The Essex Factor
Rocking in Colchester with Giles Smith
by Tom Wilcox

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

“Once upon a time,

I don’t remember when.

Caught in the vacuum between now and then. Out on the road, phantom light lights to the East. The forgotten land where no roads lead.

This is the Land That Time Forgot.

This is the Land That Time Forgot.

Call it Nowhere.”

(Keith Godman, “The Land That Time Forgot”, 1985)

I read Giles Smith’s Lost in Music when I was twenty-one and quickly realised that my early adult life had been captured in words. Sort of. My joy was edged by irritation that Smith’s “failed” musical career in Colchester – with The Cleaners from Venus – had been far more successful than my own with Maniac Squat. Such frustration is enough to make you want to write a punk song called “Fuck Off”. Which I did, and then put it out on Maniac Squat’s own label Heroin Dread. (Sales: 453.)

Having played music for a bit, Smith took to writing about it instead. Lost in Music is a chronicle of growing up with music – the nerdish obsession, the hero worship, the irra-tionality. He describes falling in love with Marc Bolan as a youth, and maturing to the well-crafted pop of XTC and Scritti Politti. I met him for a cup of tea recently and he said that the book was, amongst other things, a claim on behalf of all the obscure, unheralded, but adored records in people’s collections. To be truly lost in music is to embrace the arcane.

Smith is probably correct in his implication1 that Colchester is some way below Memphis, Liverpool and Bromley, Kent, in the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll towns. Citing Pete Frame’s Rock Gazetteer of Great Britain2 as his authority, he represents Colchester’s contribution as Modern English (early eighties new wave/post punk), Nik Kershaw (weird eighties pop), Sade (soulful eighties balladess), and Blur (nineties Brit pop, with arty pretensions).

I’m not sure if this appraisal somewhat underplays north-east Essex’s musical heritage or whether I’m just more parochial than he is. Perhaps he can be forgiven for omitting to mention the wonderful Bum Gravy (military/industrial/complex), and their seminal single “Fat Digester”, not to forget the execrable yet popular death met-allers Cradle of Filth. Those bands’ golden years came in the nineties after he’d left town for better things in the Smoke. But he could have mentioned that the legendary Jack Bruce of Cream lives in Alphamstone, just a few miles into the sticks. That John Cooper Clarke retreated to Colchester in the late eighties to escape the “habitual attractions” of Manchester and London. Or that Camulodonum, as the Romans called it, has always had a thriving bands scene; it’s just that most have been completely unsuccessful.

One band that tried very hard to make it was Penny Arcade. Effete indie hopefuls of 1989, they turned down small record deals while they waited for the big one. Apparently, they can still be seen in Colchester’s pubs, staring vacantly, as if wondering where it all went wrong.

* * *

“Britain’s oldest recorded Town”, Colchester is in flat, agrar-ian, coastal East Anglia. The grain belt of England. My thesis is that Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire are culturally aligned with America’s Confederate states; united by a common sense of rural secessionism and unfettered inbreed-ing. The analogy holds good until you start to analyse it. True to the naffness and vacuous core of provincial English town-life, Colchester is the land that time forgot, with every sub-culture lasting years longer than it should. There are still bauhauses of Goths to this day. The desire to bring an edge to this otherwise drab world is what has driven many young men into the pierced bosom of rock. Young men like Giles Smith. And me.

In towns such as Colchester there are no degrees of separa-tion. Lost in Music conveys the feeling of living there so precisely because it takes time to explore the characters in the story and the connections between them. How important these details seem in the slow banality of a minor commuter-bation; how irrelevant they are once you’ve escaped.

Lost in Music gets beneath the clothes of Colchester, articu-lating more how it feels – or more precisely how it sounds – than what it looks like. The entire chapter dedicated to Nik Kershaw3 gives deeper insight into the place than a census. Giles Smith’s Colchester is defined more by who doesn’t live there than by who does: “Marc Bolan was by no means the only pop star I hadn’t seen in Colchester High Street. Others included Rod Stewart, Noddy Holder of Slade and that man with the sideburns out of Mungo Jerry … Colchester wasn’t a good town for that. It wasn’t the kind of place pop stars came to, or came from”.4

* * *

Waveney Wilcox, or Waff, is an unconventional father figure. The son of a strict property-developing father (my grandfa-ther), Waff balanced the conflicting demands of tree surgery, art, music and rampant alcoholism to assume legendary status across the north Essex/south Suffolk region. As you might imagine, this had a few disadvantages for me, notably an acute fear of his imminent death or imprisonment. On a brighter note, his exceptional but largely unfulfilled musi-cianship and song writing were the primary influence on my youthful attempts at rock stardom. When I formed Maniac Squat with old friend Scott (Arsepiece) in late ‘91 my dad was the obvious candidate to play bass, not least because he was the only person I knew who actually could.

The early Maniac Squat sessions, gigs and a demo were characterised by clumsy playing, abject song writing, brazen plagiarism and, worst of all, my shockingly discordant singing. A demo recorded in 1992 is so bad I can’t face ever hearing it again. Two of the four songs were “written” by Scott and me, and are poorly executed derivatives of Iggy Pop’s “Dum Dum Boys” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, unrespec-tively. The other two were written by Waff and had been first performed by his band Plasma in the late seventies. Auteurs we were not. As if in search of better musicians to play with, Dad moved to Germany after the demo and was replaced by Michael Giaquinto (Barnaby Wild) on bass, with Romford-born Chris Tate (who was too grown-up to adopt a pseudonym) coming in on drums.

Over in Smith’s parallel universe, Lost in Music narrates the achingly familiar production and distribution of an early demo tape.5 They never sound anything like a “proper record”, and the only people who buy them are very good friends, relatives and other people in bands. Smith was fortu-nate enough to hand a tape of his first real band, Orphans of Babylon, directly into the car boot of the great John Peel,6 with no more luck than if he had posted it, but better off by a fine anecdote. The piles of tapes to which Smith added his spoke more eloquently of the hopelessness of his musical aspira-tions than John Peel could ever have expressed in words.

Listening to The Cleaners from Venus today, it is hard to escape the conclusion that they could, and should, have achieved more. Unlike Maniac Squat they were good musicians, especially Nelson, the bassist. Lost in Music cites person-ality issues as the main reason they didn’t supplant Sting. I put it to Giles Smith that poor production and the lack of one, truly great pop song in their repertoire created a glass ceiling for The Cleaners. He agreed, contrasting the high quality of production by Andy Partridge of XTC on Newell’s first solo album “The Greatest Living Englishman”7 and The Cleaners producer-less offerings.8

When it comes to bands, everyone has an opinion. In two-bit Nowheresvilles the music journalist on the local paper can become a de facto John Peel. Coverage has its problems, however, as Lost in Music records: “The recognition, the pes-tering in the streets, the pressure of becoming a local ‘face’ overnight – none of these was a stake. But there was, instead, the chance of embarrassment, the grim likelihood of coming out of this venture ashen-faced with entirely the wrong result”.9 Smith then details the pain that results from the Essex County Standard augmenting its review of your band’s latest gig with details of your age, occupation and the part of town you live in.

Although Maniac Squat’s art was deficient, the live presen-tation of it was at least distinctive. I established the masochistic pre-gig ritual of guzzling a bottle of vodka. This process perpetuated the classic drug-genius myth to myself while absolving me of any personal responsibility for the fuck-awful music that came blaring out of the speakers. My band mates and I would play different songs at the same time, call the audience “cunts”, trample on their drinks, and be sick mid-set. I’d also thrust my arse in their faces and wave my cock at them. If you were one of the few people who saw this, please note that it was very cold at the time.

Our compound of DaDa, punk and nihilism had been explored comprehensively by other artists – many times – but we had something distinct. Only a few people got it, however, and the punch I received from a biker at Wivenhoe May Fair in 1993 is perhaps representative of our public reception. There again, I did throw a can of Special Brew in his direction. At least no audience could ever have hated us more than we hated ourselves.

You are probably getting a sense that the rock odyssey that was Maniac Squat is broadly distinguished by disappoint-ment, but there were conspicuous highlights. We went into the studio in the summer of ‘93 and reproduced another one of dad’s songs, “Total Annihilation”, well enough for it to be played on a battle of the bands competition on Radio 1. We came last, yet this was progress. We were very pleased with ourselves, sickeningly so.

Then, like The Cleaners, we were asked to tour Europe. Or a bit of it. Drummer Chris couldn’t come, so Damon (Did) – short, mad and straight out of Norwich prison where he’d been incarcerated for poll tax rioting – occupied the vacant stool. Did was a less metronomic drummer than Chris but he owned a van, which Giles Smith ranks justifiably as the most important qualification for being in a band.10 So we set off in a matt black Ford Transit on the Harwich-Ostend ferry full of bright-eyed expectation. We returned two months later full of drugs and Slavic bodily fluids.

Our first gig was in Pilsen – famed for producing beer, and in retrospect an imprudent place to start, possibly. We got a wild reception in a packed club. One teenage boy was jumping about at the front of the stage the whole night, head-banging, smiling and generally digging it. I spoke to him after the set whereupon I discovered he was deaf. I didn’t know whether to be walking on sunshine that our performance had communicated with him in such a special way or shot through the heart that you had to be deaf to like us that much.

Satisfaction at our Pilsen experience gave way to hubris as we rolled into Prague. The promoters at the Bunker Club greeted us warmly, took us out for a meal in an exquisite restaurant, then put us up in a flat near the venue. We thanked them by drinking two fridges full of beer and playing like complete wankers. Then we smashed up the flat.

If only we had been managed by Pete the Bastard, The Cleaners’ manager, whose lush antics pepper Lost in Music. He was, at least, triumphant in getting them a record contract. Perversely, our managers never drank that much but failed to progress our career one notch.

For me, the best-written element of Smith’s writing in Lost in Music is his portrayal of Martin Newell, The Cleaners from Venus front man and principal songwriter. Every interesting band needs at least one eccentric nutter. Although Smith’s representation of Newell is affectionate and amusing, charac-terising him as a latter day Syd Barrett is rather disingenuous. Newell’s refusal to undertake what could have been a career-defining follow up tour of Germany in 1988, he told me recently, had more to do with the economics of feeding his family than it being a danger to his “mental equilibrium”,11 as Smith suggests.

* * *

Scott and I simultaneously moved to London to go to univer-sity in late ‘94. We were still living the dream despite a couple of rough years in a musical hell that felt like a collaboration between Hieronymus Bosch and Jilted John. Combined student loans were utilised to cut a disk; the ultimate vanity purchase. We found a studio on an industrial estate in Maldon and “laid down” about ten tracks in two days. Something had changed. A few of them actually sounded good (ie not shit), so we hawked them round labels and distributors. Backs/RTM offered us a distribution deal and in early ‘95 “Fuck Off” backed with “Spit On Me” and “Hey Rude Boy” were released nationally to a glut of reviews including NME, Melody Maker and, best of all, “Single of the Week” in Kerrang! There were up to three gigs a week at this stage and for a few piss-golden months we were a passably competent rock band. I had never wanted more than that for my life. And I didn’t get it.

Maniac Squat’s “greatest hit” went like this:

“I always knew you was a little bugger

And now I caught you playing rugger Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off

Yeah I caught you this time

And that’s my only crime

Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off

FUCK

OFF

FUCK

OFF

FUCK

OFF

WHY DON’T YOU FUCK OFF YOU WANKER?”12

Good innit?

Our second single, “Aaaarghh!”, was a case of flying too close to the sun with vinyl wings. We pressed too many, put on some poor tracks, chose the wrong A side and failed to promote it properly. At the same time it became increasingly difficult to get a deranged Did to come up to London to do gigs. Consequently, Maniac Squat died a lingering death over the course of 1996. Like Giles Smith, I am inclined to blame the “loony” in the band for its demise, but we had actually all had enough. The thrill had gone. Once you realise that you will never be anything like as good at making music as your teenage heroes, it’s harder and harder to keep doing it.

Giles Smith left music and has become a successful writer and award-winning journalist. He hasn’t been able to leave the piano alone completely, however, making a guest appear-ance on a Martin Newell solo album. My self-delusion is sufficient to keep me rocking; I’m in a dirty blues/rock band called The Chavs, writing and recording with the exquisite Gillian Glover, and brilliant musicians Woody Woodmansey on drums and Rod Melvin on piano. I hide the dark truth of my Maniac Squat years from them like a priest hides evidence of an affair with an altar boy. There’s no prospect of giving up the day job, but I’m happy to still be lost in music.

Notes:

  1. Giles Smith, Lost in Music (Picador, 1995), pp 16-20.
  2. Pete Frame, Harp Beat Rock Gazetteer of Great Britain (Banyan Books, 1989).
  3. Giles Smith, Lost in Music (Picador, 1995), pp 120-32.
  4. Ibid pp 16-17.
  5. Ibid pp 110-11.
  6. Ibid pp 103-104.
  7. Ibid p 264.
  8. Ibid pp 196-205.
  9. Ibid p 105.
  10. Ibid p 34.
  11. Ibid p 234.
  12. Maniac Squat, “Fuck Off”, 7” vinyl single, cat. HRN001.1995. Lyrics by Tom Wilcox.

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