Renee and Renato were at number 1 in the charts with ‘Save Your Love’, and everything was right in the world. We kicked off 1983 at the ‘Liverpool Warehouse’ in Wood Street on Friday 7 January. The Warehouse could hold possibly 1,000 people, and although it was less than a quarter full that night, it was still a decent crowd by our standards. We played support to a local band called ‘Dark Continent’ who were the complete antithesis of No Exit. They were big on hair, big on make-up and big on fashion. Their big on ego keyboard player decreed that the minuscule dressing room was only for the use of Dark Continent and that we should go forth and mingle with the audience. Thankfully his band mates were kind enough to ignore him and so were we.
Martyn caused quite a stir when he proudly revealed his new stage attire, a hideously inappropriate Hawaiian shirt. I was taken aback. “Woaaahhhhh!” Perry said nothing, but you could tell he was thinking “I’m keeping out of this.” Dave was utterly appalled, and immediately expressed all our concerns. “You’re not wearing that, are you? Is this some kind of joke?” Martyn was genuinely astonished and somewhat upset by the suggestion he’d committed a fashion faux pas. He’s the sort of guy who, if you tell him he can’t do something, will go right ahead and do it – just to spite you. Consequently, he wore that shirt at this, and almost every subsequent No Exit gig. To keep the Day-Glo glare out of his eyes, he often donned a pair of thick, black sunglasses. You have to respect him for at least daring to be different, but he was a stubborn old so and so.
When we took to the stage the lights went up, but they caused the PA to buzz loudly, and the vocal monitors (speakers on the stage floor pointing up at the singer so he can hear himself) conked out. We stood there while engineers fiddled about incompetently. In the end we had to play our entire set illuminated only by Martyn’s shirt and a solitary 100 watt light bulb situated above our heads, stage centre. I loved that. I thought it was brilliantly minimalist and it reminded me of Bowie’s ‘White Light, White Heat’. The gig was a triumph. Perry’s drumming was beefy and unerringly accurate; my bass and Martyn’s guitar were…well…beefy and unerringly accurate. It was one of my better vocal performances too – sung as if it was my last – cheers, Bono. When Dark Continent took to the stage – hey presto! – all the lights worked, there was no buzz and the volume of the PA doubled. I strongly suspect that the vocal monitors sprang into life at the same time. We’d been sabotaged!…… The Warehouse burned down on 4th May in mysterious circumstances (Big Country were last to play there, and I saw them). Could an electrical fault have been the cause, I wonder? Perhaps we should not have judged Dark Continent so harshly after all.
In mid January we recorded ‘Casablancan Night’and ‘Anything You Say’ at the ‘Pink’ 16 track studios in Ullet Road. From every point of view that version of ‘Anything You Say’ was No Exit’s best ever recording. Great credit goes to the engineer, Steve Power, for this. His balancing of the instruments during the final “mix” ensured that no one instrument dominated the song. You could hear every note each one of us played or sang. Although we were very well rehearsed we struck lucky and gave the perfect performance on the first and only take. Perry’s drumming was immaculate right up to the very last beat, at which point a drumstick slipped from his grasp and onto the floor. He thought he’d botched the whole recording, but the clatter of stick on parquet and Perry’s despairing cry of “Bastard” were swiftly erased by Steve. Among the song’s highlights were Martyn’s acoustic guitar overdubs (he brought his Antoria acoustic along despite not knowing what he was going to do with it) and, of course, his frantically rhythmic guitar solo. Ironically ‘Anything You Say’ sounds much better than Casablancan Night, which Steve spent far more time on when mixing. We weren’t allowed in the room while he performed that task. If we’d have been in control we wouldn’t have let the drums dominate the song as they did. All in all, though, I don’t think we’d wasted our money this time. While the production quality exceeded our expectations, it still fell far short of the standards set by major record labels; for those you had to pay £1,000s, or even tens of thousands. Dave noted in the scrapbook that the bill for the entire Pink session amounted to £186.30.
Such triumphs as the Warehouse gig and the thrill of entering a “big” recording studio, always seemed to spur me on to greater heights. They made me feel more confident and confidence got my creative juices flowing. It was shortly after this that my ideas for one of No Exit’s best loved songs came to fruition. Bearing in mind The Jam had released the singles ‘All Around the World’, ‘The Modern World‘ and ‘News of the World’ I could see no reason why I couldn’t continue that run of good form with my own ‘The Real World’. I’d worked on incorporating that phrase into a song for some time but I was experiencing “writer’s block.” I couldn’t find a place to go after singing the first “In the real world”. In the end, to break the mental deadlock, I tried a deliberately random fingering on my bass – and hit lucky. As I repeated this new sequence of notes, the melody sprang into my head “In the real world. In the real wer -er -erld.” I pieced some lyrics together which, as ever, didn’t make complete sense but just sounded right. I thought they reflected in some way the despair Britain’s unemployed (by now over 3 million) may have been feeling, and perhaps too their animosity towards the government of the day. “We’re all of us in good care” was, of course, written with irony. I kept the bass line mercifully simple this time, and we worked on Real World’s arrangement throughout January and February. Martyn thought up one of the song’s best ‘hooks’ – the snare drum rolls on the parts which go “But he’s only a child” and “But it’s only your life” etc. He had an uncanny knack of communicating his ideas very quickly to Perry and Perry was quick on the up take. His interpretation of Martyn’s idea was possibly better than what Martyn himself had envisaged. I was convinced we had a hit single on our hands.
‘Real World’ presented me with a real dilemma as I’d decided that, for maximum effect, I would swear in the final chorus, but it was whether to sing “You don’t get sod all…” or “You don’t get f**k all in the real world”. Paul Weller was a notoriously angry young man who often swore in his songs, but I was a notoriously mild mannered young man, who seldom swore in conversation and never before in song. What a quandary! Dave suggested I blurt out either “sod” or “f**k” as the mood struck me, but I never did anything instinctively. I needed to know precisely what I would sing. At one gig I thought “Oh sod it; I’ll sing F**k all” – and I did, but it really wasn’t me. I needed to make a once and for all decision. “Oh f**k it” I decided, “I’ll sing “sod all”…….. So, “sod all” it was then.
We resolved to release ‘Casablancan Night’and ‘Anything You Say’ as a 7″ single. On 11th February, hoping to save ourselves the expense of financing it, Dave and I went down to London. We trudged all day through the snow from record companies to music publishers, and never once got past the receptionists. “They all leave early on Fridays”… “They’re at lunch”… “There’s nobody in A&R today” etc, etc. In the evening we retired to a pub in Stoke Newington where we had our ears assaulted by a group of Swansea City football supporters. Readying themselves for the game against Tottenham Hotspurs on Saturday they chanted incessantly “We’ll be running round Tottenham kicking Yids” to the tune of “She’ll be coming round the mountains.” Our spirits sank even lower. Next morning, exhausted and dejected we went back to Liverpool. Where were we going to get the money to pay for our record now? We would just have to carry on gigging and saving until we filled the coffers.
It was also in February that I stumbled across the bass line which soon became ‘White Man’. Inspiration hit me late one night, and over the course of an hour or so, I worked out the bass guitar for the verses – but no lyrics or melody. So that I wouldn’t forget it, I recorded my idea onto cassette, and went off to bed. I had work in the morning. As I lay there the words “I built myself a desert” came into my head. I struggled to ignore them, but when I conjured up “It took seven days, no day of rest, to build the Promised Land” I knew I was on to something. All those years in church listening to biblical stories were beginning to come in handy. And when “For forty days and forty nights, the prodigal son” came to me I knew I would forget all this by morning so I sneaked downstairs without disturbing mum and dad, and got it down on tape. Then it was back to bed where I was hit by another idea – a barren landscape demanded a barren chorus of just 2 chords. I remembered how Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and denounced Christianity as a white man’s religion. Singing in pidgin English I began to fashion the chorus’s words and melody: “White man he say – white man gives where need be. White man he say, white man he don’t need me.” I got it all down on tape at around 3 o’clock, and that was enough for me. In my semi-slumber I started to think about work. “I lost my way at sundown. I had myself to blame. Waited there for morning light. Morning never came.” One thing I know is that when inspiration calls, you must never ignore it. It won’t wait around for you. I always worried that it would never call again. I’ve no idea what time it was when I’d decided enough was enough, but next day I was too excited by ‘White man’ to be weary. I refined it over the next couple of evenings, and presented it to Martyn and Perry as a fait accompli at the next rehearsal. We worked at it throughout February and March, and carried on gigging.
Our next gig of note was the “Phil Easton Showcase” at ‘Dingwalls’, Mount Pleasant, on 21 March. Easton (the Radio City DJ) didn’t turn up, and nothing good came out of it for the bands ‘Bad to the Bone’ or ‘Open Mind’, but particularly not for No Exit. On this night, Perry dropped a bombshell by announcing he was leaving us after our next gig to become a percussionist with ‘Danse Macabre‘ (a new band formed by Pete Carroll of Dark Continent). This was a major disappointment but I can’t say it was a big surprise. The 3 year age gap between Perry and the rest of us had proven unbridgeable. He had his own circle of friends, and although we got on well, the two groups rarely socialised. Perry was always by far the most image and fashion conscious of us all, and his defection reflected this. In our minds it was a victory for style over substance. If, like us, he believed that the quality of the music was all that mattered then surely he would never have left us. There was no point discussing the matter, though. The man had made his mind up……. That night at Dingwalls, halfway through one of our songs, Perry’s friend Leon Yeaden suddenly appeared in front of us, dancing like a maniac, dressed only in his shoes and underpants with a black bin bag over his head. He’d also placed a lit torch (flashlight) down his undies – signifying what? We’ll never know, but he stole the show, and everybody went home happy – everybody, that is, apart from the drummerless remains of No Exit.
Perry’s last gig was on Tuesday 26 April at ‘Mr Pickwick’s’ off London Road, where we played support to Tao Tao Bay Beep (Tao Tao was pronounced like ‘how, now’). The Taos had clearly consulted their solicitors before drawing up an agreement over ticket sales which we thought unnecessarily complicated and unfairly weighted in their favour. It read:
“100 tickets @ £1.50 each given to No Exit. First 33 sold – money retained by No Exit. Remaining 67 – proceeds to be split 50/50 with Tao. £50 to be paid to Tao Tao Bay Beep. £10 extra to be paid to PA hire firm on the night.”
We wanted the gig desperately as we hoped to impress the A&R men who, we were told, would be there watching the Taos. Come the big day we’d only sold £30 worth. In panic I considered giving them the other £20 out of my own pocket but Dave stepped in to save the day. “Leave this to me” he whispered, and then explained the situation to the Taos. Their faces were a picture of furious disbelief – that is apart from their weed smoking drummer who didn’t seem to care a jot about anything. “£30 – that’s your lot, plus £10 for the PA, and here’s the unsold tickets back.” The night ended in more disappointment for the Taos. They didn’t impress the A&R men (neither did we) and disbanded shortly after. ‘White Man‘ made its debut and we played a fine set which closed with ‘Hero’. At the end of this song, for his impromptu finale, Perry launched into a long series of drum rolls, beating the hell out of his kit (I mean our kit) to such an extent that he was stopped only when one of his sticks snapped … A jagged half-stick whizzed past my head. “That could have taken my eye out”, I thought. It hurtled high into the air, then descended with a clatter, and scooted away across the wooden dance floor … where an audience should have been.
By now we had received a stack of rejection letters from record companies in response to our various cassette demos. We intended to make a collage of these and feature them on our debut album cover. Our first priority, though, apart from finding another drummer, was to press ahead with the Casablancan Night single. The money from the sale of the drum kit made this possible. Thankfully I played no part in this complicated and tedious exercise. Dave directed operations. He appointed Phil Rowlands to design the picture sleeve, and Phil sketched what he thought a suitably Casablancan image of a hacienda and a palm tree for the front cover. The spider’s web on the rear was my idea, and Phil designed that too. Dave’s friend Nigel Humes designed the labels for the ‘A’ and ‘B’ sides. When I was shown the prototypes of these I saw that both songs had been credited to ‘No Exit’. I was furious, but kept a civil tongue in my head when I challenged Dave about it. When Martyn was at home did he spend night after night digging for inspiration, sitting on his bed with his head in his hands, pulling his hair out (literally), juggling with words and phrases and rhymes and rhythms and melodies? No he bloody didn’t. Did Perry lie in bed at night worrying that he’d lost his muse, wondering how he would tell the rest of the band there were no more songs? Did he pray to be allowed to live just long enough to complete that one last song, because then he could die happy? Somehow I doubt it. No. Outside of rehearsals and gigs those guys could go home and get on with the rest of their lives. They could not even begin to imagine how hard I had to work to come up with MY songs. It wasn’t as if I turned up at rehearsals with some half-baked idea for us to all knock about a bit in the hope that something decent might come out of it. Usually, the entire song structure was already in place. I knew how many verses and choruses there would be, where the middle eight would go and where the guitar solo would go. I acknowledge that Martyn and Perry had to create their own parts, but that made them arrangers, not songwriters. Would someone whose sole involvement had been putting the icing on top of a cake, claim to have made the cake? Dave altered the songwriting credits to ‘Trust’. A good point well made.
Dave made contact with a number of vinyl pressing plants at which albums and singles were mass produced. He sent them our master tapes and they sent back “test pressings” (sample 7 inch acetate discs) for us to analyse. Each pressing plant had its own way of doing things, and its machines could subtly alter the sound of your record. We were disappointed with all of them. Our test pressings were very quiet. This meant that, in order to hear them at the same level as other people’s records, we had to turn up the volume on the record player, and that just accentuated the pop and hiss of the vinyl medium. We ordered several more pressings hoping to boost the volume, but the louder they got the more distorted the music sounded. In the end we settled for a pressing from Abbey Road Studios, not because of the Beatles connection, but because it was the best of a bad bunch. The whole process took months, and we found ourselves getting more and more disillusioned with that tinny recording of Casablancan Night. Unfortunately, the ‘B’ or “Better” side, ‘Anything You Say‘ was too long to be an ‘A’ side.
On 7th August we finally released Casablanca on our own ‘Slug Records’ label. We only wanted 500 copies, but the minimum number the plants were prepared to press was 1,000. Slug printed the picture sleeves free of charge, and we all met round at Dave’s to fold them over, glue the loose flaps together and slip the records inside. About 300 copies were sold through a national cartel of record shops including Liverpool’s Probe Records. We sold others to family and friends for £1 each. Some copies were given away, but about 300 remained unplayed in my wardrobe and also in Dave’s bedroom, where they languish to this day. Perry’s dad Jim, who worked at the Traveller’s Rest pub in Aigburth Vale, made sure it went on their jukebox. I suspect nobody other than us ever played it. I got rid of twelve at work. One of my colleagues said that he was so disappointed with it that he almost felt like demanding his money back. Another thought ‘Casablanca’ sounded like 4 unrelated songs rolled into one. Several said that the A and B sides sounded like the same song played twice – I never could get my head round that one. If anything positive was said I disregarded it and assumed they were just trying to protect my feelings. I felt such a fool, but eventually I came to the conclusion that these were the views of clueless insurance clerks, and I should ignore them. The person we respected most, John Peel, played the song on the BBC World Service and on his regular show at least twice; after the second playing he decreed “That’s very good indeed.” God bless you, John.
Conleth McConville had, by now, resurfaced as a DJ on Radio Merseyside. Dave and Martyn wanted nothing to do with him so I went to the radio station to present him with a copy of the record. Throughout our conversation I addressed him as Conville in the honest belief that was his first name. He smiled accommodatingly and promised to play Casablanca on his show the next Sunday. YES!!!! True enough it got played just before the 8 p.m. news and, to my astonishment, it sounded great. Then, all of a sudden, about 2 minutes through there was a loud scratching sound and the record stopped. “I’m awfully sorry. I don’t know what happened there” he lied. There was no attempt made to put it back on, and in all likelihood it got tossed in the bin. Conleth had exacted his revenge. I smiled resignedly. Nice one. “Game, set and match to you, Conville”, I thought, “and good luck to you, you c***.”
Martyn and I spent the summer auditioning drummers and even a keyboard player – all to no avail. I bought myself a new bass guitar – a black Aria Pro II which I felt I deserved, and also a new combination amplifier/speaker (combo). They improved my sound immeasurably. At the same time Martyn sold his Carlsbro Stingray amplifier and speakers, and bought himself a new Fender Twin Reverb combo. This took out some of the shrillness of his old sound, and introduced a more full bodied, sophisticated tone. The accompanying reverb and vibrato effects, which were activated by a foot pedal, were put to immediate use. Around this time I came up with a particularly depressive ditty which Dave christened ‘Martyn’s Brain‘. Martyn didn’t seem to mind at first, but as the lyrical content sank in – “I’ve got no morals, out of my head. No tomorrows, better off dead” – he raised some half-hearted objections. “Jesus wept” was, dad told me, the shortest sentence in the bible. I twisted this into “Weeping Jesus, help us through. You will appease us. Is that true? Is it true? It’s a lie.” As a church man dad really wasn’t happy with that line and neither were other people, but whose song was it anyway? Were Shakespeare’s works written by a committee? “I hate to criticise the things you hold so dear” I sang, but “It’s all lies, blind lies, white lies, a pack of lies.” I know now that what I was subconsciously doing was chiselling away at one of the oppressive forces in my life – religion. The verses were moody but low on melody, so I inserted a highly melodic middle eight to compensate. I presented this song to Martyn round at his mum and dad’s house, and he latched on to the doom and gloom of it immediately. His contribution was, as ever, brilliantly imaginative. If I could recognise his guitar work was superb why couldn’t anyone in the music industry? Dave reassured me once more that “Quality will out”, and I continued to believe him.
In September we finally found our new drummer. Colin McCormick joined us from ‘Last Chant’ (a band none of us had ever heard of). He was not like Perry. Colin was shorter and skinnier with dark hair, and walked with a limp which he sustained in a motorbike accident. He was very, very quiet. I never could tell what he was thinking, and his face gave nothing away. He was probably expressing himself through his drumming, and boy, could he play those drums. What he seemed to lack in charisma he more than made up for in technical ability. Colin made it all look so effortless, and Martyn’s Brain gave him the opportunity to stamp his own mark on the future sound of No Exit – this he did wonderfully. We rehearsed him hard through September, October and November. As ever, our progress was slow. We were all in full time employment so, at the rate of just a couple of four hour rehearsals a week, the songs took months to perfect. “One day when we’re professionals”, I thought, “we will have limitless rehearsal time”, but for the time being we would have to cut our cloth accordingly.
The fact that the band was back in business prompted Slug to invest months of his time in making a new No Exit banner. He hand sewed an enormous spider’s web in silver twine onto a black cloth, in the centre of which he placed a large red spider. He ensnared the ‘No Exit’ logo in the web. It was an incredibly intricate piece of work. In fact I would go so far as to say it was a masterpiece. He put as much of himself into this as I did into any of my songs, and I was proud to be associated with it. We all were.
By now we’d decided no longer to play pubs, and instead chose fewer but better quality venues. For Colin’s debut we booked ‘The System’ (previously the Pyramid) in Temple Street, where we were to be supported by a young band ‘Tell No Lies’. The System (our regular Saturday night / Sunday morning drinking hole) was frequented by our type of people – punks, new romantics and Goths. To advertise the gig, Dave organised a photo session on the Dock Road. In those days the Albert Dock, and most other dock buildings, were derelict, making predictable locations for photo sessions. I was hoping for something far more abstract. The moment I saw a dump of enormous old truck tyres I knew that was it. Without hesitation I walked into the middle of them and plonked myself down. If they ruined my clothes then so be it; I wanted that shot. Like a couple of girls in party frocks, Colin and Martyn flounced into shot (eventually) and Dave snapped No Exit’s best photo. We sent pictures from this session to Peter Trollope of the Liverpool Echo, who thought us a right gruesome bunch. He asked if he could describe us in his column as “the ugliest band in Liverpool”. We agreed, thinking this would be a great gimmick, but it backfired on us and undermined our credibility. Ironically, Dave secured us a slot on the Halloween Party night at Adam’s Club in Seel Street. Considering Colin had only been with us for one month this was quite a bold move, and it was a patchy, albeit encouraging performance. Although I remember nothing about it, I have no doubt we were more proficient by the time we played The System on 25th November.
Our next 3 gigs were cancelled for various reasons. One of them was at Dingwalls where, due to an electrical fault, the whole stage area was afflicted by a “live loop”. The sound engineer explained that, if I were to accidentally spit into the microphone while singing, it might result in everybody within that “loop” getting a potentially fatal electric shock. We concluded that our lives were marginally more precious than our music, and withdrew our services – much to the annoyance of the promoter, Neil Tilley, who snarled “That’s the last favour I’ll ever do for you.” He never again gave us any gigs. We stayed to watch the other band, Politburo, dicing with death, but nothing happened. A victim of the recession, Dingwalls closed down shortly after… Hey Ho.