Twentieth Century Praxis Audio: Ear Protection Must Be Worn
Tales From The Red October Factory
FOR EVERY BAND THAT MAKES IT; THERE ARE A THOUSAND STILL LIVING IN HOPE
I’ve always been in bands, or recorded solo, since I was 16 years old. Always unsigned. Those years were full of hope, energy, angst and laughs. Those of you who were in your teens in the early 1980s may appreciate the importance of the musical movement which became post-punk and the importance of following, through loyalty, a family of independent record labels. In my case it was Factory Records. The designs, the sounds, the attitude.
My rantings & reminiscences are more about my personal experience of the time. It’s very self-indulgient I’m afraid, but if you were in the North West of England around the early-mid 80s, and you were in a band, you may recognise bits of yourself here.
When the sun shines in Wigan, it’s a rarity, but it’s life-affirming. Walking across to Pemberton Colliery, or what was left of it, a big ice cream cone surrounded by the bones of buildings, was like walking on Mercury. The sun had dried the ground, slate grey, the dust kicked up and clung to your tongue, got in your hair, messed-up your trainers. We hung out there in the summer of 1982, day after day, just talking, throwing stones, smoking and trying to chat up the girls. I was 15, we all were, except for Tony’s sister who was 17. The height of our good taste rose as far as The Specials and Harrington jackets.
Our heads were full of nothing in particular, nothing high-minded. A year or two later, I’d be doing something different, I’d be trying to take the world by storm and I’d have put the Specials and The Beat away in a box somewhere, never to play them again (well, not for the next 15 years anyway). I would have, without realising it at the time, been at a perfect age at a perfect time in the history of popular music.
Fritz was a casual, he was effusive, he was well-read and he was full of ideas. He was a year younger than me, so our paths didn’t cross until he got to the same college as me in 1984. I’d already bought a bass, a cheap Antoria which was a Gibson rip-off, and an amp plus a tinny drum machine. I had some Casio keyboards too. I’d been motivated to buy all this stuff after buying Blue Monday and Confusion by New Order in 1983. Hearing Peter Hook’s bass for the first time, even on these synth and beats dominated songs, was a revelation. I never thought of the bass as a melodic ‘lead’ instrument, yet here was a massive sound, metallic, hard, but also carrying the “tunes”. Besides the technique, I also started to wear my bass around my knees in hero worship. Trouble is, it made it so bloody difficult to play.
Fritz was in a band, The Mysterons. They played a mix of breakneck garage punk and The Velvet Underground. After a few weeks of this, his Tacchini sweaters and Addidas trainers gave way to a black polo-neck and Levis. Fritz started hanging out with a different crew and tried to affect a pseudo-intellectual muso persona.
I’m not entirely sure how I started to be associated with him, it just kind of happened. The result of it all was a few impromptu recordings of us jamming, recorded in my parents’ living-room on a stereo cassette. We sounded like Kraftwerk crossed with The Doors (or at least we thought we did!)….meandering grooves with droning keyboards and echoing guitar and bass lines. On reflection, it probably sounded like a cat in a car radiator. But the germ was there, the jams became regular. Marcus, The Mysterons’ guitarist/bassist got involved. We were dangerously close to writing songs, and becoming a band.
My record collection was growing. I’d started to buy a couple a week. “Home taping was killing music”…. yeah, I know…I was the one doing all the taping for my friends. The next main acquisition was New Order’s “Power, Corruption and Lies” album. It’d just been released and had an even more seductive cover than Blue Monday’s…..an impressionist painting with a printer’s colour bar in the corner….it was a beautiful mix of the distant past and the near future. Peter Saville was a now established graphic designer due to his early work for Factory, but he still took risks. His floppy disk design for Blue Monday was so expensive to produce that Factory lost money on every record sold. Mad. But that’s the kind of thing I respected, as did my peers: a regard for aesthetics which overcame financial considerations.
Despite Factory’s sophistication, we still favoured the DIY aesthetic. Me, Fritz, Marcus, my mate Jason….we made mix tapes for each other. I was heavily into the Factory thing, Marcus liked a bit of everything: jazz-fusion, funk, soul; and Fritz was more of a Creation Records/4AD type of guy (I could never quite get into Josef K). But tapes started to pass between us: A Certain Ratio followed by The Cocteau Twins, followed by Cabaret Voltaire, followed by Weekend, followed by Felt, followed by The Wake, followed by….well, you get the picture.
We started to knock up little photo-montage covers for the mixes: constructivism and pop-art pastiches. We imagined ourselves to be a collective, a sort of teenage lo-fi Factory or Rough Trade. Our designs echoed our hero-worship of Factory’s Saville and 4AD’s ‘8vo’…graphic designers who saw the album cover, not as packaging, but as art.
Mixtapes were the medium by which you discovered new music in the 80s. This was pre-CD, pre-minidisc and pre-MP3. Friends passed tapes of their recent musical finds between each other regularly. Hi-fi tape-to-tape machines were in every home, enabling you to re-record a friend’s mixtape, or highlights, for your own consumption. By the time some mixtapes reached you, the recordings were of such a poor quality due to multiple re-records, that you ended up having to go and buy the records anyway.
By 1984, I’d amassed a neat little collection of albums and 12″s by New Order, Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, The Wake, Quando Quango, Thick Pigeon, The Stockholm Monsters, Cabaret Voltaire, The Swamp Children, etc. I bought the limited edition cassette only Factory box-sets later……Quando Quango’s “Pigs & Battleships”; New Order’s “Low Life”; Happy Monday’s “Squirrel And G-Man….”; “LC” by Durutti Column. I sold them later still when, as a student at university, I was skint. Bugger. I bought “Trans-Europe Express”, “Computer World” and “Autobahn”; I started listening to Can and Neu! by association with Kraftwerk (well, they were German, weren’t they?!).
I was becoming the techno-nerd I am today. As a birthday present, I was bought a second hand Roland MC202, a miniature mono-synth/sequencer which was capable of some amazing sounds if you messed with it a bit. It cost about £70 which, today, seems ridiculous as they now change hands for a few hundred quid, being “vintage” and all that. It enabled us to start to seriously consider writing and recording our songs. We were experimenting with early technology, Marcus had a Boss digital delay pedal which we used to feed the vocals and the bass through, then we’d mess with the settings while we played, producing some dub-like echo effects and a speeding-up/slowing-down effect on Fritz’s voice (which, to be fair, did it some favours). We’d hook the sequencer up to the drum machine and get a groove going, around which I’d play the bass and Marcus would play jazzy rhythm guitar. Fritz would ad-lib some lyrics he was working on. It sounded quite fresh to our ears. We’d been heavily influenced by New Order and ACR and their use of electronics and funk grooves. As far as we knew, we were the only ones doing that in Wigan.
We had a few songs written that we could play fairly tightly, ‘Strangers’ was a long dubby funk song with a hook nicked directly off an ACR song; ‘Green Darkness’ was an upbeat New Order rip-off. We weren’t exactly original, but we never let that get in the way. We taped everything on a little cassette player with a built-in mic then I’d play it back endlessly at home afterwards, imagining it was a gig, or something that ‘proper’ bands did.
Monday to Friday I attended college, in the evenings Fritz or Jason would come round and we’d jam or listen to music and talk about how ‘the band’ was going to develop. At weekends we’d hang out around Affleck’s Palace in Manchester. We didn’t have an agenda like so many bands of the time. We weren’t railing against punk, or pop; we had no real political message either, we were all liberal-minded, but that was it: apathy. The only thing we cared about really was the music, and design. We liked sparse, parred-down music and sparse, economic design…….we were into the imagery of the Bauhaus, De Stijl, Constructivism and Russian worker’s posters. That fitted the Factory aesthetic rather well.
On Sundays, well, that was rehearsal day. Fritz and Marcus had been practising with The Mysterons at a youth club in Woodford St on weekends. The key holder was a voluntary worker called Joe. He was heavily into Roxy Music, Eno and The Velvets. Joe was a few years older than us and was a voracious reader and painter. He used to open-up Woodford at the weekends to use their 4-track studio and, it turned out, to let his musical aquaintances rehearse and record. This was something I got involved in through Fritz and Marcus as they wanted us to record a couple of our songs as a demo.
We’d take all the gear up to Woodford on a Sunday morning, wait for Joe to arrive and let us in, then set everything up either in the main hall, or in the social room to practise. We didn’t always spend all day practising, actually, if I remember rightly, we spent alot of time sitting around talking about music, art and films, and sometimes listening to each other’s songs. The Sundays were well-attended by a core of band-members and friends: Me, Joe, Fritz, Marcus, a lad called Jez who was a mate of Fritz’s, Jez’s brother Johnny, my mate Jason, ‘Oggy’ a dour bloke who was a massive Billy Bragg fan and built his own guitars; then sometimes three brothers from Upholland who were big in the local music scene, one of which was the Mysteron’s guitarist.
Our band got christened sometime in early 1985, “The Red October Factory”. The name seemed perfect, it contained the word ‘Factory’ in it for starters. But it also alluded to the Eastern Bloc (the real Red October was a Russian factory that either produced warheads, or chocolate, I can’t remember!) and all that that entailed. The name was austere and industrial; everything we aspired to be musically.
Woodford St., became a hive of creative activity on Sundays. In the social room, The Mysterons would practise sometimes (which meant that the R.O.F. couldn’t, as two thirds of the band were in the Mysterons), so I’d either sit and watch, or chat to Joe, or grab my kit and retire to the studio. This was the revelation to me as I started to learn about recording and producing sound through this. I loved the time in the studio……a 4-track, a drum machine and a couple of synths; I was in heaven. I recorded a couple of electro tracks which, thinking back, were way ahead of their time. Sort of slowed down acid house, heavily influenced by Quando Quango and Severed Heads. If only I’d had the resources or knowledge to get them out to the clubs.
When the ROF rehearsed, we’d try to make the most of the time available. Though with all the kit and electronics, it used to take a while to set up. Between Fritz’s preening, Marcus’ endless tuning-up and my techno induced tantrums, it’d take even longer. But once we got going, it was sheer pleasure. We knew we had something half-decent when all present declared that the music was “fuckin’ excellent”. Sundays became an ego-boost for all of us.
We had about 8 songs: Green Darkness, Strangers, Spitfire (a raucous funk instrumental with mad synth squelches and slap-bass) and some other songs I can’t remember the names of. It was time, we thought, that we ‘do a gig’.
In retrospect, I can’t believe how easy it was to get a gig. The relatively new Yates’ Wine Lodge in Wigan town centre had live music on a Thursday. I phoned them up and told them about the band and that we wanted to play. They said OK without hearing us or knowing anything about us. We promised a decent sized crowd (it turned out that Thursdays were REALLY quiet in Yates’; so the 40-or so punters we brought with us was enough). So we did it…..
There were a few practical problems to be overcome first though. Like how to play the ‘backing tracks’ (sequencer and drum machine) live. The sequencer, like all technology at the time, was basic; it could only store one song at a time and the memory was wiped when you turned the power off. You could store the data to computer cassettes (which I did), but as these took about 5 minutes to load each song, it wasn’t practical for live situations.
The solution was to record the backing tracks on Woodford’s 4 track and then mix it down to tape, so when we played live we could just press ‘play’ on a cassette player linked to the PA. It seemed to work ok.
We hired a PA off John Kettle, a local muso who owned a studio and was associated with The Tansads, a Wigan band who achieved moderate national success on the indie circuit. The gig itself was a success of sorts; an enthusiastic audience of about 50, no technical hitches and a pleased landlord. Our confidence grew as the gig progressed. Spitfire went down well, it was a dance track and got an appropriate response. No-one was using synths and drum machines live in Wigan at the time, so we were quite a novelty I guess.
The gig was opened by two lads from college who were into performance, one of them, Ian Coyle, went on to produce and present some comedy and culture shows on cable. They did ‘northern working men’s club comedy’ schtick. A piss-take which got a good response and set the crowd up well for us. We even had a support band, Dreamscape. As a favour, I’d offered to get them a debut gig (as if WE were ESTABLISHED!), so they supported us. They were goths who only had two original songs and a handful of cover versions….their set lasted about 20 minutes and they existed to make us look good. Two bands and a comedy act…….a good night out. I saw it as a collective ‘happening’; though it was more of a bargain-basement cabaret show.
And so the months passed…..we entered 1986. The Yates’ gig had gone well. We met up every Sunday to practise and record. We were starting to get a high opinion of ourselves……local heroes, as yet unsung. We thought we had something; something good. Fritz, Marcus and me….we had a tight little unit, listening to burgeoning obscure bands on Factory, 4AD and Creation; making music which we wanted to hear. We thought we were different, straddling genres (though the idea of ‘genre’ wasn’t that widely acknowledged at the time) and using electronics with traditional rock instruments.
Then the opportunity to do a gig at Woodford arose. Joe wanted to put on a showcase for local bands he liked; hoping to get their supporting fans to pay some cash to contribute to the Youth Service’s coffers. He lined up The Red October Factory, Dreamscape, himself, Ourselves Alone (Marcus’ side project) and local hardcore heroes, The Electrohippies (featuring The Mysterons’ guitarist, Dom). The Electrohippies were fast, hard vegans, but turned out to be thoroughly nice blokes. It was envisaged that the bands would bring their respective fans and thus create an eclectic audience of around 100-150.
As it turned out, it was a Tuesday (I think!) and hardly anyone turned up. I don’t know whether it was the mix of bands (virtually unknown except for the Electrohippies), the chosen night of the gig, or the fact that Woodford could only be reached by two bus-rides for most people, and there was no alcohol on sale. But the turn-out was poor to say the least. The audience mainly consisted of local kids who were spoiling for a fight and wanted to kick-off with the ‘weirdos’ from the suburbs. It was a disaster. Everyone tried their best……Dreamscape did an ill-advised cover of ‘Anarchy In The UK’ and nearly caused a riot. We videoed the whole debacle and, in retrospect, the video was an embarrassment. My bass was out of tune and, as it was the main melodic instrument in our songs, it ruined everything. Dreamscape were their usual crap selves. Joe did some Durutti Column-styled songs which weren’t appreciated. the Electrohippies were great, but the audience just wanted to hear ska or punk, so it was wasted.
Time went by…we were disheartened. In the usual fickle belief that we were the kings of local post-punk-electro-funk, we had believed that we were indestructable, only to be severely crushed by the Woodford gig. Then disaster struck….Fritz went to study English in Sunderland. Marcus and myself were left without a singer/lyricist.
At college, I’d stayed on a year extra as I’d screwed-up my A-levels and needed to resit. During this extended year I met a bloke from Ashton called Andy Piper. He was a year younger than me and had a growing interest in all things Factory. He was interested in forming a band, but had no local contacts to do so.
1986: THE gig of the century. I had tickets for the ‘Festival Of The Tenth Summer’ festival at the GMEX in Manchester. This cavernous new venue (formerly Central Railway Station….it was huge!) hosted a gig of such enormity for us. New Order were headlining at night; and during the day, The Smiths, A Certain Ratio, Cabaret Voltaire, OMD, Howard Devoto, John Cale, John Cooper Clark, and weirdly, Wayne Fontana all played. It cost £26! New Order played a sparkling set, and did an encore featuring ‘Ceremony’ with special surprise guest Ian McCulloch. Awesome. We spent the Saturday there, got stranded in Manchester at 1am and had to phone my mum for a lift….very rock n roll.
I had started attending St Helens College of Art.
Andy was now writing songs and practicing with me and Marcus at weekends. Then we did a gig at The Alfred in St Helens. My new friends at St Helens were very music-literate and turned out in force to see us. We did OK, trying out our new songs and doing a Joy Division cover. We were living in the past however. Music had moved on……’pop’ had taken control: jazz-tinged pop songs by the likes of Swing Out Sister, Lloyd Cole, Aztec Camera, and the new ACR album (‘Force’) were now the popular, and rather sterile, norm. Our sound was stuck in 1982, synth pop had come and gone and even New Order had started to embrace the mainstream. Our pretentious and forced aloofness and harder electronic sound didn’t get us very far. We got bored, then split for good in late 1986. I never saw Marcus and Andy again.
1986/7 was a productive year. I was studying at St. Helens, painting obsessively until 9pm in the main studio. My listening habits were varied, mainly due to the diet of albums which I owned and the albums of my friends in the studio. We had a little stereo cassette player which issued forth sounds from New Order (”Brotherhood” and its singles), ACR (”Force”) and then music from my fellow students. Liam, a painter, played INXS (why, exactly, were they so popular?) and King Crimson; Allyson played tracks by Aztec Camera and Lloyd Cole; Sean was into Zappa; Nicky was into The Smiths…. so plenty of variety there. As ‘pop’ had taken a more jazz-influenced route, there was incidental listening from the radio: Swing Out Sister, Curiosity Killed The Cat, Suzanne Vega, that sort of thing. I was still into Factory big time, but I was more receptive to mainstream music which I would’ve sneered at the previous year.
I traded my MC202 in and bought a Boss Dr220 drum machine (a very compact little unit with gritty drum samples), and I had a new bass for my birthday: a Hohner (ie. cheap!) fretless jazz copy. I tried to teach myself to play the fretless… tricky, but I did OK.
Liam played guitar, so I arranged a couple of jams with him at my house. Nicky, from the painting studio, could sing a bit. She had an ear for a tune and had lots of lyrics written already. She soon became involved in our impromptu ‘rehearsals’. Allyson, another painting student tagged along and contributed backing vocals for a while, but stopped coming after a while. We hired a rehearsal space at a run down old place called “Dead Fly” on the outskirts of St. Helens and wrote a few songs, recorded on a knackered old cassette player. Thus “Violent On Vodka” was born.
The three of us started meeting up regularly out of college. The Alfred became a hub of creative ideas on a Thursday. We’d watch a local band there (ROF had played there earlier in 1986), sink a few pints and hatch our plans which, as it turned out, never came to fruition.
Our sound was jazz-infused, we tried to write pop songs. Andy, a graphics student at the college, was a cornet player and he became involved early in 1987. The brass added a new dimension to our music. I was still in touch with Joe from Woodford, so we arranged to go there and use the 4 track to record a demo. One Sunday afternoon wasn’t really enough, but we recorded three songs from our repetoire of……three songs! We didn’t have time to mix them down properly, so the final version was a bit of a mess: bass too loud, no real presence to Nicky’s vocals, the guitar was harsh when we wanted a smooth, rich sound from it.
VoV continued for a few more months and then petered out. We were all going away to different universities that summer, so what was the point?
The summer came and went. I was gearing up to go and live in Nottingham, and the ‘band’ carried on in a half-hearted way for a while. Then our meetings/rehearsals became more of a social occasion; we didn’t write, play or record anything. Still, it was summer again. So, long days were spent listening to music, painting, drinking cider or cheap lager in the park, and having barbeques at my parents’ house (I held a few there with my St. Helens compadres in attendance. Allyson got bitten by my dog at one – sorry!).
Then I moved to Nottingham in the September. What a disaster that turned out to be.
1987/88 turned out to be an undistinguished year. Not one I remember that well really.
I didn’t do much artwork. I did my damnedest to offset this with hedonism and materialism!
I fell in love, I spent too much money, I wasted time, I hardly recorded anything; in fact, my musical output was zilch for two years. I couldn’t find anyone with a like musical mind, no-one with a creative spark. Having said that, I did discover Sibelius (the composer, not the software!) and Dvorjak and Mahler as a result. Dark, North European composers who stirred the soul.
One thing about Nottingham though, in 1987/88 it was party-central. Along with Manchester and London, Nottingham was discovering the joys of House music and of acid-house and techno in particular. Clubs like The Garage and The Barracuda were importing this futuristic, funky trance music from Chicago and Detroit. It literally was ‘Kraftwerk stuck in a lift with Curtis Mayfield’. It was perfect music: functional, sometimes emotional (especially when chemically enhanced), futuristic. I loved it. Whilst I didn’t exactly become a regular at The Garage, I attended the Barracuda as often as I could. It was a main hang-out of the art student crowd, and I tagged along even though I didn’t feel as though I fitted-in with this bohemian, clique-y group. I was there for the music.
It made so much sense….. I’d been listening to Kraftwerk, Quando-Quango, New Order, Severed Heads, Grandmaster Flash and Cabaret Voltaire for years…. and now here was the logical conclusion: Mr Fingers, Frankie Knuckles, Derrick May, Phuture, A Guy Called Gerald, 808 State, Rhythm Is Rhythm, MARRS.
Then, I was kicked off the course. Oops.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. I wasn’t really ready for University, I had no restraints, no motivation, and I was allowed to get away with doing nothing for a whole year. What’s a guy to do? Then it came back to bite me.
I stayed in Nottingham for another year; unemployed, skint and thoroughly pissed-off. I had no money to provide distractions this time.
After some time, I picked myself up though. I needed to get into another university, to get away from Nottingham. I built up another portfolio of paintings, I enrolled on a photography and printmaking course for adults, I joined a life-drawing class. Anything to help me get out of the city and to distract me.
Eventually, after an interview, I got accepted at Cardiff on a Fine Art/Philosophy course. Things had started to look up.
At Cardiff, I discovered the joys of DJing (first at a sports college, then at the Art college), I got into the ‘Madchester’ scene, I got my degree and made new friends. I’ll skip past these years though as, except for a few jams on my bass, I didn’t really produce any music at all.
After my degree in Cardiff, and a spell working for the University, I moved back up to Wigan. There, I stayed with my parents for 12 months while I pondered what to do next. It was tricky… I had a degree which was virtually of no practical use whatsoever, I had high-minded ideas of being a renaissance man: an artist and a musician. But the practicality of needing money and living with my parents bit hard. My folks had always been extremely supportive, but I didn’t want to burden them further by hanging around the house all day, painting and recording music! I was in my 20s and felt that I should really move on. I did eventually, only to go back into education; but this time to study something which would actually get me a job!
However, I tried to get busy.
I contacted Joe (from Woodford St, back in the day) who was now living in his flat close to the town centre. He was a major culture-head, into books, movies, art and music; he was writing a novel which, to my knowledge, he never finished. I used to go down to his flat 2 or 3 times a week to get my fix of culture and music. Joe still had his guitar and his Jen monosynth. I had my bass, a four-track, a Korg DDD1 drum machine which I’d picked up in Cardiff, and a Yamaha QY10 which I’d aquired at Christmas.
As a key-holder for Wigan Unemployed Centre, for which he worked voluntarily during the week, Joe had access to another damp and spacious room which we could rehearse in. It had a TV, a toilet and tea-making facilities, so that was OK. We’d meet up on a Sunday with all our kit and set up in the room. Then we’d jam until we came up with something coherent. Joe was teaching himself how to play the clarinet which he’d borrowed from his brother, he got better at it as time went on. I managed to procure a trumpet (!), which I earnestly tried to teach myself how to play…. in vain, as it turned out! But we came up with some interesting, if ragged, improvisations.
We’d been listening to a lot of Mo’Wax artists such as DJ Shadow, Palmskin Productions, DJ Krush, etc. Also, I’d started to get into Warp Records’ artists through two compilations (“Pioneers Of The Hypnotic Groove” and “Evolution Of The Groove”) which I’d bought recently.
We recorded everything on my little Tascam. The tapes, alas, don’t exist anymore. A shame, as I’d really like to hear them again.
Once again, I’d regained some of my enthusiasm for making music. Through going to Joe’s flat, which was the hub of creative activity for a variety of people, I learned a bit about music theory and a bit about literature. I realised that there were like-minded people out there; subversive and creative. Not interested in mysticism, or the elevation of “art” into some kind of religion, but as action; based in practicality. After all, they were, like me, working-class people with an education (some of them self-educated) and all the history and association which that entails.
This no-nonsense approach to all things cultural chimed with my own ideals and burst the bubble of pomposity or pretention which I may have had. It’s also an attitude that’s informed virtually everything I’ve done since.
As for our ‘band’, we never gigged…it wasn’t practical. Besides, there wasn’t really an audience for it in Wigan… or anywhere for that matter! It was dischordant, amateurish fun; that’s all. Incompetent avant-garde jazz would be a good description.
During the summer of 1994, I moved back to Cardiff to study to be an Art teacher. This left no time at all to indulge myself in music. I left all my kit at my parents’ house and studied hard.