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Unbreakable Spirit: the unexpected return of Janick Gers's first band, White Spirit

White Sprit group shot
White Spirit in 1980: L-R Phil Brady, Bruce Ruff, Malcolm Pearson, Janick Gers, Graeme ‘Crash’ Crallan (Image credit: MCA)

In the summer of 2020, Malcolm Pearson was preparing to leave the UK for a new life in France. Rallied by the unexpected passing of their former White Spirit bandmate vocalist Brian Howe earlier that year, keyboard player Pearson and guitarist Mick Tucker had both ransacked their respective homes looking for a long-lost recording made more than 40 years earlier. Now, suddenly, there was a breakthrough.

“Inside the drawer of an old, disused bedside cabinet there were four sets of tapes,” Pearson recalls happily. “Among them was the one we’d been looking for – a white-label copy from Chiswick Studios.”

The discovery contained work-in-progress takes of songs intended for a second album from White Spirit, all but forgotten after the group called it a day, disheartened by one too many rejections. These recordings were cleaned up, reworked and are about to be released. More incredible still, so enjoyable was this process that a ‘new’ White Spirit seems set to continue as a band.

This is their story, from the Working Men’s Clubs of the North-East to the euphoric rush of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and back down to earth with a thump, only to rise like the proverbial phoenix from the flames. And for their guitarist Janick Gers, White Spirit was just the beginning of a career path that would ultimately lead to the stadiums of the world with Iron Maiden.

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White Spirit were formed in Hartlepool by guitarist Janick Gers and drummer Graeme ‘Crash’ Crallan in 1975, long before the phrase NWOBHM was coined. Three years later Bruce Ruff was brought in as lead vocalist, adding a harder edge to the music. With a rhythm section completed by bassist Phil Brady, keyboard player Mal Pearson had joined what was then a very different sounding unit.

“In 1977 when I arrived, White Spirit was a showband,” Pearson explains now. “They’d do the clubs playing pop songs like Help Me Make It Through The Night [by Kris Kristofferson]. Replacing a piano with synths allowed us to include things like Blinded By The Light [Manfred Mann’s Earth Band], Xanadu [Rush] and Shine On You Crazy Diamond [Pink Floyd], also stuff by Be-Bop Deluxe and Deep Purple.”

Their keyboards made them stand out from the pack, but that last name – Purple – was also massively relevant to White Spirit. As a Ritchie Blackmore nutcase, Gers was something of a showman on stage, where he deployed ingenious finger taps and violently threw his guitar around, using its lead to play notes.

“The following we drew was largely down to Jan, because of the Blackmore influence and the fact that when we played live, you couldn’t take your eyes off him,” says Pearson.

Things started to happen for White Spirit when they turned professional in ’79, just as the NWOBHM gathered momentum. The following year their debut single, Backs To The Grind, arrived via local label Neat Records, also the home of neighbours Fist, Raven and the Tygers Of Pan Tang.

“The NWOBHM was just a bunch of kids playing the music they loved,” Janick Gers told me in 2000. “Bands like Maiden, Samson and ourselves had played right through the punk wave and suddenly the press made the thing into a revolution. Things really started to happen. We didn’t change at all, but suddenly we were cool.”

The following year signalled a watershed for White Spirit, who in July 1980 appeared with the classic Motörhead line-up at their Heavy Metal Barn Dance all-dayer at Bingley Hall in Stafford . A month later their momentum carried the band to a spot at the Reading Festival on a Saturday bill topped by UFO and special guests Iron Maiden.

“With Motörhead we were meant to have been fourth on the bill, but because we had keyboards they made us go on first, though we were just happy to be there,” Pearson recalls fondly. “Reading was great too. Grand Prix, who went on before us, turned up in a limo, whereas we were mistaken for our road crew, but we were the first band that day to get an encore. We had run out of songs so we had to play Midnight Chaser again.”

Neat Records had an arrangement that allowed its more popular acts to move onto major label MCA, and in their naivety White Spirit grasped the opportunity of signing. As a precursor to a major UK tour as support to Gillan, that band’s bassist John McCoy was hired to produce what turned out to be an excellent self-titled debut album. Besides snappier moments such as the aforementioned Midnight Chaser, plus Red Skies and High Upon High, the album wrapped with a 10-minute epic, Fool For The Gods, that revealed ambition and scope extremely rare to the NWOBHM.

White Spirit enjoyed working in the studio with McCoy, who Pearson explains schooled them in the progression from playing live to being recording artists, although the relationship soured when they were absent from the mixing of the record. The band claim that “a lot of smoking” went on and that the producer was so “spliffed out of his brain” during the final tweaking stages that Phil Brady’s bass was lost. In true Spinal Tap fashion, the alleged oversight came to light during the sound-check for a gig at the Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells.

“A guy from the label brought along an acetate, and we sat at the back of the hall and listened to it over the PA,” recalls Pearson. “All five of us wondered: ‘Where’s the bass?’ When we put on an AC/DC song it sounded fine, so we knew there was a problem. We went absolutely ballistic. But it was too late to change.

“The five of us made a pact that if ever one of us became famous we would remix that album,” he adds. “Thirty years later, after Janick had joined Maiden, it came out as a double disc in Japan. Castle Communications, who were part of the Maiden empire, bought the rights and put it out again. But the bass sounded exactly the same, unfortunately.”

(When contacted by Classic Rock, McCoy said that White Spirit’s comments made him “very disappointed” but admitted there was a shred of truth to their accusation: “I may well have been a little stoned, but I listened to the album recently and it sounds fine to me. It’s a matter of personal taste.”)

In another setback, Geoff Barton, the man who’d instigated the NWOBHM, reviewed the record in Sounds, the highly influential British weekly. Awarding a modest three stars, Barton noted the band’s pomp-rock roots, but bemoaned a lack of originality.

“I suppose we did sound like Purple, just like Maiden were like Judas Priest in the early days,” Gers admitted to me back in 2000. However, Pearson disagrees: “People used to say that our song Cheetah sounded like [Purple’s] Fireball. I listened to both and couldn’t see it at all. For the equipment we had back then, and the fact that it was made in ten days, it was a really good debut.”

Back in 1980, though, the support tour with Gillan went extremely well. So well that later on, when guitarist Bernie Tormé walked out on the headliners after a bitter financial disagreement, Ian Gillan asked Gers to fill in for (and ultimately permanently replace) the Irishman. The two bands had certainly bonded over the course of 46 dates around Britain.

“Ian Gillan watched Janick from the side of the stage most nights,” Pearson relates. “In fact we used to do their sound-check for them when they didn’t arrive in time; we’d do Mr Universe, The Abbey Of Thelema and a few others.

“Of course, Jan’s leaving for Gillan was a massive blow,” he sighs. “We found ourselves stuck between two schools of thought. You say: ‘Well done, mate, take your chance,’ but there’s also: ‘We can still do this.’”

The album’s failure to chart dented such optimism, and MCA were indifferent anyway. “They never talked to us about music; each time we met them we pretty much knew it was going to be a waste of time,” Pearson explains. “We were told the only way the contract could be extended was by getting rid of Bruce – which we refused. They said ‘bye-bye’ and then Bruce left. Work that one out.”

Janick Gers was still a member of White Spirit when the band found Ruff’s replacement, Brian Howe. The Portsmouth native had fronted a group called Shy (nothing to do with the identically monickered Brummies).

“Brian was singing in a lower register back then and I really liked his voice, which was like Paul Rodgers,” Gers related in the same interview. “We were just about to start rehearsals with him when Ian Gillan called, and I decided to leave.”

Further adding to the tale of woe, shortly before Gers’s exit the band was involved in a nasty van accident whilst driving back to Hartlepool following a gig in Slough. After it skidded on black ice, several band members required hospital treatment.

Undeterred, White Spirit brought in Mick Tucker (not Sweet’s drummer of the same name), a Middlesbrough-based guitarist from the band Axis. “I saw an advert in the Melody Maker and jumped on a coach to London for an audition,” Tucker recalls. “I had been a major fan of the band for years. I played the album through twice with them – I knew it backwards.”

Pearson and Tucker laugh loudly when reminded that Jaws, a gossip column in Sounds, mischievously suggested that Ruff departed the band because he had “put on so much weight” his stage outfit no longer fitted him.

“Bruce’s clothes had got a bit tight so that claim is plausible, but the real reason he left is that his girlfriend lived in Saltburn and he didn’t want to move to London with the band,” clarifies Mal.

Brian Howe onstage

Brian Howe onstage in 1989, having departed White Sprit to join Bad Company (Image credit: Jim Steinfeldt/Getty Images)

The ‘new-look’ White Spirit, completed by Londoner Toby Sadler on bass, spent 18 months in the capital city and was finally offered a deal by Warner Brothers. When we say ‘offered’, they were dismayed to find out they were part of a “two horse race” to land one contract. Although the band began laying down demos with Colin Towns, keyboard player with Gillan, the ‘other act’ turned out to be Cinema, a group featuring the South African guitarist Trevor Rabin, which would ultimately morph into a new incarnation of Yes with the album 90125.

“In the end we heard nothing back from the label,” rues Pearson sadly. “It was so demoralising that we decided against trying to go elsewhere. The band just disintegrated.”

Bruce Ruff is no longer actively involved in rock and declined to talk about White Spirit. Mick Tucker joined Tank, where he was later (briefly) joined by Graeme Crallan before his death in 2008. Pearson briefly played with Sweet. Toby Sadler went on to play keyboards for Airrace, Samson and several others. Brian Howe was hired as the singer with Ted Nugent’s band before fronting Bad Company from 1986 to ’92. After Gillan, Janick Gers joined Bruce Dickinson’s solo group, then Iron Maiden, where, of course he still remains. Consequently, the legend of White Spirit has grown exponentially.

The unearthing of the lost tapes began a lengthy quest for Pearson and Tucker, who used studio technology to restore the original recordings wherever possible. Those parts that couldn’t be rescued, including some of Howe’s lead vocals, were reworked with the help of Jeff Scott Soto, Steve Overland, Neil Murray, Cliff Evans, Sweet’s current bassist Lee Small, Uriah Heep drummer Russell Gilbrook and HammerFall guitarist Pontus Norgren.

“The songs were just too good to die,” Mick Tucker explains. “This was our chance to re-record them with high quality production and a great cast of players.”

Since the belated completion of Right Or Wrong, which includes a 2022 version of the Bad Company song Holy Water in tribute to Howe, Pearson and Tucker have kept on going. “We’ve already got around seven songs for the next album, there’s also been interest in some live dates,” Tucker reveals.

“What happens next will sound like a cross between the two albums,” Pearson predicts, adding with a grin broader than the North Sea: “It would be great to go out there and make some noise again.”

Right Or Wrong is available from Conquest Music (opens in new tab).

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.