Wednesday 21 February 2024

Rock and Roll Stories #7 - "You got a demo tape son?"

"You got a demo tape son?". This was the question everyone in a band in the late 1970's/early 1980's hoped you'd be asked, when any person in the music business heard you were in a band. I was chatting with Sean from the London International Ska Festival recently, discussing the way the live music scene has changed, one of the biggest is that no one has asked me for a demo tape for decades.  Demo cassettes were the staple of the underground music scene back then, in todays story we look at how we made our first one!

When the False Dots were formed in 1979, promoters were desperate for up and coming bands playing original material. These were secured after a supplying a demo tape and there was a whole industry in London supporting the demo industry. A working band like The False Dots would need 20-30 cassettes of any demo for the purposes of securing gigs etc. I suspect most bands went in the bin, without even a listen.  

For us, we'd be paid a reasonable amount of money to appear on bills at shows, so it was a valid expense. We were quite popular with promoters, as we had a following. It meant that we got offered good support slots with several high profile bands, usually from out of town. It was a quid pro quo. We'd play and bring and audience and the band playing with us would bring down music press, record labels and other music industry bigwigs. For us, the idea was that some of these would come early, see the band and be blown away, offering us record deals and riches beyond imagine. The only flaw in the plan was that usually, if they came at all, they would turn up for the last ten minutes of the main band. They'd never even see us. Promoters would promise us that we'd get 'great exposure' and that it would be a 'brilliant opportunity', saying how important it was to ensure that we brought as many people down as possible, so that the bigwigs would see just how popular we were. 

We didn't mind bringing down people, as we loved an audience and the early shows were always a brilliant laugh, usually followed by a big party, but sadly we never got to meet the bigwigs or even get any press in those early days, gigs were reviewed with no mention of us at all. But despite these knock backs  a demo tape was vital for us, as we were desperate to play as many gigs as possible. We knew that the better the quality of the demo, the better the gigs we'd be offered. When we started the band, we had no idea at all how to do anything. We couldn't play, we had no idea about how to properly structure songs, we didn't know how demo's were made. Almost as soon as we started rehearsing in 1979, we started enquiring about getting gigs. Our holy grail was to get a gig at The Moonlight Club in West Hampstead. Pete (who I founded the band with)  and I would go there more or less every week. We knew the promoters, the doormen and the bar staff. We'd seen all manner of excellent bands there, including The Damned, Manicured Noise and The Monochrome Set being just a few. Although not having the status of The Marquee or the 100 club, we realised that it was a far more attainable. We saw it as a stepping stone. When we spoke to them, they said "No problem, just pop in a demo and we'll be more than happy to put you on, IF IT'S ANY GOOD".

After a month of rehearsals, we were ready. Pete brought his portable cassette player down and we played our three best songs (from our Dots MK I rubbish era). As I recall, these were the rather imaginatively titled "Bone", "Wrong" and "Political warning". We set up in our rehearsal studio, at the caretakers cottage, in Bunns Lane Works, and for each one, we'd be quiet and then Pete would press record,  shout 1-2-3-4 and we'd launch into 2 minutes of punk rock chaos. Sadly, the band had missed the boat for that sort of punk rock by two years (if ever there was a boat for badly played slogans shouted over out of tune guitars). We were quite excited when we listened back. We were so wrapped up in what we were doing, that we simply didn't see how awful it was.

I was still at school back then. I'd moved from Finchley Catholic High School to Orange Hill School, the previous September. This was probably the only smart move I made with regards to my education. I found myself in a school where there were several decent bands. The best and most high profile of these were The Polecats. When I arrived, almost immediately, I became mates with Polecats guitarist Boz Boorer. I wasn't into Rockabilly at all, but Boz loved punk. He was also amazing company. His band had done a couple of gigs and the singer, Tim Worman's Dad had become their manager and was doing all of the things you need to do to make a young band successful. 

Often, I'd go around to Boz's parents home with him and listen to records. Boz carried a cassette player with him everywhere and when he wasn't listening to vinyl at home, he was playing cassettes in the OHS common room. I had huge respect for what Boz was doing with the Polecats and soon realised that his band were doing the right things. So it was only natural that Boz was the first person I played the cassette to. I was really excited and expected Boz to be blown away by it. I naively thought that Boz would realise that he should be doing punk rather than Rockabilly when he heard our amazing demo. I chose my moment and sprung it on him, over a cup of tea in his mum's front room. 

To his credit, Boz was very diplomatic. He didn't say "Its crap". He said "The recording quality isn't good enough to play to anyone". I was crestfallen, but he continued "My band have just done a demo at a proper recording studio, have a listen to this. This is the quality you need". He played me the demo, recorded at Alan Warner, of the Foundations, Lane studios. The first track was Rockabilly Guy. As soon as I heard it, I realised he was right (the demo became The Polecats first single on Nervous Records). Boz kindly made me a copy and suggested I play it to the rest of the band, to show what quality you needed. 

I immediately realised what he was saying. We had a rehearsal a couple of days later. I brought Boz's tape and explained what he'd said. The reaction from Pete was the complete opposite of what I was expecting. He went mad and said that Boz didn't get punk rock. Furthermore, he insisted we do a pun cover of Rockabilly Guy to show them how it should be done. Dave the drummer kept his counsel. Not only did Pete take huge umbrage, he was determined to prove Boz was wrong. To my amazement, he did just that. A couple of weeks later, he announced that The False Dots had secured a gig supporting The UK Subs in Derby in the summer on the basis of the tape. Pete knew the singer of the Subs, Charlie Harper and used to go to all of their gigs. Clearly Harper was doing us a favour, but Pete was adamant that it was proof that Boz was an idiot who didn't understand Punk Rock. Sadly, the gig never happened. Our drummer Dave was attacked in Mill Hill Broadway by a gang of thugs, severing a tendon in his arm. The original line up never recovered and we broke up on 3rd September 1979. 

Three months later, I bumped into Pete and we had a long chat. Pete, to my surprise, admitted that Boz was right about the demo. We determined that the False Dots MK II would be a 'proper band', record a 'proper demo' and try and get 'proper gigs'. The Polecats had signed to Mercury Records and were on Top of The Pops shortly after. The False Dots set about getting things together 'properly'. We agreed that we'd only play songs that we were 100% happy with and the first target was to get three songs together of a quality to record with Alan Warner, as that was clearly the first step to a record deal. By 1980, it was clear that the punk sloganizing of the False Dots Mk I was very passe. We'd started listening to a far wider range of music and records. Pete wanted to play reggae, but we simply couldn't get the right groove. We settled on a sort of dark pop, influenced by The Velvet Underground, The Buzzcocks and avant guard punks Wire. The first song of the new world was Not All She Seems, a tale of a transvestite prostitute and her struggles to fit into society and the exploitation she faced. This was swiftly followed by Ride, which was the flip side. It was about a young, na├»ve man, who falls in love with a prostitute and is too blinded by passion to realise she's only doing it for the cash. The third song, Her Little World, was perhaps the nastiest song that band ever wrote (Alan Warner later described it as 'a brilliant song, but the most horrible thing I've ever heard'). We wanted to be controversial. The song was written about The Yorkshire Ripper, who was at large at the time and murdering women. We'd seen a news documentary about the case. A professor of psychology had stated that the Ripper would not be caught until the Police understood what made him tick, what motivated him and why he was doing it. Pete came up with the brilliant idea of writing a song from his point of view. His reasoning was that the Police were totally incompetent and  the song would provide a massive boot up their backside. Although his reasoning was 100% sound, it is a horrible song that I still feel uncomfortable listening to. The idea that a punk rock song would change Yorkshire Police forces tactics was also mildly optimistic. 

We wrote a few other songs, then started rehearsing. Paul Marvin, son of Hank of the Shadows joined on drums. We got to rehearse in Hank's pad in Radlett, which was amazing. Paul Hircombe had joined on rhythm guitar. Paul was a great musician and a big asset. Hank came in and jammed with us. He suggested the riff for Not All She Seems, if we ever have a hit with it, I'll give him a credit! He gave me plenty of sound advice "Always make an effort to look good for a gig, always wear good shoes and a simple, jangly guitar riff is far better than a complicated riff that people can't hum or sing".  We were ready, or so we thought, for the demo. 

I badgered Boz, who by now was a busy man with the Polecats. I got him to take me around to Alan Warners. Boz hadn't heard the new stuff and was a tad reticent, but being a good mate did anyway. We knocked on Alan's door and Boz said "This is my mate Rog, he's got a punk band who want to record a demo". We drank tea and chatted. Boz, perhaps wisely suggested that Alan nip down and have a listen. I suspect that Alan assumed that as I was a mate of Boz's, I'd be a pretty good player and the band would be a tight, professional outfit. When he came down to the cottage, I suspect the penny dropped. Whenever anyone he didn't know turned up, Pete would put on a bit of a show for them and was rather obnoxious. He could be a very intimidating person at times. I was really pissed off with him, but we played the numbers to Alan. He made us play them a couple of times and then said "I'll have a think about it". I was really pissed off with Pete. He explained that anyone who worked with us, had to buy into what we were about. There was no point going into the studio, if they slung us out when we started arguing, as we inevitably would. I've come to realise that Pete was actually right. So many bands screw up because when people get involved, they can't take the intensity of the situation. But at the time I was not experienced and was just plain embarrassed. 

A couple of days later, I rang up Alan and suggested having a beer with him at The Railway pub to discuss the recording. I expected him to make excuses, but he agreed. We went to the Railway, had a few beers and he gave me his considered opinion. Alan hadn't been put off by Pete's antics. He had worked with enough people in rock and roll to know that it wasn't like the vicars tea part. To my surprise, he also liked the songs and the energy of the band. He then asked "what do you want out of the session?". I replied that we wanted a demo that would be good enough to get us gigs. His response shocked me slightly. He said "Well you need a new drummer".  I explained that Paul was the son of Hank and that might open doors, but he said "A dodgy demo will only shut doors". He then mentioned that he had a mate who would be ideal. A bit older than us, but a great drummer. He also explained the process of recording. He'd bring his rig down to the studio at the cottage to do the 'backing tracks', as he couldn't record drums at his studio, as it was in a bedroom. We'd then do the overdubs at his place. He asked if we'd thought about harmonies and other overdubs. I hadn't really got a clue what he was on about, so I said "We'll sort this out once we've got the backing tracks". After a few pints we made our way off. He said he'd get the new drummer Dav, to get in touch. 

I then arranged to meet Pete to discuss Alan's feedback. I half expected another hissy fit, but he totally agreed. Initially, we'd keep Paul Marvin in the band, but Dav would be the drummer for the demo. As soon as we had the first rehearsal, this went out of the window. Dav was brilliant. The band sounded like a proper band. We'd started the Dot's Mk II in January and the recording was set for June. Having a focus paid off. On the appointed day, Alan came down. Our studio was a derelict caretakers cottage, the band set up in the kitchen and Alan set up his desk in the front room. He recorded drums, bass, rhythm guitar and a guide vocal live. As I played lead I had nothing to do, I was simply keeping an eye on things and conveying messages between Alan and the band. Pete DI'd his bass, for replacement later and Paul did the same. The band listened on headphones, to stop track bleed. We did a take of Not all She Seems. It was brilliant. Pete had been cynical about it all. When he heard it, he was gobsmacked. We were pretty tight, so we easily managed to get the three songs down. Afterwards, we all adjourned back to The Railway. 

Pete who had been a bit off with Alan when he first came down, was now his best mate. Dav said he was amazed at how good it was sounding. Paul was pretty quite, he was always pretty quiet though. We did it on a Saturday and Pete, Paul and myself went around to Alans in the week to do the overdubs. Pete did the bass first, then Paul put his rhythm guitar on and I put my lead on. Pete then put his vocals. It sounded amazing. Pete and Paul were chuffed. Then Alan asked if we wanted any overdubs. Pete said "No, leave it like that, it's fine". I said "What do you recommend?". Pete scowled at me. I said "At least listen to what Alan has to say". Alan suggested that Pete double track the vocals, which would give it a fuller, more even sound. We did this and the four hour slot we'd booked was over. Alan ran off a tape, which I took. He suggested we come back and 'mix it properly'. Pete was cynical, thinking it was perfect. We provisionally booked another date in for the next week, when we had 'fresh ears' for the mix. 

I took it home, had a listen and thought it lacked something. It was a million times better than anything we'd done before, but there was scope for improvement. The next day, I spoke to Pete. I said "The Velvet Underground put acoustic guitar on a lot of their tracks, why don't we put it on Not all She Seems and Ride". Pete was a bit dismissive and suggested I was becoming a hippy. I said "I'll pay to do it and if you don't like it, we can take it off". Pete agreed. I then phoned Alan and borrowed an acoustic guitar, explaining that I'd be doing this on my own. Paul them asked if he could tag along. Unlike Pete, he was not argumentative, so I was happy for him to come. He had a great ear.  I put a pretty basic strummed acoustic on it. Paul loved it. Alan also said it was pretty cool.

We then arranged for the mixing. Dav was invited and brought a young lady with him. Pete spent the entire session trying to chat her up, which was infuriating for me. The main thing though, was that the demo sounded great. When it was finished, we took a master tape and a couple of cassettes. I took it home and played it to my sister, she was amazed. Her first comment was that "Alan must be really good at recording to make you sound like a band". 

I then took it around to Boz's place. I played it to him and he was very complimentary, saying "I told you Alan was good". We then started to work out a full set of music. We had the demo, now we just needed a set that could live up to it.   We were working really hard. By September, we had almost got a set together of music that we could play live. The new school year started. I brought the demo in. Those who had laughed at our previous efforts stopped laughing. A couple of other bands asked for Alan's details to record their band. I was feeling supremely confident. We had the demo, we had the set. We were ready. 

Then, in mid September, Pete  announced he was leaving the band. He had a new girlfriend and decided that he didn't have time for music anymore. I was gutted, I cannot begin to explain how much. However the demo had made people take notice. Craig, an excellent guitarist, in the year below at Orange Hill had heard it and loved it. When he heard Pete had left, we spoke and the False Dots MkIII was born. Sadly, that demo never realised it's ambition for the Dots MkII , despite having spent over £100 on it. Having said that, it was perhaps the most important moment in the history of The False Dots at that point. I knew that our songs were good enough and if we recorded them properly, there was a future for the band. About two weeks after Craig joined, I was at The Moonlight Club. I was chatting to the promoter, as usual, when he asked how the band was going. I said "We've done a brilliant demo, but decided our singer wasn't up to it, so we've got a new singer and we'll be ready for gigs in the new year". They asked for a copy, which I handed over. It was a battered TDK cassette. They suggested that I get "proper cassette copies made in future" and mentioned a company called Tape Copying Services in Barnet. I hadn't realised that you could do such a thing. TCS probably duplicated demo's for every up and coming band in North London.

A week later, I saw the promoter and they said "Give me a bell when you are ready to play, the band is pretty good". After a couple of weeks, Pete rejoined the band as singer, deciding he'd made a mistake. Paul switched to bass guitar. Craig took over on lead. We arranged our own gig at Harwood Hall for December 1980. Pete let us down on the day, which was the end of our musical relationship and friendship.  We booked another session at Alan's studio for January. We'd learned a lot and that turned out even better, with the band finally starting to gig regularly in 1981, but that is another story. 
The False Dots are still going 45 years on. Our next gig is at the Beehive, in Bow on Saturday 23rd March. Here is a little trailer for it that we made, click here for tickets.


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