Gentlemans Pistols: the best band the 70s never had?

“I bet it was impossible to get a decent pizza back then,” James Atkinson says with a cheery laugh. “But no, we take everything for granted that we have now. Besides all the cool music, think what it was like in the early seventies when they had the blackouts, the three-day working week…”

This is not the response we anticipated when we asked him whether he’d rather be in 1973.

On face value, Gentlemans Pistols are 1973. They look like missing members of Humble Pie. Or Cream. Or anyone pre-dating the CD, nicotine patches and Guns N’ Roses. Atkinson, for all his straight-talking, may as well have just returned from Woodstock (needing a shave).

They’re not exactly alone. Graveyard and Blues Pills do it for Sweden, Kadavar for Germany, and now Gentlemans Pistols are putting a retro-rock stamp on Yorkshire. Flares? Check. Rock songs that sound like lost early-70s gems? All of the hair? Check, check…

Still, their tastes weren’t always this nostalgic. Before forming Gentlemans Pistols in 2003, Atkinson played in hardcore group Voorhees; drummer Stuart Dobbins used to be in ‘zombiecore’ brigade Send More Paramedics. In 2009 they were joined by guitarist Bill Steer (of death metallers Carcass, and formerly of grindcore pioneers Napalm Death) – delighted to find an outlet for his classic rock roots.

“Playing extreme metal is very disciplined,” Steer says. “It’s fun, because it’s like an assault course. But the first records I picked up were things like Rory Gallagher. Playing with Gents is fantastic because it’s very ‘feel’-based music.”

Gentlemans Pistols found like-minded company, supporting bands such as Pentagram, Orange Goblin and Witchcraft. With new bassist Robert Threapleton on board, their latest album, Hustlers Row, plays like a hard-hitting tick-list of classic rock faithfuls. There’s The Who in The Searcher, Thin Lizzy here, Free there…

“It’s the longevity of good melodies and riffs,” Atkinson says. “Why are a lot of people, a lot of newer bands, rediscovering these bands now? It’s because good music stands the test of time, doesn’t it?”

Growing up in Cottingley, Bradford, Atkinson discovered rock’n’roll in the local library. From Def Leppard and AC/DC records, he fell in with the local hardcore scene by the mid-90s and joined Voorhees.

Around this time, Atkinson almost tasted stardom. Things for his other band, Sex Maniacs (“filthy, nasty punk rock’n’roll”), looked promising when their album Mean As Hell was reissued on US label Manic Ride. “Never had so much alcohol, narcotics and girls been thrust toward one band” their biog read at the time. They played hard. One bassist (they got through a couple) ended up in jail. Nothing ever became of the Maniacs.

“You do get a bit sceptical,” Atkinson concedes.

That sense of frustration seems apparent in Hustlers Row – in particular the track Time Wasters (‘I see a lot of soul lodgers letting someone else pay their dues’). All the lyrics are his, fuelled chiefly by the break-up of a long-term relationship, loss of work and broken friendships. Drink and joints became bigger vices, although he never had “serious problems”.

These days he enjoys going out and “getting leathered”, but is more intent on enjoying Gentlemans Pistols life. “With Gents there’s no game-plan,” he says. “We just want to make the best music we possibly can, that we enjoy playing.”

A lot of this enjoyment comes from discovering very obscure influences. Atkinson and Steer first bonded over The Sweet, but quickly turned to lesser-known acts of the 70s. The deep 70s.

“The more time you spend delving into this stuff, the more you find and discover you like,” Atkinson enthuses, of the Gents’ collective inspirations. “You can tell a record was recorded in the eighties for the most part because it’s got that date stamp on it, whereas stuff from the seventies has a much more natural sound. Hard rock was kind of ‘crystalised’ around that time; everything was new.”

“Bands like Hard Stuff, that weren’t so recognised from that era, are a big influence on us,” Steer adds enthusiastically. Deep cuts including Stray Dog, Boomerang, Incredible Hog and… erm, Giant Crab are quickly cited.

Still, we were kind of expecting ‘all hail the 70s’ talk – a bit of lusting after that bygone lifestyle. You’d think, for example, that some strong narcotics were involved in records like these. Alas their ‘opium den’ days were less than glamourous.

“Not so much a ‘den’ as a van,” Atkinson says, laughing. “It was just something we tried a few times, and it got progressively worse! It was never part of an image. Or ‘we’re gonna do this cos it’s going to make us tune in more with…something or other’.”

A deliberate 70s homage, then, Gentlemans Pistols are not. They’ve just absorbed a lot of the decade’s music – so much so that it seems imbued in their subconscious (and their denim). Nor are they about to condemn current artistes.

“I firmly believe there are always people out there doing very credible things,” Steer adds. “The only thing I question is bands that are only influenced by contemporaries. To me that’s odd. Everybody needs some kind of depth to what they’re doing.”

“I guess we’re lacking that focus these days,” Atkinson says. “We’re all victims of technology in some way. And it’s definitely more difficult to write something original.”

There’s the inevitable question of whether Gentlemans Pistols – and others like them – are ultimately just standing on the shoulders of giants. And whether they worry about revisiting a style that’s already been done so thoroughly.

“Not really, because it’s all rock music, isn’t it?” James says, straightforwardly. “When a genre of music has been around for long enough, there are certain ‘rules’ you tend to loop back to. In that respect it’s no different to something like jazz; there are cornerstones which create a certain familiar quality.”

“And if you played our album back to back with [Cream’s] Wheels Of Fire or something, the energy level is very different,” Steer adds. “It just has a flavour of the past.”

Watching Gents live, it’s even stronger. This is where their retro operation clicks charismatically into place, propelled by their metal and punk history. Atkinson transforms into a soulful-voiced embodiment of boho joie de vivre and classic rock’n’roll. Above all else it’s seriously good fun, and the sizeable audience suggests that demand for old-school rock isn’t going away. For now, at least.

“It just seems to have got bigger and bigger,” Atkinson says, grinning. “Which is great for a band like us. But we’ll see what happens. If tomorrow nobody wants to listen to this kind of music, so be it.”


Humble Pie, Eat It

Bill Steer: “An amazing double album. Each side has got its own identity; first side is more or less hard rock, then there’s a soul side, some acoustic stuff and then there’s a live side… It’s a great showcase for Steve Marriott. Great band.”

Stray Dog, Stray Dog

James Atkinson: “Great record, isn’t it? You can’t fault that one.”

Steer: “It’s a total one-off, that record. Nothing else sounds like it. That band could have been enormous, but I guess it didn’t work for whatever reason. Great tunes, great production, serious playing… I’ve heard that Van Halen used to cover Stray Dog stuff when they started out.”

Aerosmith, Aerosmith

Atkinson: “From the hungry-for-success anthem Make It, through standards such as Walk The Dog, Dream On and definitely not forgetting Mama Kin – which was introduced to me on the Live Like A Suicide record by Guns N’ Roses years before I heard this version. Early Aerosmith has always been a big influence on my writing with Gentlemans Pistols.”

Marvin Gaye, Let’s Get It On

Atkinson: “At that point he’d just started a new relationship with a young woman, but he was still married to [Motown Records founder] Berry Gordy’s sister. I guess it’s quite an optimistic record, coming off the back of What’s Going On. It’s a very emotional, positive record about him starting this new relationship. When you listen to his records after that one you can see the downfall of that relationship. What I love about Marvin Gaye is that he puts a lot of himself into his lyrics.”

Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells

Robert Threapleton: “My choice. Apart from it just sounding… well, good, for lack of a better word, it’s still amazing to think that he did it all himself. He played every single instrument there – and there are a lot. It tickles something deep inside. It just sounds brilliant.”

Hard Stuff, Bolex Dementia

Atkinson: “Not as good as the debut Bulletproof, but a great album that shows the innovative writing ability of John Du Cann and John Gustafson. It’s a shame that we never got anything more from this band, as I think they are truly the great unsung British rock band.”

Classic Rock 221: Features

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.