Bad Man Wagon – interview
Bad Man Wagon were the band to famously feature The Stone Roses Bez-like dancer Steven (Cressa) Cresser, plus some of the members of Madchester favourites Intastella. Formed around the time The Stone Roses recorded The Second Coming album, the band went on to support The Stone Roses at Wembley Arena, the same night Manic Street Preachers, also supporting, played their first live show since Richey Edwards went missing. Matt Mead catches up with 2 members of Bad Man Wagon, drummer Spencer Birtwistle and lead singer Stella Grundy, to discuss all things including The Fall, Bad Man Wagon and Drummer of the Year 1943.
LTW: What is your first memory as a child?
Spencer: My first memory as a child is one sunny morning standing up in my cot holding the rail. My dad came into the room, picked me up and carried me into my mum and dad’s bedroom. I was probably about 2 years old. I also remember being in a car at night, waking up alone then my mum and dad opened the car. My Mum said that was outside the pub on our caravan site in Anglesey.
Can you go into a bit of detail about your upbringing?
Spencer: I come from a working class musical background. My dad was in the building trade and my mum had lots of jobs, mostly cleaning jobs. She worked in pubs and behind the bar also in a butchers shop. My mum was hard working, she really supported the family. My dad was a bit of a troublemaker – he drank heavily and would stay out a lot, not coming home from work. This caused arguments at home, sometimes fights between him and my mum. It was not great, I lived in fear of him coming home.
What was the first musical memory that you have?
Spencer: My first musical memories would be playing old 78s rock n roll records at my grandma’s. There was an old record music gram type thing – I learned how to use it when I was about 4 years old: Great Balls of Fire was one of them and some Elvis Presley. My mum got a job cleaning at a pub called The Cherry Tree and I would go with her. The jukebox was always on: I loved T Rex 20th Century Boy. I asked my mum to get me the record and one day she came home with it after the lady changed the records. It cost my mum 10p, iI played it non stop. After that I would get lots more from the same lady when it was time to change the jukebox. I had lots of 7 inch singles: Crocodile Rock by Elton John was one that I really remember playing as a kid and My Ding-a-Ling by Chuck Berry.
Who were your first major musical influences?
Spender: The first music influences came from my grandad who I got on well with. In fact when my mum and dad took on a pub in Chapel-en-le-Frith for a couple of years, I was 10 years old at this time, so I lived with my grandad who really encouraged me with my drumming. He was a big band jazz drummer in the 1940s:he was Drummer of the Year 1942 and 1943 as voted by Melody Maker.
I wanted to play the drums from a young age, as when my mum was working I stayed at my grandma’s where my uncle Steve was still living at home- he was a drummer who played for Tony Christie. He would come home from school and practice the drums in his room. He never let me watch. I was not allowed in his room and would lock the door when he went out. One day he forgot lock it I got in and started hitting the drums. He caught me and went mad and kicked me out. That’s what sparked me off, I just thought ‘well I can do this!’. I got my mum and dad to buy me a kit – it was an old Ajax drum kit. It looked like the 60s Ludwig that Ringo Starr played.
Which drummers did you look up to as a teenager?
Spencer: Stuart Copeland as I loved the reggae style mixed with rock. When I heard Walking on the Moon, it just blew me away. Plus Buddy Rich – my grandad took me to see Buddy play at the Davenport theatre in Stockport. I met him in his dressing room as my Uncle Ivor had supported him in America – he was a dwarf who was in show business. Ivor was my grandad’s brother, his act was called The Strong Brothers – they went all over America, and he met Sammy Davis jr and played the Moulin Rouge Paris .
I love Ringo Starr’s drumming. I love his feel and his drum fills are great. I also like Mitch Mitchell, his swinging rock jazz fusion is brilliant. I love the old reggae drummers Sly Dunbar as I love 60s and 70s reggae. I’ve always played along with those records: King Tubby and Barrington Levy etc. I also like Donald Johnson from A Certain Ratio – I used to practice playing to the early A Certain Ratio albums. I really liked the weird sounds and the tight kind of funky beats he came up with. Finally, Pete De Freitas from Echo and the Bunnymen. He was my hero, I fuckin’ loved him, he was my favourite. I love the Bunnymen and constantly played along with headphones to Crocodiles and Heaven Up Here – they were my all-time best band when I was at school.
Was Intastella the first band you joined?
Spencer: No, I joined a band when i was 13 doing covers in social clubs. My Dad got me in this band who played at Offerton Social club. I didn’t like all of the songs but it was a good experience playing on stage. They were older than me about 22 and I was 13, it was funny. Sunday morning by The Commodores was one that we play that I liked and All Right Now by Free. Some of the rock classics were good to play. I joined another band called Permeant Wave, they were a bit more up to date at the time doing Elvis Costello songs and King Bee, more blues based that was pretty good doing pubs mostly. They are still going called Route 66 now from Whaley Bridge. The singer is a great harmonica player, Ian Fawkes.
How/when did you join Intastella?
Spencer: I didn’t join Intastella, I started the band with Stella when Laugh (Spencer’s pre Intastella band) were kind of giving up trying and not really getting anywhere. We started the band doing a track called Dream Some Paradise with a guy called Kurt Rogers in his flat in Cheetham Hill. In the end Kurt wanted to do his own stuff and I got Martin Mitler and Martin Wright in from Laugh. We did demos in Strawberry in Stockport at night and Caroline the manger of Strawberry ended up managing us. I loved that studio, we felt at home there. When we sacked Craig Leon from producing our first LP we went back there and sorted it out with Chris Naegle and John Pennington .
Was playing live a big thing for the band? I saw Intastella as a 15 year old supporting The Charlatans at Rock City in Nottingham, I hadn’t heard of the band previously so was unsure of the dancing man on stage with a necklace featuring an orange,
Spencer: My favourite memory of a live gig was when we played on Southport Beach we did a free gig, it was boiling hot, loads of people were there and we had a great time. It was a risk with all the equipment, but it turned out just the best with the crowd and the weather.
You went on to join The Fall. How/when did you join the band? How was your relationship with Mark E Smith?
Spencer: I joined the Fall in 1999. I got a call from Ed Blainey asking me if I wanted to be in The Fall. I thought nothing about it, I just said OK, yes! I wasn’t doing anything at the time so it was a good opportunity to get back into drumming. I had been doing The Dad Man Wagon with Cressa but it was too much responsibility, as everyone relied on me to do everything and I had got a bit sick of it. Joining The Fall was a good thing for me as I was just the drummer and didn’t have to do anything but drum. It was like being on holiday from what I had been doing in the past. I felt like I had been set free. Mark E Smith liked me and we had a good time.
The gigs The Fall did were just fantastic: funny, scary and energetic, dangerous but always a sonic night out. I played all over Europe and America but the best gigs were Germany – they got The Fall big time. I remember in Cologne the guys at the front were headbutting the stage – it was mental. Mark was like my uncle, he always kept me on the straight and narrow. He made sure I was ok and all was ok at home. He really was a caring guy. If he liked you, you were his mate . If he didn’t like you, you’d better watch it.
You were also in Bad Man Wagon, the short lived band that featured The Stone Roses dancer Cressa. How/when did the band form?
Spencer: We did make an album, but it has never been released. We did some stuff with Rob Gretton (ex New Order manager) but when he died it all ended. We did 2 x 10 inch white labels with Rob and they sold out. We also played with The Stone Roses at Wembley arena. That was due to John Squire: John and Cressa were good pals. Stella can explain things in more detail better than I can with regards to Bad Man Wagon.
Over to lead singer of Intastella and band member of Bad Man Wagon, Stella Grundy. How did you first get introduced to Steve Cressa?
Stella: I can’t really remember the exact time I met Cressa. Probably when he used to come to Pizza Hut in town when I was a teenage waitress there in the 80s.
Was Steve a very friendly guy to get along with?
Stella: He was very quick-witted, funny and entertaining. He could also be merciless. He wore cool clothes too. I’ve got to say I was wary of him at first but as we got to know each other I discovered we had a lot in common, including our birthdays which were within a day of each other. So we did become good friends yes.
Did you see Steve when he was in The Stone Roses?
Stella: Yes of course The Roses were my favourite band. He used to set John Squires’ guitar pedals I believe. His bird impressions backstage at the Winter Gardens were memorable with his pink cord flares. He was a trend setter always. A load of us went from Afflecks Palace where I used to work: it was like everyone was on really strong acid. I remember being on a roof and then driving down the tramlines and getting stuck in front of a tram
When did the idea to do some music together first get mentioned?
Stella: That will have come from Spencer, my partner at the time and drummer for Intastella. He was a massive reggae fan. Our friend Ian ‘Winker’ Watson who played bass in the Bodines was also a Dub Reggae DJ. Those 3 will have hatched this out in the pub one night over a long session.
Where BMW active when you joined the band?
Stella: Well they were recording in our front room in Fallowfield. Chronic Sonic was the first tune they did I think. I was giving music a rest for a while then ended up writing lyrics for them and adding melodies. It was very derivative of old reggae tunes at first
What were rehearsals like?
Stella: Short. A Few arguments and Manc Banter. We rehearsed in Ancoats in Intastella’s room. We were mates and a good laugh the majority of the time.
Were you involved with writing the band’s material/lyrics?
Stella: Yes I wrote quite a few songs for BMW: the best ones!!! Kicked Out, Silver Bird, Rolling Down the River. Some songs that Intastella never recorded were also thrown in the mix
Were the band chased by record companies to be signed?
Stella: Yeah, it was Damien Hirst and Keith Allen’s label Turtle Neck that was getting everyone excited. It had been set up after the Fat Les Vindaloo football anthem. We did showcase gigs in London. It was all proper chaotic, I was kept out of any record company meetings. No girls allowed, seriously? Having been through all that stuff already I knew I wasn’t missing out on much. They didn’t sign BMW in the end and the single came out on Robs Records which was way more cool.
What are you memories of recording the BMW album?
Stella: Most of it I would not commit to the page: it was proper DIY around our house in Fallowfield on a 16-track. Spencer will know more how it was done. Long sessions, a week or so not seeing daylight. Lots of weed and powders. We introduced our good friend and the Boardwalk soundman to the mix, Stephen Bunn, nicknamed ‘The screaming Eagle’ by Cressa. Stephen Bunn took it away from Dub, bringing a Rage Against The Machine sound to it.
The BMW album is heavily influenced by reggae music, was this something the band wanted to sound like or was it a chosen music avenue the band went down?
Stella: A love of Reggae music is what brought these characters together. I think Cressa got a bit of stick because he was mixed race and hadn’t been heavily into his black culture before, and of course the rest of us were white so we had no right at all to make that sort of music. Music Genres are very narrow to some folk.
Did you play live with the band?
Stella: Yes I did all the live shows.
Are there any memories from playing live with the band that you can share?
Stella: We did a small tour of Scotland that was ace. We got good crowds and were treated really well because Cressa was part of the Roses, and they love the Roses and all things Manchester. That was ace fun to do. Also some gigs in Ireland towards the end. I laughed on that tour so much my face ached. Winker had gone a bit mental: his hair was like sideshow Bob and we kept leaving him behind. He’d run after the van, then the tour Manager, Dermot, would slow down until he nearly reached the door then he’d drive off again. Very childish I know. We were all tipped out of the van at Customs and the dogs were let on. It was a bizarre day. I have no idea how we ever got home.
I saw the band live at Wembley arena supporting The Stone Roses. I have vague memories of the gig, but I’m unsure if you played that specific gig? What i do remember is Cressa dancing all over the stage.
Stella: I’m not surprised you didn’t notice me, I was stuck behind Ian Browns 50-odd vocal monitors. To be honest, it wasn’t as exciting as it should have been. It was Wembley Arena ffs, but Roses fans don’t like reggae that much. I can’t remember what anyone was doing that night but Cressa would have definitely give it some bollocks. I still think we were better than the other support act, The Manic Street Preachers. They were dismal.
What happened to the band and why did they split?
Stella: I don’t know why. I packed it in because I had my daughter Nico, although we did do some gigs after her birth. Spencer started drumming with the Fall and Winker joined Domino Bones with Bez. I think Steve was still doing bits and bobs. It just ran out of steam.
What is Steve up to these days?
Stella: I don’t know what Steve’s up to right now. I hear from him twice a year or so on my birthday and other random messages. He says it’s like he’s eighteen again?!
Do you have any projects on the go at the moment?
Spencer: I am recording an LP with a guy called Jim Range, it’s called Jims Rocking Beat. I play drums on it. He’s a good song writer from Southport. It’s a bit like The La’s .
Stella: Still busking it really. I write scripts, plays and songs for films. I did a degree in theatre studies. I’ve had critical success but theatre is still very much for the middle classes and I’m too working class to fit comfortable.
Lastly, what is on your turntable at the moment?
Spencer: At the moment I’m listening to Don Let’s Dub. It’s a CD my son bought me for Christmas. I also like Fountains DC, they sound punchy to me even though they have not released an album yet. I have the Bodega LP, they remind me of the B52’s and Talking Heads. Its quirky New York junk rock not too serious, which is good for me. Also Geika – I like the stuff he does, it’s deep, a bit trance-like. I have also just discovered this guy Calibre, a drum and bass guy, he’s great.
Stella: Well my turntable is packed away I’ve sold up and I’m moving away from Manchester but it was Burning Spear Social Living. I still love me reggae music.
The Bad Man Wagon album can now be purchased at Vinyl Revival in Manchester.
All words by Matt Mead. Further articles by Matt can be found via the Louder Than War author archive page. Picture credit by Patrick Henry