I was really fond of Needs in a period where we were regularly savaged by British rock journalists who would appeal to our good graces and come on all friendly like. Kris proved to be a staunch supporter whose moral code was not at odds with his face value. – Chris Stein
It is the eve of the UK publication of Blondie: Parallel Lives, the biography of CBGB’s pop punk progeny that Kris Needs has co-authored with Dick Porter. After several months laid up recovering from an injury (repeat adventure-inflicted) Needs has re-emerged; first outing he’s up on stage at the Brixton Academy introducing the Buzzcocks and guesting as their DJ. Four days later in the company of an afternoon crowd including Mark Stewart and Sterling Roswell he’s introducing Tav Falco; Memphis musician, writer, poet, Panther Burns frontman and wistful American troubadour who’s in town to read from his mesmerising Ghosts Behind the Sun: Splendour, Enigma and Death. In the hot afternoon. In the East End of London.
Meanwhile Needs has been busy elsewhere. Catalysing the first double CD in the series Watch The Closing Doors - described by Village Voice as “a dream soundtrack of every book you ever read, or wanted to read, about postwar New York City”, by Martin Rev as “No doubt, this is a major work of total uniqueness and scholarship. I'm sure it's the first and definitely the only work of such depth and breath of knowledge” and by MOJO as “an intoxicating aural evocation of a lost world”…and Future Noise Music have just released his compilation Crime and Punishment (the cover art also his handiwork) a fine collection of ‘Bloody ballads, prison moans & chain gang blues’.
That’s the latest chapter in a so far so colourful life. I’ve just absorbed his memoir 'Needs Must: A Very Rock N Roll Story', published 12 years ago, out of print, beseeching to be updated and reissued…
HELEN: One of my favourite rock n roll memoirs is Ian Hunter's Diary of a Rock n Roll Star and especially for the innocence and apparent affability of Ian, so I was not surprised to read of how warm and friendly a guy you found him when you first met...Can you say a bit about Mott the Hoople in the early Aylesbury years? And why they meant so much to you?
KRIS: Mott were a pivotal component of my adolescence in many different ways, apart from being the wildest group I would ever see and, on their night, the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. They were also the first rock ‘n’ roll band to give me the time of day and provided my passport into the music industry when I ran their fan club between 1972-74 and beyond.
I first encountered Mott’s name in the pages of Zigzag, the original monthly UK music mag, started by Pete Frame at roughly the same time that Mott formed in 1969. I can’t stress how important Zigzag was back then. I’d been devouring the music press since getting into the Stones in 1964 but, with exceptions like Keith Altham and Chris Welch, there weren’t many writers around who went a bit deeper into the music, while conveying the excitement and even significance of that decade. By 1969, there was the underground press on cultural issues, with a large order of music, but Zigzag was the first to tell the story of a band or artist’s career in depth and over several pages. Frame and cohorts like John Tobler championed previously little known acts [beyond Peel] like Love and Beefheart, while plugging into the fertile UK underground. When Pete started going on about Mott‘s energised fusion of Dylan‘s sensitivity and the Stones‘ raunch, which he’d been turned on to by lunatic producer Guy Stevens, I had to investigate.
The other major factor in my 60s adolescence was the Friars club, started by a guy called David Stopps and Robin Pike, my chemistry teacher at school, who’d already organised coach trips to see the 1968 NME Pollwinners Concert [my first gig at 13; the Stones were surprise guests, announcing their comeback with ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’]. Friars started in June, 1969 at the Aylesbury Ex-Servicemen’s Club, a shoebox of a gaff but blessed with a brilliantly warm atmosphere; the proverbial good vibes. David booked the cream of the bands doing the club circuit back then, including the Pretty Things, Edgar Broughton, Blossom Toes, Van der Graaf and had Mott slotted in for an early December debut.
The first set mainly consisted of their ballads, such as Doug Sahm’s ‘At The Crossroads’, Sonny Bono’s ‘Laugh At Me’ and this epic called ‘Half Moon Bay’, with its helicopter-Moonlight Sonata middle section. There was something different about this band, an elemental power which erupted in the crashingly majestic codas they ended songs with. During the second set, it all went off as they pitched into a mammoth version of the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ and their own ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Queen’. Our Leaper’s Corner, where I held sway with the idiot dancers every week, was galvanised into limb-flaying action. By the end of many encores, the band, who it turned out had not received such a wild response in the few gigs they’d played so far, were strutting like rock ‘n’ roll stars. I was beaming as I’d just seen the untamed spirit of rock ‘n’ roll in the euphoria-stoking flesh. Afterwards, I plucked up courage to approach the tall, long-haired bassist Overend Watts. Expecting the usual condescending brush-off, he turned out to be friendly and actually interested in my 15-year-old’s gushing.
The following week Robin Pike had booked Mott into the annual Aylesbury Grammar School Christmas Dance [!]. Being in the fifth year, I didn’t qualify for admission as it was for the A level pupils. I still went along to check it out and, stopping in the pub over the road, saw none other than Mott sitting in the corner. To my surprise, Overend recognised me from Friars, while Ian, nestled in the corner with a pint, asked from behind the shades; ‘You coming to the gig tonight?’ It’s then that I burbled out about school rules, my problems fitting in and, worst of all, I was too young to go to the gig. So Mott smuggled me in as a roadie, I watched the show from underneath the PA stack at the front and Mick Ralphs even dedicated ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Queen’ to me [which blew my cover!]
HELEN: As you say it can’t be stressed how important Zigzag was back then. How much did your early experiences on the magazine’s rock n roll frontline feature in the creation of who you are today?
KRIS: I saw many other acts over the next few years who played some part in my coming of age in the rock ‘n’ roll world, particularly Bowie, who was inspired by the club’s reaction to unveil Ziggy Stardust there in January, 1972. I helped with his fan club, designing the membership card like I did with the Friars flyers, then taking over Mott’s when they hitched up with Mainman.
In terms of what I mainly do now, Zigzag’s part is immeasurable, particularly both the influence and assistance I got from founder Pete Frame. Now best-known as the Rock Family Trees man, Pete was initially a major motivation for me to start writing. In a punk-predating way, he wrested the elite domain of rock journalism away from a select few and, thanks to his dryly humorous and passionate style, made me think that I could do that too. It would be a few years before I dared send him anything and it was probably dreadful [as he later claimed to have lost it]. But Pete and the other writers’ style and vision for what the rock press could achieve, laid the template for the modern monthlies like Mojo. There’s still an element of Frame’s irreverence, perfectionism and attention to trivia in what I do today.
HELEN: Even, as I’ve seen, in your contribution to the Blondie legacy in the new book Parallel Lives. On that subject, why do you think now that Blondie were such a sensation at the time, given they'd all been around for a while, yet their fame suddenly seemed to happen almost overnight whe it finally came knocking? How much did the UK play a part in this?
KRIS: Blondie were always the band that weren’t going to make it out of the CBGB’s crew. They couldn’t get a record deal, were ridiculed and then had to contend with support band syndrome when they hit the UK for the first time in mid-1977. The odds seemed stacked, but they had Debbie, Chris’ creative surges, Clem’s inimitable powerhouse, Jimmy’s way with the Farfisa and a pop tune…that first album was a rough and ready pop statement, even then boasting classics like ’X Offender’. Plastic Letters was underrated but contained ’Denis’. I was with them after the Hammersmith Odeon gig which seemed to be their breakthrough as they suddenly seemed to provide a fun, sexy alternative to the ultra-hip and much-feted Television, now knowing it would take just that one song to get them on British TV and rise above any insular scenes. Then it would all be over. ’Denis’ on Top of The Pops and off we went with Blondie-mania! Those subsequent tours were vital but it all seemed to go hand in hand for a while as hit followed hit, Debbie became the nation’s favourite pinup and, crucially, there was an underground artistic edge still bubbling away underneath which would later give rise to epochal stuff like ‘Rapture’. But yeah, while they were selling out halls in the UK, they were still trundling the US clubs and getting derided as punks.
HELEN: You earned your New York spurs in music appreciation and coverage across the course of several years living there – that brilliant creative post-Factory period which was usually defined by as much drudgery and struggle for artists as it was inspiration and spontaneity because there were less obvious barriers to mobility. The lower East Side/Alphabet City scene in which you also lived for a while just so often ended up in a life of inevitability for the more free-spirited residents…If you were that age today and working in New York now do you think the same lifestyle would or could happen to you in the same way and to the same extent or was it really nailed to those particular times?
KRIS: It was definitely part of the times and could never be repeated because of the constantly evolving nature of New York City itself. When I first visited in the early 80s I had friends who lived in rent control apartments in areas considered almost no-go. Venturing past Avenue A was considered suicidal, Times Square was run-down sleaze personified and danger could lurk around every corner. But this gave the city its funk and creative edge, artists of all kinds magnetised by the fact that it was so cheap and there were plenty of spots to play, display or parade. Now it’s been slowly sanitised, squeezed of street life and so astronomically expensive to live in that the whole east Village creative scene seems to have diminished. Every week I see some historic spot or funky music venue closing down. Bleecker Bob’s, where I worked in the late 80s, is a recent casualty, along with the Lakeside Lounge. As David Johansen puts it, Times Square is like Disneyland. But then the New York which spawned Blondie was even more run-down, ruined and dangerous than the one I encountered the following decade.
I still love the place, even get a twinge seeing the skyline on CSI: NY, but it’s changed and I’m told the artists and musicians now congregate in Williamsburg. This is why I decided to try and tell the story of NY music through the Watch The Closing Doors series; try and bottle that unique vibe before the place vanishes altogether. I have to say that New York between 1983-86 was probably the most electric time, place and packed with incredible events and antics I have ever encountered!
Watch The Closing Doors, which so far hasn’t got past volume one’s 1945-1959 for various reasons, is intended to document how the different strains of music running rampant in New York City mated to start revolutions which would reverberate around the world for decades to come. I’ve already compiled the 1960s set - obviously a hotbed of musical and cultural upheaval straddling folk, free jazz, avant garde, blues, psych, Broadway pop and figures such as Moondog. In the 60s, New York was a magnet for artists but the following decade saw the axis shift as the place sleazed up and burnt out. The dereliction was great for artists as it was so cheap to live there; that’s how Blondie could move into a decaying Bowery building and start hatching their artistic statements, coping with bums dumping or dying on the sidewalk but, with ears plugged into the artistic electricity coursing through the underground, that’s one of the main elements which gave Blondie, and many other bands, their edge.
Hiphop was also born in the seventies, parallel to downtown punk, plus the UK movement, being born out of poverty in the burnt-out blocks of the South Bronx; a lifestyle whipped up by those already there. Like Notting Hill was a spawning ground for the UK underground of the late 60s, Manhattan was an artistic hotbed during the following decade, then fell victim to encroaching gentrification
HELEN: This Manhattan transition during the Giuliani years is something I remember chatting with Tony Fletcher about a few years ago, and we'd both observed how edge-less a lot of the city had become following the clear-up and the introduction of mad things like...was it the 'Cabaret Law?' or something where you had to have a license if people were going to be able to dance in your establishment… I remember Tony saying that all Giuliani had done was effectively take a broom and sweep the edge out to the suburbs.
KRIS: I blame that blow-job toff Hugh Grant for everything! It was great not being mugged but, as I visited New York through the 90s, the Giuliani effect was palpable, the funk being priced out of once funky streets. A hard one to judge as I still wouldn’t advise a midnight stroll through the Avenue D projects but over the street the yuppies can swap gem-encrusted jock-straps.
HELEN: When you moved back to the UK the music scene that called you in was coming from a very different place! Acid House had happened. You say in ‘Needs Must’ that The Orb gig you went to in Oxford "changed my life for ever." What were your first impressions, after life at NYC’s The Red Zone and Save the Robots when you then found the new mirrorball of intent that was the 90s UK rave scene?
KRIS: Above all, I was really cheesed off that I’d left the UK when it was in that pre-acid house period of rare groove boredom, then all this happened while I was crawling around the gutters of the Lower East Side! A lot of my mates were involved, in fact Youth, Jimmy Cauty and Alex Paterson were at the forefront of the whole movement! Youth had sent me a letter, describing being in a field full of blessed-up ravers, all cavorting to the DJ as the sun came up and energy rose over the field.
It took that Orb gig in Oxford, where Youth DJ’d before the Orb, plus one of the little fellas, to provide the epiphany and insight. I charged into this post-acid scene with gusto, hooked up with the likes of Andrew Weatherall and, within two years was making records! It was just like punk, from the DIY nature to its seismically-epochal impact.
HELEN: What in your words is the key to the undisputed magic of Primal Scream? [big question I know.]
KRIS: The last gang in town! When I got back from New York City I snarfed up all the music papers, reading about bands like the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and the Scream, whose ‘Loaded’ was obviously an anthem. Then I got sent a promo cassette of Screamadelica and thought it was the best thing I’d heard for a long time. They obviously had the knowledge, passion and attitude going back to the Stones and punk while embracing acid house as a mind-widening new path to embracing a multi-hued panorama of musical styles, powered by repetitive beats and ecstasy.
I went to interview Bobby at Creation’s office in Hackney. He’d read Zigzag as a kid and was wearing a Generation X t-shirt. We hit it off and it became the start of a beautiful friendship; a bit rocky at first because the Scream went through a tough narcotic struggle around 1993-94 but they got me to DJ and remix for them during the 90s. Touring the world with that band remains one of the most riotously enjoyable, also inspirational, experiences of my whole life. In fact, I wrote a book about it. Obviously, the lineup’s changed and Bob, guitarist-studio titan Innes and keyboard maestro Duffy have settled a bit with kids, but that attitude is still there and they are untouchable live. They’ve just been recording with David Holmes, who I first met in the early 90s and I saw Mr Weatherall the other week, who’ll probably do some work on the new material. It’s a spiritual extended gang family which, in these Ed Sheerin days we need that more than ever..
HELEN: Inevitably this road lead to the Balearic's for a lot of us…Do you want to say a bit here about the legendary scene that was the Manumission Motel in Ibiza...and how you came to be making a soundtrack for their hugely popular sex shows?
KRIS: That all came from a mad swirl of events which started when I was running Creation’s dance offshoot Eruption in 1997-98. I met Irvine Welsh through the Scream, and he quickly became my best mate, resulting in our Hibee-Nation disco project and hooking up with Manumission masterminds Mike and Claire. They told us how great Ibiza was and were touting a movie of their club, which included footage of their infamous stage show. I was a very late addition to the soundtrack, whipping up a symphonic electronic theme which, as I’d designed it for the sex show, just needed some sex. 20 minutes with the lights out in the Beat Farm studios vocal booth and that was in the can!
Irv had a new film coming out, so we went to the Cannes film festival to promote it with one of our disco DJ sets - accompanied by Mike and Claire, punting the Manumission movie. They really wanted us to take part in the launch of the Motel - the former brothel outside Ibiza Old Town, which was now painted pink. It has to be said, that was the closest I’ve experienced to the Fall of Ancient Rome over the month I spent there before returning for a while later in the season. I Djed in the bar every night until eight in the morning [unless the main club was on], the Manumission dancers gave a show and I learned to pole dance. An amazing time which couldn’t even be repeated the following year!
The footnote [hur hur] is that, around early 1997, I was walking to the pub with Irvine and turned off the curb. My ankle swelled like a balloon. Then, in Cannes, I fell off the stage while Djing; a ten foot drop. Mike panicked so leapt down to se if I was okay, and landed on the same ankle! Then I went to Ibiza, carried on cavorting and, finally, found out my ankle had been broken for some weeks.
The injury came back to haunt me a couple of years back in the form of arthritis. I had an operation in January, just getting mobile again after months holed up in the bedroom pining for New York watching US cop shows. Couldn't wait to get back in action and some rather ridiculous but monumental domestic events have prodded a host of new creative avenues, some involving old friends and collaborators from the past, who are being amazingly supportive. There are some exciting Future Noise projects afoot too. Also, being incarcerated in solitary for several months has brought me close to my son Daniel again - who still lives in New York! Another chapter opens…
Blondie: Parallel Lives by Dick Porter and Kris Needs is published this month by Omnibus Press.Interview by Helen Donlon