Original unedited email interview with John Robb, 20/7/08:
I'm doing a book on the membranes/3 johns/stretctheads/a witness//nightingales/big flame scene we were all loosely linked with and would like to interview you! would this be possible...
also have you got any of those cool old handmade A4 posters/old band pics etc that I can use (there is no budget to pay for these---just like the old days!)
what first got you into music
>>>I started listening to the charts in 1979 when I was ten and remember really liking Elvis Costello, his ultra-nerd look of the time was truly bizarre and annoyed the hell out of parents - so similar to the geek chic emo thing of today too. Hearing The Beatles was a big thing around then too, the crazier tracks like I Am The Walrus and Revolution 9 were like aural LSD. An uncle had the Plastic Ono Band 'Live Peace in Toronto' LP and I was blown away by the wailing atonal Yoko side of that - it still annoys 'music lovers' to this day! Also things like the nude LP cover and rolling about in bags all sounded very exotic and fascinating - the whole 'art shock' thing was really impressive. At the same time I loved Queen's singles, stuff like Fat Bottomed Girls and Bicycle Race were such great and witty pop songs. And second-wave punk of course. There were some good disco records too, Funkadelic were in the charts with 'One Nation Under a Groove' and it just sounded so 'wrong' and wild to me, they played some quite oddball funk type records like that on Radio Luxembourg at the time.
what was the effect of punk on you? which bands did you like
>>>Last year of junior school 1979/80 my mind was on either second-wave punk or John & Yoko type hippy experimentation, I remember being in the classroom not doing work, just thinking about what it must be like being in the Cockney Rejects or doing crazy Yoko art shows with screaming and wailing, when I think about it the Ceramic Hobs has been a mix of both these influences...Everyone was into those 'Great Rock n Roll Swindle' Pistols/McLaren cash-in records - obviously a song like 'Friggin In The Riggin' is going to be huge in playgrounds. I still love that stuff more than the proper Pistols records, the soundtrack album still sounds shocking and ahead of its time in its cynicism whereas most mainstream punk (Clash, SLF etc) sounds as much a part of safe and boring 'rock history' as Bob Dylan. The Cockney Rejects were getting in the charts and on TOTP and their naughty kid attitude and songs were so great. I first listened to John Peel as a result of them having a Peel session and somehow I'd found out about this show. So then I got exposed to things like Joy Division and The Fall.
what groups did you get into in the post punk period
>>>Through John Peel I got exposed to PiL (Metal Box era), Joy Division, The Fall. I remember not being sure whether I actually liked this stuff. 'Container Drivers' is a pretty catchy song but some of the other Fall songs were just dirges and the words were so strange, it just made you feel confused but I'd keep listening trying to suss out where it was coming from. One of the first gigs I ever went to was The Fall at Clitheroe Castle in summer '85, a free gig put on by the great Radio Lancashire show 'On The Wire'. I'm still meeting people who were there, twenty-odd years later! So many of us in bands owe enormous debts to The Fall, it's not always easy to admit and I hate it when we get Fall comparisons in reviews, but like it or not I think most bands in this book (in the North especially) really have been deeply influenced. MES is like some malign guru hovering over this part of the country making sure all the bands have a kind of twisted and dark side...As I got older I got into things like Crass and Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV, all good thought-provoking stuff when you're an angsty bedroom-bound teenager. Sounds was a good music paper, the only good one there ever was really, and via the small ads at the back of that I got into sending off for fanzines and releases on tape labels. There was this guy in London with a tape label 'Cause For Concern' which was ace, he'd sell anarcho-punk tapes by The Apostles and The Mob but also loads of industrial noisy stuff and some of his compilations just had every style of underground music there was on them, you could just send him a blank tape and some postage and hear all this stuff for next to nothing.
what was the scene like in your town? good bands, venues charcachters on the scene
>>>I got out of Blackpool as soon as I could, by the mid-80s there didn't seem to be any venues and it was mostly MOR 'battle of the bands' vile light entertainment derived things that were happening. It took about twenty years for that situation to improve! So I went to college in Manchester and dropped out pretty quick...I remember Manchester having a big free festival for 'International Youth Year' in 1985 in Platt Fields, Big Flame and The Creepers played and lots of other bands that weren't so great but it was an exciting day. John Robb sold me Rox issue 26 there, I thought it was pretty funny, the cartoons and scrawls and generally anarchic childishness were the great things about it. Preston had the 'Twang Club' at a tiny WMC down a back street, I saw Ted Chippington there and interviewed him, then in his set he said "a bloke was interviewing me just outside that door, I had nothing interesting to say as you can imagine" and that bit ended up on his LP! Going to tiny little gigs is so exciting when you are seventeen, you're much more open to new experiences at that age and want to learn things, we all get jaded as we get older but it's important to fight it. In Manchester there were loads of good gigs at the Boardwalk, sometimes I'd go there even if I wasn't into the bands much just cause it was such a nice place. King Of The Slums supported everyone who passed through there it seems, they were a good band but it'd be like 'oh fuck, not this lot again'. Planet X was the best venue in Liverpool, an unbelievable dive with several inches of festering water in the toilets, cheap booze and a liberal attitude towards drug use on the premises - heaven when you're a teenager! They mostly had punk or hardcore bands on but the boundaries were pretty blurred at the time between the scene in this book and other underground genres. Lots of us were into the retro-psych stuff like The Shamen, Loop, Spacemen 3, and then you had some of the harder-edged bands from the scene, like The Janitors and Walking Seeds who were ahead of their time, basically doing grunge about five years before it was popular. When loads of people got into acid house music at the end of the 80s, so many were actually veterans of the post-punk, 80s indie thing. A 90s dance promoter (Andrew Stratford) namechecked in Dave Haslam's "Manchester England" book had passed through the Ceramic Hobs lineup a few years before.
where you in bands before?
>>>I started the Ceramic Hobs at sixteen in 1985. Before then, just silly bedroom punk groups with upturned ice cream tubs for drums, attempts at guitar sound from rubber bands etc. Doing a gig in the back garden age eleven calling ourselves 'SNOT' and it turning into a water fight. Everyone our age has all these stories, they're like archetypes. Shane Meadows should follow up 'This Is England' with a film about a kiddie bedroom punk band.
what was your first experience of the scene I am writing about in the book?
>>>Well, I guess related to that was the first ever Ceramic Hobs gig, September 14 1985 at Lytham Library - these assembly rooms which were annexed to it. Just next door to the police station so they could keep an eye on the underage drinkers who were going to this all-age show. Most of the groups that played the little scene were typical teenage bands. Covers of Who songs etc. But some of them had got into the Velvet Underground and were trying to do more ambitious songs and their own material. We did a six minute set using borrowed equipment, none of us had ever picked up instruments before, it was just a cacophony. The band were mostly kids from school just along for a laugh and a drink, I haven't seen them for over twenty years now...But there was a kid I'd not met before from St Annes there who thought it was hilarious and he got what we were doing, his band were covering PiL's 'The Suit' and changing the words to insult the crowd by name - "Steven Moore sitting in the corner is a wanker, it's his nature" - this lad, I think he was a bit older than me, did a fanzine called Plain English - so four weeks after the gig we got our first review, alongside reviews of Bog/Shed and all the other stuff in his zine - couldn't believe how thrilling it was to see the band name in print in this scrappy publication that he probably printed 50 copies of! And this guy would tell me about going to the Twang Club and getting lifts back from Stan who was in the Membranes at the time. Now in 1985 I seem to remember the Membranes were a big band, getting their faces in colour spread in NME...and around then it kind of sunk in that the people doing this stuff (which sold amazing quantities at the time really, with there being an independent record shop in every town and Peel playing it all night after night) were approachable and human and that this was a real network of like-minded souls, until then I'd been kinda bedroom-bound and talking about stuff and getting zines and tapes through the mail, just not old-looking enough to get into gigs easily and start a proper social life.
which bands did you like/go and see?
>>>I used to love Bog/Shed and to this day I regret never seeing them, somehow I just kept missing them and one day it was too late. They're remembered as being 'silly' or 'wacky' but a lot of those lyrics are just plain strange and disturbing - y'know, what the hell does he mean? And their second album Brutal has some of the most depressing and grim words this side of Lou Reed. Same goes for the Membranes, Kiss Ass Godhead is a really intense and dark record, some of that stuff initially looks like 'fun' and then you find out it's far from fun. I remember the Membranes in early '88 playing the Boardwalk with Colin (later of Mr Ray's Wig World and a properly eccentric character) firebreathing with a string of onions round his neck, loads of guitarists just feeding back and John Robb on his knees assuming a crucifix posture, you'd be wondering if they were gonna be alright and slightly worried! All those rumours that Robb had flipped out on acid in San Francisco and talked to the devil...r'n'r mythology stuff! The Dandelion Adventure/Fflaps/Stretchheads tour of 1989 was tremendous fun, all great people to hang out with and such entertaining and odd bands. I did bits of onstage dodgy 'performance art' back then sometimes - setting fire to my hands and wearing a bra stuffed with sausages. Dandelion Adventure never quite pulled it off on record but the live shows were some of the wildest spectacles. Ripped up paper everywhere even more so than Membranes gigs, and people yelling 'Exploited Barmy Army' which summed up the twisted acid humour - the audience members parodying yet celebrating the macho side of moshpits. Quite a volatile mix of personalities with Stan, Ajay and Mark, it tore the band apart prematurely from the sound of it, it's a miracle they even got beyond the rehearsal room in retrospect. I'm not sure how they fit into the scene you're writing about, they were pretty much outsiders everywhere, but I loved the Walking Seeds enormously, they were the nearest thing the northwest had to the Butthole Surfers. Most people remember their later retro-psych records done with Kramer but their earlier noisier stuff was very raw and awkward, really fucked-up production and the screamiest most unmusical vocals ever. Barry Sutton who was in them also had a mad little project The Marshmallow Overcoat, I remember really loving their tapes. And he was in a mental Liverpool band called The Goat People who had performance artists, about ten musicians and lyrics about 'homosexual dog activity', now that stuff was more interesting to me than The La's...All those little forgotten bands of the time... Preston had Anal Beard (name later stolen by some Brighton lot) which was I think some sort of related precursor to the General Havoc and thence Cornershop. They did a 45 minute set at the Rumble Club consisting of attempts at Sweet Home Alabama! Liverpool had a band called Radio Mongolia who sounded like post-punk mixed with Gong, they were into the squatting/festival scene and lived a more 'outlaw' and on the edge existence than anyone I've met before or since, a lot of those characters were instrumental in getting the techno/free festival crossover scene going. And the Stretchheads of course affected everyone who ever saw them, P6 can do strange things to audiences like no other performer can (or would want to?) and he's still capable of it when De Salvo play. A gig with them, Dandelion Adventure and Dog Faced Hermans in Edinburgh was memorable for all the wrong reasons. DFH were leaving for Holland and there seemed to be high tension in the air. P6 had some sort of huge and very painful boil on his ass which had just burst before they did their set. I was with Dandelion Adventure (who had been taunting and winding each other up in ever-increasing and quite cruel doses the night before in Preston), I hadn't been eating or sleeping properly and had done one too many tabs and was losing it and heading towards the nut ward again...well, the spiral Dandelion Adventure backdrop did say 'BAD TRIP' on it after all! A lot of this scene was not cosy or safe at all, people were young and experimenting with not only music but different approaches to how to live life. Very few of us had regular day-jobs, there were more than a few peculiar and highly-strung people around, I remember seeing more than one of the girls in the scene with cuts on their arms a long time before that somehow became almost acceptable/fashionable like it is these days. That Pussy Galore album released on Vinyl Drip was a phenomenally extreme and genuinely dangerous record. And it's almost forgotten now how much strong LSD was around in the 80s before Ecstasy took over.
did it affect your idea of making music?
>>>I think my idea of making music was more affected by the industrial and experimental stuff I'd heard - a lot of the scene described in this book, great though my memories of it are, was essentially rock-based and didn't venture much further out musically than having a Beefheart influence. When I was fifteen I got hold of a tape by Ramleh, who at the time did 'power electronics' which was just a wave of tuneless atonal synth noise with screaming over it and abject graphics and track titles. As I've never been able to play any musical instruments that really did give me hope! Funny enough Tim Gane who later was in McCarthy and Stereolab actually started out doing this extreme industrial type stuff under the name Un-Kommuniti. I guess the Membranes episodes of metal-bashing must have been inspired by Test Department, SPK and Neubauten so there's another meeting point. You would drive yourself nuts listening to nothing but that stuff but the attitude really was a bigger influence on me than just about anything else. Also the intelligence of 'industrial culture', references to books and so on, I liked all that stuff more than say the Wedding Present singing love songs which were just a more raw version of what was in the real charts. The Butthole Surfers were a big influence on us and on a lot of other UK bands of that era, sometimes it's embarassingly obvious how indebted our stuff is to their groundbreaking 80s albums and shows. I was always into political themes too, nobody I've ever met from my generation has ever had any good memories of Thatcher (maybe I've just never met anyone properly upwardly-mobile!) so while I wasn't into the Three Johns' music that much I could appreciate the cleverness of a protest song like Death Of The European (such a big number, it seemed to be on the radio every night). The more mainstream Red Wedge stuff was a big turn-off for me. Weller and Bragg making protest look completely unsexy! Almost as if they were doing the Tories' job for them, I know a lot of other people I knew felt like this too.
what was the initial idea for your band?
>>>The start of it crossed over with a period of making prank phone calls and recording them which got quite psychologically strange, and cruel in retrospect, but that's what teenagers do...I was really impressed (over-impressed really) with how Psychic TV operated on loads of different levels as more of an art experiment than a band, and wanted to do something musically and presentation-wise which had overtones of a psychology experiment. And at the same time I was sixteen and being forced into thinking about 'careers' which I had zero interest in, from the age of twelve I had known I wouldn't live a 'normal' sort of life. The aggressive normality of the 80s mainstream was really something to kick against. Bob Holness running a horrible quiz show for sixth-formers on TV, terrible painful music like Five Star, Phil Collins and Dire Straits, shoulder pads, power dressing and Miami Vice...if people think Pop Idol and chainstore fake punk are annoying nowadays, let's just remember how sickeningly awful mainstream shit was back then. Jagger and Bowie doing Dancing in the Streets for charity. Wogan every night on auto-pilot. Bobby Davro being top comedian etc. It doesn't get any easier thinking about this stuff, I'm still traumatised! So I also wanted to do deliberately childish and 'unsophisticated' stuff. For the first year we couldn't play any instruments and barely had any real ones. After a while we attracted some actual musicians to join but the first year was pure musique concrete.
where you into the fanzine culture that was around at the time?
>>>Sure, I did about fifteen different zines in the eighties, none of them in editions bigger than 200 though. Fanzines were a great way of networking before the internet, meeting like-minded people in different towns...I had all sorts in my zines from interviews with Nurse With Wound to lots of surreal collages to articles on stuff like scientology - there were no rules, just whatever I was interested in at the time, it didn't cost anything to print as like a lot people I'd get stuff done afterhours in an office on the sly. A big zine of the time which some found annoying in its 60s retro-obsession but everyone read anyway was Vague, it was so thick and amazingly designed with colour overlays (idea ripped off from Oz and IT of course) and had loads of fascinating counter-culture and politics stuff. Swapping zines with people you didn't really feel boundaries between genres like there is today, one day in the post would be David Chambers' French Film Blurred which was a pretty archetypal cutie ba-ba-ba thing but great with it, then John Yates doing Jellybean State which was the political collage material he later became very well known for plus reviews of US hardcore, then you might get a skateboarding zine from some enthusiastic mad kids in Bury. I always liked the sillier side of zines. The Healey brothers did something called Smell My Wooly Mammoth which was pretty much like Vic Reeves humour years before he started, it reduced me to tears of laughter...Frank from the WalkingSeeds did really daft cartoons in Trashcan. Stan's A 'Sex' Hat Dance zine had some ace stuff in it. Now and again, very rarely, you'd see a zine which looked like it was meant to be a stepping-stone to a 'career' - neatly laid-out interviews with proper bands - Dave Simpson had one like that in Leeds, I remember, and Ablaze! ended up getting like that before Karren realised she wasn't into it and quit. But mostly zines back then were just done for the love of creativity.
talk about the records you made
>>>By 1987 we were doing loads of tapes for our own amusement and getting pretty good, some decent musicians were involved and we had this strange psychedelic effects-pedals-riddled sound of our own. We very seldom played live but we were doing stuff like making our own videos and the zines and paintings were all part of the same crazy little teenage fantasy bohemian world. I didn't know much about the Swell Maps back then but reading about how they had started in the early seventies years later was almost eerie in its similarity. A fanzine writer, Andrew from Plane Truth, put us on a flexidisc, split with Stan doing his Howl In The Typewriter solo thing. Didn't do another proper record til '91, that one (the 'Wife Swapping Party' 7" credited to 'Orange Sunshine') wasn't so great, I put it out simply because I had gone mad in 88/89 and had loads of loony benefit money and didn't know what to do with it. I was doing a degree in the early 90s and the band was in flux, we kept changing our name to something more preposterous every year - full list: 1989: SATAN THE JESUS INFEKT'D NEEDLES AND BLOOD (from a collage cut-up of a sick piece in fundamentalist christian mag The Plain Truth which had gone on about AIDS being a curse from God), 1990-1992: ORANGE SUNSHINE, 1993: SALTY GROUSE CASTRATION SQUAD, 1994: BLOOD KLAT (IN SPUME BUMMER) - and we were just doing a tape every year, for our own amusement and edification, they were hardly promoted and we didn't play live. In 1995 I ended up back in Blackpool and had a lot more time to take the band seriously, pStan has been my main collaborator since then and pretty much invaluable musically and logistically. Personally I had been energised by Nation of Ulysses and Riot Grrl, then by the mid-90s lo-fi tape label explosion and resurgence of noise music. Since that time there have been four proper albums and a number of singles. They don't sell like hot cakes but they all do sell out their pressings eventually. I've been pleasantly surprised by the amount of good press we've got from mainstream magazines over the last few years, not that it makes much difference to how we operate beyond briefly swelling our heads for a while. We do this for the art, I know a lot of bands claim that but our track record of continuing with almost zero interest (and zero money) beyond a few fanatics in farflung locations speaks for itself! It is a fifty year project, we intend to split up in 2035. Maybe I really am fucking mad.
why did the band end?
>>>We never ended or split, although things were certainly slow for a few years in the early 90s after I went mental then had to extricate myself from that quack branch of medicine called psychiatry. We've ended up being associated with that, as bizarrely two other band members from the early days went nuts also. We're not the first psychiatric punk band though - Rudimentary Peni got there first. Knowing people from the activist group Mad Pride helped us to finally get into live performance properly, they first put us on in London in '99/'00. I guess we've done more shows over the past few years than in the first fifteen years of the band's existence. Sometimes quite confrontational too. The sound can upset muso types and some PA guys but also the angularity and sight of men in dresses can piss off revivalist punks too, there was an ace gig in Blackpool where a mohicaned One Way System fan kept shouting "you're not punk, fuck off!", grabbing the microphone and a near-riot situation ensued. I like art which is based around the idea of transformation so gigs like that are a terrific success as far as I am concerned, other members of the band may not always agree.
have you got a good band discography and a list of band members and what they played and a current website/myspace?
>>>A list of band members would go on forever - there have been over thirty people involved over the years, some maybe just for one gig or recording session. Important members: Me (1985-present), Steve Lambert (1985-1999), pStan Batcow (1993-present), Raptor Ramjet (1998-2002), Syd Green (1986-1992), Steve Massey (1988-2000), Phil Crozier (1986-89), RooH (2003-present), Ging (2003-present), Jane (studio only, 1997-present), Kate Fear (2003-present). Members of lots of other bands have passed through including half the current lineup of Section 25! At least three ex-members are now deceased, two through suicide and one in a bike crash. We don't have a website or MySpace, in fact we want to be the only band left in the world who don't have a MySpace! Just allergic to self-promotion, it's probably pathologically perverse and rooted in some kind of arrogance - 'we know how good we are, it's your job to find out about us'. Many of our major releases are available via pStan Batcow's http://www.pumf.net label. There's also quite a lot of interviews and reviews online if you wade your way through kitchen manufacturers, and lots of people have put recent footage of very variable quality up on YouTube.