From Far Away to Shetland...

From Far Away to Shetland: Revolver Story 1979-1980

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The pre-history of Revolver begins with a conversation about the BBC historical drama Edward the Seventh starring Timothy West during a class at Hereford Comprehensive school, Grimsby in, I think, 1976. At any rate that is the first conversation I remember between me and Mike Anderson, though it could well be that this is simply the first one that stuck in my mind, despite the rather unmemorable potential of the subject manner. I can’t remember what class we were in, or indeed which classes we shared in common. I’m not even that sure about the year, though we were certainly friends by the time of the great wave of school student strikes that rocked the nation, including somewhat surprisingly Grimsby, during the jubilee summer of 1977. ‘It’s gone to your head all this, hasn’t it’? I recall Mike saying to me, accurately, as I lit an Embassy No6 Kingsize in the school hall immediately prior to an address by a suddenly powerless looking Headmaster. Maybe, as often happens in life, my memory serves only to make me more central to outside events than I really was.We both left school in the summer of 1978. I’m not sure if I would have regarded Mike as my best friend at this point, but he soon became so after Neil and Al, the other two contenders for this not exactly coveted role, quickly departed for Oxford (the car plant, not the university), and the army respectively. We took to hanging out together most evenings, either at mine or his, listening to football on the radio, playing subbuteo and darts and developing a shared, catch-phrase strewn humour that would often reduce the pair of us to a state of uninhibited hilarity.

We were both Beatles fans, but music did not play a particularly strong role in our friendship during this early period.  This being the case, I’m not quite sure why, in January 1979, I decided to suggest to Mike that we form a band. It’s true that I had owned a guitar since 1977, purchased from old Jack Wattam’s second-hand shop (or ‘junk’ shop as we would have called it at the time) on Corporation Rd; and I had even had a sort of pretend group called Moonshine at around that time, with the aforementioned Neil and his sister Elaine. The three of us took assumed names: Neil became Johnny Starr; Elaine Peggy Sue; and I, rather more originally, Antwan Moonbeam. But we never got so far as to attempt to write an actual song, and by January of 1979 I still did not know more than a handful of basic chords on the guitar, let alone how to properly tune the thing.

Mike had even less musical ability, and yet he readily agreed to my idea. There were even, it occurs to me now as I write, a few musical experiments with Mike and Al on my dad’s old reel to reel Truvox tape recorder in my bedroom in Newsham Drive on the Yarborough Estate before the idea of forming a band crystallised in my young mind. These long lost sessions could even to be said to be the true Genesis of the Revolver.

 The name Revolver came quickly in January 1979, and probably came from Mike. From the off, we were clearly going to wear our influences unashamedly out in the open. I believe ‘Truvox’ was one of the names we half-seriously considered before the final decision was made.

 Before long, with the kind of fearlessness that comes only with the naivety of youth, we were hard at work on our first ‘album’, which was to be recorded straight onto Mike’s mono cassette recorder. From the beginning, we were ultra-Lo Fi by necessity, though we would not then have been aware of the phrase.

Our main method of working at this time was either for me to make up a basic song including lyrics whilst strumming rudimentary and not always appropriate chords on my semi-acoustic guitar, or, more usually, for Mike to make up a melody and lyrics acapella, to which I would then add a basic musical accompaniment on guitar, with Mike sometimes adding an improvised harmonica or stylophone part. At this time, no family was complete without the Rolf Harris endorsed Stylophone somewhere within it. The instrument was dubbed the ‘pocket organ’, but we rather more grandly thought of it as our version of a synthesiser. Mike could play this instrument no more than he could play the harmonica, but its presence does add a certain naive charm to some of our early songs.

Revolver One was completed in March 1979 and kicks off with a song called ‘Far Away’, which was rather obviously overly-influenced both melodically and lyrically by the Beatles ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. Other ‘highlights’ included a cod Elvis ballad sung by me called ‘Recommend my Love’ (I was a big fan of Jumpsuit period Elvis at this time, a passion that Mike didn’t exactly share), a rather premature anti-drugs anthem called ‘Pill Pusher’ (at a time when, apart from cigarettes and alcohol, the strongest drug we’d tried was ProPlus), and the rather strange ‘Welcome to Planet Earth’ with its call and response refrain ‘Welcome to Planet Earth/Take me to your Leader’, a rather tuneless dirge that we were still persevering with at the height of our powers a year and a half later. For the record, the only other song to make it all the way from One to our ‘Ten’ finale 17 months later was ‘Shake It All Over.’       

            From the beginning, writing our own songs was our primary focus. We were never particularly interested in practicing our instruments, or in the kind of improvised jamming much beloved by ‘real’ musicians. Nor were we that interested in learning a stock of ‘classic’ songs, though there were a small number of cover versions that we revisited throughout our musical history, ‘C’mon Everybody’ by Eddie Cochran, ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Run for your Life’ by the Beatles, Chuck Berry’s Rock ‘n’ Roll music’, which we again knew mainly through the Beatles version. These songs were great fun to play, though with the possible exception of the first named we did not perform any of them with a great degree of either accuracy or finesse.

Revolver Two and Revolver Three followed within a few weeks of Revolver One, without any noticeable improvement in musical ability or song-writing skills. In fact, with a mere two exceptions, Three consisted solely of bad cover versions. This cassette did at least contain the original song ‘I Know I’m Gonna Die’, which was a sort of pastiche of late-sixties psychedelia, at least lyrically, and was the second tune from our first three cassettes to make it right through to the end.

If Two and Three were creatively treading water, then Revolver Four represented a Great Leap Forward of almost Chinese proportions.

            The improvement was, it seems to me, down to four main reasons. Firstly, Mike’s guitar playing: Mike had purchased an inexpensive solid body, electric six string soon after our formation; and Four represented the first time that he made a genuine, if basic guitar contribution. Secondly, my own guitar playing had progressed at this point to the level where I could utilise barre chords, or at least one ‘E’ shape, root 6 barre chord which could then be moved up and down the neck of the instrument. It has to be said though that my tender young hand-muscles were not yet up to the task of sustaining the use of such chords through an entire song, and consequently you can actually hear my playing become more muted and percussive as certain songs progress. The third reason was simply the quality of the songs. A quick glance through the running order for Four reveals titles like ‘Follow that Van’, ‘Can I Take the Weight’ and ‘It’s My Life’, which we continued to develop, and which wound up on our Revolver Ten high-water-mark. One song, ‘Bill and Ben’, which was a kind of homage to Up the Junction by Squeeze with amusing, and in some cases highly self-referential lyrics, didn’t make it to Revolver Ten, but we did return to it, in funked up form, during our final sessions together, under the name of Roctober, as late as 1987. The fourth reason for our improvement was that we actually spent time working on the songs rather than recording them the moment that they were finished. This can be seen by the fact that were-as One through Three were recorded in at most two or three evenings, Revolver Four was recorded over a period spanning two months, between April and June 1979. 

            None of the above is to suggest a slick finished product. We are still talking raw stuff here. Nonetheless, looking back from the vantage point of wizened middle-age, the improvement from the time of our beginnings a more mere five months earlier is marked. And at the time we were very proud of it.

             Revolver Five represented a consolidation of the gains made on Four, rather than a breaking of new ground. It did however contain one new song it, ‘Today’, which became a big favourite, and would survive throughout Mike and I’s time of making music together. It also included the historical curio that is ‘I Really Love You.’ On this, Mike played the keyboards, as well as sang. He cites this as the first occasion on which he played an instrument ‘properly’, without making it up as he went along. As I had nothing to do with either the writing or recording of this track, we joked at the time that it was our version of the Beatles ‘Yesterday’.

            It’s difficult to covey, from a distance of, incredibly, more than three decades, the sheer fun that Mike and I had in those days. Being the Revolver wasn’t just about the writing and recording of songs, there was the shared sense of humour too, the catchphrases and the in-jokes. I won’t repeat any of these here, in many cases their origins are now hardly remembered by us, and would certainly not be comprehensible to anyone else. A few of them make an appearance during between songs chat that enlivens some of the cassettes. As Mike himself has said recently, the Revolver was not a part of any scene or movement, we were definitely not a ‘Grimsby band’ in any sense other than the purely geographical, not that there was much of a culture of bands playing original music in Grimsby at this time anyway. We sort of existed in our own little, self-contained world. It wasn’t that we were without ambition. In fact, our ambition was boundless, ‘Famous Soon!’ being one of the sayings that we uttered on a more or less daily basis, and not entirely in jest.

            There was often a fair amount of drinking involved in our recording sessions, though not always; the real heavy drinking came later in our Roctober period. Our alcohol use at this time, 1979-1980, was I believe mostly confined to beer, cider, Clan Dew and Scotsmac. Two cassettes that show us at work clearly under the influence are ‘Christmas 1979’ and Revolver Six. Here, the standard of playing has clearly improved further from Four and Five, but there is a nice, loose, almost proto-grunge-like quality to these recordings, which also give some indication of the fun we were having.

‘Christmas 1979’ was recorded in my parents living room in after the two of them had gone out for the evening. It includes a very raw, near eighteen minute version of ‘Today’, which was probably more fun to play than to listen to in full. Other highlights included the song ‘Up and Down’, which we would soon re-work into the more political Say What You Feel, a song which became very much a favourite of ours.

 Revolver Six could be subtitled the ‘babysitting sessions.’ Often in those days we would be called upon to take care of my niece or nephew on behalf of one or other of my older sisters. We would take along our guitars, my little 6 Watt practice amp and Mike’s cassette player. We would spend our nights’ wages, which one of my sister’s remembers as being one whole pound, on booze, and away we would be on an evening of loud, drunken recording. We must have been the worst babysitters ever (give or take the odd Yew Tree nabbed celebrity). Our old friend Al even turned up on side one of Six, adding some excruciatingly bad vocals to a version of ‘C’mon Eveybody’, the first and last time that an outsider guested on an ‘official’ Revolver cassette.

            Six, Seven, and Eight were recorded in January and February before Mike set sail for the Shetland Isles with his mum, who was originally from that part of the world. I’m not sure at one point we became aware that this was going to happen. I certainly don’t remember any sense of recording these three tapes against the clock. Probably, we, or at least I, had relatively short notice of this coming enforced separation. It was always seen as a temporary development anyway. The long humour-packed letters that we exchanged whilst he was away contained frequent references to a date in June when he would return.

As far as Revolver Seven and Eight themselves are concerned, these are rather quiet recordings, which do however show more of the songs that were to grace Ten starting to come through, notably ‘Don’t Want Them Around’ which would soon be re-titled ‘I Want to Stay at Home.’

 Mike completed and posted off to me one solo cassette during his time in Shetland, the imaginatively titled ‘Mike Anderson in Shetland’, which shows yet more of the Ten songs at an early stage of development.

            He returned to Grimsby in June 1980 and Revolver Nine was recorded quickly. The improvement shown here by our eighteen year old selves (or as near as damn-it in my case) is huge. In fact, we had stumbled upon a whole new sound, a sound driven by some very punky, barre chord-heavy rhythm guitar from Mike, topped with sparse, loose lead guitar playing from myself. The sound is not yet quite fully developed, that would come two months later with Ten.

            Before I move on to talk about this latter cassette I would like to say a little bit about influences. This is always a difficult subject, in reality we are all of course influenced by everything around us. To say that we were influenced by this or that musically is really to do no more than to list the things that we were listening to at the time. Nonetheless, such a list can aid insight into the sort of music that we produced. The Beatles were of course an ever present, starting with the ‘Red’ and the ‘Blue’ compilations, and moving onto the albums proper. Side three of the White Album became a particular favourite. We were big fans of The Jam, more so than of any other band that came out of the Punk-New Wave era, though I certainly remember us listening to the Clash’ London Calling album, and the Sex Pistols too, although my chronological memory of precisely when we listened to these records may be a bit shaky. By 1979 in any case Punk was giving way to the more experimental and less radio friendly post-punk. If we were influenced by any of these ‘movements’ (for want of a better word) it was probably by the ‘anyone can form a band’ attitude, rather than the actual music itself.

 We were both fairly regular record buyers at this time, a time when vinyl was still king, ahead of the developing cassette market. Mostly, and due to financial necessity rather than choice, we bought singles. We both particularly loved ‘There Must Be Thousands’ (and its B-side You Gotta Jive), a little known single by a little known Birmingham band called the Quads. Probably this was discovered through John Peel’s BBC Radio One show of which we were at least semi-regular listeners. The guitar sound on the Quads single probably fed into my own style of playing in the summer of 1980. I also recall really liking John Ottoway and Wild Willy Barrett’s sole hit single ‘Cor Baby That’s Really Free’, or maybe I only liked this later and my memory is attempting to make me sound retrospectively cool. I also remember that Mike had a white-label addition of the Fabulous Dickies version of the Moody Blues ‘Night’s in White Satin. We did like a lot of the current chart stuff, but our taste was not confined to any one era, and was perhaps wider than that of the average teenager. We loved 50’s rock ‘n’ roll, particularly Eddie Cochrane (as shown by our numerous versions of ‘C’mon Everybody’.) When it came to albums, I certainly owned a copy of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume One quite early in proceedings, though unfortunately Dylan’s influence on me was most obvious in some overly-mannered vocals than in the quality of my song-writing.

Revolver Nine was completed in June 1980 and Revolver Ten in August. This cassette, as I have already indicated, represents the Best of the Revolver, featuring as it does around fifteen or sixteen tracks of short, melodic, punk-pop songs that were primarily written by Mike. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision or not to be more concise in our recordings at this time. Of the tracks that are worthy of sharing with the world, only one, ‘Today’, is longer than three minutes, and at 3.17 this is a long way from the lengthy opus of ‘Christmas 1979.’ Certainly longer versions exist of most of these songs. They are all the better for the brevity of their Ten incarnations.

 The fact that in amongst the good material on Ten there is still a certain amount of filler, remnants of an earlier era such as ‘Welcome to Planet Earth’, lyrically weak efforts such as ‘Sapphires in the Road’ (which was literally about losing a sapphire in the road) and Back to Work on Monday, show that we were not fully aware that, with the best stuff, we had found our sound. We persevered, unnecessarily, with the usual cover versions too: ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘C’mon Everybody’, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’, although there is a rather bizarrely odd version of ‘Run for your Life’ that deserves to have survived down the years. But it’s the quality of our own songs, ‘What She Wants to Be’, ‘Can I Take the Weight’, ‘Today’, ‘It’s My Life’ et al  and the enthusiastic nature of our performance of them, that make Ten still worth listening too.             

I will say something about the style of lead guitar found on this cassette, and to a lesser extent its predecessor, which is interesting to me because I only ever played that way that summer, never before and never again. At that time we had only a rudimentary knowledge of how the different component parts of a song, melody-harmony-rhythm, fitted together, and consequently my lead playing was often not strictly in tune with Mike’s playing. But if you write songs using big, bold, primary-coloured major chords, as we almost always did; and if the melody of those songs is carried almost wholly by the root note of those chords, as it almost always was in our songs, then, as long as you avoid doing anything outlandish like playing in semi-tone intervals, almost any lead guitar part you add will sound OK. If you stir into the mix a huge dollop of youthful exuberance fuelled by alcohol and delusions of genius, then there is a fair chance that it will sound rather magnificent.   

Our attempts to broaden our horizons beyond our own little musical world were limited. We did make one half-hearted attempt to recruit other musicians through an advert for a drummer and a bassist in the local newspaper, the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. We received one reply from an aging drummer (probably about thirty) who had played with an earlier band called the Revolver, and assumed that we were this band. We did not pursue this possibility further. As far as live performance went, our debut was at my sister’s wedding reception at the All Saints Hall Grimsby. This ended with us rather melodramatically throwing down our guitars after three songs, following complaints from the groom’s side of the family. In retrospect, and in fairness to the complainants, our style of music was not natural wedding party fodder. At least we got some good photographs cutesy of this gig.

Apart from that truncated performance, our forays into the live arena were confined to guest appearances with the house rock ‘n’ roll revivalist band upstairs in the Pestle and Mortar (P and M) pub. On these occasions we always played ‘C’mon Everybody’ and also sometimes Chuck Berry’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’. There were also two brief performances at the Pierhead pub in Cleethorpes, the second of which we at least had the satisfaction of having a couple of girls in tow to show off to.

I’m not sure at what point it was decided that Mike would return to Shetland, this time with me accompanying him. Mike remembers that probably talk of such a move began soon after his return to Grimsby in June. At any rate, the decision was hastened and made final by the visit of his cousin Karen and her friend Maggie, whom Mike had begun to socialise with regularly during the latter part of his first stay, in September. Both girls were attractive and intelligent with, to my young eyes, something more about them than the average Grimsby females of our age group. I don’t remember particularly agonising over the decision to go, certainly there was no process of carefully weighing pro’s against con’s. It just seemed like a great adventure which I would be a fool not to be a part of.

 Our final live performance in Grimsby as the Revolver took place with Karen and Maggie in attendance at the P and M on September 11th.

The big move was planned for early October. Of course, there had to be a song for the occasion, and ‘Shetland’ was quickly written. We had a lot of fun with the traded lyrics, as the opening verse, sung by me, will perhaps go some way to indicating:

            ‘Bags packed and ready and I’ve said my goodbyes

            Leaving home at last and I’ve broken my ties

            Got to be there at 8.43

            He’s been here before, but not with me’

Sadly, we have yet to find a surviving recording of this song from this era. Maybe we simply didn’t get around to recording it. Perhaps it was just earmarked for a Revolver Eleven tape that never was.

 On the boat from Aberdeen to Lerwick, sailing through the North Sea on a calm night on the St Clair Ferry, we got talking to the cabaret type singer whose job it was to provide the entertainment for the crossing. It turned out that he was a bit of a music fan who only did the type of stuff that he was doing on the boat in order to make a living. I remember that he mentioned Heavy Metal trio Rush as being one of his favourite bands. The end result of our conversation was that we ended up clambering onto the stage for a rather drunken, shambolic, brief and out of tune live performance.

We had big plans before we set off for Shetland. I recall that we made a list beforehand of what we would spend our forthcoming wages from the fish factory on. Mostly this consisted of musical equipment, but also in my case some outlandish rock star-style clothes. We also felt that a musical backwater such as Lerwick, a place all but starved of raw, young, melodic, thrusting rock music, would be an ideal environment for us to make a name for ourselves. From this extreme Northern springboard we could then go on to our planned world-conquest.

In fact, as far as the Revolver was concerned, that ramshackle performance in the middle of the North Sea represented an ending rather than a new beginning. Once in Lerwick our life-focus shifted to drink, to partying, to work, to women, to exploring new places and to collecting new experiences. Apart from a bit of jamming and working on a new version of Ten song Breakaway with a work colleague called Magda, our guitars remained largely untouched.

I returned to Grimsby a mere three and a half months after my departure. I can’t really remember now my motivation for doing so. Probably I was simply homesick. I was young and in many ways young for my age, not as yet fully ready to fend for myself away from the parental nest.

Mike was to remain in Shetland for over two and a half years. We stayed in touch, exchanging long, jokey letters, as well as ‘solo album’ cassettes. When we were re-united, we quickly recommenced the writing and recording of (mostly) new material. But this was under a new name, Roctober, with a new style and a (relatively) new level of musical competence and sophistication. That is another story, and one that I shall tell elsewhere.