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Raising the bar: the chaotic story of pub rock

Brinsley Schwarz
Brinsley Schwarz (Image credit: Charlie Gillett Collection / Getty Images)

The British blues boom of the late 1960s – a movement kick-started by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (which famously featured, at various times, guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor) – came out of the pubs, or at least the clubs that thrived in smoke-filled rooms in numerous boozers dotted around Britain. 

Immediately prior to this, it was those same venues that played host to bands such as the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and The Who, in the middle of a decade that gave us Swinging London, recreational drugs and free love. All of this would lead to the invention of rock music, but it was also the dawn of pub rock. 

In London, at various points of the compass were the key venues: The Crawdaddy (at the Station Hotel in Richmond), Klooks Kleek (the Railway Hotel, West Hampstead, conveniently close to Decca studios for live recordings), Bluesville (at the Hornsey Wood Tavern), The Manor House at Finsbury Park, The Fishmonger’s Arms in Wood Green, and The Black Prince in Bexley. 

But by the turn of the decade, as Led Zeppelin began their assault on the senses of the international music community, those venues were all but gone. The reason was clear. Many of the R&B musicians that had come up through the clubs had by now achieved stardom in the USA, and this left a void at home. 

Cream (who helped to establish the arena circuit), Fleetwood Mac, the Jeff Beck Group, Ten Years After and, of course, the mighty Zep all led the way, and, during what became known as the ‘second British invasion’ of America, most of us up-and-coming musicians dreamed of becoming superstars as quickly as possible. 

Dues-paying on the spit-and-sawdust circuit had simply lost its appeal, and consequently the UK pub and club scene was in steep decline. Symbolically, Klooks Kleek closed its doors in January 1970 with a show by former Mayall drummer Keef Hartley’s band. 

By now, the five big British record companies had a stranglehold on the music scene. Alongside the powerful concert promoters was a phalanx of young A&R scouts working for the majors’ in-house progressive labels such as Harvest (a vanity imprint of EMI), Deram (Decca), Dawn (Pye), Vertigo (Philips), Neon (RCA), or the one notable independent label, Island Records. 

New bands found themselves in a catch-22 situation: without a record deal you couldn’t get an agent, and without an agent you couldn’t get the gigs that might attract labels. A shining example of such a band was Brinsley Schwarz, formerly a failed EMI pop group called Kippington Lodge that had ‘gone heavy’.

“We thought we could short-circuit all those unpleasant miles in a Transit,” says bassist and vocalist Nick Lowe, referring to his band’s imminent and extravagant US launch, designed to make them superstars overnight. “And those horrible club dates… we simply wouldn’t have to do them. Of course, we were very inept.” 

The Brinsleys, as they became known, were not alone in forging a new direction in order to chase the rock music dream. Many former 60s beat groups had rebranded themselves to greetthe progressive, or ‘heavy’, era, including Family (formerly The Farinas), Man (The Bystanders), Gypsy (Legay) and Cochise (Plastic Penny). 

Coincidentally, all four of those groups, and the Brinsleys, would sign with United Artists Records, whose youthful, risk-taking A&R man, Andrew Lauder, had his ear glued permanently to the ground. 

The full account of the ambitious attempt to break Brinsley Schwarz as an international headline act without them having done an ounce of work on the live circuit is detailed in my book No Sleep Till Canvey Island: The Great Pub Rock Revolution. Those already versed in the story of The Fillmore Trip can look away now, but new readers may wish to start here.

In October 1969, the London management company Famepushers – bankrolled by a couple of chancers called Eddie Molton and Stephen Warwick – placed an advertisement in the venerable Melody Maker (its back pages being a sort of Labour Exchange for out-of-work musicians). Famepushers were looking for “a young songwriting group with own equipment” that they could promote. 

Among the 80 or so bands that responded was Brinsley Schwarz, comprising a lead guitarist of the same name, drummer Billy Rankin, Hammond organist Bob Andrews and bass player Nick Lowe. 

Famepushers Limited was headed up by Dave Robinson, who had worked as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix. He explained to the Brinsleys that his basic concept was to find a group who wrote their own songs, and through honest hard graft would work their way up the greasy pole of rock. The company didn’t have the resources to launch a high-profile publicity campaign, he explained, and anyway, it would be a mistake to promote the group aggressively as they were somewhat inexperienced and “would not be able to live up to the hype”. 

Never were such prophetic words spoken. Famepushers signed Brinsley Schwarz to a management contract, and found an agent to get the band live work. Eventually this would lead to a record deal, but all in good time. As the new decade loomed, however, Robinson’s paymasters were getting twitchy. They wanted to know why this was taking so long, as there were recording costs to recoup – at the company’s expense the Brinsleys had recorded an album’s worth of material at Olympic Studios, which had been used by Hendrix, the Stones and Led Zeppelin.

Robinson focused his attention on Andrew Lauder, who had seen the Brinsleys perform at The Town And Country Club. Lauder liked the band, but not enough to offer them a contract. Eddie Molton demanded to know what it would take to persuade a record company to sign them, and called a meeting with his Famepushers colleagues. 

At a two-hour brainstorming session, it was decided that the completely unknown Brinsley Schwarz should be launched at the world’s then most-famous rock venue, the Fillmore East in New York City. 

It was, of course, a preposterous idea, but Dave Robinson thought he could pull it off. Over the course of the next two weeks, while Famepushers’ publicist Ricky Blears organised a competition with Melody Maker, Robinson persuaded Aer Lingus to provide him with an aircraft to fly 200 British journalists to New York. Then he contacted top US promoter Bill Graham to seek an engagement for Brinsley Schwarz at the Fillmore East. 

Graham was naturally wary, but Robinson called his bluff by flying to the US and cornering the legendary impresario in his San Francisco office. So good was Robinson’s spiel that he secured two nights for the Brinsleys at the Fillmore, opening for Van Morrison and Quicksilver Messenger Service. 

On the strength of the Fillmore dates, the Brinsleys got a recording contract with United Artists. But what happened next is the stuff of the greatest caper in pop music history, casually referred to by its perpetrators as ‘The Hype’.

To start with, the Brinsleys were without the requisite work permits to enter the USA, so Robinson attempted to have them enter via Canada, where they told immigration that they were on holiday. 

In Toronto, a fracas at the US embassy almost saw the band deported, but somehow Robinson blagged the requisite permits. Then they became victims of a sudden and unexpected air traffic controllers’ strike across America. So a six-seater aircraft was quickly found for the journey from Toronto to a landing strip in Queens, New York City. On April 3, 1970, after several days’ delay and a very bumpy flight, the band arrived at the Fillmore with less than an hour to spare before show time.

If the Brinsleys’ experience had been worryingly touch-and-go, the fate that awaited the UK press contingent the following day was almost terrifying. Gathered at Heathrow airport on the morning of April 4, the 120-strong convoy learnt that their plane had been delayed on its way from Paris. 

While a replacement aircraft was located, Aer Lingus opened a free bar for the delayed travellers. Three hours later, the mostly drunken journalists boarded the St Lawrence O’Toole, a Boeing 707 bound for New York. But somewhere over the Irish Sea, the aircraft developed a technical problem and made an emergency landing at Shannon airport in Ireland. 

Again, the passengers were plied with free booze while the problem was fixed. By the time the planeload of journalists reached New York, after what one of them later described as “the biggest drugs party ever to have taken place in mid-air”, many were stoned and incapable. 

Having negotiated immigration control, they fought for seats in the convoy of 22 stretch limos that would ferry them into Manhattan, accompanied by motorcycle outriders. It was rush hour, and traffic congestion caused further delays. 

Eventually the limos screeched to a halt outside the Fillmore at around 8.15pm. Inside, Dave Robinson was arguing with promoter Bill Graham for the Brinsleys to delay going on stage until the Brits arrived. 

“The timing was uncanny,” says competition winner Alan Wright. “As we made our way to our seats in the rear stalls, the group appeared.” 

The Brinsleys walked on stage, performed five numbers, and after 30 minutes left to mild applause. Most of the UK journalists were seriously underwhelmed. “They were totally unimpressive,” said broadcaster Charlie Gillett, echoing the thoughts of the eclectic press contingent that included Groupie author Jenny Fabian, ZigZag magazine founder Pete Frame, TV’s Candid Camera star Jonathan Routh, Shell heiress Olga Deterding, Sam Hutt, aka singer Hank Wangford, and future Oscar-winning film director Jonathan Demme.

On returning to London, the Brinsleys faced the wrath of the press, following what had been one of the greatest public relations disasters in modern entertainment history. Lambasted for ‘The Hype’, which, according to the Sunday Times, meant “the superlative sales promotion of a mediocre product”, the band were humiliated. 

“They say pride comes before a fall,” says Lowe. “I remember a week before we went, I was lording it in front of my contemporaries, saying: ‘Of course, we’re going to the States next week… and when we come back from the States…’ We reconvened in Wardour Street to watch rushes of the film that had been made of the event, and as we walked into the viewing suite all heads turned. 

"Everyone was holding NME and Melody Maker. To make matters worse, the film seemed to consist of hours of blurred footage of a drunk [drummer] Billy Rankin touching up air hostesses. We were a laughing stock.” 

And what has all this to do with the pub rock scene that culminated in Dr. Feelgood’s Down By The Jetty? Well, having been shunned by the media, the Brinsleys turned their backs on the whole showbiz ethos and threw themselves into their music. They dumped the satin shirts and velvet loon pants and stripped down their back line. 

They set up a commune in a large house in Northwood, Middlesex, with space enough for roadies, dogs and manager Dave Robinson, and played music all day long. And in the aftermath of pop’s most ludicrous launch, Brinsley Schwarz, through sheer dedication, turned their name around and become a symbol for anti-hype.

The London pub-rock circuit of the 1970s was a springboard for Dr. Feelgood, Stiff Records and a British new wave scene that launched the careers of Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and Graham Parker. 

It came about as a direct result of the doomed launch of Brinsley Schwarz, and, although some might consider it a dodgy theory, it also helped to enable the rise of punk rock in the UK. ‘Pub rock’ is, of course, an absurd term, but it helps to round up the principal players. 

Ironically, this London-based scene was started by three American musicians. In 1970, US trio Eggs Over Easy were in London to make a record with former Animal and Jimi Hendrix manager Chas Chandler. The Eggs were Jack O’Hara, Brien Hopkins and Austin de Lone, all multi-instrumentalists whose repertoire veered from folk to Delta blues, via Dylan and country soul. 

Having run into a conflict with their American record label, they were forced to kick their heels in London while contractual problems blew over. Holed up in a rented house in Kentish Town, they discovered the Tally Ho, a nearby pub that presented jazz seven nights a week. 

One Sunday evening, O’Hara wandered along to the Tally Ho to enquire about the possibility of some gigs. “Sure we play jazz,” he told the barman. On May 3, 1971, Eggs Over Easy commenced a Monday-night residency at the Tally Ho, augmented by former Animal John Steel on drums. 

Within a few weeks, the pub got busier and their residency was increased to four sessions a week. On June 15, when the Eggs appeared at the Marquee, opening for Hardin & York, Dave Robinson was present, hustling dates for the Brinsleys. As soon as the Eggs finished their set, Robinson burst into the dressing room, introduced himself, and persuaded them to accompany him back to Northwood to meet the Brinsleys.

The following week, having heard about the Kentish Town barroom scene from the Eggs, Nick Lowe and Billy Rankin made the trip there and were immediately blown away by the music. Lowe was mightily impressed that the Eggs could call on more than 100 songs, and excitedly told his bandmates that he’d discovered ‘a living jukebox’. 

The Brinsleys, who were making an okay living playing the club and college circuit, suddenly decided that they, too, would play the Tally Ho, although it would take them several months to put together a suitable repertoire. In the meantime, the Eggs went off on a UK concert tour, opening for John Mayall. 

Their place at the Tally Ho was taken by Bees Make Honey, led by bassist and advertising agent by day Barry Richardson. The Bees, who cut their teeth on the Irish show-band circuit in the 60s, specialised in country music mixed with R&B and jump-jive, a highlight of their set being a raucous version of Louis Jordan’s Caldonia. By the time the Eggs returned from the Mayall tour, the Tally Ho was established as a rock music venue.

They made their final appearance there on November 7, 1971, before returning to the US with an unreleased album in the can and the legendary status of having initiated a scene that, for better or worse, was about to become known as ‘pub rock’.

Brinsley Schwarz made their Tally Ho debut on January 19, 1972, and slipped into the groove with ease. This was followed by a run of 12 consecutive Wednesdays, because residencies were considered ‘the thing’. Over the next 12 months, new venues came on stream, largely through the efforts of Dave Robinson and a young hustler named Dai Davies, who had been David Bowie’s publicist. 

Davies managed Ducks Deluxe, fronted by Sean Tyla. Their music was hard-driving punk rock, drawing on the up-tempo drive of MC5 and the street drawl of Lou Reed. “Encore? You don’t fucking deserve one!” Tyla would shout from the stage.

Insulting the audience notwithstanding, the Ducks became a top draw on a circuit that now included The Kensington in West Kensington, The Lord Nelson on Holloway Road and the Hope & Anchor in Islington. Events on the pub circuit received publicity courtesy of Charlie Gillett’s Honky Tonk radio show, broadcast every Sunday on BBC London.

Gillett, author of the seminal rock’n’roll history Sound Of The City, had the widest possible musical tastes, and would think nothing of spinning Albert King alongside the Beach Boys, or pairing Merle Haggard with James Brown. This eclectic mix reflected what was happening musically on the pub circuit, and Gillett’s show became a bulletin board for musicians. 

“If a band was looking for a new member, they would get in touch,” Gillett recalled. “Because there was the assumption that if a musician was listening to Honky Tonk, he could be trusted and was therefore worth contacting.”

The scene was soon enlivened by Kilburn And The High Roads, fronted by Ian Dury and managed by Gillett and Gordon Nelki. The Kilburns were mostly students from Canterbury School of Art, where Dury was a tutor, and had been ‘discovered’ by Dave Robinson during a performance at London’s Speakeasy club. They made their debut at the Tally Ho on January 10 , 1973. 

“The dressing room facilities were somewhat disgusting,” said Dury. "Fourteen-year-old junkies shooting up, and you’re three inches deep in piss and water… but we pretended we were at the Albert Hall.” 

The next two key groups to arrive, Ace and Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers, were both rooted in mid-60s mod band The Action. Ace were a nifty quintet that boasted the superior vocals of Paul Carrack and former Action man Alan ‘Bam’ King. Carrack would compose and sing Ace’s evergreen hit How Long

Chilli Willi, or ‘the Willies’ as they were affectionately known, had started as a country-blues duo comprising songwriter Phil Lithman, and guitarist Martin Stone, formerly of the Savoy Brown Blues Band and later The Action and Mighty Baby. With the addition of Paul ‘Diceman’ Bailey, Paul ‘Bassman’ Riley and drummer Pete Thomas, the Willies became one of the most entertaining acts on the circuit. 

Chilli Willi were managed by the fiery Andrew ‘Jake’ Jakeman, who had graphic artist Barney Bubbles devise the group’s superior packaging. Their humorous marketing slogans would, in 1976, form the basis of Stiff Records, by which time Jakeman had reinvented himself as Jake Riviera.

But in 1973, the goings-on at the Hope & Anchor merited little attention from the mainstream rock audience. As far as the masses were concerned, this was the era of the Marshall stack, the multi-speaker PA system, and larger-than-life on-stage posturing – the dawning, in fact, of stadium rock. 

“Pub rock was under the underground, two storeys down,” says Ducks Deluxe guitarist Martin Belmont. 

But pub rock allowed up-and-coming bands to play with the minimum of fuss and equipment, and quickly attracted press attention. The major record labels were soon on the scent; the Bees were signed by EMI, the Ducks went with RCA and the Kilburns signed to Dawn. But hits were not forthcoming. Recording-wise, it was a case of the blind leading the blind drunk. But all this was about to change.

On Canvey Island in the Thames Estuary, 35 miles east of London, four young musicians were formulating their take on rhythm and blues with a sparse, stripped-down sound reminiscent of the early Rolling Stones. Such a musical stance was extremely rare at the time, and it’s no exaggeration to say that, when combined with a stark sartorial swagger, they were completely unique. 

This is as good a place as any to retell the events of 1972 and ’73 from this writer’s perspective. I’d known guitarist John Wilkinson since 1966, when we both played in a local group called The Flowerpots. I was struck by his ability to play a stinging BB King-esque solo in Rock Me Baby, then switch to driving rhythm/lead guitar, Mick Green-style. 

In 1967, Wilkinson went off to university, followed by a sojourn to India. Upon his return in 1971, he told me about the “bunch of kids” on Canvey he was thinking of joining, the ‘bunch’ being the Pigboy Charlie Band, which included singer and slide guitarist Lee Collinson and bassist John Sparkes. 

In 1972, future Kursaal Flyers singer Paul Shuttleworth and I opened a sort of pub rock venue at The Esplanade on Southend seafront. We booked Wilkinson’s band, now known as Dr. Feelgood. They were briefly a five-piece, with John Potter (also ex-Flowerpots) on piano, and on one or two occasions I deputised when their drummer, John Martin, was working with his pop band Finian’s Rainbow (or ‘Flanagan’s Flamethrower’, as Lee called them). 

Dr. Feelgood were also the occasional backing group for former Tornados star Heinz, and in that role played the 1972 rock’n’roll spectacular at Wembley Stadium, down the bill to Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.

By a fortunate twist of fate, I had a friend, Kevin Percy, who was working for one of the booking agencies in London, and was connected to pub-rock mover and groover Dai Davies. For months I pestered Davies on Dr. Feelgood’s behalf, insisting that they were “made for the pub rock circuit”, and pleading for a gig. 

I remember in early ’73 standing with Wilkinson in Southend’s Top Alex pub (where Dr. Feelgood also performed), fantasising about becoming rock stars, with me insisting that a London engagement would soon materialise. 

“It’s not going to happen,” Wilkinson told me. He of little faith! But miraculously, Davies came through, and Dr. Feelgood were suddenly booked to appear at the Tally Ho on July 13, 1973. 

We all went up to town for this momentous event. It was otherwise sparsely attended, and Dr. Feelgood received a lukewarm response, their music being little more than a faithful replica of the Rolling Stones circa 1964. 

However, throughout the show I had my eye trained on Dai Davies, watching his every reaction, hoping he would get it. Luckily he did, and two weeks later he booked the band into the Lord Nelson. 

It was during this critical period that Dr. Feelgood sharpened up their appearance, with Wilkinson cutting off his shoulder-length hair and Collinson ditching his moustache. They soon adopted new personae – Lee Brilleaux, Sparko, The Big Figure and, in December, as my diary notes, Wilko Johnson. 

When Lee traded his denim Levi jacket for a cream narrow-lapel sports number, the transformation was complete. The shows that Dr. Feelgood played during the winter of 1973/74 were among the most exciting London had ever seen, particularly at the Kensington where the tiny stage faced the short wall, forcing punters – or at least those who could stand the heat – to cram into a space about the size of an average kitchen. 

Guitarist Wilko had begun his manic skittering, albeit in a confined space, and Lee seized on any prop within reach to dramatically emphasise key points in the songs they played, being mainly covers such as I’m A Hog For You Baby and Route 66. There was no question that Dr. Feelgood were going to become a major factor in a shakeup of the rock’n’roll attitude.

In 1975, having signed to United Artists, the Feelgoods were one of three acts on the Naughty Rhythms Tour of the UK, devised by ‘Jake’ Jakeman as a means of bringing pub rock to the masses. The other two acts, Kokomo and Chilli Willi, failed to make any real impression in the sticks, but for Dr Feelgood the tour was a triumph. 

Seventeen-year-old Paul Weller saw the show in Guildford and admits that the Feelgoods inspired the direction The Jam would go in. Graham Parker, who went on to success with The Rumour, was also present that night and acknowledges Lee Brilleaux as the motivation for his own career. 

The Feelgoods were creating havoc on a nightly basis, and won acres of coverage in the influential music press. Crucially, the band captured the imagination of the nation’s youth, or at least those who imagined themselves brandishing a guitar as a means of escaping the dole queue. 

By autumn 1976, when Dr. Feelgood hit number one in the UK with their Stupidity album, the music scene had been shaken up by the emergence of punk rock. Members of The Buzzcocks, The Clash, and The Damned have since owned up to being early Feelgood fanatics, and there is photographic evidence of the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon wearing a Dr. Feelgood badge (and grinning). 

The young audiences who propelled the punk groups to fame were precisely those same kids who had packed UK concert halls just a year earlier to see Brilleaux and co. cause a commotion. In this way, Dr. Feelgood single-handedly primed an audience for punk. Had that one band had not broken through on a national scale, it is doubtful whether things would have turned out quite the way they did.

Will Birch's No Sleep Till Canvey Island: The Great Pub Rock Revolution is available from Amazon.