Following The System gig we didn’t play live again for over 4 months. All our efforts were concentrated on avoiding death and rehearsing. My own efforts were focused on coming up with a new song of the same quality as ‘Martyn’s Brain’. After more than 6 years of writing, I had amassed dozens of fragments of song which I stored on cassette tapes stacked under the radiator in my bedroom. As the years wore on, that space between the floor and the radiator became darkened by scores of cassettes holding hundreds of ideas. The vast majority of these never saw the light of day. Every song’s progress was recorded, from the first crumb of an idea, through to its completion. Nothing was ever erased – it might come in handy one day.
At last, in April, one of my ideas finally came to fruition. I was convinced that ‘The Stories You Tell’ had everything it needed to be a hit single. Like ‘The Real World’, this song was about Britain’s desperately high unemployment levels and the feeling of hopelessness this brought to entire communities. The words of the verses were so surreal, though, that nobody but me would ever have understood what I was going on about. I was never happy with them, but I’d been struggling to find the right words for months and, in the end, had to go with what I’d got. I often used to slur those words to cover my embarrassment. When I presented ‘Stories’ to the band my only request was that, in the chorus, Martyn should play the same melody I sang. That idea had worked well in Hero’s chorus, and it was one of the reasons why I thought ‘Shot by both Sides” by Magazine was so great. Martyn’s interpretation of my idea, as ever, exceeded my expectations. The quality of Colin’s drumming was, by now, exceptional. The brilliant shuffling technique he used on the snare drum in the verses helped distract attention from my words. Thanks, Col. After a couple of months rehearsing this belting, up tempo number, it was ready for inclusion in our live show.
No Exit had not yet ventured outside of Liverpool. The first logical step would have been a trip down the M62 to Manchester, or failing that, a short drive through the Mersey Tunnel to Birkenhead. Instead we decided to follow in the pioneering footsteps of ‘Danse Macabre‘ and ‘Ex Post Facto‘, and beat the dusty trail to Middlesbrough, of all places. On Wednesday 25 April we departed in two cars. My brother Stephen transported us and some of the gear in his Morris Marina while Martyn drove his dad’s Vauxhall estate and carried the bulk of the gear. Middlesbrough is over 100 miles away but Dave insisted, for reasons of fuel economy, that the motorway leg of the journey be made at a constant speed of 56 miles an hour. It was a long trek. Martyn and I were interviewed on BBC Radio Tees in Stockton prior to the gig. Other than our idiotic persistence with the ‘ugly’ gimmick, nothing of any interest was said, but we sounded confident and relatively articulate. The gig itself was unremarkable. We were not quite firing on all cylinders yet, but we were getting better. On the return journey to Liverpool, Dave’s theory about 56 miles an hour was ignored . After this brief taste of life on the road and of media attention, I awoke for work the next morning feeling that little bit more like a rock star.
On 14 May ‘Stories’ made its debut at the Everyman Foyer in Hope Street. I have no recollection of this gig whatsoever, but according to the No Exit scrapbook we were supported by a funk band from Rotherham called ‘Kid Salami and the Cabone Brothers’, and by a “hard hitting” Liverpool poet called Rita Burgess. Dave sent free tickets to the ‘Garden Party’ magazine, which had given ‘Casablancan Night’ an unfavourable (although not entirely so) review. He was hoping they might reconsider their opinion. Unfortunately the reviewer, writing under the sobriquet of Victor Snide, was not for turning. “OK they were tight and they obviously knew what they were doing as far as delivering the songs was concerned. But they were on for too long and due probably to the static confines of being a 3 piece, a lot of the songs sounded the same. Variation is not a feature of a No Exit gig. They’ve been around for a while now, and to my knowledge their greatest claim to fame is that they reckon they’re the ugliest group in Liverpool. If they cut the length of the set, and maybe get an extra member in the group (suitably grotesque of course), then the songs could be done some justice, and hopefully, people would remember No Exit as being a good ugly band.”
OK, the “Snide” surname was a giveaway and therefore the article should have been read in the spirit it was intended, but it still hurt. The writers of the ‘Garden Party‘ had their own band ‘The Persuaders’, who were a cross between the Style Council and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. That would have been fine except for the fact that their lyrics were puerile. Believe me, I know. I later auditioned to be their singer after Tony Upham left, but I failed the audition. I was hoping to get the job and then begin introducing songs of my own. They either sussed this out or perhaps thought my intentions were to sabotage them. It is just possible, though, that they rejected me because I was a crap singer…
At the end of May I presented the band with an unnamed song. Martyn’s Duane Eddy style accompaniment prompted Dave to call it ‘Duane’s Brain’. Months later, on a night out at MacMillans Club in Concert Street, Dave asked me what I was really going to call it. The DJ had just played the Specials’ hit ‘Gangsters’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘I heard it through the Grapevine’ so my reflex response was “Don’t call me grapevine face” – and the name stuck. If Grapevine Face was about anything in particular it was about oppression: “I’m learning to know my place”and defeat “You bring and buy me, classify me, immerse me in the role. There’s one thing I’m wanting – I’ve got no soul.” This was a very simple song with only 2 bass notes – G and A, and considering those limitations, I came up with quite a decent tune, but the crowning glory was Martyn’s brilliantly melodic guitar work which was greatly enhanced by the reverb effect pedal on his new amplifier/speaker.
In June, for a total cost of £20 we recorded ‘Martyn’s Brain’, ‘Don’t Walk Away’ and ‘The Stories You Tell’at a 4 track studio in Colquitt Street (formerly the Blind School). Although the quality of the recordings was poor, the quality of our playing was not. It was now apparent just how tight we’d become. This fact was reinforced on 14th June when we played The Blitz Club in Duke Street. Due to a mix up, we’d been left standing outside the venue with our gear for hours, and Martyn found time to carry out the mercy killing of an already fatally injured pigeon using one of Colin’s drum stands. Colin hadn’t yet turned up so there was no need for him to know. Despite the unsettling wait, we were the epitome of professionalism that night and played exceptionally well. With confidence at an all time high, I looked forward to our next booking, on 29th June (my 24th birthday) at The Pavilion night club in Wolstenholme Square.
Before gigs I followed an established routine whereby I left work early and went home to enjoy a hot bath. During the course of my soak, I poured myself a large whiskey as a relaxant – it was cheaper than Radox. Then, after drying myself off, I slipped into a thong (Bono didn’t have a VPL so neither would I) and all my other stage gear. From the sound check at the start of the night until the encore at the end, I would have only one, or maybe 2 pints of beer. When we’d finished we always packed up our gear immediately and headed off into the night. On 29th June, though, I was feeling a tad more psychotic than usual. I hated my birthdays because I hated being the centre of attention. A performer who hates attention??? In my anxiety I drank half the bottle of whiskey, so that by the time I’d left the house I was already half-cut. We got all the gear to the venue and sound checked. Chris Adamson offered me a birthday drink which I accepted without thinking. “A bottle of Pils please, Chris.” It was only common courtesy for me to reciprocate…and so the drinking went on.
To make matters worse, who should turn up, looking suave, sophisiticated and entirely out of context, in a sports jacket, slacks, collar and tie, but my Dad? Oh God – that was all I needed – a proper musician. He’d never been to a No Exit gig before so why the hell had he come to this one? It started to dawn on me now just how drunk I was, and I began to worry that I was about to make an unholy fool of myself. I watched the support act ‘Life Academy’ in fidgety detachment as I contemplated my fate. When they came off stage, one of them asked me what I thought of them. I told him I was very impressed, that they were very tight, and I liked what they were about. Then he asked if I had any advice for them. I asked him whether all their songs had evolved from jamming sessions. They had. I said “I thought so. Maybe someone needs to take responsibility for the song writing.” …….He decided to stay along and watch our set.
The Pavilion had the most unforgiving acoustics. The sound bounced around like never before. Had there been a decent audience, their bodily mass might have dampened it down, but the place was virtually empty. From where I was standing we sounded wretched, and to top it all Martyn broke a string mid-song. He wasn’t prepared to use his back-up guitar (why bring it in the first place then?) and insisted on changing the string. Rather than stop the “show” I carried on, accompanied by Colin, with a version of ‘Princess of the Street’ by The Stranglers. Still Martyn wasn’t ready (What the hell was he playing at?) so I tried a version of ‘Joan of Arc’ by OMD (“Little Catholic Girl is falling in love” and not their other single ‘Maid of Orleans’ which was shite). In the middle of this song a profound melancholia descended upon me, but ever the consummate professional, I saw it through to the bitter end. To make things worse Pete Cresswell turned up, asking if he could perform ‘That Monday Morning Feeling’ with us, as he had done many times before. Still Martyn was fiddling about, and things were starting to get fractious. When we explained to Pete that he couldn’t just turn up at our gigs and expect us to drop everything for him, you could see the hurt on his face, and he went away with his tail between his legs. We got back on stage, just went through the motions and finished our set as quickly as possible. It was dreadful, absolutely dreadful. Dave didn’t think it was that bad and neither did anyone else, but I was deeply displeased with myself. My dad’s only comment was “Why does it have to be so loud, son?”
Because it was my birthday the rest of the band packed up the gear and took it home. After a few more drinks a student called Ruth offered to give Chris and me a lift home. I was now bordering on utter despair. It was all swimming around in my head – my drunkenness, my total lack of professionalism, the worst acoustics ever, the broken string, the ridiculous Stranglers/OMD cameo, upsetting Pete Cresswell, and the whole sorry mess having been witnessed by my dad. Oh, and who the hell was I to dispense advice to ‘Life Academy’ anyway? They were a perfectly good band and they blew us off the stage that night…… What a t**t. I had always predicted I would die on my birthday (which birthday, I didn’t know) and I told Ruth and Chris that I wanted to kill myself (It had gone midnight, and so technically, it was no longer my birthday). Ruth drove us to Sefton Park. Chris, recognising that my threat was idle, decided to make his way home on foot. Ruth walked me round Sefton Park until daybreak, talking sense. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. You cannot perform while intoxicated, so don’t ever do it again. Consider this a valuable lesson and move on. It was your birthday. Everybody’s a bit mental on their birthday.” Thanks Ruth.
In July I heard, for the first time, the live version of ‘A Forest’ by The Cure. (issued with their ‘Hanging Garden’ single) The bass guitar had a sound effect on it called “chorus”. Chorus immediately mimics the note the guitarist plays, but this echoed note comes back very slightly out of tune. The resulting effect is a thicker tone (there are 2 notes being heard) and a swirling, haunting quality. The moment I heard that sound I knew it would work well on many of our songs. I used my new chorus pedal on some of the more moody ones like ‘Martyn’s Brain’ and ‘Don’t Walk Away‘. It was also effective on ‘In The Dark’, ‘Real World‘ and ‘Breakdown’. This was the final piece in the jigsaw of the No Exit sound.
To truly appreciate the highs you have to have tasted the lows. By July all those rehearsals and all those gigs were, at long last, beginning to pay off and we’d acquired a small fan base. We played to a full house in the Baltimore Rooms above Kirklands Wine Bar, Hardman Street (now the “Fly in the Loaf”). Two days later, on the 28th, we put in our finest performance to date at ‘The Lime Street Bop’. This was a free, two day festival of live music, held on the plateau outside St George’s Hall, opposite Lime Street Station – an event organised by local reggae band ‘Escape Committee’. The idea was to give younger bands (15, 16 and 17 year olds) the chance to perform before a large audience, and also to give bands like ours, which fell outside the Liverpool clique, an opportunity to shine for once. The weather was kind to us that day; it was a little windy but it was also sunny and that brought out a good crowd of several hundred. ‘The Voice’, ‘Street Legal’, ‘Infinity’ and ‘After Glow’ preceded us, and we were given the prime Saturday afternoon slot. Our set, which was restricted to half an hour, was: The Real World , Breakdown, The Stories You Tell, Duane’s Brain (as Grapevine Face was still known) and In the Dark. When we’d finished, the sound engineer whispered “At last, a proper band. What a relief.” The crowd felt the same way judging by their positive response to us. The fact we’d played so well and with no sign of nerves on this big occasion proved that we had the mental strength to cope with whatever the future held in store for us.
It took a few days before my feet came back down to earth, but when they did, the Lime Street Bop spurred me on to greater heights. For the first time in years I picked up my 6 string guitar and began to experiment with a chord sequence in which I played as many open strings as possible. It sounded very eerie. I’d never heard anything like it before. Dad asked “Who’s that ghost music for? Is it for me?” The first words which came into my head were “Wheels within Wheels”, and I repeated these over and over. Then came “The constant winding, binding, grinding wheels within wheels” It took weeks to find the right words, but “From the bottomless pit of my heart, From the murky depths of my soul, I’m asking you to give me a start. I’m telling you to let us go” were worth the struggle. Brian Eno and David Byrne’s ‘The Jezebel Spirit’ influenced ‘Wheels’. I’d heard this “tune”, based around a real life recording of an exorcism, several times on John Peel. A girl called Elizabeth was possessed by the spirit of Jezebel which the exorcist tried to bawl out with screams of “Out, out Jezebel. Come out now. Out in the name of Jesus. Come on destruction. Come on grief”… Bloody Hell! It used to frighten me so much that I would hide under my bed clothes. The Jezebel Spirit inspired my own cries of “Let it out. Come on. Let it out.” My song’s final line was originally going to be “For symphony in black”, but that was a bit pretentious. “Don’t paint us all so black”fitted this merry little ditty so much better. I taught the song to Martyn, and he played it with a greater fluidity than I ever could (although I actually preferred my original ham fisted interpretation). So as not to distract from those strange guitar chords I kept my bass line very simple. With Colin’s pounding drums and Martyn’s superb guitar work, ‘Wheels‘ became Dave’s new “Best Song in the World”. It became our favourite too. I felt very proud to have written it. I still feel very proud to have written it.
During the summer “Jamming!” magazine published league tables of the best bands in Merseyside. No Exit appeared in Divisions 3 and 4. So good they named us twice! ….But, forget about Division 2; why were we not among the top 22 bands in Division 1? (the equivalent of the Premier League today) Surely we were better than the High Five, Mr Amir, The Room, Pink Industry, Ex Post Facto, Ellery Bop, Cook Da Books, and Western Promise, weren’t we? We were at the very least the equals of Division 1’s The Lotus Eaters, It’s Immaterial, Black, and The Farm. We had to accept that Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Bunnymen, Dead or Alive, OMD, Wah!, China Crisis, Julian Cope, Pale Fountains, Icicle Works and A Flock of Seagulls were untouchables – if only because of their chart success. I couldn’t quite believe how lowly No Exit had been rated. How could ‘Jamming’ have got it so wrong?
In August we went into ‘The Ark’ 8 track studio in Benson Street (now Hard City Records) to record ‘The Real World‘, ‘Martyn’s Brain’ and ‘The Stories You Tell’. The engineer, David Dickie (bass player in ‘Black’) failed to turn up in the morning, so his assistant, a teenage girl, began recording Colin’s drums very slowly and very badly. When ‘Dix’ turned up hours late, instead of scrapping the session and starting again, he chose to disguise the lousy drums. Colin was asked to reproduce his entire snare drum performance on a touch sensitive key pad – a sort of drum machine played with the fingers. It took the best part of the afternoon for him to familiarise himself with this new technology. The recordings of Colin’s real drums and of the drum machine were blended together, but this made us sound less tight than we actually were. With time pressing on we had to abandon ‘Martyn’s Brain‘ altogether. The next day Martyn and I rushed through our guitar, bass and vocal parts and we came away with “rough mixes” of ‘Real World’ and ‘Stories‘ on a ¼ inch tape. For various reasons we were forced to wait until October for the final mixing session which was performed by Henry Priestman (later the keyboard player and brains behind ‘The Christians’). The final outcome was a tape featuring Henry’s mix of ‘Stories’ and Dix’s rough mix of ‘Real World‘. The whole thing cost around £120 but it wasn’t value for money. Dix later redeemed himself with 2 fine recordings of Colamericana and The Brain Drain.
Every year, over the August Bank Holiday weekend, a festival of local music was held in Sefton Park. ‘Larks in the Park’ was attended by thousands, and we were desperate to play for them. After 3 years of constant gigging we felt we deserved to be on the bill. Martyn’s brother David knew the organisers, and he and Perry said some words on our behalf, but we were overlooked. Apart from three or four decent bands, as usual the line up was filled with ‘fly by night’ trendy groups benefiting from the organisers’ nepotism. Who the hell were these bands? Why had we never seen them or even heard about them playing in the city? We were all sick about it, and I boycotted ‘Larks in the Park’. “That’ll teach them…… The Bastards.”
Plans for our debut album were now beginning to take shape, but we couldn’t afford any more trips into professional studios. Colin’s brother offered to record us on his portastudio (a box containing a 4 track console which recorded onto cassette tape). At one of our midweek rehearsals he recorded ‘White Man’, ‘Now You’re Talking’ and ‘Don’t Call Me Grapevine Face’ in the space of an hour. The outcome was good considering it had cost nothing. We asked Colin again and again for another session so that we could have a go at ‘Wheels within Wheels’, but his brother refused. I don’t know why, but he was very shy – even shier than Colin.
‘Wheels’ made its live debut at The System on 4 October, where we were supported by ‘Catch 22′ and ‘Street Legal’. Martyn managed to break a string while thrashing his way through the guitar solo, but Colin and I quickly and professionally ended the song. Our entire performance was captured on poor quality video – the only surviving live footage of No Exit. Colin was rendered almost invisible by shadow and, for the first and only time, Martyn’s was not the worst outfit on show. Dressed in a black suit jacket and a white T shirt I looked exactly like who I was – an office worker on his night off, not a rock star.
Record companies had shown no interest whatsoever in our demos of ‘Real World‘ and ‘Stories’, and from October onwards our persecution complex developed into “backs to the wall” defiance. We were invited to contribute an article about No Exit to ‘The Garden Party’ magazine. Dave took it upon himself to write this, but the rest of us approved of his “If we’re going down, we’re going down with all guns blazing” tone:
“We have never pressed for a recording deal believing that when we are ready the companies will come to us. This is what will happen. We are not about to grovel to anyone. Therefore we will never be part of any clique.
“We play aggressive but melodic music. Although keyboards, saxophone and a female vocalist have been experimented with they are not No Exit. We have our own sound and we’re sticking with it. If some people don’t like it, that’s their loss. It’s impossible to please everybody and it’s futile to attempt to do so.
“No Exit has been around for a few years and will be here for a few more. We will improve, we will wait and with that one elusive break we will succeed.”
We returned to The System on 25 November. I’m sure we played very well but the only thing I recall is that we had no support band and were paid a percentage of the door takings. It was so well attended that we came away with around £160 – the most we’d ever been paid. This all went towards funding the album. It was fashionable among local unsigned bands at the time to put out cassette albums, and that was the format we chose. A vinyl album was way beyond our means – it would have cost thousands. We desperately wanted ‘Wheels within Wheels‘ to be included, but not the version with the broken string. On December 12, in the hope of getting a decent recording of it, we played a coal miners’ benefit gig at the Mardi Gras in Bold Street. The country was deeply divided by the miners’ strike which had been dragging on for many months, causing genuine hardship. I was never one for getting involved in politics and was reluctant to do this gig, but any chance to get ‘Wheels‘ down on tape had to be jumped at. On the face of it, then, we were good guys, but we got exactly what we deserved for our cynical opportunism – a very poor quality recording of ‘Wheels‘.
My last memory of 1984 was of ‘Sputnik’ and a songwriting experiment gone wrong. I tried smoking cannabis at University but it just made me feel a bit queasy, giggly and light headed. As a result I’d since treated all drugs (other than alcohol and cigarettes) with contempt. After a Saturday night out at The System a friend persuaded me to try this ‘Sputnik’ stuff which was all the rage in druggy circles. He rolled me 2 joints so tightly that they reminded me of candy cigarettes. He suggested I “Go home and write a song” after smoking them. At around 3 o’clock on the Sunday morning I sat down in the living room with guitar in hand, pen and paper at the ready. I smoked the first joint, inhaling deeply and holding the smoke in my lungs for as long as possible – just as I was advised to. I waited for a few minutes…nothing happened. “Useless”, I thought. Then, as I rose out of my chair to fetch the second joint, my brain burst into flames. I sat back down and held my head in my hands for comfort, but to no avail. How do you extinguish a brain fire? It was as if someone had doused it with petrol and tossed in a lit match. Would getting some food in my system help? I went into the kitchen and took a bite out of one of my mum’s home made Cornish pasties, but my addled brain told me it tasted like vomit so I spat it out. I thought it best then not to eat or drink anything else.
I began to hear voices. It was a bit like that episode of Tom and Jerry where an angel mouse appears on one of Jerry mouses’s shoulders and a devil mouse on the other, but it was a lot more frightening than that. The devil ‘me’, speaking from the ether to my right, suggested I go upstairs and murder my parents. Then, from somewhere in the air on my left, the angel ‘me’ responded with “No. Don’t listen to him. That would be a terrible thing to do” I opened the back door in the hope that fresh air would help me ride out this bad trip… It was raining and it was very cold as I sat myself down on the doorstep in just a cotton shirt and jeans. My teeth began to chatter uncontrollably and I gradually became aware of a live reggae band playing dub behind me. Although there were no musicians on the stage I could see (without turning around) a vacant drum kit and all the other instruments perched on their stands. The battle between good and evil continued to be played out to this accompaniment. I sat there for hours, and began to hallucinate. Looking down at the soaked driveway I could see large worms disappearing down the cracks – unendingly. I slowly became aware that the real me and the angel me were winning the battle. By 6.30, when my mum came downstairs to find out where the draught was coming from, the devil me was all but defeated. “Have you been drinking again, Graham?” she asked. “Yes”, I lied. “When will you ever learn?” Just in case the devil me attempted one last decisive reappearance I told mum I was going for a walk round the block. There were still worms slivering down the cracks in the pavement, but the worst effects of the drug had worn off. I got home, had a wash, cleaned my teeth and went to bed. Next day I threw the un-smoked joint away and I’ve never touched ‘drugs’ since.