Part Two – Surviving the Fallout
© 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.
What happened next [after Neo split] and how did you become involved with Trevor Herion?
I started The Civilians in 1978 with Michael French, a bass player and song writer. He’d seen Neo, he knew they’d gone and I was at a bit of a loose end. He kept pestering me to start a group with him. He came from Lewisham but he’s living in San Francisco now. I’ve just got back in touch.
We got a really great guitarist called Mark Scholfield who had had some success with a group called Fischer-Z. Our first singer was a Scot, Billy Rankin – a boy wonder who had played with The Alex Harvey Band when he was 16 and later played with Nazareth. He sang lead and played guitar. When he left The Civilians we did a kind of publishing swap, and Nazareth had a hit with one of my Civilians co-writes (‘My Preservation’).
Anyway, it took a while to replace Billy, but eventually we found Trevor Herion. We put an advert in Melody Maker and we must have auditioned 100 singers, and then we found him. When he came along, we knew we’d got the right singer. He had a great image and he could deliver a good vocal. He had a unique, jerky way of dancing when he sang, a little bit like Ian Curtis of Joy Division. He was a bit quirky, a strange character. But he was really good. A tremendous singer with a lot of style.
There was another really odd line-up around then too, that lasted for one afternoon. One day Marco Pirroni rang me up and he said, “I’ve got this singer. Well, he thinks he’s a singer, and I’m thinking of doing a line-up with him.” Marco knew me and Michael, so he said, ” I’ll bring this guy along. I’ll play guitar, you and Michael do the rhythm section” I remember clearing all the furniture out of the dining room of my house one afternoon when everybody else was at work and Michael and I set our gear up. Marco turns up with this guy – and it’s Steve Strange! He had all the leather gear on, that peaked cap image like the one Midge [Ure] went through a little bit later on. He didn’t seem confident in his singing, but he looked the part, and I could see why Marco wanted to do something with him. We jammed away for a couple of hours but that was it. Steve spent most of the afternoon listening to us.
That’s so cool! Nice little story. Go on, The Civilians?
From a standing start it took The Civilians about two years to land a major recording contract with Arista Records, in 1979 after being chased by several other major labels. We did a showcase at a studio called Suma on Lots Road in Chelsea, where the Pistols used to rehearse. It was run by Chris Suma who used to be the lighting guy for The Rolling Stones. We had about ten record companies in the room at the same time. One of our guests was ‘Woody’ Woodmansey from the Spiders From Mars. I loved Woody’s playing. I remember he stood right at the front of the crowd while I played – very nerve-racking for me.
Was he impressed?
Yeah, he loved it! It was a good time. I didn’t see him again for about twenty years. I met him again in 1994 when I played the Mick Ronson tribute gig with Glen Matlock at the Hammersmith Odeon. Woody was playing in another version of the Spiders. They had Joe Elliott on lead vocals, Trevor Boulder and Woody from the original Spiders and … guess who stood in for Mick Ronson – guitarist Billy Rankin from The Civilians! Small world…
The Civilians lasted up until 1980. We got this major record deal with Arista. We were signed by Billy Lawrie, Lulu’s brother. He used to write for The Bee Gees and he’d been at Island in publishing, and knew me from Radio days. I trusted Billy, plus Iggy Pop was on the label, and Clive Davis (Bob Dylan’s mentor) was in charge, so we signed to Arista. We received a substantial advance, and they sent us into the studio with a producer to make some new demos. Our manager had played me ‘Video Killed the Radiostar’ by the Buggles before its release, to see if I thought anything of it. I immediately recognised a hit and, yes, the production was great! We needed a producer for our first single and asked Trevor Horn if he was interested. We auditioned him in a tiny basement rehearsal room opposite the then Camden Palace. He said we were amazing and wanted to work with us.
In the event, as soon as ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ was released and went to No. 1, Trevor Horn’s diary filled up rapidly. We were told we’d have to wait 6 months to work with him. Arista suggested Andy Arthurs, a young producer who was flavour of the month at the time. We went into Wessex Studios, where all the Roxy Music albums and The Sex Pistols album had been recorded. The Clash were semi-resident in the smaller studio during our time there. We recorded three tracks with Andy, ‘Made for Television’, ‘I See My Friends’ and ‘Is This Romance?’. We brought in Hans Zimmer to play keyboards for us. Our first single was released shortly afterwards, but was withdrawn after we’d been on Arista for only two months. There was a political upheaval in the company. Billy Lawrie got fired and all his acts (including us, Iggy Pop and Simple Minds) were dropped.
We carried on for a while, trying to secure another record deal and did some gigs, but unfortunately Trevor [Herion] became awkward and tried to take over the group. This was ironic as he was the last member to join, we had handed him the deal on a plate and, up to that point, he had made no contribution to the song-writing. So I left, to join Cowboys International, and they carried on. Not long after I left, they fired Trevor; Michael took over as lead singer. They had a deal with Secret Records, owned by our former manager Martin Hooker who later made a fortune by signing Metallica to his label. I also had a solo deal with the same label.
OK. I didn’t know you ever went solo?
In 1981 when I started Happy Birthday Records, I recorded as a solo artist under the name ‘Paul Dupre’ (my mother’s maiden name). I released one single, backed by members of Cowboys International. I sang and played drums.
Cowboys International – another one of those ‘collectives’?
Shortly after The Civilians broke up, I had joined Ken Lockie’s group Cowboys International. The original drummer Terry Chimes (formerly of The Clash alongside Keith Levene) had left to join Billy Idol; Jimmy Hughes the bass player had left; and they’d never really had a proper guitarist. I helped Ken restructure the group by bringing in Stevie Shears who’d been replaced in Ultravox! by Robin. I was still friends with Stevie and I thought he needed a break. I also brought in Lee Robinson, former bass player for Boney M and Marcia Griffiths.
I did a European tour with them and started recording what was going to be the second Cowboys album, with Stevie, Lee and Ken at Good Earth Studios in Soho.
I’d done some stuff with them earlier, too, while I was still in The Civilians. Some of the original songs, that became the first and only Cowboys International album had been originated by Ken Lockie and Keith Levene. They shared a squat in Regents Park, so it was easy for them to work together. An early version of Cowboys International, before they were signed to Virgin, included me, Ken Lockie and Marco Pirroni – Keith [Levene] was never an official member of the band, but played guitar on several tracks on the album. Marco was a member of Cowboys International before I joined and, around this time, I did one of my early production jobs, recording his group Rema Rema.
The early recordings we made were produced by Mitch Mitchell [drummer] from the Jimi Hendrix Experience and [John] Poli Parmer who used to play for Family.
How did you meet Mitch Mitchell?
During the punk days a lot of the previous generation’s stars were still working and living in London. I met Mitch and Poli through friends in Fulham and shared a social scene with them, meeting Bad Company and Led Zeppelin. It was all going on at the same time and some of them took a great interest in Neo. They would come down The Vortex to check us out. Mitch helped me a great deal with his generosity and good advice. He was my drummer hero and it was a gas to work with him.
Tell me some more about Happy Birthday Records…
It was my idea. Through my then partner and former EMI publicist Paula Adams, I met the late Marcus Östherdahl. He owned Marcus Recordings, the former CTS recording studio in Kensington Gardens Square, where The Beatles recorded ‘She’s Leaving Home’. It was a fabulous studio with a very big live room. The three partners in the company were Marcus, Paula and me. Amongst the people I signed were Thomas Dolby, Trevor Herion and Girls At Our Best!
Before bringing them to the label, I had worked with Girls At Our Best! on Rough Trade Records. I was recommended to them by Glen Matlock of The Sex Pistols. I produced and played drums and synth on two songs, ‘Politics’ and ‘It’s Fashion’. Backing tracks were recorded at Cargo Studios in Rochdale and I mixed the single at Matrix Studios, London. John Peel was a big fan of ours and gave us a lot of airplay. At one point he described Girls At Our Best! as his favourite indie band. It was Rough Trade’s first ever international release. It appears on numerous Best Of Rough Trade compilations and was a hit in the UK Independent Charts.
The Fallout Club was formed when Tom brought in Matthew Seligman to join Trevor and me. With The Fallout Club, I recorded Trevor’s song ‘Dream Soldiers’ and one of Tom’s, ‘Pedestrian Walkway’.
I’m a fan of Trevor Herion. The ‘Beauty Life’ album is quite special and I’ve got a couple of singles too I think. ‘A Kiss Of No Return’?
Yes, after The Civilians and The Fallout Club, Trevor had a solo deal. Although his releases weren’t commercially successful, they’re classics of the 80s. The last time I saw Trevor was at the Marquee in 1984. He apologised profusely for breaking up The Civilians. He committed suicide in 1988.
What was Robin up to at this time?
Robin was in New York, living in Coney Island. As you know, he left Ultravox! when John did in ’79, because he didn’t think the group had much of a future without John. He stayed on in New York for a year and a half, trying to find another band to join. He also got married there.
The interesting thing is that on both the first Ultravox album with Midge and on the first John Foxx solo album there are versions of songs worked on by the original five-piece with Robin. What’s even more interesting is that I think ‘Metamatic’ is the best album John has ever made, and I think the first Ultravox album with Midge is the best one they made. However, I think the best work Midge and Billy ever did together was with Visage. Especially that second album, ‘The Anvil’.
When the Vox went over to New York for the first time after John had left [November 1979], they asked Robin if he wanted to join them on the tour, on guitar. However, it wasn’t on the same terms as before. Back when John was there, all members had been on an equal share of royalties. When they offered Robin the gig back with Ultravox, it was only on a session basis so he declined.
When Robin eventually came back to England he got offered the gig with Magazine. That was really the next thing he did properly after leaving Ultravox, and it was set up through a guy called Raf Edmunds who at one time had managed Neo. He heard that Robin was back in England, so when John McGeoch left magazine to join Siouxsie & The Banshees, Robin replaced him. He toured the USA with Magazine; they also did gigs in Europe and Australia. He plays on the live album of the tour, ‘Play’, and made a contribution to the album that followed.
Notes on the text
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey, drummer with The Spiders From Mars, 1969 – 1973
Joe Elliott : Singer / songwriter and guitarist, Def Leppard
Girls At Our Best! single : ‘Politics! c/w It’s Fashion (RoughTrade RT055).
The Fallout Club : ‘Dream Soldiers’ c/w ‘Pedestrian Walkway’ (Happy Birthday
records, May 1981)
Dream Soldiers (Paul Simon remix) now available from AjantaMusic