My Dad bought me a Vox Continental organ for my sixteenth birthday, and from then on my dream was to become a professional musician.
The first 'proper' band that I joined was Dennis Bovell's "Stonehenge" in 1969. We were at Spencer Park School at the time (it proved to be a fertile breeding ground for musical talent). We did a few gigs, playing an eclectic mix of material (rock, rhythm and blues, rock steady), but we were seriously lacking in the equipment department, so, more often than not, we just made a horrendous noise!!
"Stonehenge" evolved into reggae band "Matumbi" in 1971 with the addition of a few other members and I stayed until 1974. We'd been signed by the Trojan label, recorded a few tracks, played a few gigs, but nothing much had happened and I didn't like the dodgy people who ran the label.
With Dave McShearer, a guitarist friend of mine, I hooked up with Pete Hammond (bass) and Phil Towner (drums) in a kind of dance band playing working men's clubs, British Legion, weddings etc. Then we met American soul singer Limmie Snell ("Limmie and the Family Cooking") through connections at TMC Studios in south London, and this band became "Limmie Funk Limited" with Andy Gierus now on guitar. We played mainly in Discoteques around the country and toured Holland and Sweden (during an incredibly freezing Feb '78!!). We were also recording with Limmie at TMC where we had an arrangement to record and split the percentages of any deal that might have ensued. With Producer Simon Cohen we made quite a few tracks, some of which weren't bad; "Saturday Night's the Night" being one that could have done something with the right promotion.
Tony Mansfield (also ex- Spencer Park) was primarily a friend of Phil Towner's (Phil had previously played in Tony's band) and along with Tony Hibbert and Clive Gates he came on the scene that had evolved around TMC. He actually became our 'Roadie' for a time but then joined "Mac Kissoon" (from "Mac and Katy Kissoon") playing guitar and doing the same sort of gigs as us. Tony and I became a kind of mutual appreciation society and the idea was to form a band with Phil and Tony H. and put some tracks down. We'd already been involved in production work for other people and thought a collaboration would be exciting.
I'd left Limmie Funk Limited in mid '78, Tony had left "Mac Kissoon" (after being left stranded in Ireland!!) and we started working with singer/songwriter Pete Diaz. Five days a week we travelled up to Coventry and back on the train (they used to run on time then) to rehearse and eventually record with him, but we were also making plans to record our own stuff. The Pete Diaz situation fizzled out by early '79 at about the time we finished the final version of "A Walk in the Park".
It's strange, in a way, how this song came about. I was heavily into Fusion and Jazz at the time (Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis etc.) so it's hard to reconcile musically. As corny as it sounds it really did start with a walk in a park! At the time I was going out with a girl named Stevie (we were introduced by Tony M's wife Maria) who lived in an apartment next to Battersea Park. We'd had some kind of argument one morning (it was Nov. '78 by now) and I traipsed off into the park in a melancholy reflective frame of mind (as you do). Then this idea suddenly came to me and, although I didn't exactly see pound signs, I thought immediately that it had some kind of potential. I rushed back home and I think I had the whole thing finished that same afternoon.
I remember showing Tony the chord structure which he played on acoustic guitar (he quite liked it as I recall). We recorded what turned out to be a demo of the song a couple of days later so it was all completed fairly quickly. I sang the lead vocals although, not being much of a singer I don't think I intended for it to remain like that. Someone that we'd been working with (producer, writer, entrepreneur and Painter & Decorator Roy Trought) took a copy of the track. While he was playing his own songs (which were on the same tape) to Pinnacle Records, he accidentally played a bit of "A Walk in the Park". They were interested and it all went from there really.
They persuaded me to sing the lead vocals again, and because the odds seemed so great against anything happening, I complied. I remember thinking that it would be a bit of an adventure for a few weeks; you know, a bit of pampering, have 'photos taken, make a video (we did, and it was truly awful - Tony still has a copy and insists on showing it whenever I visit. Needless to say it was never used!).
We re-recorded the track at TMC in Jan '79 with the excitable Jeremy Paul producing. The intro and underlying chorus theme was his idea (although we had to interpret quite a lot of his ideas into some kind of acceptable musical form!!). He injected a lot of enthusiasm and humour into proceedings though, which definitely helped things along. We basically repeated what was on the original version but added more rhythm (claps, syn drums etc., mostly Jeremy's ideas). Tony repeated the excellent solo that he'd played on the demo but I seem to remember that he wasn't too pleased with it (his playing rather than the melody) although it sounded fine to me. I triple tracked the lead vocal both to make it sound more 'beefy' and to cover up any pitching problems, and Andy Gierus sang backing vocals with me on the choruses. I think we finished the whole thing in a couple of days and then watched, with great amazement and hilarity, Jeremy's, ahem, eccentric approach to mixing. This seemed to involve making everything louder than everything else! We had some loud and meaningful exchanges about this but, because he was such a likable guy, it was all very good humoured.
He took the track away that night to play to the Production company and, sure enough, he came back a couple of days later to attempt mix two. After much to-ing and fro-ing and hysterical screaming matches with the equally excitable people at the company, the final mix (the 1000th? - it was definitely sounding great by now though) was taken down to the annual Music Industry Seminar - Midem - held in Cannes that same month. Quite a few Record Companies showed interest in the track, but by far the most significant response was from the German label Teldec, with whom a deal was done.
It was released on the Pinnacle label in May or June '79 and flopped immediately. In August, however, it suddenly entered the German charts at 45, and the rest is history. Suddenly I'm a Disco/Pop star and I'm being propelled into this surreal world like a fish on a bicycle!! Apart from being totally unprepared for the whole thing personally, I was also totally unprepared musically: i.e. I had an Album to make and no songs to put on it. In fact, the next three years were spent trying and failing to write another "A Walk in the Park".
During this time, as I was carefully honing my skills as a performer and Major Personality, Andy G. and I did come up with a couple of decent dance tracks. "A little bit of Jazz" came together during the time when Tony M. was producing "After the Fire" at TMC. Andy and I went in at night after they'd all gone home and used some of their keyboards on the track. It took a while to complete, as it began as a kind of experiment to fuse Eurodisco with Herbie Hancock style Jazzfunk, and basically evolved as it went along. There was a hell of a lot of editing to do at the final stage. It was out of tune and badly recorded but had a magic to it that might not have happened had we taken more care. It was released on the Prelude label in the US and got to No. 1 in the Billboard Dance chart in 1981, very rare for a British act back then, and it's something that I'm very proud of. "Straight Ahead" began as a demo that Andy and I recorded during a tour of Denmark in 1981. We were allowed into Puk's studio one night. This was before it joined the major league - it was 16 track at the time as I remember. We did everything ourselves: Andy engineered and played guitar, I played drums and keyboards. We re-recorded the track at TMC quite some time later, and it was released in the USA in 1983 and reached No.12 in the dance chart.
We recorded one more album, but it was all over really. I'd been working with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band and Linton Kwesi Johnson and preferred that to being a 'star'. I'd also been writing with China Burton with whom I had another American dance hit "Do you want it right now" (recorded by Siedah Garrett and produced by Jellybean Benitez). The enthusiasm had gone. I've got some great memories of that time though, some that are almost physically painful with nostalgia, and many that just make me cringe! Could I do it again? Maybe if I had a personality transplant!!
Copyright (c) 2001-04-10 Nick Straker and Jonas Wårstad.
No portion of this interview may be published in any form.