The Story of the March Violets & the Batfish Boys

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Simon Denbigh sits in a Turkish restaurant in London, plying Classic Rock with psychedelic cider (or Psydwr, as he’s called it – cider and wormwood, the active ingredient in absinthe) and talk is getting trippy. Like his account of a recent gig with The Sisters Of Mercy in an area of (where else?) Transylvania plagued by giant moths.

“We arrived for a soundcheck and they’d been testing the lights – there were dead moths everywhere,” he says. “But the worst bit was the wasps, coming to collect the dead moths. You’re on stage and these big nasty Transylvanian wasps are flying past, carrying dead moths. And then that night when we were playing – I have not seen anything like it. There were millions of moths. I ate two. I know that the backing singer ate at least three. I couldn’t actually see my keyboard: it was covered in moths. I had a hat and shades and they were walking around the brim of the hat – the bastards! – and then walking under my shades. Orange with little black dots on the wings, millions of them. It was the most horrendous shit I’ve had for a long time.”

Denbigh – who at various times has gone by the names Simon Diablo, Simon Dee, Sigh and Simon Detroit – looks like Alan Moore’s younger brother: bearded, northern, dressed in black, and with an air of ‘the old world’ about him. Though in this case, ‘the old world’ is the 80s.

Leeds in the 1980s. On January 2, 1981, Peter Sutcliffe is arrested and charged with the vicious killings of 13 women around the Leeds/Bradford area. Sutcliffe claims that God told him to do it, His voice coming from the grave of a Polish man, Bronislaw Zapolski. The policies of Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher – who will rule for the entire decade – decimate the working-class north. By 1982, unemployment exceeds three million for the first time since the 1930s. In 1984-85 the miner’s strike sees pitched battles between pickets and mounted police all over Yorkshire. Names like Orgreave and Maltby are on the news nightly.

Out of Leeds comes a throng of rock bands whose music is as dark and twisted as the times they’re living in: The Sisters Of Mercy, The Three Johns, Mekons, Gang Of Four, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and Denbigh’s similarly drum machine-driven March Violets. They’re largely forgotten now, but in their time the Violets get music-press front covers, record sessions for John Peel and Janice Long, and release a succession of 12-inch singles, the best of which (Snake Dance and Walk Into The Sun) deserve to stand shoulder to shoulder with She Sells Sanctuary, Bela Lugosi’s Dead and Alice as classics of the time.

It ended as quickly as it began and Denbigh fell into The Batfish Boys, a goth swamp-rock band with inspired and unhinged lyrics that mutated into a deranged hard rock outfit, pre-dating Zodiac Mindwarp and the ‘grebo’ movement that briefly brought hairy-arsed rock into the indie charts. But while acts like Pop Will Eat Itself went for laddish comedy, Denbigh favoured genuinely clever word-play and comedy of the dark and demented kind. Never hip, never embracing the goth or the grebo tags the press tried to put on them (“I’d lived in Norfolk for a bit and there a grebo was a greasy knobhead who pretended to have a motorbike but didn’t. They had a helmet. And were a helmet…”), The Batfish Boys ploughed their own furrow, signing with Motorhead’s label GWR, touring with UFO, before falling into the deep ‘where-are-they-now?’ wormhole of 80s alternative rock.

The Batfish Boys are a perfect example of the great unwashed and un-hip acts that other magazines refuse to remember because they’re too busy trying to rewrite the past. Weirdly, it has fallen to Classic Rock to remember these acts: the goths, psychobillies and sleaze rockers that populated the 80s. (Ironically the ancestors of these bands ARE celebrated by the trendier press: “I listen to stuff now and I can hear people we’ve influenced, even though they might not know it,” says Simon. “The Editors – I’m sure they’ve listened to our stuff. Whether it’s secondhand – someone else has and they’ve heard it through them, but…”)

Today Simon Diablo offers a waitress in the restaurant a drink of his Psydwr. She has a sip and makes a face. It tastes sour and tangy, is high in alcohol content, and does not sparkle. She prefers Magners, she says. It’s the perfect metaphor for the man’s music. Some people like their music the same way as their cider: sweet, bland, fizzy and safe. Other people want to taste the fruit, feel the buzz.

The story starts, like so many, with John Peel.

“John Peel made me the man I am,” says Denbigh. “He was one of the greatest things for British music, ever. Look what’s happened now he’s gone – the whole thing’s collapsed. Radio’s in a terrible state. No offence to the guys who are trying, but there isn’t the acceptance in an institutional sense. John Peel made things happen and nobody could really stop him.

“6Music is pretty good. And I don’t even like most of the stuff that they play – but that was the same with John Peel, you know? I hated a lot of the stuff he played, but I would never have got to hear it otherwise and had the choice. There just isn’t the filtering online. People are giving each other 4G of music ­– the entire recorded collection of music – and they’re never gonna listen to it. It’s impossible.

“I’ve listened to loads of music just because I’ve got the years under my belt – but you have to put the time in, don’t you? You can’t play Tom Waits for five seconds and then make a judgment on whether you like it or not, you’ve got to listen to the whole album…”

Simon had been at university in Leeds, sharing a house with Craig Adams (future bassist for The Sisters Of Mercy, The Mission, The Alarm, The Cult, Spear Of Destiny etc) and drumming up an idea for a drum-machine led band with male and female vocals.

“I’d always wanted to do something different with male and female vocals,” he says. “There wasn’t anything at that time: maybe Peters & Lee or that Meat Loaf thing. There wasn’t anything male and female with an equality about it – I didn’t want just a backing singer, I wanted a partner at the front. And then there was the drum machine side of things. That came about from using it to rehearse with and then realising it was a very handy thing to have. But that was very basic stuff. Dr Rhythm was the first programmable drum machine basically. It only had four sounds in it and no midi and it ran on batteries.

“The only other drum machine bands around at the time were things like Blancmange – this grey, dismal nonsense. And even earlier bands like Suicide were quite laid back whereas what we were trying to do was punk, so it had to be fast. And when I go back over the bpms of this stuff it’s all, like, 160. A lot faster than I remember it. It’s weird doing it again at that speed. But obviously when you’re young and full of energy, the guitarist’s thrashing away, down-strokes only…”

Leeds was an interesting place at that time: the Sisters, The Three Johns, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, The Mekons, Rose Of Avalanche, Salvation… Was it because of a record label?

“Not really. There was Merciful Release [The Sisters Of Mercy’s label] which we had two singles out on, the first two singles. The way it worked in those days was with independent records and ‘independent’ then meant you doing it yourself. I had a deal with Red Rhino where they paid for you to record and make the record and then they’d take most of the profit but give you some back and you’d reinvest or just go: ‘We want to make another record.’ It was a good way of doing it. They made an awful lot of money, but we got to do it the way we wanted to, with no interference, make our own decisions, do our own sleeves.

“From my point of view, the reason why we were liked was genuine. We didn’t take out any adverts, ever. Whereas later, it was like: ‘You want us to do a feature? Well, how much advertising are you taking?’ Suddenly you needed backing. There was the indie charts and then there was the commercial Gallup charts. Independent meant ‘not supported by the majors’ and then eventually the indie labels were being funded by the majors…”

The Violets did a four-track demo at a studio in Bridlington and “I sent Peel a copy in amongst a tray of potted African Violets, which landed on his desk and I got a phone call from him saying [gruff voice]: ‘Ah well. You better come in then.’ So we ended up doing a recording session in the most ridiculous recording studio I’d ever been in [Maida Vale]. And that was before we released a record. And then I sorted the deal out with Rhino, put the thing out on Merciful Release and never looked back. But it was John Peel. I defy anybody to have made it in those days without him – apart from the pop stuff, of course.”

The north was buzzing with new bands and scenes. “Leeds was a happening scene. It was one of those places because it was very dark. I think it happened in Leeds because we all wanted to be The Stooges. It was about being individualistic – there wasn’t an attempt to create a scene at all. The whole goth thing – that all just got labelled by journalists, really. Sounds, NME and Melody Maker – as usual created a scene to give them something to write about. I’ve always rebelled against that.

“There was Southern Death Cult. Danse Society were one of the earliest bands up there, from Barnsley. Southern Death Cult were from Bradford. I’m from Bradford originally. Sisters and the Violets were from Leeds and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry came along eventually. But I moved to Leeds because of The Mekons and The Gang Of Four. I loved The Gang of Four. And they used to hang out in the Faversham Hotel.

“There were scenes like it in Liverpool and Manchester. I will say though – you’d listen to bands from Liverpool and it’d be like: ‘You sound exactly like the Bunnymen.’ ‘No – we’ve got a sax player!’ ‘Yeah – you’re like the Bunnymen with a sax player.’ Or whatever. ‘We’ve got an alpine horn here!’ ‘Yes, you’re like the Bunnymen with an alpine horn…’ Whereas the majority of bands from round our way were very unique, I thought, and they only got lumped together because of the location. And then the London scene took off. Bands like Alien Sex Fiend were going long before it all got called goth. Then Sex Gang Children, Ritual and those bands – much more eyeliner – a much more fashionable scene. The Leeds club scene was all Gun Club, Bauhaus, Siouxsie And The Banshees, loads of Bowie, Stooges, all of that kind of stuff, all the post punk stuff…”

Influenced by The Higsons fronted by Charlie Higson (later of The Fast Show/Swiss Toni fame), the Violets weren’t afraid of being funky or funny, with bizarre tracks like Bon Bon Babies, bubbling away next to the fury of Radiant Boys or the glacial grandeur of Snake Dance. The success of the latter song – slicker, more commercial, just plain better – ironically brought about the end of the band.

Snake Dance was our best-selling single. We bought a Linn drum at the time – which was £3,000 or £4,000 at the time. It was fucking enormous – it was the Rolls-Royce of drum machines. Snake Dance was produced by Gil Norton before he was famous. We worked with unknown guys who later became famous. Colin Wilkinson at Driffield who went on to produce loads of thrash bands. In fact we recorded there at the same time as The Quireboys. They drank so much – Jesus. I think their bar tab was five grand.

“Things changed with Snake Dance – we stepped up a gear. We were getting a bigger following and we had management. We did a deal with Simon Napier-Bell at Nomis studios. He picked us up and put us with Jaz Summers. And in some ways that was the end. Cos then we started having commercial pressures, stylists. We were trying to run before we could walk. And all the things that make something interesting – they try and iron it out. They try and take the edges off. And they come out with all sorts of shit ideas. I remember one was: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you tied loads of scarves to your arms, so that when you waved your arms around it made you look bigger?’ I’m like: ‘’Ang on a minute. I seem to remember a certain Scottish boyband doing that a long time ago…’

“I actually discovered that the best thing to do was to give them an idea and then they’d give it back to you and you could go: ‘Oh, that’s amazing.’ And my advice to all bands when they’re sending demos off to A&R men is: mix the bass really, really low. Cos they’ve got to have something to say and it’ll be a really crap point unless you make it really obvious. So they’ll get back and say: ‘I think it’s fantastic – but the bass is really low’ and you’ll be like: ‘You know what – you right! Thanks! Man, you saved us so much trouble.’”

Co-singer Rosie Garland had had enough and “went to Africa to do something else” and was replaced by Cleo Murray. “She was a nurse down in London and she fitted in straight away,” says Simon. “And she was really good looking, and that changed things. Rosie’s really striking, but she’s not conventionally pretty. So it started going in this other direction.”

Where she was the front person?

“I think she wanted to be in the end. Laurence [Elliot], the bass player, really wanted to be the front person and that’s why there was a lot of conflict.”

There’s an old story online where they say they sacked you because of your ‘lack of musical understanding’.

He snorts: “Yeah, of course it was. It was musical differences: I was musical, they were different. Or vice versa. It was because I wasn’t a conventional frontman. I mean, I did most of it to start off with – I wrote all the lyrics and most of the melody lines, and was party to writing the songs, including the female parts, and did most of the promotion, all the artwork. You could kind of see why people wanted more of it.

“At a rehearsal just before Christmas – I think, 1984 – Jaz Summers had got in this assistant, Tim Parry. We were on that circuit of doing lots of gigs for major record labels. ‘Come in and do some demos.’ ‘Alright.’ Do these gigs in London for these suits. So you do that, and every A&R man in London has to make his point and it’s going to be a destructive point. And by the time you’ve done four of them you have four black marks against you – but by then you’re doing it for Polygram and you’ve forgotten about EMI. So you’ve got another round of writing songs and all the songwriting has become to please these fuckers – it had nothing to do with how I felt. It was soul-destroying, and the Batfish thing – which I did in this period – was a scream of release. It was an escape, a nonsensical thing.”

The Batfish Boys’ debut album, The Gods Hate Kansas, was less Denbigh’s dark night of the soul than it was a cider and speed-fuelled descent into comic-book madness. Occupying the rarely visited place where Creedence-meets-the-Sisters, …Kansas was populated with bizarre characters that could have come from the fevered snake-bitten imagination of Carson McCullers. There was the Real Rough Dude of the opening track (with ‘an evil grin/sonofabitch and full of sin’), The Tumbleweed Thing (‘If you go down in the woods today/You won’t believe your eyes/All your friends and the Tumble Weed thing/Are gathered there/What a big surprise’) and Mrs Triffid (our narrator wants to marry her daughter, but it ends badly, with the priest intoning, ‘Now I ain’t sure about this son, I don’t want to tie you down to her stump. See – she’s a plant. And she’s already married…’). Imagine Captain Beefheart at the wheel of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, careering through the Louisiana swampland loaded on cheap whiz and moonshine, and you’re halfway there.

“The first Batfish Boys album I can’t even remember making it,” says Denbigh. “I wrote it and recorded it in a week and then the, um, stimulants ran out and we spent two days mic-ing up a snare drum in a toilet going DOOSH DOOSH! ‘What do you think?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Is there any more…’ ‘No.’ DOOSH DOOSH!

“And now I listen back and I think: ‘This is fucking brilliant. If I was going to make an album, it’d be just like this. Oh, hang on – I did.’ But it was like a stream of consciousness thing.”

Even though the band was on its last legs, Violets Laurence and Tom were roped into the Batfish. “I booked this studio and wanted to do a solo thing, and they somehow ended up coming along cos I needed a guitar and bass. I got the name from a book in a bargain-bin on the way to the studio. The USS Batfish was an American submarine that just lurked around for most of the war, getting bombed and strafed most of the time by it’s own forces, and then sank two or three Japanese submarines in a day. And that was all it did, the entire war.”

Naming the band after a submarine, of course, meant multiple opportunities for Aerosmith-like references to ‘going down’ and ‘sinking the Bismarck’. Not that Tyler and Perry could ever come up with anything as mad as this (from Killer Sub):

Now don’t wind spaghetti round a slippery stick

Got a two pin socket and a bowling ball grip

I got the G-spot on the tip of my tongue

Now push the button Ronnie I want you to give me some

Give me some skin!

But that was The Batfish Boys: demented, creative, and bursting with killer hooks and bluesy licks. “And I don’t remember doing it,” says Denbigh, shaking his head. “I don’t remember writing it. It just happened. But it’s exactly what I would have done, a kind of swamp blues meets rock meets a twisted imagination.”

It brought creative satisfaction, just as The March Violets were bringing him none. “Batfish was an escape. Then they kicked me out: at a rehearsal they said: ‘We want you to go.’ Looking back on it I know that they didn’t know what I was gonna do. Cos I could have said: ‘Fuck you! You’re all sacked, I’m taking the name!’ But I was so sick of it by then I just wanted to go.”

What he was walking away from was no small beans. “Snake Dance – I had 20,000 pre-orders,” he says. “Walk In To The Sun was No.1 in the indie charts.”

The March Violets went on without him, with Cleo as front woman, a goth vixen in PVC thigh-highs, aiming for a pop market. They appeared in John Hughes’ teen movie Some Kind Of Wonderful and released two very pop singles: Turn To The Sky (which they played on Saturday Superstore) and Deep.

Deep was a song I’d written for my voice and then Cleo sang it. To me Walk Into The Sun had gone a little bit effete with the vocal and the lyrics. I think I lost it a little bit. I got caught up in that search for a record deal and I’m sorry, really. I really do wish I’d not bothered. I wish I’d made it what it should have been. And I watched it decay. The word that always comes to mind is ‘imploding’. After I left, I think they went to No.84 in the charts.

“They went off and slagged me for years, almost as if I wasn’t in the band. Ridiculous nonsense. They were over in the States and they did that horrendous film thing. They wanted to be Kim Wilde, you know…”

The Batfish Boys took off and Denbigh was offered gigs. The only problem – there was no band. “I was going nuts at the time anyway,” he says. “I was trying to put a band together and ended up putting a weird assortment of people together. The band that made [second album] Head was the first final line-up I’d sorted.”

Head plunged the band deeper into the world of heavy rock, all screaming solos and ZZ Top boogaloo. “I’d always thought I had a blues-based voice. The problem I had with Batfish was the band I finally put together trying to convince me that they’d written riffs that turned out to be from AC/DC, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath. Cos I hadn’t had a tradition of that – I’d been into Bowie and the Stooges – so I had to go and listen to all the heavy rock albums and go: ‘Don’t you fucking tell me you wrote that – that’s fucking War Pigs, you twat!’”

The end result was hard rock as filtered through the mind of Simon Diablo. (I Don’t Want To Be Your) Dinosaur (Baby) would fit right in on an Alice Cooper-album. Justine was a tale of bedsit misery set to a riff from the Billy Gibbons’ bag o’ tricks. If it didn’t quite gel as well as …Kansas, it sounded like a promising starting point. They followed the album with a 12-inch single, The Bomb Song. A B-side called I’m A Cadillac best captured their hot-wired, patchouli-oil-guzzling rock and Denbigh’s lyrical madness:

Well hi there pop, I’m Iggy Pop,

Well I’m James Dean

I’m Her Majesty The Queen

I’m everything I always wanted to be

Well I’m as sane as the next man

But the next man is Howard Hughes

And so am I

I’m Superman – I can fly!

Or…

Well I got brains like the next man

Gots lots of big ideas

Gonna line em up and set them free

Like a swarm of killer bees

The chorus, such as it was, spelled out his intent: ‘Well this is just the start/This is just the beginning of things/You keep holding me back/You know me well I’m a Cadillac…’ In fact it was nearer the end. The band never regained their form. They shorted the name to Batfish, and began to slowly fall apart. Signing to Motorhead’s label GWR in 1987 didn’t particularly help.

“The reason I signed was because Doug Smith said: ‘Yeah, we’ll get you out on tour with them and Hawkwind.’ I think they had the Cro-Mags. I was like: ‘Fucking right!’ And then… No. I didn’t get any tours. It was fucking weird though. Hawkwind, who I love, you’d go into the office and there would be a room full of their new album. It was like: ‘You’re not actually doing what you should do.’ It could have been so big. I know bands that would have given their eye-teeth to have been on that label, but it didn’t do us any good. They were doing other things and didn’t concentrate on us.

“I always said I’d do it until I knew I shouldn’t be and then I’d stop. And I got to that point at the end of Batfish. I was having these huge arguments with people about publishing and stuff. It was time to give up doing music. So I did, I went into business with a guy to make videos…”

Denbigh got dragged back into music when he helped develop a midi controller and ended up demo-ing it to people like Bryan Ferry and Eno and doing workshops around the country. Then there was D-Rok, a band put together for Games Workshop.

“When I was in the Violets, this band had supported us a Coventry University and apparently I’d been really nice to them and this guy from the band went on to work for Games Workshop. One day I came home off a tour and there was a box the size of a house full of Games Workshop stuff and they said: ‘Do you want to do a record for us?’

“I got in touch with Brian May and he came over and played on some tracks – most of which I mixed out. And they released it on their own Warhammer label. And ruined it, basically, because they had no idea what to do.

“Brian May was about the nicest chap you could ever meet. All our guitarists were like [feigns awe]. The guy who was mixing it, his ears when purple: ‘It’s BRIAN MAY!’ Nobody believed he would turn up. He flew over from Switzerland just to do it. And he was so lovely. And he’d got this Zoom pedal and was like: ‘I don’t know what this is like, but let’s try it.’

“And then he plugged in and it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen, really. He plugged into this pedal he never used, with his home-made guitar and sounded instantly like Brian May. One of the nicest people I’d ever met, really. He did a load of stuff and I had a weird – I dunno, I wasn’t too sure about how cool it was to use Brian May to sell this, so the two tracks he played on I didn’t really use it. We used it mainly on the single…”

The band toured with UFO but “it didn’t do very well. It was just about the time Nirvana kicked off and it didn’t matter: you couldn’t get arrested unless you were American and grungy.”

It was time to call it a day. He’d had his moment: the drugs, the booze, the chicken roadies…

“[The Batfish Boys] did a tour supporting Zodiac Mindwarp. Did you ever hear the chicken story? We liberated a chicken from a battery farm and took it on tour with us. We tied a packet of featherlight Durex around its neck and a sign that said: ‘Hi – I’m Henrietta Quaalude, fly me!’ It became the tour chicken. I ended up being ‘Chicken Roadie’. We were feeding it on Jack Daniel’s and chicken and mushroom pie.”

But that’s cannibalism!

“Yeah. Sad. And it laid an egg and everyone denied it was theirs… We did a gig at Hammersmith and we had an aftershow party and there’s Lemmy with a chicken between his legs eating crisps off the floor… In the end we gave her to this A&R man who hated chickens at London Records. We said: ‘You have to look after this.’ Fuck him. He was a dick. But hopefully she got to live the rest of her days in some garden in London somewhere. But our days of chicken roadies are over now. We’re never going to do that again.”

In the years since sweet Henrietta Quaalude, Simon Detroit has dabbled in hip-hop, trip hop and electronic music. He had his own label, Jazz Wank (“It disintegrated. Too much jazz wank, I suppose”), and he joined The Sisters of Mercy and has spent 14 years as the man in charge of their ‘drum machine’, the legendary Dr Avalanche “and all the variants of it”.

“I’m still using computers running DOS and 1980s kit,” he says. “It’s sorta becoming slightly long in the tooth now but it’s stood up. If it ain’t broke… We must be one of the few bands taking that stuff out: Akai samplers. S-1000s. The computers have got bullet-proof glass on them. They were made by a military company. I don’t know why but strangely enough, we did a festival and some fucker threw a bottle full of gravel and it hit one of those screens, showered me with gravel. But if it didn’t have those bullet-proof screens, it would have just gone through and into the computer.”

Of course, the Violets left Merciful Release after an apparent ‘bust-up’ with Eldritch.

“Well, there was a bit of a bust-up and that’s kind of all I wanna say about it now,” he says. “It’s history. I mean, I’ve been playing for the Sisters for 14 years now. I get on with Andrew really well, which is to make it work onstage. It’s all about the show. The Sisters is Andrew’s band. I’m just a hired gun really, doing what I’m asked to do. And my job is to make Andrew feel good. You’re driving a car, you don’t want the engine to play up.”

The March Violets have been reactivated, with Rosie Garland back after fighting throat cancer and winning, guitarist Tom too. There’s a gig at London’s 02 Islington Academy on November 13 with Sigue Sigue Sputnik supporting and the launch of this mental Psydwr of his (the first pressing is called Grooving In Green, after The March Violets classic). There’s even talk of a new album, if they can finance it. It’d be their first proper studio album: Natural History was a collection of 12-inch singles and session tracks.

“We were obviously many, many years ahead of time, having what would be a perfect download career, just releasing singles. So now we’re rebelling. Now that albums are no longer fashionable or desirable, let’s do one! The difficult first album – it’s only taken 25 years.”

UPDATE: The March Violets reformed in 2010 and made a new album, Made Glorious, available from here. The band are on Facebook here