Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Headline: "Don't Knock The Baldhead" - Another overlooked band of the 2-Tone era

Headline were a 2-Tone era, 6-piece ska band signed to Virgin Records who released one single "Don't Knock The Baldhead/Highway Hassle" and an album in 1980. The band were a UK media darling for a very short time and were known for their wild stage entrances. Here is a description of the band from a support slot they played with The Stranglers in July of 1980:

Suited and booted, Headline come on from the left side of the stage, strutting linear, like a black version of Madness in Nutty Boy fashion. Headline march, march, march, chanting a deep baritone mantra: ‘Don’t knock the baldhead - Don’t knock the baldhead! Boongy boong boongy woongy! Don’t knock the baldhead!’ It’s an unforgettable entrance. They hit centre stage, and suddenly scram in all directions to grab guitars, microphones and drumsticks. Acappella out, in comes their schizoid mesh of pop-tinged Ska. Black suits, black ties, white shirts, skanking natty dread – five black baldheads and one white guy. Lean lead singer Michael holds onto the mic stand as bassist Winston bobs about, tugging at his black Music Man bass, with Kevin skanking on guitar and synth-player Richard leering at the mob, playing bubblegum synth riffs, with knees-ups and Ska ‘chikka-chiks’ a-plenty. The crowd’s earlier coolness thoroughly thaws as "Rudi Don’t Fear" and "Highway Hassle" fill the theatre with infectious, insistent Ska - followed by "Bald Head Revolution", and a return to their single, "Don’t Knock The Bald Head".

Below is a re-posting of an article from a Stranglers web site that includes an interview with Headline's bass player Winston Blissett that was conducted in 2006. These days he plays bass for ambient trip-hoppers, Massive Attack.

“I can’t believe anyone can remember Headline – I really cant! Incredulity continues as Winston admits to being part of a great outfit that never got to crack the big time. “We were great, weren’t we? I loved Headline. We actually started out as a funk band called Raw Funk – massive around southeast London - unknown everywhere else! But we’d all had enough after two years of it. Then one day, we’re in the car - 2-Tone was out - all our parents were Jamaican-born - so we said: we’ve all grown up on Ska - why don’t we just form a Ska band? Within the space of just two hours, we were Ska - we shaved off our big Afros and Headline was born.”

The band soon found some luck with the help of promoter Keith Altham’s publicist, Claudine. Her husband, musician Michael Riley, was eager to help. “Mike was helping out on the management side, but he must have been getting itchy feet after Steel Pulse. He had to leave, though…. Anyway, he asked us if he could join the band. We said yes. Our first gig was at the Nashville.”At first, summer support slots bring some positive vibes from the music press, and Headline’s profile was on the ascent, with gigs with Bad Manners. Some of them are still fresh with Winston: "Some of the Bad Manners gigs got a bit racial, I suppose. The crowd could get a bit… boisterous, but we just laughed it off at the time.”

On the bill for The Stranglers tour, Winston’s tells me about a raucous night at Birmingham Odeon: “We did our set, and then watched The Stranglers do theirs. They came onstage – and the whole place erupted. It was during their set one guy in the audience heckled throughout - then he started spitting – right after Hugh told the crowd not to. So Jean Jacques karate-kicked this guy, who went flying back into the crowd. But the thing was - Jean Jacques just carried on playing, and then he turned to me, shaking his head as if it to say - “God…” Anyway, this guy who got kicked was there after the gig bragging about being kicked in the guts by Jean Jacques! I couldn't’ believe it!” “The place was jumping throughout The Stranglers set. It was crazy. The vibe was terrific. But then the PA started rocking side to side – and we all held on to it to stop it from falling on top of the audience. Health and Safety was out of the window that night! Meanwhile, there was this Stranglers bouncer, a big guy…who was pulling bodies out from the front row. They’d resuscitate them, and as soon as they’d come to, jump back into the crowd again! It was manic!”

A record deal with Virgin finally came through, and in the company of the illustrious owner of the record company himself.“It was amazing. We went along to Richard Branson’s barge in Little Venice to sign this contract. There was a buffet laid on and everything. Branson was really into what we were doing. I was really surprised. We had a good laugh with him and his MD, Simon Draper, and afterwards we got a lift home in his Roller. I remember it must have been Valentine’s Day because he had to deliver some roses at a doorstep – but he wouldn’t do it himself: he made Simon do it. It was all very cloak and dagger, in a very posh, trendy part of London. I’d love to know who it was. Anyway, that’s how I know we got signed on February 14th to Virgin Records – signed by the man himself.”

The band recorded their debut album at Roundhouse Studios in Camden. Along with the magnificent Bald Head, they covered the Folke’s Brothers’ classic, Oh Carolina, a song Shaggy took to the top of the charts in the early 1990’s. Like a few of the other tracks, it suffered from attempting to cover all bases, to be Ska, pop, and bordering pap. This was a far cry from their spirited performances on the stages of the capital. Soon after the album hit the shops, internal squabbles fractured the friendship of the south London posse:“Headline was never about money, just the excitement. We had an excellent buzz. It was a fantastic band, even if I say it myself. But then it went down the path seen so many times, the usual rock ‘n’ roll story, where the big time just goes to some people’s heads. The band thought there was a conspiracy… it was stupid, and neither Mike, myself or Claudine liked that. In August 1980, me and Mike left. It was very sad because the talent in the band was phenomena. When we split, I felt so bad for Richard Branson because I felt we’d let him down in some way. It was upsetting.”

A slimmer Headline hobbled on, and released their second single without Winston and Michael who formed Bumble and the Beez. Then Siouxsie picked up on the band. “We were recording with a couple of guitarists and a violinist. We were actually in between drummers, and our demo didn’t have a drum track. One day, Michael’s wife, Claudine was in her office and Siouxsie Sioux walked in. She could head the tape playing in the background and asked who it was. From there, she invited us to support the Banshees at the Hammersmith Odeon – but on one condition: that we don’t bring in a drummer: she wanted it the way she first heard us.. So that’s what we did, just with Mike standing at the front singing, with a bass drum at his feet, holding a cowbell, and me on the bass.”

Still resident in Lewisham, I wondered what happened to the others. “I occasionally bump into the others, but we don’t keep in touch. We have a bit of a laugh about the old days. Although I do keep in touch with Michael. He’s Senior lecturer in music production at Westminster University.”But did you know Bad Manners covered Bald Head not too long ago? “Never! I didn’t know that!”

Headline's 1980 LP is nearly impossible to find. Instead, here is video of Bad Manners performing a cover of "Don't Knock The Baldhead" which has become a mainstay of their live set.


Steve from Moon said...

Is this where Buster Bloodvessel nicked the Don't Knock the Baldhead phrase or is it the other way around? Just wondering.

Steve from Moon said...

Oops. Ignore my earlier comment. I read the article a little more closely and my question was answered. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

BAD Manners Give Headline a mention on the back of their 2nd LP Loonee Tunes that's how I first got to hear about them. I have a copy of Headline's LP and I am looking for a copy on Cassette if one was Released because the Vinyl I have is not in Bad condition.

GK said...

Hello Marco,

Glad you found my Headline feature. Thank you also for the big-up for We got a new JJ Burnel interview in the pipeline, as a bassist yourself, you no doubt know of the man, the myth, the maninblack!

Just reading one or two of your other blogs - the one about Black Slate is great. I actually lived in the same apprtment block as the drummer. Must have been 1984-86. Nice chap indeed.

Best wishes


REDBACK said...

speaking as the only White guy in the band, think its about time Headline put some more tunes together. Dont you??
Kev Munds.

Anonymous said...

I saw Headline at (I'm not sure, it could have been The Rainbow?" where they supported the Stranglers. We booed them for the first couple of minutes as was the tradition at Strangers gigs, but then we all got into their music! After their set, we didn't want to let them go! A really amazing band, and one i'd watch tomorrow. Don't knock the bald head!!! Jon S.

Carl said...

Yup - also saw Headline supporting the Stranglers at either Blackburn King Georges Hall or Manchester Apollo. The former I think.

The thing is, Don't Knock the Baldhead has been banging around in my head for over 30 years. I never associated it with Bad Manners; I wasn't a fan of Bad Manners and only found out today that they'd covered it. I was curious about Headline but could not for the life of me remember the name. I remember them being thought of as very, very good and an unusual choice of support band.