Tunnelvision \ Biography
Active between 1980 and 1982, youthful Blackpool band Tunnelvision released just one single (Watching the Hydroplanes) on Factory Records, produced by Martin Hannett. Yet their studio demos and live tapes reveal a group of considerable promise and power.
Perhaps the most obscure of the early Factory bands, youthful Blackpool group Tunnelvision performed just seventeen gigs, cut a solitary single, and suffered the indignity of being slated as 'spineless heavy metal' by the NME. Yet as their live and demo recordings reveal, Tunnelvision had far more to offer.
The group first came together as The Pose at Blackpool Roman Catholic School early in 1979, initially to perform Clash and Buzzcocks covers. The first stable line-up comprised vocalist Chris Shea, guitarist Chris Anderton, drummer Phil Barnard and bassist Paul Swindles. As their music matured beyond primitive three-chord thrash, The Pose became Tunnelvision early in 1980, after Shea decided to leave.
Following a re-shuffle Chris Anderton took over on vocals and cast around for a suitable second guitarist, eventually settling on Andrew Leeming, a teenage protege of sage Section 25 guitarist Paul Wiggin. As a result the Sections decided to mentor Tunnelvision, much as they had earlier been mentored by Joy Division. According to future member Ian Butterworth:
"I think Section 25 felt a sort of kinship with Tunnelvision. The two groups were very different at the time, since Blackpool seemed to produce either 1-2-3-4 punk groups or spandex heavy metal bands. To be honest, the Sections felt like our big brothers."
The band performed their first gig under the new name at Jenk's Disco in Blackpool in 11 February 1980. The gig was intended as a showcase for local Blackpool punk bands, headlined by Zyklon B, fronted by future Vee VV member Mark Ormerod and soon-to-be Tunnelvision member Tony Ashworth on drums. Also on the bill was the Buzzcocks-influenced Chainz, whose line-up included bassist Ian Butterworth.
Tunnelvision stole the show - their sombre sound was slower, with ponderous bass and chiming guitars. And the opening number, Watching the Hydroplanes, was at odds with the punky pet sounds on offer from the rest of the contenders on the bill. The times were changing, and Tunnelvision had caught the darker mood of the new decade.
Hydroplanes was one of three songs that featured striking lyrics bequeathed by the departed Chris Shea, the others being Glenn Miller and Pink Pebbles. Shortly after the Jenk's gig, Barnard also left and was replaced by Tony Ashworth.
Other hometown gigs in 1980 included another show with Zyklon B at the Squire on 17 March, a date with Section 25 at the Salvation Army Citadel on May 23rd, and a Factory-flavoured outdoor all-day show at Stanley Park in August with Eric Random, Section 25 and A Certain Ratio.
On September 5th 1980, in their capacity as occasional promoters, Section 25 booked a landmark gig at Blackpool Scamps. Following the sudden demise of Joy Division six months earlier, Scamps marked the third ever live show by New Order, then still a three-piece, whose uncertain status saw them positioned at the bottom of the bill and advertised as 'New Orders'.
Tunnelvision were also invited to play. Their raw yet powerful set impressed both Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson, with the result that Tunnelvision were invited to record a single for Factory. Given that most collectors know Tunnelvision only for the two songs released as Fac 39, the Scamps set is worth listing in full for posterity: Let's Sing; Hollow Men; Morbid Fear; Glenn Miller; I Never Promised You This; Old Comrades; This is a Time for Building; Hydroplanes.
Within weeks a four-song demo tape was recorded at Cargo Studios, Rochdale, engineered by John Brierley, showcasing Morbid Fear, Hydroplanes, Glenn Miller and Old Comrades. All four songs were strong, although Factory expressed a preference for Hydroplanes as the single, Wilson discerning in it 'a great techno ballad'.
Shortly after the first Cargo session bassist Paul Swindles departed, and was replaced by Ian Butterworth. Hydroplanes and Morbid Fear were subsequently remixed from the demo by Martin Hannett in January 1981 at Britannia Row in London (Pink Floyd's studio), where Section 25 were recording their debut album.
Tunnelvision saw out 1980 with hometown gigs at the Mardi Gras on 11 December, a Christmas party thrown by Section 25 at JR's Bar on December 29th, followed by a new year date with English Waste at the Calypso Bar on January 8th. Ashworth recalls the problems faced by young bands in Blackpool at this time:
"The gig at the Calypso Bar was cancelled on the night because the manager was convinced that we were a 'punk' band. However the gig went ahead when a compromise was reached allowing us the use of the Horseshoe Bar next door. The venue was larger and subsequently turned out to be a more successful gig. A further gig in Blackpool, at the Norbreck Castle, was less successful. We were booked to support Pylon, from Athens, Georgia, but after the soundcheck we were once again informed by the manager that we would not be permitted to play, and were refused an explanation. Also of note around this time we were asked by a local promoter to support Music for Pleasure at the 007 Club, owned by Brian London (an ex-heavyweight boxing champion). We refused to play as we were offered just £10 as expenses."
On March 1st 1981 Tunnelvision returned to Cargo to record a second four-song demo, again engineered by John Brierley and later re-mixed by Peter Hook of New Order. 100 Men, Whitened Sepulchre, Guessing the Way and The Man Who Would Be King evidenced giant steps in terms of creative sophistication, and reflected the fact that the group now felt sufficiently confident to use the studio creatively.
On March 27th Tunnelvision played their first gig outside their home town as support to New Order at Bristol Trinity Hall. This superb set comprised: The Man Who Would be King; Guessing the Way; The Blue; Hollow Men; Emotionless; Glenn Miller; Whitened Sepulchre; 100 Men and Hydroplanes. The Man Who Would Be King was reprised as an encore, and stands as arguably their strongest number.
Although Butterworth was struck by a bottle and taken to Bristol Infirmary, Tunnelvision's enthusiasm for supporting New Order was undimmed, and following a date at Sheffield Romeo and Juliet's on 22 April (returning home via Snake Pass in a blizzard) played their London debut at the Kentish Town Forum on 6 May. Unfortunately the gig was reviewed by the NME in disparaging terms:
"The first two groups - Safehouse, and Tunnelvision - on New Order's second ever London show, came across as pale and derivative echoes of another time and another group. And I wasn't the only person in Kentish Town's gothic Irish ballroom to think so: I lost count of the number of times I overheard the observation that "all these groups sound just like Joy Division".
"Tunnelvision, Factory's latest sons, were marginally better. Another quartet, they too rely on harsh, guitar-laden assault, though their chords are choppier, their bass rhythms chunkier. But there are still far too many uncomfortable echoes of their obvious mentors, Joy Division. The majority of their songs open with the all-too familiar sombre bassline, later underpinned by that jagged, regulated snare drum. These mechanics and dynamics, once so devastatingly used by JD, have been successfully incorporated by other groups - take a listen to Positive Noise's 'Ghosts' single for proof of that. But wholesale imitation simply winds up sounding like spineless heavy metal, devoid of punch or passion."
The unkindest cut came a month later, when NME reviewed the much-delayed Fac 39 single:
"At the New Order gig at Kentish Town's Forum the aptly named Tunnelvision tortured the entire audience with their stunningly inept imitations of the bill-toppers, playing for so long that scores of people had to miss their last buses and tubes."
Immediately after the Forum gig (but ahead of the scathing reviews), guitarist Andy Leeming elected to return to Blackpool, apparently phased by the prospect of sleeping in a hotel bedroom. As a result the second London date, at the Tabernacle the following evening, was performed as a three piece.
Watching the Hydroplanes (Fac 39) was finally released in June 1981. Housed in an attractive green and silver sleeve designed by Martyn Atkins, the first 10,000 copies were pressed (on 7" only) in clear vinyl. The reviews were predictable, and uniformly poor. Only Melody Maker offered feint praise, reviewing the single in tandem with Je Veux Ton Amour by Section 25:
"On dark, windy nights the ghost of Joy Division stalks the corridors of this column. To be fair, the Tunnelvision effort has a certain naive charm. (Patronising? I wouldn't know how to be). But if Section 25 think that going Frog will disguise how horrendously boring they are they've got another think coming."
Despite such negative press the single managed a strong showing in the independent chart, and after the first run sold out was re-pressed on black vinyl, going on to sell a further 6,000 copies. By their own account, however, Factory barely broke even. Indeed the band were unable even to claw back publishing mechanicals, since membership of the MCPS then required that a minimum of three songs should be commercially available.
Following the Tabernacle gig Anderton, Butterworth and Ashworth elected to continue as a three-piece, and afterwards opened for bandaged Canadian violin weirdo Nash the Slash at Liverpool Brady's. However, a week before what should have been a triumphant hometown gig at Blackpool JR's Bar in July, drummer Tony Ashworth elected to sell his drum kit and purchase a guitar. As a result this and subsequent gigs were performed with a drum machine, which removed much of the solid drive and power which had made previous Tunnelvision performances so compelling. Ashworth:
"My decision to change from live drums to a drum machine was influenced by the upsurge in electronic bands at the time. On reflection this was a mistake, and acted as a catalyst for the band's demise."
Despite this setback, Tunnelvision completed a string of dates late in 1981, at Preston Warehouse (September 3rd, with the Mau Maus), Manchester Gallery (October 1st, with Stockholm Monsters), Blackpool Gaiety Bar (November, again with the Mau Maus) and the Sheffield Library Theatre (also November).
Although no further demos or desk-recorded live tapes were made, rough recordings of a number of late period Tunnelvision compositions survive, such as Eyes, I Don't Need You Anymore and The Crack. Tunnelvision's last live stand was a short and intermittently shambolic set at London venue Heaven in January 1982. Butterworth:
"The last gig was at Heaven, where we knew that it just wasn't happening without a proper drummer behind us. Nor had the Blackpool JR's gig been a good homecoming. Through nerves the three of us got smashed beforehand."
Although new drummer Gaz Evans (previously with local band Incident) was auditioned in February 1982, the new line-up fell apart after just one rehearsal. In announcing the split, Blackpool Rox fanzine reported that Ashworth and Evans intended to carry on as Tunnelvision, and were rumoured to be sending a demo to Factory. However nothing came of this.
"Looking back I think we were too young (with an average age of 18) to understand the workings and politics involved in a record label, particularly one like Factory. Communication was the problem in the end." (Butterworth)
"That's probably the reason we never did a second single, which would probably have been Glenn Miller. Rather than pushing for it, we just sat back and waited for it to be handed to us on a plate. But it never was." (Anderton)
Anderton and Butterworth went on to form Vee VV, together with Mark Ormrod, Martin Reynolds and Dave Milner. Initially influenced by post-punk funkers such as A Certain Ratio, 23 Skidoo and The Pop Group, the band recorded a spirited flexi (Love Canal) for Blam! fanzine, before releasing a 7" on Cathexis (Kindest Cut), a 12" ep on Vinyl Drip (Boom Slump), and a six track mini album on Payola (Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness). According to Butterworth:
"Vee VV was slightly more together and gained popularity quite quickly - Peel, label interest, a move to London, gigs with Stone Roses and New Order. But I left in '86 after supporting My Bloody Valentine at Manchester Boardwalk. After Madchester took off Vee VV were no more."
Prior to joining Vee VV, Ormrod and Reynolds had formed Bossa Nova with ex-Tunnelvision members Chris Shea and Paul Swindles, although the project seems to have been shortlived. In 2001 Butterworth joined a tentative reformation of Section 25, which would eventually result in a string of well-received lives shows around Europe in 2006, and a new studio album.
Remarkably, in 2003 Tunnelvision reformed around a nucleus of Anderton, Ashworth and Butterworth, and played their first gig at Ashton Gardens in Blackpool on 15 August. In March 2005 a limited edition CD single was released, featuring three strong new songs: Anyday, Where Was I and Stones. The group also performed at the Beat Club in Blackpool supporting Section 25. Although this project went no further, Anderton and Ashworth have continued to record as Form.
March 2005 (updated 2007)
Note: a single (I'm Gonna Cry) released on the Octave label in 1985 by a rock band also called Tunnelvision has no connection whatsoever with the group behind Fac 39.