Messages (the reissue, 2009).
Sleeve Notes By Steve Swindells
You know how so often we think that ‘life is like a movie’, whether it might be horror, fantasy, musical, action, thriller, Sci-fi, or even romantic comedy? Who claps the metaphoric clapper board, apart from our objective selves?
It all started when I persuaded my fellow (avowedly heterosexual) members of the Bristol ‘classical rock’ band Squidd to perform for nothing at a Gay Liberation Front benefit in Fulham Town Hall in, erm, I think, 1972. If so, I was twenty years-old. That’s nearly thirty-seven years ago.
A Gandalf-like man approached me backstage after our performance to suggest that he’d be interested in managing and producing me – but not the band. Maybe it was because I’d performed in a green, satin dress, afro-wig and football boots. Or maybe it was that he fancied me. The latter was the unfortunate truth. His name was (or is, if he’s still alive), Mark Edwards.
He was a posh, gay hippy from Dorset with a pretentious beard that featured double plaits.
On paper, at least, Mark looked like a good bet: he’d produced the million-selling, debut album by Curved Air and seemed to have excellent connections.
In 1973 I moved from Bristol to London to live in a squat in Camden. I had the whole ground floor of a perfect little Georgian house all to myself. There was, alas, no bathroom, but at least there was a large communal kitchen in the basement where everyone lived on brown rice, home-made chapatis, lentils and carrots. There were hundreds of squatters living in this attractive enclave of several ‘blocks’ between Mornington Crescent and St Pancras. I was having a bit of a thing with a wannabe dealer who was squatting in a house a few doors down with a delightfully eccentric young red-head called Nell, amongst others. She went on to host her fantastic, eponymous nightclub in NYC in the 70/80s. I went several times. It was of the inspirations for one of my later incarnations as a club promoter in the 80s.
My younger brother Frank, an able guitarist and violinist, came to live with me for a while, and I formed a band with him and various fellow-squatters, including Bruce Knapp, who later played guitar on Messages. It was, to be frank, all a bit hippy; freewheeling our way around the free festivals in a large truck which I’d borrowed from my elder brother Rob, and using the roof of a giant marquee that I’d dubiously acquired, as a makeshift Bedouin tent. I’d lived at the Glastonbury festival site at Worthy Farm for several months in the 40-foot-long marquee-roof (complete with carpets, cushions and my own sleeping area with double lilo) for several months in 1971 and had helped build the first Pyramid stage, before being invaded by all my old friends from my short sojourn at art college in Bristol, who ‘crashed’ in the tent during the festival itself. I really do recall it as being a fantastic, mystical and magical time, both before and after the festival. And Lady Arabella Churchill often used to let me sleep in her four poster bed in her room at Worthy Farm when she was away. See if you can spot me in the ‘Glastonbury Fayre’ film, ‘doing a Pied Piper’ in purple loon pants and a trilby with an ostrich feather in it, whilst playing a treble recorder. Deliciously embarrassing!
Me aged 19 at Glastonbury in 1971 (my brother Frank found the pic online).
Moving to the squat in London had been somewhat influenced by the fact that I’d been ‘busted’ in Bristol, having been set-up by a jealous, homophobic wannabe ‘girlfriend’ called Lois, for possession of THREE ROACHES – and fined the astonishing sum of £150! My lovely mum later paid this ridiculous fine for me and I was soon to be swept into the music business by Mark Edwards, who was, unfortunately, to turn-out to be completely psychotic and sexually obsessed with me, and to become increasingly violent and abusive as he realised he couldn’t ‘have’ me.
I was twenty-one. It was all a curious mixture of bewildering, besotted, beguiling, baffling, bullshit and brazen. What a horrendous way to kick-off one’s career in the music industry!
First-up came the King Crimson/ELP connection. ELP were at the height of their success and had a ‘rock-star-vanity’ record label called Manticore. I recall Mark Edwards taking me to meet a well-known lyricist in his large, impressively arty and funky house in Battersea Park Road in South London. Having heard my demos, he apparently wanted to produce my album and assembled a band that was essentially Bob Dylan’s backing group to rehearse with me in Manticore’s ludicrously extravagant rehearsal space in Fulham Broadway – a huge, atmospheric former cinema draped in floaty white parachutes. Both the building and the band overwhelmed me, but I was decidedly underwhelmed, even deflated, by the lyricist’s production skills and the revelation, when I’d first met him in the Manticore offices, that he was writing a song based on ‘an orange’s osmosis into a crystal’, or something along those lines. It all seemed totally surreal, pretentious and self-indulgently narcissistic to me. And there was more nonsense to come.
A massively successful rock-star, who shall remain nameless, invited me to his tasteless, bland, piss-elegant. wood-panelled rock-star mansion in South Kensington for a bit of ‘male bonding’ involving a hand-tooled, antique box containing about twenty different ‘stashes’ of premium hash in small compartments. His trophy wife, a blond Scandinavian ex-model, naturally, who appeared to be little more than his servant, brought us drinks and then made herself scarce as my new ‘best rock-star mate’ tested my ability to get completely wrecked and not pass out. Of course, I passed with flying colours… not that I cared. This was just macho, rock-star bullshit. At this stage I realised that he was so patronising and egotistical that the mooted record deal was unlikely to go through, as it was all about… him. I was soon to be proved correct.
Meanwhile, I had to deal with Gandalf, AKA Mark Edwards, my erstwhile manager/producer (who would later violently attack me with depressing regularity in public and private and make my life hell), making sure that I was housed in his flat on Cromwell Road in Earl’s Court (hence ‘The Earl’s Court Case’ on Messages) which in the early seventies was London’s first ‘gay village’. He was totally obsessed with me and I was soon to discover that he was a junkie, an alcoholic and a psychopath.
The whole fiasco with Manticore had come to nothing, but Mark did at least secure me my first publishing deal with Chappell Music. I believe the advance was something pathetic like £100, along with a ludicrously mean 50/50 split, and my first record deal, with RCA, again with some pitiful advance, much of which found its way into his pockets.
Having spent all his royalties from Curved Air on drugs, eating-out, booze and rent boys; suddenly I was Mark Edwards’ only potential meal-ticket. He moved us into a tiny, two-bed flat in Silverthorne Road, Battersea, where the he used to shout abuse at the working-class neighbours when they complained about the noise, throwing open the window in the kitchen and ranting at them about the fact that OWNED the flat. Grotesque. They later chased him down the street with meat cleavers, as most of them worked at Smithfield meat market. I recall that he jumped into a cab to escape. He also obtained a large bank loan using my record deal with RCA as collateral. I later had to take on this loan in order to escape his evil clutches.
On the other hand, suddenly I was actually making my first album on a major label, with fantastic, famous musicians in fabulous recording studios, and I even had a full orchestra on some of the tracks. It was an extraordinary mix of joy and horror; a dream-come-true and a nightmare. Mark would sit at the mixing desk with a bottle of scotch on one side and a pile of cocaine on the other, talking complete nonsense and threatening and embarrassing me, and everyone else, with his totally-out-of-it incompetence. Talk about a baptism of fire! My first album was basically a tight-rope walk into insanity with him getting out of it, whilst I was working-out how to get out of it, without… getting out of it, if you get my drift?
On one particular Messages recording session at The Who’s Ramport Studios in Battersea (I don’t recall the particular song, but it was basically Elton John’s backing band playing with me), I was playing a beautiful Bosendorfer piano in the booth when ‘Gandalf’ drunkenly/druggily accused me of being out of time and physically threatened to hit me over the head, hovering over me with his whisky bottle, demanding that I record to the track WITHOUT HEADPHONES. Luckily, my natural timing was excellent, and the band was able to follow. Can you even imagine how downhearted, depressed, truamatised and betrayed I felt?
On a happier note, I was later recording in the big studio upstairs at what was Island Studios in Basing Street in Notting Hill (now Trevor Horn’s Sarm Studios): it must have been a track for Swallow in 1975, I don’t remember. A period of extreme trauma creates selective amnesia, even when there are good bits.
I went downstairs to get a coffee and a sandwich from the basement cafe and heard this wonderful changa changa guitar noise coming out of the open door of the smaller Studio 2. Then a bloke who looked strangely familiar walked into the studio carrying a guitar case.
I poked my head around the studio door, explained that I was working in the studio upstairs, and congratulated the first person I saw regarding the track, saying it sounded fantastic. He had really long dreadlocks, smiled a lovely smile and shook my hand, thanked me sincerely and handed me a big fat joint. It was Bob Marley. The guitarist was Eric Clapton. We later had a great game of table football too – I recall that Eric and I won! And the big studio upstairs was where ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ was recorded many years later, with John Moss (and Phil Collins) on Drums. Jon Moss and I would record a double album together, as DanMingo, in 2003. A much happier recording process altogether!
To say that the recording of Messages and Swallow was challenging and difficult for me would be a gross understatement. Edwards was a complete bastard and treated me with utter contempt, presumably due to my sexual rejection of him. It was only when my mother came to London and met with a solicitor who declared his management contract ‘null and void’ that I was literally kidnapped from the flat where he had me virtually imprisoned in Battersea by my dear friend Caroline Guinness and her then boyfriend, the late, great Tim Clark. And I lost everything including a piano, stereo, and an early ARP monophonic synthesizer, all of which he’d ‘blagged’, using my name. The ARP synth, the same model that Stevie Wonder used, had featured heavily on both albums. Like Stevie, I’d multi-tracked all the parts, as polyphonic synths hadn’t yet been invented. This is especially apparent on the track ‘I Can’t See Where The Light Switch Is’, featuring the legendary Danny Thompson on double bass, on Messages.
Me performing my first single ‘Shake Up Your Soul’ on a TV show which was filmed in Birmingham. I forget the name of it, but I clearly remember having lunch with David Essex, who was also on the show, in the studio canteen. He was charming and funny, and his eyes were the bluest I’ve ever seen – apart from Roger Daltrey’s – who (geddit?) was to record four of my songs – with me on keyboards – many years later.
I remember writing the lyrics of the title track of Messages in the squat in Camden straight into in a notebook in 1973, sitting by my period, open fire (the only heating, of course). It was probably my first experience of what is known as ‘automatic writing’. And, strangely, the lyrics are about precisely that. Messages From Heaven. It was a total dream-come-true recording the eleven-minute track totally LIVE with a full orchestra, and King Crimson’s Mike Giles on drums, in George Martin’s Air Studio 1, high above Oxford Circus. And, for once. Mark Edwards was almost well-behaved. Somewhere, there’s a somewhat arty, full-length film of the track, featuring me in a hot-air balloon in a white robe and all sorts of other flighty stuff, scripted by me and directed by ‘Gandalf’. I certainly don’t have a copy, and I doubt whether Mark Edwards’ family or friends (if he has any) know about it either, but I hope that it still exists. Just for the record.
The Messages album cover was my concept. It was a very skillful photo-montage from a record company-sponsored shoot in a stately home in the Home Counties. I wanted to satirise not only the concept of ‘pop image’, but also the pathetic, public perception of gay stereotypes. Did you notice that they’re actually all me, including the metaphoric ‘judge’? I have to point out (so many years years before Photo Shop) that my legs as ‘a drag queen’ were indeed air-brushed – they were not that thin! And the ‘pretty boy’ picture on the back cover was RCA’s attempt to present me as some sort of pop star. Hah!
I guess that the somewhat whimsical quality of Messages is almost as a result of me trying to convince myself that everything was okay, and that I wasn’t in some kind of nightmare with an obsessive, psychotic, junkie alcoholic who was trying to control me, not only in a business sense, but in the delusional belief that he could ‘have me’ as a boyfriend. Yeah, I was pretty, but I was also pretty strong. He never succeeded. But I was still kind of scared, or indeed scarred by the experience… for a long, long time.
We recorded the follow-up album Swallow and things were looking better. Maybe Mark had dropped the heroin or boozing, I don’t recall. I’m afraid the only musician I can remember playing on it was the excellent drummer Roy Dyke, who later went on to marry Hawkwind’s notoriously naked dancer Stacia, who then changed her name to Stacia Gay to match his ‘lesbian’ moniker. Very droll! Little did I know that I would end-up joining Hawkwind/lords just a few years later, in 1978.
And in the end, the clapper board clapped and no-one… clapped. I was left out in the cold after ‘Gandalf’ swept everything off the Managing Director’s desk at RCA in a drunken, druggy rage. End of deal. An unthinkably terrible situation for me at the time.
These two albums are a testament to that struggle and the horror of being betrayed, abused and exploited by a posh hippy with no scruples or morals… and a stupid beard.
Messages From Heaven? You bet. I couldn’t have made-up the bizarre tie-ins that happened subsequently in my strange and interesting life. There was only one thing missing – and that was Mark Edwards, thank God.
Messages: can you Swallow it? I just hope that when you listen, you’ll find some hope, joy and spirituality shining through.
PS I recently discovered, much to my surprise, that the Messages album sleeve is on display in London’s Hard Rock Cafe, back-lit on a pillar near the bar. I can only assume it’s been there for over thirty years!
These two albums are dedicated to my wonderful mother Audrey, the awesome Caroline Guinness and to the memories of the late Tim Clark and my late, first proper lover (and erstwhile Hawklords roadie) Millar. And to V.E, D.H, S.M and A.K.A.
With special thanks to Ian Abrahams.
Steve Swindells. London NW10. 9.09pm. 9.9.09.
Footnote: I only discovered that Mark Edwards had died when someone ‘in-boxed’ me on Facebook, asking if I was Steve Swindells the singer-songwriter and, if I was, could I get back to him? Curious, I did so, and he told me that his mother had bought a cottage in Corfe Castle in Dorset, from the estate an old lady who’d died; a Mrs Edwards. The loft had been full of junk and bric-a-brac, but there was also a large trunk full of reel-to-reel tapes, some quarter-inch, some one-inch and two-inch. Mark Edwards was listed as producer on all of them – and, along with Curved Air, the main artist on them was Steve Swindells. Would I like them? Absolutely yes, I replied, thanking him for being so thoughtful in tracking me down. Rob, my elder brother, who lives in Bristol, very kindly picked them up for me and brought them to London. I still haven’t got around to checking whether one of the unmarked two-inch tapes is the missing film of Messages From Heaven.
My new, double compilation album New Crescent Yard, featuring home recording and demos from the late 80s until 2012, is available to download for just $10 – for a limited period – from http://steveswindells.bandcamp.com
My 2012 release, the double CD The Lost Albums is available on iTunes, online record stores and http://www.flickniferecords.co.uk
Messages is not on iTunes (thanks, R.C.A) but is available on Amazon.co.uk and Play.com, amongst others.