The Room \ Biography
Liverpool, September 1979. Having just scrapped our first band, 051, Becky Stringer and I advertised for a guitarist for a band that was going to be called Blown Cones, but actually became The Room.
First we auditioned a lad who later became a member of Dead or Alive. I think he eventually had something to do with writing their big hit. He was young and very enthusiastic but he had three basic flaws. First off, bald guitarists were just too out there a concept for us back then. Second, he liked every crap new wavy Liverpool band on the recent Street to Street compilation. An important feature for any wannabe Blown Cone was going to be bitter hatred of all competition. Third, he had a bloody saxophone. O51 had used one of those unholy instruments but we came to the conclusion that, with a few notable exceptions (Roxy Music and David Bowie) there was no place for one of those monstrosities in popular or, as was to prove the case, unpopular music of any sort. Baker Street or anything by Essential Logic will attest to this.
We tried out rookies on a new dirge we'd written called Waiting Room, and this degenerate actually suggested playing his filthy saxomophone instead of guitar. The air grew frosty. So when Robyn Odlum turned up sans sax, but with a guitar amp that made weird throbbing noises, we ignored the fact he was a bit of a hippie and asked him to join. He'd often cycle round to rehearsals in his pyjamas with a cup of tea in his hand. That's how laid back he was. We had a drummer left over from 051, so after a couple of rehearsals and a name change to the more sober sounding The Room we did our first gig at legendary Liverpool club Eric's.
But drummers were scarce and fickle back then and likely to be lured away by other more popular bands. We gigged around the northwest, shedding drummers, and then found Clive Thomas, fresh from the South African merchant navy. He too was a hippie. But he had his own van and could play like a bastard.
There was a certain amount of interest in our early demos. Chas De Whalley at CBS thought we might be part of a new psychedelia thing (think Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen). We weren't sure that we were. In the summer of 1980 we travelled down to Eel Pie studios to record two songs with Rikki Sylvan of Rikki and The Last Days on Earth infamy. We cut our first single - Motion/Waiting Room - in 3 hours flat. Someone had bet Rikki he couldn't do it. EG music and Fiction both showed an interest in the band around this time, and a strange bloke put us in a studio out in the country somewhere. He tried to get us to sign a management deal with him before he'd give us a copy of the tape. But luckily, the engineers were hippies and let us go back and hastily remix the stuff once he'd gone. These songs and others were released at the end of the year as a cassette album, Bitter Reaction, simultaneously with the single on our own label, Box Records.
Peel liked our stuff and played four tracks off the cassette as a session. He gave out our address on the radio and interested punters sent money, stamps and begging letters. For a while, before we discovered tape copiers, we dubbed them all ourselves, direct from Robyn's reel to reel. I first got to know my friend and sometime collaborator Joe McKechnie (then with The Passage) when he called round to our Prince's Gate HQ to buy a cassette. We played our first London gig at the Moonlight Club in Hampstead and became friendly with the promoter, Dave Kitson, who offered to include a track by us on the first of two Moonlight compilations alongside such luminaries as Patrick Fitzgerald, Artery and The Decorators.
So began an endless succession of motorway café stops and sound checks in dingy black-painted rooms that stank of disinfectant. In July 1981 we released a second single on Box Records - Bated Breath/In Sickness and in Health - and played the Futurama festival, and loads more Moonlight gigs with bands like Blurt, Essential Logic and Artery. We gigged with the proto goth Dead or Alive several times and I struck up a friendship with Martin, their cool as fuck, one-fingered organist whose long page boy haircut Pete Burns still pays tribute to today. We were on our way back from a gig with them at Liverpool's Royal Court on the sweltering July night that the Toxteth riots began.
Clive and Robyn had their own odd job service. Since the van we usually used for gigs was being repaired, we had loaded our gear into their gardening truck and were sitting in the open air, reflecting on our glorious performance and looking forward to our imminent tour of the west coast of the USA, when a brick whistled past Becky's ear. When we arrived at our flat facing Prince's Park Gates there were riot police waiting. Next morning our cab passed the smouldering rubble of The Rialto, a carpet warehouse which had been a dance hall in the forties and fifties, and where my parents first met each other.
Robyn and Clive were the relaxed members of the group, whereas Becky and I got to be the uptight ones. Clive was so laid back that he forgot to check he had a visa to get into the States, and nearly got deported before we got through customs. Luckily, the estimable Stringer family came to the rescue. Our tour of the States in July and August 1981 went well. Becky's sister, Helen, lived in San Francisco and had organised the whole thing. This more than compensated for her being the saxophone player in 051. We played our first gig at The American Indian Centre supporting The Fall (possibly my favourite band ever and certainly my favourite then) and that evening we played at a party at the Mabuhay Gardens. Then we did five nights in LA and got a write up in the LA Times. Along the way, we ran into a bloke we'd seen playing with Captain Beefheart's band when they'd played Liverpool earlier that year. Eric Drew Feldman plays with Frank Black now, I think. He offered to travel with us up north to Seattle and Vancouver and find us places to stay and joined us onstage at a strip joint called Gary Taylor's Rock Room and played weird noises on a souped-up casio keyboard. The club promoter had even hired a mobile recording studio to record the gig. He must've mistaken us for a group with a future.
Back in the UK, we played an ICA Rock Week and did our first proper Peel session in October. We recorded everything so fast that the normally strict Dale Griffin let us do an extra song. I think he was impressed that we had a drummer who could actually play. We gigged constantly and got a reputation for being 'intense' live. Sadly we never quite managed to reproduce this live intensity in the recording studio with either incarnation of the band. We supported Nico at Heaven and (after being asked twice) Bauhaus and Southern Death Cult. At the time, we were dead against fancy-dress bands, and were appalled to see that Pete Murphy and company wandered around in pullovers and slacks backstage before transforming into Bella Bowies for the show.
Our first proper album, Indoor Fireworks, was recorded at Southern Studios early in 1982 and released in the April of that year on Dave Kitson's new label Red Flame. John Peel loved the companion single Things Have Learnt to Walk that Ought to Crawl and played it frequently. It even got played on Peter Powell's early evening show. Peel invited us to do another session, not quite as good as the previous one.
After a gig supporting The Fall and The Birthday Party at Hammersmith Palais we were approached by a young keyboard whiz called Peter Baker, who managed to convince us we needed his services. He'd been playing in a band called The Balcony (affectionately known as The Baloney in our parts). Becky and I were unsure at first - keyboards had always seemed a bit prog rock to us. But we auditioned him and were pleasantly surprised to find that his prodigious skill on the ivories transferred to our two and three chord stylings rather well.
He arrived at our next recording session drunk on brandy, and put down the synth parts to One Hundred Years and The Whole World Sings on the first take, before falling asleep on the mixing room couch. We began touring with Peter and he slotted perfectly into our live shows, giving us more tonal depth and an extra jolt of wild adrenalin. But a few months down the line Robyn and Clive decided that they wanted to quit the band. We weren't quite breaking through in terms of record sales, and although the album had received some good reviews, we'd probably got as much as we were going to out of that line up. The first incarnation of The Room played its last gig together at Liverpool Warehouse just before Christmas 1982.
The next version of The Room was a very different band. The first line-up had been built around Clive's percussive wizardry and Robyn's Wem Copycat, back to basics primitivism. The new version featured the jazzier drumming of Alan Wills, frenetic guitar melodies from Paul Cavanagh (ex Ludus) and Peter Baker's lush organ, synth and piano frippery.
One Hundred Years and The Whole World Sings were released in early 1983 as a double A-side, but only the first song survived into the new repertoire. We tried out our new set on a tour of Holland early in the year, and at a gig supporting The Go-Betweens at the Ace in Brixton. The new stuff was quite jazzy, reflecting Paul Cavanagh's temporary preoccupation with that genre and my own (perhaps misguided) desire to be a 'proper' singer like Sinatra, Mel Torme or Chet Baker. There were other influences like Can and DAF creeping into the music as well. We went into Amazon Studios and recorded six self-produced songs which became the mini LP Clear! We went a bit mad in the studio and threw everything but the kitchen sink into the mix - vibra-slap, cabassa, drum loops. We even had trumpet/trombone player, Phil Lucking join us on the session. It was the very height of lush. Camp as a row of tents, one might even say. A&R types loved it.
Round this time, Virgin's new label 10 Records took an interest in us and offered to sign Dave Kitson's entire label to its roster. Clear! hit the racks in late 1983 before the contracts had even been finalised. The music papers were generally less than enthusiastic. Bill Black of The Loft and The Wishing Stones gave us a thorough drubbing in one review, but then he may have had a point. We overstretched. Still, at least we aimed our sights higher than the half-arsed Weather Prophets tribute band that supported Benny Profane years later at Dingwalls.
We were given money to buy new equipment. Uneasy about some of the over-the-top piano and synthesiser stuff on Clear! we decided it would be a good idea to buy Peter an electric organ. We began writing songs in earnest, and where our early efforts with the new line-up had resulted in a somewhat contrived fusion of styles, we started to develop a more organic approach - a style of our own, you might say. Then we started getting good reviews in the music papers. Neil Taylor raved about our gig supporting John Foxx at the Dominion in November in the NME, and Chris Roberts enthused about our ICA Rock Week performance. This was funny, since that night we signed a management deal with Dave Kitson's friend John Reid. John managed the Townhouse studios and a couple of producers, as well as one hit wonders King Trigger. He was going to turn us into a pop sensation but we got off to a bad start. Alan ordered snakebite at the posh restaurant where Reid took us to celebrate signing the deal. He seemed oddly upset by this and later stormed off without speaking to us after the gig, unimpressed by Alan's lack of stage discipline. When we got good reviews for the show, Reid was even more put out. Alarm bells should have started ringing.
We went into a studio called Strong Box to record New Dreams For Old as a single with a guy called Andy Gray who'd just done some stuff with the Pale Fountains. That didn't work out. Next came John Porter, drum machines and all. We chose him because we liked the sound he got on This Charming Man by The Smiths, and we believed all the back-to-basics hype. In fact, according to John Porter, there are no live drums on the entire first Smiths album. We then began recording In Evil Hour and refused to let John Porter play any bass. We also insisted in keeping Alan as our drummer, and he got his chance in the studio when we managed to get Tom Verlaine (ex Television) to finish the sessions.
First day in the studio, recording Calloused Hands, Tom Verlaine took the engineer to task about the way he wanted to record the drums: 'Your sounds are all shit. Get better ones or I'll do the engineering myself.' Cool. We were going to have live drums and that was that. And Tom, not a man to suffer fools gladly, encouraged Alan rather than attempting to intimidate him into giving good performances. Most of our recording with Tom was done from late afternoon through to the early hours of the morning. He didn't get up till lunchtime, and then would breakfast on an entire block of ice cream. Even cooler. Recording Jackpot Jack was a joy, and we even managed to get Tom to sing backing vocals on the chant at the end.
In Evil Hour was released to largely positive, some rapturous reviews in November 1984. We did Janice Long and Saturday Live sessions and even appeared on Whistle Test playing a breakneck version of A Shirt of Fire. We toured with the Red Guitars and the redoubtable Violent Femmes and were really starting to build up a head of steam. We even did a few dates with Tom Verlaine. All this and at Christmas we got sent bottles of champagne by Virgin.
Early in the New Year Dave Kitson phoned me up. He said he had some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that Virgin/10 had dropped the entire Red Flame label. The good was that he thought he could get the rights to our recordings back. In the meantime, once the current pressing of In Evil Hour had sold, it would be deleted. But not to worry, he had a plan. This was to release our nine minute Saturday Live session version of Jackpot Jack as a single with three tracks from the Janice Long session as the flipside. At least we were eligible for the indie charts. Cool.
After we released Jackpot Jack, we continued to play live and record new songs for a new album. We even did our best Peel session yet, and sold out the Marquee at Easter, and I began to get drunker in performances. When Alan burnt his hand throwing water on a chip pan fire, Joe McKechnie covered for him, supporting Killing Joke. We must've rocked hard because the roadies loved us. But the band was unravelling. About this time Alan experienced a family tragedy, and Paul and I began to fall out over stuff. We decided to disband in the summer of 1985 and played our last gig at Liverpool's Haig Building. We never tried to foster an image with the band, and were never signed to a hip label. I guess that's partly why we slipped between the floorboards. By the time Creation and C86 came along we were already history.
Shortly after this Becky and I recruited Joe McKechnie and Robyn Surtees for our next band, Benny Profane. That band lasted two albums and five years until we became Dust in 1990, and then Dead Cowboys in 1994. Dead Cowboys have just recorded their second album. Their first, Comings and Goings was released on The Viper Label in 2000.
Alan Wills was in The Wild Swans and is currently the power behind the Deltasonic label, home of The Coral. Apparently he's worth a considerable amount of money. Before that, he and Paul Cavanagh had a band called Top. Paul also played with It's Immaterial and Gloss at one time or another. He's currently managing Liverpool bands I hope he makes lots of money too. Peter Baker has guested from time to time with Benny Profane, Dust and Dead Cowboys. He's currently living in Australia, playing and teaching classical piano. The last I heard of Robyn Odlum he'd gone to live in Antigua. Clive Thomas opened a restaurant in Bath.