Rock’n’Roll Won’t Get You Nowhere: an incredibly long and stupidly personal story about Flesh For Lulu

Nick Marsh of Flesh For Lulu

 

This story is pretty long, but it’s written in short chunks, so don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine. You can check your Facebook status every 300 words or so, whatever.

Even if you’ve never heard of Flesh For Lulu, you might like it. It has bits about boozing and drugs and there are a couple of fights (including a brawl with John Lydon), and stuff about gangsters, goths and a ghost. There’s an actual sword fight between Sisters Of Mercy singer Andrew Eldritch and Flesh For Lulu guitarist Rocco. It’s a story about friends – about how friends fall in and out of love – and about ambition and business and how things that should work out still don’t, sometimes. And it contains two stories about sudden illness, one of which ends in death.

_____________

 

On the morning of Nick Marsh’s funeral, James Mitchell dropped his kids off at school and drove across London to the service in Epping Forest where he met Lulu, the woman who gave her name to the band Mitchell had formed with Marsh, aged 19: Flesh For Lulu. 

That same morning, Kevin Mills – the man who played bass, wrote songs and managed Flesh For Lulu for most of their career – put an out-of-office message on his Pet Taxi business, got in his car and drove across town alone.

In Notting Hill, guitarist Rocco Barker took a handful of valium and drank Guinness all morning. “Just to get me through it,” he says. “I don’t remember anyone from the funeral. I was just in a haze.” 

It was hot. In different circumstances, you would have said it was a beautiful day. Jets from nearby North Weald Airfield roared across the sky. To a lot of the people crowding outside the building – because Nick Marsh’s final show was sold-out – it seemed triumphant, like Nick was getting his own military salute. 

The service was long and touching. Two of Nick’s friends sang If You Go Away, a Jacques Brel song that was covered by Scott Walker and Frank Sinatra and 21 past and present members of the Mediaeval Baebes sang together around his coffin. Afterwards, The Urban Voodoo Machine – the band Nick had played in for a decade or so – formed a New Orleans-style marching band and led the procession into the trees to the mournful sounds of St James Infirmary.

At the graveside, Nick’s young daughters, bid him goodbye. “When I come back in a year, daddy,” said one, “you’ll be a beautiful tree and we can play together.”

_____________

So there you go. That’s all the major characters and, yes, Nick dies in the end. This story does not have a happy ending. 

I was supposed to write this a couple of years ago but I messed up. I interviewed Nick’s wife Katherine - the week before his funeral - and then lost the recording. I took notes at the funeral and then lost the notebook. I was asked and tried to make a Wikipedia page for Nick but Wiki’s editors wouldn’t approve it. Nick, they said, was not ‘notable’ enough – his life, they felt, was covered in the Wiki entry on Flesh For Lulu. 

Then I lost Katherine’s interview and gave up. 

So this is me trying to make amends. This is the story – not of Nick, but of Flesh For Lulu. I spoke to all four core members and many of the others. 

It’s the story of a band. And it begins with a funeral and ends with Nick Marsh taking the piss out of my trousers.

Flesh for Frankenstein poster

James knew Lulu way before he’d met the rest of them. He’d shared a flat with her, his first flat in London after moving down from Scotland. It was mad: Lulu lived on the landing with her boyfriend; another guy lived in the flat’s tiny attic. Later, not long after the band had started, Lulu was standing in front of a poster for the Andy Warhol movie Flesh For Frankenstein and, bang, they had a name.

James had moved from Scotland to London to study drama and was in some terrible punk band. One day his mate told him about this guy he’d met at a party who was getting a band together. For some reason – and James still doesn't know what possessed him – he decided to go down to Brixton with his guitar to meet this guy. When he got there, Nick Marsh didn’t need a guitarist, he needed a drummer. Even though he’d never played drums, James got behind a borrowed kit, played a couple of bits and Nick said, “OK, let’s do it.” 

The two men came from completely different backgrounds. James came from a relatively comfortable background in Linlithgow and Nick had been brought up on a commune on the edges of London. But they had music in common – punk, Bowie, Alice Cooper, but also older stuff like Sinatra and Scott Walker – plus James had written a bunch of songs and was a handsome bastard, just like Nick. 

Nick was charming, charismatic and no slouch on guitar, either. And then there was his singing. “He had an absolutely amazing voice,” says James. “You heard his voice and his playing and that was something none of us could do. That was what made me drop out of university. When I first met him, it was almost like an instant love affair. I think it was the same for Kev and Rocco too. Rocco says he had to join us because he had to pay back his dealer and all of that – but it was Nick. He was just a lovely guy.”

Nick Marsh

Nick Marsh © Mick Mercer

When Rocco Barker was 15, his art teacher, a young guy from Yorkshire, invited him to a party after school. They had bonded over records by Alice Cooper, Van Der Graaf Generator and Iron Butterfly. 

At the party, Rocco got talking to this guy in a wheelchair, an old biker who’d had an accident or something, and he asked Rocco to follow him into a bedroom. 

But don’t worry, it’s not that kind of story. In the bedroom was a record player. “I want you to listen to this,” the old biker said and he chopped out a line of speed. “But before that, do this.” 

Rocco snorted the line of speed. “He was like ‘Good?’” remembers Rocco. “‘Now listen.’ And he turned it up full blast, lifted the needle and put on White Light, White Heat. And my fucking world went mental. I heard it and went ‘Fuuuuuck!’ That was it.”

James Mitchell, backstage at Derby 1983

James Mitchell, backstage at Derby 1983 © Mick Mercer

I’ve told this story before but I think it fits here: 

When he was 13, Nick’s mum ran a stall down Camden Market, back when the market was just half a dozen tables. There was always a busker down there – an old hippy type – and this gave Nick an idea. He could busk. After all, he had a guitar and he knew Blowin’ In The Wind and Ziggy Stardust. So one Saturday he gets down there early, gets his hat on the ground and is strumming away when the old hippy guy appears.

He comes over and eyes Nick-the-Kid up. “How long do you think you’ll be here?” he says.

Nick shrugs. “I dunno. Til I’ve got 50p?” he says.

The hippy puts his hand in his pocket and throws a coin at him. “Here’s 50p,” he says. “Now fuck off.”

A couple of years later, Nick’s at his first ever Clash gig: the Rock Against Racism rally at Victoria Park, April 1978. He’s standing right at the front and can’t believe his fucking eyes: “I know that geezer!” he shouted to anyone who’d listen. “I know that geezer!’”

The old hippy was fronting his new favourite band. He was Joe Strummer.

Nick and James

Nick and James © Mick Mercer

For a while, Flesh were a three-piece: Nick, James and Glen Bishop on bass. It was the time of Simple Minds and Haircut 100, and their demos were a bit Minds-y, a bit Depeche Mode and Talking Heads: white-boys-do-disco, with crisp Nile Rodgers guitars and nagging keyboard hooks.

They got a John Peel session and from that Polydor paid for them to do some demos and then quickly signed James and Nick up as the next Thompson Twins or some shit. 

Yeah, good luck with that.

Nick had rock’n’roll in his bones. He once told James that when he was a kid the only rule was “do whatever you want”. James remembers him going from one squat to the next, one girlfriend to another, or helping him do moonlight flits to get Nick out of places where he owed the landlord a ton of money. Even after the Polydor deal, he didn’t want to spend his money on trivial things like rent. 

“He ended up going down to this place that doesn't exist any more,” says James. “This place called Gypsy Hill in Crystal Palace. It was a whole tribe of squats, infamous in its day. We did some of our early gigs there, but it was quite rough – full of crusties and bikers.

“The first gig we did was at my university, and we had this whole crowd from Gypsy Hill there and that’s where the make-up thing happened.” The girls from Gypsy Hill took it upon themselves to give the young Flesh a gothic make-over. It became part of the stage show.

Rocco, 1983

Rocco, 1983 © Mick Mercer

By 1983, Rocco Barker was a minor league star. His band Wasted Youth were the talk of the music weeklies and looked like they could be big – if they stayed alive long enough. “I was on the front cover of Sounds and I couldn’t even play guitar, to be honest with you,” says Rocco. “I could literally only string a few chords together. That band was all non-musicians. We were part of that whole art mentality where we didn't give a fuck. We had a guy eating sandwiches with a lightbulb over his head and a vacuum cleaner while we all played one chord. And people just loved it! It was that kind of pretension that we were into, more than rock’n’roll.”

They worked with Martin Hannett and were produced by Peter Perrett of The Only Ones. By the time of their last gig at London’s Lyceum Ballroom, the whole band were heroin addicts. When they split, Rocco urgently needed a gig. “I needed money to keep my habit going. I was at my dealer’s house and he’d cut out this thing from Melody Maker and handed it to me. He was like, ‘Look: fucking pay me the money you owe me – get yourself a bloody job!’ So he handed it to me and it said ‘Guitarist wanted. Lou Reed and the Velvets, Iggy Pop & The Stooges and the Banshees’.”

Rocco rang the number in the ad, spoke to Peter Webber, the manager, and went down to audition. “I don’t think I was out of it,” he says, “but I wasn't full of enthusiasm or anything. I don't think my guitar had more than two strings on it, so I had to borrow a guitar. I probably played way out of tune and Nick had to tune me up, but I was actually pleasantly surprised. I really liked it. I thought, ‘Wow – this could be good.’”

In 2015, just months before he died, Marsh told me this same story. “He turned up with, like, a borrowed guitar, and he was nodding out in the audition,” he said. “And everyone else was like, ‘You don’t want that guy in the band, do you? He’s a junkie!’” But Nick saw something else. It became his personal mission to get Rocco away from all that. The band went on tour in Norway because they heard there was no junk there, and no way of getting it, and Rocco went cold turkey in the back of the van. “I had to hold on to this shivering, gibbering wreck for a couple of weeks,” said Nick. “But he meant it when he said he wanted to get away from it – he never did go back.”

“Within a year I was clean,” says Rocco. “I’d been on methadone and that didn’t work, but by pure coincidence, at the same time as joining Flesh For Lulu, I left my girlfriend that I’d been with for six years, since school. You kind of have to do that. I couldn't go back to where I lived because of the whole association thing. I managed to sever all my ties and almost start a new life.”

He started going out with someone who wasn't into heroin. Her parents were doctors and they recognised Rocco’s addiction and set about helping him. “Anthony, her dad – it was was unbelievable the way he helped me. So I had that support.”

James hadn’t seen anything like that before. Even Nick, raised on a commune, was still a bit naive. Rocco, on the other hand, was pure East End. Later, when they were touring America and people would say, “Hey man, where you from?” Rocco would say, “I’m from London. But I’m not from just any part of London. I was born in a place called West Ham. Plaistow. Canning Town. If you imagine the arsehole of London, the sphincter – where all the shit comes out – that’s where I was born…”

“In the East End you were either a junkie or a gangster,” says James. “I remember going to a pub with Rocco and I’d had a spot of bother with someone and this little guy comes up, Rocco’s Uncle Charlie, who’s on the run after some shooting up in Birmingham, and he’s like, ‘Roc tells me you're in a spot of bother – do you want me to sort him out?’ I’m like [timid, polite voice], ‘No, it’s OK, Uncle Charlie’.” 

Later, back at Rocco’s house, Rocco, his dad and his brothers were all completely pissed. James, being a nice middle class boy, made conversation with Rocco’s Italian mum, and tucked into the huge Sunday lunch she’d put on. He was the only person who ate a thing.

It was a pattern he’d see repeated on countless tours: “I would be trying to keep up appearances while the rest were all badly behaved.”

Rocco Barker © Mick Mercer

Rocco Barker © Mick Mercer

I tried to do some digging on Rocco’s Uncle Charlie, Googling phrases like ‘Charlie Barker east end gangs’ and so on. The most common result I got was for Charlie Richardson. Charlie and his brother Eddie ran The Richardson Gang. According to Wikipedia, the Richardsons “were an English crime gang based in South London, England, in the 1960s. Also known as the ‘Torture Gang’, they had a reputation as some of London's most sadistic gangsters. Their alleged specialities included pulling teeth out using pliers, cutting off toes using bolt cutters and nailing victims to the floor using 6-inch nails.” 

Serving a 25 year sentence, Charlie went on the run from an open prison in 1980. He was captured soon enough but by 1983 he was out on day release and a free man by ’84. 

I emailed Rocco. “I’ve got a crazy question,” I said. “Your Uncle Charlie – he wasn't Charlie Richardson, was he?” 

Rocco got back that same day: “He was part of the Richardsons at one point,” he said, “but no. He was a lone wolf, so to speak.”

Either way, it might go some way to explain Flesh For Lulu’s darker lyrics – all those references to guns and threats (‘Come on, open the door/I swear I won’t hit you no more’) and broken bones. 

Everything happens after dark.

flesh for lulu's roman candle EP

The Roman Candle EP

So now it was Nick, James, Rocco and Glen Bishop. The music had started to change. Rocco had brought a level of white noise and rock’n’roll abandon to the Flesh For Lulu sound and you could hear it on their first record, the Roman Candle EP. 

Written by Nick, Roman Candle sounded like Lou Reed arranged by Ennio Morricone and played by Adam and the Ants – all twanging guitars and chain gang backing vocals. Coming Down was sexy, woozy psychedelia (‘My lips turned blue when I kissed you’), written by James and inspired by Coming Down Again from the Stones’ Goats Head Soup. Lame Train was the first sign that they could carry a pop hook, but it still sounded like a message to Polydor: ‘Where your train is going, I don’t wanna go…

Polydor were horrified. A&R guy Alan Sizer was furious. They’d signed a pop duo and got a record from some dirty fucking rock band! To add insult to injury, Roman Candle actually did decent business and got good reviews, so if the label just dropped them, they’d look like dicks. Polydor were not happy with this unexpected success, not one bit.

Rocco and Glen Bishop

Rocco and Glen Bishop © Mick Mercer

I wrote and edited this by myself, so there’s only me to blame. I didn’t get paid for writing it, so word count wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t commissioned and I didn’t have a deadline. I did all the research, and interviews and and transcribed them all, except one. My friend Lianne transcribed the Kevin Mills interview and it drove her mad. In her notes she wrote, like the pro she is, “The interview was difficult to transcribe at times because Kevin sometimes tails off at the end of his sentences. He also has a tendency to mumble slightly. When recalling funny events, Kevin tends to laugh and talk at the same time, and is also eating during the interview, which makes the dialogue harder to decipher.” 

I interviewed Kevin by himself in some pub near his house. His dog, a Jack Russell, was there and, frequently, we both talk to it too. I spoke to James and Rocco together and then separately; Rocco in his workshop in Westbourne Park and James at a tapas bar in Ladbroke Grove.

The Nick Marsh interview most quoted in this piece is from 2005. I interviewed Nick maybe three times in total and 2005 was the first time. We met during the day in Bar Italia in Soho. The interview was recorded on a C90 tape and the recording is a nightmare: full of background noise, music, and the clatter of cups on saucers. 

Lianne would’ve hated transcribing that one.

Kevin Mills

Kevin Mills © Mick Mercer

Kevin Mills first met Flesh For Lulu at The Batcave, the club night he used to run as part of Specimen. Specimen had been formed in Bristol and moved to London to seek fame or infamy. After their first gig at Dingwalls, the venue banned them. “We trashed the mic stand or something like that,” says Kevin. “They were like, ‘You will never work at Dingwalls again!’ and we were like, ‘Thank God for that, it’s a shithole.’”

Unable to get a gig, singer Ollie had a brainwave: they would get their own club and play anytime they wanted. Ollie went to see this old dude Maurice, who ran a burlesque strip club above Gossips, just off of Dean Street in the heart of Soho, back when Soho was Soho, and Maurice said, “Well, I’ll give you one night: if you can fill it, you can have it every Wednesday.” So, they did. They stuffed the place full of all kinds of crazy people and the Batcave was up and running.

In no time, it out-grew Maurice’s strip club and became one of the biggest club nights in London. It was the Ground Zero of Goth and the money from the Batcave bank-rolled the whole Specimen operation.

“In the 80s there was a real tendency for mid-week clubs,” says Kevin. “Weekends were for the ‘bridge and tunnel people’, you know, all the people who came in from Essex and Hertfordshire to go to The Hippodrome or something. The cool cats went out in the middle of the week.”  

It was 1983, ’84 – the ‘goth movement’ hadn’t really been invented. “Everybody goes, ‘Oh yeah, Flesh For Lulu: goth band,’” says Kevin, “but goth wasn’t really a look then. Flesh For Lulu were really a rock’n’roll band with big hair. Loads of jewellery and make up and stuff, but essentially a rock band with punk influences and lots more – a lot of soul and country. All kinds, really.”

One day Nick picked up a pair of his girlfriend’s fishnet tights, tore a hole in the gusset and put his head through it, stuck his arms into the legs and was like, “Hey, how’d you like my new look?” Everyone pissed themselves so, for a laugh, he goes down the Batcave dressed like that. Siouxsie Sioux was there. Three days later, she’s on Top of The Pops wearing Nick’s look. “She totally copped that off me, man,” said Nick. “And now goths around the world are dressed like that. That’s my claim to fame – it’s more of a claim than being in the fucking band…”

_________

Back in 2005, when Nick told me this, he added, “Steve Severin can verify this – he gave me a fridge two weeks ago!” Steve Severin was the bass player for Siouxsie & The Banshees. I am Facebook friends with Steve – even though we’ve never met or spoken and he has never given me any white goods – so I messaged him and asked him if he could confirm. 

Not. A fucking. Sausage.

_________

Kevin booked the bands at the Batcave and Flesh For Lulu stood out. Things were coming to an end with Specimen for him – it was all getting a little bit too camp and cabaret. After Marsh died, Kevin wrote on Facebook that he joined Flesh For Lulu in 1984 “because I wanted to play in a band with Nick. Something about Flesh For Lulu made them stand out from the hundreds of bands on the London club circuit. That something was Nick.” He had it all, said Kevin: “a great voice, a huge stage presence, a fistful of spiky, melodic tunes, he played a cool Fender Jazzmaster with a punk attitude – he was a killer guitarist with an instinctive grasp of soul music, rock & roll, r&b, Tamla, Atlantic, Stax, blues, country and punk – and of course he was a handsome bastard as well.” 

Kevin Mills watched Flesh For Lulu play the Batcave and he thought: “This band are amazing. Well, all except the bass player.”

So soon Glen was out, Kevin was in and Rocco was worried. “To be honest, I didn't want Kev in the band,” says Rocco. “That girl I mentioned, whose parents were doctors? The ones who got me off heroin? Kev was madly in love with her and she’d left him. Luckily for me – I may not have been alive if it wasn’t for her. What I didn’t know until later, is that she was Kevin’s girlfriend. So I thought, ‘The worst thing that can happen, is that Kevin’s going to join my band – that’s going to make it really sticky.’”

And Kevin Mills wasn’t just joining the band – he was taking over. Kevin was driven and he was a fan, a Flesh For Lulu convert, who thought they could be huge and set about making it happen. “The first thing I did,” says Kevin, “was go, ‘Who’s this guy that’s managing you? He’s useless, can you not get rid of him?’ And that was Pete Webber, who’s still a really good friend of mine – I have no idea why, after that.”

Peter Webber had some experience of management as part of the Psychedelic Furs operation. Kevin waded right in: “Pete, man, why are you only paying these guys ten quid a week? Nobody can live on that.” Kevin gave Flesh For Lulu a shake and Peter Webber fell out. “I think Nick and James went to Pete Webber and said, ‘Look Pete, it’s not really working out.’ I felt kind of guilty about that, but I also thought it was for the best. We were all quite driven in those days. I basically took charge of that band after he left.” 

This meant that Kevin managed the band, tour managed the band, played in the band and helped write songs for the band for the majority of their career. All of them agree that this was a mistake. 

“It nearly killed me,” says Kevin. “Honestly. I was a bit of a tyrant.”

Nick Marsh, Kevin Mills, Rocco Barker, James Mitchell

L-R: Nick Marsh, Kevin Mills, Rocco Barker, James Mitchell © Mick Mercer

This is how Rocco and James remember Flesh For Lulu’s management situation:

Rocco: Peter wasn’t sacked.

James: Yes, he was. 

Rocco: I didn’t think Peter was sacked – I thought he left!

James: Kev kinda took over and that was disastrous.

Rocco: Who sacked Pete then?

James: I think we all did.

Rocco: Well, I didn’t – I didn't even know about it!

James: I think Nick did, because again, there was this thing about wanting to go to another level, and get a bigger manager. But then Kev doing it put a lot of strain on him because he was in two camps. If we’d had decent management, it could have had a different outcome. A manager could have said, “Cut the shit, forget about making a hit record, just do what you do.”

Rocco: Well, we had Ivor The Bastard, didn’t we?

James: But he wasn’t a proper manager.

Rocco: He was a tour manager, wasn’t he? But when we were with Static [Records] he was sort of managing us, wasn’t he?

James: Ish.

Rocco: Well, he was staying up all night and taking speed with us…

James: The next step up was supposed to be Perry Watts-Russell. But then he got ill. We literally signed with him and then he went, “Oh, actually, I’m ill, I can’t do this.”

This was later, when they really were close to becoming big time, when they had songs on Hollywood movies and were hanging out with Matt Dillon and John Hughes. Perry Watts-Russell was the brother of Ivo Watts-Russell, the 4AD guy. Perry was based in LA, and well-connected. He was exactly what they were looking for: a guy with some clout and a bit of vision. But within two months of signing with him, Watts-Russell came down with some sort of dreadful condition that laid him up. He was bed-ridden. Incapacitated. They had signed with a manager who was now literally incapable of managing.  

They couldn't even get him on the phone. His people would answer and say, “He can’t really talk at the moment – he’s in a really bad way.” 

“And I was in this terrible position,” says Kevin, “because I’m like, well, shit, you know, I really feel for the guy but at the same time: who the fuck is looking after us?

Nobody was taking care of business. Eventually, the contract was cancelled by mutual request and Kevin took over again. 

Flesh For Lulu

Flesh For Lulu © Mick Mercer

Back in 1984, Glen was out, session man Phil Spalding finished the job and Kevin Mills’s face was on the cover of Flesh For Lulu’s self-titled debut album, despite not having played a note on it. In Sounds, Chris Roberts gave it four and three quarters out of five and Jack Barron called Restless and Subterraneans “two of the most exciting singles I’ve heard this year”. 

While the rest of goth pack were trying to sound creepy and icy cold, Flesh For Lulu were warm and sexy, with a Stonesy swagger and a sinister turn of phrase. ‘We’re gonna break both his legs,’ went Hyena. ‘We are the dogs/The ones that bite to scar forever,’ went Dog, Dog, Dog. They were part Brixton and part Brooklyn, Nick’s voice Elvis-in-Vegas rich, Lou Reed cool, Sinatra smooth, the music cooked on the same spoon as Alice Cooper, Bowie, Johnny Thunders and The Only Ones, reverb guitars shuddering in the background, with choruses that bit and scarred forever.

flesh for lulu's debut album

It’s easy to write a story like this and focus on all the negatives – ‘Where did it all go wrong?’ – but this is the period where it all went right. 

“When it started to take off, it was heaven,” says James. “You’re in a band, doing what you want to do…”

They met crazy people. Like Dead Or Alive’s Pete Burns who once, down the Batcave, took off one of his stilettos and smacked Specimen guitarist Jon Klein on the head with it. “And the heel of the stiletto,” said Nick, “was stuck in his forehead! Jon Klein’s standing there with a fucking shoe sticking out his head! And then he pulls it out and blood shoots up like a fucking oil-well…”

The first big American tour, they hired a car, just the four of them, and the crew went in the van. They played all these seedy places, stayed in whorehouses. In Texas, pockets stuffed with narcotics, they got pulled over by cops, fucking police dogs jumping up on them. But instead of nicking them, the Sheriff got a kick out of these English freaks and let them hold their guns and pose for pictures.

One time in Brussels they got into a mass brawl with a bunch of football hooligans, Kevin swinging one guy into a plate glass window, thinking, ‘Oh, fuck’ as he let him go and, the guy just bouncing off it BOINNNG!! coming back into the room, arms swinging. 

In Holland in 1985 they played a whole set of country and Cajun covers, stuff they’d been listening to on the tour bus: Bobby Charles and Lost Highway by Hank Williams. The writer Kris Needs came on tour to write a feature and made the band all these tapes – hip-hop, gospel, country, you name it – and it seeped into the music. James has still got those tapes.

Maybe one day someone will write a book about Flesh For Lulu and, if they do, this is where all the gold lies. The stuff about drinking moonshine in Norway, or hitting post-Franco Spain, where everyone was up for a party and completely off their faces, or Aberdeen as the oil money kicked in and it was like the Wild West (“There were men fighting women, women fighting men, bouncers fighting each other…”). Then there’s the American strippers that, you know, looked after Nick and James, and the time Sisters Of Mercy frontman and fencing-enthusiast Andrew Eldritch challenged Rocco to a very public duel outside in the university campus in Glasgow and Rocco totally whipped him. 

“I went to one of the worst schools in London,” he says, “but they had this scheme for under-privileged kids and, you know, the fat kid and big nose are the last ones to be picked for the football team, so…” 

So he took up fencing and made it as far as the Junior Olympic squad.

Eldritch was in his full gear, Rocco in a pair of leather trousers, some stuff borrowed from the sport department and holding a walking stick: “I’d jumped off a flight of stairs, off my head, y’know,” he says. “I didn’t break my ankle but I couldn’t walk for two months.” 

It didn’t hinder his fencing. 

“I fucking thrashed him,” he says. “I killed him. He didn't have a chance.”

There are nice quiet moments too, like the time after a gig at the Ayr Pavilion in Scotland, they went swimming in the sea at night. “Somebody went, ‘Hey do you want to all come back to our place? Let’s go for a swim first’,” says Kevin. “We were like, ‘Fuck off,’ but everybody just piled down to the water and went skinny dipping. And it was brilliant. We just couldn’t believe it – the water was warm. I remember James saying something like, ‘Yeah, it’s the Gulf Stream,’ like, ‘Why are you so surprised? It’s beautiful here. It’s always warm on the West Coast of Scotland.’”

“Between 84-86 is mostly a big blur to me,” Nick wrote later. “Riding the night bus from Brixton to the West End in white leather mini-skirts in Thatcher Era Britain. We lived it. The stories are in the songs.” 

© Mick Mercer

This was Flesh’s golden age and the songs came easily. Finally dropped by Polydor, they got a deal with a small label called Hybrid, an imprint of Statik records, a Glaswegian label that also released records by The Chameleons, The Sound and Men Without Hats. Their first release was a 5-song EP called Blue Sisters Swing. Lead track Seven Hail Marys was written in Hamburg, where Rocco remembers Nick fucking around with an old Frank Zappa song, Jelly Roll Gum Drop, and feeling guilty about using the same melody.

The song's lyrics about sin and Catholic guilt – no sin goes unnoticed by God’s all-seeing eyes, that kind of thing – were made flesh by the sleeve, an old 18th or 19th century engraving of two nuns making out while someone spied on them from below. Rocco says he spotted it in a book his girlfriend had and Nick hand-coloured it. 

“It was just a bit of fun,” shrugs Rocco. 

Predictably, in America far-right Christian groups came to their gigs to protest. 

“We were like, ‘Who are they protesting against?’” says James. “Oh, us.”

Le Reve Claustral by Clovis Trouille (1952) and Blues Sisters Swing by Flesh For Lulu (1985)

Left: Le Reve Claustral by Clovis Trouille,1952, and (right) Blue Sisters Swing by Flesh For Lulu,1985

In fact, the picture on the sleeve is not some ancient engraving. It’s from 1952 – just 33 years earlier – and called ‘Le Reve Claustral’ by Clovis Trouille, a French artist whose earliest work pre-dated the Surrealists. 

The title ‘Le Reve Claustral’ (sometimes translated as ‘Monastic Dreams’) probably comes from a work of the same name by a turn-of-the-century French poet called Germain Nouveau – a poem that also seems to be about forbidden desire in a convent. 

So was this an innocent mix up or a cheeky blag? The poet Germaine Nouveau was a friend of Rimbaud and Verlaine, two poets that James was reading and inspired by (“I was into poetry,” James told me, explaining the lyrics of Death Shall Come. “Arthur Rimbaud and Verlaine and all that sort of stuff at that point”) so it was certainly something they could have stumbled across. 

Equally, it’s not hard to imagine Rocco tearing a black and white version out of a book and, separated from context, forgetting the picture’s origins, or getting them muddled in his head. The Flesh version has been re-coloured, after all, and this was way before Google made all this stuff easily researchable. 

I don’t know the answer and I don’t really care. I just enjoyed stumbling around the internet like a goth-rock Columbo.

© Mick Mercer

Other highlights on Blue Sisters Swing included I May Have Said You’re Beautiful But You Know I’m Just A Liar, which stomped like the Stooges despite Nick having written it on Ecstasy at New York’s famous Danceteria club, while a pre-fame Madonna worked behind the bar “in full Batcave garb”. 

Rocco chuckled darkly through the goth-girl-group-country-folk of Who’s In Danger? and James contributed Death Shall Come, possibly Flesh For Lulu’s only real goth song, a brilliantly morbid epic that sounds unlike anything else. 

“If I was asked to invent the perfect rock’n’roll band, I’d probably model it pretty closely on Flesh For Lulu,” Jane Simon wrote in her review in Sounds.

the Big Fun City album from 1985

Big Fun City, 1985

After Blue Sisters Swing came Big Fun City. Produced by Craig Leon, it was their greatest album. They choose Leon, said Nick, because “he was responsible for three of our all-time favourites, the Ramones first album, Parallel Lines from Blondie and Suicide”. In turn, Leon chose Olympic Studios because of all the vintage equipment they had – gear that had recorded Led Zeppelin, Bowie, The Who and more. The band, said Nick, “were happy to see if the spirit of Sympathy For The Devil was still bouncing off the walls”. 

It was. The Spirit of Sympathy For The Devil had been hanging around Olympic Studios, smoking fags out the back with The Ghost of Wild Thing and taking the piss out of the Phantom of A Night At The Opera. He was just waiting for a band like Flesh For Lulu to come along. 

New boy Kev contributed the first single Baby Hurricane (“That might have been the first song I wrote for Flesh, actually”), a deliciously dumb rock song that’s probably about blow jobs but still sounds like a radio hit. Cat Burglar – originally the b-side to Restless – was remade and remodelled by a band at the top of their game and full of ambition: ‘Kick open that door 'cause I want more and I want it now’. 

Rent Boy’s piano part vamped and stumbled like Mike Garson’s intro to Bowie’s Lady Grinning Soul, while a brass section swelled and Nick’s rich voice made being a male sex worker sound like a pretty solid career move: ‘Everything that you do/She’s gonna use you/Cindy’s got a job for you/And there’s bucks in it too’.

Golden Handshake Girl was Sweet Jane-Goes-Stax. Just One Second, a gorgeous Gram Parsons-style country song. Craig Leon got them to play the backing tracks live, giving the album a loose rock’n’roll feel that they would never recapture.

The Spirit of Sympathy For The Devil was pretty pleased with himself.

Outside of the spirit world, though, no-one gave too much of a shit. Big Fun City went unnoticed by the mainstream. In 1985, the indie music press had The Smiths and The Jesus And Mary Chain to get excited about. Flesh For Lulu were not heavy enough for Kerrang! and not goth enough for the audience they’d attracted through tours with Specimen and The Sisters Of Mercy.

“We didn't really know what we were doing,” says Rocco. “We only knew we wanted to be a rock’n’roll band and that we didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a goth band.”

Their brilliant, open-hearted eclecticism was their undoing. “I think it harmed us,” says Rocco. “I wouldn't change it, but I think it made it difficult for record companies knowing how to market us. Rock’n’roll wasn't that successful then either. Hanoi Rocks did alright, but they were quite cartoonish. They were like the New York Dolls and they toured with Johnny Thunders. But a band like us, playing a country song and a weird goth thing…” 

There was one plus: Beggars Banquet, the home of Bauhaus and The Cult, became their new label.

Nick and Rocco onstage in London, 1984.

Nick and Rocco, London, 1984. (Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns)

Struggling to connect in the UK, Flesh For Lulu looked elsewhere.

Not only were Flesh in love with the music of the USA, they were treated better over there. “You’d turn up at somewhere like Retford Porterhouse and go, ‘Where’s our rider?’” says Kevin. “‘Where are all the beers and stuff?’ and the bloke would go, ‘You’ve got four fucking cans of Kestrel lager. Take it or fucking leave it.’ There was just this endless,” he searches for the words, “…being treated like cunts, basically. 

“Then we went to America and there’d be like two bottles of tequila, a crate of wine, a massive table heaving with buffet, all really nice food. You’d give them a rider and they’d actually give it to you!  And the audiences were amazing. They’d go crazy, fucking mental, and we just went, ‘Let’s play here for the rest of our lives’.”  

On their first tour of the US, they took turns driving. Rocco would drive in the morning so that he could drink at night. “The problem was getting me up,” he says. “So Kev used to put a big line of coke next to my bed, and tap me on the shoulder – ‘Up!’ – and I’d do the first stint.”

Who, I asked Kevin, was the main troublemaker in the band? “Rocco,” he said, without a second thought. “He might deny this, but – if you speak to him and he denies it – he’s lying. He knows full well.

“Unfortunately, Roc substituted the skag for booze and for the next few years he was consistently out of it, basically. In a lot of ways, Roc was the ultimate rocker…”

It got really tiresome after a while, he says, because Rocco was just permanently off the hook, and he tells me this story to illustrate: They were in the States, somewhere like Cleveland, staying in some posh hotel, and Rocco and Mark Edwards, one of the road crew, went to the bar. 

“There was a bunch of guys in suits drinking. Rocco’s already completely out of it. He reels up to the bar, and mumbles, ‘Jack and Coke,’ and the guy behind the bar goes, ‘No, you’ve had enough, buddy,’ So Rocco went, ‘Give me a fucking Jack and Coke’. 

“He’s pointing at these businessmen going, ‘They’ve got fucking drinks, why can’t I have a drink?’ So, the guy went, ‘I told you, I’m not serving you, get the fuck out.’”

But Rocco didn’t get the fuck out. Instead, “he got his cock out and just started pissing literally all over the bar, and all over these guys.” When the barman went for his baseball bat, Mark grabbed Rocco and the two of them ran.

“We all kind of held him in this sort of weird awe for doing things like that,” says Kevin, “because it was true rock’n’roll behaviour. I mean, none of us would do shit like that. But the reason Nick and Roc became such a team, was because Nick wasn’t like that and I think he always wanted to be. Nick wanted to be more like Rocco.

“He wanted to be more rock’n’roll and that became a bit of a problem as well, because he started drinking more, taking more drugs and trying to affect a more outrageous persona.”

“Nick and Rocco took it to another level,” says James, “so me and Kev became the sensible ones. I think Nick tried to keep up with Roc. And maybe he wasn't as strong as he was. Roc’s a real survivor. And Nick had more pressure on him. He had this insecurity…”

“I think Nick needed me cos I’m quite fearless,” says Rocco. “I don't give a fuck. Maybe because I come from such a rough background. I don’t think Nick wanted to be like me – I think he saw something in me that he wanted to possess. The way I saw, I’d kick the door down and then, when we get in there, ‘Sort it out, Nick’. Cos Nick was always the boss, the way I saw it. He was always the Guv’nor.”

“To me, it’s not just about the music, it’s the whole lifestyle of it. Whatever people say about touring, apart from being onstage, it’s still incredibly boring. How bands go on tour sober, I don’t know. I don't know how the fuck they do that. I just couldn’t imagine it. Staring out of a window all day, reading your book, whatever.

“I did do a gig sober once, I hated it. Nick made me do it. I just couldn’t wait to get off.

“For me, there’s been some amazing artists and as soon as they stop drinking or doing drugs, they just turn crap. They just never write another good song. And if me and Nick were still doing it, we’d still be at it.”

Nick onstage London 1984

Nick, London 1984

The division between The Drinkers and The Sensible Ones affected the band’s writing. 

By Blue Sisters Swing, they were all writing. They didn’t write together. Instead, individual members would bring in their songs almost fully finished. They would rehearse it and, if it worked out, the songwriting credit went to the whole band.  

“Then after a little while it got a bit fractious,” says Kevin, “because James and I ended up writing the bulk of the songs, and Nick and Rocco had, sort of, laid back a bit.” 

The Drinkers weren’t really contributing as much and Kev was really disappointed in that: “I really wanted Nick to write the bulk of the songs. I just thought he was a great song writer. I wanted to write but I didn’t want to become the dominant songwriter. I wanted Nick and James to carry on writing together. I was a big fan of their writing.”

Eventually The Sensible Ones came to a sensible conclusion: that if they were going to do all the writing, they should get all the songwriting credits too. “We really did it to give Nick a kick up the arse,” says Kevin. Nick and Rocco got really upset, like ‘We can’t do that, we’re a band’ and in the end they came to a compromise: the whole band got a credit, but the person that actually wrote the song also got their name on it. 

And that’s the way they went into next album, Long Live The New Flesh, recorded at Abbey Road with Mike Hedges. 

“There were a couple of sticky moments,” says Rocco. “I mean, that song, Way To Go. Just: what the fuck is that? It sounds like Simply Red. It’s awful.”