the-mike-stuart-span

The Mike Stuart Span or Leviathan as they were later known, came equipped with almost everything to guarantee late 60s success: good tunes, consummate musicianship and singing, exciting ideas and a fashionably sharp image…but the one thing they lacked was just that crucial piece of luck. Occasionally they were persuaded by, well let us be charitable and call it “misguided” management, to make rash decisions with regard to single releases that didn’t work entirely to their benefit, but even so they surely deserved more. Recently the album that they recorded under their “new” name of Leviathan for Elektra Records which languished in the vaults for decades was finally given an official release on Grapefruit (I wrote about it here) and to celebrate the fact lead singer Stuart Hobday kindly agreed to answer a few questions……

LTW: Can you tell me a bit about the Mighty Atoms, the band that pre-dated the Mike Stuart Span? Did the Atoms record anything or play many gigs?

The story of the Mighty Atoms goes back to around 1962. At school on the Isle of Wight I’d been in a flourishing rock ‘n’ roll group but my family then moved to Brighton. It was here that I was asked by a group of other teenagers if I’d like to join them on bass.

We met and played instrumentals (Duane Eddy, Shadows and so on) just for our own amusement in the house of one of the guitarists. Then we were offered a spot in a local pub and had to come up with a name and The Mighty Atoms was appropriate for the time. We played a few pub gigs under that name, but still mostly just for the fun of it.

During this time a Brighton photographic and hi-fi shop put on a competition to find the best locally written song. I wrote a song. We entered, didn’t win, but did record the song onto acetate. It was called ‘Wanderin’ Eye’ and you can hear on the Grapefruit CD Children of Tomorrow.

LTW: How did the transformation into the Mike Stuart Span come about and how did you fall in with Mike Clayton? What influenced the renamed band to at first pursue a Soul-orientated path? Did it have anything to do with Brighton having a reputation as being a hotspot for Mods? Since the 60s the town has become synonymous with Mod Culture, but what was the feeling like in Brighton at the time?

Mike Clayton was a local pop manager who had looked after a couple of top Brighton groups. We wanted to improve so asked him if he’d manage us. It was his idea to reshape the group, bring in brass and perform a variety of material that included R’n’B. We opted for the name Mike Stuart Span, Mike Stuart being my first names back to front. Without quite realising it we were reflecting the growing Mod culture. He encouraged us to dress in a more fashionable style and managed to obtain a number of Ben Sherman shirts for us to wear on stage. As I remember the founder of the company was born in Brighton and had just started his business there. I remember that the outfits certainly looked cool and we may have been the first group to promote the shirts.

LTW: What prompted the move into a more psychedelic direction? Was Clayton really as green in management as he seemed to be in the “A Year In A Life” documentary? What made the disillusionment with him (that was clearly stated later on in the programme) come to a head? What was your view on the documentary, do you think it helped or harmed the band?

By the mid-60s Mike Stuart Span was becoming better known as a soul band, playing around the country and making our first trips abroad to Belgium and to the Star Club in Germany. However, by 1967, pop music was changing fast and tensions were beginning to develop in the band on the way forward. Hendrix, Cream and American West Coast groups seemed much more appealing than the style we were playing. Roger, Gary and I went to talk this through with Clayton and we decided to lose the brass and organ. We advertised for a guitarist and, out of the blue, came Brian Bennett. We continued as Mike Stuart Span but changed our repertoire and began to write some of our own material. When asked we described ourselves as progressive rather than psychedelic, though the lines were probably a bit blurred.

We were still getting good work with our new music style, in particular in London clubs and in Belgium. Around this time Mike Clayton decide to invest our money in the purchase of a shop where he would sell records and run his agency. This proved to take up more of his time and we returned from a trip abroad to discover that he’d not put any jobs into the book while we were away. This led to a huge row and a separation. We discovered afterwards that a number of venues had become tired of the fact that he constantly badgered them and stopped giving him work. The ‘Year In The Life ‘ documentary shows how inept he’d become, allowing the London agency to take a greater percentage whilst leaving us to do all the promotion we were paying them for. It also shows how ridiculously naive we all were!

LTW: Did you ever hear any more from Clayton? Did the offer from Elektra come out of the blue? Why the name change and what did the band think of the new moniker? What was it like working with Clive Selwood, John Peel’s mate, who fulfilled a management role after Clayton had departed?

Unknown to us, one of the last things that Mike Clayton did before our partnership dissolved was to send a collection of our self-penned demo tapes to the London office of Elektra. I suddenly had a call from Clive Selwood (UK label boss) to say he was sending the material to Jac Holzman for an opinion. At a very low point in our career when we had no manager and no agent, here was the most prestigious American label showing interest in our music. Eventually we heard that they wanted to sign us, offering the princely sum of £1000 to make an album. We met up with Clive in London and signed the contracts before they could change their minds.

The only small problem was that Jac Holzman insisted that we change our name. He felt Mike Stuart Span didn’t sit well alongside, Doors, Love, Paul Butterfield Blues Band (who we’d played alongside as a soul band) and so on. I sat down with a dictionary for inspiration and came up with Leviathan. I also did a sketch in Elektra style putting the name in the shape of a whale. They obviously liked both.

Frankly Clive Selwood was a breath of fresh air. He was quiet and thoughtful and took us under his wing. He saw the management problems we’d had and did his best to help us around them and putting us in touch with a new agent. We were only the third British outfit to be signed to Elektra and he was very excited about this. Having said that, I’d say that our time with Elektra had one or two unintended consequences that ultimately led to the group folding

We loved the name change, but what we hadn’t taken into consideration was the fact that no-one knew who Leviathan were, As far as most venues were concerned we were a new group and didn’t want to chance their luck booking someone unknown to their customers. As a result our new agent was finding it hard to find us any work. Secondly, Elektra were issued through Polydor at that time. Their publicity people came up with the bright idea that, because the tracks we were recording for the album were very different from each other, they’d bring out two single simultaneously calling it the ‘Four Faces of Leviathan’. On the face of it a good idea, but one which confused radio DJs and producers who didn’t know which of the four sides to play. Consequently sales were poor.

LTW: Why do you think Elektra wouldn’t release the LP? Was the relationship with the record company fraught? Were you glad to see the album finally get a proper release just this year? Do you think the songs stand the test of time?

Elektra wanted third single so they found the money for us to go back into the studio to record ‘Just Forget Tomorrow’ and a shorter version of ‘Flames’. Then we heard that Jac Holzman had rejected the album and wanted us to record some more material. Unfortunately more money was not forthcoming. We couldn’t afford to fund this ourselves and jobs were becoming scarce, so we opted to call it a day. We did consider the possibility of moving to Belgium but we really wanted to make it in the UK.

The big surprise, after the disappointment of the ‘60s, has been to realise that the group had now gained a reputation over the last two decades. To be fair, that reputation is partly based on the scarcity of the material. But a number of good things have been said about the music itself. I listen to it and know that it’s very much of its time and, had we had a record producer to help us in the studio, things may have turned out differently. I’m not ashamed of the recordings but occasionally I think that I’d like to go back and rework some of the songs. That’s the benefit of more experience and forty years of hindsight!

Do you know I was totally taken aback when I first heard the CD. I knew the material well enough but the clarity of the sound is what I love. I’ve become so used to hearing the demo versions that these 45 year-old stereo recordings sound pretty good. A number of people have said that it sounds like a current band.

LTW Did the band feel cursed by bad luck? After the trauma of all that the band split – what did you do next? Did you keep your hand in playing in any other outfits? Do you still hear keep in touch with your old bandmates?

One or two people have mentioned that perhaps we were ‘too nice’. We didn’t cause havoc in hotels, we didn’t take drugs or become uncontrollably drunk. We weren’t even arrested. As a foursome we got on well with each other. As a result we are still in contact and chat on the phone when there’s something to discuss. Roger said that after the last gig he put his bass under the bed – and, for all I know, it may still be there. Gary carried on drumming for a while but then took up a job with a company near Poole and is now retired but drumming again. Brian, who was experienced as a builder, eventually formed his own building company but continued to play. He too is retired and lives in France but is making a name gigging in the area. I started working in Brighton with what, at the time, was a brand new concept in this country; BBC local radio. From there I moved to become a producer for BBC Radio 2.

I have to be honest and say that I’ve been very lucky. I think that having been a musician helped me to get the job with Radio 2. Initially I worked with all the major daytime presenters – Jimmy Young, David Hamilton, John Dunn, Terry Wogan and Ed Stewart. At that time the producer was totally responsible for choosing the music and I built up a collection of around 3,000 LPs and hundreds of singles. Over the years I’ve also worked with some of music’s great artistes. Working with the BBC meant that I went to many places across Britain and also made recordings in places as far apart as Germany, Hong Kong, Australia and the USA as well as working on major projects such as the Royal Wedding in 1981 with Terry Wogan, the Country Music Awards in Nashville and also the Penny Appeal with Debby Greenwood, raising over a million pounds for Children in Need.

LTW How did you come to get involved with the Country Music Awards? Have you always been a fan? It’s a long way from MSS!

For my last six years with Radio 2, all ‘specialist music’ producers were moved to Birmingham and one of the programmes I ended up producing was Country Club. I’d always liked country music and, without quite realising it, built up a knowledge of the artistes. It was decided that the network would, for the first time, relay the Country Music Awards live back to the UK and I went with the then producer and my great friend Dave Shannon to help get it on the air. Dave then moved to other programmes and I took over as producer making several more trips to Nashville for this and other events. I always enjoyed my trips there but, on my last visit before I took early retirement, I persuaded country mega-star Reba McEntire to perform live in concert, complete with her entire touring band, from her studio in Nashville. This was a first for Radio 2 and the live concert from Nashville idea was repeated several times afterwards.

LTW How do you feel about the Mike Stuart Span/Leviathan looking back from this distance? Finally, do you ever get the feeling that you would like to sing any of the Mike Stuart Span/Leviathan material again?

As I said, I’m not ashamed of the material we recorded as Mike Stuart Span and Leviathan. However, it is of its time and I’ve never had the inclination to reform and do the same things again. However, I haven’t lost the occasional urge to get up on stage with a group of good musicians and do something. It might be blues, it might be rock ‘n’ roll. I just haven’t quite got round to it yet.

But I will….

Big thanks to Stuart – the Mike Stuart Span collection “Children Of Tomorrow” is available here and the Leviathan album here

All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here

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