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!
So was it through the Fresh Records connection that the UK Decay tour came about?
That’s right, UK Decay being Fresh’s main act. Yes, they were proper venues. The first serious gigs we’d done. We’d never toured properly before. I was still working, in the computer department of a local Banbury firm as a programmer.
Blimey. You were a bit ahead of the technology curve there, eh?
Yeah, but back then a computer programmer wrote programs using a pad of paper and a pencil. Never saw the computer! When I left, they’d just bought a load of the first new one-to-one computers, which were very different to the huge mainframe computers like you see in old spy movies, which was what I’d been programming up until then. These new ones were more like compact face to face computers as you think of them today. Times were-a-changing.
So you were doing that in the early days of the band, taking time off work etc?
Oh yeah. We’d rehearse in the evenings and for gigs I’d just take afternoons off. The guys would pick me up from work, I’d do a quick change and off we’d go. I did that for about a year and then it just got impossible. Once I’d used up all the holiday I was due the company were really cool and said I could work flexitime, but even then I couldn’t catch up with the time I’d already taken off. When we booked our first tour of Europe, I had to hand my notice in.
So when did you do the first recording session for Fresh Records at Hallmark Studios? I can’t quite fit things together because on the back of ‘Poison Takes A Hold’ it mentions two different sessions, one in December 1980 and one in April 1981. Both of these have Re Vox playing on them. But I’ve also got what is labelled as a demo but it’s actually got ‘Introduction’ and ‘Final Epitaph’ on it. So did Fresh take a couple of the demo tracks to use as b-sides or anything?
You know, I can’t remember. I thought we did them all at Foubert’s Place (Hallmark Studios), the first being ‘Poison Takes A Hold’ which we did on our own with the studio guys and I thought we also recorded ‘Introduction’ and ‘Final Epitaph’ during that session. All three were with Re on guitar. But you’re right, the record sleeve to ‘Poison Takes A Hold’ suggests otherwise. I can’t recall. With ‘TV Eye’ my Aunt Jude comes into the picture again. She was going out with a guy called Cosmo Verrico, who was the guitarist in a band called The Heavy Metal Kids. He suggested he’d like to help and produce ‘TV Eye’ for us. We didn’t have a clue what production was all about, so we said yes, and Foubert’s place was familiar ground so back we went. But first we went and rehearsed the song with him up at Jumbo Studios in Willesden. Being from The Heavy Metal Kids, you can certainly hear his influence. I remember there was a real big chorus drum break in it that he wanted me to do that I really didn’t feel comfortable doing- because I found it tricky to do and I didn’t like it’s ‘rock’ feel. It sounds kind of rocky doesn’t it?
Well, its not as raw as ‘Poison Takes A Hold’ but I don’t think it’s as bad as you all think it is. That is me speaking from the outside though, of course. But obviously, before the ‘TV Eye’ recording, Re left the band. Or was he pushed?
No not pushed, not at all. We were adamant that, as a band, we were going to go for it. Like I said, that’s why at the start we never did any gigs in the Oxford and Banbury area. We just weren’t interested. Its easy to be a local band, we’d all done that and didn’t want to get into that trap again. So anyway, like myself, Re had a proper job. He was an Environmental Health Officer for the local council and on our way to rehearsals one day he said “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do the job and this” and so that was it because it was the ‘job’ that he wanted to stick to. He knew what we were striving for but by saying that he’d talked himself out the band. So Pete suggested we try Steve out, who he’d previously played with in a band called First Offence. I don’t think Rob and I had met Steve yet, but we asked if he’d come along and rehearse with us somewhere off of the Cowley Road in Oxford. We were in a tiny little room, and Pete had a load of his mates sitting around the sides of the room, like a mini audience. I don’t know if Pete had already clued Steve up on the songs but he played every one bang on. He was brilliant. It just changed everything, suddenly there was this monster guitar and it was “WOAH, YES PLEASE! You are in!” That day was a big turning point. I remember me and Rob driving back to Banbury, chuffed as hell. Re had dumped us for his job, really let us down and we didn’t know where things were going to go from there. Then Steve turns up, looking the part and sounding amazing.
Did it not end on good terms with Re then?
Well we were like, sod you if you are not interested in making a go of it. We couldn’t make him stay and we didn’t want him holding us back, so what was the point of him being in the band? Off you go. I think at the time we were really pissed off with him and his lack of commitment because, after all, from the beginning we’d all been resolute about going the full distance. But then with Steve joining, we never looked back.
So Steve is now in the band but ‘TV Eye’ is a song from before his time, isn’t it?
Yeah it’s a Re era song, but it’s Steve playing his own parts not Re’s parts on the recording. As I say we did that first rehearsal with Steve and ran through quite a few songs and he knew them all, but he played them his way. And of course all the rehearsals we did with Cosmo before recording ‘TV Eye’ were with Steve so, by the time of the recording, it had taken on quite a different sound from its original version.
So Steve played on ‘TV Eye’ recorded by your mate Cosmo, and that came out but everything went to shit with Fresh Records. What happened there?
Well, when I was working, I used to use the work phone to call Alan at Fresh every day for news, updates and ideas. Then, one day, there was no answer. I kept calling until eventually I realised that something was up. So Rob and I rode down to London on my motorbike only to find the office on Edgware Road empty. But we found out that they’d set up new offices in Islington, and it’s there that we found Alan. He explained that the money had been pulled from the label and that Fresh was finished. So we asked him where that left us and he said that if we were happy to stay with him we could be on the new label, Jungle Records.
But that all took a while to come together it seems.
Yeah. What is the time between ‘TV Eye’ and ‘Propaganda’?
Over a year. ‘TV Eye’ came out, then the first Peel Session was January ’82 and there was loads of great support slots in early 1982- Theatre Of Hate, 23 Skidoo, Wasted Youth…
Getting our first John Peel Session was a real coup but also a master class in how to get noticed by a Radio 1 DJ who wasn’t that fond of us. We’d decided that in every town we played we’d post a letter to John, written by one of us or a co-conspirator, pretending we were fans and requesting a Play Dead session. It didn’t take long before we got a letter from the BBC requesting our attendance at Maida Vale Studios. Did we support Theatre Of Hate?
Yes, at Scamps (venue/nightclub in central Oxford).
Are you sure? We supported The Birthday Party at Scamps, I remember that. In fact, contrary to our initial stance, we did a few gigs at Scamps but that was after the UK Decay tour so we felt more like a nationally known band, not a local band anymore and a few local shows felt more acceptable. I went to a lot of gigs at Scamps in those days, so I must be getting mixed up with the Theatre Of Hate thing.
How was supporting The Birthday Party?
They were all completely out of it. They were a great live band but behind the scenes I found them pretty unapproachable. However- and check with Pete- I think that is where the bat logo came from. I’ve got a feeling it was used on the poster for that gig and we all liked it and so started using it for our own purposes. So, anyway, where were we? Oh yes- what was the gap between ‘TV Eye’ and ‘Propaganda’?
‘TV Eye’ was October ’81, first Peel Session January 1982, loads of gigs up until May ’82 and then I can’t find anything except one flyer for a gig with GBH until you got the Single Of The Week review of ‘Propaganda’ a year later in January 1983.
Hmm, yeah. There was a bit of a gap while the Fresh/Jungle Records transition happened but maybe the gap was more our doing. Jungle gave us the go ahead to record ‘Propaganda’ on our own, rather than using Cosmo again. We decided on a studio in Wallington near Oxford where they had an SSL desk and we thought “Wow, this is going to be amazing” as SSL were the Rolls Royce of studio desks at the time and possibly still are now. They didn’t do a lot of rock bands at the studio, they did a lot of folk. But that didn’t matter, we knew what we were doing, and so we went ahead and recorded and mixed what we thought was a great single to send back to Jungle. However on receiving it, Alan disappointingly told us it was unlistenable and unusable. There was no way he could put it out on a record. We thought we’d blown it. Spent all this money but with nothing usable to show for it. But, god bless him, he thought it was such a great song and was so keen on putting it out that he introduced us to Roy Rowland, who worked down at Nagasaki Studios in the basement of Kendo Nagasaki’s house at the Elephant & Castle.
No. Really? Is that true? Really? Kendo Nagasaki the 1970’s wrestler?
Yep. He owned a beautiful Georgian townhouse that had a little drive around to the back where his gym was and in the basement of the house under the drive was a studio. It was only a 16 track but Alan had successfully used the studio and Roy Rowland to make an album by Cuddly Toys. So I think Alan pulled a favour and we went down there and redid ‘Propaganda’ and it went so well, we went down there again soon after to do ‘The First Flower’.
So, was most of ‘The First Flower’ written during that down time in 1982? Because the quality of the song writing, the arrangements and the playing is so superior to the earlier stuff its almost a different band. Was that down to Steve coming in?
Yes. For sure. The addition of Steve had totally galvanised and inspired us, in all ways.
1983 was the year that it all started happening properly with ‘Propaganda’ and ‘The First Flower’ getting good reviews in the press and all the gigs started rolling in- Sex Gang Children tour, the Killing Joke tour…
Si Ord (Play Dead manager) had a lot to do with that. He’d been managing Southern Death Cult, but departed when Billy Duffy joined Ian to form Death Cult, to later become The Cult. He approached us I think. We’d been doing a show in Leeds, in fact I think we stayed at Aky’s (original drummer of Southern Death Cult) house as Si was living there at the time, and he offered to take us on, which was great because we, with lots of help from Alan, had basically been managing ourselves up to that point. So I think he got us the Sex Gang tour and later on the Killing Joke tour. Aren’t you forgetting one major show we did at that time in Leeds, which was Futurama? We walked off that stage on a real high.
I bet you did. I was there, I remember it.
We were absolutely elated. We’d spent all day waiting for a slot, feeling more like guests rather than a booked act…
Really? You were on the poster.
Maybe so, but no-one was being very efficient at telling us when we were going on, but in the end it sort of panned out that we went on in the early evening, with only a couple of bands left to go. So we ended up with a prime slot. We played a gem and the crowd loved it.
That was later in the year though, in September. There was loads of great gigs before that as well. The band was really happening because the first time I saw Play Dead was with Sex Gang Children in May and it struck me just how good the band sounded, it was a big, proper, professional sound. It was amazing. Completely blew Sex Gang Children away.
Well that was for sure due to Jon (Jon Burton, Play Dead soundman, also guitarist with Chatshow and now FOH engineer for The Prodigy). I’m almost certain he was mixing us then.
Sex Gang Children were abysmal in retrospect anyway.
But they were the ‘IT’ band at the time, although it was a pretty short lived ‘IT’. They were nice fellas though.
Do you have good memories of that tour?
Yes. It was all very exciting at that point.
They were quite violent some of those gigs weren’t they?
I don’t remember any of them being particularly violent. I remember a couple of the UK Decay ones kicking off really badly. One of them was in Bedford. Skinheads arrived and they went nuts and smashed the place up completely. We locked ourselves in the dressing rooms and armed ourselves with mic stands, waiting by the door for them. I don’t remember how it died down, but we and the gear survived to tell the tale.
That Sex Gang tour rolled straight into the Killing Joke one…
It did, yes. Couldn’t have been any better could it?
They were big fans of yours as well.
Were they? I guess that they must have liked us otherwise they wouldn’t have invited us to tour with them. For sure they could’ve picked any number of willing bands to support them and probably demanded a ‘buy on’ from them (a system where a support band pays an agreed amount of money for the privilege of being on the tour). They were very good to us. One of the gigs we did, I think it was Bristol, was a seated gig and Jaz and Geordie came out and sat dead centre in front of us and watched our whole set. It was the most nerve-racking thing ever. At the end of the set I thought they were going to give us marks out of ten. I was a massive Killing Joke fan, I’d seen them with Rob quite a few times and there were two particular gigs that I recall being absolutely stunning. In the early days, when the first album had come out we saw them at Northampton Roadmenders, my first introduction to them, absolutely unbelievable. And then- again with Rob- when ‘what’s THIS for…’ came out, we went to see them at Brixton Fridge. There must have only been about 100 people there, not even a quarter full, but they played a blinding set. We were pinned to the back wall with the force of it. Every hair on my body was standing up. Even the dreads. They were totally mesmerising. So, obviously I/we held them in very high esteem and were over the moon to get the tour. It was a big tour as well, big places, all sold out.
Have you seen them since the old days?
Yes, although it was quite a few years ago. I was pretty saddened by it actually. Paul wasn’t playing drums. Raven was also gone. The audience looked like they had raided the back of their wardrobes to dig out the clothes they’d worn in the 80’s and I just thought the whole thing tragic. And worse still, the sound wasn’t very good. Since then though, a good friend has told me he saw them recently and said that they were on fine form again, but then I believe Paul and Youth, that thunderous tribal backbone, were back in the driving seat again. With the original team, how could they not be on fine form? I’m sorry I missed them this time round.
So once the Killing Joke tour was over and Futurama was done, the ‘Shine’ single came out. What a great EP. Again produced by Roy Rowland and it has that wonderful rolling tom tom thing going on, which became a real signature thing.
From listening to Killing Joke a bit too much (laughs)! The tom tom thing goes back further than that though. ‘Introduction’ was very tom driven and ‘Time’ from ‘The First Flower’ has a very similar pattern build to ‘Shine’ with the drop down tom to hi-hat break. But it wasn’t something I deliberately developed. I just liked the driving sound of the toms and by the time ‘Shine’ came along I’d got my new Ludwig kit which had lots of toms on it and I just wanted to use them. It drove the others mad after a while I think. Certainly towards the end it did.
I think they got fed up with me doing the tribal tom thing. I think that they thought that all the patterns I played were all too similar. I knew it wasn’t as I heard it in a totally different way. A band that I listened to an awful lot was Joy Division. Steve Morris did a lot of tom tom patterned tracks and I really liked the way Martin Hannett made him sound, because it sounds like each tom comes from a different kit. Each tom sounds completely different to the others. I really liked that as it meant that every time he hit a tom it accentuated that tom in the pattern, making it individually stick out from the others. So, you could recognise patterns better as they didn’t become just a mush of rumbling tones. But I don’t know if that was a conscious thing or if they just couldn’t tune drums properly (laughs).
The legend has it that Martin Hannett made him record each drum individually. So, instead of doing a whole drum part, he’d have to do the snare , then stop and do the hi hat, and stop and do the first tom and so on because Hannett wanted it to sound all disjointed. So it would be more like industrial percussion, like different machines all going off at different times in the same room.
My god. Must have been a nightmare to record like that. But that would explain why their drums sound as they do.
So, before we leave ‘Shine’, it was on Situation 2, not Jungle. What happened there?
I think we’d just got to a point where Jungle couldn’t get us any further and Situation 2- which was a branch of Beggars Banquet- was a really cool label to be on at that time. We only signed with them for a single, nothing more. I don’t know why we didn’t stay with Situation 2 but perhaps Clay, our next record company, offered better terms for the next album. Certainly, Clay seemed happy to let us do what we wanted to do and produce ourselves. Although maybe we did need a producer (laughs).
How did John Fryer (engineer of ‘Promised Land’) come into the picture? How did you get involved with him? Because I don’t think that his past CV would seem to suggest he’d be the kind of guy to work with a band like Play Dead.
Well, when we were travelling in the van the bands that we used to listen to the most were the Cocteau Twins, Led Zeppelin, Echo & The Bunnymen and The Doors. The Cocteau Twins, who were produced by John, we listened to an awful lot. Pete particularly loved their sound. So, it seemed a logical thing to follow the Cocteau’s example and go to Blackwing Studios and use John Fryer, specially as it was affordable. It certainly wasn’t because of Situation 2 or Beggars or 4AD but that obviously helped. Incidentally, the band we often used to listen to before going on stage was ZZ Top. Mmmmm…
And you got involved in the electronics. I remember reading about you programming Linn Drums instead of attending your interviews.
Yeah. Good move/bad move? I dunno. You see, the whole of the Cocteau’s thing had been done on Linn Drums. But the first thing we did with John at Blackwing was ‘Break’ and ‘Bloodstains’ which were done with live drums. But when it came to doing the album, we thought we’d go the Linn Drum way. As for not attending interviews, that was probably the best for all concerned, and it probably still is (laughs)!
They were quite de rigeur at the time, weren’t they Linn Drums? Were you excited about electronic percussion and the new technology?
I was yeah. We were all up for it. I didn’t feel let down because I wasn’t playing drums, I thought we could make this work amazingly if we wanted it to, and on some tracks it did.
It didn’t take the place of the real drums though, did it? Just some electronic enhancements here and there?
No. It was mostly Linn, programmed as I’d have played them live, other than maybe ‘Walk Away’ and ‘Holy Holy’. In hindsight, I think that it might have been better to have played real drums, or at least a greater combination of the two.
I thought that they were all a combination of the two to be honest.
No no. It was mainly Linn Drums other than some cymbals, tom enhancements and odd percussion bits. It sounds it too, to me. Does it not to you?
You can hear it all the way through but as I say I thought it was enhancing the real drums you know- extra handclaps and every so often you can hear repeats and so on.
Well we did do odd little things like that but we also did a lot of playing around with tapes in that studio. John was really into playing about with the studio gear…if there was anything we could do to mess things up or mess around with sound, he was up for suggesting it and we were up for trying it. Tape loops, backwards tapes, sampling off of the Lexicons. We loved that. We thought it was great. The more experimenting within the bounds of the studio we did, the better. The studio suddenly became a great adventure.
Stopped you sounding like a rock band though, didn’t it?
To a certain extent, I suppose. But we were all up for that. We didn’t want to remain stagnant. Nothing was planned, it just happened and seemed like the right path to take at that time. The only time we ever sat down and discussed, “What are we going to do? What do we want to sound like?” was when we recorded with Conny Plank. But even then, I swear that it didn’t come out sounding like we’d originally planned (laughs).
So all these electronics on ‘Promised Land’ all lead on to ‘Conspiracy’ and the MAD single I assume?
Well the MAD single came about when Rob talked Criminal Damage Records in to lending us the money to make a record, on the premise that we had a load of mates in famous bands that would come down and contribute to the recording. They thought they would get a ‘supergroup’ record to put out and therefore sell loads of records. But in the end only Billy (Duffy of The Cult) turned up. One ‘superguitarman’ yes, but not a ‘supergroup’ (laughs).
Were you involved in it though? Because there is some confusion about how many of you are on it.
We were all there. Basically it was Play Dead with Billy. But better still, MAD became a lead up to ‘Conspiracy’.
Yes, a much maligned but very interesting release.
Well we loved it. Pete played an amazing groove line instead of…(makes an impression of high melodic bass playing). His feel was perfect for the song and sat with the drums so sweetly. But I’m not so sure he liked playing in that style, after all it was quite different from his signature sound. I’m sure he loved the end result though.
Speaking from the fan base, we were all completely and utterly shocked and it took a little while to get our heads around it. Actually it wasn’t until I played the b-side- one of the mixes is just the drums, bass and some of the dialogue and FX- that I caught the groove and really got into it. I then thought it was brilliant.
It was brilliant. It was great fun doing it as well.
So how did it come about? It was obviously put together electronically so you can’t have planned it all that far ahead.
I don’t think the drum pattern had even been written until we were first hitting the record button in the studio. I think we went in completely cold, no plan apart from maybe the idea of using the dialogue. It just grew in front of us as we did it.
So when you went in to record, you deliberately wanted to do something that was completely different and totally electronic? You’ve decided that it’s not going to have a big guitar on it and so on?
Yeah. Have a load of sampling on it instead. Thank god it wasn’t a big hit. Up to then we used to rehearse songs carefully and thoroughly before recording them. We didn’t do that with ‘Conspiracy’. It was a blind experiment. It was… a one off.
Who played the little keyboard motif on it?
That would have probably been Steve. He always played the piano in the studio. He did all the keyboard bits on ‘Company Of Justice’ as well.
Well, no matter what some people say about it- that it was too much of a departure in style and so on- I prefer ‘Conspiracy’ over some of the more familiar style Play Dead stuff.
I do too.
I think it still holds up now. Some of the keyboard sounds are a bit…obviously a DX7 in 1984. But the backing track is like tribal electro funk, it could have been recorded yesterday. Ahead of its time I think.
Well, I don’t know about being recorded yesterday or being ahead of its time. There were lots of bands like New Order and Cabaret Voltaire doing an electronic rock funk thing, weird proto-dance music. Also what about that song ‘Smoke’ by Can that we used as an intro? It was very similar to that in a way, in the same vein- a repetitive, rumbling tribal dance rhythm. There had been, was then and still is plenty of bands doing it.
What is really ironic is that the press had been going on and on- for however long it was at that point, at least a couple of years- about Play Dead being a gothic band. Then, when you do something completely different, completely break the mould, especially as back in those early days of technology it was a new kind of sound, then they completely ignore it. What the hell are you supposed to do?
Did it not get single of the week in one paper? I’m sure it got a great review in one of them. It did get us on The Tube.
Yes, it was ‘Conspiracy’ that had prompted them to want us to play the show, but we said we couldn’t do it. We tried playing it, probably not very hard, but we did try and just couldn’t do it. We’d never played live with machines before, didn’t know how. Which is why we ended up doing the songs we did on The Tube. Luckily they were OK with that or perhaps Si deliberately left it too late before telling them, so they didn’t have time to replace us. But they can’t have regretted it because it was a great show.
It was, definitely. The Tube, bless them, did have quite a few underground bands on the programme but most of them, when they got up there on national TV sounded awful. The Danse Society, Southern Death Cult, The Gun Club and New Model Army were all on it and were terrible. But Play Dead- once again- sounded great.
It was exciting to watch too and they made a real effort to make it exciting by providing us with buses so we could bring our own crowd in. The other bands that week must have suffered because the whole crowd was our lot- and we weren’t even the headline act. I think that was either Lee Scratch Perry or the Style Council. We also built a stage set for that show… the Greek pillars. The TV crew loved it that we turned up with our own set, as though no-one else had ever done that before.
It was a great performance and sounded great too. Especially as you had never done live TV before.
And never did again.
Was it the fact that The Tube had gone so well, that gave you the idea to do an in-concert video?
Maybe, it just seemed like another thing that was worth doing.
So anyway, next is ‘Sacrosanct’ and on to ‘Into The Fire’ and then the end of Clay…
Yes, the end of our time with Clay. Again, a situation where our record company couldn’t push us any further forward with the resources that they had. You know, we’d always reached this point where we could only sell so many records, but we really needed to get to the next step up on the ladder. We thought The Tube was going to help with that push, in the end it didn’t. But we also knew that staying with Clay wasn’t going to get us any place new.
So you decided by this point to do things yourself. You started Tanz.
Yes, financed by Red Rhino I think. They put the money up for us to spend two weeks at Conny Plank’s studio. Si had organised the Tanz thing, put it all together and we all thought that it was a great idea. Again, in hindsight, I wish we’d maybe gone a different route. Hooky and Factory wanted us but we didn’t go with them as there was no record contract to sign, just hand shakes and that worried us.
Ah, see- I heard a different version of this. I heard that Hooky wanted you for Factory but Tony Wilson only wanted bands that had never recorded before. All the Factory bands had put out their first records on Factory. If it happened, it would have been great for the general perception of the band.
If it had gone through, it could have been massive. Could have been the change we needed to keep us moving on, but we said no. But you see everything seemed in place for us to take that next step: The Tube, a new album to record, Conny Plank on board, it just felt right to go our own route.
Well, whatever happened, you ended up in a studio with Conny Plank.
Yeah. We were rehearsing in another studio out in the middle of the Cotswolds and Conny came over from Germany to Banbury, came to hear us rehearse the new songs at the studio, and said “Yes, this is great. I want to do it”.
So he wasn’t actually on board when he came out? He came to see if he wanted to do it?
Yeah, because he’s Conny Plank. He could pick and choose. We were an unheard entity to him. We couldn’t offer him huge amounts on money. We weren’t selling a huge amount of records, probably only around 10-20,000 records per release. Which I suppose is not so bad these days…
That’s a Top 10 hit these days!
Exactly. But that was only top to mid range indie level then. However, his input and influence might have been able to change that. Thankfully he liked what he heard and wanted to record us.
Was there anyone else in the frame to do the album at the time?
There was another failed studio session. Before Conny was suggested as a possibility, we got this other guy in to produce ‘Sacrosanct’ and if things went well then possibly the album. He’d been in some pop band that I can’t remember the name of and with him we went to Manchester, to 10cc’s Strawberry Studios, where all the Joy Division stuff had been recorded. It only took one, maybe two days to record and mix, and the result was… polished. So polished we hated it and we didn’t want to put it out. It was a disaster. I don’t know who paid for that. Actually that may well have been why we left Clay.
How was recording with Conny? Tell me about it. You’d made a conscious decision as a band to hand control over to someone else.
Well, we ‘d never had a ‘proper’ producer before and boy we needed one. The producers we’d had in the past, other than Cosmo, and the guy we tried at Strawberry Studios, had all been engineers, working with us as producers. I don’t think we realised how badly we needed a full on producer until we started working with one. He just took over, he was brilliant. He knew how to get whatever he needed out of us and he knew how to make THE SOUND that we’d been wanting for ages. It was a privilege and an eye opener.
Did he do things his own way?
He used to conduct the desk. He actually wanted to invent a desk where his body movements about the desk would mix the music. Also he had all these organic electronic instruments. All that burbling, twittering stuff you can hear going on is all his stuff- these old keyboard, sequencers and other noisemakers. He always knew the best thing to put in the song to enhance it, but never over did it. He let the songs breathe, and we fully approved.
Did he change a lot of stuff around? Was there anything significantly different to the tracks after he became involved?
Well the big thing was, when we did the rehearsals we all played together and he thought we were going to come over and play the same way, live, but we didn’t. I did the drums first and we tracked the other instruments in turn. I recall that when he mixed it, he couldn’t mix ‘Witnesses’. He said he just couldn’t feel it. So we had about two days to go and we all went in together and recorded it live. So ‘Witnesses’ is the only track where I played with Pete and Steve live, the rest were all done as separates.
I don’t think ‘Witnesses’ sounds particularly different to anything else on the album.
No, it doesn’t. But we were always of the opinion that everything needed separation and maybe we were wrong. Conny knew a way of making everything sound clear and separate but still keeping it as a ‘whole’ and we didn’t realise that until then.
I’m very surprised to hear that you didn’t do it live as it doesn’t sound clinical. Its clean but its energetic, full and powerful and there are some great songs on there.
There are, yeah.
Its definitely the most coherent sounding Play Dead record…
Oh yeah, by far. More than any other. I can just about still listen to it now.
You must have been on a high when you finished ‘Company Of Justice’ because it is excellent work.
Well we were, yes, very proud of it and very hopeful. But at that point we were still travelling around in a Transit van and still skint… it just felt that if this album wasn’t going to do it for us, then there was nothing else left for us to do. We’d felt that way about The Tube- that it would make a difference- but it hadn’t. And doing that album- which we thought was brilliant, we all felt great about that album- but in the end it didn’t make any difference either. We didn’t get any bigger audiences, we didn’t sell any more records. It didn’t change anything. We didn’t even do all that many gigs when it came out.
That’s a damn shame when you’ve just done your best work.
But we were all getting pretty fed up with it (the situation). It needed something big to happen to hold us together. But what more could come our way to make that change? Loads of bands that had previously supported us, had left us behind and were doing better than us… So why not bow out with at least some grace and some dignity?
Who actually said “Look, shall we just fucking pack it in?”
I think Steve did actually. I think Steve had had enough with being in the band and getting nowhere. We still none of us had any money in our pockets, some of us were still ‘signing on’. It was becoming harder and harder to motivate ourselves to the next project and to keep going.
So when the band finally split did you all part on good terms?
Well, obviously not, as you can imagine, Pete especially felt thrown out because as soon as we split the rest of us started the Beastmaster Generals without him. So he thought that the split was a conspiracy against him. But it wasn’t.
But the Beastmasters didn’t do anything it seems. Did you even demo?
We did some demos and took them around London. Some people were interested and some people weren’t, but at the end of the day we didn’t get the vibe that it was going to be taken up by anyone major. It had to be major label, we weren’t going to go the indie route again. So that fizzled out and gradually we began to split up as people as we all moved away and out of Banbury. Any money Play Dead had earned had been spent. We never earned anything for ourselves out of it. We may have got a small advance once and gave ourselves maybe a few quid out of that. I think Pete bought a bass, I carpeted the stairs, I don’t know what the others did. All the money we ever earned, on the gigs, every penny went back into the band so we could do the best show we could. We always rented our own PA because we didn’t want to use house systems. We wanted it to sound amazing so we put everything back into the shows. If there was any more money around after a show or tour we gave it to our crew, who seemed happy to come along and work for next to nothing and I must thank them sincerely for that. We weren’t living the high life. We really weren’t.
No-one was back then I think, were they?
Some bands were. I’m sure Killing Joke weren’t having to ‘sign on’. I’m sure The Cult weren’t travelling to gigs in a transit van.
It’s a shame really.
Well, it is and it isn’t. It would have reached its end point sooner or later anyway, even if it had gone well. It was always going to be limiting. We had a laugh, We had a lot of laughs. Although I wish we’d have had even more laughs and I’d sometimes lightened up a bit and not taken it so seriously at times.
But you do, if its your art, you can’t help it.
Of course, but I wish I’d been able to sit back and enjoy it a bit more. I do think it was the best apprenticeship to life I could have ever wished for. Since then, I’ve played with two or three other great bands in my own right and, of course, what I do now is still closely related, so I can’t say that it wasn’t all worth it.
After Play Dead split at the beginning of 1986, Wiff spent a couple of years working as a motorcycle dispatch rider in London before returning to the drum stool, playing with both Jesus Jones and the Jesus And Mary Chain (remaining with the latter well into the 1990s). He also developed a parallel career in tour/production management and counts Terence Trent Darby, The Pretenders, Florence And The Machine and many others on his client list. He was most recently found travelling the world keeping an experienced eye on UK band Mumford And Sons.