As I step off a red bus somewhere in South London, the sky is looking grey and a fine drizzle is beginning to dampen both the air and the spirits of my fellow passengers. Wiff is waiting patiently for me and even though the white dreads are long gone (replaced by a fine cafe racer style quiff) the chirpy grin and easy going affability are still fully in place. As we escape from the weather into a nearby pub and the welcome presence of fish and chips and a couple of pints each, Wiff warns me that he “was rubbish at interviews back then and probably still is now”. This turns out to be untrue as he proves to be an engaging and entertaining conversationalist. I start the ball rolling by going back all the way to his childhood.
You were one of the Banbury half of the band, is that where you were born?
No, no. I was born in Coventry, quickly crawled to Rugby and at around 14 or 15 moved to a small village 5 miles out of Banbury.
Did your parents choose Banbury for any particular reason?
The business was there.
What kind of business was that?
Lasers. Big industrial lasers that used to cost thousands and thousands of pounds back then but don’t these days- for hospitals, telecommunications, research and so on. Optic fibres, they were into that as well- which was all really new technology then.
Were you a good boy at school?
Ha! Well, I failed my 11+ miserably. But I got a few O levels and went into higher education to do my A levels in Banbury, but that’s when Punk happened and it all went…some would say to pot. Some would say…not necessarily.
So what used to excite and interest you when you were a young boy?
Well music of course. The person who really got me seriously into music was my Aunt Jude who, in the 60’s, was first based in Liverpool then London, where she worked at The Speakeasy. She also had a stall in Kensington Market. She used to make and sell leather and suede clothes and if you see any of those groups from the 60’s- the Bee Gees, the Stones, the Who, wearing suede jackets with tassels, it would probably have been her that made them. She also dated Jimi Hendrix for a while, during his first long stay in London, around the time he was recording ‘Are You Experienced’. Then in the early 70’s she moved back up north to Chester, where I used to spend my summers with her. Having lived the swinging 60’s in London, she had an amazing record collection and listening my way through that is what got me really hooked on music. But even during the 60’s, in my early years, there was always music being played to me. My mum used to record Alan Freeman’s Top 40 off of the radio on a Sunday evening onto a reel to reel tape recorder and we’d listen to it all week until the next Sunday, when she’d record that show for us to listen to the following week. I remember we had to stay silent in the house for 2 hours every Sunday evening so as to not ruin my mum’s recording, a mic close up to the radio speaker- and of course remember to turn the tape over after an hour or she’d miss recording the final and most important half of the show- The Top 40 count down, with the UK number one record as the grand finale.
Who were your favourites?
When I started really listening to music, a lot of the West Coast stuff- Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Neil Young, The Eagles, Bread, America, Harry Nilsson, Little Feat as well as Lou Reed, Donovan, Dylan, The Who, Beatles and a bit of the Stones. A whole mish mash really, but mainly the American bands from the West Coast.
And drums? Everyone who gets into music to that extent usually wants to try their hand at making it too.
Well there was no reason why it should have been drums although I had a fascination with the rhythm of songs. My Aunt Jude had a friend up in Liverpool who used to work for the Beatles, he was a driver for them during their later days, but that had all finished and he now, with his father, owned and ran a furniture shop right in the middle of Liverpool and in the attic he had a Ludwig drum kit, a really old one. It may have even been one of Ringo’s, who knows (laughs). So, during my stays with my Aunt, I’d go to Liverpool and play his kit, up in the attic where no-one could hear me and I just used to play and play and play not really having a clue as to what I was doing, but I loved it. He’d come up every now and then and guide me saying “oh, try doing it like this” and demonstrating to me how amazing it could sound and feel. And gradually, I got better.
How old were you at this point?
I would have been 13 maybe 14.
So when did you get your own first kit?
My first kit was a disaster. I was about 15 and I bought an old Premier kit from a band called The Four Aces, at least that’s what it said on the bass drum. Unknown to me, it wasn’t standard sizing, which is probably why it was cheap and just about affordable to a young lad like me. Apparently, Premier used to do these weird sizes in their early days. I don’t know what they were based on but they weren’t standard American 12”, 13”, 14” and 16” diameter drums, and as I soon found out, the unusual non-standard heads to match these drums were no longer available. So I had that kit for a while until all the heads were broken and then I was stumped. When I finally got a real job, that’s when I bought an Eddie Ryan kit, a pink one, which was hand made to my order, and which I absolutely adored and wish I still had. It was pink because I’d seen Jerry Nolan play a pink kit when I went to my first punk gig at Birmingham Barbarellas- The Heartbreakers, Siouxsie & The Banshees and the Models, and I thought the pink kit looked so cool.
So you were playing regularly by this point?
Did you have mates who were also aspiring musicians? Any early bands you were part of?
Yes. The Suicide Victims with a guy called The Perv singing, Olly Holah on bass, Mark Bradley on lead guitar and Roy Kirkpatrick on rhythm guitar. We used to practice at Olly’s house in a village called Evenley not too far from Banbury. Funnily enough, I gave a friend a lift back there recently to see his father, who said to me accusingly “Were you in that band that used to make a racket in the house on the corner of the green?” Mark Bradley was an amazing guitarist who was classically trained, but never got anywhere with that because when he played he concentrated so intensely that he couldn’t help but breath really heavily. Obviously wheezing sounds are no good when playing classical acoustic guitar music, so he started playing electric guitar instead. Well, it’s louder and covered up the unwanted breathing noises. We ended up with this sound that was a bit like ‘Metal Box’ (the second album by Public Image Ltd) that had just come out. Mark was very similar in style to Keith Levene, but better. We did a few gigs.
So if ‘Metal Box’ was out that would have made this about 1979?
I presume so, that sounds about right.
So earlier than that you would have been playing at home on your first drum kit, listening to your Aunt’s records and the Top 40 on the radio. Did you go through a massive glam rock phase that everyone of our age seemed to go through?
In the early 70’s yeah, a bit of Bowie, Marc Bolan and Slade. At my school you had to be a ‘fan’ of one of these three, but never two or all three. Slade being my choice. But by the mid 70’s I was more influenced by the American scene.
So what was the catalyst for your conversion over to punk rock, as it’s the diametric opposite of all that mellow West Coast stuff?
I remember someone playing me ‘Anarchy In The UK’ when it came out and I absolutely loved it. At the time, myself and the crowd I was hanging around with, were all bored teenagers perfectly aged for a rebellion and ‘Anarchy In The UK’ became the catalyst that kick-started us. It can’t have been long after it’s release that we started seeing other punk like characters in town, who- despite being older than us- seemed to welcome us into their clan and through them we started to hear more of this new wild music and all that went with it. Because it wasn’t just the music that engrossed us, it was the whole ethos, and I was excited with every part of it.
Was there many punks in Banbury?
Yes, there were. One of them being Rob. It was incredible, for some reason Banbury had a very healthy early punk scene. Although maybe ‘healthy’ wouldn’t be the most appropriate term when you think of the drugs we were taking and the beatings we were getting from the ‘stiffs’, which was the name we gave to the type of people that had a real hatred of anything and anybody unusual. There was a lot of hippies around too, who were bored of being hippies and although they still listened to Steve Hillage and the likes, they were slicing their locks off and getting into the new punk way of thinking. Punk bands, including a lot of the New York punk music coming out of places like CBGB’s, was starting to get heard in the UK… and also reggae. Very few folk were listening to reggae at that point but these hippies had picked up on it early, probably due to the smoke they were inhaling, but it was ALL music to my ears. Literally (laughs). Bring it on!
So, who were your favourite Punk bands once it had kicked off?
The Pistols, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Adverts, Gen X, basically anyone who released a record. As we were in Banbury and not in London where all the gigs were happening, initially we were really limited to what we heard. Record companies at the start of the punk era were very slow to get bands signed and get records out to the provinces, so for us with no punk gigs happening locally, records were the only means of hearing the new bands. I remember the Roxy record coming out, a compilation album of all the bands who’d played the Roxy Club. That was quite an early one that we played a lot and introduced us to a lot of new bands. There were so few bands releasing stuff, we therefore latched onto everything as it came out.
And via John Peel presumably?
I didn’t really listen to John Peel. Don’t know why, probably always out at the pub when John was on.
So, tell me about this first punk gig you saw, The Heartbreakers, Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Models. That is quite a line up.
It was, but other than Jerry Nolan’s pink drum kit and meeting the tour bus driver who happened to be one of my school run bus drivers- he was gobsmacked to see the underage me there- I can’t recall too much about it. Except The Heartbreakers being incredibly loud and that they came on to this ear bleeding Nazi marching music. I’d never seen or heard anything like that in my life. They left me stunned. My Aunt Jude took me to my first ever gig when I was 8 or 9, which was Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky Mick & Tich who were supporting the Bee Gees. The next one would probably have been Kenny then later The Eagles and then later still Lou Reed, but they were all incredibly tame in comparison to this gig. It really blew my mind.
That would have been the Banshees with Kenny Morris and John McKay…
One of the original line ups yeah, but I’m not totally certain of the date (research shows that it was 25th October 1977).
So, you come to Banbury back from the Heartbreakers/Siouxsie/Models gig, all energised and fired up about Punk and eventually formed The Suicide Victims?
The Suicide Victims, punks on dope. What great fun. When we rehearsed it was a jam, when we played it wasn’t much different… a rehearsed jam. We’d just hit a rhythm and off we’d go on a wild musical excursion. Brilliant to us, but I’m not sure too many other people enjoyed it.
Did you ever record anything?
So, how did you get from the Suicide Victims to Play Dead?
Obviously I already knew Rob. Like I said he was one of the original Banbury punks that sort of nurtured us young ‘uns. During my time with the Suicide Victims, Rob had been singing and gigging fairly regularly in a band called The Exits, with a number of local Banbury musos: Rob Strachan on drums, Paul Atkins on bass and Regi Mental on guitar. Incidentally, it was Regi who first christened me ‘Wiff’. The early punk days were great for getting yourself a nickname, as Re will tell you (Re Vox aka Barry Turnbull, original Play Dead guitarist). Re joined The Exits when Regi left and the band then renamed themselves Special FX. But like many bands that don’t get beyond the local scene, Special FX slowly fizzled out and it can’t have been too long after that, that The Suicide Victims also finally died a death. Excuse the pun. But I wasn’t too happy with giving up playing in a band and I had a feeling Rob felt the same so I asked if he fancied forming a new band, something more serious and with bigger goals. He seemed really enthused with the idea and suggested we get Re in, as since the demise of Special FX, he had been playing with a band in Oxford that had now also become defunct and so was looking for a new band himself. And in turn, he recommended the bass player he’d been playing with in Oxford as a perfect addition. And perfect he was, and enthusiastic he was. So Pete was in as well. That’s how I recall it, but I could well be wrong.
So that must have been mid-1980 because I have the Special FX demo and its labelled May 1980 and it must have been not long after that you did the first rehearsals as Play Dead. Did it come together alright or was it a bit sticky at first?
No, it came together very well, we were all very enthusiastic. We rehearsed at a studio in a village called Thorpe Mandeville in the middle of nowhere and at first that’s all we did- rehearse. We initially didn’t want to do any gigs, especially locally. That was one of the things we agreed on from the start.
Why was that?
Because we wanted it to be spot on before we started gigging and because we didn’t want to just play in front of our mates like we’d all done before. We didn’t want to be part of the Oxford or Banbury scene. We had bigger goals. We wanted to be a part of the UK scene.
So how did it progress from there?
We had done a little demo at the studio where we rehearsed and with that in hand, me and Rob went down to London for a week and every day knocked on the doors of record companies, agents and publishers trying to get people to listen to it. One of the places we went to was Cavalcade Music, a publishing company, run by a chap that later made a trip up to the studio, listened to us rehearse and offered us a deal there and then. One of the other places we visited on that trip was Fresh Records. Now, again, I can’t recall how it all came around but Fresh were interested. I think it was the guy from Cavalcade who followed through with Fresh and he said that they wanted to see us live. That was how we got the showcase gig with a load of other bands at a place called Klub Foot, downstairs at the Clarendon (West London venue that was eventually demolished in 1988) to which Alan Hauser from Fresh came down and was enthused enough to say “yes, let’s do something”. There were other gigs in London but I can’t remember how many of them were before or after Alan being involved.
The first London gig that I can find any trace of the band playing is on 21st December 1980 at the Pied Bull pub, supporting UK Decay.
There were a few gigs we did before that in London, like a place in Dean Street, in a basement, where we played in front of my Aunt and one other person (laughs). We entertained them!
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