To prepare for the audition, Jon, Steve, Dave and I turned up at our tiny Kilburn room and ran through the set again and again before the allocated time. Then right on cue, there was a knock at the door and in walked Hugh Cornwell and Jean Jacques Burnel.
We introduced ourselves and the two Stranglers sat cross-legged on the floor. We went into our set and the two of them sat there stony faced. In those days we used to do a piss-take cover of a David Soul number Don't Give Up on Us. We used to start it real slow just like the record and then after a verse slam into a 1000 miles an hour version. Before Hugh and Jean had arrived, there had been much debate about whether we should do it for them. I was against it and so was Steve but Dave and Jon wanted to do it so we did it. It was the last number of our eight song set. We finished and stopped playing. Hugh and Jean had a brief conversation and then got up off the floor. Jean spoke first. He was direct and down to earth.
"Yeah, tight playing. I liked it. Drop that awful David Soul song though." He started to leave.
Hugh Cornwell was more friendly. "Good stuff guys. You're on the tour. We'll see you tomorrow night at Uxbridge University. You're on at eight. By the way, I quite liked the David Soul song."
Which was typical of their relationship. Hugh was always slightly more poppy to Jean's hardcore approach. I guess that's why they were so good together. The usual rock chemistry.
But we never played the David Soul song again.
The next night we turned up at Uxbridge University and went on as their support act. Talk about a baptism of fire. The Stranglers were by now getting pretty big. Their debut album Rattus Norvegicus was racing up the charts and their single Peaches was getting huge airplay. They were attracting good crowds and usually good receptions. I say usually because as we went up and down the country sometimes The Stranglers would stop playing if the slightest thing upset them. A bit of gobbing was usually the signal for a united walk off but sometimes Hugh or JJ would stop the show if they saw someone getting beaten up in the audience or there was too much of a crush down the front. At Glasgow and Grimsby, members of the audience would get up on the stage and fights would break out between the band and punters. The Stranglers had a loyal following of fans called ‘The Finchley Boys’. They were like a personal bodyguard so the band always came off best. It wasn't an easy tour but it was exciting. Every night we would go on and for many people in the country we were the very first new wave band they'd ever seen.
Up and down the UK we opened for The Stranglers. I remember being amazed that although their single Peaches was high in the charts, they rarely played it. I don't know whether that was a reaction to "selling out" or what but it seemed odd as most people buying tickets for the gig were there because they had heard that song on the radio. Instead the band used to play Dead Ringer, which started with almost exactly the same riff. The crowd would think it was Peaches and go crazy. A great big roar would go up only to be followed by puzzled expressions as the band launched into another song altogether. I remember thinking I hope we don't do that if we ever have a hit single.
Well I needn't have worried. London and hit singles were never going to be a viable combination. Our first single Everyone's a Winner came out halfway through the tour. We were in Newcastle upon Tyne and had gone to a music store to buy some guitar strings. I had stayed in the car parked outside the shop and the other three had gone in. Suddenly Dave came running out.
"Riff, get in here quick. They're playing our record on Radio One."
I ran in and sure enough Everyone's a Winner was blasting out over the shop's speaker system. It was the afternoon Dave Lee Travis show. We all looked at each other in excitement. Our record actually being played on Radio One. It was one of those moments and DLT even made a decent comment about it afterwards.
The tour finally ended with two shows at the Roundhouse in London and we then went back into the recording studio. Simon wanted us to lay down every track we knew for an album. With his experience of bands he cleverly waited until we had finished the tour before recording the bulk of our songs. This way our playing and singing would be really tight from months of performing it on the road. He was right, we went into IBC studios and quickly recorded track after track.
There was much debate as to what the next single would be. Our version of the Easybeats' Friday on my Mind was a strong contender but there were others that had gone down well on the tour; Summer of Love, No Time and Siouxsie Sue. In the end MCA put all four of them out on a 12 inch and 7 inch EP.
Although today I meet so many people who claim to have bought it, the record only reached 52 in the charts. It was a big disappointment to us.
Even with the best record promoter on our side - Steve Jenkins - we just couldn’t chart higher. I remember him taking Jon and me aside at Torquay’s 400 Club and saying “I can’t understand it. You have this amazing live act that goes down well everywhere and your records are great but we just can’t get you lift-off.”
We started gigging a lot in London during that summer of 1977. We teamed up with 999 and played regular dates at the Nashville in Kensington and the Hope 'n' Anchor in Islington. In some respects the two bands were quite similar. We both had visually exciting stage acts and fiercely loyal followings.
By this time our press was being handled by the top rock PR man in the country, Keith Altham. He would enthral us with tales of some of his other clients like The Who, The Beach Boys and The Stones. With Alan Edwards, they made sure we regularly appeared in music papers like the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds as well as a whole string of teen magazines.
Then in September we went out on a national tour supported by The Swords and The Victims. We had a laugh and some of the venues welcomed us back from The Stranglers' tour days. It was great to play to some of those friendly crowds again.
By the end of the tour and with the release of a new single, Animal Games, Jon suddenly announced from his hospital bed (he had been in a bad car crash with the punk comedian Jonny Rubbish) that he was going to leave us and drum in The Damned. Their regular stickman Rat Scabies had deserted them and before I knew what was happening the music papers were full of photos of Jon with The Damned.
London was over. We had been going less than a year.
Jon did agree to honour any outstanding gigs though. We played our final gig on December 8th at the Marquee in Wardour Street. It was a good night. All our loyal followers came along and the show was even filmed by an Italian film company. I came on stage in a bright red Father Christmas outfit carrying a huge sack stuffed with London goodies which I then threw out to the audience.
Dave, Steve and I stumbled on for a few more weeks auditioning new drummers and then decided to call it a day. By the time MCA released our album Animal Games in February 1978, the band was no more. Dave went on to play with Metro and then had a stint with Holly and the Italians before reverting to his real name of Colin and becoming an academic. Today he is Professor of International Relations at Sydney University. Steve formed his own band The Original Vampires and Simon Napier-Bell went on to manage George Michael and Wham! whilst becoming a best-selling author of four acclaimed rock 'n' roll books.
Jon, of course, went on to form Culture Club with Boy George.
Years later, at his parent's house in Hampstead, Jon played me a white acetate copy of Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? that he had just recorded with Culture Club. Halfway through I leant over and took the needle off the disc. "That's crap!" I said. "It'll never make it." Jon strongly disagreed and, of course, he was right. Six weeks later, it was number one in over eighteen countries.
Well that’s the band story so far but the adventures continue. In 2008, Steve and I got back in touch and decided to go back on the road. Jon was too busy playing in his various bands and Dave lived too far away to make it practical. With Colin Watterston on drums and Hugh O'Donnell on guitar we released a new album Reboot in 2012. In 2015/6 Rick De’Ath played bass in the band and Steve took over guitar duties.
The current line-up is Steve Voice (bass/guitar/vocals), Hugh O’Donnell (guitar), Colin Watterston (drums) and me on lead vocals.
The Hell for Leather Mob album was released in July 2020.
Hope to see you at one of the gigs.