BORN TOO SOON
The rock'n'roll odyssey of The Jellyheads
We were on a bus, that's definite. It was probably a Thursday morning, because on Thursdays we had Quantitative Methods at 11 o'clock, which was a sort of super-maths taught by a lecturer with the World's Most Monotone Voice, and was almost impossible to stay awake in. So more often than not, we'd all skip the lecture and jump on the No.3 bus from Sighthill into Edinburgh, either for a few pints at the Athletic Arms (an old-man's pub near the Hearts football ground, situated directly between the Tennents brewery and a graveyard, and hence known to all its customers as Diggers) or into the city centre with its cornucopia of arcades and record shops. The brewery supposedly piped its gorgeous but lethal 80-Shilling "heavy" directly from the vats to the Diggers bar pumps, so it wasn't all that uncommon for the trip back to campus, or on into town, to be enlivened by some excellent ideas made all the cleverer by the influence of the smooth, creamy brew.
So someone said "Hey, why don't we form a band and play at the Union all-nighter on Friday?", and nobody had the basic sense to point out that this was clearly a really stupid idea, since none of us could sing for Assorted Toffos and - because of the relative difficulties of learning various instruments from scratch in 24 hours - the only one of us who had even a serviceable command of guitar-playing would actually have to be the drummer.
And that's how it came to pass that a day later, your intrepid reporter strapped on a bass guitar (hastily bought from a chum for a fiver that morning, and with only three strings) for the very first time in his life, in his kitchen a few hours before the start of the gig, and found himself hurriedly, and excitedly, trying to learn the bassline to "Holidays In The Sun".
The Jellyheads (nee Fuckwitts) perform their legendary impression of the Forth Bridge.
Your reporter is third from the left, just in case you hadn't figured it out.
It wasn't until a bit later, with showtime fast approaching, that the butterflies started. In that brief moment of clarity between the third and fourth cans of Red Stripe, suddenly the flaws in the plan seemed all too obvious. We had a singer who couldn't sing and didn't know the words anyway, a bassist who wasn't 100% sure which way up you were supposed to hold it or what any of the notes were called, and a guitarist whose mastery of that tricky second chord was still at a delicate juncture. And we were on in 10 minutes.
But a funny thing happens when you step up onto a stage. The part of your brain responsible for the message "What the hell are you doing? Get out of here before you go and make a total arse of yourself!" is suddenly over-ruled by the part that's in charge of saying "Look, we're standing up here with microphones and amps and instruments, therefore logically we MUST know what we're doing. Let's rock!".
So we did.
It should go without saying that we were dreadful. Reports from the audience later told of a cacophonous, haphazard din; of a singer who dropped the scrap of paper he'd written the words of "You Trip Me Up" on and had to hastily improvise by replacing most of them with "FUCK!" and "AARRGH!", and spent most of "Waxie's Dargle" smashing himself on the head with a beer tray instead of singing (because that's what you did); of rhythm sections playing the chorus while the lead guitar played the verse and vice versa. Oh, the humanity!
But hey, what did they expect? We were called "The Fuckwitts", after all (in tribute to the legendary Viz character Terry of the same name). It's not as if we hadn't warned them. The point was, we'd had the time of our lives. We hadn't had to listen to us (we were too busy concentrating, and throwing impressive rock shapes), so the technical shortcomings of the performance had pretty much gone over our heads. We were aglow with the raw, throbbing spirit of rock'n'roll. We had to do this again.
The only known surviving footage of the seminal debut (and only) performance by The Fuckwitts.
(Your hard-rockin' correspondent is at the far left, partly obscured by singer Zombie Keith.)
Of course, if we were going to be a proper band, we couldn't do that playing other people's songs. So the following week, back in the Union, we sat down to come up with some toe-tapping hits of our own. We'd already realised we'd never get on Top Of The Pops as The Fuckwitts, so had hastily scanned the same issue of Viz and settled on The Jellyheads, as the lime-jelly-brained, "completely useless" star seemed most in keeping with our talents. Mourning the demise of our inspiration Terry, though, we sought a way to commemorate him, and thought of writing a song called "Terry Fuckwitt Is Dead". But then someone had an idea which was - well, "better" isn't really the right word.
It was late 1987, and the news still frequently covered the story of the Church Of England peace envoy Terry Waite, who'd been kidnapped in Beirut at the start of the year. The bearded Brian-Blessed-lookalike God-botherer hadn't been heard of since, and, as cynical young men, we decided that he must surely have been murdered by his evil fundamentalist captors. There were enthusiastic contributions from everyone who happened to be hanging around the Union at the time, but the song pretty much wrote itself.
"Terry / Was kidnapped by the crazies / And now / He's pushing up the daisies", it began, and frankly went downhill from there in pretty much every sense. In the end, we had so many lyrics for "Terry Waite Is Dead" that we made two songs out of it with the same primitive punk-rock tune - one (using the best of the lyrics) to open our fledgling set, and "Terry Waite Is Still Dead" for the closer. Fame, outrage and controversy surely awaited us. All we needed now was some songs to put in the middle.
We've got it - On Tape.
Guitarist Louis and myself sat down in his room with an acoustic guitar and (in between games of Voidrunner on the Spectrum) sketched out a few tunes, mostly by taking riffs from songs by popular bands of the time like The Shop Assistants and Pop Will Eat Itself and changing one of the notes. Our singer Keith supplied the lyrics - generally dark, sub-Cure goth poetry about death and/or doomed relationships, which was slightly odd as he was happily dating a pretty and rather nice girl called Susan at the time.
Via the mysterious and mystical power of something apparently called "jamming", we even managed to come up with a couple of relatively sophisticated numbers, ones where the bass and guitar weren't just playing the same melody line as each other. (One of them, the gloomy, epic, goth ballad "Why Aren't You Laughing?" - the title swiped from a frame from Alan Moore's fantastic Batman mini-comic "The Killing Joke" - was mooted to be our first single, complete with cover stolen straight from the comic, since we figured nobody would notice. Unfortunately we never quite managed to get the £600 that would have been required to press 500 copies of a 7" single together, and much later we found out that in any event I'd accidentally nicked most of the tune from a New Order b-side none of us had heard before.) Suddenly we had a set - now it was time to hone it to perfection.
The "jamming" had been achieved in some rehearsal rooms we'd hired at the bottom of Niddry Street, just off Edinburgh's stately Royal Mile. The rooms themselves were just a state - described as "studios", they were more like damp subterranean caverns hacked roughly out of the bare rock, with electricity rather hazardously wired in. Then again, at 30 quid for a whole day, including the hire of a PA system and a drumkit, there weren't many grounds for complaint. (Except for the time we came out of the studios to find a river of raw, nauseating liquid sewage running down the hill, which we had to leap athletically over while trying urgently not to throw up, but that's another story.)
The rudimentary nature of our songs, coupled with the fact that we were sober, saw us get a 10-song set into presentable shape surprisingly quickly, helped by the fact that the only musically-skilled member of the band was fortuitously our drummer Pete, which provided a solid foundation for everyone else to wobble around on. (A good drummer is the only really indispensable member of a band - if you can keep time, you can bluff everything else. Just say you're "avant-garde".) People came from the Union to see us practice, and remarked "Wow, I thought you were really shit, but you're actually alright." A few weeks later there was another all-nighter at the Union, and with the help of such glowing references and a professionally-recorded demo tape of our first two songs (and despite our previous performance), we managed to get ourselves added to the bill.
What would have been the cover of our first single. The opening lines of the lyric were
"My hair melts and runs into my eyes/And sometimes I can't seem to move my mouth."
We like to think that the unusually-sparse attendance at that particular all-nighter wasn't solely down to the prospects of a Jellyheads set. All-nighters, after all, went on from about 7pm to 9am (three quid a ticket including a cooked breakfast in the morning - those were the days), and we'd only be on for about 20 minutes of that, with two other far more accomplished bands supporting us. (Though in an iconoclastic break with convention, we'd generously agreed to go on first and play a much shorter set than the other two acts, and let them have their names above ours on the bill.)
Nevertheless, the thought of playing to a crowd where you can individually identify each member, rather than to a single faceless mass, is a lot scarier, and the Jellyheads all chose to deal with the fear in their own ways. By coincidence, everyone's chosen solution was to get smashed on cheap lager. The start of the show was delayed, causing still more drinking as everyone waited hopefully on more people turning up. But as pub closing time came and went and it became apparent that there was to be no late rush, we took the stage.
It wasn't that we were all incoherently drunk that was the problem, as such. The problem was that no two of us were drunk to the same degree. Soberest was probably your ever-responsible reporter. Singer Keith, the biggest and hence the best-equipped to cope with a lot of beer in a short space of time (and also, frankly, the member of the band whose talents were least likely to be adversely affected by intoxication), was probably next, followed by a visibly hammered Louis. But the real disaster was the state of the drummer.
Pete was, in the parlance of the time, bulletproof. Indeed, he was tantamount to invisible. Barely able to make it to his drumstool, the band's only genuinely talented musician and crucial timekeeper needed two tries to hold his sticks the right way round. Trepidatiously we launched into "Terry Waite Is Dead", a song in which everyone follows the same melody line and which accordingly you really need everyone to be in time for. We weren't. Indeed, it's probably fair to say that were the viewers of WoS to stop reading this feature now and make an immediate attempt to prevent the assassination of John F Kennedy, they would be less out of time than The Jellyheads were during their opening track. It got worse.
Conscientiously soundchecking prior to the Jellyheads show, like professionals.
The next 17 minutes are, it should be said, shrouded in a certain amount of vagueness. Your reporter recalls that, at different points, both himself and the guitarist had the bright idea that if they stopped playing altogether, the band would only consist of three clashing elements rather than four, and would hence sound better. That the songs would then be being carried by a singer with a voice like a wounded bull sealion and only an intermittent grasp of the lyrics, and a drummer unable to reliably distinguish the snare drum from the crash cymbal, evidently escaped our befuddled notice.
The nadir of the performance, though, was yet to come. (Even despite the fact that by then we'd dodged one potential bullet by all deciding, entirely spontaneously and without needing to communicate the fact with words, that it'd be best not to bother attempting "Fuk Da House", the in-retrospect-ambitious number in which we all swapped instruments halfway through the second verse without stopping.)
At some point during a grotesque, one-man-band-falling-down-concrete-steps rendition of "Spider In My Head", Pete's inner ear finally gave up what had clearly been a long and tiring battle, and the plucky percussionist tumbled backwards off his drumstool, off the stage across what was normally the serving-counter of the Union cafeteria, and disappeared from view. "Spider In My Head" not being a particularly drum-reliant number, the remaining three of us carried on and, freed from Pete's arhythmic influence, attained with heroic concentration what would in hindsight be the musical highpoint of the show. Flushed with this comparative success, we hurried into "When Will You Make Up Your Mind?" without troubling to wait for, or enquire as to the wellbeing of, our missing sticksman. We were on, relatively speaking, a roll and we wanted to seize the moment.
Roughly halfway through the song, Pete clambered back into view from the floor of the cafeteria, (triumphantly waving some sachets of instant custard), got back onto his stool, and diligently and conscientiously resumed drumming to "Spider In My Head".
The rest of the gig, it is gratefully noted, no longer resides in this reporter's memory.
The Jellyheads Mark 2.
Fate delivered The Jellyheads one last hint that our time was up the following afternoon. We'd hired the PA system and drumkit for the gig, and they had to be returned to the hire company on the other side of Edinburgh using the only vehicle available to the band, your correspondent's mum's Mini Metro. Cramming all the heavy gear into the car's back seat and small boot, Louis and I set out along the Western Approach Road leading into the centre of the city. Presently we became aware of an unsettling scraping sound, and stopped the car on the roadside to investigate. After some examination, the problem was traced to the rear nearside wheel, which had no tyre on it.
Your reporter, chums, doesn't mean that the tyre's tread was bald. Nor was the tyre flat, or even punctured. At some point during the mile or so from the university car park to the Western Approach Road, the tyre had simply detached itself from the wheel entirely, somehow un-noticed by the occupants of the front seats (sober, it should be noted) - it just wasn't on there any more. It was nowhere to be seen, in fact. This presented us with a dilemma. (Although sadly not a Dilemma - which, as all Ted Chippington fans will recall, are great cars and would have gotten us out of the pickle nicely.) As a dual carriageway, the Western Approach Road offered no opportunities for turning round. Laboriously hefting a couple of huge amplifiers out of the boot revealed no sign of a spare wheel. As impoverished students, neither of us were members of the AA, and in any event the mobile phone had not yet been invented. There was little we could do except carry on.
So it was that we came to be doing about 10mph through the centre of Edinburgh in a car with four wheels but only three tyres, trailing a deafening noise and a mini fireworks display of little orange sparks and irritated drivers behind us, attempting to convey through complex facial expression to a series of concerned and gesticulating pedestrians that yes, we were aware that we were a tyre short, and no, we wouldn't be stopping. It's a toss-up whether the three miles remaining to the hire centre, or the 20 minutes/years of the previous night's gig, seemed the longer. Having returned the gear and crawled a further agonising, spark-trailing two miles to the safety of Louis's parents' house on the edge of town - whereupon his dad revealed that the spare wheel was, in fact, present and intact and HIDDEN IN A SECRET UNMARKED FUCKING COMPARTMENT UNDER THE FLOOR OF THE FUCKING BOOT WHERE NOBODY COULD EVER POSSIBLY HAVE BEEN EXPECTED TO FUCKING GUESS IT WOULD BE IN A MILLION FUCKING YEARS - our day was complete.
A rare limited-edition TMH tape cover.
And so ended our doomed career in rock'n'roll. While the band didn't fold immediately following the disastrous gig, we were mortally wounded. All blaming each other for being the drunkest, already nurturing the classic "musical differences" (my own ace, years-ahead-of-its-time suggestion of a Low-style funereal-paced cover of The Beatles' "Revolution" being dismissed more or less out of hand, for example), and not much helped by the fact that I'd semi-inadvertently gotten off with Keith's girlfriend Susan in Pete's flat after the show, with Keith in a mostly comatose state but still only two feet away, we didn't last long. Louis's and Keith's attempts to bilaterally rename the band "The Nixons" (after the gang in "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns", but which just made me think of terrible indie losers The Nivens), and sending out demo tapes under that name, provided the final straw, and we splintered into two. (Eventually not to speak to each other again for several years.)
Louis and Keith briefly tried busking, while Pete and I took the techno route and formed a studio-only band with various names (the last of which adorns the retrospective compilation depicted above), using the Atari ST I'd won at the 1988 National Computer Games Championships as a sampler and sequencer, (and an Amstrad "Studio 100" combined hi-fi and four-track studio, pictured slightly further above, that I'd bought with the proceeds of selling the Amiga I also won) and cutting up sources as diverse as The Fall, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Andy Stewart in an early version of electroclash (such as the unforgettable "Troosers Creek"), or melding legendary elderly poet Ivor Cutler into pulsating house beats under the name "Housemaster House And The House Boys", whose signature track "House House House" you may well have unknowingly gurned to in one of several white-label remix incarnations at a late-80s acid rave in a field somewhere off the M25.
All the above notwithstanding, viewers, this much ought to be said: forming a band and getting up on stage, even if you have no idea whatsoever what you're doing, is just about the most fun it's possible to have in a public place without getting arrested. In this modern age of superstar DJs, and where a ludicrously powerful PC and software can put orchestras at your fingertips for half the price of a couple of guitars and amps and a drumkit, and without requiring the inconvenient and precarious co-operation of several other people, it's a decreasingly popular pastime. But I recommend it in the warmest possible terms, and without a moment's hesitation.