"You want a cigarette? Sure.
Hey, those are my guys!"
"A long time ago / In the desert sand / A baby was born / In a foreign land" (Here Comes Lucky – Totally Religious)
For how long ago, some reports say 1951. For the foreign land read Darlington in County Durham – very foreign to the roots of the blues in the deep south of America. And the baby from there was William Carter, founder of one of the most exciting, innovative and underrated British blues outfits of the eighties.
Though he developed an early passion for both art and music, and his first musical instrument was a drum kit, it was Bill's instant fascination with The Who live on stage that ignited a lust for music and the guitar. Bill: "I was just a kid but I found the whole thing incredibly glamorous, exciting, everything I was looking for. Unfortunately it's hard to sustain that. People only have a certain life but at the time they were absolutely fuckin' phenomenal, just really fuckin' exciting. It wasn't like considering their musical qualities or anything, you just got off on them – to me that's what music is all about."
His first foray into music came as drummer in a school band, The Aliens. In his late teens Carter moved down to London, and at the age of 20 enrolled in Ravensbourne College of Art in South London. Bill describes his work as "big, screen-print paintings, pictures of the country, everyday things. I don't know if they had much to do with my music, but I always tried to make them quite hard and exciting and atmospheric."
Chris Thomspon meanwhile, London born but spending several childhood years in the USA, had also developed a love of rock 'n' roll and was a regular Rolling Stones punter at clubs around London.
It was also around the same time in the early 70s that Bill started seriously playing the guitar. His first was a Rickenbacker, "the Pete Townshend one", but he later moved to, and pretty much stuck with, Fender Telecasters. The early 70s consisted of a typical student life dabbling in music and art. Up until then he'd still been a Who fanatic. "Y'know, I didn't like anything, I wouldn't like anything but The Who for five years, I wouldn't even consider anything else."
Nevertheless he did eventually wander down wider musical avenues; Captain Beefheart, Howlin' Wolf, Jimi Hendrix amongst others. But it was regular Dr Feelgood gigs that cemented his decision to choose music over art, and clearly Wilko Johnson's choppy fingertip guitar style was a major influence on Bill's own unique guitar sound.
The Small Brothers
After playing with various bands in and around London for several years the musical gene pool settled enough to form a group; The Small Brothers. Bill on guitar and vocals and Chris Thompson - who'd first met Bill when Thompson was working as a painter and decorator - on bass. They were joined by Pete Lodge on harp and Steve Atkinson (from the Subway Sect) on keyboards. They released a single 'Got The Hurt' on Albion Records. Bill wrote all three tracks, and ex-Vibrators bass player Pat Collier produced. Kenny Harris, who had come down from Beith in Ayrshire, Scotland to make a living as a musician, joined soon after the single release as drummer.
The Small Brothers eventually disowned themselves and Kenny went on to join The Cannibals. Kenny: "We did a gig at the Marquee supporting a band called True Life Confessions and shortly after that I was poached from the Cannibals to join them. This band was run by ex-Darts drummer, John Dummer, and he later became the Messiahs' manager."
Meanwhile Bill and Chris had hooked up with vocalist Tony Moon to form the raunchy R&B outfit Motor Boys Motor. Moon had been a roadie for the Stranglers, as well as being head of the S.I.S. (The Stranglers Information Service – the band's fan club), and had most recently been working at Albion Records. Taking their name from a song title from Joe Strummer's first band the 101ers, Motor Boys Motor recorded a single, 'Drive Friendly', for SSH Four Records in November 1980. At this stage they were still to find a permanent drummer and Bill played drums on the record, as well as singing on the B-Side, 'Fast 'n Bulbous / Grow Fins', a Beefheart cover. He even did the artwork for the sleeve.
Motor Boys Motor
In March 1981 John Kingham joined as full time drummer and the band sallied forth to play the pubs of London, building good followings at spots like The Hope And Anchor, The Venue and the Hammersmith Clarendon, despite the decline of pub rock culture. Bill: "We used to play in pubs but nobody wanted to go to pubs then. It was all your 'New Pedantics' or New Romantics; people wanted to go and see people in Habitat." On the 24th of August they recorded a Peel Session at the Beeb's Maida Vale studios, playing 'Little Boy and Fat Man', 'Hooves', 'Clean Shirt and a Shave' and 'Here Come The Flintstones'.
November 1981 saw Motor Boys Motor go into The Workhouse studios on the Old Kent Road to record their eponymous album for Albion Records, with John Brand producing and Seamus Beagan of Madness playing Hammond organ on one track.
Motor Boys Motor
Released in April 1982, and followed up by tours of the UK and Europe throughout the rest of the year, the album and live shows gathered favourable reviews from the music press. George Snow, who had illustrated The Small Brothers' single, returned to design the shockingly memorable LP cover, which featured African snake eater Lizwi Caleni with a mouthful of venomous serpents.
But by mid 1983 Motor Boys Motor as a band had run out of gas. Moon later left the music business and, amongst other things, wrote the biography 'Down By The Jetty – The Dr Feelgood Story', but would later re-establish links with Bill on the Bikini Red album.
Coming of The Messiahs
Having taken the better part of a decade to form his first band, Carter kept up the momentum from Motor Boys Motor and lost little time in recruiting a new line-up. A decision was made to strip things down and go for a three-piece this time, with Bill taking over vocal duties. Chris: "We just thought we'd see what we could do as a three-piece. There was no conscious direction, it was organic. Bill wasn't that keen on being a frontman at first, but he became brilliant."
The Hope & Anchor, Islington, London.The two placed an ad in Melody Maker for a drummer. Amongst several respondents was old friend Kenny Harris, from the earlier Small Brothers. At his first reunion with Bill and Chris, Kenny immediately proved why he was the perfect choice. Bill: "The sound came together as soon as Kenny joined. He's a very loud, powerful drummer, and I just had to turn it up. I had to go to 11, like the guy in Spinal Tap."
It's perhaps worth mentioning here some parallels I see between The Who and the Messiahs. Bill's comments about Kenny above are akin to something Roger Daltrey says in the fantastic documentary 'Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who'. Daltrey makes mention of how Keith Moon joining the band helped shape their distinctive sound. "Moon was doing things that made us work just 100% harder. He started to double up the beat, and that led to Pete doubling up the guitar, and John to play more jazzy bits in between. And that's where The Who started to have it's own identity."
Bill has long admired and been inspired by The Who and their approach to their music and live performances. Daltrey also speaks of The Who's approach to playing; "It's to do with attitude. It's like you can hit your hand like that (slaps hand). Or you can hit it like this (pounds fist into palm). The tempo hasn't changed at all, but The Who always did it with attitude." Anyone who has listened to their records, or witnessed the Messiahs live, will recognise this same full-attack attitude.
In Autumn 1983 the would-be Messiahs were writing new material and gigging all over London, still under the MBM moniker until a suitable name could be found. Their first gig was at the Hope and Anchor in December '83 and they had proposed the name Baby Crockett, (a comic book character from The Beezer in the 50's). Bizarrely, but rightly, the landlord of the pub refused to advertise them as such and for the next several months into mid 1984 they remained Motor Boys Motor.
Good and Gone
In Spring of 1984 Ted Carroll of Big Beat Records, who had seen and been impressed by the band, offered to finance a recording session. He booked a week at Elephant Studios in Wapping, London and brought in the late great Vic Maile to produce. Maile had produced Dr Feelgood and engineered The Who's Live At Leeds album. It has also been said that Kenny's phenomenal drumming was a major factor in luring Maile to produce the record. Eager to make the most of this opportunity, the band laid down as many tracks as they had time for. Of the resulting eleven songs, Carroll chose the six that would become the Good And Gone mini album, and all that remained was to come up with a new name.
Backstage, Utrecht, Holland, 5 December, 1984Bill had proposed 'The Blues Messiahs', but it was felt this might suggest a more traditional 12-bar blues vibe. Caroll suggested 'The Screaming Blue Messiahs' instead, to better reflect the band's explosive take on rhythm and blues. As Bill said, "It also gave us extra impetus coz now we had an image to live up to. Now we had to scream!" Another more curious notion comes from John Dummer, the band's then manager. Dummer was moving out of a house in London, and on turning to close the front door looked up the hallway to see a mysterious blue gargoyle sat glaring down at him from the top of the stairs. Bill assures me that Dummer was not a man prone to fantasy or exaggeration , and truly believed in the fleeting apparition he saw there.
The first gig as The Screaming Blue Messiahs took place at Downstairs At The Clarendon, Hammersmith, London on the 11th of June 1984. A handful of shows followed before the release of Good And Gone in the Autumn, from which point things began to take off at speed. Their debut record went straight into the the top 20 of the independent record chart where it stayed for a full six months. The response from the music press to the record, and their ravaging live shows, was immediate and enthusiastic.
Soundcheck, Utrecht, December, 1984Of the record, Andy Hurt said in Sounds; "The 'album' splits 50-50 into the camps of rhythm and blues with the staggering masterpiece 'Someone To Talk To' opening affairs on side one. This song is a total justification of the Messiahs' existence, and if they disappeared forever tomorrow they will not have laboured in vain. It's hard not to pick up the needle before track two and play this scorcher over and over again until that coronary finally catches up with you. A song to die for."
Soundcheck, Utrecht, 5th December, 1984And what a stunning introduction that first track is, instantly showcasing the talents of all three Messiahs in one fell swoop. From Kenny's awesome thundering tribal drums, through Chris's ballsy bouncing basslines and fiddly fills, to Bill's ringing guitar that explodes mid-song into the trademark choppy burst of no nonsense noise. Couple all that with Bill's scratchy urgent vocals and lyrics that make you sit up and listen and you have a record that just cannot be ignored. And that's just track one.
And the first track on side two, 'You're Gonna Change', is equally memorable, especially so if you've ever heard the Hank Williams original. You can only listen with wonder at how Bill has taken a Country & Western ditty, complete with yodels intact, and made it completely his own. (The nearest comparison I can think of is the Stranglers' cover of 'Walk On By' which performs the same near miracle of making something so totally fresh from something so unassuming and unexpected). And if anything, Hank's version actually comes across as the meaner of the two. Missing from Bill's interpretation are the wonderfully misogynistic lines "The way to keep a woman happy, and make her do what's right, is love her every mornin' and ball her out at night."
On stage, Utrecht, 5th December, 1984One of the many wondrous aspects of the Messiahs was the immediate maturity and self-assuredness of their debut. Their superb musicianship, great production, and complexity of themes, musical ideas and lyrics totally belies the fact that this was a band making its first record. There's none of the learning curve you normally see with a new band as they find their way and grow from album to album. This band hit the ground running full steam ahead and listening to their songs indiscriminately you may be hard pushed to say where in their career various tracks appeared.
Five songs recorded at Elephant Studios didn't make the cut on Good And Gone. 'President Kennedy's Mile' turns up on Gun-Shy, while 'Holiday Head', 'Let's Go Down To The Woods' and 'Wild Blue Yonder' were recorded afresh for the album, with substantially different intros. 'Growing For Gold' dates back to the Motor Boys Motor days and was never released, though it did feature regularly in early live sets.
On stage, Utrecht, 5th December, 1984Other great lost Messiahs tracks never committed to vinyl include 'Accident Prone', a number played sporadically throughout their career and one that took on all sorts of differing forms through the years. It's a furious machine gun barrage sounding like a runaway freight train tumbling headlong down a flight of stairs, and a number which makes you wonder how Kenny's arms and Chris' fingers didn't fall off by the end. 'Vision In Blues' is a similar driving force with an elastic bass riff and choppy guitar jangles. And 'Destroyer' likewise features more sharp karate chop rhythms over a relentless backbeat.
On the 24th of July the band recorded their first session for the BBC for John Peel, performing 'Good And Gone', 'Someone To Talk To', 'Tracking The Dog' and 'Let's Go Down To The Woods And Pray'. The songs aired on the 2nd of August. The session was popular enough to warrant two releases by the BBC, one a 4-track 12" and a later inclusion of 'Good And Gone' on an album sampler of Peel Sessions.
The Messiahs were also busy on the road performing around London most of the year and in December played five dates in Holland. One of the UK gigs, the Woolwich Tramshed in London, had been witnessed by John Wooler, a producer on The Old Grey Whistle Test on the BBC. He booked the band to appear on the show in December, where they played two live songs; 'Let's Go Down To The Woods And Pray' and 'Good And Gone'. The latter number illustrates perfectly the effect Bill's unusual bare-handed guitar style had on his instruments. Mid-way through the song he breaks a string and has to reach for a replacement Telecaster from his ever present roadie. According to The Old Grey Whistle Test, the Messiahs were the loudest act they had had on the show thus far.
Of Bill's highly unusual playing style Jim Betteridge observed in International Musician magazine; "He plays without a pick, crashing the flesh of his fingers into the strings with little regard for it's mortality. Blood can often be seen splattered across the scratch plate – or the place where the scratch plate would be if it hadn't been removed. To avoid completely razoring the top of his fingers off, and I suppose also because he likes the sound, William uses unusually heavy bottom strings; Rotosound (and nothing else will do) 56, 48, 28, 16, 13 and 12. But he gives 'em such a sound thrashing that one string breaks every couple of numbers and often one a number, and I don't just mean the top strings; Es and As cop it an' all. In the words of his roadie, 'He goes fooking bonkers!' " I've also read that Bill would often apply nail varnish to his fingertips to help protect those dexterous digits.
Portsmouth Polytechnic...'Fooking bonkers' could also describe the reception the band continued to gather from press and punters alike. Major labels had already picked up on this, and in January 1985 the Messiahs were signed to WEA Records. The Good And Gone EP was immediately re-released on WEA and work began straight away on recording their first full album.
...27 April 1985However, the sessions highlighted perceived shortcomings in the recording process that were to frustrate the band throughout their career. After doing a load of sessions with Vic Maile, who'd proved an obvious choice given Good And Gone's success, WEA had insisted on using Howard Gray to produce the album instead. All Maile's sessions were wiped and Gray re-recorded 'Let's Go Down To The Woods', 'Talking Doll', 'Twin Cadillac Valentine', 'Wild Blue Yonder' and 'Killer Born Man'. It then transpired that due to prior commitments Gray didn't have time to complete the album and Maile was brought back in again to re-record the remainder.
Even technically, capturing the Messiahs' sound in the studio was never a completely satisfactory exercise for the band. In all their recordings they felt the sound fell short of what they were producing live on stage. Bill: "The albums we made were never the albums we wanted to make."
On March 30th a gig at the Paris Theatre in London was broadcast live on BBC radio. In a busy year the band also toured the UK and Scandinavia, playing in Finland, Belgium, Sweden, Holland and Germany. On June 14th the Messiahs played their second BBC session, a live version of 'Talking Doll' for Andy Kershaw's show.
Autumn saw the release of 'Twin Cadillac Valentine', the band's first single, from the forthcoming album. Put out in 7" and 12" formats, the latter featured five live tracks from a show at the University of London Union. A video was made for 'Twin Cadillac' featuring Bill hooning around West London flyovers in his Chevy Camarro.
'Twin Cadillac Valentine' has been cited by Bill as being the closest The Screaming Blue Messiahs got to establishing a signature sound for themselves. Kenny: "That happened with me fuckin' about with the drum part and then things got layered on top of that. It took a lot of bashing into shape." Bill: "'Twin Cadillac Valentine' was basically '8 Miles High'. A combination of '8 Miles High' and..." To this day Bill remains unimpressed with the final recording of the song. "Twin Cadillacs' live was fantastic. The actual demos we did for 'Twin Cadillacs' were fucking awesome."
The band finished off a hectic year of touring and recording with a Christmas show at Dingwalls in Camden, and a short break before the release of their debut album.
Early 1986 saw the release of 'Gun-Shy', the band's first full album, on WEA in Europe and Elektra in the US. The press response was again overwhelmingly positive. Melody Maker: "They have a gut instinct for the roots of blues and R 'n' B and from that sure base they can confidently blast their way through Bill Carter's extraordinarily powerful selection of songs." NME: "On the strength of this album, I'd say the Messiahs are going to be very, very big indeed."
Standouts on the LP for me include 'Holiday Head', all meaty, beaty, big and bouncy; 'Clear View' and 'President Kennedy's Mile' which were commonly played live at half tempo and sounding equally as good for it; 'Twin Cadillac' with its epic stream-of-consciousness soundscapes and lyrical ravings; and the psycho blues brilliance of 'Killer Born Man'. The sheer variety of guitar sounds and styles on display still impresses to this day, from skiffle to Country to blues to rock to the Clash-like 'Smash The Market Place'.
To promote the album the band embarked on their heaviest tour schedule yet. Kicking off at the George Robey in London, supporting Wilko Johnson, they then played Germany, Finland and several more UK dates before setting off for America. Their debut US gig was at the New Music Seminar at the Ritz in New York, where they soundly blew headliners Cactus World News off the stage. There followed a series of concerts right across the US and Canada from East coast to West, supporting the Cramps. It is rumoured that the Messiahs' shows were going down so well that the Cramps' roadies resorted to messing with their gigs in order to level the playing field.
In the meantime 'Smash The Market Place' became the second single to be released from Gun-Shy. The third and final single from the album was 'Wild Blue Yonder', which featured on the 12" B-side their second cover version, John Lee Hooker's 'I'm Mad Again'. A video accompanied the release which made use of stock footage of US navy jets launching from aircraft carriers, buildings being demolished and such like – film clips of the sort that the band would often play on large backdrops in their stage shows.
Following the success of the Cramps tour, and after returning briefly to London to play the Mean Fiddler, the Messiahs revisited many of the previous US venues as headliners this time. Thirty dates took them from the East coast, through the mid-west and Texas, up through California and into Canada. At the end of the tour return flights were taking them through Australia and New Zealand so shows were booked in both countries. On the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of November they played three gigs in my native New Zealand. As luck would have it I'd just left home to go live and work in the UK and missed them by a couple of months. Hopping across the Tasman Sea the band played a 22 date tour of Oz supporting local rising rock band The Angels.
In a repeat of the previous year, the band played another Christmas gig at Dingwalls in London and looked forward to starting work on their second full album in the New Year.
January '87 saw them return to the studio to begin work on the 'Bikini Red' album. This time they had Vic Maile producing the whole record, but even so it still took several months and several studios around London to complete. Rejoining Bill on some song writing duties was Tony Moon from Motor Boys Motor. Often in the studio chipping in with ideas, Moon also acted as something of a muse for Carter, supplying song titles and word images that Bill could run with. The title track to the album was one such instance, where Tony phoned Bill with the name 'Bikini Red' which was enough inspiration for him to build the entire song around. Moon also helped write 'I Wanna Be A Flintstone', a reworked idea from the Motor Boys Motor album some years previous.
If 1986 had seen a bumper crop of gigs, 1987 was a virtual dustbowl. Several events conspired to prevent any touring and the band only played four shows in the whole year. The album had taken longer than anticipated to finish, and Kenny's son was born that year and he was reluctant to leave home. But the real kicker came when Bill suffered a trapped nerve in his leg, which resulted in a planned US tour being cancelled altogether.
Then, on the March 20th edition of the Channel 4 TV show The Tube, David Bowie announced that his favourite band of the moment was the Screaming Blue Messiahs. An avid fan of the group, Bowie made mention of his admiration for them on numerous occasions, as here in the August '87 issue of Musician magazine: "Well! The band this week – I've only just discovered them, so they're my pet project – is the Screaming Blue Messiahs. They're the best band I've heard out of England in a long time." And again from Words And Music magazine in January 1988: "There’s an English band I like very much. Nobody seems to have heard of them. They’re called The Screaming Blue Messiahs and I’m pushing them like mad. I think they’re really good. There’s an element of The Clash in them that I really like. But there’s something else there. I’m not really sure what it is. There’s an exciting guitar player. He’s a sort of new wave guitar player, but they’re an angry mob from London."
Backstage pass, Bowie supportThe admiration extended to an invitation for the Messiahs to join Bowie on a couple of his Glass Spider tour dates in the UK. They supported at Cardiff Arms Park in Wales and Roker Park in Sunderland on the 21st and 23rd of June. Sadly, these would be the only live shows of the year apart from two dates at the Marquee in December.
Upon the release of the Bikini Red LP music press reaction had been favourable, if not totally mindblowing. Q called it "...the best driving album since the likes of (ZZ Topp's) Eliminator and Afterburner, made all the more effective by the slightly off-centre, disturbed British worldview of singer/guitarist/crazy baldhead Bill Carter." And much was made of the variety of styles and sounds on the album. Rolling Stone: "This emphasis on American kitsch, instead of the apocalyptic brooding of Gun-Shy, makes for a somewhat less urgent record; there's little here to equal the sinewy "Let's Go Down To The Woods" from the first album. But thanks to muscular production from veteran sound man Vic Maile... Bikini Red is looser, funnier, more studio savvy (thanks to a few sound effects and the occasional keyboard part) and equally enjoyable." Bill, again like Pete Townshend before him, was equally at home with the keyboard as the guitar and tinkles the electric ivories on the album.
On November 4th the band played their third BBC session on the Janice Long show, running through 'Sweet Water Pools', 'I Wanna Be A Flintstone' and 'Big Brother Muscle'.
At the end of the year 'Bikini Red' became the first single to leap from the album in 7" and 12" formats, with a cover designed by Bill.
Bikini Red for me is a mixed bag of an album, both in terms of the sheer variety of the songs and in the way it swings wildly from my most to least favourite tracks. 'Sweet Water Pools' to this day still makes the hairs stand up; the greatest album opener and best driving song of its generation, as well as being a perennial live barnstormer. 'Big Brother Muscle' with those truly awesome drums exploding like mortars out of the vinyl and building to a thundering crescendo and dead stop. 'Jesus Chrysler', another live standard that frequently ballooned into a marathon of noise and hard driving power. It was exhausting watching them play it, and god knows how gig-fit they had to be to keep that momentum going for up to 9 minutes and still have the savvy to all stop on the same heartbeat. 'Lie Detector' bouncing along with it's crazy-ape Bob Goldthwait-style screech rants. The psycho-skiffle of '55 – The Law' with its bizarrely sinister lyrics – "Can't take the folks coz the wife and kids are dead", "Didn't like my neighbours so I blew them all away. Blew them all away on such a nice day." And closing with 'Waltz', such a beautiful sweet song written apparently as a tribute to the passing of Bill's mother. He sent the track to Dolly Parton in the hope she might record it, and you can totally hear her making a great cover version when you listen to it again.
But much as I'm loath to dis the band there's two songs on Bikini Red that trouble me; 'I Wanna Be A Flintstone' and 'I Can Speak American'. Not so much for the music as for the false impression they gave of the band. 'Flintstone' is a double-edged sword that on one hand brought the band it's biggest commercial success, but at the same time introduced a new audience unfamiliar with the Messiah's hard-hitting blues and R&B. The band had wished for 'Sweet Water Pools' to be the follow-up to the title track first single, being far more representative of the album and the Messiahs as a whole. But the record company obviously saw in hit in 'Flintstone', and were soon proved right on commercial grounds. 'I Can Speak American' was then released to capitalise on the success of 'Flintstone' and perpetuated the misconception without reaching the chart heights of its predecessor.
Chris is quoted in Q magazine explaining; "For us, it was a bit of a filler. In our heads it wasn't obvious as a single – we thought of it as much darker. But the label pushed the Flintstone song." Nevertheless when played live the darker side did come over more and no-one should begrudge the band a hit single. God knows they thoroughly deserved one.
Yabba Dabba Doh!
January 1988 saw the release of 'Flintstone' and the record became an instant hit, peaking at number 28 in the UK charts. Sounds magazine declared the song their Single Of The Week, albeit mainly for the B-side; 'Jerry's Electric Church': "For the real goods, flip over to discover further rumination on the all-consuming eye as hitched to a sound the dear old Three Johns would be pushed to match. 'Jerry's Electric Church' skewers TV evangelist Jerry Falwell from poop-chute to laughing-gear on a gleefully plunged dynorod riff." The reviewer also noted, somewhat ironically as it turned out; "As for 'Flintstone'... it's a hoot and far too mob-handed to be branded as some 'Star Trekkin' novelty."
On January 11th the band appeared on Channel 4's 'Night Network' show, running through a blistering set of 'Flintstone', 'Sweet Water Pools', 'Jesus Chrysler' and 'All Shook Down'. A fantastic showcase for their live fury and intensity, and still readily available on YouTube. A must-see most definitely.
This newfound fame saw the band treading unchartered waters, in February appearing on the BBC's Top Of The Pops and Saturday morning kids' show Number 73. Chris: "We were never pretty. Really grizzled looking. We'd be on a kids' programme with cardboard boulders on the set. Top Of The Pops was most odd. We just thought, What was all that about? Elton John did it at the same time. He said, 'Don't worry about it. I had to go through that with Crocodile Rock.'"
Two videos were made for the song, both making heavy use of cartoon clips from the Flintstones TV series. Later in 1994 the track featured on 'The Flintstones' movie soundtrack. Curiously, the song was only used in the US version of the film, in the closing credits, but not in the UK release. The single appeared in multiple formats, including picture discs and extended 12" remix versions, as was very much the fashion with most bands at the time.
With Flintstone fever in full effect and the band members now gig-fit and ready to go on the road again, a massive bout of touring ensued. February saw them flitting around the UK, France, Belgium and Germany, and in March they went back to the USA for a mammoth tour supporting Echo & The Bunnymen. In April they toured further throughout the US on their own, and late in the year visited Finland and played a handful of gigs back in Britain.
Further upheavals were to follow with their manager John Dummer deciding to quit the business and Derek Savage Management taking over the Messiahs' interests. As John Dummer explains: "After three years of that I was pretty exhausted and, on a whim, Helen and I decided to sell up our ancient grinding mill house in West Sussex and move to France." The band had also switched labels from WEA to Elektra.
There also came the tragic news that Vic Maile had died of cancer. His passing was a double blow in that Bill had lost not only a close personal friend, but perhaps the only person he trusted to capture The Screaming Blue Messiahs sound in the studio.
Another new year and another marathon spell in the studio, or studios, this time to work on what would be the band's last album, Totally Religious. Plans were set to start work on their new album in the States, and Bill moved to Baltimore in April.
Recording Totally Religious was to end up being something of a nightmare for the band. Kenny: "It started off with us going to New York where our manager had an apartment right in the centre of Manhattan. After a week of hanging around New York – not the most relaxing place at the best of times – our equipment still hadn't arrived from London and I was turning into a basket case. Eventually the manager saw sense and put me on a flight home."
A couple of days later the equipment duly arrived in New York, and a decision was made to go down to Florida to start work on writing the album. Chris and Bill drove down and two weeks later Kenny flew back from London to join them. After a short break in Daytona Beach where they rehearsed, the Messiahs spent two weeks in Miami Sound studios in the run down Latin quarter of the city before transferring to Criteria Studios, where the Bee Gees had recorded Saturday Night Fever and Eric Clapton was a regular customer.
When Elektra heard the first batch of recordings they were decidedly unimpressed, much to the band's, and especially Bill's, annoyance. However, the paymasters prevailed and asked the band to return to London and continue work on the album there. They spent some time in Alaska Studios in Waterloo, where the three had recorded their first single together as The Small Brothers back in 1980. These sessions went much better for all involved and with Elektra now happy with the demos the green light was given to record the album.
The Messiahs returned to the US to Sheffield Recording in Phoenix, Maryland. Bill: "The studio where we recorded the album was built on top of a disused nuclear silo. It was really creepy. And the caretaker was one of those Hitchcock characters who always seem to come round the corner at the exact moment you're talking about them, which didn't help. And owner was a guy named Van Horne, which is the devil's name in The Witches Of Eastwick. I thought, 'Ello!"
The record company still had firm ideas on the sort of album they were seeking from the band. Kenny: "Elektra put in their own producers (Howard Gray and Rob Stevens) to keep an eye on things, and they could be quite specific about what they wanted." Bill has described Totally Religious as being nothing at all like the album he'd originally envisaged. "Producing this band is a nightmare for anybody. It's almost impossible to record what we're about and make it listenable. We're lucky that in one or two of these tracks there's a little bit of something on it. But it's not easy. You'd think it would be, but it's not." An awful lot of effort for 38 minutes of magic.
And what magic there is to heard on Totally Religious. The sound is truly epic. 'Four Engines Burning' crash lands out of the speakers and sets a tone much more akin to heavy rock than on previous albums. And the barrage continues throughout, lurching and swaggering from one great track to the next. 'Wall Of Shame' continues the wall of sound, 'Watusi Wedding' features some awesome slide guitar and wah-wah, 'Gunfight' is more machine gun that Colt 45 while 'Mega City 1' stamps its Judge Dredd authority and leaves you in no doubt that the Messiahs still mean business.
Recurring lyrical themes abound on the album. Americana, war, comics, guns, cars and religion are all in evidence, as they have been on previous records. Bill is very, very reluctant to discuss the meanings and origins of his music and writing. I once asked why all the religious references in his work; Messiahs, Jesus, preachers, God's little Elvis et al, and the wry reply came back; "Well, you gotta write about something..." And to be honest I don't blame him. The air of mystery frees you to conjure your own word pictures, and some of the lines are so whacked out that to have them explained could well blow the mesmerising illusions they create. So too live on stage there was next to no audience banter. More often than not shows were bookended by "Hi" as they came on and "Thanks" as they left, and barely four beats between songs throughout. A Messiahs gig was like a professional hit at times; get in there, do the business with no fucking about and get out again.
Totally Religious was finally released in November, and despite the band's initial misgivings about it the press still had plenty of good things to say. The New York Times called it "...a brutal world view, but one that makes for savage, vital rock-and-roll," and Jason Pettigrew in Alternative Press commented: "The band's patented sense of urgency remains intact. 'Watusi Wedding' boasts some lethal slide work, and the absolutely brilliant 'Gunfight' is the perfect soundtrack for a violent altercation (bar fight, high speed car chase, etc.)."
Following the album's release the Messiahs toured the UK late November, (with the appropriately named Holy Shit in support), and in December played six dates in Germany. A promo video for 'Four Engines Burning' was shot, and it can be assumed this would be the first single from the album. In the meantime, however, events in the background were conspiring to ensure that this single would never see the light of day, and much worse to come.
It transpired that negotiations between their manager and Elektra for the band's option had not gone well. The Messiahs were very low on cash and couldn't afford to tour the album in America. The label was adamant it wanted to wait and see what sort of business Totally Religious did before advancing any more money. An impasse was reached and discussions became so acrimonious between manager and label that Elektra threatened to drop the band altogether. A consensus couldn't be reached, and whilst still on tour in Germany the band were informed that Elektra had indeed waved goodbye to them, with immediate effect.
The repercussions were swift and brutal. Having only been released in November, Totally Religious was pulled from the shops barely a month later. Further to that, the band's entire back catalogue was removed from store shelves across the world and discontinued. Legal wrangles also stopped the band from touring or recording and even now licensing a Messiahs track is nigh on impossible. Such is the extent of their erasure from history that to this day they still do not even appear on WEA or Elektra's databases.
On news of the departure from Elektra, the Stone Roses label Silvertone in the UK expressed great interest in signing the band, but again the manager and label couldn't make the deal stick and that was emphatically that. It was late December 1989 and The Screaming Blue Messiahs would never raise hell again. Well, almost...
A slight return
In June of 1990 the Messiahs were resurrected briefly for two final contracted shows at Subterania in Ladbroke Grove, West London. They played on June 4th with support from US:UK, and for the last time ever on June 5th with Well Loaded. Cathy Unsworth in Sounds observed of their final set: "'Happy Home' scrapes the skin off a few skulls and 'Twin Cadillac Valentine' rubs the salt in. They're back for one encore, then disappear, leaving a pile of steaming bodies gasping for more." I myself was fortunate enough to catch them on both nights, and had just introduced a friend to the delights of the Messiahs, not realising that evening that he'd be seeing them for the first and last time. He was blown away, by the way.
1992 saw the release of 'BBC Radio One Live in Concert', a recording of a 1988 gig at the Town & Country Club in London.
2004 a silly-money approach was made by a Japanese promoter to lure the band out of retirement for a tour of that country. The three Messiahs did meet up and rehearse for a day but old wounds soon opened up and any prospect of a reunion was swiftly shot to pieces.
2007 I collaborated with the band members to put out a self-released official bootleg of a show in Zurich from 1987, taken from an FM broadcast, and was honoured to be able to do the sleeve as well.
2009 another official release, 'Live at the BBC', a recording from the Paris Theatre in London, 1985. The CD also features BBC sessions for Andy Kershaw and Janice Long radio shows. The package features a montaged cover design by Bill and a great band history.
2015, and after decades of obscurity thanks to some bizarre record company decision to bury their back catalogue, the Screaming Blue Messiahs albums finally resurfaced on iTunes and Amazon Digital. All four studio albums reissued, and 'Good and Gone' now features the full original 11 tracks.
Post Messiahs Bill has pretty much disappeared from sight and sound. Output has been limited to a few demos posted briefly on a now defunct MySpace website, which I managed to download before it disappeared.
'Simsala Bim Bam' is a psychedelic dirge with heavily reverbed vocals and fuzz guitar and a mean and moody groove. 'Promised Land' is low down 'n dirty too with snatches of Jesus and automobile references in the best Messiahs lyrical tradition. "Gonna do-si-do to the promised land". 'Motorhead' is straight out delta blues with some cool slide guitar and blues harp. And finally 'Treetops Surrender', a creeping, cascading riff overlaying classically obscure Carter lyrics and themes. All I know about the tracks is that they were home recorded and feature John 'JJ' Johnson on drums and Sarah Corina of the Mekons on bass. And that they all sound at once trademark Bill and yet fresh and interesting and it's a crying shame he never pursued the ideas further.
Back in 2008 I noticed Bill had also returned to art producing screen prints and digital work, exhibiting at the Jenny Granger Gallery and Kessaris Art, and a few works were featured on the Saatchi Gallery website at the time. Screen prints of subjects including cars and Godzilla in the style of Warhol and reminiscent of his very early Motor Boys Motor 'Drive Friendly' 7" sleeve.
Chris and Kenny spent a brief spell, "as hired hands" as Kenny puts it, with cajun outfit La Rue, though they never recorded with the band. They then hooked up again with Tony Moon and bass player Ricky McGuire from The Men They Couldn't Hang, (Chris now on guitar and vocals), to form Dynamo Hum, and released a 10" EP entitled 'Four Cute Creatures'. Shortly after that, Dynamo Hum became The Killer B's and a full album of 12 searing blues tracks, including the four from the previous EP, were released as 'Love Is A Cadillac, Death Is A Ford'. Moon and Harris then left the Killer B's who mutated again into a three-piece with Chris taking on full vocal duties and Dave Morgan from Revolver drafted in on drums. The line-up continued to play live and record new material up until 2014.
Kenny Harris went on to play a while with The Men They Couldn't Hang before quitting the music business for years. There followed spells as a house husband, a baker and a published author, working from his home in Surrey.
Post-breakup Chris and Kenny have continued to work together playing the occasional gig as a two-piece and in 2015/16 began recording again.
2016 saw the release of a remastered box set of CDs and a live 7" single entitled 'Vision in Blues', released by EasyAction Records in the UK. An LP box set also followed and plans are in the pipeline for more material to be released in the future.
I only ever got to meet two of the guys, back in 2006 when I was planning this website.
Kenny and a friend had done the original website but this had fallen into disrepair and I asked if it would be ok to do my own version and use his gig list. I'd been emailing Kenny who was very helpful with info and fact checking. I arranged to meet him at his local boozer, the Old Surrey Hounds. I took along some notes, some albums to get signed, and a recording walkman lest I forgot any significant chat over the pints.
On arrival at the 'Hounds I saw Kenny sat with a surprise guest in the shape of Bill. We had a few beers and a chat about the band and music in general. Kenny talked at length about forming and the eventual dissolving of the band, and the record biz itself. Bill mused about influences and recording and playing. I asked why all the religious references in their work and he replied "Well, you gotta write about something"! His long standing preference for the ambiguous and mysterious still healthy all these years later. We talked about the name of the band, and one theory was it started as the Blues Messiahs but some thought that not properly descriptive. I mentioned a story I had read where manager John Dummer was moving house and saw in his hallway a mysterious demonic creature sat on the banister staring back at him. Bill's eyes lit up and he said "Yes! That's the version we put down!"
Theirs didn't sound like an easy story; hard work, lots of travelling, frustrations with record companies or recordings and just making a living. So even more than before I wanted to celebrate them on this website and maybe learn a bit more about them. Some of the things I put in my potted history above caused a bit of friction or frustration between me and Bill later on, and sadly we've not been in touch for years. Chris and Kenny, I've kept in touch with a little, and for a while I did a website for Chris's band The Killer B's. And I have watched the formation of their new 2-piece project from one-off gig to plans for a new album.
I still listen to my bootleg tape of my favourite ever gig at The Mean Fiddler, and it still sends sparks up the spine. Just the greatest eclectic electric blues ever invented.