|The Sarandon chapter from John Robb's "Death To Trad Rock"|
Still flying the flag, Sarandon are perhaps the last true survivors of the mid eighties noisefest, occupying a curious position in this history. Keeping a low profile for years, they arrived in the middle of the whole scene and somehow managed to survive through to this day.
Now they are the sole custodians of the Death To Trad Rock spirit. In 2008 they proudly re-recorded some of the ancient classics of the genre, making them sound fresh and new while still flying the flag for discordant pop/noise fury.
Throughout they have continued making their sharp angular missives in the idealistic tradition of the original bands, carrying the music through the nineties and into the new millenium. Time has not dented their resolve one bit and Sarandon survive to this day like some sort of curio from a different age. Nonetheless they still sound up to date and have become mentors to a whole new generation who've picked up on their boundless energy.
The ultimate noisenik completists, Sarandon even managed to entice Alan Brown, bass player from bIG fLAME, into their line-up in 2008.
The main driving force of thr band is Crayola, who I remember from gigs in the mid eighties. He turned up at my flat in Hulme a few times during the period, all fresh-faced with a pudding bowl haircut and an indie anorak. A little too young for punk, Crayola would have seemed far too young for glam rock to have had even the slightest effect on him, but the loud, raucous music and garish outifts of this most underrated of era somehow managed to make an impression on him as a child, even growing up as he did in the Caribbean.
"I was brought up in Jamaica until 1978 when, at the age of eight my family arrived in England and I began junior school. My father was a singing teacher and choir master and, from an early age, I had to NOT like what he liked.
I was bought my first record in 1973 at the tender age of three. It was Slade's "Sladest" album and I used to dance to it wearing my mum's boots. I was too young for punk when it happened, and also out of the country, but I remember my mum getting a letter from a friend in England that said, "There are people walking around with green hair!"
It was the post-punk bands who made the first real connection with him:
"Post-punk began for me with Pop-punk I guess. I had a next door neighbour who I thought was really cool - he was a one-legged biker with a huge trike.
As well as having Magnum albums, he had a bunch of terrific 7 inch singles - Ian Dury And The Blockheads' "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick", The Rezillos' "Destination Venus", Adam And The Ants' "Young Parisians"...I'd been listening to the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal until then and a bit of 2Tone because of it being on Top of The Pops. I was about nine or ten and these records knocked me sideways. I got Adam And The Ants' album "Dirk Wears White Sox" and loved it. Soon after, the whole "Kings Of The Wild Frontier" thing happened and I fell into that completely."
Adam Ant was a genius. The first album is as quirky, scratchy and intense art-school wierdness as anything in this book and he had the kooky song titles and provocative lyrics thing nailed down as well. Adam was initially too bizarre for the majors, and locked outside the mainstream he was to become the last punk rock icon with his powerful image and wierd yet oddly pop music.
He toured the country and built up a big live following and when the Ants seemed to fall apart he paid Malcolm McLaren a grand for some career advice. By way of thanks, Malcolm stole his band to form Bow Wow Wow but did lend him a Burundi drummers album and a list of songs to listen to. Adam doorstepped Marco Pironi, who was one of the punk originals and had been the mainstay in punk pioneers The Models before forming the amazing Rema Rema, a feedback-drenched slow-drums outfit that released one single on 4AD. Marco was at a loose end and the pair of them regrouped the Ants and decided to go for the mainstream jugular.
Nowadays to do that would involve some sort of X Factor slushy boy-band ballad but Adam and Marco combined feedback, spaghetti western guitar riffs, a 3D cinemascope imagination and even wierder lyrics about pirates and native Americans into a really odd record and became the biggest pop sensation in the UK since T Rex - utter genius!
Crayola the Adam fan was also the school loner:
"I was a bit of an outcast at school discos as everyone would stand in their own cliques corner (remember these kids were all between nine and eleven). There would be rockers in one corner, mods in another, girls who liked Top Of The Pops in the third and me in the fourth."
It's the classic outsider story. Only music will save these people and Crayola was searching for the music that would save him:
"That was my way in, the thing that made me think that music needs researching. there are things out there to discover. I started watching The Old Grey Whistle Test and listening to Peel not too long after, and then slightly later there was The Tube music show on TV. I saw The Membranes and Stump and The Very Things on The Tube and that made a difference."
It didn't take long for this music research to pay off and for him to make the jump from consuming to producing music:
"My first band was a three piece called The 4th Man, which I was in when I was about fourteen...The joke being that there were only three of us. The "4th Man" was a drum machine. We were a school band. We were rubbish and we lasted for about six weeks."
Inevitably, Crayola gravitated further towards John Peel and became one of that vibrant community of late night listeners bound together by Peel's laconic voice and amazing ability to connect all this musical madness together nationally - a role that no-one has come close to assuming since:
"I was lying in my bunk bed, my younger brother snoring in the top bunk. I'd got a little stereo radio with headphones and I'd listen to Peel - I'd also sometimes listen to Tommy Vance! Sorry! I loved Julian Cope and the Bunnymen and The Smiths and Microdisney. But then one night this NOISE came out of my stereo and hit me with the force of a train. Albeit a very very trebly train.
The song just managed to reach two minutes and I was flummoxed. Then Peel said it was by a band called bIG fLAME. the following Saturday I went out and ordered whatever I could get by them. Around the same time the NME and Sounds, especially through the writing of Everett True, ran stories about bands with silly names; BMX Bandits, Soup Dragons, and The Shrubs. They all sounded so silly that I bought them all. But it was the uncomfortable, Angular music of the Ron Johnson label that I loved most of all. To think that Stump could go on The Tube ad get a proper record deal still gives me a happy glow."
Initially Crayola was just on the wrong side of the teenage equation and, in Telford, he was a few too many miles to the side of the gig circuit to get to see the bands.
"I didn't see too many bands to begin with. I was too young to drive, stuck in Telford and spending all my money on records. I nearly saw Bogshed - Oh! How I wish I'd seen Bogshed - but I fancied the girl that asked me to go and then found out that she meant going with her and her boyfriend, not just going with her. The Membranes were always terrific live. I seemed to see them wherever I turned. Beat Happening at the Fulham Greyhound was a pivotal moment. My favourite gig of all time was slightly later on though. It was The Ex with Dog Faced Hermans and Dawson at the Boardwalk - simply an astonishing, stupndous night."
these gigs with their sense of community and sheer exuberance fired his young mind:
"I bought a guitar - it was a cheapo replica of the one Edwyn Collins played. Although I didn't know it at the time, I literally took the punk blueprint of learning A, E and D ad forming a band. I just wanted to be involved. I wanted to do gigs and all that stuff. I didn't smoke and I didn't drink and I had a lot of energy. I had no idea really and I think that that helped enormously. Once I had a band I wandered into the shop of someone I'd heard put on gigs, handed them a cassette we'd recorded on my stereo at home and was told, "You won't pull anyone. You need to get some other bands in." I didn't realise that he meant local bands and I wrote letters to people like The McTells and St. Christopher - all the bands I liked and was reading about at the time."
With his tastes encompassing the 'C86' scene, the sharp and angular Death To Trad Rock bands and the anorak bands, Crayola was te local Telford encyclopedia of the British Underground. So he was ringing anorak bands as well as noise bands. It was inevitable that he was going to get more deep[ly involved in everything.
"The local promoter chap was impressed that I knew all these bands from around the country and let me put gigs on. So I did and no-one came! But they were terrific gigs. I mean, putting on Pale Saints when they'd barely released a cassette demo and watching them and thinking 'they've got something special', and then seeing them get signed twelve months or so later was like, "I've been a part of that...In my own small way I helped out."
Meanwhile Crayola was getting his band together and creating his own take on the highly energised underground:
"I had my guitar and my three chords and I wasn't sure where to go with it. My key influences were bIG fLAME, for sheer excitement, The June Brides, who were the 'punkest' of the lot for me, and made me realise you didn't need to be able to hit all the right notes to make fantastic pop music...And I liked The Membranes sheer bloody-mindedness.
The Bi-Joopiter label led the way out of the post-punk Desperate Bicycles agit side of cassette DIY culture into a new prettier, more accessible world of DIY pop. The politics were still there but it was used far more subtly.
One evening I went to Birmingham and made a bad decision that became a good decision. Big Black were playing and so were The Jesus And Marychain. I went to see the Marychain - something I deeply regret from a fanboy point of view, Marychain were rubbish and I wish I could say I saw Big Black - but at the Marychain concert I met a girl and we started talking and it turned out she played bass. She lived in deepest darkest Wales on a farm owned by her father who'd run the lights in the UFO club, was friends with Syd Barrett and had a shed load of valve amps. He'd run a company in the sixties and early seventies that made amps for The Who...We decided we should be a band, bought a cheapo drum machine and started rehearsing in the open air with a generator, frightening sheep with bad cover versions of Pastels songs. Really we wanted to be A Witness but we simply didn't have enough notes."
The next couple of decades saw him persevere with his bands, going through several different names and line-ups. Initially they released their songs on cassette. The cassette scene was the ultimate in post-punk DIY and in the mid eighties it was flourishing. Cassette swaps and mail order networks got the music out, bypassing the expense of making a record. It was a highly effective, if low key, distribution tool.
"After the school band, my first group, a duo with Harriet, the girl mentioned above, was initially called The Cheese Engineers. WQe released a cassette called "Batman" and it got mentioned in Sounds. We thought we were famous! John Robb's mentioned us! We've hit the big time! We changed our name to Colgates and released a couple more cassettes that now change hands on eBay for more money than they're really worth. We never thought about making records ourselves.I was perfectly happy making cassettes on a four-track and supporting all the bands I loved."
Crayola looks back on the late eighties as an exciting and fertile period. For him the British Underground was a mixture of noiseniks and anorak pop bands. Ostensibly different, these scenes overlapped far more than you would expect with many of the bands knowing each other and playing together.
"I thought the scene was incredibly exciting, involving as it did all manner of people making and enjoying a huge range of music. There was nothing wrong with loving the experimental noise of Jackdaw With Crowbar as well as the Byrdsian pop of Razorcuts. You didn't have to compartmentalise like you did if you were a metal fan or a mod or whatever. It just seemed so free and so invigorating. And you could write to the bands you liekd and they'd reply! I even corresponded with Moe Tucker fo a while after finding an address on the back of one of the records she did with Half Japanese. I mean me, a spotty oik form the Midlands getting Christmas cards from The Velvet Underground's drummer!"
The Colgates eventually morphed into Sarandon, whose stubborn flying of the flag of the high-treble values of the scene sees them as venerable veterans of the style, even as it gets reinvigorated by great new outfits like Electricity In Our Homes. Tey may not have made a million dollars but they've acheived their ambitions, albeit very slowly.
"I had three goals when I started the band. Firstly, to make a 7 inch single. That took me until the mid-nineties. Then, to be played on John Peel, and I managed that once. And, to do a session for Radio 1. That took me nearly twenty years."
These days, musically unambitious indie fakers play stadiums, making Sarandon's low-key aims seem somehow even purer, and with the band sounding even better and more edgy than they've ever sounded in their history it looks like there may be a few twists yet to come in their extraordinary tale.