Along with the Ruts, the Members made music that had a real West London feel and identity (especially the reggae influence). Moving beyond the dole-queues and tower-blocks themes that had dominated the early punk days, they made music that really reflected the frustrations of growing up in the suburban sprawl, and how JC left home as a teenager in pursuit of his dream. I left home at the same age, vowing never to return. Where do I live now? Half a mile from where I lived then!
We arranged to meet up for this interview. A week or two later I caught JC in live action with Rat Scabies and Chris Payne. It was a terrific night (see Mudkiss review from April), so I was really looking forward to getting the Members' story from JC. I got a lot more than that! Apart from all the anecdotes, JC's really worked out a viable model for any artist/musician/writer to function as an independent entity - which is what punk's meant to be about, as I remember - as long as they're prepared to put the work in and have a bit of imagination.
As fellow West Londoners, there was plenty in common to talk about as well as the music.After warming up with a couple of unprintable anecdotes about John Mayall and Johnny Thunders, we got talking. As a Thunders-obsessive, I thought it seemed a good place to start...
DEN: You did some recording with Johnny Thunders didn't you?
JC: I made one record with him called "Que Sera", which I played accordion, mandolin and guitar on. It was a time when he was using drugs a lot, and was out of his head most of the time on a mixture of cocaine and smack. Glen [Matlock] was playing bass, and he was a real drunk then - he isn't any more, he's been sober for long time - and we made this one record.
Then we got asked to make this record called "Copy Cats" with [Johnny Thunders and] Patti Palladin. We were half way thru recording it when I had a terrible argument with her. It was about the song "Baby it's you" - the Arthur Alexander song - we had a really good version, with me and Glen and Dave the drummer. It sounded a bit like the Beatles doing it, like their version [on first lp]. And she said, "No, no! I want it to sound like the Shirelles version!" So, I was like "Patti, we're three English guys. The Shirelles was recorded in the Fifties with trumpets, with like a Spector sound." We had an argument and we all got sacked from the album, which was a shame really, but Glen doesn't bear me any malice. We were half-way thru, and it was a great album in the end. So that's my Johnny Thunders story!
DEN: What are you and the Members doing now? You've been touring...
JC: Well, on my 50th birthday - which was five years ago - I decided to put together all the bands I'd played in over the years, and get together and play. So we got the Members together. We hadn't played together for a long time, and I thought "This is good!" - so it was nice to get everyone onstage together and I wanted to do more. Nicky [Tesco - original singer] has always refused to do it, and then as he steadily became more and more disabled he couldn't really do it. He's also quite a successful journalist, and has worked for "Music Week" for many years - so he'd kind of crossed over to the other side to a certain extent. So about two and a half years ago we started the band in earnest, with me and Chris Payne as the basis of the band - and we had a guy called Nick Cash from Fad Gadget playing drums - he's a lovely man...
DEN: Wasn't he in 999?
JC: No, he's not in 999 - Nick Cash from 999 nicked Nick Cash's name! Nick went to art school with Glen Matlock, and was involved in the very early days of the Sex Pistols, and played with them before John Lydon joined. One day somebody asked him his name, and he said "Nick Cash" - they said, "Cor, that's a brilliant punk name, how did you think of that?", and he said, "No, that is my name". The other person - whose name was Keith Lucas - decided to appropriate his name, and anyway this name, "Nick Cash", became legendary.
That's why we called Nick Tesco "Nick Tesco", because Nick originally just styled himself "Nicky Ritz" - he wanted that to be his stage name. His real name is Lightowler. I said, "No, no - you're cheap and nasty! We can't have you being Nicky Ritz...." At the time Tesco was like Iceland, it was the cheapest shop you could go to. So the name "Nicky Tesco" was to steal from the cheapest shop - that's how he got his name and how we ended up with the real Nick Cash. But Nick Cash had some problems with his heart just before xmas and needed a bit of surgery. On the eve of our German tour he phoned up and said, "JC, I can't do any more shows."
The first person I phoned up was Chris Millar / Rat Scabies. I said "How's it going, Chris?" He said, "I'm broke". So I asked, "How do you fancy going to Germany for an amount of money?", and he said he'd love to. He'd done one show with us before in Littlehampton. He was a bit nervous as he didn't know us really, and I'd been working with Chris Payne the bass player on and off for 30 years. He got in the van with us and after we'd been playing together for two weeks, we had this kind of 'Beatles in Hamburg' experience of bonding and playing small clubs to very enthusiastic Germans. The band turned into what you saw in Brentford the other day - a slightly new version of the Members, but it was like we were reborn in Germany. It was really great to play with Rat cos he brought new fire and excitement into our songs,. and he's just a really pyrotechnic drummer and exciting to play with. We had a great time.
At the moment with the Members, I'm finishing off an album, which I've recorded mostly over the last two years. Then we're off to Germany again, and we've got a few gigs in the summer - but unfortunately not that many festivals this year, which is a bit disappointing as we did a couple of really good ones last year - Glasto and the Isle of Wight - but it's up to me to get on the phone and "sell the band"
DEN: So you're doing all your own management now?
JC: That's right, I manage the band, I suppose. Get all the gigs - we do everything ourselves. Don't have any roadies, don't have anything - and it's quite refreshing: got our own records out, as you see, so we press them up, do the artwork - it's good!
DEN: That really came across at Brentford. I was watching Rat from the side of the stage...
JC: Yeah! The thing is it's all about dynamics. It's not about der-der-der - we go up, we go down, so there's loud bits ... I developed this thing over the years, some of the early songs from the first Members albums were deeply autobiographical, about my life. "Sound of the Suburbs" is about growing up, and "Solitary Confinement" is about my first apartment in Kilburn. I decided I'd do little talks and raps about it. Strangely enough, with the song "Working Girl", if you take the R out of 'working', it becomes "Woking girl", and Sheila - my wife - has a proper job and she's from Woking. It's like life imitating art - "I'm in love with a working girl", or a "Woking girl".
So those three songs corner what we do really, I suppose - the beginning and the end of the Members. They’re old songs, but they seem to last.
DEN: Yeah, they're terrific. I love "Brian Was" too - is that from when you worked in a bank?
JC: Oh yes - that's another "Bank Song" [with "Offshore Banking Business"]. I wrote that because there was [Bob Marley's] "Johnny Was", and I thought we should champion the ordinary. Since then I've found there were loads of really brilliant songs in the 60's about ordinary people - some great suburban songs. It's a tradition I've latched on to, I think.
(We digress for a while on non-musical matters, before JC starts telling me about how he discovered IT and online music-making)
JC: I started recording again in 2006. My mate down at the pub said “You should get one of these Apple computers ... and I'll give you the software to help you record again"
I'd been playing folk music, but hadn't been recording much, so I got this computer, and suddenly all these songs came out. I started recording, and then doing this really interesting thing collaborating with complete strangers on the internet. I came upon this group of people from Russia, America and Paris, talking about how you could send files to one another. It became this period of my life where I got into "collaborating", where somebody would send you a sound, you'd stick a bit on it, and then send it round - this was really a fantastic thing. I did one particular track in '06/07 called "Into the Ether", and I had a woman from Moscow singing on it, a guy from Southampton programmed the synths, a guy in France did some keyboards, a guy in Holland did some guitar, and this rather exotic woman in Texas played guitar, and I stuck it all together over a couple of weeks. It really encouraged me to record, and over the next year I made this album of internet collaborations called "Strangers and Friction". It was a really wonderful thing, and at the same time I'd discovered I could release my records thru iTunes and various other things. I suddenly had this really wonderful feeling that I wasn't a slave any more to my musical past. For example, in the past I'd always get a royalty cheque and invest it in making a new record - obviously the Members got dropped by our various record companies, but I'd continued to record. Then suddenly this lap-top thing happens, and so thru this wireless internet connection you can not only release your records, but you can promote them, and get people from all over the world to play on them. This was just an amazing thing!
DEN:The internet's really freed things up for a lot of the Punk generation...
JC: Well, it's more than that - punk was "You did it all yourself", but you didn't really. You could press your own records up and stuff like that, but now you can really put the product out there, and also you've got to remember - most people my age signed deals saying we'd get 10% of the record sales, but we never really got any of that. If you were the songwriter you got a little bit of money. We don't get any physical ["mechanical"] royalties for "Sound of the suburbs", and then they sold the back catalogue to somebody else ... so for years and years someone else was making money out of your music, while you weren't
(I'd been reading Barney Hoskyns' excellent book on the Band - "Across the Great Divide" - after JC spots it on the table, we get deeper with the vexed issues of song-writing royalties and composition credits)
JC: When you hear "The night they drove old Dixie down", you do think there may have been some influence from a Southern gentleman [Levon Helm], rather than a bunch of Canadians.
The truth of it is, you can put your records out, you can self-release them. There also seem to be lots of older bands coming out of the woodwork these days on festival line-ups and so on. Suddenly the mainstream record companies' grip on the entire music business is slipping. So instead of getting Robbie Williams and what we were normally being served up on all the TV programmes - suddenly now you get these really weird bands like the Groundhogs on the bills, and it's like, "We've beaten them [the companies]". I was driving up here and Coldplay came on the radio, and I thought "Oh God, it's them..." I've always had this theory that in England there's EMI, and it's there's this "Official Group" - it's like, say, in Russia, they'd have one "Official State Group" that got all the work, because it was easier that way. Then with EMI there was the Beatles, and then maybe Pink F as the 'official group', and now we've had Coldplay and U2 for a few years, and everyone else was in this little marginalised ghetto. Record companies prefer it if there is only one main act to push, and so there's loads of groups like the Members. We started doing gigs again and the guy at the 100 club, Jim Driver, was really good and started putting on shows. I liked it because there was the Animals and the Yardbirds, the Members, the Groundhogs and the Troggs and suddenly we were in this little kind of elite classic rock scene.
DEN: In the early days did you feel much affinity with people like the Ruts or other West London groups who had a bit of a reggae thing?
JC: Yeah, the Ruts were really good at it. We were doing reggae from 1977 and it was on our first record, "Rat up a drainpipe". I think the Ruts did it really well, they were fantastic - they were a little bit later than us and there was always a bit of snobbiness about who was there first, like there was always the Clash, the Pistols and the Damned and everyone else came later, so we were all looked upon as "new boys". The Ruts were brilliant and we knew them really well. I played at the Paul Fox benefit and I was talking to them about maybe doing some shows and going to Australia together but there's only two of them left so I said I'd help out playing a bit of guitar, singing, whatever. We did a couple of Ruts numbers - we did "Jah Wars" at Shepherds Bush Empire. The Members and the Ruts - I suppose it was '79 that we all blossomed. Music moved very quickly then don't forget.
DEN: That was the time after the first wave of punk that you got two different directions emerging, people doing different music, like yourselves or Joy Division, Magazine for example and then the kind of very conservative/formulaic punk that you get now on the Rebellion circuit.
JC: You're right, but what is really interesting is that we got a bit of success in 1979 and our managers were like "Right you're going to America, that's where the money is" so we immediately went off round the world, recorded another album and we came back in 1980 after doing this huge Herculean tour of everywhere and literally the whole scene had changed. Somebody said "reggae isn't "in" anymore, now it’s ska". I remember talking to Jerry Dammers about this and I said - because they stole our trombone player Rico Rodriguez - "You nicked him" and he said "Yeah, and we nicked your audience". So I said "At least punk lasted a year and a half, how long was ska? Nine months?" Because he said "yes, it's true - we had our fans in Coventry - we went away on tour, came back and suddenly the bloke who had a pork pie hat on has gone all New Romantic!" So the trends changed really quickly.
DEN: I was looking at an NME from 1980 the other day - it's amazing just after punk you had all this different stuff. Devo, Monochrome Set, you name it, and of course the usual silly record company stuff like "Power pop"..
.JC: Right, the difference is what happened in Germany and America, punk went totally underground and it became a whole alternative network. They created a whole network of venues - it was almost going back to the time of [60s/70s underground mags] "Oz" and "Frenz" here. It was like the alternative....and that [hardcore] scene, Nirvana grew up and bubbled up, so they always had a scene, so when the Members went back on tour we were playing punk places - some of them a bit hardcore for us because we were associated with that scene. It's great that in Germany a whole touring schedule of places you can play and now also in Spain and France, so that’s one thing punk did give, even though its flame only burnt briefly in England. By the time 1983 came round English music wasn't fashionable at all. It was only hip hop, The Face had arrived, the NME was on its knees and hip hop was the only game in town. It was definitely “Dedicated follower of fashion" or "Build 'em up knock 'em down" in England then - but not so in America.
It's like when we're on tour with Rat, it's "let's get some prog on" and we get into these talks. It's interesting because he's the same age as us, so we are all at the tail end of Van Der Graaf Generator. Punk was very much like glam, it was very similar - short songs, not too many guitar solos, great stompy rhythms and we all grew up through glam. Punk was such a broad church, it was the Stranglers, it was XTC, it was Wire and the Only Ones. We all played at the Moonlight Club which was quite a rocky place in West End Lane, West Hampstead - it was the old Klooks Kleek behind Decca studios. That was an interesting scene because you had the early Ants there and all those bands were supposed to be punk, had some great songs, great players coming through. We were lucky to ride on the punk bandwagon I guess, but our music wasn't that different from glam rock. The Sex Pistols certainly wasn't, so that's the Members place in the whole spectrum. But it's wonderful doing it with Rat and Chris Payne, because so many things get a new lease of life.
At the show you saw we really enjoyed playing, communicating with the audience and making a racket. It's kind of weird - the Members happened a second time round. I was playing with this guy, Nick Cash the drummer and he christened our band JC and the Disciples and Chris Payne would sit in with us playing guitar sometimes and I was like "Hold on a sec, we're not getting paid for this, but if Chris plays bass and we call ourselves the Members we can get paid" Some of the new material you’re hearing - like "New English Blues" and "Mid Life Crisis" were originally JC and the Disciples songs. The "New English Blues" I am very happy with - it's a bit like Mott the Hoople kind of homage! So it all comes from when I started getting really serious about music again in 2006. Three years ago I gave up any other type of work, music is what I do full-time now. I'm lucky to have some film and advert and TV work as well which keeps the wolf from the door. I did the eight string music for "Oil City Confidential", I have Tesco's and that seems to keep coming up, bits and pieces here and there.
There's my acoustic band, a trio with this wonderful gent who plays double bass, Tony Reeves, he's a bit of a legend, played with John Mayall.
DEN: Wow! on "Bare Wires"? Wasn't he in Jon Hiseman's Colosseum too?
JC: Yes and he was in Greenslade, Curved Air. He's the prog rock prof! We have a trio, he plays double bass, I play ukulele and mandolin and we've got a guitar player. We also do occasional things with Michael Horowitz, the beat poet. He's the last one. We gather in this tiny little basement. I play with my trio, then Mick does his thing and then we do this kind of free jazz. It's great to reach back to the beat poetry and for me to get involved in it and also to play with these old free jazzers. It was almost in the pre-jazz era and there’s' another piano player - Pete Lemer - so I'm really blessed to have my finger in that pie and do acoustic music and do the Members as well.
DEN: Yeah, it's great to have that continuity and so many of the punks I know have this great reverence for the Beat Era - that there was a purity about it, a time when rebellion wasn't a commodity.
JC: Right. hat you've just said "rebellion". It's a really nice thing. It became a commodity when you could go to Top Shop and buy a "punk t-shirt" and then, about 15 years ago people would say "Oh this is a bit punk" or " I'm producing this new band, they’re a bit punk". Well they're either punk or they're not punk, you can't just buy a haircut and stick it on a guy in a boy band and call him a punk - which is how rebellion became a commodity - or put black leather jackets on a pop group and suddenly they are a rock band. The music industry says "Oh well we have got to sell this so let's bottle it and sell the essence of it", so it becomes a product.
Sometimes if I have a spare day I realise I can do about 50 records, print the sleeves, staple them then mail them out and people buy them. It's like a cottage industry. Sometimes doing something quite monotonous and repetitive can be quite good. I mainly work with Amazon and ITunes, ITunes has about 90% of the market and anyone who has really got a thing against Apple or hate ITunes, which some people do, they'll have an Amazon account. It's amazing you can just make a record - your little bird flies up into the sky - then every time you sell one for 79p you get about 60p of that. I have just had my publishing statement from my record company, I get 0.2 of a penny when Virgin sells "Sound of the Suburbs" on ITunes and they get the rest! Talk about them being greedy, that's just beyond greed isn't it? I am the writer, right?
The worst one - the real terrible one is Spotify - for over 17,000 plays I got 10p! Now what person in their right mind is going to buy the record when they can stream it from Spotify anytime they want? So they worked out that to make a minimum wage from Spotify you would have to sell something like a quarter of a million records a week to get what you would make working in McDonalds! It's a real erosion of your ability to make money - if someone says "Minimum wage is no longer £6 per hour it's a halfpenny an hour you'd be like Whaaat!!" But that's what they have done to the value of music, through doing dodgy deals with people like Spotify. They are suddenly selling your music for next to nothing because the record industry is in free fall - CD's don't really have any value - what they are doing now it getting the money in but instead of paying out in royalties, they are trying to pay their own wages with it so they are squeezing the artist even more which is scary - but we are about to enter the new level playing field where a writer like yourself or a musician like me is going to be able to sell our product direct to the public without having to go through a publishing house or record company. Then suddenly "I'm free at least" because books and records are the last type of indentured labour in the world. If you wanted to go to America in the 1700's and didn't have any money you would sell yourself into indentured labour to pay for your passage. Then the ship's captain could sell you like a slave, and you’d have to work for 3 years in America before you had repaid your debt but with music business its 30 years. You can pay your debt for 30 years and still pay forever. It's the worst type of slave labour. It's quite scary and it happens with books too. Everyone is desperate to get a book or record deal, so they will sign anything, and then realise they are only getting a tiny percentage from their one hit or whatever. You might be lucky and go to the table twice but that's the way it works.
At this point fate intervened and the dictaphone conked out, which was a real shame, as we went on to discuss some of JC's recent activities - things like the "New English Blues" cd/ep, the "Solid Gold Hits (from the internet)"collection, the "Golborne Variations" project, and "Live Acoustic". Along the way we touched on his project for a West London-themed book and musical, "Sound of the City", and the ongoing story of Rat Scabies and the Rennes-le-Chateau (see Christopher Dawes' excellent "Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail" book for more info). And then there was the discussion about how to track the evolution of the Blues from Klezmer music in terms of a physical journey from the Middle East to the Deep South...
Since we did the interview, JC's been doing more recording with Rat and Chris Payne, to produce some new Members material - that's something to really look forward to. Meanwhile, if you want more information on the Members and the various other activities that JC Carroll's involved in, take a look at the web sites.
Interview by Den 13/07/11
Photos provided by J.C