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In which Alvin tries Damned hard, is sick of being sick, takes advantage of Jack English, 'liaises' with a lovely lady (not a groupie!), has some shows cancelled by Sting, sees his pay diminish, and experiences a future Sub making a pact which sees his introduction to a brand new pair of musicians called Harper & Garratt...

I was young. I had momentum. All things were demonstrably moving in my favour.

I’d been exposed to the way Thin Lizzy went about their plush business and wanted to work again with an outfit of a similar elevated status. This desire to attain a higher level in the rock music industry was facilitated by the return of Brian James from his stint riffing out classic napalm-hearted tunes such as ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ and ‘No Fun’ alongside Iggy Pop in the USA.

Brian was fired up and keen to get his band back on the road again. He set up a schedule of rehearsals at Summa Studios (situated just off the Kings Road in Chelsea) for two purposes: to return us to gigging and recording fitness and to audition a permanent lead singer so that both himself and Lee-Shaw could concentrate on getting the most out of their respective guitars upon being freed up from the distraction of vocals duties.

Official Hellions band portrait. This was taken just outside John Towe's muse flat in swanky Lancaster Gate, London, 1980. Click image to enlarge
To this end our next five Chelsea rendezvous were divided into a two hour stint dedicated to rebuilding a collective musical muscle, followed by an hour assigned for auditions. An ad had been placed in the back page of New Musical Express and numerous candidates duly turned up to attempt to provide suitable vocal accompaniment to Brian’s songs of bacchanalian excess and outlaw posturing.

At first we were gracious when an obviously unsuitable auditionee made his pitch; but by day four we openly groaned and shared knowing glances when yet another perm-haired lover of Rush or Journey in stonewash jeans came through the door. Our eventual choice, John Milner, didn’t exactly have a lot of competition for the job then. He’d recently come down from Yorkshire to live in London with a view to getting into a working punk rock band. He had short dyed blonde hair, was wearing a nicely dilapidated leather jacket and tight black strides, and owned a voice that was more than adequate to carry the material he’d been tasked with. Upon awarding Milner the gig, Brian announced that he wanted to alter the name of the band to the more inclusive identity of Hellions.
With our new name and vocalists we set about rehearsing in earnest at the less expensive rehearsal facilities provided by Blackhole Studios in the underprivileged Elephant and Castle area of The Smoke .

The Hellions: Alan Lee Shaw (guitar, vocal), Alvin Gibbs (bass), John Towe (drums), Nelson Rockerfeller [aka John Milner] (vocal), Brian James (guitar, vocal) - photo taken from John Milner's website - click image to enlarge

After a brace of rehearsals Miles Copeland turned up to give his official approval to the name change and the addition of a lead singer. He brought with him something called a Sony Walkman, a miraculously small personal cassette player on which he had been listening to recordings for the forthcoming Police album in the taxi on the drive over. He told us he’d purchased it in Japan the previous year and we marvelled at the sound quality such a diminutive machine could grant when he allowed each of us to briefly listen to material intended for Sting and co’s next audio release through the headphones.

At around this time Karen and I stopped living together. Her parents wanted to sell the Sydenham Road house which obliged us to move back with our respective families for a while. I didn’t much like being back in Croydon and would spend a lot of time in central London going to see bands and socialising before crashing on a couch or spare bed at various people’s living spaces in order to avoid a dull train and bus ride back to the Monk’s Hill council estate.

I also made fairly regular trips to visit Guy Stevens in Forest Hill. Despite near universal praise for ‘London Calling’, the multitude of production offers we had both expected to come Guy’s way hadn’t materialised. The one or two that had been proffered he’d deemed unworthy of his time and talent, and he’d become melancholic of mind and turned to drink even more than was usual. What with Karen and I having moved away from the area he was also starting to feel isolated and lonely. It seemed I was one of the few people that bothered to visit him. While there I would try to cheer him up as best I could, but it was becoming an increasingly difficult task to get him to be more positive about life and the re-launching of his career. This worried me.

 Hellions at the Marquee Club, Wardour St., Soho, 1980. This was taken during our soundcheck. Note the rather tatty backdrop which the Marquee insisted we remove before playing the show. Click image to enlarge

Brian, accompanied by Miles Copeland, agreeably surprised us before a rehearsal in late March by sharing the information that we were set to play some shows in Europe with The Police, and others, that following month. On the 18th of April, 1980, we congregated at Lee-Shaw’s flat at 9 am for cups of strong ground coffee and warm croissants (Alan had a French girlfriend at the time) before setting off to catch the ferry to Holland in a rented van driven by our road manager for the trip, Frankie Blackwell, an employee of Miles’ Step Forward management company. As well as Blackwell we also had a hired roadie travelling with us to set up and break down the gear, an amiable and eager young Londoner named Jerry. Despite the premature hour, Brian immediately uncorked a bottle of Italian wine he’d produced from his case. Having taken a large swig and rightfully toasted the forthcoming adventure with “Here’s to a good tour boys!” he passed the bottle around. No one refused an infusion of Chianti. This set the boozy tone for the week ahead.

We missed our pre-booked ferry by ten minutes. Panic ensued, but Frankie, being an experienced hand at this kind of thing, took off and returned some forty minutes later with the news that he’d negotiated passage for us to the port of Zeebrugge, situated on the Belgium coast aboard a cargo ship.

It was a rough voyage. The ship pitched and rolled in the ill-timed storm that descended when we cast off and I spent most of the crossing throwing up the croissants, coffee and Chianti I’d ingested in the vessel’s latrines. I was joined there by other members of our touring party and this communal vomit fest continued until we reached the stable terrain of Belgium. Not a great start, you will agree.
Things improved though after we had driven through Belgium and Holland into Germany and reached our hotel in Hamburg. It was an Intercontinental, a five star hostelry with swimming pool, sauna, restaurant and bar, which is where we spotted Andy Summers and Sting sipping on cocktails upon our arrival. After a quick chat with them we made for our rooms. I was sharing a large and luxurious twin bedded room with John Towe, and after dropping off our cases we rushed back down to the bar in order to cadge a round of drinks from Sting before he and Summers retired to their rooms. Brian came down with Milner and Lee-Shaw and seeing as he had us all in one spot laid down the law regarding hotel etiquette for the tour.

Inside page of Hellions Euro itinerary, with a list of the shows. Click image to enlarge
“Now I know you’re all hungry and none of us, including myself, has any money with them,” he began. “But we will get fed when we arrive at the venue tomorrow afternoon and you’ll all get some local money after the show. Until then though, nobody can order anything to eat or drink and charge it to their rooms. We cannot run up a bill here, do you understand?”
Well, yes, sort of.

“OK, I’ll see you all tomorrow in the lobby at midday.”

He then headed for the elevator while we grumbled about ‘bad organisation’ and the lack of a ‘float’, this being a music biz term for money set aside prior to a band receiving fees on a tour to cover expenses and situations such as the one we now found ourselves in.

John Milner had actually changed up a little sterling into deutsche marks the day before. Prices at this hotel were high and he had just enough money to buy the four of us a beer each, which was a very generous move on his part. The drink though only made us even more ravenous. I had puked-up what little nourishment I had managed that day during the hellish conveyance from England to Zeebrugge in the cargo ship; but I recalled seeing some snacks as part of the offerings provided in the mini bar in my room and headed up to get them to share with the guys, figuring this wouldn’t technically infringe Brian’s commandment.

When I reached our floor and stepped from the elevator, I noticed a waiter in full monkey suit knocking on the door of Brian’s room. Beside him was a trolley loaded with succulent cooked food, complete with a bottle of white wine in an ice bucket. I hid myself in a doorway to observe what would happen next. Brian emerged, quickly signed the slip offered to him by the waiter and wheeled this banquet for one into his room while furtively looking about to make sure no Hellion had witnessed the transaction. I immediately got back in the lift and returned to the bar to share what I had just seen with the rest of the band.

Alan was incensed. “Follow me”, he ordered. We shadowed Alan into the restaurant and joined him at the table he’d selected. Having beckoned over a waiter who provided us with menus, he declared: “It’s one rule for all or nothing. Have whatever you want, I’ll sign for it.”

Having all ordered starters, steaks and salads, various desserts and bottles of wine, Alan put Brian’s room number on the bill and signed it Jack English. We then went to the bar and repeated this process for the enormous tab we ran up there. I vaguely remember staggering up to my room at about 3 am. The following morning Jack English kindly provided the two Johns, Alan and I with an extensive breakfast. We noted the trolley with the meagre remains of a full English outside Brian’s door when we returned to our rooms.

Ticket for the Brains' support slot to The Police in Hannover, 19 April 1980 taken from Sting's website - click image to enlarge

The venue for our first show with The Police was in Hannover. It could hold about 7,000 comfortably and it was a sell-out despite the large amounts of snow that had fallen upon that part of Germany during the night. We took to the stage at 8 pm and opened up with ‘Living In Sin’. It was a very partisan Police crowd and we had almost completed our set before finally receiving some appreciative applause and a more positive reaction. I enjoyed it though. Later that evening we watched Sting, Andy and Stewart Copeland playing their commercially pitched, reggae-tinged songs from stageside and then joined them in their dressing room for post-show drinks.

Next day, road manager Frankie informed us that the planned show with The Police in Kiel had been cancelled due to Sting having mysteriously lost his voice. We drove there anyway and got ourselves checked into what transpired to be yet another tasty five star establishment. With no gig to play we decided to go clubbing instead. We (Hellions and crew) drank and bar hopped in downtown Kiel until we ended up at a place where we got talking to a bunch of attractive frauleins who had bought tickets for the show at the Osteelhalle and were now bitter about the late cancellation. We commiserated and invited the girls back to our hotel to have a party instead. They agreed and a taxi ride later we were drinking wine and beer and eating room service food courtesy of Jack English in Alan’s room.

I found I was getting on very well with one particular pretty guest who, like all her friends, spoke excellent English. Eventually she even suggested we take a bottle of chilled wine with us and head off to my room for some privacy. Within a short time things got intimate there and poor, unfortunate, John Towe, with whom I was again sharing a room, found himself locked out and unable to gain entry until we had concluded our liaison in the early hours of the next morning. He was pretty tolerant about it though.

“So, how was your first Euro groupie?” he enquired, after my short term German amour had finally departed in the taxi I had ordered for her.
I didn’t think the term ‘groupie’ was at all applicable. She hadn’t even seen the band play and I liked to think her interest in me was based on considerations other than my merely being a player in a rock band.
“Actually”, I told him, “she’s the first woman I’ve slept with as a consequence of touring, ever.”
“Ah”, he replied, “the first of many.”
I guess these words would prove to be somewhat prophetic.

After breakfast in Hannover we drove to CBS Records’ offices in Hamburg to pick up some cash to make up for the fee we hadn’t received for the cancelled show. This being a scheduled travel day, with no gig pending, Brian insisted we all go to the notorious Red Light district of the city to visit a few bars and checkout a strip joint or two. No one voiced any dissent to this plan.

We drank a lot of beer and were exposed to a lot of naked flesh. Upon descending on yet another Reeperbahn located establishment dedicated to male titillation and female nudity, the initial novelty of being in a strip joint wore off and the whole experience for me became repetitive, even somewhat depressing. The others seemed to be enjoying themselves though and I joined in the male camaraderie as best I could and drank more beer than I wanted to until Frankie reminded us we had a one thousand and one hundred mile drive to complete, beginning that same evening, destination Lyon, France.

 Hellions go sightseeing in Lyon, France after our 1,100 mile overnight journey from Hamburg. (L to R) Myself, Alan Le-Shaw, John Milner and Brian James. April, 1980. Click image to enlarge

The journey through the night was long and tedious. I just couldn’t get comfortable in my seat and ended up lying on top of the speaker cabinets in the back of the van - actually, even these days, I find sleeping on band equipment curiously relaxing; I’ve been known in recent times to fashion myself a rudimentary bed out of flight cases and coats for long drives and manage to rest and drift in and out of sleep quite contentedly. Such things apart, we arrived in Lyon at around 11 am the next morning, each of us hungover to greater and lesser degrees from the Hamburg beer, and grateful for a couple of hours sleep in an actual bed at the hotel. Later that afternoon we did some sightseeing, and then inevitably ended up drinking in bars until we were obliged to leave by their closing for the night.

The gig the following day was taking place in a large hall called the Salle Moliere. We were opening up for Two Tone Ska merchants, The Beat, who had released a UK Top Twenty single that had garnered a lot of Euro radio play - a reworked Smokey Robinson song, ‘Tears of a Clown’. They were a friendly bunch and I especially got on with their Jamaican septuagenarian saxophone player, Saxa, who had some fascinating stories to share regarding his time playing with Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster and even the Beatles, back in the 1960s. Wayne Barrett, lead singer for Slaughter and the Dogs, then living in Lyon, came along to say ‘Hi’ and ended up introducing us in reasonable French to the assembled paying public as we stepped onto the stage to dish up some strident London-style Punk Rock. A fine show, our music being much better received than in Hannover, which even generated some massed pogoing action down in the front rows.

Next day, Paris.

Flyer listing forthcoming Hellions' shows, 1980. Click image to enlarge
I was back, and as I’d fantasised about on my first/last occasion of being in Paris, when I had failed to win the slender hand of the deceitful Pascal, I had returned as a professional musician with a show to play. That night we were all set to limber up the crowd for the fabulous Cramps at one of the coolest venues in the city, Le Palace. Before that though we visited the headquarters of New Rose Records (named after Brian’s famous Damned single) in the Montmartre district to discuss a possible Hellions album deal. Marc Zermati, the capo di tutti capi of the label, was very enthusiastic about the notion and took us all to eat lunch at a very pleasant well priced nineteen century-style restaurant called Chartier, which has now become a real favourite of mine when I’m in Paris… it’s situated in Montmartre at 7 Rue du Faubourg, give it a try when you next visit the City of Lights.
Nothing ever did come of the Hellions’ album idea.

Our show at Le Palace was by far the best of the tour. The Parisian crowd’s response was great from the off and we even achieved an encore, which appropriately was a high octane rendition of ‘New Rose’ that Brian dedicated to Monsieur Zermati. We drank and socialised, made friends with the locals. The Cramps were superb. We crashed their dressing room after they’d finished to drink some beer and to swoon over Poison Ivy, their sexy, vivacious red-haired bassist who, in my inebriated state, I proclaimed my undying love to. She was very sweet about my declaration and her husband/lead singer, Lux Interior, was relaxed about it too. He laughed and said: “Tell you what son; you can have her for a pair of them fancy French alligator shoes that I saw in the window of that Yves Saint Laurent store on the Champs-Elysées today.” A tempting offer declined on the basis that even if he was being serious, a pair of such shoes would have easily cost approximately nine to ten times more than what I’d made for that entire tour.

The next show, a Police support in Bordeaux, was cancelled due to Sting’s voice still being AWOL. Disappointed at this news there was nothing else to do but head on to Calais to catch the ferry to Dover, from whence Frankie drove us all back to our respective abodes.

It had been my first European playing experience and now back in unglamorous Croydon I suffered my very first bout of post tour blues. Thankfully, shortly after our return, Brian booked Blackhole’s recording studio to lay down some newly composed songs with John Milner on lead vocal duties. One of the demo tunes was entitled ‘Wine, Women and Song’, which seemed to me a perfect summation of the recent events that had taken place in Germany and France.

 Review of Hellions' gig at the Nashville, London, 1980. 'Trying Damned hard', apparently! Click image to enlarge

We then resumed gigging in London with headline shows at the Star in Croydon; the famed Marquee Club in Wardour Street (another exciting first for me); the Nashville, again, where Captain Sensible added some colour and anarchy to proceedings by jumping up to join us for ‘New Rose’, knocking microphone stands over and throwing a lot of beer around; and a really good band performance at Dingwalls, Camden. After an uncharacteristically dire gig at a refurbished, renamed theatre, The Venue, situated across the road from Victoria Station, John Towe got into a fiery argument with Brian James.

Brian had been withholding as much as fifty percent of our fee each show, claiming that he was paying this on to Miles Copeland to cover rehearsal and recording costs. Towe was sceptical about this claim and argued that even if true it was morally wrong to pay on the band’s money to the millionaire manager of The Police when we were only receiving around £10 to £15 each per gig. They got into it and I guess Brian decided a few days later to replace him with another drummer.
It was a difficult situation. I had become good friends with John and I’d argued with James that getting rid of him merely because he’d expressed a perfectly valid point of view was not the way to act. Brian was in no mood to compromise and a week later we started rehearsing with a drummer whose name was Derek (that’s all I have on him according to my diary of 1980). Towe had meanwhile heard about my defence of his position and ’phoned to thank me. I told him I’d hook him up if I heard of a decent drummer’s job and he promised he’d put a word in for me if news came his way that a worthy band were looking for a bassist. This would prove to be an important agreement between us, both short and long term.

Snapshots from our Marquee show. Click image to enlarge I went on to play the Greyhound on the Fulham Palace Road and the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead with Towe’s replacement. The latter of these two gigs was thoroughly depressing. Only thirty or so people turned up and I received just £5 from Brian at the end of the night. Half of this amount was spent getting me to and back from the venue by bus, train and tube. There was also still a suspicion that Brian was not being completely truthful about the large fee deduction he took after each gig that he had maintained was destined for Copeland, and my earnings with the band were now at the lowest since I’d joined. It was all very disheartening.

 Snapshots from our Marquee show. Click image to enlarge

It was a perfectly occasioned piece of news then when John Towe ’phoned me a couple of nights later to disclose he’d just run into Charlie Harper and Nicky Garratt at the Marquee Club and discovered they were searching for a replacement bassist for the U.K. Subs.

“I’ve recommended you for the job”, he continued, “They have your ’phone number, so expect a call sometime tomorrow inviting you to an audition.” I thanked John for the recommendation and wondered if anything would come of his chance encounter and the glowing reference he’d proffered on my behalf.

The answer to these musings arrived the next afternoon when Nicky Garratt ’phoned and introduced himself. We talked about music and my gigging and recording experience, which he seemed fairly impressed with.

“OK”, he finished up, “we’re holding auditions in a rehearsal facility above the Rose and Crown pub in Wandsworth, let’s meet in the bar at 2 pm tomorrow afternoon.”

“See ya there”, I replied.

This was the beginning of a personal and professional brand new age.

Alvin on stage again - click to enlarge

First published 15 October 2013.


Our man of the four throbbing wires jumps Brian James' Hellion ship and speedily returns to Europe as a fully paid-up member of the UK Subversives; finally encounters some authentic Euro groupies; makes an important discovery regarding German wines; buys a Thunderbird bass and writes some tunes that take Time, And which he hopes will Matter; plus, while making his first Long Playing record, learns a profound lesson regarding the fragility of fame and the capriciousness of the Rock music industry...