unknown-5Tony Gleed

 

The Birth Of The Smiths, An Archaeological Release…

 

Freak Party, Funky Si Records and the rebirth of even more Manc cool.

 

 

You never know just what might emerge wedged into a bit of rank, crumbly foam stuffed willy-nilly into an old box . And it’s certainly always worth checking nooks and crannies of your abode when moving house or clearing out the back bedroom. Just ask any one of those Cuprinol coated, elephant corded doughnuts presenting antiques programmes on daytime TV.  

 

Bargain Hunts, cash stashed attics and car boot escapades resulting in a little bit of dosh and a quick trip to Gran Canary are fine and dand….  but unearthing a bona fide  long lost nugget of post punk gold is way more exciting for those of us reared on the myriad post punk legends of Manchester. 

And your gavel’s going gaga when you discern that said gem is a tape featuring unreleased music cooked up in the formative years of The Smiths by their very engine room…. And that this tune has cunningly been revitalized and reborn as an all new  slab of essential funky danceware…. You’ve  just stumbled across a  must bid  lot in the auction house of rocknroll. Get behind me David Dickenson…. …. 

 

‘Firefly’ by Freak Party is the end result. A brilliant new 7inch single featuring the proto Smiths bump and grind of Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and original drummer ‘Funky Si’ Wolstencroft, augmented in amazing fine style  by Svengali type artisan auteur/producer Mike Bennett, British soul siren Angie Brown and that other one time guitar smith, Mr Craig Gannon.  Out this week on Funky Si Records….

I caught up with Angie Brown, Mike Bennett and Simon Wolstencroft and got beneath the patina….

As Simon Wolstencroft says  The Freak Party project has brought ‘closure’ to that part of my life. I’m glad Johnny Marr also mentions the band  in his memoirs and stuck a picture of me in there from that period. The three of us were all learning our trade back then and for me it was a really exciting time.

Mike Bennett, producer, lyricist and all round vibes controller on the Freak Party project is very happy with the denouement.

‘Yes it certainly has been an inspirational period . When Simon first found the Porta studio tape it did not initially sink in . But he kept on about it, he was persistent and I finally realised he had unearthed an archive of great significance. The restoring of the tape was certainly problematic, With mould all over the tape itself it was an interesting challenge to get it into some kind of shape before we could even start looking at the arduous task of getting rid of the hiss. . Ironically it was a company called Take the Hiss in media city that helped in the restoration of this mini masterpiece. It did not help that part of the Tape got chewed up from Simon’s car cassette player on the way to the company when he hit a speed bump. I’ve put myself on the musical naughty step over that one because I should never have let him play it in the car .

Once the hiss was extricated from the original recording The creative process began .  Finding small elements of Johnny Marr’s guitar and Andy Rourke’s recognisable bass  style and Funky Si’s  recognisable drum patterns was relatively easy as the group used lots of drops so it was a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, taking it apart and reconstructing it in the same structure of the original body of work. Then we added latter-day Smith’s member Craig Gannon and the talented Angie Brown . I don’t think anyone could have done a better job . I wrote the lyrics and top line but   Angie made it happen and gave it an edge. I don’t think a male vocalist could have achieved this if you get my drift . Like progressive Manchester itself the recording has great significance in that the old meets the new !’

Simon… What are your recollections of the music you were making with Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke in 1981? In your  book ‘You Can Drum But You Can’t Hide’ you say that you were very much focused on channelling the prevailing funk and hiphop of the time.  Funkadelic, Grandmaster Flash…..were The Smiths originally conceived as a Northern white funk band in this Freak Party style demonstrated in ‘Firefly’ or was the intention to create more of a punk funk E.S.G kind of outfit?

FUNKY SI We (Freak Party) got stoned most nights round at Andy’s Dad’s house on a huge bong to begin with, listening to funk records that sounded like Bruno Mars’s new tune 24k Magic, the heavier the bass the better.

It was a few months after our trio got arrested at Decibelle Studios in Ancoats, when Johnny rang me at the end of 1981 asking me to join ‘his’ new band , The Smiths. Andy and I had been wondering what Johnny had been up to during this time and after meeting Morrissey for the first time I found I just couldn’t get excited by the idea of being in a group with him, especially after playing drums on that first recording. Funk it wasn’t, so I told Johnny it wasn’t for me.I thought the Smiths was a shit name too. Freak Party bore no relation whatsoever. This was Johnny’s thing.

I found the cassette tape stuffed down the foam lining of a small flight case covered in mould, a couple of years ago, after selling the family house. I did think it had disappeared forever though in a previous house move perhaps, or that my ex-wife had thrown it away without my knowledge, like a lot of my other possessions..

It wasn’t really a ‘eureka’ moment, I was just glad there was still a recording of Freak Party’s work for other people to hear in the future, no matter how rough it sounded..

Were you keen to get it out to the world, and how did you arrive at working with producer Mr Bennett to further the project?

FUNKY SI  Mike and I had met initially in the mid 90’s whilst working on a couple of Fall albums and had lost touch for many years until he contacted me on Facebook two years ago. He was working as a producer in L.A by then, but said he wanted a fresh start and was thinking of moving to Manchester of all places! So within 3 months he’d bought a flat in Media City, Salford next to the BBC.

He started giving me drum sessions straight away and I kept banging on about this lost tape that had turned up, but it wasn’t till earlier this year that he suggested we find a singer and bring Freak Party to the public’s attention.

When Funky Si brought the 1981 Freak Party cassette to you Mike Bennett,  did you perceive the fabulously funky end result that is ‘Firefly’ in a kind of epiphany or was it hard slog in the studio on a trial and error basis 
MIKE Nothing is trial and error. You have to have a skeleton plan, a map if you like . Once you have this in place you can then deviate from the blueprint you have created . Without  that initial Gameplan you just get a messy end product . I attribute the funk to the way Simon Wolstencroft plays , Andy Rourke also is a great fan of bands such as Parliament and you can hear it in this track . It’s there in abundance. Pete Booker who has worked with The Kinks added great Hammond and real brass augments the entire track in a favourable way . If you flick to the B-side you’re here you can drum but you can’t hide, it  shows freak party in a much more raw incarnation, With Simon telling his life story through a range of different filters , And effects pedals deliberately from the 1981 period when the original tracks were recorded at Decibel

What was, the young Angie Brown  out of Brixton , London,  listening to and dancing to when Funky Si, Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke were laying down the original pre Smith  Freak Party tracks in 1981?

ANGIE As a young child from Brixton, south London, I was brought up on the best reggae, Bluebeat and ska music available to the West Indian community at that time. My Boy Lollipop’, and Desmond Decker’s ‘The Israelites’, would be played and danced to at social gatherings like weddings and christenings, and I also heard them at blues parties.
Also because I was an avid listener to Radio 1, I truly fell in love with music, that was genuinely considered as ‘across-the-board’. I loved music from people who were in the charts like Diana Ross, Bay City Rollers, T Rex, Lulu, Tom Jones, The Osmonds, Jackson 5, Gladys Knight, David Bowie, David Essex, Alvin Stardust, The Sweet, Thin Lizzy, Mud….

I guess I did like Funkadelic, they were around when I was at school and I truly loved that American black soul/disco sound…. Like ‘Heatwave’, ‘Chic’ and ‘Kool And The Gang’. So basically I like a bit of everything, because at the end of the day I am a ‘singer of songs’. I appreciate what ‘true artists’ have given to us and for many years. I do think that, has shaped me into the artist that I am.


Your words, Mike Bennett, as channelled beautifully by Angie , seem to be a kiss off to music biz hangers on and negativity. Anyone we know?

MIKE Yes you’re bang on the money Tony . There are lots of shady sociopaths loitering around the fringes of the industry leaching off artists. Many producers I know have somebody representing them and they are able to hide behind a lot of the crap that goes on . As an independent producer one does not always get that privilige. The way Angie puts the track over is a different matter as she puts a feminist slant on it with her acid tongue firmly lodged in the side of her firefly cheek

ANGIE I do think that Mike is a great lyricist as well as producer.  Far too many pop songs are about love!

So MikeYour choice of Angie Brown to front a revitalized Smiths project might seem strange to some, but the early days of the band were very much informed by funk, soul and hiphop, as outlined in Si’s book. Did you ever consider getting in more shall we say indie (as in the generic term for jangly guitar music played by students in bedsits) type vocalist or was it always a funky diva approach in mind? 

MIKE Absolutely not as the music  did not lend itself to generic indie music. And there was no point in getting a guy, he would be unfairly judged or compared , There were lots of people thrown into the hat including Kim Manning from Funkadelic but Angie’s rich tones had to be overlaid onto the track. Her velvet textures have proven to be an artistic success.

FUNKY SI ‘.Mike and I had been working with the late Diane Charlemagne on her last ever recording and wanted to pass on the baton to another Soul great, Angie Brown, who I’ve always been a massive fan of. Mike wanted Kim Manning from Funkadelic at first whom he knew from the L.A scene, but I insisted we get Angie, she’s a beautiful person and we both realised we needed someone special (and female) so as not to get compared to Morrissey. ,Angie is  a bit of a ‘Rocker’ at heart, she has worked with various Rolling Stones in her time..

Angie, You cut your teeth doing BVs for Ronnie Wood and later indie band Doves. But the classic Bizarre Inc. funky house banger ‘I’m Gonna Get You’ was a massive success for you . It’s a very eclectic path you tread, but pretty much based in the soul and gospel traditions of black music. The Smiths were seemingly very white! Were The Smiths ever on your radar when they were around?

ANGIE Yes, I did musically cut my teeth, by singing backing vocals for various rock artists. I was in a band called ‘The Dirty Strangers’ where I got to work with both Ronnie and Keith, as they used to hang out with us. And that open many doors to getting work within the rock ‘n’ roll world. I had to broaden my horizons,  I had to jump ship, I just didn’t want to be another black artist doing the usual thing.
I wanted to make a real career out of singing so I sang quite a lot at the local reggae clubs. But I decided that singing British reggae (Lovers Rock) was too purist so I reached out to the British rock scene. I  heard black girls on the background vocals on ‘The Rolling Stones’ and ‘T Rex’ so I went in that direction. But that was the ‘80s, and when the ‘90s came along of course I went on to be a featured artist with Bizarre Inc.
No, I didn’t listen to ‘The Smiths’ back in the day, even though I loved the track ‘Panic’…. I thought that their music was quite depressing, and I like music to really lift me up and make me feel good about life!

When  Si alerted you to his discovery of this 1981 studio tape and his desire to work it up into a new project, with you as desired vocal talent, what were your initial thoughts

ANGIE  My initial thoughts regarding ‘Firefly’, was this music was very, very different to anything that The Smiths, had done ever released and I found it refreshing, lively and really good fun. Hence the vocal is really in your face, fresh and poppy! Mike Bennett is a brilliant producer, and with the help of Craig Gannon, we have put this 35 year old cassette tape into the now.  I think that it can reach out to old fans of the Smiths, obviously not everyone is going to like it. I do think that this project will gain its own new fans that will make a new foundation for anything else we choose to put out.  Of course I’m thrilled that it’s getting plays on the radio and that people are embracing the track. I have had the odd Morrissey fans say they don’t like it, but that’s okay, as everyone is entitled to their opinion is. I’m not trying to compete with anybody I’m just making good music.

Adding legendary  fifth Smith guitarist Craig Gannon was an inspired move. You have added remarkable flourishes to create the finished article, Hammond organ, brass and Angie, but it is very much a bright and breezy pop soul kind of song. Angie Brown’s vocal is stunning. But where do you see this record getting support? Do you think the Smiths lineage could actually be a negative factor in how the record is being received and judged?

MIKE It seems to have a better response from vinyl lovers. Craig Charles has played it on BBC6Music  and Simon and I have done many news items for radio but it is the vinyl and alternative rock magazines such as New Noise in America, Soho Radio and Louder Than War that I have got behind this record and that’s fine by us . This is as much about restoration and preservation as it is having a commercial success, in fact the later would be a mere bonus . Thank fuck for vinyl . Simon put together a great little label and that’s how we 1want it

FUNKY SI : But It should be playlisted by 6Music!

Any plans for future Freak Party happenings? Further records? I understand there’s more ’81 material in the can. 

 MIKE Absolutely there is more in the can and a film but I don’t want to talk about that too much, myself Angie and Craig are bolting together some amazing bits and pieces, he is probably one of the most talented musicians I worked with for a long time. A powerhouse of ideas .

FUNKY SI There is another Freak Party track called ‘Don’t Push Your Luck’ which was on the same lost cassette. Mike wrote the lyrics for Angie and added brass instrumentation as well as bringing in backing vocals from Bez’s(Happy Mondays) partner Fru. It reminds me of Was Not Was, another great band we were listening  to back in 1981. We plan to release ‘Don’t Push Your Luck’ in the New Year. It’s a lot more immediate than Firefly.

Alas, there are no current plans to tour with Freak Party, it would have to include both Johnny and Andy to make it work, but we all have more pressing commitments at this time.

Johnny Marr wasn’t available for comment but seems to have tacitly given approval for Freak Party to happen. What do you think Morrissey would make of the track? 

MIKE. I am not sure what Mozza Thinks about it all but allegedly he has recently found a lost tape but I don’t always believe what I read , I have little interest in his opinion to be honest.

Morrissey and Angie are very different.  The brass and Hammond on ‘Firefly’ perhaps wouldn’t have adorned a 1980s Smiths tune, but when you burrow into the song ‘Firefly’ the basic formula of your playing with Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke (and retrospectively Craig Gannon)  does sound like The Smiths…do you ever regret bailing out when Morrissey  arrived?

FUNKY SI Perhaps the Smiths lineage is a negative factor in how people perceive the record, though if you listen to The Smiths’ Barbarism Begins at Home’, you realise  the  musical style of Freak Party isn’t a  million miles away…. In financial terms, of course I should be gutted I didn’t stick with Morrissey. But actually I’m glad I stuck to my guns. I’d made my bed and now I was going to have to lie in it. It took a while to get over that decision though!

Johnny did give me his blessing on Freak Party  and of course he’s down as a song writer as agreed. He’s treated me very affectionately in his memoir ‘Set the Boy Free’ . He bought my book when it came out and asked me for advice on how I wrote my memoir as he loved it so much.

I think Morrissey might like Freak Party’s Firefly, After all, I’m told he likes the Factory Records band, A Certain Ratio and he loves girl singers.

Angie’s vocal is incredible…

ANGIE  Thankyou! Yes Morrissey’s music, and singing voice is very different to mine. But I don’t care about the heritage of the band and what kind of music they made in the past, it’s only music, and they’re great players, and they just want to get out there and play!  So if they want to do that with me, or any other featured artist then they have the right to do that. Nobody has to answer to anybody. The music will just flow in whatever direction it has to. Morrissey will come back with some fresh new vocals and a new band and do his thing. Why should anyone stop doing music if it’s a part of you , it’s  your heartbeat.

Morrissey has recently been making pro Brexit noises. I could be  wrong,  and it seems we’re stuck with it now, but I’m imagining you’d disagree. How do you think a conversation between Morrissey and Angie Brown would go if you got stuck in a lift together?

ANGIE I would always just be me. I will try to be polite, funny, I’m pleasant. I have no regard for him. Without him the Smiths wouldn’t be where they are today. They’ve sold many, many albums over the years. So now, that I’ve got the opportunity to work with them, really I should thank him!!!

OK enough with the Morrissey…Gott ask you something Angie Brown… You have this amazing ability to bark like a hormonal hound whilst singing. It’s amazing. How did you arrive at this remarkable skill?! Any plans to include it on a Freak Party release? What I’m saying is…How Soon Is Bow Wow? (sorry!)
ANGIE  I’ve played to a lot of Russian audiences, and they are tough audiences I can tell yo, and a lot of people who didn’t really grew up listening to house music or have no heritage regarding house music until the middle of the noughties, they didn’t always get why and what I was about.  And as I’m a very effervescent, up front, in-your-face, and a little bit crazy on stage… I had to find something cute that would make people smile that would represent that I had a light side to my personality.  So I started doing my ‘woofing’ as it became an icebreaker. It’s broken down cold and hard audiences everywhere! You won’t hear it on a record though!

Back to ‘Firefly’…This is the advent of Funky Si Records (7 inch 45 available now). Simon, how does it feel being the MD of a record label all of a sudden?! Any plans to work with other artists?

FUNKY SI Both tracks will be released on Funky Si Records and I plan to release other artistes on this new record label.Funky Si was the nickname Johnny gave me all those years ago. It’s good to have a nickname and I like the idea of being a label boss.

Famously Si  you not only quit The Smiths early doors but left an early incarnation of The Stone Roses with your childhood friends John Squire and Ian Brown. (as  expressed in your spoken word performance on the single’s flip, named after your book)  You then completed an eleven year stint in The Fall. Your book is fascinating on those eleven years (highly recommended read). How do you feel about MES and The Fall now? 

FUNKY SI I bumped into Mark E Smith about three years ago in a pub called Gullivers in the Northern Quarter of Manchester. His mates band AAAk were playing a gig upstairs and he was alone in the dressing room, sat at a table with a mountain of tinned beer in front of him. He seemed pleased to see me and we chatted for half an hour before I made my excuses and left.

I’m told he “Hasn’t got a problem’ with my book which made me feel happy. After all, Mark was my best mate for a while in the early 90’s.I don’t really check out the Fall’s new material and prefer to see him interviewed on T.V or in a magazine .He ‘s  good value when it comes to quotes just like Morrissey.

If the money offered was amazing, I’d consider working for my old boss again but I can’t see that happening.  He once told me all ex Fall members come crawling back to him eventually, but I’m too busy doing my own thing anyway. Filling in for Paul Hanley in Brix and the Extricated, is something else I’m not really interested in doing either.

Simon…Your book is very frank about the hard drugs scene you and Andy Rourke  were both very much participating in during these early 1980s Freak Party days. You survived  heroin  and eleven years in The Fall and the excesses that involved.  How do you think these lifestyle choices effected the product?  

Of course I don’t condone smoking heroin whatsoever, but I have to honestly admit it did get my creative juices flowing when writing for the Fall back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. When your addicted to that stuff, you enter your own little ‘bubble’ rather than going out socialising and living life. I spent many days and nights perfecting bass lines and string parts on an old Yamaha SY55 Mark bought me as a writing tool from a geezer we met outside a pub in Chester.  The Roland 707 drum machine helped too.

So what was the young Mike Bennett up to in 1981 when Si, Andy and Johnny Marr were laying down the Freak Party tunes in Manchester?

MIKE I was getting into quite a lot of trouble with the police and listening to punk, Glam, funk and folk , Drama school came along and gave me a lease of life and kept me out of trouble until I met a whole bunch of interesting clients , Then I got into music so deeply I could not escape the occasional scrape or skirmish but this time it was in the name of art so it didn’t count . In fact I am not a rock n roller really I’m too much of a workaholic, an obsessive if you like

On wrapping up, talk turns to the superb collection of infamous  freaks found at play in the very swish promo vid shot by Georgina Revell (See Funky Sidebar)  and I find myself pondering favourite freaks….

 

SIMON– Leigh Bowery is my favourite freak. It’s all in the book!

ANGIE I don’t have a favourite ‘Freak’!… These guys  have all been so kind, and uncomplicated, and professional and really great to be around.  Everybody has a part to play and everyone feels a real ‘one-ness’ regarding this project.

MIKE My favourite freak? Probably Samuel Beckett because he used to have to write his stuff in French before translating it back. It made his work quirky and also it  was inspired by Laurel and Hardy. And my perfect party is sitting in a curry house with a whole bunch of people talking shop . That way we can write lyrics down on the napkins . If there is music playing in the background we can write top lines over it…… ..,

Mike and Si will be writing top lines over copies of the record at Rough Trade etc etc add deets

TG

FUNKY SIDEBAR

Georgina Revell, film maker, on working with messrs Bennett and Wolstencroft and  their beautifully extended fabulous furry Freak Party family

I’d worked with Mike as a PA a year or two before, and when I heard what the project was about and who was involved I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to get involved! My job at the start was to try and organise the boys and make sure everything got done, but as the project evolved… Mike kept asking me if I wanted more of an input in the creativity of the project and I was thrilled.

Clive from Dr And  the Medics looks like he’s had some sort of speeding up/slowing down effect on some of his dancing but they are his own moves! He definitely jumped straight in to the role of a creepy professor and it was extremely unnerving! In fact, John Rob walked in to the set and he WAS the scorpion man. A lot of the characterisations were improv so it was great to see so many people with such great talent, not only for music but for creating a character and just going with it, especially when you have a crowd of people watching you through a lens.

It would be hard to say who my favourite freak was as they all had their moments, however because of the commitment to their part I would definitely say it’s a toss up between Clive and John Robb! The whole room was either laughing or in silent awe throughout their performances.

My idea of a great party would definitely be with the cast from Freak Party. I have to say, Angie Brown was great fun to work with, I could imagine she would be great fun at a party! They were all so down to earth, especially for celebrities of such a high calibre. I’m hoping there will be a wrap party with them all soon!

FUNK SIDEBAR…on the making of the video

Georgina Revell, film maker, on working with messrs Bennett and Wolstencroft and  their beautifully extended fabulous furry Freak Party 

 

I’d worked with Mike as a PA a year or two before, and when I heard what the project was about and who was involved I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to get involved! My job at the start was to try and organise the boys and make sure everything got done, but as the project evolved… Mike kept asking me if I wanted more of an input in the creativity of the project and I was thrilled.

 

Clive from Dr And  the Medics looks like he’s had some sort of speeding up/slowing down effect on some of his dancing but they are his own moves! He definitely jumped straight in to the role of a creepy professor and it was extremely unnerving! In fact, John Rob walked in to the set and he WAS the scorpion man. A lot of the characterisations were improv so it was great to see so many people with such great talent, not only for music but for creating a character and just going with it, especially when you have a crowd of people watching you through a lens.

 

It would be hard to say who my favourite freak was as they all had their moments, however because of the commitment to their part I would definitely say it’s a toss up between Clive and John Robb! The whole room was either laughing or in silent awe throughout their performances.

My idea of a great party would definitely be with the cast from Freak Party. I have to say, Angie Brown was great fun to work with, I could imagine she would be great fun at a party! They were all so down to earth, especially for celebrities of such a high calibre. I’m hoping there will be a wrap party with them all soon!

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