16
Sep

Thanks so much to Lyndon Morgans for the interview and Jon Clay for getting me in touch with him! I wrote about Sad Among Strangers a long time ago on the blog after buying their “Taking Off the Breaks” 7″ which I thought was fantastic. Of course, as it is the case with many bands from the period, there was little information on the web about them and I wanted to know more. So I thank this opportunity to learn their story and their music. Hope you like it too!

++ Hi Lyndon! Thanks so much for being up for this interview! How are you? What are you up to these days? Still making music?

Sad Among Strangers spilt up in the fall of 1987 and then I concentrated on the theatre for about eight years, winning the Verity Bargate playwriting award in the early 90s. I formed the Jellymoulds around 1996 (featuring two ex-members of Sad Among Strangers, Karl Woodward and Malcolm Phillips), we made one album “Zen Jukebox”, then we launched Songdog in 2000 (Karl Woodward stayed on, another ex-Sad Among Strangers member, Robert Lesniewski, joined for just the first album. We’ve now made seven albums and Malcolm Phillips came back to play on the latest one but is now gone again. I regard Sad Among Strangers and Jellymoulds as the aperitifs, with Songdog very much the main course. The music we play now is very much how I’d like to have done it then but when Sad Among Strangers formed in the fall of 1978 it was very much ‘play punk or else’ as someone once scrawled across an early gig poster of ours …….

++ I wrote about Sad Among Strangers after I found the “Taking Off the Breaks” 7″ and looked for information on the web. I couldn’t find much. So why don’t we start from there, with that brilliant song. What’s the story behind it? What is it about?

The Sad Among Strangers thing seemed to fall into two distinct periods, firstly the fall of ’78 until spring of 82 and then from the spring of ’82 to the fall of 87. “Taking Off The Brakes” I suppose was the musical highlight of part two. Arista paid for some demos in 1985 and it was recorded as part of those sessions with Steve James producing. After Arista passed on us Freddie Cannon replaced the original drum part with the one that ended up on the record that came out on Broken Hill and claimed the producer’s credit. I guess the song’s about a guy trying to overcome his reserve and telling a girl how he feels about her. I remember still trying to finish the lyrics as we were in the studio and just about to record the vocal.

++ On the B side there was the song “I, Salamander”, which  is a bit darker, less poppy. I wonder what sort of style of music you liked best? And what were your influences at the time?

Freddie booked us into the old Pye Studios at Marble Arch to overdub the drums on “Taking Off The Brakes” but gave us carte blanche to put whatever we liked on the B-side, so we chose “I,
Salamander” and produced it ourselves. I haven’t heard either track in decades so I can’t comment on which I prefer!

++ Let’s go back in time for a bit, was Sad Among Strangers your first band? Had you been involved with other bands too? I know you were on Songdog after being in Sad Among Strangers, how different were these two bands?

When I was a teenager in Wales I’d played in a couple of local bands but we did only covers — wonderful years, though! When we came up to London in the early summer of 1976 I started writing the songs that would become Sad Among Strangers’s early repertoire and I’ve played only my own material ever since, via Jellymoulds and Songdog. There’s a big difference in approach between the Sads and Songdog, the former’s first period was super-fast tempos, angular guitar riffs and lyrics gleaned from my reading bawled out like newspaper headlines. Songdog is acoustic-based with often glacial-paced tempos, a lot rootsier and the lyrics much, much more considered! But to me, I can quite clearly identify a ‘through line’, a thread running right through the songwriter’s persona in both bands. In fact the very first line of the very first track on the very first Songdog album I’d lifted from an old Sads track, I meant it as a kind of statement-of intent and I’ve often re-used bits and pieces from Sads’ stuff over the years — – snatches of lyric, a chord sequence or whatever.

++ What are your first musical memories by the way? What sort of music did you grow up listening to? And what was your first instrument? You were based in Wales, right? Whereabouts? And how was it growing up there? Were there any good bands in town?

I grew up in a place in the South Wales valleys called Blackwood: the Manic Street Preachers came from there too but nothing great or genuinely important so far (but for Songdog!). I was a music fanatic from the age of about ten — – the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Dylan. The stuff that had the most bearing on what I was to do later was mid-60s folk-rock and the baroque-pop stuff of ‘66-’69 combined with the early 70s singer-songwriter boom, and that’s what I would’ve loved to play from the time I first started writing songs, but in London in 1977 and the years immediately following anything that wasn’t ‘punk’ or new wave was anathema. You just wouldn’t have got any gigs whispering away behind an acoustic guitar! My father bought me a guitar for Christmas when I was twelve and right from the very start I wanted to use it as something to sing to and write my own songs on. After I’d learned the basics I had limited interest in working out other people’s stuff. I wish I’d learned piano too.

++ I couldn’t find the band lineup for Sad Among Strangers on the web. So who were Sad Among Strangers and how did you all meet? What’s the story of the band’s name? Your first release was in 1980 on the Brave Tales label. Who were behind this label? This record has three songs, “Sparks Fly Upwards”, “A Better View of Baxter” and “The Gongs”. I really like the opening track the best, and I was wondering how was your experience working with Ian Dinwoodie as the producer, what did he add to the sound of the band? And how was the creative process for Sad Among Strangers? Where did you usually rehearse?

The first line-up was myself on guitar and vocals, Karl Woodward on guitar, Robert Lesniewski on keyboards, Malcolm Phillips on bass and Steve Prescott on drums. Me, Karl and Sig (Robert Lesniewski) came up from Wales together with the express intention of forming a band and met Mal and Steve after they answered an ad we’d placed in Melody Maker for a rhythm section. Later on Mal left and was replaced by Ruari Macfarlane and we headed in a pretty different direction musically. The name came from James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” which I was reading at the time — — “Who loved you, Stephen, when you were sad among the strangers?”. We used to rehearse at Woodwharf Studios in Greenwich, Dire Straits would be in one room and Kate Bush and her band in another. Another time we were in a place near London Bridge when Queen’s and Public Image’s roadies ganged up together to see off a bunch of skinheads causing trouble outside! We met Ian Dinwoodie when he caught us at a gig in west London in 1979, he worked in EMI’s post-room at the time and he steered us through to the spring of ’82, producing our first three singles and managing us too. We did that first three-track single in a posh 24-track studio in Wimbledon, south London: Cliff Richard had booked it for daytime use and once he’d left mid- evening we’d creep in and do our stuff through the night — – the house engineer was a friend of Mal’s, had an amazing porn collection. Brave Tales was our own label. Ian gave a sense of purpose and direction to all the chaos, I’d say he was vital to us throughout those early years, he booked all the gigs, designed the sleeves, the lot, we did four shows a week, every week for years and years, in the process conquering all the venues you needed to play in those times, from the Marquee down, we did many shows there.

++ Your next release was the “Here Come the Caesars” 7″. The B side, “I Know Nothing of the Jungle” was covered by the band Jellymoulds in 1997. What do you think of it? “My Kind of Loser” was your next release. I notice here that the record was being published by Cherry Red Music. What was the deal you had with them? Why didn’t they just release the record on their label? Was there any interest from other labels? So there were 4 releases, four singles, but no album. How come? Are there any unreleased Sad Among Strangers songs? And from all those songs from your repertoire which one would you say was your favourite and why?

With Jellymoulds we re-did “I Know Nothing of the Jungle” out of nostalgia for the old days, I suppose. I prefer the later version just because it’s better played — – the Sads had all the passion and energy in the world but we didn’t pay too much attention to the nuts and bolts, the musicality of the thing — – we could do a six-minute track in about 2:45. By the time Jellymoulds happened we were better musicians, that’s all. As regards “Here Come The Caesars” and “My Kind of Loser” I remember Iain McNay of Cherry Red coming backstage at a gig at the Rock Garden and offering us a deal but I honestly don’t remember what happened, I think they ended up with the publishing, that would’ve been Ian’s department. We were so cocky that another time we turned down the chance to do an album on the Virgin barge because we didn’t like the trousers the guy offering us the deal was wearing: we also said no to a tour opening for XTC, I remember. We were doing so well as a live band I think we figured we could just pick and choose when we felt good and ready. Years later a guy from Virgin told us that we eventually had the reputation as the band that didn’t want a deal! Not true! There’s a whole pile of unreleased material. And many of the gigs were taped too, though that’s all very lo-fi stuff, purely of historical interest only. I liked quite a few of the songs but didn’t always like the way we did them: as I say, we didn’t really do musical finesse and as a songwriter it sometimes felt like watching your babies get mangled in a car-wreck. A lot of the ideas from that era I only got to re-do properly with Songdog.

++ Someone commented on my blog saying that by the mid 80s you decided to go commercial. Is that true?

By the time Mal left and Ruari joined in mid-1982 the New Wave thing was over and the fucking synthesiser was mainstream music’s favoured instrument of torture, and in the course of those following years although we had some fantastic times we lost our way musically. Trousers got baggier, hair bigger, it felt like we were just following whatever the latest trend was, a kind of pop-funk thing that certainly wasn’t what we were about in our hearts. Karl wanted to leave years before we called it a day and I was enormously relieved when we finally did. So I can understand why some people preferred the earlier years: so did I. ‘Going commercial’ is a quaint way to put it but I know what the guy means. It was partly just the times, even my greatest heroes did their weakest work in that era. I left music alone until songwriting came back in in the 90s and the rediscovery of the likes of Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake made acoustic music viable again for the first time in twenty years. I was just a victim of bad timing, I think!

++ Something that I could find on the web was that you were support of A-Ha on a European tour of theirs in 1981. How was that experience? How was your relationship with them? Which cities did you play? Which were your favourites? Any fun anecdotes you could share?

We did the A-Ha European tour of late 1986, they were huge then and the tour was quite an experience, they were doing massive venues and the audiences loved us — — though I’m betting they’d have loved whoever was up there! We did Lyon, four nights in Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Dusseldorf, Munich, Mannheim, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Brussels, Rotterdam and Copenhagen — – I don’t know if I’ve missed any, it lasted about a month? We got on well with them and in fact a few years ago Songdog went back out opening for Morten Harket on one of his tours, our manager rang his people, he remembered the ’86 tour and invited us on. We had many, many memorable times on that tour but I suppose the incident I remember the clearest was after we’d come offstage in Nuremburg (?) I swallowed a few pills some guy’d offered me and then downed a bottle of wine and collapsed, got locked in a toilet somewhere and had to be ambulanced to hospital to have my stomach pumped. Happy days, eh? I remember being chuffed to have done a venue in Munich that the Beatles had played and that Paul Simon was to be the next attraction at our Paris venue. The trouble was that when the tour was over we found it just so demoralising to have to return to the London pub circuit and we limped on through most of 1987 becoming less and less committed to what we were doing. We should’ve packed in about three years before we did, but then, of course, we’d have missed that A-Ha tour! My favourite shows were the Paris ones, once we’d left the venue we’d be up in Montmartre drinking half the night away because we didn’t have to set out for the next city, we had four nights to do at the same place.

++ And in general, which are the gigs you remember most fondly and why? Did you get much attention from the music press and radio?

Gigs-wise I loved the early years best, when we were chalking up venues we’d read of back in Wales and knew you had to do if you were to be counted as any good. In the very earliest days we also had a residency at a place on Clapham High Street — – the Two Brewers — – that lasted over two years and we had some fantastic times there, we built up a hell of a following due to that place. John Peel used to play us but that was really it, radio-wise. The music press mostly slagged the shit out of us! When we began to get good press for Songdog I thought someone had made a mistake somewhere, I was so used to getting hatchet-jobs done on us.

++ When and why did you call it a day? What did you do afterwards? And whereabouts in the UK are you these days? Aside from music, what other hobbies do you have? One last question, what would you say was the biggest highlight of the band? Anything else you’d like to add?

As I said, the end was overdue and merciful. The drummer announced his imminent departure and we used that as an opportunity to not to have to carry on: there was no announcement of our splitting up, we just didn’t bother looking for a replacement, didn’t book any more rehearsals, etc. I then got involved in playwriting for years until the musical tide turned back to songwriting in the mid-90s. Thank God for it, I finally had a chance to make the musical statement I was born to make, but Sad Among Strangers was a hell of an apprenticeship, I have to admit that. I’m still based in London — – though I have a place in Wales too — – and I focus completely on my work with Songdog, I have to keep writing and recording until I can’t any longer, I couldn’t live at all if I had to just give all this up and I’ve had so many great things happen with Songdog, so many experiences I couldn’t have got with the old band, but Christ, still, with Sad Among Strangers, we had some adventures, didn’t we!

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Listen
Sad Among Strangers – Taking Off the Breaks