Long Biog

John Parkes – the Long Biography

Part 1 - When I Were a Lad

I was born in Sheffield. My grandma could calm animals, had premonitions and played the piano at one time - though I never saw any evidence of any of these things. My dad played the drums apparently. My auntie Mavis has no recollection of this but I have a letter from 1947 that mentions him buying 'a new parchment' for his snare drum. I have no further evidence of this. My Mum and Dad once went out to see the Halle Orchestra.  I think that was the sum total of their gig going. It also turns out that my granddad on the other side of the family played the spoons in Sheffield pubs.  That's my musical background genetically speaking.

We had a few records in the house when I was a kid - a dozen LPs of the kind that were in every Oxfam shop in the 80's (and probably still are) - A few 'popular classics', some big band re-issues; Peter and the Wolf; one called the 'Roaring 20's' which I quite liked and a Reader's Digest 'Gypsy Violins' record handed on as an unwanted present at one time. There were also a few singles, and I didn't understand where these had come from - Frank Ifield, Ken Dodd, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Matthews Southern Comfort, The Guess Who and Paul McCartney. It later turned out that one or two had been bought for my sister and the rest she must've bought herself while quite young. We also had a Barron Knights EP featuring the boys taking the piss out of the Beatles, Stones and Dave Clark 5. It was called 'Call up the Groups - Medley' and was based on what the aforementioned groups hit songs might sound like if they took national service as their theme. I think I thought 'Medley' was a person. A musical background of about 15 records.

When my sister got a bit older the house had more Beatles – but also the Moody Blues, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, America and Cream which I listened to from the next room. Abbey Road and the White Album got played a lot before being run over by the Hoover (deliberately I might add). There was also stuff I never liked like Genesis and Peter Gabriel (I still don't care what band he was in before he became Peter Gabriel - was it Genesis?). So, about 30 records plus the odd tune on Junior Choice on Saturday Morning. I also remember nearly being almost reduced to tears aged about 10 when I heard Vincent by Don McLean while on holiday in a motor caravan (with separate toilet tent used only for storage). If there's ever too much sentimentality in my songs blame Don.

I read the Hunter Davies Beatles biography when I was about 13. I don't remember why. I was immediately desperate to be Paul McCartney (before becoming, like loads and loads of others, desperate to be John Lennon - until he got shot, then I became less keen). I got a guitar for my next birthday - a kind of classical guitar but with steel strings. I became one of the last generation of teenage boys (and a few girls I guess) to become totally frustrated with Bert Weedon's lie that you could 'Play in a Day'. I guess he meant a really intensive and frustrating 24 hours – in which one learned to read music and play Bobby Shaftoe.  Luckily I was bought another book which had 2 or 3 chapters of sensible advice before moving on to clefs and crotchets and following the music to the Wee Cooper O’Fife or some such. I felt guilty that I didn't play the guitar enough to make my finger's bleed (like Hunter said George's had) but I got better and quite soon I was buying my own records and going to a night school class in 'folk guitar' which meant I could strum 6 chords rather than the previous 3. One birthday (13th) I got Rubber Soul and Revolver (on the same day!) and hadn't heard any of the songs except Yellow Submarine and Eleanor Rigby.  Beatles fans (surely everyone?) will know have great that was.

I started to go and see bands once in a while but unfortunately, I spent those 'important early teenage years' in Cleethorpes, next to Grimsby - even closer to nowhere. I saw a band called 'Cleethorpes Rock' when I was quite small. They did a cover of Jailhouse Rock which I liked. There was also a band called the 'Brother's Band' who did 20 minute versions of something called 'West Coast Rock' which was truly awful. There was a very real, aching sense of grinding boredom followed by an almost tangible feeling of waiting for something to happen.

Part 2 - Punk Rock Hits Cleethorpes

Then it did - punk rock hit the UK, bizarrely not quite missing out Cleethorpes as the Pistols, Stranglers et al played to very few people at the Winter Gardens. I was too young and too scared to go. However, I did go and see 999.

I stood there in mini Oxford bags watching, feeling like a UFO had landed - with my mouth open (really) genuinely not being able to work out what on earth I was looking at. It took me several days to begin to realise that my life had just been completely changed. The first 999 album is still the punk album for me - at least as good as the Clash and loads better than Never Mind the Bollocks. Being nowhere town and not very well off you could get into gigs (and to X films at the pictures - I saw one called 'Sexier Than Sex' when I was 13!) with no questions asked. Or rather one question - 'are you 18?' (The answer to this was 'yes').

I soon got a £30 Satellite electric guitar (and an HH amp with a fuzz switch). This was in the last days of the genuinely unplayable cheap electric guitar and didn't help me much. By now I was desperate to be in a band but I was too young, didn't have the gear and couldn't really play - and in Cleethorpes! A band called the Zebras (who wore matching stripey shirts in black and white) gave me an audition. They played covers in working men's clubs in Grimsby but did the odd 'new wave' cover and a version of 'Down in the Tube Station at Midnight'. They turned me down (quite rightly) and I never brushed with compromise in that way again.

There was also a band put together for the Lindsey School's open day or something. My mates Stan Boles and Gordon Duffy were probably there though I have no memory so you shouldn't believe anything I say. We played a couple of my songs and at one point played Isn't it a Pity (by George Harrison) and Honey Don't by Carl Perkins in the school hall - inevitably based on the Beatles version.

Eventually the 'Dazwhite Baby Sisters' were born and played one gig on a bill supporting Zounds as part of a CND benefit at the Grimsby Central Hall. My mate Oll played bass. I have no idea how this happened. Our drummer was 13 and we weren't much older. I have a terrible memory (see I forgot I said that just back there) and can't remember the drummer's name. My Mum took our gear to a church hall in the Chevette ('the Vauxhall Chevette is whatever you want it to be'...that was the advertising jingle if you were wondering)

Oll wasn't that keen on being in a band and there was no-one else. I tried to put an advert in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph for people to join a 'political pop band'. They said they were 'non political' and the advertising manager explained to me that yes, this really did extend to using the word 'political' in a small ad. I had to leave. These people were clearly mad.

Before I leave, let me explain one advantage of living in Cleethorpes (which is attached to the no more exciting Grimsby). You could (literally) get attacked in the street for wearing straight trousers, but since everyone hated decent music all the punk and new wave records that were making the charts by then were always in the 10p / 20p bargain bin at Woolworth's and WH Smiths. Add to that the 'ex juke box' records and I got dozens of great records for next to nothing - all those singles by the Buzzcocks and Undertones, the Members, Sham 69, TRB (the ‘Rising Free’ EP for one!) etc. etc. - and albums by people like Graham Parker and the Rumour who weren't punk but still suspiciously non conservative for a small town and wore straight trousers. Anything that got in the charts I could have for a maximum of 30p. Going back to Cleethorpes for a minute, I'd also like to say that everyone seemed to have a racist and homophobic older brother into Genesis and Queen. Cleethorpes was the kind of place where homophobic older brothers could be big fans of Queen without any sense of irony.

I still had to leave.

Part 3 - Disappointment in Leeds

I moved to Leeds having heard that things were happening there music wise. I nearly went to Manchester to do a course in Politics and Economics at the University. I turned up to a 'look around' day. Everyone else (and I mean everyone) had turned up in a suit - to look round a university! I was also bitten by a dog and lost my train ticket on the way home. I couldn't go there, so Leeds it was. Leeds seemed cold and grey and no-one wanted to be in a band. The bands that were there were dreadful goth bands. I'm still proud of the fact that I thought they were rubbish then and history proved me right.

I had a landlady who wouldn't allow women in the house. She would arrive unexpectedly and tell you to take your shoes off. A bloke called Chris fixed up a lead so I could play electric guitar through my cassette player and I started to tape Peel sessions on it to. Eventually adverts in the student's union and endless false starts led to 2 bands. First up were 'The Chorus' - I was amazed no-one had used the name. There were a few gigs in the student areas of Leeds and a bit of a shifting line-up. Pete Solowka was the bass player. He had a guitar with 2 bass strings and 3 normal strings and kept smelly gerbils. He later joined the Wedding Present. The Chorus would get a set together, do a gig then someone would leave. The first line up was probably the best - including a wasp synth played by a bloke called Chris Roast in the way it should be played i.e. it never sounded like a synth or keyboard. The drummer was pretty good too despite enforcing vegetarianism on his cat. My mate Julian played the guitar. Only a poor quality cassette exists of the first Chorus line up; a later line up recorded a demo which Rough Trade made encouraging noises about. We sold some cassettes through Jumbo Records who put us into the indie charts.

Part 4 - Leeds Picks Up

Things picked up a bit (see, I told you they picked up) when I got in a second band. I met Len Liggins who had set up Lion Studios (an 8-track recording studio off City Square) and did a fanzine called 'Roar'. He later formed the Ukrainians with Pete Solowka and became 'the Legendary Len'. We got together with Andrew Middleton from Colenso Parade. Colenso Parade had come over from Belfast and split up after too much rehearsing. We formed the Sinister Cleaners, a name we should've rejected immediately - for some reason we didn't. We recorded a 7 inch single with a drum machine. We later found a drummer - Simon Smith who later on also joined the Wedding Present. We recorded 3 12-inch EPs and did a fair amount of gigs and got an agency in Europe resulting in three tours. We handicapped ourselves with a stupid name and three singer songwriters all with very different styles. We were good though and did some great gigs in Europe despite searches by the French and nearly going down on the Herald of Free Enterprise (we were on the ferry before or something).

The Chorus eventually also did a single which John Peel played a few times. Simon Smith was the drummer (again). I made a pyramid of ice cubes for a cover photo which didn't look half as good as an ice pyramid should. But it was real. I guess nowadays Bill Gates has a button called 'ice pyramid' and it's quick and no fun.

The first Sinister Cleaners single came out at about the same time as the first Wedding Present single and the Age of Chance's first. We couldn't help noticing that ours was the unsuccessful one. It sounded OK but was never going to be exciting with an 808 drum machine (we had a Roland 606, both now legendary, but in a different world of music). I still like the stuff we did, Janice Long offered us a session which never took place and we were offered a publishing deal which we turned down. The European tours were important to me though as someone who wouldn't normally have got the chance to go abroad.

Andrew left the Sinister Cleaners, half of the Chorus joined the Wedding Present and I decided to form a new band (again).

Part 5 - Greenhouse and Fuzzbird

More months of getting stuff together and wasting time on the dole in Thatcher's Britain, but Greenhouse ended up recording a couple of LPs worth of stuff, doing a Peel session (Producer John Walters and John Peel both died too young, death has very few redeeming features...) and being signed. Being signed to Sheffield's largest label (soon to become Doncaster's largest label) wasn't very glamorous but we did do some tours, release some records and made up with the Wedding Present, supporting them on tour. Guitarist Chris Sheldon left and re joined a couple of years later. Then we split up.

Fuzzbird were a decent band too. The first Fuzzbird album featured 2 borrowed drummers (playing on separate tracks) and me; with bass lines written by Gordon Clark, the other Ukrainians roadie who had the bottle (and good sense) to attack the odd member physically once in a while, which was all they deserved. There are 7 pretty good unreleased Fuzzbird songs recorded with the last line-up featuring Vic Pavon, an American drummer born in Mexico.

Part 6 - John Peel

By the time of the second Fuzzbird album and the end of Fuzzbird (always a good idea to split up just before your album comes out I find) I realised that John Peel had played something from every record I'd ever been on - for over 14 years! This included compilation albums as well as singles and albums. Even if I've missed something and I'm technically wrong have it's something I'm really proud of and I guess not very many can match.

Knowing that I was unlikely to be in another band for a while I sent John a bottle of wine as an acknowledgement. He'd been talking on his show about how much he (and Sheila, his wife) had enjoyed a bottle that had cost about £80; how he felt guilty about the price but how fantastic it'd been - So I sent him a better one, or at least an equal one. It cost me about 2 weeks wages but I'm so glad I did now because this is now my official 'John Peel Story' - apparently everyone has one. I got a hand made Christmas card that year from John and Sheila. I also bought him a beer at Sound City in Leeds when he missed Fuzzbird because his son's train was late.

In real life he was more 'real' and probably less cuddly and avuncular than on the radio but he's the only famous person I can think of who has really affected my life - and the loss is still keenly felt. I would've loved to know what he thought of the solo acoustic stuff.

Part 7 - Roadieing

While Greenhousing and Fuzzbirding I did various rubbish part-time jobs and worked as a 'roadie, driver, backline technician and tour manager'. Mainly I changed strings for the Wedding Present. I also worked for the Ukrainians and did bits and pieces for Cud, Buffalo Tom (a couple of weeks) and a few other bands usually from the Leeds area. I turned down the Inspiral Carpets just before they got big. They were supporting the Weddoes in Manchester and needed someone like me to plug stuff in and change strings. I didn't really like doing it that much and I thought they wouldn't be able to pay me either as I'd never heard of them. They obviously got someone else in. This may or may not have been Mr Gallagher.

Part 8 - Whole Sky Monitor

WSM kind of evolved out of Fuzzbird. Another good band flirting with success. The first Whole Sky Monitor album came out in the middle of 2005. Pretty much everyone liked it. The second One Bland Bland Bland had a massive sound thanks to Matt at Axis Studios in Doncaster and we still think it’s ace.  The One after, Twisted Little Piggies was at least as good and probably better.  WSM are current so I'm not going to go on about them in the history section.

Part 9 - Solo Stuff

As well as announcing in the early 90s that there was a place in the world for a band with a really big Beatles obsession 2 years before Oasis appeared, Keith Gregory the Wedding Present's bass player and all round top bloke was the one who pointed out to me (quite flatteringly) that the bands I'd got together were nearly always playing my songs and nearly always let me down in one way or another, if only by leaving to do something they thought would be better. I should exclude Whole Sky Monitor from this. WSM write songs in a 'much more, kind of, organic way man' so it's not just me presenting songs to 'the band' to play. It wasn't quite like that with some of the other bands either but I was usually 'the songwriter', so there.

Sometime in 2003 I discovered a box of portastudio recordings of songs I'd written over the years. Some of them were 'really rather good actually' and I remembered some of the stupid reason's there'd been for not doing them at the time (some drummer who'd been around for a couple of months hadn't liked them and Mister Democratic had said OK, that kind of thing). I'd always written songs on the acoustic guitar anyway so most were playable on the acoustic. I played through a few and before I knew it had written some new ones. This also corresponded with me noticing that there were acoustic nights and open mic nights springing up so I had somewhere to go to play them in public. I blagged an extra spot at the Selby Family Fun Day and went on from there.

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