Part Three – Fiachra, Foxx, Philistines and the future
© 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.
How did Robin get back involved with John Foxx (once he returned from America)?
John got back in touch with us when he was recording ‘The Garden’ album. Robin had left Magazine by then so he went to work with John again. The problem with Magazine had been that McGeoch was a large part of the group, and he left a big hole. So there was a lot of pressure on Robin to come up with a lot of material quickly and that just didn’t work out for him. He got on very well with Dave Formula, though, who later came back for us and played on the second AjantaMusic album.
What happened to you after Happy Birthday Records?
While I was recording with Cowboys International, I met an arranger and composer called Fiachra Trench* who had come in to do strings for us on ‘Too Much Too Little’. That track has recently been released on the ‘Cowboys International Revisited’ album. Ken re-released the first album and added that song to it.
Fiachra and I struck up a friendship. When I left Happy Birthday I started a group with him called Pleasure Pack. I was the singer and principal writer; Fiachra played keyboards and arranged. Our guitarists were Robin and Rob Dean (of Japan). We demoed most of an album at George Martin’s Airedel Studio in 1982. Fiachra was one of the staff writers there, so George Martin gave us free studio time for the project. We carried on recording together until ’84 or ’85. We had a production partnership, and worked very hard to get those recordings released, but we couldn’t get a deal for Pleasure Pack.
During this time, Fiachra was involved in the start of the ‘Hi-NRG’ genre, which was a derivative of disco. I sat in on a lot of these sessions. Along with Ian Levene, Fiachra released ‘High Energy’ by Evelyn Thomas, an enormous international hit, which actually sounds very similar to a Pleasure Pack track I’d previously worked on with Fi.
Fi worked with Paul McCartney, arranging for Wings, and taught Linda McCartney to play keyboards. He also worked with James Brown, and he used to do strings for several Irish acts, including Thin Lizzy, The Boomtown Rats and Van Morrison. He still works with Van Morrison. Fiachra was famously offered the job of string arranger on ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon, but he had another booking so he gave it to his friend John Barham. That’s one to turn down, isn’t it! Years later, I met John Barham and he confirmed this story to me.
* Fiachra has scored and composed music for films that include Pearl Harbor, The Boxer, The Tailor of Panama and The Ring and is credited as having written the string arrangement for “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues, “Love is All Around” by Wet Wet Wet and “Old Town” by Phil Lynott.
Was Robin still working with John Foxx at this time?
Yes, he was. As you know, he played on several of John’s albums in the 80s and had toured with him in support of ‘The Garden’ album – the only live work John did until he began gigging with Louis Gordon in the 90s.
Eventually Robin and I did some recording with John together, around the time of the ‘In Mysterious Ways’ album. I remember John saying he wanted to try doing live backing tracks again. (Most of his 80s albums had been recorded using a drum machine.) He asked me to bring in a bass player? So I got in touch with Matthew Seligman. In the event, unfortunately, Matthew let us down. So we ended up doing that session with just drums and a guitar because we had no bass player. We just went into the studio and did it on the spot; John didn’t give us anything to prepare. There’s an extra track on the re-issue of ‘In Mysterious Ways’ that sounds like us, and it’s one of the songs we recorded that day.
I also saw a lot of John socially, from around 1983 up until about ’96, when Robin and I left the UK. We went to see a lot of bands together: Kraftwerk, 808 State, Erasure, A Guy Called Gerald. After the Virgin deal ended, John worked with Tim Simenon for Rhythm King Records. Neneh Cherry was around. It was the beginnings of rave and acid house and John was really interested in that scene. We did a bit of clubbing around town with Tim. But nothing much came of it all. John was being used a bit I think. Rhythm King had used John’s name to front up their label, but they didn’t follow through on any of the promises they made him.
During this time  I joined The Sing Market with Carrie Booth, who’d been in The Thompson Twins and Shakespeare’s Sister. I did an EP with her and a bassist called Andrew Bodnar who played for Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. Brinsley Schwarz played guitar on the tracks.
I did session work as a drummer and programmer, notably with a group called Bliss on EMI. I brought Carrie Booth into that line-up. The standard rates of pay then were about five times what they are now, unbelievably. I also sessioned for numerous other bands.
I was also doing bits of production work. I produced an album for Dave Roberts from The Sex Gang Children. Dave played bass and sang, with me on drums and Colin Minchin on guitar. We were called The Children. I produced one of the tracks at John’s studio, The Garden. Dave later took this track to the States, finished off the album there and it was released under the name ‘Carcrash International‘ on Cleopatra Records.
Ahh… now John Foxx is credited on that album I think?
Yes, John is credited as ‘executive producer’ for his generosity in giving me the studio time for free.
What can you tell me about the mysterious Blitz line-up? with John Foxx?
Ah, fast forward to 1993. John rang up one day and said, “Do you and Robin want to start a group with me?”. So we started rehearsing in London up on Kensal Road, in one of the rehearsal room I used with Glen when we were doing The Philistines. (I’ll come back to that later). We worked on ten or eleven songs. It was a bit of a departure for John as he cited The Velvet Underground as his major influence for this project.
The line-up was John on rhythm guitar and vocals, me on drums, Robin on lead guitar and Sue Rachel from Robin’s then-recent band with Billy Currie, Humania, on bass. Interestingly, Sue had also previously been involved with Dead Or Alive, which gave the rhythm section a punchy 80s kind of feel.
After some time spent rehearsing John suggested we cut an album, so we went up to Foel Studios near Powys in Wales.
Why Foel? That’s a bit out of the way isn’t it?
It’s a residential studio, so it gave us a chance to work without distractions. It was also very good value, for a 24-track analogue studio anyway. We didn’t have a record deal at this point; John was funding it all out of his own pocket. The recording room in Foel is a converted barn. Ozric Tentacles and quite a few other name acts were regulars there. The owner and engineer was an ex bass player called Dave Allen.
What about the name ‘Blitz’ – whose idea was that?
We didn’t really have a name. We were in the kitchen at my house in London one evening and John suggested it.
Was it anything to do with the New Romantic club, Rusty Egan and all that?
No, I don’t think so. I think he thought more in terms of the bombs. The war over London, more that kind of ‘Blitz’.
So we went up to Foel Studios and started the album. We completed five tracks and things were looking promising. John then asked us to play a live gig with him at Leeds College of Art, where John was a tutor. I was on tour with Glen Matlock at the time and, for logistical reasons, it never happened.
John met Louis Gordon a short time later and abandoned the Blitz project to join Louis in a more dance-oriented synth-based direction.
So what happened to the this material?
Nothing happened to it. John re-invented himself for the EDM market and that stuff doesn’t fit in to his new history. However, everyone who’s heard the Blitz recordings has said they’re really good. I played it to Glen Matlock and he was knocked out by it.
Did you co-write any of it?
No, John wrote all of it but we created our own parts and the band’s sound evolved organically. John was a fan of Neo, so I think he was quite interested in having Robin and me playing together with him. It stands as the closest musical link between what he’s done since and the original Ultravox! There are no synths on it and the two guitars sound of John’s rhythm behind Robin’s lead guitars is unique.
John Foxx has always championed Rob’s guitar work. He still speaks very favourably of working with him.
Yes, he does, and it’s very supportive of him. He acknowledges that Robin was a pioneer of ‘treated guitar’. Robin worked with Conny Plank, adding effects and treatments to his guitar sound during the recording of ‘Systems of Romance’. This was long before U2’s The Edge adopted similar techniques for his sound.
Tell me about the band you had with Glen Matlock from The Sex Pistols
They were called The Mavericks when I first joined them. The original line-up featured my old friend Keith Levene on guitar, but he had since been replaced by Paul O’Brien. The vocalist was Gerry Foster. Glen changed the name to The Philistines when we went into the studio to record our album ‘Hard Work’.
Although we toured the UK several times, our most successful territory was France, where the group was on another level altogether. We headlined several major festivals and, even for club gigs, we were on at least four times the fee we could command in the UK. We were offered a deal by a French record company, but decided to release our album independently.
I began working with Glen in 1993 after Blitz and we toured, recorded and co-wrote until 1995. After ‘Hard Work’ we needed a major recording contract to take the group further but it didn’t happen. After the group broke up, Glen signed a solo deal with Creation Records. I was also involved, playing and co-writing on his early releases.
One of the high points of my time working with Glen was when, as The Mavericks, we played the Mick Ronson tribute concert at The Hammersmith Odeon in London. Mick Ronson had produced Glen’s earlier band with Midge Ure, The Rich Kids, so Glen knew him well.
But the music you are making now is very different from all that you’ve done before?
It is and it isn’t! As you know, Robin and I travelled extensively between 1996 and 2001, working as jobbing musicians. We landed on Ibiza in 1999 and began AjantaMusic there. It wasn’t intended to sound like a re-hash of the various bands we’re known for. It doesn’t sound like, for example, Ultravox meets Thomas Dolby.
I think it contains all the musical influences I’ve absorbed over the years, but after funk, rock, and the 80s synth scene, I got heavily into G-Funk and hip-hop. So that’s in there, too, along with the hybrid music Robin and I came across in Ibiza, where there’s a kind of ‘hippies meet chill-out crossed with dance’ thing going on.
People became interested in us because they like the story around Robin and me. The internet effectively revived our careers. I think, though, that some of our original fans find it hard to accept that our music has moved on. They actually want you to stay the same. Our approach has always been to break new ground.
Our first album, ‘And Now We Dream’, released in 2006, was the closest to our time in Spain, although it’s also a travelogue. The following year we added Gina Watson, an opera-trained vocalist, to the line-up so our second album ‘Above The Cloudline’, is more song-based.
The group has since evolved into a series of writing partnerships, between me, Robin, Matthew Seligman and Ibiza-based Jürgen Graf (formerly with German metallists Udo).
We’ve also been helped along the way by other former colleagues, including Dave Formula (Magazine) and Bruce Woolley (The Buggles, Grace Jones) and Pete Jones (Cowboys International, Public Image Ltd).
We left Ibiza to work in London and throughout the life of AjantaMusic, I’ve also worked professionally as a DJ. The urban environment and the music I’ve been exposed to have also influenced my writing and production. On our latest album ‘The Secret Door’ I attempted to create something different again – music for the future!
We’ve released all three albums independently on my self-financed label Stratotester Records.
Apart from AjantaMusic, what’s going on now at Stratotester Records?
I recently released a remix of the ‘Dream Soldiers’ single that I did with The Fallout Club back in 1981. The release is actually an EP, featuring the original ‘Dream Soldiers’ cut, plus two remixes and Trevor’s original demo of his song. It features Thomas Dolby, Matthew Seligman and Trevor Herion. The remixes feature Robin on guitar and Gina Watson on vocals; I’ve rearranged and remastered the tracks, with the help of Tony Bywaters and it’s been very well received. There are some amazing guitars from Robin.
I’m also going to release two Civilians albums featuring Trevor Herion. The first consists of various recordings we made before the end of the Arista deal. It includes the Arista single and another track with Hans Zimmer on keyboards. The second is a live album of the very last Civilians gig, in December 1979, at The Camden Palace.
There are also some Pleasure Pack recordings, featuring Robin and me with Fiachra Trench and Rob Dean, which I plan to release later. I am also doing an electronic rock project with Colin Minchin (One the Juggler, The Children), and we are about to start recording our first album.
I also have six completed tracks for the fourth AjantaMusic album and am working with Robin on a further six for possible inclusion.
Great news that. I look forward to hearing all of it. It’s been fascinating talking to you.
All the best with the album, and the re-issued stuff you’re working on.
Thanks very much.
‘The Secret Door’ by AjantaMusic and ‘Dream Soldier’ by The Fallout Club are out now on Stratotester Records, along with the first two AjantaMusic albums.
They are available from iTunes and http://www.ajantamusic.com