Warsaw Pakt: Rocket-fueled rock’n’roll from the bunker

by admin  3rd Jan 2014 Comments [0]

Real high-energy rock’n’roll in its most potent form is best captured live and in the moment. Maximum thrills, minimum frills.

In 1977, London’s Warsaw Pakt took that premise one step further, recording their album live, straight through, direct to the cutting lathe – no tape master, no overdubs, no mixing. The record was pressed, packed and shipped overnight and was in the record stores the following day. No procrastination. Instant gratification.

“The idea was to bypass tape and gain a very accurate recording that would be louder and clearer than any other method then available,” remembers guitarist Andy Colquhoun.

The actual process was simple. “It was play Side One, break, tune up, play Side Two,” he explains. “This was done three times. The engineers were very concerned about us destroying the cutting lathe heads, which ran about five grand each. At first the sound in their control room at the top of the building was very restrained. By the third take of the two sides it was OK, but not as good as the room sound. They used that take anyway. The master was taken directly to the factory and manufactured overnight, and we were in Virgin Records at Marble Arch the following afternoon signing copies.”

If there was an element of gimmickry to the recording method, no matter, the blazing urgency of the band’s performance, combined with a set of edgy, memorable songs makes Needle Time one of the most exciting releases of the ‘70s punk era. It’s also one of the most neglected.

Fortunately, for those who blinked and missed its original release, Needle Time was re-released by Japan’s Captain Trip Records. The CD copied the original LP’s cardboard-box-and-stickers packaging and also includes five bonus tracks.

The Pakt favored a high-revving formula with hard-boiled street-smart lyrics delivered quick and cool against super-charged Chuck Berry guitar licks, a modus operandi much like the MC5 circa Back in the USA, but with a vibe that was more attuned to the pubs and squats of their native Ladbroke Grove. Though given a punk rock paint job, the sound is redolent with the fumes of high-octane British R&B, a dead giveaway of their roots, as The Rockets.

THE ROCKETS, ca. early '76.  L to R: Andy Colquhoun, Dave Rochelle, Jimmy Coull, Oz Osbourne.

THE ROCKETS, ca. early ’76. L to R: Andy Colquhoun, Dave Rochelle, Jimmy Coull, Oz Osbourne.

Andy takes up the story: “The Rockets started in 1975, heavily influenced by Dr Feelgood who had a residency at the Kensington pub around the corner. It was Brit R&B. We played half a dozen Bo Diddley numbers, including ‘Cops and Robbers,’ and ‘60s tunes such as ‘I Fought the Law,’ ‘Don’t Gimme No Lip’ — which, pre Pistols was a Dave Berry B-side Bo knockoff — and we played numbers I wrote that eventually got recorded by Warsaw Pakt.”

The Rockets’ line-up featured lead singer Jimmie Coull, Andy Colquhoun on guitar and vocals, bassist Oz Osborne (aka “The Anadin Kid”) and Dave Rochelle on drums. Osborne The Anadin Kid, later resurfaced as “Val Haller” bassist of Wayne County & the Electric Chairs.

“Jimmie Coull has a great R&B voice and was noted for his taste in wines in large containers at very reasonable prices,” says Andy of the singer. “He had a more discerning taste in women and I believe he made a lot of them happy.”

Another key figure in the Rockets was Frank Day, who acted as manager and lyricist.

“Frank was the mate of Dave Rochelle,” explains Andy. “Dave had started the band with an advert in Melody Maker, which is how I joined. Frank was, and probably still is, a dapper bloke — a West London ‘smoothie’ with a passion for R&B and he booked most of our early gigs. He worked for the London council, and as a croupier, and had enough readies to keep us running. We paid him back of course.”

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The Rockets made the rounds on the London Pub Rock circuit and around the South and Midlands. In time-honored tradition they also traveled to Germany – Munich rather than Hamburg, though – where five-sets-a-night club dates shaped and sharpened their sound.

In 1976 the band went into the studio where six songs were recorded on four-track. The surviving tape shows them to be a tough, rough’n’ready rhythm’n’blues outfit, blasting out fine versions of “Walkin’ the Dog” and the Animals’ “Baby Let Me Take You Home” that were more in tune with ’60s English prototypes than the more lumpen boogie of most mid-’70s Pub Rockers. That said, their debt to the Feelgoods sound is obvious, especially on “Speeding” and “A Shot of Rhythm’n’Blues” where Colquhoun’s energetic, stabbing guitar work is similar to Wilko Johnson’s. However, there’s some other forces at play too, including a strong Who influence, notably on “Steppin’ Outa Line” which breaks off into a wild, anarchic instrumental section complete with scraping strings, toggle switch feedback and splashing, crashing Moon-style drums.

By late 1976, the band found the scene changing around them. Pub Rock and R&B bands were shedding – or shredding — their old clothes, shearing their hair and reinventing themselves as the part of a new movement: Punk Rock. The Rockets found themselves opening for bands like the Clash, whose lead singer, Joe Strummer, had only months before been in R&B/Pub Rock stalwarts the 101ers. Gradually, the Rockets’ already loud and fast sound became louder and faster. The band found they were in a state of identity crisis.” We had a review in NME where they said that we couldn’t make up our minds if we were the Pretty Things or the Ramones,” remembers Andy, “It was fair enough.”

The Rockets, 1976. L to R: Andy, Oz, Jimmy, Dave

The Rockets, 1976. L to R: Andy, Oz, Jimmy, Dave

Before long the line-up began to break apart.

“When the Rockets started getting a bit heavier and faster Frank and Dave drifted away,” says Andy. “Ultimately Dave joined the Pleasers who were an ersatz Beatles.”

Stewart Copeland filled in on drums for a few final gigs but with Rochelle and Day both out of the picture the Rockets’ ride were effectively at an end. Coull and Colquhoun were ready for something new.

“When the drummer quit, me and the singer went on to form Warsaw Pakt with my mate John. We wanted to play more like the ‘67 era Who, and Back in the USA period MC5.”

“John” was John Manly (aka John Walker) who duly became the new band’s second guitarist as well as its “business head”.

“We’d been through the Ladbroke Grove hippie scene together since the late sixties,” says Andy. “He looked like Keef with his Plexiglas Dan Amstrong guitar. He had to be discouraged from wearing scarves and other retro devices that were not ‘Punk’. He’d be up for days practicing the guitar until he could hardly move his arms.”

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The two musicians worked up a powerful two-guitar alliance, Manly providing the hard Fred “Sonic” Smith rhythm chops to Andy’s furious Wayne Kramer-cum-Wilko Johnson leads, together finding a new, individualistic combat zone of their own.

Manly, Colquhoun and Coull soon picked up Wolf, a German drummer, and together they set about building a rehearsal space for the new band on the Portobello Road. “A bomb shelter of a studio,” according to Mick Farren, it was christened The Bunker.

They also recruited a bassplayer, Chris Underhill. “He had been in a number of pro bands playing the Mecca type circuits, and was a very accomplished player,” Andy recalls. “He was enthusiastic about this ‘new’ punk style bass playing that we needed — his favorite track being ‘I’m a Boy’ by the Who. He looked right too, being a snappy dresser.”

Down in The Bunker, Warsaw Pakt set about building a set. Along with some choice cover versions, like The Who’s “It’s Not True”, they looked to the old Rockets songbook and retooled material written by Andy with Frank Day, including some great songs like “Fruit Machine,” “Dogfight,” “Speeding” and “Sick n’ Tired.” Although R&B based, these tracks all had plenty of attitude and aggression, so worked well in their new ‘punkier’ context.

A standout of the Colquhoun/Day material was “Cut Glass Jaw,” a vividly-etched, hard-boiled tale of a broken-down alcoholic boxer. “Frank was always giving me these Willie Dixon or Canvey Island tilted lyrics,” explains Andy. “That was the first one that didn’t demand some sort of 12 bar.”

For some of the other Rockets-era tracks, John Manly stepped in and rewrote the lyrics. A prime case was “Even Money”. The song was totally transformed from its earlier R&B incarnation. “John entirely re-wrote the lyric,” Andy says, “and changed it from a saucy Frank Day lyric to a tale of junkie despair.”

Jimmy Coull, 1977

Jimmy Coull, 1977

 

The Rockets’ version on their ’76 demo tape follows a straightforward macho theme, best summed up by the chorus: “I’ll lay you even money/That you’ll wanna take me home with you” — it’s a blatant appeal to score post-gig sex.

Manly’s version however, is a blatant appeal to score smack – the girl’s role is to provide the necessary cash: “It’ll take all of your money if you wanna take me home with you¼” His masterstroke was the new hook on the bridge: “I’m getting’ sick / C’mon now, darlin’ / Let’s take a walk through a Chinese garden.” It became one of the Warsaw Pakt’s most powerfully memorable songs.

In another inspired move, Manly persuaded fellow Ladbroke Grove native Mick Farren to pen some lyrics for the Pakt. With Andy providing the music, Mick came up with words for “Believe Me Honey,” “Fast Eddie,” “Safe and Warm” and the violent, surrealistic “Breastbeating,” with its quick-cut flashbulb shots of stainless steel hammer blows and blood-splattered nylons.

“‘Breastbeating’ is a song Mick Farren wrote after I described a dream I’d had,” recounts Colquhoun, “It’s all there. The outro riff is us doing the Kinks.”

Wolf had some record industry contacts and he put them in touch with Mim Scala who got them signed to Island in the summer of ’77. Demo sessions were held at the label’s studios in Hammersmith in July, and Scala was impressed with the band’s tightness and efficiency. The label wanted a single and an album. Fast. But not everyone was up to speed.

Andy colquhoun, 1977

Andy colquhoun, 1977

“We did some gigs at the Nashville, and we were losing time,” remembers Andy. “Wolf was all over the place. He’d hurt his hand in a scuffle with some yobbos lurking outside the convent on Portobello Road. There was a strong move to replace him with Lucas Fox of Motorhead, which duly happened. Lucas had had a hard time with Motorhead and had a lot to prove. The two of us used to rehearse every day for hours. We got very locked into the material, and the tempos were just runaway, which was what we were looking for. Lucas was at that time a fan of (German novelist) Sven Hassell, so there was a militaristic vibe to the whole Warsaw Pakt deal.”

“Safe and Warm” was recorded as the single in October, and in the studio the band created a uniquely moody, almost psychedelic sound. Coull lays down a soulful vocal over Colquhuon’s screaming guitar lines and Manly’s supporting rhythm licks, while some strikingly eerie harmony back-ups add a magical finishing touch. “Mick Farren wrote the lyrics, and John had the idea for the backing vocals,” says Andy. “It was the only slow song we had so it became the single.”

Actually “Safe and Warm” is only “slow” in comparison to the rest of their ultra-uptempo set, such as the quick and tough “Sick n’ Tired”, which was laid down for the flipside. (Both tracks were included as bonus tracks on the Needle Time CD, along with three earlier demos.)

A month later – Saturday, November 26, at 10pm, to be precise – Warsaw Pakt assembled at Trident Studios to record their “Instant Album.” Kicking off with a tough version of “It’s Not True” they ran though a 14-song repertoire, including impassioned versions of “Even Money,” “Fast Eddie,” “Cut Glass Jaw” and “Believe Me Honey.” Underhill and Fox are particularly impressive on the lightning fast R&B ripper “Lorraine” and in another highlight Coull breaks out his harmonica for a dashing double-time rave-up finale on “Hello Angel.”

Less than 24 hours later, with the band’s fingers still bleeding, Needle Time was released. It sold an impressive 5,000 units almost immediately, but after that the label, inexplicably, refused to press more copies.

After this the wheels quickly started to come off the operation.

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“After our tour to promote the LP, our agent kept on canceling gigs,” remembers Colquhoun, “We kept going through gigs at Dingwalls and various London pubs, but it was a bit of a struggle. Meanwhile Mick Farren asked me to play bass on the Stiff EP, and on his LP Vampires Stole My Lunch Money.”

Vampires , released in 1978, has Andy all over it on bass, guitar and backing vocals, and even includes a version of the Warsaw Pakt’s “Fast Eddie.” Among the other players on the album were Larry Wallis, Wilko Johnson and ex-Hawkwind drummer Alan Powell. Through Powell, Andy hooked up with ex-Damned guitarist Brian James and joined his new band Tanz Der Youth on bass.

Meanwhile Warsaw Pakt stumbled to its end.

“Warsaw Pakt did a last recording session at Island Hammersmith produced by Ed Hollis from the Hotrods, but it was unproductive,” says Andy. “Our last gig was supporting Ian Dury at Dingwalls for a homeless benefit. After that it just fizzled out.”

Andy stuck with Tanz Der Youth long enough to record a John Peel session and one single, “I’m Sorry I’m Sorry” b/w “Delay,” released on Radar in September 1978. On “Delay” he takes lead vocals in addition to his bass duties. After that band fragmented he joined Larry Wallis’ revived Pink Fairies. The Fairies backed up Wayne Kramer when he came to London in 1979 after his release from jail. Highlights from that gig were recently released on Total Energy’s Cocaine Blues CD, while the full live set is available on CD from Captain Trip.

Today Andy is based in Los Angeles where he plays in the Deviants with Mick Farren. Of the Warsaw Pakt, Farren says, “I shall always personally treasure the album Needle Time  in that its writing saw the start of a composing partnership between Andy and me which has continued for almost a quarter of a century.”

Autographing the album the day after it was recorded.

Autographing the album the day after it was recorded.

And a quarter of a century later, Needle Time stands as a great monument to one of the great lost bands of the era.

Sadly, John Manly did not survive to see his work with the Pakt vindicated.

“John died in the early ‘80s,” says Colquhoun. “He committed suicide. It was a terrible shock. A year before he died he’d said that he was unlikely to be in any other bands after the Warsaw Pakt, and he’d broken up with his wife. I didn’t realise things were that bad for him.”

It’s a shame Manly chose an early exit; the reissued Needle Time gives his music in the Warsaw Pakt a new lease on life that no doubt would have impacted his own, had it not come too late.

(Mike Stax)

 

 


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