Paul Simon (AjantaMusic) – Part 1

Part One – From Yorkshire Funk to London Punk

© Martin Smith, May 2014.
There’s a lot of work gone into this. Please do not copy without permission.

Former Ultravox and Magazine guitarist Robin Simon and his brother Paul (both of Neo) have recently released their third album’ The Secret Door’ as AjantaMusic on Paul’s label Stratotester Records. Both musicians share a hidden history of influential associations and peripheral infiltration that spans over 30 years. I caught up with Paul Simon recently at his home in West London to talk about his journey through the independent music scene, their recording history and his latest projects.

Tell us about where this all started. Weren’t you in a band with Billy Currie once at the beginning, up in Yorkshire? 

I formed my first band, The Cosmonauts, at school when I was 12. We played songs by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and the Rolling Stones. When I was 16 and at grammar school, I formed another band with my friend Philip McNally, this time playing original music. Coincidentally, my younger brother Robin had rapidly progressed from playing rhythm to lead guitar in the space of one summer holiday and I asked him to join us.  Kandahar was a kind of psychedelic rock band with an Indian influence. We did our first gigs in youth clubs and local pubs.

I met Billy Currie when I was 17. I was in the sixth form at school and had become a member of the Junior Arts Council, through which I helped found a club called the Halifax Arts Lab, modelled on the Arts Lab in Drury Lane, London. We had the top floor of an old warehouse in the centre of Halifax and used to show arts films such as Fellini’s ‘Satirycon’ [1969] and ‘Repulsion’ by Roman Polanski [1965].  We also ran gigs and staged improvisational theatre. The People Show eventually grew from this scene. I was the DJ there, playing American psychedelic rock alongside The Beatles and Pink Floyd. One night Billy walked in and introduced himself as a fellow musician. He’d come over from nearby Huddersfield. He was already playing viola then and a little later, when the Kandahar violinist (Janet Austin) left, Billy replaced her. He was already a consummate player and, though his background was classical, he could play freeform too. We didn’t actually do any gigs, but rehearsed in the local church hall for some months and would jam away for hours. Billy drifted off after a while, though we remained friends, and was replaced by another guitarist. Kandahar progressed to the college circuit and continued until I left Halifax to go to Art College in Birmingham.

After leaving Art College, I travelled overland to India on a six-month journey of cultural discovery and when I got home I worked with Billy again. We became the backing musicians for a theatre group[1] in a show called ‘The Electric Sunrise, whose director had also been the director of Apple Theatre for The Beatles. I played tablas, Billy played viola; we improvised whilst Eddie Maelov and Sunshine Patterson (later of Gloria Mundi) danced. We did some college gigs around the north of England, but not quite a tour. Kandahar re-formed but by 1975 Robin and I were ready to do something more professional. We couldn’t find local musicians ambitious enough, so we advertised in Melody Maker for band members and found an American bass player, Tom, and a keyboard player from Essex, Gary. After a time with a female singer from Sheffield, a friend of the early Human League, we advertised again. We were contacted by a London management company who were looking for a band to back a singer from the USA called Limmie Snell. The previous year, along with his two sisters as Limmie and The Family Cookin’, he’d had two international Top Ten hits with ‘It’s A Walking Miracle’ and ‘You Can Do Magic’[2].

He had split with his sisters, left America and relocated to London. Limmie came up from London with a management representative and his MD, auditioned us and we became Limmie Funk Limited[3] – so we had the funk before the punk.

There’s an element of ‘the funk’ in The Secret Door too…

Oh yeah, you can hear the funk in a lot of what we do, and so you can still hear some of the funk in AjantaMusic. Limmie had been in the band that became the O’Jays and he’d also toured supporting James Brown with The Family Cookin’. We learned a great deal from being schooled in the style of an American soul review. This involved rehearsing 6-8 hours a day. We began a tour with Limmie, but it ran out of steam and ended in London in early ’76. Tom knew somebody who had a squat in Vauxhall which became our new base.

Everybody lived in a squat in London in ’76, I think!

Yes, there was a large squatters community and some strange coincidences around that time – we shared the house with a girl who was going out with Dave Robinson who managed Graham Parker and the Rumour and Ian Dury. Those bands would come round to the squat to collect their wages from Dave. He later started Stiff Records.

I’d been in London less than two weeks when this same girl told us there was a pub in Balham, The Bedford, with live music. We went along and the band that night was the 101’ers with Joe Strummer on vocals and guitar.
At the end of the evening I looked over at the bar and there was Billy. He had already moved down from Huddersfield via a stint in Bristol with The Company Road Show, but I hadn’t seen him for a while and had no idea he was in London. (The last time I’d seen him was when I was hitch-hiking down to London to a Pink Floyd gig. I was on the motorway, and this guy in a van stopped to let me get in, and when I got in Billy was already sat in the back, also hitching to London!) Anyway, Billy’s there at the bar and I guess we both thought, “Great! Mates from home”, so we started knocking around together again.

Is this the first time you encountered Ultravox!?

Yes. One night round at Billy’s flat in Herne Hill, he said, “Have a listen to this. I’m playing with this group called Tiger Lily. What do you think?”. He played me three or four tracks and he showed me a photograph of the group.

I said to him “Yeah, I think it looks very interesting”. The image was interesting and I thought it had something going for it and advised him to stick with it, They were rehearsing in a mannequin factory at the time and recording with Steve Lillywhite on studio downtime. I went there a couple of times and they were struggling. I remember Billy saying he and Dennis [Leigh, latterly ‘John Foxx’ ] had been down to Oxford Street giving away tickets to a gig they’d set up, just trying to get anybody interested. Anyway, eventually, with the help of the Steve Lilywhite recordings, they got the deal with Island Records.

They were looking around for a name – I think they were going to be called The Innocents. One day I said to Billy to tell Dennis to come up with a name that says “extra” something, “more than” something. I don’t know if that was fed back, but shortly after that “Ultravox!” came up…

And around the same time you met Ian North?

Yes. Again, Billy was responsible for introducing us. He rang me up one day and said, “There’s this guy buzzing around called Ian North. Eno’s brought him over from New York and he’s looking for a drummer. He’s auditioning.” So I went up to Island and got the gig with Ian’s Radio. It was Ian and another guy who I didn’t know at the time so I asked someone who it was. They told me it was Martin Gordon, from Sparks.

So how did Robin come to meet Ultravox!?

The first link was my friendship with Billy, and Billy joining Kandahar in Halifax. When we first came to London, Robin and I were playing in a Bowie-ish band called Wild Side, fronted by Claire Fletcher. We quit that to look for something that was better established. For a while, Robin played in a group called Hellhound with Sammy Mitchell who was a really noted British blues player, famous for playing the lead guitar on ‘Sailin’ by Rod Stewart. The bass player was Brian Turrington, who’d been in Eno’s band The Winkies[4]. I joined a band with Top Topham from the Yardbirds, playing my first London gig at the Marquee.  Billy was there. That was the beginning of it really. When Hellhound broke up, I suggested to Robin that he join Ian’s Radio because it seemed likely we were going to get signed to Island, who had been giving us free rehearsal space and studio time. Ian and I had already done one gig as a trio, with Martin Gordon (ex Sparks), at the Nashville, supporting Ultravox!, before changing the name to Radio when Robin came on board.

What happened to Radio, and what did you do after that?

Martin Gordon had another long-standing musical relationship going on with Andy Ellison from John’s Children, a group which had once included Marc Bolan. They’d had a group called Jet that signed to CBS and he was in the process of rebranding them as Radio Stars (a strangely similar name!)

At the end of ’76, Martin asked me to go to a studio in Tooting to record some tracks with him. (The studio was where New Muzik used to do all their stuff. In fact I think it was the same engineer[5].) At that time Martin and I were both still in Radio and were managed by John Hewlett who had been Sparks’ manager. John had a fallout with Sparks and he had the backline and the whole of their touring PA in his garage in Carshalton. We used to go down there and raid it for amps and all sorts of bits and bobs.

So Radio was not the same band as Radio Stars?

No, it wasn’t, although at one point the two bands almost merged. There are some recordings called ‘Radio’ which are me, Ian, Martin and Robin together just very briefly as a four-piece with Andy Ellison on backing vocals. We were a power-pop band. When Martin left to start Radio Stars, he asked me to join them. At that the same time, Radio changes its name to Neo, with a line-up of myself, Ian and Robin, so there’s some overlap between the two bands.

The first record I played on was the ‘Stop It’ EP by Radio Stars, recorded for Chiswick Records while I was in Neo. It was good experience for me as Martin knew a lot more about production than I did.  While with Sparks he’d arranged their track ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough (For The Both Of Us) – still Sparks’ biggest hit to date. I’m also on some of the first Radio Stars album, though not credited, as I decided to continue with Neo and not join Radio Stars full time.

Tell me how you got involved with the punk scene.

Ian North introduced me to punk and the ex-pat New Yorkers, who by this time were arriving in London – people like Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, Lee Black Childers, Wayne County, Cherry Vanilla and a certain Nancy Spungen. Ian had been in a group called Milk ‘n’ Cookies who played CBGB, and he already had a deal with Island. Interestingly, Ian had a Saturday job when he was at school, working at Manny’s Music Store in New York and he sold Joey Ramone his first guitar. Ian had brought some stuff over from America.

The first punk record I ever heard was ‘Blank Generation’ by Richard Hell and the Voidoids. It’s one of the best punk records ever. I think actually there were only two or three real punk groups – The Ramones, The Voidoids and The Sex Pistols … and The Damned, probably. And of course, I soon discovered Iggy Pop, the archetype punk. So Neo became involved in the punk scene. We toughened up our sound and added a hard edge to the power pop. For a while, Neo had a residency at The Man In The Moon on The King’s Road, a really early punk gig.

We had bands like Adam And The Ants and X-Ray Spex supporting us. Now it’s a gastro-pub! When we were playing there, all sorts of people used to come down. I remember Tim Rose, Andy Summers[6] and Mitch Mitchell coming to see us. There were all these people around, but actually the punk thing was quite small. Billy and Dennis (now calling himself John Foxx) also knew about punk. I used to go down to the Roxy Club in Covent Garden with Billy and John to see The Damned at The Hope and Anchor[7]. It was very early days for The Damned. We also went to see The Clash at the ICA when there were five of them[8], when another guitarist that I worked with called Keith Levene was in them. That was the night Patti Smith jumped up on stage…

The Clash were very good, right from the start. I first met Glen [Matlock] at one of the Neo gigs at the Roxy Club in Covent Garden. We came off stage one night and two guys came up to me and started talking. They were really enthusiastic and I thought, “We’ve got some fans here”. Then somebody told me afterwards that they were Mick Jones from The Clash and Glen from the Pistols. I’ve known Glen well ever since then.  Neo played four or five gigs a week throughout 1977 with residencies at The Marquee, The Speakeasy and the Vortex Club. While we were playing down the Vortex [Wardour Street, Soho] I met The Models, whose guitarist was called Marco Pirroni[9]. I got to know him quite well early on.

And another of those early punk bands was Mean Street, with Gary Numan. They are on the ‘Live At The Vortex’ album that Neo have two tracks on[10]. I heard that the album went to Number One in Germany and sold 50,000 copies, but we never saw any money from it.

I understand John Foxx was quite a fan?

Yes, John used to come and see us at the Hope & Anchor and invited us to support Ultravox! on numerous occasions.  He said to us that, including the Pistols, Neo was the best punk band he ever saw. I remember Maria[11] from X-Ray Spex telling us that we were at least two years ahead of it all. We were a bit too competent for punk really, although The Pistols were competent, and The Clash because they had Joe Strummer who had done an incredible number of gigs. I must have seen him at least 25 times with the 101’ers before he joined The Clash. Most of the other so-called punk bands of the time were too painful to witness.

Ultravox! were arguably one of those bands ‘too competent to play punk’ as well…?

Well, yeah, they were. In fact, one of the reasons we used to go to The Roxy was because Billy was trying to get Andy Czekowski to book Ultravox!. But Andy wouldn’t book them because they were too good. He only wanted beginner-type things. Punk was very clique-y really and very competitive. It wasn’t everybody trying to help each other. Eventually, it became a scramble as the major labels caught up on the street scene and realised it spelled the death knell for old bands.

What happened to Neo?

Neo were a very successful live band. By the time we were recording the ‘Live At The Vortex’ album, we were receiving offers from major record companies. It eventually came down to a choice between Charisma who had the first Peter Gabriel album then (which they played to us before it was released) and Jet Records. run by Don Arden[12], a notorious heavy, known for hanging people out of windows by their ankles! Neo broke up over which record deal we should sign. Robin and I wanted to sign with Charisma; Ian wanted to sign with Jet, because they had ELO and he was modelling himself on Jeff Lynne, in more ways than one. Jeff Lynne is a kind of autocrat which was the way Ian wanted to go, and that’s what broke the group up. Ian didn’t want to let us write any songs in Neo, which was difficult because we have always written, and a lot of Neo’s arrangements were done by Robin and me.

We did contribute to the songs, although Ian had originated them. Interestingly, some months later Peter Gabriel’s manager called me asking if Robin and I would audition for his band. By this time, I had started The Civilians and Robin was a member of Ultravox! Ian signed for Jet but ended up buying back his own recordings from the label and leaving the UK empty-handed

to be continued… www.ajantamusic.com

Part TwoPart Three

Notes on the text

[1]  The ‘Ritual’ Theatre Company (www.billycurrie.com)

[2]  Limmie Snell : LS & Family Cookin’ (Canton, Ohio). Released three singles in the UK – ‘You Can Do Magic’ reached No.3 (1973) and ‘A Walking Miracle’ reached No.6 (1974)

[3]  As ‘Limmie Funk Limited’, with Tony Mansfield and Nick Straker who went on to form New Muzik in 1976.

[4]  The Winkies were independent of Brian Eno, but supported him on his first and only tour with ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ in February 1974.

[5]  Tony Mansfield.

[6]   Andy Summers : Guitarist, The Police

[7]  The Damned played at The Hope and Anchor in Islington several times between November 1976 and February 1977

[8]   Saturday 23rd October, 1976, featuring support from The Subway Sect

[9]   Marco Pirroni : Guitarist and songwriter. (Siouxsie and the Banshees, Cowboys International, Adam and the Ants)

[10] Various Artists : ‘Live At The Vortex‘ (NEMS, December 1977)

[11]  Marianne Said or Mari Elliot, aka ‘Poly Strene’ : X-Ray Spex

[12]  Father of Sharon Arden, wife of Ozzy Osbourne.

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One thought on “Paul Simon (AjantaMusic) – Part 1

  1. Pingback: City spaces and popular music | Michael Whitworth

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