Formed from the ashes of The VIPs, Spooky Tooth have survived more line-up changes than Spinal Tap, and they produced one of the greatest white-boy blues albums of the 60s.
It’s late 1967. Mike Harrison, the Carlisle-born R&B singer and keyboardist who moved to London to f ind fame and fortune as leader of The VIPs in 1964, is standing in the Island Records offices on London’s Oxford Street with bassist Greg Ridley, drummer Mike Kellie and guitarist Luther Grosvenor. He and his band, now called Art, are disillusioned. Four singles as The VIPs have flopped in the UK, a single and an album as Art have flopped. The writing is on the wall. Their manager and label owner, Chris Blackwell, enters the office with a young man in tow. His name is Gary Wright, an American singer with a disarming falsetto voice. He is also a very good songwriter and keyboard player.
“Chris Blackwell says: ‘Greg, Mike, Luther, Kellie this is Gary Wright. Gary this is Art. You’re going to make a band, this is the last chance saloon,’” says Mike Kellie today. “We had our first rehearsal and thankfully we clicked.” In that rehearsal room Spooky Tooth were born. Their story is one of missed chances, bad luck and one truly classic blues rock album, Spooky Two.
It begins and ends with Mike Harrison. Like many of his generation, Harrison f irst got bitten by the skiffle of Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line and the early records of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. He had a skiffle band at school but honed his craft proper in rock’n’rollers The Ramrods – line-up completed by lead guitarist Jimmy Henshaw, rhythm guitarist Frank Kenyon, bassist Dave McCumiskey and drummer Walter Johnstone – who performed Elvis and Jerry Lee songs around the pubs and clubs of Carlisle.
After Greg Ridley replaced McCumisky on bass – Ridley had been singer and guitarist in The Danubes, and he’d later find fameas a founding member of Humble Pie – they became The VIPs to avoid confusion with the American band, The Ramrods. Then on signing up with The Kinks’ manager Larry Page, they were offered the chance to record You Really Got Me before The Kinks recorded it. “We said no, we didn’t like it. The next thing we knew The Kinks were No.1,” says Harrison.
Harrison had yet to fully develop his true voice, sounding a lot like Mick Jagger, but The VIPs’ debut single *Don’t Keep Shouting At *Me showed promise: a tough British R&B number, rooted in Jimmy Reed, with some cool piano and wailing harmonica from Harrison, it made a strong debut and aligned the group to the UK blues boom.
Soon after, the group moved to London, holing up in a cellar under electronic engineer Pepe Rush’s recording studio in Soho’s Berwick Street. Rush installed equipment at hip Soho basement club The Scene in Ham Yard, a cobblestoned courtyard off Great Windmill Street. Through The Animals’ manager Mike Jeffery, The VIPs managed to secure a residency there. “We had no money at all except what we got from playing The Scene, and that wasn’t much,” says Harrison. “Walter, the drummer, had a job on the underground when they were digging the Victoria line tunnel. On a Friday when we were playing, he would come up through a manhole in the middle of his shift, do the gig, then go back down the manhole and f inish his shift. He was feeding us all from his job on the underground. It was tough.”
The Scene provided a great launch pad for the band though. “All the bands knew each other,” says Harrison. “We would be doing a gig at midnight, and The Rolling Stones would pop in and have a look. The Animals too. We were playing covers of Joe Tex’s I Wanna Be Free and songs by Ray Charles.”
Inroads were also made in Germany as their raw R&B landed them a residency at Hamburg’s Star-Club.
“We were the most popular band there since The Beatles,” says Harrison. “We went there for a month and we played seven days a week. The club started around four in the afternoon and there were three bands a night, and each played one hour on, two hours off until four in the morning – it was the same every night.”
They also got to be the f irst band to back Jimi Hendrix when he arrived in the UK, as he got on stage to jam with them during their gig at hip club The Scotch Of St James. “It was amazing – he went down a storm,” says Harrison. Later Hendrix’s manager Chas Chandler asked them to be Hendrix’s backing band; they turned him down.
Island Records A&R man Guy Stevens, a blues and R&B fanatic who had been running Island’s Sue Records offshoot releasing black American music, also turned out to be a fan of The VIPs. The band knew him from playing the London clubs including The Scene, where Stevens had been a DJ. Stevens introduced them to the head of Island Chris Blackwell, who, on Stevens’ nod, signed the band to the label and became their manager.
Island released two singles by The VIPs in quick succession – a Blackwell-produced cover of live favourite I Wanna Be Free and a soulful *Straight Down To The Bottom*, written and produced by Jimmy Miller. The latter’s B-side, In A Dream, meanwhile was written by Jamaican singer-songwriter Jackie Edwards. Edwards had already provided the similarly styled, Blackwell-managed Spencer Davis Group with their No.1 hits Keep On Running and *Somebody Help Me*, and these singles captured The VIPs at their best, with the band sounding super tight and Harrison’s voice now rivalling Steve Winwood and Steve Marriott. But although I Wanna Be Free hit No.2 in France and was popular in Germany, it bombed in the UK.
Mike was one of the best singers to come out of the UK. He sounded like Ray Charles.
When drummer Johnstone left the band to return to his Carlisle home, Winwood found his replacement in Mike Kellie, who was then the teenage drummer with Birmingham blues rock band The Locomotive. “I got a call from Steve Winwood who was then still with The Spencer Davis Group who were managed by Chris Blackwell,” says Kellie, taking up the story. “He said: ‘Do you want to come down to London? There’s this band that Chris manages who need a drummer.’ I got on the train and went down to London and that’s how I joined in November 1966. I was met at Paddington station by their roadie Albert Heaton and taken in a blue Commer van to 155 Oxford Street – the original Island offices – and met the band. The next day I was on the road to France and then on to the Star-Club and a German tour, without any rehearsal.”
Further changes took place before a reconfigured VIPs featuring Harrison, Kellie, Ridley and ex Deep Feeling guitarist Luther Grosvenor entered Pye Studios with producer Guy Stevens in 1967.
“Guy was a sort of Island Records label mentor and ideas man, and our mentor too. He had a great record collection and he would find material for bands to cover. He was a bit of a producer too, and a ball of energy,” Kellie remembers. “Controlling him was very difficult, though, but he did have brilliant ideas and he was very good at enthusing people, and it was him who found us this Buffalo Springfield song *For What *It’s Worth and suggested we record it, which we did.”
“He was a great producer, very enthusiastic and funny and he really encouraged the band,” adds Harrison.
Their cover, retitled What’s That Sound was issued as a single under the name Art. As Art they also issued an album, Supernatural Fairy Tales, which today is considered a lost psychedelic classic. But framed by Harrison’s emotive vocals and Grosvenor’s crunching guitar, they rarely stray far from their blues and soul roots. When the Art album failed to sell, it was time for a rethink. Enter stage left, Gary Wright.
Gary Wright had never heard of The VIPs or Art. “I was in a pop R&B band called The New York Times touring through Europe, and we had an offer to play in Oslo, Norway opening for [Art’s labelmates] Traffic and I thought that would be great,” says Wright. “At the gig I walked up and introduced myself to Chris Blackwell and he invited the band to come back to London. My band didn’t cut it in the studio, but Chris wanted me to stay and put me in the studio with this band he had called Art.”
Wright fell love with London and decided to stay. “It was fantastic living in London in the late 60s. I grew up on the east coast, quite near to New York City, and that was nice but it didn’t have the same cultural thing that was happening in London, especially in late 1967 when I joined Spooky Tooth. It was a super creative time.”
Wright threw himself into swinging London with the band dressing in outrageously flamboyant clothes. “We wore pirate boots with blue velvet trousers and big white ruffled shirts to go to the bank. You could create your own character – it was fun.”
He had already written a song called Sunshine Help Me in Norway, and when worked up with the other members it would become the band’s debut single under their new name Spooky Tooth in January 1968, a highlight of their first album It’s All About released that July.
“I had written Sunshine Help Me on guitar and so I brought it to our first rehearsal of the band. I showed them the song and Luther immediately came up with that kind of Jimi Hendrix guitar part and then Mike and I did that vocal thing like The Righteous Brothers in the chorus. We were kind of blown away, and when Chris came in he had a big smile on his face.”
It’s All About also proved this new line-up were fine interpreters, capable of stamping their imprint on future classics like Janis Ian’s Society’s Child, Bob Dylan’s Too Much of Nothing and Lou Rawls’ take on John D Loudermilk’s Tobacco Road. The first named captures Wright’s devastating falsetto on Society’s Child for the first time. Having two vocalists gave the band a genuine uniqueness.
“We would listen to a song,” says Wright, “then play it slowed down. I was singing in my high voice and Mike was singing in his cool soulful voice. I think Mike was one of the best of those kind of singers to come out of the UK. He sounded like Ray Charles.”
It was Chris Blackwell who brought Lou Rawls’ version of Tobacco Road to the band and also Rawls’ Evil Woman, which was a highlight of Spooky Two, the group’s second album. Both are slow, bluesy and heavy and became stage favourites.
Jimmy Miller helped write several of the originals on their debut It’s All About, with Wright including second single Love Really Changed Me, hard hitting soul-rock number Forget It, I Got It with Wright on Hammond organ, and the harpsichord psychedelia of It’s All About A Roundabout.
“Like Alfred Hitchcock was always somewhere in his films, Jimmy Miller was always somewhere on the record,” says Harrison. “On the song Bubbles you can hear bubbles blowing, and that was Jimmy Miller blowing into a bowl of bubbles.”
It’s All About captured the group finding their feet. “We were searching for the direction of the band,” says Wright. “Some songs on the first album were like pop songs and weren’t really the true essence of what Spooky Tooth became when we did Spooky Two.”
The Miller-produced Spooky Two from 1969 captures the group fired up and at the height of their creative powers.
Wright: “At the time of Spooky Two we were listening to Jimi Hendrix, Traffic, Cream, *Music From *Big Pink by The Band, and when Led Zeppelin came out we were listening to them. It was a brilliant time for music. Myself, Luther and Mike were living in a little flat in Notting Hill, and at night I would take out my nylon string acoustic guitar and start writing and recording ideas on my cassette player. Then we would go and rehearse them and work them up. I had taken flamenco lessons so I used a lot of those kind of chords, especially on Better By You, Better Than Me. The bluesy heavy riff on that track I always planned when I was writing it and Luther Grosvenor really made that happen. I wanted Waitin’ For The Wind to be simple but gutsy and then Jimmy [Miller] took that, tweaked it and added very cool delays, which really enhanced it. He was great in the studio. He took a lot of chances.”
Working with Miller was Andy Johns, and it was his first gig as a full blown engineer having previously been a tape op. “He had a lot invested in the album and did a great job,” says Wright.
Mike Kellie, meanwhile, wrote most of the lyrics to the gospel-tinged, I’ve Got Enough Heartaches. “He came up with the lyrical idea and then gave it to me and said: ‘Why don’t you put a melody to it?’ And I did. It lent itself to using backing vocalists, which we hadn’t done before,” says Wright.
“At the time I wanted to sing more in my natural voice,” he continues. “But I realised one of the neat things about Spooky Tooth was my high voice married with Mike Harrison’s gutsy blues voice. It was a really good contrast.”
The Island family lent a hand too. Traffic’s Dave Mason played guitar on That Was Only Yesterday, Steve Winwood played piano on I’ve Got Enough Heartaches and Joe Cocker – although he wasn’t signed to Island he was a friend of the label – sang on Feelin’ Bad. Jimmy Miller, meanwhile, made his Hitchcock-like appearance playing drums on the track *Hangman *Hang My Shell From A Tree.
Though Spooky Two is an excellent album that mixes blues, rock, gospel and soul, it failed to break the band in the UK, although it reached the US charts when issued on A&M and proved popular in Germany.
At this point Greg Ridley left the band, throwing his lot in with Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton in Humble Pie.
With heads held high and a new bassist Andy Leigh, Spooky Tooth soldiered on. What happened next, though, would destroy the band.
Blackwell had the ambitious idea to combine avant-garde and rock music, and paired the group with French musique concrète composer Pierre Henry. The result was* *Ceremony: An Electronic Mass, released in 1969 credited to Spooky Tooth and Pierre Henry.
“I wrote the music for Ceremony and the lyrics were like a Catholic mass, but it wasn’t our album,” Wright says. “We told Chris Blackwell right from the beginning it wasn’t Spooky Tooth and that we would do it as session musicians, and then he said: ‘People have heard it and they think it’s fantastic.’ We said: ‘No you can’t put it out as Spooky Tooth.’ But that’s what happened. It was a shame because our next album should have comprised of songs like The Wrong Time, Too Late To Cry and I’ve Got A Story which were on my solo album on A&M, Extraction.”
Harrison is still bitter about the decision to release the album under the Spooky Tooth name. “Pierre Henry was just using us to get his own name known. Our fans thought it was our third album and didn’t like it and I don’t blame them. That was the beginning of the demise of Spooky Tooth.”
Kellie agrees. “Ceremony was not meant to be a Spooky Tooth album. Chris was running the record company and managing Traffic – which were both full time jobs on their own – and managing us, and something has to give.”
When Wright left the band shortly afterwards to pursue a solo career – he’d later hit big with Dream Weaver, a US Billboard No.2 in 1976 – Harrison and Kellie were left to see out the band’s Island contract. The pair brought in Chris Stainton (keyboards, guitar), Alan Spenner (bass) andHenry McCullough (guitar) from Joe Cocker’s Grease Band to record The Last Puff.
The stand-out track, which also featured Luther Grosvenor on guitar, was a pulverising version of The Beatles’ I Am The Walrus. “It was a good version,” Harrison recalls. “I was sitting upstairs at Island writing some words down in the foyer for a song and the band were in the studio just jamming, and Kellie came running up and said: ‘Hey Mike listen to this, they’re playing the beginning of I Am The Walrus.’ I went down and they were just jamming it and it sounded good, and I said okay we’ll do it. Kellie phoned his wife at home and she had the words and she told him them over the phone.” Though an excellent album with highlights including the Wright-authored gospel/blues/rock hybrid The Wrong Time and the Joe Cocker-penned ballad Something To Say, without Wright it wasn’t really Spooky Tooth. Credited to Spooky Tooth featuring Mike Harrison, it was Blackwell’s intention to use the record to launch Harrison’s solo career.
After a 1971 tour of Germany with Harrison, Grosvenor and Kellie leading a new line-up of the band to capitalise on the warm reception that The Last Puff had received there, Spooky Tooth finally split.
Grosvenor went on to join Mott The Hoople, where he was known as Ariel Bender. Mike Harrison recorded two solo albums in 18 months, including 1972’s excellent Smokestack Lightning recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios with The Swampers and the Muscle Shoals Horns, where he revisited Wanna Be Free and the title track from his VIPs days. Through knowing Klaus Voormann, who had played on Extraction, Gary Wright played on George Harrison’s classic 1970 triple album *All Things Must *Pass and became firm friends with the Beatle.
In 1972 after his third album was rejected by A&M, Wright re-formed Spooky Tooth, bringing Mick Jones (later of Foreigner), the guitarist in his band Wonderwheel, with him to reunite with Mike Harrison. Adding Chris Stewart on bass and Bryson Graham on drums they recorded *You Broke My Heart *So I Busted Your Jaw in 1973, with a returning Kellie replacing Graham for Witness later that year. Though they contain some fine Gary Wright songs, the albums fail to really capture the original spirit of the group. Ex-Timebox and Patto frontman Mike Patto replaced Harrison on 1974’s The Mirror but it again failed to revive the band’s fortunes. By the end of the year Spooky Tooth were no more, though a final album was issued in 1998 by a reunited Harrison, Kellie, Grosvenor and Ridley. Harrison with Wright plus Steve Farris, Shem von Schroeck and Tom Brechtlein performed as Spooky Tooth to celebrate Island Records 50th anniversary in 2009.
Looking back now, Harrison says: “Spooky Tooth was a great band, we made some really good records and Island Records was like a family then – it was a great, creative time.
The Complete VIPs is available via Repertoire. Spooky Tooth’s *The Island *Years 1967-1974 nine- CD box set is available via Universal.
Idolised by Rod Stewart and Steve Marriott, masters of R&B the Downliners Sect unleashed a tough sound that not even contemporaries such as The Yardbirds and The Animals could match…
I’m gonna get what you ain’t got,’ snarled Jerry Lee Lewis on his fast-paced boogie B-side *Down *The Line. Aside from Jerry Lee’s avaricious proclamations, it was the song’s railroading title, suggestive of locomotive travel, that prompted young Londoner Don Craine (born Michael O’Donnell) to name his group the Downliners when they first formed in 1962, setting in motion the story of Twickenham’s largely forgotten R&B bruisers. Crossing genres and creating a raw, aggressive take on the music that inspired them, they reared their heads as The Rolling Stones and The Pretty Things took blues-based music to the masses. And now it’s time to finally give them their dues.
The four-piece started life as a school group influenced by Craine’s love for those rock’n’roll wrong ’uns Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry, as well as The Killer. In December the group turned professional, but soon hit the buffers following a calamitous tour of American military bases in France. The contract between the British and French agents stated that the group had a female singer which was patently untrue. As a result the tour was terminated at the end of the first month. With bruised egos they returned home and entered a nationwide talent contest, reaching the finals at the Hammersmith Gaumont. Three weeks before the event, their drummer Pete Breslin quit, and on the night of the finals both singer/guitarist Barry Allmark and bass player Kevin Buley went out and got pissed and failed to turn up. Guitarist Craine sacked the pair soon afterwards but persuaded replacement drummer Johnny Sutton to give up his career as an apprentice butcher (much to the dismay of his parents) and join him full time as he attempted to assemble another line-up.
“One Sunday evening, the Downliners had a gig at a pub in Woolwich called The Mortar,” remembers Craine. “Pete failed to show up at our house to leave for the show. My mother, the band’s manager, phoned the Breslins to be told that our drummer couldn’t do the gig as he had to go to evening mass, due to the fact that he’d missed morning services. As we stood by the van wondering what to do, a young man walked past pushing a handcart that bore a Boys’ Brigade bass drum. My mother jokingly asked if the fellow could play the drum, to which he replied that he couldn’t but his brother could. Without further ado, we talked the chap into getting his brother along to play Pete’s kit, which was in the van. John Sutton was that drummer, and he joined us that night.”
An ad for a bass player and guitarist was placed in Melody Maker, that ubiquitous organ for budding musicians, and Keith Grant (née Evans) duly responded. The one stumbling block was the fact that Grant was a drummer with The Vigilantes, who played authentic rock’n’roll and frequently supported The Rolling Stones at the Station Hotel in Richmond. Blessed with the gift of the gab, it did not take Craine long to persuade him to switch to bass and commence rehearsals. As Craine recalls: “We sat down and spent an afternoon playing in my house in Twickenham and by the end, it was as if we had known each other all our lives.”
They next enlisted Melvin Lewis as guitarist and began playing a purer form of R&B. Seeking a more secure future, Lewis left a few months later to join the medical profession and was replaced by Terry Gibson (née Clempson), who was then performing with a hard rocking outfit called The Hoods who hailed from Croydon. They now dubbed themselves the Downliners Sect, a name that offered them a certain credence and air of intrigue that (in more disturbed minds) aligned them with the likes of Aleister Crowley’s Magick Circle.
The revived line-up played their first gig at the California Ballroom, Dunstable. “We were atrocious,” admits Craine. “We’d only known each other for about three days and apart from Keith and myself, nobody had heard of R&B. So we knocked up a set and played it and the audience was astounded.” As luck would have it, or perhaps thanks to the numbing effects of alcohol, the crowd apparently had no notion that they were terrible and gave them a rapturous reception.
The band’s musical talents soon improved dramatically, though, and they earned themselves a coveted monthly slot at the Eel Pie Island Hotel; a shabby, run-down 19th century hostelry which proved a popular venue for many leading jazz and blues acts of the time. “The Eel Pie Island Hotel had a ballroom with a sprung floor, and the whole building oozed faded glory,” says Craine. “To reach the venue. You had to cross a bridge from Twickenham riverside to be confronted by an old lady, who in troll-like fashion jumped out and demanded a toll. On the landward side of the bridge, you would often see a plain clothes policeman pretending to read a newspaper under a Narnia-type lamppost, though there was seldom evidence of a police presence on the island itself. In may ways, it felt like being in a small, independent, musical haven.”
We were atrocious at our first gig. We’d only known each other for about three days.
The group became most closely associated with Studio 51 located in Great Newport Street, formerly known as the Ken Colyer Jazz Club. “Going down an iron staircase, you came to a refreshment bar, beyond which lay the music area that comprised a narrow hall with a stage at one end, with a few rows of seats in front,” says Craine. “The rest of the room was taken up mainly by standing and dancing clubbers. The place was usually packed and smoky and the atmosphere was electric. We would often arrive to set up just as The Rolling Stones were finishing a rehearsal, and we played a double header with them just before they hit the big time internationally. The Pretties came to see us a few times, though we never played together at the club.”
The Sect and The Yardbirds regularly played all-nighter sessions at the venue and both were capable of filling the place. Here the group recorded their live EP, Nite In Gt Newport Street. At this stage the group didn’t have a record contract but cajoled a company called Campbell Connelly Films to press it for them.
A second independent EP, Brite Lights, Big City, was recorded for Contrast Sound, but when the company collapsed shortly afterwards the master tapes went missing and didn’t turn up until 45 years later on eBay. After negotiating a deal with the buyer, the group finally released them in 2011.
Influenced by Sherlock Holmes, Don Craine began to wear a deerstalker hat that soon drew admiring comments from fans and so came to symbolise the group’s dapper aesthetic sensibilities, that were in direct contrast to their rawnerved and rabble-rousing performances.
“Chuck Berry came to see us at Studio 51 and gave us a few compliments. Sadly, a member of the audience snatched the beret he was wearing, thereby revealing a hairnet atop his head. In annoyed embarrassment he stormed off and most of the Sect never saw him again, although Terry Gibson lent him a guitar at a Wembley Stadium gig at which they were both appearing a few years later.”
Again at Studio 51, a highly proficient harmonica player joined in from the back of the room. This continued for several weeks until Craine finally snapped: “Whoever you are out there, get up here and play or shut up and piss off!” And so all 6ft something of Ray Sone, a devotee of blues harpist Sonny Terry, joined the band there and then.
Their residency at Studio 51 also drew the attention of Mike Collier, A&R for Campbell Connelly, who eventually secured the group a contract with Columbia EMI, and the band soon found themselves in Regent Sound Studios on London’s Denmark Street recording their debut single. Written by bluesman Jimmy Reed, Baby What’s Wrong barely nudged into the UK Top 30, and would regrettably be their only single to ever trouble the charts here.
It was in Sweden that they finally caught the gravy train, thanks in no small part to the efforts of a female fan who returned home with a copy of their live EP and told her father, then head of EMI in Sweden, to ensure that all future official recordings were released in her home country. Their next single, the humourous take on Leiber and Stoller’s *Little *Egypt, gained the group a Top 5 hit in Sweden and would pave the way for a hugely successful tour the following year, though not before they had recorded their debut album.
In the band’s circles the first album The Sect is rightly regarded as a classic if unconventional work, and a cursory listen to tracks such as One Ugly Child, Cops And Robbers and Easy Rider will strengthen such opinions. “Recording The Sect was great fun,” says Craine. “Mike Collier seemed to have done a deal with the studio engineer, without the knowledge of the owners. As a result, we arrived at the premises late in the evening and played through the night, finishing the album before the studio’s official opening the next day. The session was rocking and intense and we laid down some fine tracks.”
The studio engineer in question was called John Wood; a pioneer and perfectionist in the recording world, he would later gain acclaim for his pivotal work with Sandy Denny, John Martyn and Nick Drake, among others. Marty and Joyce Wilde provided the backing vocals for the opener *Hurt *By Love, with John Paul Jones being drafted in to play keyboards; a duty he performed on so many of the Sect’s subsequent recordings that he almost became a sixth member. The album received favourable reviews and even Van Morrison thought them an exemplary R&B act, claiming: “The Downliners Sect are it!”
In the spring of 1965 Ray Sone was dismissed after a dispute over punctuality and Steve Marriott auditioned for the job, as did John O’Leary of Savoy Brown. Rod Stewart also approached the group with the intention of becoming a frontman rather than just a harmonica player. Not seeking a limelight-thief, they settled instead upon the more reserved Pip Harvey, a happy-go-lucky harpist who was in the habit of wearing gloves on stage.
The group began an extensive drug and drink-fuelled UK tour with The Graham Bond Organisation, Memphis Slim and Long John Baldry And The Hoochie Coochie Men before the Sect next flew to Sweden, where they were greeted by hordes of screaming fans. Their first gig at Stockholm’s ice hockey stadium proved a riotous affair, as the police were forced to stop the show every few numbers to control the crowds and restore order. The group subsequently undertook a six-week tour with their agency measuring the success of every gig by the number of broken seats.
The whole pub rock and punk scene was great and a huge wakeup call for British music.
Upon their return they toured Ireland with their hero, Mississippi blues legend Jimmy Reed. “Tall, quiet and gentle, he seemed to have no idea how much of an inspiration he was,” remembers Craine. Here was a man who had signed away all his song royalties and had little to show for a lifetime spent treading the boards. He was content to be supplied with booze throughout the time he spent in the studio and was always delighted to have someone clean his shoes whenever he went on tour. It proved to be a salutary lesson in exploitation that the Sect never forgot.
Jesse Fuller proved a more troublesome critter altogether. “He was booked to play the Eel Pie Island Hotel and turned up without any equipment and, having borrowed some, spent the entire evening slagging it off,” says Craine. “When it came time for him to fly back to the States, he wandered around Heathrow, upsetting staff and travellers by telling anyone who would listen that they were going to be killed in a plane crash. Talented though he was, many were happy to see him return home.”
The group next released an EP, *The Sect *Sing Sick Songs, a spoof of all those gloomy ditties peddled by the likes of Ricky Valance, The Shangri-Las and morbid teenage starlet Twinkle. Their love of Hammer horror films laced with the sensual undertones of gothic noir are self evident here, and listen out for the haunting honky-tonk solo on Midnight Hour, courtesy of JP Jones. Naturally the BBC could not tolerate such bad taste and the EP was duly banned from the airwaves, and so scuppered their chances of consolidating their earlier achievements.
For their second album, The Country Sect, the group served up a country and western bill of fare that found favour with neither fans nor critics. On reflection, the album is not as black as it was painted at the time, Bad Storm Coming being a fine example. Inspired by a poem written by Craine in his Kerouac/Ginsberg period, it foretells of an impending nuclear holocaust and is imbued with a brooding menace that would have done justice to American protest singer Phil Ochs. Lifted as a single, it received some airplay and the group even performed it on ITV’s *Five O’Clock *Funfair, though all to no avail. Another track called I Got Mine, which was written by that leading practitioner of the Bakersfield sound, Tommy Collins, did make the Top 10 in Sweden.
In January 1966 they released their seventh single, a cover of the Rufus Thomas gold standard All Night Worker; it was a faultless interpretation and one of their finest R&B recordings. Six months later, mindful that the ground was shifting beneath their feet, they released their intelligent reworking of a schlock 50s oldie, Glendora, concerning a man who falls in love with a department store mannequin. The Sect gave it the freakbeat treatment with a delicious fuzztone guitar solo from Gibson, and while the song again scored respectably in Sweden it did not a jot of business in their homeland.
Their third album, The Rock Sect’s In, was released soon after. An uneven set which marked a partial return to form, it was marred by a lack of original material. Among the covers are credible versions of Why Don’t You Smile Now – a Lou Reed/John Cale pre-Velvet Underground collaboration – and British rock’n’roller Vince Taylor’s Brand New Cadillac, the latter finding mass appeal in the Scandinavian countries. Had they taken up their option to be the first to record Hang On Sloopy instead of The McCoys, their fortunes might have taken a different turn altogether in the UK.
Disillusioned, Terry Gibson and John Sutton quit soon after, though both continued to pursue musical careers. At the behest of their music publishers, Craine and Grant continued and cut a Graham Gouldman number, The Cost Of Living. Utilising a Presley riff, the song tells the tale of a compulsive gambler, and while pleasing enough it just misses the mark by a gnat’s smidgen. However, the commercialfailure of the single effectively ended their contract with Columbia. Rebranded as the New Downliners Sect, they recorded one single for Pye, *I Can’t Get Away *From You, before Craine decided to opt out, leaving Grant to soldier on with an ever changing line-up.
In 1968 the group recorded three psych-pop numbers; White Caterpillar, Lord Of The Rings and Spider which only ever found an outlet through the Swedish Jukebox label. These are by no means evil things, and for those with an interest in transparent butterflies, dark lords, plastic people and hairy-legged spiders, they are all worth seeking out. Marginalised by soul, Tamla Motown and psychedelic music, the group finally disbanded at the end of the year.
It wasn’t the end though. In 1976, at the height of punk and the pub rock boom, sensing the time was ripe for a second coming, the Downliners Sectre-formed with a line-up featuring Don Craine, Keith Grant, Terry Gibson, John Sutton (replaced soon after by Paul Holm) with Paul Tiller on harmonica. It was a golden opportunity to build on their past reputation with the prospect of a promising future. It was a chance they didn’t squander. “We became part of the pub rock/punk scene and the music became harder and stronger than it had been in the 1960s,” says Craine. “Also, we recorded much more of our own material, which was long overdue. The whole scene was great and a huge wake-up call for Brit music.”
Within a few months they cut Showbiz, their first single for Raw Records. Relating the social mores of a modern Britain, it’s an ass-kicking, jaw-dropping, heart-stopping beast of a song that stampedes through the senses like a rogue elephant. From that coruscating outburst the group formulated a new manifesto: to create their own brand of post-punk uber-R&B which first and foremost served the music. Over the succeeding years the line-up has undergone various permutations and recorded several outstanding albums including Savage Return (1991), Dangerous Ground (1998) and most recently *Chinese *Whispers (2007). Besides those two old workhorses Craine and Grant, the roll call nowadays includes Del Dwyer on vocals/guitar, John O’Leary on vocals/harp and Mark Freeman on drums.
They would surely all confess to an advanced state of wonderment; an incurable condition for those afflicted with a passion for the blues in all its bewitching forms. Up the Downliners.
Downliners Sect play The Eel Pie Club in Twickenham on October 22.