YEAR OF THE DRAGON
I was raised in a typical working class four-to-a-yard Victorian terrace situated in the smog-ridden industrial bleak north of 70s Sheffield, Steel City UK.
This was the golden era of weekly power cuts – the 3-day working week – Starsky & Hutch, Kojak etc. get it? Seemingly endless, carefree summers that were so hot the tar on the cobbled streets started to melt. Its the sounds I remember the most.
The house wasn’t exactly a hot-bed of musical creativity – I’m told that many years prior to my birth, my brother played the piano beautifully.
I wish I could have heard him play.
There were no musical instruments in the house when I was born. Years later for reasons unknown to me at the time, a soprano ukulele found it’s way into my Christmas stocking…
The old valve stereo-gram was always playing dusty, sublime 78s, 45s and 33s. In fact one of my earliest memories is singing along to ‘The Deadwood Stage’ from ‘Calamity Jane’, cut on shellac, playing at 78 RPM. Whip Crack Away!
My mum loved Count Basie and adored Doris Day (natch!). Dad was a huge fan of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra but best of all, my big sister was seriously into what you might call proper rock’n’roll – Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran – y’know, the devil’s music? Amen.
Being a hyperactive five-year-old, it goes without saying that it was my sister’s taste in music that grabbed my attention. When she first played me ‘Satisfaction’ by The Stones that was that. My rapidly developing and overly-curious brain had been permanently rewired by ‘THE RIFF’.
Back to that ukulele. I fashioned a bit of old light-pull cord (no doubt guiltily pinched from my dear mum’s make-do-and-mend stash) into a makeshift guitar strap.
I did my best at drawing some pencil ‘F’ holes on the uke to try and mimic the guitars played my pop-star-idols – the ones that I was now watching religiously on Top Of The Pops.
I would play “Satisfaction” over and over again, so I’m told: strutting around with my newly decorated axe, admiring my reflection in the TV, imagining I was one of my TOTP heroes, much to the silent amusement of my dear family.
In 1975 the Christmas present of my dreams arrived. I was gifted with my first solid bodied guitar: sunburst finish, one pickup, played like an egg-slicer. It was a ‘Kay’ a.k.a a ‘Woolies Special’ – for those of you who remember Woolworths…
I still didn’t have anything to make the guitar sound loud like the cool cats on the telly though. This was one thing that my parents had clearly thought through, Remember that old, valve stereo-gram? That’s gotta have an amplifier, right?
The ‘Kay’ guitar came with a plectrum, a ‘Play In A Day’ book by the legendary Mr. Burt Weedon and most importantly, a guitar lead. I had a vague understanding of how things might connect together, so I got to work on the lead with a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer…
Somehow, I managed to connect the now bare wires to the input of the ageing, mahogany-veneered stereo-gram in the living room. It worked and I was finally LOUD!
Mum and dad were not happy. I’d destroyed their record player. No more ‘Basie or ‘Crosby for them or me, for now. It didn’t matter though, ‘cos I was a JUKE BOX HERO!
With stars most definitely in my eyes…
YEAR OF THE PIG
My lifelong love of performing started when I played my very first first gig at my dad’s local boozer/second home, ‘The Royal Lancers’. To quote Spinal Tap’s Marty Dibergi when describing the Electric Banana Club in Greenwich Village, “Don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore...”
I turned up with my guitar and a 50 watt combo amp that my mum had bought me from the Marshall Ward catalogue against her better judgement, bless her. A good christian woman, she was always so worried that I’d become seduced by the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle of my heroes…
The room was now full of my dad’s steel-working mates, real men’s men, tough guys. To say I was nervous is a huge understatement, their drunken, expectant gaze penetrating me to the core.
From the moment I began fumbling through the opening strains of the wonderful ‘Sylvia’ by Focus, I noticed that the the room, and indeed I, felt very different, as the nods of approval from my audience segued into applause as the final chords rang out from my ‘club book’ amp. It was an incredibly empowering experience for little-ole-me. I was instantly addicted – I’d somehow touched people in a way I had not experienced before and it felt very good indeed…
It was at this point that I realised I needed to be in a band – I’d never been the most popular kid in school, never really fitting in. I was now on a mission to be part of a gang of musical brothers on my own terms – to surround myself with like-minded, rock’n’roll partners in crime.
YEAR OF THE SNAKE
We came up with typically-cheesy-school-band names – how do ‘Sunset Echo’ and ‘Fusion’ grab you for starters? We didn’t know at the time that ‘fusion’ was generally considered to be a crossover jazz/rock genre – being young, angry metal-punks we were about as fusion as Motorhead on a crystal meth bender. Come to think of it ‘Sunset Echo’ didn’t really scan either…
Eventually we landed on the name ‘Zayus’ which was made up by taking various letters from our collective names and rearranging them. I’m still not sure where the ‘Z’ came from, but you can’t go wrong with a ‘Z’, no?
As we excitedly agreed on our new name with attitude, we had no idea that ‘Dr. Zaius‘ was a leading character in the classic TV show ‘Planet Of The Apes’ which was huge at the time.
Despite the obvious lack of comparison between the appearance of the band and the ‘Orangutan Chief Defender Of The Faith’ (can we agree to disagree here?) the similarity of both names did not seem to do our public awareness any harm at all.
And we were certainly attracting attention. appearing on both local radio stations. BBC Radio Sheffield’s Winton Cooper played our demo cassette and Radio Hallam’s Colin Slade dedicated an entire show to our band after recording 9 tracks with us at the station’s studio.
Zayus even got a mention in the Observer newspaper’s colour supplement, after a journalist came all the way from the capital to ‘The Penguin’ pub at Shiregreen in Sheffield to watch us perform.
We met with local record label ACS who had released an E.P. by Steel City NWOBHM royalty Geddes Axe. We were receiving love, support and promotion from the legendary Bailey Brothers.
This was the Big Time. It was BIG and it filled our universe…
We played our arses off on the gritty northern working men’s club circuit – no covers, just our original tunes with titles such as ‘Brain Deranger’ and ‘Hiroshima’, much to the bemusement of the bingo brigade. Our self belief was off the charts and it didn’t matter who we played to, we were chips in – have it!
What a fantastic time of my life, everything was new and so exciting.
Respectfully, to all of the amazing people that shared their love, talent and the good times – you know who you are.
And I thank you.
YEAR OF THE MONKEY
I ended up in some great bands in the 80s – I say ‘ended up’ because they just kind of happened. Van Halen and UFO in particular had brought a melodic edge to rock music in Sheffield, and of course I dreamed of being just like Eddie, or Michael for that matter…
‘Alyx’ was the first band I joined after leaving Zayus – they were a tight power trio with a great attitude and amazing vocals. I showed up and we jammed hard – their already highly developed sound was immediately augmented by my style and I was in. Being in a two-guitar lineup for the first time was such a liberating experience…
Alyx had a good local following – people loved our catchy, power-pop-rock choruses, lifted by our tight, three-part harmonies and powerful delivery. Great band, great guys, good times.
After a couple of awesome years in Alyx, I dropped out of the scene for a good while. I bought a Fostex Portastudio and a Yamaha RX11 drum machine and started to write on my own for the first time, demoing tracks in my one-bedroom flat. I could finally hear sounds coming out of the speakers that were the same as the ones that I heard in my head – a new obsession was well and truly born…
As my honeymoon period with the portastudio waned to a close the itch to be in a great band again returned with a vengeance.
The mid-80s saw me reunite with two of my musical soul-mates from Zayus – we formed a new band called ‘Nightrun’ and found ourselves on the quest for the perfect frontman. Needless to say we found him – a larger-than-life character who was channeling Steve Perry and Jon Bon Jovi. He was well up for it, his dazzling upper register and electric stage presence being just what we needed to realise our big-haired, pop-rock musical vision.
Nightrun went onto to be quite a draw on the local rock scene – we smashed the local circuit with our Bon Jovi-esque good time rock. We were featured in local paper The Sheffield Star and had interest from a London based indie label. We had merch, attitude, cred, the whole bit. Once again we were gifted by Colin Slade, who played demos of 10 songs that we had lovingly crafted at my mates’ city centre 4-track studio – in their entirety – on his Monday Rock Show. This was a massive boost for us, so thanks again Colin, top man!
YEAR OF THE TIGER
Nightrun entered The Sheffield Star Rock & Pop contest, making it all the way to the final that was held at the legendary Sheffield City Hall. Finally, we were was going to play on the same stage that was imbued with the spirit (and no doubt the sweat) of our rock’n’roll heroes!
Despite technical issues with the PA, we absolutely smashed it – I swear I’ve never been the same since – this time my addiction to the rush of live performance went to a new level. Please forgive the drug reference – it was akin to a pot smoker being given their first crack-pipe.
The judges, made up of industry pros (Kevin Bacon of the Comsat Angels was on the panel), were clearly impressed. We didn’t get gold but were more than happy with silver, missing out on the top spot to an incredible gospel group called Eliakim, who quite frankly blew everyone else away with their electrifying, faith-powered performance.
We’d drafted in a very accomplished keyboard player (who also had great hair!) to give our sound some real depth and to bestow me freedom to express myself without the sound becoming thin – this gave us a contemporary edge which no doubt went a long way to securing our victory.
With our four-hundred-quid winnings burning a hole in our pockets, we decided to self-fund a single – a double A-side that was to feature our two best tracks, ‘Crime of Passion’ and ‘Forever’. We booked a ‘lockout’ at Input Studios which was located just off Division Street in Sheffield town centre. I’d used Input before and knew that the guys there were all sound (pun intended) and really knew what they were doing, world-class even.
It was our first time with access to 24-tracks, previously being limited to just 4. Of course, we ended up doing what every band in our situation would do – we got to work on filling up all 24 tracks to the brink and beyond…
We captured some great lead vocal performances, tight thundering bass, huge drums, sparkling percussive keyboards and super-massive, aggressive guitars. We laid down over one-hundred takes of airy backing vocals, bouncing between the Studer A800 multitrack and the Revox B77. It sounded fantastic and we were in high orbit. We had to release this – quickly as we could (none of us were exactly Rockefella) we scraped some more cash together and had 500 singles pressed from the master tapes of our triumphant session at Input.
I’ll never forget the thrill of opening that first box, seeing ‘Nightrun’ on the label. Now we had a proper record and it looked just like the ones I’d stare in awe at as a kid! PURE MAGIC…
However, in the following weeks a creeping sense of doubt started to tame our newly-found swagger. We were without a manager and didn’t have a clue about how the big, bad music business worked. We’d had a taste of something very sweet – and we all wanted a lot more.
Natives of the city take great delight in telling curious visitors that Sheffield is ‘The World’s Biggest Village’ over a pint or three. Considering that Sheffield is the 4th biggest city in England this can be confusing to the uninitiated – somehow somebody always knows somebody who knows somebody else. This was particularly true of the local rock scene at the time…
Taking that into account, it should come as no surprise that my connections with Sheffield’s mighty Def Leppard have been on and off in one form or another since the mid-70s.
Leppard guitarist Steve Clark (R.I.P) was a local lad who shone much brighter than most, always the rock star, bless him. He had two brothers – I don’t want to give their full names to respect their privacy so I’ll call them ‘K’ and ‘C’.
I spent my years at comprehensive school with C, hanging out at the Clark household, ogling Steve’s recently acquired Gibson Les Paul. Years later, I was in Alyx with his oldest sibling K. Both brothers were (and I’m sure still are, it’s been a while) brilliant musicians in their own right – it must have been something in the water…
The Wapentake pub in Sheffield was the central hub of all things rock and metal. It was also my second home for a good few years and undoubtedly one of the best times of my life. This particular night I was standing in my spot near the Wap’s DJ booth, being pummeled by DJ Ken’s Jethro Tull records, drinking luke-warm lager out of a ‘plastic’. I was very buzzed.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a diminutive but very powerful and charismatic presence. Stumbling towards me was Leppard founder member and guitarist extraordinaire Pete Willis, who was clearly sharing my extremely altered headspace. We started to chat and immediately hit it off with our shared love of Schenker, Van Halen and Judas Priest.
Little did we know that fate would lead to us being in a band together in the not so distant future…
Back to Nightrun.
Things get a little complicated here. We didn’t realise that our singer had been working with Pete Willis on some demos at his home studio. One of the songs they were working on used the backing track of a Nightrun demo – the whole band were duly invited to Pete’s beautiful home located in one of Sheffield’s exclusive leafy suburbs to listen to the new vocals on our track. It sounded great.
Pete had not long been out of Leppard, being unceremoniously fired from the band after spending the best part of nine months recording the ground-breaking and extremely complex guitar parts on ‘Pyromania’ with Mutt Lange at the helm. The royalties were now rolling in but the hunger was still there – just like yours truly, Pete needed to be in a band.
Blind ambition is a double-edged sword. It will swell your ego and thicken your skin to the point where you feel emotionally bulletproof. It will also piss your friends off. I had my eyes on the prize and nothing was going to get in my way. I alienated myself to many people around this time – would I do the same again?
YEAR OF THE RABBIT
I quit my job with British Telecom where, coincidentally, I worked and played with Leppard’s original drummer, Tony Kenning (World’s Biggest Village?). I left BT on a promise from Pete, who persuaded me to give it all up and pursue international rock-stardom by his side.
I would go on to become a member of the Willis household for over 2 years. Pete and his wonderful, kind family fed and watered me, giving me shelter and treating me like one of their own. Pete, if you’re reading this, thank you, you’re all legends!
Whilst at Pete’s I had full access to his 8 track recording setup – there was an Ensoniq ESQ-1 keyboard in the studio which quickly became my main writing tool. The ideas came thick and fast, the Ensoniq’s sonic palette steering my creativity into previously unexplored musical territories.
Sure, we still hugely influenced by our favourite rockers – Bon Jovi dropped the massive ‘Slippery When Wet’ the previous year, which we played to death – those tunes, those drums, Sambora’s guitar tone! Whitesnake had released their John Sykes driven classic ‘1987’ and of course, Leppard’s super-massive ‘Hysteria’ hit like a juggernaut – it was everywhere.
This was also the year Sly & Robbie released the Bill Laswell produced classic ‘Rhythm Killers’ and the classic ‘Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby’ had arrived.
We fell head over heels. It was the GROOVE. And the BASS.
We started writing from the rhythm section up. The guitars were still very much the focal point of our sound, it’s just that they were increasingly being informed by the beats…
It quickly became apparent that things weren’t working out with the current line up. What we needed was an authentic, soulful rock singer (we loved Paul Rogers) and a rock-solid rhythm section that could really swing. Not easy….
RETURN OF THE DRAGON
After placing numerous adverts in the music press and holding a year-long run of auditions, we were starting to lose hope of tracking down our singer. Don’t get me wrong – there were some great contenders but they just didn’t mesh with our vision.
Pete and I were working on a song called ‘Time’. I’d already laid down the foundations of the track (thanks ESQ-1!) and we were sat figuring out each other’s guitar parts, making sure they were complementary: both musically and sonically clash-free.
I have to say at this point that aside from my gratitude to Pete for his friendship, kindness and for ‘opening the door’, he is without doubt the best guitar player I have ever had the pleasure of sharing duties with – his style has such a distinct character.
Pete’s sublime lead playing is deeply influenced by Beck, Page and Schenker to both my knowledge and to my ears, his sense of melody and drama are such a rare talent. And he’s as tight as a ducks arse when it comes to rhythm of course – but only Pete can swing it like he does.
If you gave Pete Willis a fucked tennis racket, he’d make it sound just like Pete Willis. That’s how good he is. It’s all in the fingers…
During a well-earned break from our guitar-refining duties, Pete and I took a trip to the local Post Office to check out the band’s mailbox. You never know, we might have another contender…
We were greeted by the familiar sight of a beaten-up Jiffy Bag secured with layers of sellotape. We weren’t holding our breath – after all, our year-long audition run had failed to find ‘The One’ but we still hadn’t given up all hope…
However, we were becoming weary of the moody head-shots, sometimes undecipherable biographies and badly recorded performances that had had been so commonplace over the previous months.
When we listened to the tape we were blown away – we were listening to a self-penned song by a bloke from Sunderland called Paul Jackson.
The song was called ‘Gold’ and his voice was the shit. His powerful bluesy tones and soulful delivery had a distinct smack of Free and Bad Company’s god-like Paul Rodgers, not a bad thing. We had finally found our man…
Pete had invested a small fortune in ‘Blue Room’, a fully fledged professional recording studio which was designed from the ground up by London based sound engineer Jonathan Miller, who was also minding the store.
Jonathan had previously managed ‘Konk’, a London based recording studio owned by ‘Kinks main-man, the legendary Ray Davies. He had also engineered at the prestigious CTS/Lansdowne Studios in Notting Hill – he knew what he was doing and he was very good at it.
It was all a bit of a culture shock for Jonathan, the poor bugger.
Blue Room Studio was located in a remote village called ‘Crow Edge’ just off the A616 near Penistone, Barnsley. Pete had purchased a property there that the was perfect home for our new venture – it would also become Jonathan’s residence for a good while.
Now don’t get me wrong, The ‘Edge is a fantastic place but it’s far cry from the leafy suburbs of Notting Hill that Mr. Miller was accustomed to…