ve got this old friend who used to sing with John’s Children. Why don’t we go and meet him? So we went down to this pub, and Andy (Ellison) appeared. Neither he nor Chris had been in the business for several years, although Chris had been in Jook for a few months, but Andy turned up wearing some sort of green labourer’s anorak, and I remember wondering what I’d let myself in for. Anyway, it worked out – I went round to his house and listened to all his records, and I really liked them. Then we tried out a bunch of different guitarists, and eventually I phoned up E.G. management and got Davey’s number.”
Davey O’List was an original member of the Nice, along with Keith Emerson, Lee Jackson and Brian Davison. He played on the first Nice LP, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, a particularly dumb title which, as you’ve no doubt observed, was made up of portions of their various surnames. As a stage whisper, I’ve heard a rumour that he’s quite possibly the character in chapter four of Groupie, whose ‘genitals were compact and beautifully symmetrical’, but of course, I feel that such scandalous nonsense should be treated with the contempt it deserves. Davey O’List was also an original member of Roxy Music, but I suppose we shouldn’t hold that against him – after all, he never recorded with Ferry’s fantasy group. However, O’List also was enlisted to play on various Ferry solo tracks, including ‘The In Crowd’, which was where Martin heard him, and noted his potential to a point where O’List became Jet’s guitarist. At the same time, unbeknown to Martin, Jet was acquiring a keyboard player in Peter Oxendale. “I phoned up E.G. to get Davey’s number, and they called my answering service to give me his number. Meanwhile, Peter also phoned me up, picked up all my messages, and arranged to meet Davey himself. So it was never actually decided that we were going to have a keyboard player, there just was a keyboard player…”
The now-complete Jet recorded three demo tracks, which were ‘Desdemona’, perhaps the most famous John’s Children song, plus two new compositions, ‘Start Here’ and ‘My River’, which eventually appeared on the one and only Jet LP. “We made loads of copies of the tape, and Jamie Turner heard it and liked it. Jamie had worked for a short lived record company called Firefly, who were distributed by A&M, but he did know Mike Leander, and so did I. It all happened amazingly quickly, within about two weeks of us forming.”
Jet signed up for management, publishing and recording with Leander’s Company RAM (Rock Artists Management) whose major client was one Gareth Glitter, although Martin was the only member of Jet to have met Mike Leander when the group signed. RAM were thus empowered to sign the group to whatever record company they liked, and chose CBS. “Jet was a totally independent third party, but the main reason why it all happened was that we were all completely broke, really in a serious situation, and I said to RAM ‘Can we have some money?’ and they said ‘Yes, £30 a week’. I’d put my tongue in your mouth for £30 a week!”
Jet made their one album in 1975, produced by Queen’s wonder producer Roy Thomas Baker, who has also done a fair number of far less worthy things, including a diabolically bad Scandinavian group called Gasolin’. With Jet, though, he didn’t do a bad job…“That was a strange situation, because somebody at CBS phoned Roy up, and said ‘Can you get them to sound like Sparks?’ whereupon Roy said he didn’t want to be involved at all if it was to be done on that level.” When the album Jet, came out, it sported a highly striking sleeve, and with a line up boasting two ex Sparks, two ex John’s Children, and an ex-Roxy Music, it looked pretty good to everyone involved, including myself, because I was press officer for CBS at the time. Nine of the eleven songs were by Martin, plus one by O’List (‘My River’) and one Gordon/Ellison/Townson collaboration (‘Whangdepootenawah’), and not unreasonably, since Martin had apparently “invented” the sound, it was not too distant from the original Sparks vibe. The best track to my mind is ‘Nothing To Do With Us’, which was later released as a single which even CSM tipped to be a hit, but unfortunately it didn’t happen perhaps due to a rather savage editing job.
But almost immediately things began to turn a little sour. First, Chris Townson broke his leg playing football, resulting in an extremely silly photo session where the group were unable to sit down because Chris’s leg was set straight so that it stuck out in front of him. More to the point, the group’s support spot on the Hunter-Ronson Band tour was far less of an advantage than it might have been, as the stand-in drummer didn’t know the songs or arrangements as well as Chris. Then Davey O’List began to behave strangely. “In the beginning, he was always very good, but he did start to have his off moments when he was totally unpredictable, and eventually the off moments began to outweigh the good moments. On those first demos we recorded, he was playing really amazing guitar, but he never recaptured it. I remember once we played at the Mayfair in Newcastle, and he had a wah wah pedal. We all went out for the first number, ‘Tittle Tattle’ and he turned round to switch his amp on and got his lead wrapped round his legs. This was just as we were doing the intro, so we had to play, and he was desperately, frantically trying to get unwound, and he fell over and got totally tangled up. Then, at the end of the number he grabbed the microphone and said ‘What are you doing? Why are you starting the number? I’m not ready yet’, which went out over the PA. Total collapse of stout party.”
Another of the tracks on the Jet album was called ‘Brian Damage’, and although it wasn’t written with O’List in mind, his deterioration was such that Andy Ellison finally used to introduce him as “our star guitarist, Brian Damage.”
The Hunter-Ronson tour was actually the nearest Jet came to the big time, and certainly on the gigs that I saw they went down very well, with a young lady from Newcastle removing all her clothes on the stage, so moved was she by the beauty of the music. While Martin agrees that they did register with audiences, he doesn’t have happy memories of the tour. “Jim Toomey, the stand-in drummer, was a little unpredictable, to say the least, so that wasn’t very good, and there was Peter, who could never get his synthesizers in tune, so they were permanently flat, while Davey was always a semi-tone sharp, and you could hear Andy wavering, depending which side of the stage he was on, singing different keys to go with whichever instrument he could hear loudest.”
Then CBS dropped the band, after which RAM also decided to let the band go. By this time, O’List had received his slouching orders, to be replaced by Ian Macleod, who had in fact been a potential original member of Jet as rhythm guitarist, but was excluded at Leander’s suggestion. By October 1975, things had pretty much ground to a halt with the band about fifteen months old. The first to leave after O’List’s sacking was Oxendale, who went “to further his musical career” with the Glitter Band. While we’re on the subject, Peter old chap, should we happen to meet at a reception again like the one after Ian Hunter’s recent concert, please refrain from introducing me to drunken members of the Glitter Band who use me to prevent themselves falling over, OK? Oxendale was last seen at the Hammersmith Odeon as part of Hunter’s rather pathetic band earlier this year…Jet limped on for a while, rehearsing and doing demos for a second LP which unfortunately was never released. However, John Hewlett briefly re-entered the picture, and after hearing what the group had been doing, arranged for studio time at Island, where the now four piece Jet put down four tracks, among which were early versions of ‘Dirty Pictures’ and ‘Sail Away’, which eventually became the first Radio Stars single. At that point, Island began to lose what little enthusiasm they ever had, and Jet took its final flight, he wrote poetically.
Martin, meanwhile, had remained in touch with John Hewlett, who devised a plan to bring one Ian North to England. If you didn’t already know, North was the guitarist, keyboard player and main writer for a fine little band called Milk’n’Cookies, a four piece, with Justin Strauss on lead vocals, Sal Maida on bass and Mike Ruiz on drums. There’s rather more to the story, but it should be left for another time – suffice it to say that the group came to England in late 1974, and made an album for Island produced by Muff Winwood. A single was released, ‘Little Lost And Innocent’, and the band were in this country promoting it around Xmas 1974. It was looking good for a chart placing until the group did a radio interview in Scotland, when they slagged off the Bay City Rollers, a move not guaranteed to increase their popularity. The album wasn’t released until 1976, when Ian North managed to get Sire Records interested, this finally forcing Island to release it, by which time the group had broken up. For what it’s worth, Sal Maida had come to England and played with Roxy Music at some time, Mike Ruiz had become a dragstrip driver, a subsequent bass player, Jim Gregory, has played on most of Donna Summer’s jolly fine records, and Justin Strauss changed his name to Justin Time, but soon changed it back…
It’s a good album if you don’t have anything else specific in mind, by the way. So Ian North came over, and got together with Martin Gordon, and they began to look for drummers. Eventually, one Paul Simon (not a small Jewish person) fitted the bill best, and also introduced his brother Robert. This strange quartet played a gig supporting Ultravox at the Nashville, before Martin decided that he wasn’t keen on what was happening, and in January of this year, was back on the streets. In the meantime, he’d also been in touch with Andy Ellison, who briefly rehearsed with Milk’n’Cookies as an experiment, but found that only Martin was in favour of joining the group.
Meanwhile, Andy had been taking around the four demos that had been recorded at the end of the Jet era, and finally met with success when he took them to Ted Carroll at Chiswick. Ted apparently liked the songs, but initially felt he couldn’t help. “He assumed that we wanted to do it on a big level like we’d done with Island and CBS, and he said ‘We can’t afford to do that’. But we convinced him that we just wanted someone who was interested in our music, and that finance didn’t matter at that point, because we didn’t have any money anyway, and we’d continue to have no money but at least we’d have a record out.” Of course, the prototype group only consisted of Martin and Andy at that point, so it was necessary to find a drummer and guitarist. “Chris (Townson) remained in Jet right up to the end, but he’s got two kids and a wife and a fridge and all the rest of it, so he’s got to have a regular income, which I can appreciate. But it’s not much good being an rock’n’roll drummer and saying ‘Look, I’ve got to have fifty quid a week, otherwise I can’t do it’. You’ve got to have people who are prepared to commit themselves to a certain extent without money. It’s unfortunate, because Chris is the greatest drummer I’ve ever played with, and he’d be ideal for Radio Stars.” Only comparatively recently has the drum position within Radio Stars been successfully sorted out – Paul Simon played with the band for a while, and Jim Toomey worked on a few dates, but the permanent man is one Steve Parry, a Canadian.
Finding a guitarist was easier. “We’d lost touch with Ian Macleod at the end of Jet, but during the Ian North period” (North’s British band, by the way, was known as ‘Ian’s Radio’), “I used him to play guitar on some demos I was doing, one of which we re-recorded for the ‘Stop It’ EP. With that nucleus, Radio Stars went into the studio and recorded their first single, ‘Dirty Pictures’/’Sail Away’. “It’s the same rhythm track as the demo, and Chris is playing drums, but we re-recorded the guitars and I remixed it. Ted suggested doing a picture sleeve, so we pinched the idea from an old Goons book with Barbara Goalen (?). I don’t remember her, but apparently she was the Face of ’55 or something, and there was this great sequence of photographs where the Goons are standing up against a blank wall with eyes right, and there’s Barbara looking slinky. Then Milligan cracks up and crawls towards her, and then the others do, and this goes through in sequence until they’re all lying on the floor together. I thought that was great, so I got my girlfriend Kelly St. John to tog herself up in suspenders and naughty bits, and we did it.”
Actually, the sleeve is for once a perfect foil for the record inside, and both are very good. The major problem was that with a title like ‘Dirty Pictures’, it was difficult to get airplay, and the lyrical content didn’t help either. “Everybody was too frightened to play it because of the lyrics, but they’re silly, it’s a joke. You’re meant to go ‘Ha ha’. It’s really silly, because it’s obvious that the record’s done tongue in cheek”. In fact, our own, our very own cuddly John Walters programmed the record on his show, and no doubt he did the same for the ‘Stop It’ EP, which contains such so far undiscovered gems as ‘No Russians in Russia’ and ‘Box 29’ (“The story of someone who falls in love with a box number – a correspondence love affair”). No doubt he will also play the third single, the title of which will be ‘Nervous Wreck’ (backed with ‘Horrible Breath’) and the first album, due in November, and to be called Songs for Swinging Lovers.
Everything that I’ve heard of Radio Stars so far I’ve enjoyed, and without putting them on the spot (and putting my own head on the guillotine) I reckon that there are few groups around with as much potential as this bunch. If they’re in your vicinity, I respectfully suggest you check them out – it’s considerably more constructive than killing sheep by burying them in the ground and pulling their heads off.