FROM THE STICKS
A band from Hull, Red Guitars had an Indie hit with
‘Good Technology’ in 1983. I take a trip into my own past
to interview their main-man, Jeremy Kidd…
‘We’ve got photographs of men on the moon
We’ve got water that is good for us
We’ve got coffee that’s instantaneous
We’ve got buildings that are very tall
We’ve got cigarettes that are low in tar
We’ve got policemen can tell us who we are
We can reproduce a work of art
We’ve got missiles can tear the world apart
Good, good, good, good, good, good technology’
Tales unravel in slow loping polymers of speech punctuated by long thoughtful pauses. Me and Jerry Kidd are sat upstairs in his terraced house in Hull, talking through more songs about Facts and Technology. More Hicks From The Sticks. The curtains flag listlessly behind him, around a half-open window that looks out across Tunis Street at another row of terraced houses. He taps a box of matches up and down. We drink ‘coffee that is instantaneous’. While kids chant somewhere downstairs.
Jerry Kidd crosses his t’s and dots his I’s. He explains Red Guitars in meticulous detail, yet attempts to veer into matters not strictly related to the band, and it quickly comes clear that he’s intent on retaining something private for himself. The battered Jack Kerouac paperbacks on the shelf? A vague ‘naw’. They’re remnants of what he calls his ‘American Phase’. He prefers Thomas Pynchon now anyway. The albums downstairs – Duane Allman, Byrds, even Grateful Dead – are THEY influences? Another generalized negative. ‘The records I’ve got are mostly eight years old, because I can’t afford to buy them anymore, you know? They go back to a long time ago. I used to listen to loads of American music, but I don’t think it’s particularly an influence…’
And meanwhile, back at the plot…
‘We’ve had a lot of comparisons with all kinds of different bands. Talking Heads and U2. Comsat Angels. I fact – even bands that don’t feature guitars at all, which kinda makes the whole list seem a bit pointless really.’ The ghost of a grin. ‘But it’s quite good not to fit readily into a category. We’re not bothered too much – on the whole the comparisons are usually with bands we like, even if we don’t think we sound anything like them.’ Comparisons are odious. Comparisons are a neat journalistic device for short-handing bands. Sure, U2 – the basin-cut kid who brings in the coffee even looks like the boy on the U2 album sleeve! But that’s unfair. Better by far to listen.
Jerry dips his head to light a hand-rolled cigarette. Then resumes. ‘For me, the influence for being in a band was Punk. Because I used to listen to all those American bands in the early seventies. I had the attitude ‘wouldn’t it be great to do that?’, but you have to BE somebody special to be in a band. Then, quite fortuitously, through a series of accidents, I found myself singing with a band, just for fun. It became apparent that it wasn’t quite as I’d imagined it. Obviously the Punk spirit of ‘just going out and doing it’ encouraged a lot of people to play. But there’s a lot of other influences in there as well. I write most of the lyrics, and little bits of tunes here and there, but most of the music is supplied by the guitar player – Hal Lewis. Hal was brought up in South Africa, and quite a lot of the stuff we play has a vague kind of African feel – without being, or attempting to appear to be, specifically African. It just has that really nice lilting melodic feel.’ (Traits betrayed on their song “Marimba Jive”.) ‘But he’s obviously got other, more traditional Rock influences too.’
Alongside Hallam ‘Hal’ Lewis and Jeremy ‘Jerry’ Kidd there’s Red Guitarist John Rowley, Red bassist Louise (Lou Howard) Barlow, and Red drummer Matt Higgins. Jerry’s personal genealogy goes back to New Zealand, although I can’t detect any Maori in Red Guitars! The band’s evolution, more provincially, comes up through a confusion of Hull line-ups – including the short-lived Carnage In Poland. Geographical isolation can be an advantage. Hull lies a long M62 drive east clear off the map. Some people don’t even consider it part of the UK. Nissan – after some consideration, gave Humberside a miss, and built their shiny new factory in Northumberland. But that very cultural isolation pressure-cooks the local Muso Mafioso into an incestuously tight hepcat clique. I grew up in Hull. We start name-trading and turn in a respectable number of mutuals. As the interview winds down the vocalist from another band, the Luddites, drops in casual-like for a chat.
And being hicks from the sticks, away from the A-and-R stomping grounds, allows a band time to develop, batten onto and define its identity. Red Guitars value their independence – and their musical interdependence. ‘Everybody in the band contributes their part’ Jerry emphasizes. ‘We don’t insist that the drummer plays a particular pattern, although maybe we’ll suggest things to him – and likewise he’ll suggest things to us. The standard format for a song is that I’ll maybe write a lyric. And Hal has got loads and loads of tunes and bits and pieces on tape that he’ll play from time to time. What often happens is that I might spark off a melody line and get a line of lyric or a phrase. Something that seems to fit. And that’s the germination of the song. That’s where it starts. Then it grows through a process of playing it, seeing what it sounds like. We work very hard to get the right kind of final format.’ Their song “Check It Out” describes the process – ‘I just wait for that certain chord, the chord is blue, it swings, it Rocks – and when it comes, I BELT IT!’
‘“Steeltown”? That’s been knocking around for about eighteen months’ he explains. ‘We played it for a while and it wasn’t working properly live. That’s always a telling sign, y’know? If you get to that point in the set and everybody thinks ‘Oh Christ, we’ve gotta do this one,’ you know it’s not quite working. But – it’s like the thing about the sculptor with the lump of stone. Somewhere inside that stone is a sculpture waiting to come out. And we knew there was a good song there somewhere. We just had to find it. It’s taken us a long time. A hell of a lot of work went into it. But we did it, and it turned out really well. We’ve got a lot of things we don’t play yet, and we may never do. Quite often we’ll have a riff which works well, but we don’t ever air them until they become songs. That’s the important thing. We try to keep our eyes very clearly on that, ‘cos otherwise it just doesn’t add up to anything…’
And Red Guitars most definitely add up to something. Something positive.
And meanwhile, I’m still here thinking…
‘We’ve got trains that run underground
Aeroplanes that fly very fast
We’ve got music that is popular
We’ve got machines that sound like orchestras
We’ve got ability to transplant a heart
We’ve got freezers full of body parts
We’ve got computers that can find us friends
We know roughly when the world will end
Good, good, good, good, good, good technology…’
1983 – ‘Good Technology’ c/w ‘Heart Beat Go (Love Dub)’ (Self Drive Records SD 006), reaches no.8 on Indie chart, the video – performed in a scrap-yard (the obsolescence of new technology) screened on Channel Four’s ‘The Tube’, a 1984 12” reissue edition (SD008) has ‘Good Technology’ c/w ‘Fact’ + ‘Paris France’ reaches no.4 ‘We’ve got sounds that can tear us inside out, sometimes I wonder what it is all about. There’s lots of leisure time to sit and work it out, there’s a TV show I’ve got to see, Good, good, good, good, good, good technology, Good technology…’
1983 – ‘Fact!’ c/w ‘Dive (Live)’ (Self Drive Records SD007) Reaches no.7 on Indie chart. At the time of this interview the address was: ‘Self Drive Music’, 40 Tunis Street, Hull HU5 1EZ (Tel: 0482-48557) + 11 Albany Street, Spring Bank, Hull
June 1984 – ‘Steeltown’ c/w ‘Within 4 Walls’ (Self Drive Records SCAR 010). Reaches no.2 on Indie chart. A ‘Steeltown’ John Peel Session version included on 1986 twelve-inch EP ‘Four Your Ears Only’ (PIAS Recordings)
1984 – ‘Marimba Jive’ (Lewis, Jeremy Kidd) c/w ‘Heartbeat Go!’ (Hallam Lewis) (Self Drive Records SCAR 14). Reaches no.1 on Indie chart
November 1984 – ‘SLOW TO FADE’ (Self Drive Records SCAR LP1) with side one: ‘Remote Control’, ‘Dive’, ‘Astronomy’, ‘Cloak And Dagger’, ‘Crocodile Tears’, plus side two: ‘Shaken Not Stirred’, ‘Sting In The Tale’, ‘Marimba Jive’, ‘Slow To Fade’. Recorded at Fairview Studios in Hull, with all tracks written by Kidd-Lewis, except ‘Crocodile Tears’ by Kidd and ‘Heartbeat Go!’ credited to Red Guitars, it reaches no.3 on Indie chart. An October 2002 Cherry Red rerelease includes bonus tracks ‘Good Technology’, ‘Fact’, ‘Paris France’, ‘Steeltown’, ‘Within Four Walls’ and ‘Heartbeat Go!’ Jeremy Kidd quits two months after the album’s release, and releases solo single “Petals And Ashes (A Song For Emma Goldman)” c/w “Crocodile Tears” in 1985 on Self Drive Records
1985 – ‘Be With Me’ c/w ‘Things I Want’ (One Way Records OW1) ‘A’-side produced by Ian Broudie, with Robert Holmes vocals. Reaches no.1 on Indie chart
1986 – ‘America And Me’ c/w ‘Marianne’ (Virgin VS 858)
1986 – ‘Blue Caravan’ c/w ‘Suspicion And Fear’ (Virgin VS899)
1986 – ‘National Avenue (Sunday Afternoon)’ c/w ‘King And Country’ (Virgin VS 832)
FACTS ABOUT TECHNOLOGY
‘Beautiful boys with bright red guitars
in the spaces between the stars’
(“Mrs Albion You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter”
by Adrian Henri, 1967)
When he wrote those lines, poet Adrian Henri’s target was Liverpool musicians, not those from Hull. But although both cities are gradually decaying ports with declining maritime industries, the similarities end there. Some people still consider Hull to be the Land That Time Forgot. Until now, many years later, Humberside is getting its revenge – and it’s become the new home for those bright Red Guitars.
Jeremy Kidd has short uncombed hair that erupts in an unexpected spray of rats-tails over his collar. He hand-rolls cigarettes with the same exaggerated care that he’s now reciting the story of the group he fronts – Red Guitars. A slow factual narrative with artfully selected words falling exactly into place. There’s no attempted hype. No outlandish brags. He informs me that “Good Technology” – their debut single, got to no.5 on the Indie list. Most bands would’ve said no.1, what the hell? But not Jerry Kidd. He’s not playing routine promo games. He’s for real.
‘We’ve been together about two years, something like that.’ Then, ‘or is it just a year? No, it’s two years, although we didn’t really do much for the first year, we used to play a lot around here. We established a following in Hull – people used to have a good time when they came to see us. So we thought, rather than just kind-of doing a demo we’d try and get the money together and put a single out ourselves. The result was “Good Technology”… er, do you want me to keep talking? You can ask questions later. I can at least fill you in on roughly what’s going on. The story thus far…’
There are five Red Guitars. There’s Hallam Lewis in red berry and lead guitar, and Lou Barlow in dark wings of hair and bass. While John Rowley holds down that much-neglected role of rhythm guitar, against Matt Higgins sharp articulate drums. Collectively they spearhead that new generation of bands restating the importance of ‘real instruments’. The novelty phase of synth ‘n’ Revox has devolved into a new conformity, reaching a point where clean uncluttered guitar lines kick out against its fussy pretentions with renewed power, clarity and directness.
‘‘We’ve got machines that sound like orchestras’’ Kidd sings in deadpan derision. Then… ‘WE’VE got sounds that can tear us inside out!’ And they carry that directness clear through every aspect of the group. There’s precious little style-selling or danger-mouth sloganeering. They’ve opted out of the style wars. On stage their power is understated. Kidd doesn’t move much, preferring to hang folded in around the mic. The excitement – in songs like “Paris France” or instrumentals such as the Afro-tinged “Heartbeat Go!”, comes more from the controlled use of sonic dynamic. The way it builds gradually and inexorably to towers of power, the way it then fragments around frenetic guitar clusters in sparkling bursts of incandescence. Their debut album – ‘Slow To Fade’ (November 1984) is riddled with such streaks of the unique.
Yet, more concerned with superficials, the Press slagged off their killer set at the ‘Leeds Futurama’ for their ‘visual confusion of styles’. Kidd bestows one of his infrequent laughs at the put-down. ‘A couple of hippie-looking guitarists and a singer with a Mick Ronson 1973 haircut, yeah’ he quotes. ‘But I mean, maybe that’s not quite the priority with us that it is to some bands. At the moment we do tend to come across as though we’re all playing in different bands, and just happened to get together on the night. Our playing’s getting stronger and stronger through playing live. THAT’S what we see as the most important thing. We want to look reasonably RIGHT, we want to put a fairly coherent kind of image together, but I don’t think it’s crucial to our band. That’s something that’ll come together. When people want to come to see you play – that’s what we see as the most important thing. And the songs that we write – THAT’S our strength really! There’s been some good songs around this year, which is very encouraging. There are people out there writing really strong songs. There’s never THAT many about, but now there’s a few, and at least WE’RE trying…’
“Fact” came second, equally successful, and in some ways even a superior record. Jerry and Hal wrote it, and what it misses out in “Good Technology”s pressure-shaped insistence, it compensates in lyrical and melodic change-ringing. ‘Lyrics are important – especially to me, ‘cos I write them! But we write reasonably good songs, and that means managing to achieve a balance between melody and lyric. I wouldn’t like to isolate the two and separate them – because they work together. The overall shape and form is crucial in the end. To make a statement like ‘take the profit out of war/ we don’t need it anymore’ (in “Fact”) is just what it says it is, nothing more and nothing less. It’s a very bald, straightforward statement, in certain respects – very important, in other respects kind of banal and naïve. Because the verse parts, they’re much more obscure, cloudy and confused (‘for those of us with dented pride, who never reached the top/ I never lost my fear of flying’), it tends to balance out the forthrightness of the chorus. In the context of the overall lyric it achieves something of what I wanted to say. I don’t think you can take one without the other.’
The ponderous but inspired “Steeltown” – introduced by Mark Ellen when they perform it on ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’, came up for grabs as their third 45rpm, and – with the next single, “Marimba Jive” at Indie no.1, it proves that Red Guitars are far from a two-song band. They have a reservoir of material to draw from, each song distinctively different and as carefully constructed. ‘We do cover quite a broad spectrum of stuff’ he agrees. ‘Again, that just means people will probably have difficulty categorizing us, which – obviously people like to do, y’know? It’d be quite convenient if we could think of a genre-label for ourselves, but we’ve always had trouble with that.’
The ‘Humberside Sound’? Which leads us neatly back to image. Partly thanks to a Channel Four ‘The Tube’ TV mini-feature they’re inexorably linked in people’s minds as ‘RED GUITARS: A BAND FROM HULL’. ‘That’s good in some ways, and bad in other ways’ he admits. ‘But in the end it doesn’t make any difference at all. Since “Good Technology” we’ve had a few vague enquiries from major labels, quite a lot of offers from other small labels, all of which we turn down. All of those people want you to sign contracts for three years. But we certainly have no intention of rushing off down to London or anything. Simply because, as soon as you get among people who’ve spent years involved with the record industry – they start telling you things. And because they’re professionals you naturally listen. And it takes you two or three weeks to realize they’re talking absolute crap! So while we’re sitting up here in Hull, at least we know what WE want to do. And in the end – so far, that’s always proved to be the correct thing to do at every stage.’
The question about the ‘Humberside Sound’ follows naturally. But he’s not impressed. ‘It’s good fun, but it doesn’t mean anything’ he says. ‘I don’t suppose anybody takes it seriously.’
Which is where I start quoting Liverpool poetry at him, about ‘beautiful boys with bright red guitars’ Jerry? But no. ‘I missed that. Who’s that by? Adrian Henri? That’s interesting…’