“We were working under strained circumstances – it wasn’t very easy,” says Brand X’s Percy Jones, recalling a meeting in 1979 after a lawyer in the group’s management company said the band should make more commercial music.
Jones sighs heavily as he remembers the moment. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, shit. It’s come to this. I’ve got a lawyer telling me what to do musically.’ My feeling was we’d just alienate the people already buying our records and probably not gain a different audience anyway. I put my foot down and said I wasn’t doing it.”
The compromise was to have two different line-ups record tracks in order to cater for both directions. Jones teamed up with ex-Quatermass keyboard player Peter Robinson and drummer Mike Clarke, while Brand X co-founder and keyboardist Robin Lumley, Phil Collins and bassist John Giblin provided the other half, with guitarist John Goodsall diplomatically maintaining a foot in both camps.
“We recorded in shifts with the other band working in the day and we’d go in and record all night. That was the only way we could get it done,” says Jones ruefully.
The result of these dual sessions was 1980’s Do They Hurt? and 1982’s Is There Anything About?, the latter released after Brand X had disbanded. Jones’ hunch proved correct, with the group failing to pick up any new fans with the more song-oriented approach.
“I went out and bought a copy of that last one because nobody sent me a copy. I listened to it once and I gave it to the kids next door. I think they ended up playing frisbee with it.”
While Brand X appeared to have been tossed onto the scrapheap, they became one of those bands whose life was artificially extended as vinyl gave way to CD in the mid-80s onwards and their back catalogue was recycled via ‘Compact Price’ campaigns and the ‘Introduction To…’ reissue programme. Sometimes such anthologies appeared with sexually provocative cover art that probably said more about the graphic designer’s fantasies than it did about the music. But whatever the predilections of those putting the albums out, the fact that they were released at all confirmed that there was an ongoing interest in the group.
In the 90s, there were a few tentative reunions, but nothing that lasted beyond a couple of albums. Jones recalls talk of another attempt to put a Brand X together a few years ago that would have included keyboard player David Sancious and, later, Patrick Moraz. Both attempts stumbled and fell without a single note being played when the management underwriting the venture failed to put enough dates together to make any of it work. Today, with new management in place, Jones says that things are different.
“They understood the music to a pretty good degree, and the logistics of the business, and it takes those two things really to pull off a tour,” he explains. “Geographically we were all spread out. I’m in New York, John is in Minnesota, Kenwood Dennard [drums] was in New Hampshire. So it takes some financial help to just get everybody in one place and then more finances to rehearse. We couldn’t have done it without that kind of backing.”
That their early discography was featured so heavily on the new live double album, But Wait… There’s More! was no accident. An online poll highlighted the affection and esteem with which Unorthodox Behaviour (1976), Moroccan Roll (1977) and Masques (1978) are still held. When Jones saw the results, he admits to being filled with a degree of trepidation when the band began rehearsals in the summer of 2016.
“I didn’t know how people would react to those compositions in this day and age, or whether it was going to work. The other reason, and I think I can speak for me and John for this: we’re not playing the same as we did back then. Our styles have changed, our way of thinking has changed, you know? Nothing stays the same. So that’s why I had an uneasy feeling, at least initially – just not knowing how it would all connect, basically.”
He needn’t have worried. But Wait… There’s More!, their first release in 20 years, finds Goodsall, Jones and former drummer Kenwood Dennard, alongside keyboardist Chris Clark and percussionist Scott Weinberger, playing for a wildly enthusiastic crowd. Stephen W Tayler’s detailed mix is some of the hottest instrumental music you’ll hear this year.
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Percy Jones, who has lived in the USA for 38 years, studied engineering rather than music at university and constructed one of the most instantly recognisable fretless bass sounds this side of Jaco Pastorius. His lithe runs, peppered with dazzling harmonics and a funky muscularity, may well have prompted comparisons to Weather Report’s star player, but the style was all his own.
Having cut his teeth as a gigging bassist with late-60s multimedia troupe The Liverpool Scene, by the time Brand X began recording their debut album in 1975, Jones was working on London building sites.
“I was living in Beckenham and Robin Lumley lived in the area. We got together for a jam in somebody’s kitchen. I was playing a lot but not really gigging. We also used to do some jam sessions up in Clapham every Wednesday night: me, Lumley, Goodsall and some other guys.”
Jones recalls that it was this loose collection of players who were somehow fixed up with an audition for Island Records, which nobody took seriously at all.
“We played for these two A&R guys at Island and we were just making stuff up, improvising, and they signed us! Amazing. We didn’t expect that.”
As unexpected as this was, Jones says they were even more surprised when, after the label rejected the first album they recorded with vocals, Island boss Chris Blackwell gave the go-ahead for another record, but this time an entirely instrumental album.
“That first album had been kind of like an Average White Band-sounding thing. But because we were all listening to jazz rock, that’s what we wanted to do. Our original drummer wasn’t suitable for the material. We had Bill Bruford, who came in briefly, but he turned it down because he was already playing with someone else and he didn’t want to spread himself too thin. So that’s when Phil Collins arrived.”
There’s little doubt that the association with Collins’ ascending star in Genesis took the group to an audience well beyond jazz rock aficionados. Similarly, when Island unaccountably declined to release Unorthodox Behaviour, it was Collins’ connections to Tony Stratton-Smith’s Charisma label that ensured its release.
The Fender Precision fretless bass heard on their debut, the instrument on which Jones built a reputation, was purchased second-hand using almost all of the money he’d received from a publishing advance. Robin Lumley upgraded his keyboard setup and, Jones wryly notes, John Goodsall stumped up all of his advance on a fur coat.
If Jones’ agile bass has been a vital component in their signature sound then so too has John Goodsall’s lucid guitar. Fur coat or not, he was capable of bolstering quick-shifting rhythmic accents with an almost blasé panache, with a knack for bending rock licks into dextrous, quicksilver shapes.
It’s a partnership that has not only endured but is, perhaps, the benchmark of authenticity for any venture bearing the Brand X name.
“He’s got a unique style and way of playing and he’s got a unique style of writing,” says Jones. “His writing is really interesting and people tell me that my bass and his guitar work well together. That’s what keeps us working together. We’ve played together on and off now pushing on 40 years.”
The union has lasted longer than many marriages, though as Jones candidly admits, it hasn’t been without its ups and downs.
“If there’s something he’s doing that bothers me, I’ll talk to him about it. That happened not too long ago. I got in his face a little bit after a gig in Pennsylvania and told him what I thought. He didn’t like it and he mentioned a tune that I’d screwed up [laughs] and we had a bit of back and forth. I was thinking, ‘Oh shit, this is not going well,’ but then the next morning at breakfast we were fine. And I suppose that’s the way we deal with it – if something’s bothering us, we thrash it out, try to resolve it and move on. You can’t let little things blow up.”
The release of But Wait… There’s More! not only reunites Jones and Goodsall but also brings back producer Stephen W Tayler. Tayler, who worked with the band on Moroccan Roll, says that although the line-up may have changed, the original spirit lives on.
“The world of fusion or jazz rock had a tendency at that time to take itself extremely seriously, but Brand X were completely the opposite. Their music is powerful, intricate and impressive, but there’s always a humorous subtext that makes me smile and frequently break into fits of giggles – and 40 years on they still make me laugh.”
Laughs aside, the passage of time can be hard on musicians whose stock in trade is dexterity, especially when navigating Brand X’s high-octane hybrid of devilishly complex themes and on-point improvisation. Older and wiser, Jones accepts that he has to work hard to maintain the levels of virtuosity fans expect.
“It’s tougher than it was back in the day,” he admits. “When we were doing gigs back then we would typically do a 45-minute set and now we’re doing about two hours. So playing that old stuff and playing longer sets is hard work. I just try to stay in shape. At some point it’ll all fall apart, and when it does, I’ll have to hang up the bass. But I’m not there yet, thank goodness!”
But Wait… There’s More! is out now and is self-released. For more information, see www.facebook.com/OfficialBrandX.