Monday, January 5, 2009
Exclusive: Interview with Nik Akrylyk About His Days Playing in Hull's Very Own 2-Tone Era Ska Band The Akrylykz
One of the goals of this blog is to draw attention to all the bands and musicians who contributed to the entire output of 2-Tone era music in the UK, US and Canada. 2-Tone was not just a record label, but a philosophy, a world view and a movement. While I love and respect each and every 'traditional' 2-Tone band, there are two bands who fell outside the 2-Tone scene that I have special affection for. One is The Ammonites from Brighton. Their song 'Blue Lagoon' is on par with any of the best music from the 2-Tone era. I was heartened to learn that they had decided to reform and will be playing their first show in nearly 30 years later this month in Hove. The other is The Akrylykz who hailed from Hull, which I have learned is about as far off the beaten path as a city in the UK can be. It was in this city in 1978 that five students attending Hull College of Art and one local lad came together to start a band who had tremendous potential, plenty of ambition, a striking looking and sounding front man and good songs, but who never quite got the breaks, attention or recognition they deserved.
I learned about The Akrylykz around the time that Fine Young Cannibals released their first album in the UK in the mid 80's (I was attending a semester abroad at Essex University in Colchester). I read the UK music press stories with great interest as they explained how Andy Cox and David Steele had tracked Roland Gift down in Hull where he had played in a ska band that had supported The Beat. This bit of news left me intrigued. Later, back home in the U.S., I came across the band's 7" single 'JD' in a used record store and purchased it. I loved hearing Gift's voice on top of great 2-Tone ska and it opened my ears to the fact that there was more great music to discover and listen to beyond The Specials, The Selecter, Madness, The Beat , Steel Pulse, UB40 and Bad Manners.
I recently contacted Nik Akrylyk, who was the band guitarist and co-founder (the rest of the band included: Roland Gift (vox, tenor sax), Steve Pears (vox, tenor sax), Stevie “B” Robottom, (vox, alto sax, keys), Piotr Swiderski (drums) and Michael "Fred" Reynolds (bass)). Nik agreed to conduct an interview with me. In addition to the full interview, I've also included the excellent history of the band that Nik has shared on the band's MySpace web site. The band history plus Nik's very thorough and detailed answers to my interview questions should shed light on this overlooked band.
According to Nik, The Akrylykz formed at Hull College of Art in the fall of 1978 when as a first-year Fine Art student, he was introduced to bassist Fred Reynold’s by Reynold's girlfriend who had previously studied with him in Derby. Both of them had eclectic tastes and had worked in a variety of bands playing various styles including jazz, funk, reggae, and rock; and these were exciting times for the British music scene, as the punk tsunami left a wide open wasteland in its wake. The initial idea was to play punky reggae and new-wave, and on early gigs the band flipped, Clash-like, between rock and reggae songs.
Because the band initially consisted of art students, they originally adopted the name The Acrylic Victims, as a reference to the acrylic paint use in the art school. Later, during a serious session of Polish vodka tasting (thanks to drummer Swiderski’s relatives in Poland) this got changed to the Akrylyk Vyktymz, but soon, in an act of mercy to the growing fan base, this was abbreviated to simply the Akrylykz.
In the local watering hole where the art students recuperated after a hard day slaving over canvas, clay, and crayons, there drank a local lad with dark skin and bleached blond hair with red and green stripes dyed like a rainbow above his left ear. People mockingly called him Guinness, but his real name was Roland Gift, and he was said to play the saxophone. He certainly had character and presence, and he was invited to join the band, and with that the Akrylykz began to expand out of the art school scene. In time Gift took over the front-man duties and the band’s two original singers, the two Steve's - Pears and Robottom (AKA Steve B), concentrated on other things. Pears, who had joined the band as a singer, picked up the tenor sax and proved to be natural born horn blower.
Gift’s father lived in Birmingham and after a trip to visit him one weekend in early ‘79, Roland told the band about a new movement that was beginning to rock the West Midlands: 2-Tone Ska! It was exactly the vibe Nik and Reynolds had been thinking of; the uplifting feel of reggae with the power and excitement of punk. Inspired by this the band’s songs were quickly re-arranged with the reggae songs played double time and the rock songs shifted to the off-beat.
By mid ’79 the band had built up a strong following in Yorkshire and were getting some seriously big gigs supporting the likes of the Specials, the Beat, UB40, the Clash, Bad Manners, Madness, etc. The York based record shop and record company Red Rhino Records took the Akrylykz into the studio and released the products of that session as a double A side 45, 'Spyderman/Smart Boy', on their Double R label. This was later picked up and re-released by Polydor, and a second single on Polydor, 'J.D.' backed with the band’s signature tune, 'Ska’d for Life', was released in 1980. The 'J.D.' session was recorded at Chalk Farm Studios and was engineered by Vic Keary who owned the Trojan Records back-catalogue. That same year the band also recorded five songs with Desmond Dekker for his Stiff Records release Black and Dekker (a title suggested by Nik).
In ’81 the band split because of management (or lack of it) problems and musical differences; Gift had been writing more material and was moving towards Soul but Nik, who had been the main song-writer, was leaning towards Dub. Gift went on to form the Fine Young Cannibals with members of the Beat. Nik set up an independent record company, Vital Records, which released a number of records by local Hull and Humberside bands. The other members of the band went back to their art school studies.
Below is Nik's interview with me. He was kind enough to take quite a bit of time to answer my questions in great detail and provide readers with a thorough and detailed overview of his memories of playing in the band. Enjoy!
What was it like living in Hull and attending art college there in the late 70's?
Hull was a strange place in the 70s and early 80s, not only was it still tying to rebuild from the ravages of WWII during which it had been devastated by the Luftwaffe, but it was also trying to come to terms with the new realities of a moribund fishing fleet (due to falling fish stocks, competition from Russian “factory fleets” and high oil prices) and fewer cargo ships docking because Hull’s docks lacked the deep water facilities to deal with the trend towards containerization. Also, in a sense Hull had always been isolated from rest of the country, because being tucked into a corner on the Humber estuary no one ever passed through, you either went there for a specific reason of you went nowhere near it. Look on a map of the UK, Hull is about half way up the country near the East coast where the river Humber makes a big gash into the land-mass. As a result of this accident of geography Hull is very insular and dare I say it, inbred.
All in all, at that time Hull had the air of a depressed post-industrial city in decline, but unlike many other British cities struggling to recover from the trauma of the war and post-war hardships it didn’t seem to be receiving any treatment for its depression. London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield had seen, and been reinvigorated by the swinging 60s and the hard-rocking and punky 70s. Hull, by comparison, was catatonic and barely bothering to breathe. There was very little night life in the city, and what there was tended to be uninteresting and mainstream – i.e. pop/disco nightclubs. That was the environment the Akrylykz found themselves in; a dull, depressed, comatose, bomb-site with docks full of rusting hulks of forgotten fishing fleets, and the kids of unemployed dockers and trawlermen drinking to excess in the pop discos and working men’s clubs before throwing up their guts in the streets after bloody brawls. Hull night-life was not high culture.
Hull Art College had not been my choice of college, I had wanted to go to Exeter or Falmouth down on the South Coast, but had failed to get a place there. Hull however, had a policy of taking the rejects from the popular (and conservative) art schools because they believed they got a more radical intake that way. It was a good policy I believe, there were some great artists in the college, and it was a pretty good place to be – despite the general mood of doom and gloom in the city.
It should be noted however, that not everything about Hull is dark and gloomy, the town has a great history and one of the leading universities in the country. The feather in the city’s cap is, of course, that William Wilberforce the champion of Abolition of the Slave Trade came from there and represented the city in parliament.
When did you decide to start playing music? Was there a defining moment when you decided to play ska?
My first experience of playing music was learning piano at age six, I kept this up until I was allowed, after much complaining, to switch to guitar when I was 13 – piano was too ‘uncool’. At that time, I was just wanted to play blues based rock and pop, and formed my first band at school when I was 14. From very early on I wanted to play music for a living, and that was why I went to art college. That might sound illogical but back in those days music colleges only taught classical music and I wasn’t digging that… art school was the place to meet other creative musicians.
To be honest the first time I consciously played ska was in the Akrylykz, before then I admit that in my naivety I didn’t distinguish between reggae, rocksteady and ska/bluebeat, and saw them all as variations of reggae. Although I had been aware of, and liked early ska songs that charted in the UK (Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop, Desmond Dekker’s Israelites, 007 Shanty Town and It Mek etc.) it wasn’t until Ken Boothe charted with Everything I Own that I fell in love with reggae and came to see Jamaican music as something significantly different from American rhythm and blues or soul. At the same time I was discovering reggae I was also discovering funk and jazz, and as my mother was a jazz fan I had a head start with that. By the time I was 16 and leaving high school to go to my first art college I was playing fretless and slap-n-pop bass in a jazz fusion band, and tinkering with reggae on the side. But that was in a world before punk…
What was the genesis of The Akrylykz? Who was in the band with you and how did you all meet? What were your initial influences?
When I left school in June 1976 I enrolled on a pre-degree arts foundation course in Derby (in the Midlands), being only 16, I had to do two years on the course while everyone else (who were 18 and above) only did one year. Another student on the course during my first at Derby was a girl called Vicky, she finished at the end of my first year and went off to another college, but another year later when I started at Hull she was there on the course along with her boyfriend Fred Reynolds, who was also a musician. So from pretty much day-one on the course at Hull Fred and I discussed forming a band, we both played bass and guitar and both had eclectic taste having both played jazz, reggae, funk and punk. (It’s interesting to look back with 20/20 hindsight and compare the British and American scenes, in the UK punk vitalised everything, including the jazz scene whereas in the US the jazz scene continued on its merry way towards the banalities of Spiro Gyra and Kenny G’s bland smooth jazz mush.) Though Fred and I both loved jazz and funk, we felt that the zeitgeist called more for reggae and punk, or new-wave as it was by then.
I’ll admit that when punk first hit the UK scene in 1976, I hated it, the fusion band I was playing in at the time was working with such complicated structures, harmonies and time-signatures that I just couldn’t relate to it. And actually, in the summer of 76 when the Sex Pistols were tearing up the rule book I was off at a jazz summer school with some of the top names on the British jazz scene. But by 1977 I was beginning to mellow and warm to the notions of “no rules, no limits” and the DIY ethic which were characteristic of punk. This was partly because I had started listening to free-jazz and despite finding it almost totally inaccessible it triggered a yearning in me to find a purer means of expression free of the straight-jacket of the “jazz” label. Another reason was that the initial thrash of punk had died down and a more creative and nuanced “new-wave” started to come through. And finally, what really did it was dance, once upon a time jazz had been dance music, but what we had been doing in the fusion band was anti-dance, on the surface our songs sounded funky and danceable, but shifting metres and odd line lengths meant anyone actually trying to dance to them became confused and soon gave up. The fact that we did this deliberately was quite perverse. This recognition of the importance of dance was to be an important factor in my development towards reggae, and the Akrylykz move to ska.
Although I had built up a reputation as a hot bassist back in my home town, I was keen to get back to guitar and Fred was happy to play bass, so that was settled. We now had to see who else was available and as we weren’t setting our sight very high the art college was our primary recruitment pool. The two Steve's came aboard first, Steve Pears as lead vocalist (he sings lead on Don’t Stumble Into Love on the MySpace page), he was a big Bruce Springstein fan, Steve Washington on alto sax, keyboards, and vocals (sings vocals on Smart Boy) he was a big Elvis Costello fan. Finding a drummer was a problem (isn’t it always) but in the end we found Piotr Swiderski in the sculpture department who built sculptures out of old railway sleepers (railroad ties), he was a Ramones fans but unfortunately, though being an excellent time keeper, he was limited style-wise. He was great on the punk stuff but found the syncopation needed for reggae very difficult.
We did a number of gigs for art college and private parties with this line up, but eventually we met Roland Gift in a pub called the Polar Bear where we all drank in the evenings, he played tenor sax. In truth he wasn’t a very good sax player, but he had charisma and stage presence by the bucket load, and being a local Hull native he connected us to the local community in a way that would have taken years otherwise. Thanks to Roland’s presence we started getting gigs outside the art school and student scenes in local pubs and clubs, and through this we were able to build up a strong local following and get gigs supporting major bands when they came to town. This in turn led to invitations to play outside the area, including in London.
You played the guitar in the band right? Were you self taught? What were the first songs that you wrote?
Yes, I was the guitarist, main songwriter and arranger, and band leader. When I first started playing guitar I was taught classical and flamenco guitar by a guy who worked for my father. That wasn’t working, so I struck out on my own, since then most of what I’ve learned on guitar has been through self-study with the occasion professional lesson here and there. Though I have had professional lessons in advanced music theory and composition, for which I now have a diploma.
The very first song I wrote was a minor key folky ballad sort of in the vein of Peter Starstedt’s 'Where Do You Go To My Lovely', when I was about 14 and in transition from classic guitar to rock and still greatly influenced by general pop music. At school I had a band which played mostly original material, a lot of it instrumental, then in the jazz fusion band I was writing really complicated modal stuff in odd time signatures like 11/8 and 7/4. The first song (or tune) that I wrote specifically as a ska number was Ska’d For Life which we played as the opening number for all Akrylykz gigs, and often for an encore too.
The band formed slightly ahead of the other 2-Tone bands in the Midlands and London. What prompted the mix of punk and reggae initially and what brought you to ska?
Fred and I formed the Akrylykz in the fall of ’78, so yeah, I guess we did precede some of the 2-Tone ska bands. However, the Specials (or the Coventry Automatics as they were initially called) would certainly have been working before then, but we didn’t know anything about them at the time. Also according to most biographies Madness and Bad Manners both formed in London in 1976 – though I’m not convinced this is totally accurate, at least as far as them playing ska is concerned. The Beat formed around the same time as us, but we definitely predated the Selecter, the Bodysnatchers and the Go-Go’s.
The Clash were a big influence, I suppose, particularly the single White Man in Hammersmith Palais, even though I personally wasn’t a big Clash fan (though I did buy the album London Calling). They showed that punk and reggae could be played on the same stage and even mixed up together. Mind you, Bob Marley had already included a rock guitar sound in his music from the early mid 70s – Al Anderson played some great fuzz-guitar solos for Marley. While Anderson’s solos were more in a heavy rock style that punks usually balked at, they did suggest rock and reggae mixed. The punky-reggae mix I preferred was more the avant-garde stuff like early Scritti-Politti’s Skank Bloc Bologna, which while very rough, unpolished and technically questionable, had lots of potential and linked with the dissonant free-jazz and British jazz-rock bands like Soft Machine I was familiar with.
The thing that got us into the ska movement was, I guess, Gangsters by the Specials. If I remember correctly, Roland brought a copy of Gangsters back with him from a visit to Birmingham to see his dad, this really clicked with us as it was still punky but was more like rocked-up reggae than reggae’d rock. As I said earlier, I was still learning about reggae; I was into Marley, Tosh, Culture and dub, but I saw ska and rocksteady as simply being old or early reggae and saw no reason to label it as a distinct style – as someone today might look at Kraftwork and Tangerine Dream simply as early ambient techno.
Was there a ska scene in Hull when the band first started? Who did you play shows with? Where did you play shows?
There was no ska, or reggae, scene in Hull when we started, nor did we create one, there was a small but pretty lively punk and new-wave scene. And that was really where we found our niche, ska and reggae just set us apart from the mob, but it was among the punks and students that found our following.
Despite the city’s size there weren’t many places to pay in Hull, one of the few venues where we played regularly was a place that had previously been a working men’s club and was called the Wellington Club, or as everyone referred to it, simply the Welly club. The Welly had a punk/new-wave nights on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights in its upstairs ‘lounge’ bar, and could hold around 600 in the downstairs bar where the main stage was. Most of our early gigs were upstairs at the Welly, but our first break came when we supported the Specials on the main stage downstairs. Later we headlined before a packed house on this same main stage.
Other places we played in Hull at that time were the University Students Union, which could hold a couple of thousand head, and the Hull Truck Theatre company theatre, a smaller venue but with a good stage and a top rate lighting rig. We supported the Beat and UB40 at the Uni, and headlined at both the Uni and Hull Truck. The only other place to play really was the Spring Bank Community Centre, where did a number of Rock Against Racism charity gigs. The community centre gigs were low budget, but good fun and meaningful.
The biggest gig we did to a hometown crowd was at the Pavilion in Bridlington supporting the Clash. Bridlington is a holiday resort town 20 or 30 miles up the coast from Hull, so although it was beyond the Hull city limits, a large proportion of the crowd would have been from Hull. After supporting the Specials, the Beat, and the Clash we started the usual touring routine, with gigs in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff, Leeds – basically all around the country, and I can’t even remember them now, they become just a blur after a while except when something notable happen.
Who was the main songwriter for the band and tell me how you approached the song writing process? Who wrote 'JD', 'Spyderman', 'Smart Boy' and 'Ska’d for Life'?
The main songwriter? That’d be me. I wrote the music for Ska’d for Life (instrumental), Smart Boy and Spyderman, Steve Washington wrote the lyrics for Smart Boy, and Roland wrote the lyrics for Spyderman. Roland wrote both the lyrics and the music for J.D., though he did acknowledge that he borrowed both the tune and some of the lyrics from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ 'I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent'. Although I have no evidence for it, I suspect that this “borrowing” may have had something to do with Polydor’s reluctance to do anything with that single – not that another legal controversy would have made any difference to Frankie Lymon’s troubled estate.
At that time the usual way we wrote songs was that I would come up with a riff, a hook and a chord sequence (and sometimes a verse or a chorus of lyrics too) and play it to the band, one of the singers would then take it and write some words. If the band liked it, it went in the set. If they didn’t, it got rewritten or consigned to the dustbin (or if I still liked it, it went into my archive to be reworked at a later date). Unfortunately not all our songs got recorded or written down, and there is at least one, another instrumental I wrote need the end of the band’s life when we were much more accomplished musically, that I regret not keeping any sort of copy on. Oh well.
In time Roland found his voice and started to bring more songs to rehearsals after working them out with Fred the bassist, but he was beginning to move towards the soul sound that he later developed with the Fine Young Cannibals and that started to cause friction, with me particularly. This was primarily because I saw the Akrylykz as my band, and I wasn’t particularly interested in playing soul. Not that I have anything against soul music, on the contrary I love it, but it wasn’t what I wanted to play. Fred and the two Steves also brought ideas to the table from time to time, and there was at least one song in our set written by Steve Pears and Fred.
What were your first live shows the band played like and what was the UK ska scene of the late 70's and early 80's like?
Oh, the first shows were probably quite messy, I don’t really remember, but when we started it was just for fun and the creative exercise, so there was no real sense of needing to be professional, after all we knew pretty much everyone in the audience. Once we started playing outside the art school scene I guess we had to wise up, and raise our game. Then things started getting serious. But they were great times, and as a musician I much preferred the ska scene to the punk scene, while punk had been a adrenaline shot for the music scene as a whole it left a lot to be desired in terms of musicianship. Despite the energy of punk, as a jazzer the incessant downbeat thrash was both limiting and boring, new-wave offered a glimmer of hope for rock music but what I really needed was syncopation. Ska was ideal for me at that time, it had the energy of punk, but the syncopation and harmonic options of the jazz, funk and reggae I loved. In other words, we could play high-energy music without dumbing down the musicianship (personal limitations aside). Listen to some of the musicianship on the 2-Tone ska scene in comparison to the punk era: to my mind two of the best were Fred our bassist (listen to his basslines, pure sweetness!) and Brad the Specials’ drummer (absolute genius, one of the most underrated British drummers of all time but a joy to watch live). And in ska we could have horn sections, and as a jazzer that was important for me, what punk band had a horn section? :-) OK, there were the Rumour and the Blockheads, but they were both post-punk.
Of course the other important factor in the ska scene was the emphasis on racial harmony, punk was important to blow away the cobwebs of the old school rock and roll scene, but ska was important way beyond the simple hedonism of the music business; ska set the scene for a better world of racial integration. Those of us who were in our late teens and early twenties at the time are now coming up to being 50, young people who were rocking against racism back then have raised their own children to reject racism and look beyond a person’s skin colour. I’d like to think that we who were involved in the whole 2-Tone thing, can hold our heads up and say; we changed the world, we set the scene for better social integration of the races. True, not everyone got the message, but we played our part the best we could.
You opened for The Specials, The Beat, UB40, The Clash, Bodysnatchers and The Go-Go's right? Can you share any unusual stories about touring with the band or any shows that are particularly memorable?
We opened for the Specials, the Beat, UB40 and the Clash. The Bodysnatchers, hmmm, perhaps but I’m not sure, and the Go-Go’s no, I’m pretty sure we never supported them.
Oh, it’s a long time ago, memories get hazy you know… but, my overriding memory of the Clash was they were not very nice people, very arrogant and cold. Aloof. They totally snubbed us. Roland may have got a word or two out of them, but the rest of us they completely blanked. To them we were just another unknown band in some forgotten backwater, but considering their branding was as a left-wing “band of the people” we expected more. Just proves ‘expectation is the mother of disappointment’.
The Specials and The Beat on the other hand were very friendly, and we got along with The Beat particularly well (which is how Roland ended up forming the Fine Young Cannibals with their guitarist and bassist a few years later). The Beat wanted us to do a national tour with them, and we were certainly up for it, but back then tours were considered a loss-leader, i.e. you expected to lose money on a tour, but you did them anyway to promote record sales. These economic conditions meant that management companies, tour promoters and record companies were always willing to take on support groups with record company sponsorship to off-set touring costs. Unfortunately some other band came along with the finance to buy their way onto the tour, and despite The Beat wanting us to play, their management company prevailed upon them to accept the financial realities of touring and take the other band. I can’t even remember the other band’s name now, but they weren’t a ska band, just another faceless mod band clone of The Jam. We did still get to do three dates in Scotland with them, but that was it on that tour.
We did a big gig in Birmingham with The Beat in an absolutely massive auditorium. Almost certainly the biggest crowd we played to, I don’t remember how many people where there but it was big. After that gig we were in Birmingham city centre and some of the guys were hungry and went to get fish and chips, I wasn’t hungry so I sat in the van with the roadie and waited. Suddenly Roland dived into the back of the van holding his stomach, and was quickly followed rest of the guys supporting Simon our manager nursing a bloody head. As they were walking to the chip shop, a white van had pulled up along side them and a gang of youths had jumped out with what the band thought were rolled up posters, but were in fact pick-axe handles and baseball bats wrapped in newspaper. Rather than being fans wanting autographs as the band supposed, they were thugs who started beating them up. We spent a few hours at the local hospital getting Simon’s head stitched up, but he never really recovered from the trauma and not long afterwards had a nervous breakdown, which in turn initiated the implosion of the band.
There was always a threat of violence in the post-punk era, particularly because of the British National Party and other right wing fascist groups had high-jacked the skin-head image, including the skin-head allegence to ska. Which is which contradictory, the early skin-head movement of the 60s had grown out of the Mod culture and was mostly black-friendly, indeed you’ll find many black ska musicians of the 60s recalling how the skin-heads would protect them from racial abuse in the UK. One of our first London gigs was with Madness and Bad Manners at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. Madness opened, we played second on the bill, and Bad Manners headlined (I like to boast that Madness supported us that night!). The audience were 90% skin-heads, and Madness and Bad Manners had a lot of skinhead fans, so Roland was probably the only black guy in the place… he got a LOT of racial abuse that night. It was scary. As a Jew I’ve had my share of racial abuse, but that was on a different level, Roland handled the crowd really well but he was shaken, the whole thing was pretty scary.
A better memory was a chance meeting with The Beat in an empty motorway service station at three or four in the morning, they on their way south back to Birmingham after a gig up north, us on our way back north to Hull after a gig in London. An accidental breakfast with friends in the middle of nowhere can only happen when you’re a gigging band on the road.
Tell me about how you met Tony K and signed to Red Rhino Records?
Tony K and Adrian Collins from Red Rhino came to the Specials gig at the Welly Club in Hull (see above) and approached us after the gig. It’s all bit hazy these days, so I don’t remember whether they had heard of us before that gig or not. It could be that they just came to see the Specials and were impressed enough with us to want to sign us, on the other hand I know that Adrian Collins, the number two at Red Rhino, had connections with a guy called Ken Giles who ran a sound rig we frequently hired, so maybe Ken told them about us. We were only the second band to record for their label (the Mekons were the first), as they had only just set it up as an extension of their record shop in York.
Since the dawning of the Internet Age, I had been trying to locate Tony K, particularly since I heard Red Rhino went bust in 1989, but was unable to find him until early last year. Sadly it was too late as he was already seriously ill by then; he passed away in May 08. He got a very good obituary in a national UK newspaper.
Your single 'Spyderman' reached #17 in the pop charts in 1980. What was it like to have a song in the charts?
17? I wish! No, as far as the official UK chart was concerned we didn’t get into the top 40, but all the music papers of the time had their own indie and alternative charts and we got to number one in a couple of those. Which was good, but it would have been nice to get into the real charts.
You signed with Polydor Records but only released two singles. I noticed a few unreleased tracks on your MySpace site. Was an album in the works?
Sadly, no. We certainly had enough material for an album and we didn’t do cover versions (although JD might count I suppose), only original material, so it was a shame we never got to do an album. The unreleased tracks on the site are from demos we recorded at our own expense in a small studio in Hull. When the band finally fell apart we had been recording in a studio near Bath in South West England (Fred the bassist’s home town), which was being funded by our manager who had supposedly recovered from his breakdown. Unfortunately, it turned out that he had completely flipped, after we had already started recording it turned out he didn’t have the money to pay and we had to do a runner from both the hotel where we were staying and the studio. Needless to say, the studio kept the tapes, although I believe the manager did eventually pay them, but by then the band had split and none of us were willing to have anything to do with him or buy the tapes from him, and anyway they were unfinished. If I remember rightly, that was probably the best work we had done (though mostly Roland’s new soul focused songs) and it was certainly the best studio we had ever used – it was one Peter Gabriel had used to record some his early solo stuff before he built his own studio. But there was a lot of friction in the band by then – mostly between me and Roland, and a lot of worry about our manager’s irrational behaviour.
How did the band meet and work with Desmond Dekker on his 1980 comeback album 'Black and Dekker' for Stiff Records? What was it like to work with Dekker?
Now that was a great session, but I have to admit I’m unsure about how we got invited to be on it. It may have come through Red Rhino or through Polydor, but equally, it may have come through a different channel completely. My memory is that we were invited rather than anyone having to pitch for it on our behalf. The album was for Stiff, so I think they wanted to get one of the new-wave ska bands involved and Madness (who were signed to Stiff) were probably too busy by then.
The first time we met Desmond was in the studio for that session. He was a great singer, and for me the best bit was his improvisations at the end of the songs, none of which ever got to be on the released recordings. We recorded about 15 tracks with him (only five of which made it on to the record including 'Israelites', 'It Mek', 'Many Rivers To Cross', 'Work Out' and 'Pickney Gal'), and nearly all of them were extended jams lasting about 10 to 15 minutes. After the three minute song lyrics had been sung he would let rip with scatting and stuff until we all ran out of steam, great fun and a great experience. He had so much more talent than was ever displayed on his singles, he truly was an impressive singer.
Other points of interest on that session was that we recorded at Chalk Farm Studios which was owned by Vic Keary who at that time owned the Trojan Records back catalogue, he also engineered the sessions. Desmond’s brother George who played in the Pioneers also sat in and played piano on our sessions. Chalk Farm Studios was a tiny cramped place, yet managed to squeeze the six of us plus George and Desmond in to record live. At the same time we were recording with Desmond, the Beat were recording their second album, Wha’ppen, across the road at the Roundhouse Studios, a very plush facility with deep pile carpets and lots of polished wood and chrome fittings around the place. The management there were not happy that the Beat kept inviting dirty urchins like us to into the building, ha! Screw ‘em!
I was the one who came up with title Black and Dekker for the album.
Why didn't the band appear on TOTP with Dekker when he performed 'Israelites'? Quite simply, no one asked us to. Desmond mimed anyway (as was usually the case on Top of the Pops), so we would only have been miming too. Few people had much respect for that show, the show we would have liked to have got on was the Old Grey Whistle Test, which was a more serious music program. TOTP was good for exposure to the teenyboppers, but it was on the OGWT where you got credibility.
How and why did the band come to an end in 1981?
It was time I guess, we had our chance and bombed; we were all a bit down after Polydor ditched us, and then the mess with the manager and his nervous breakdown was the final straw. He wasn’t even a professional in the music business, he was like us, just a student who decided to give it a go. If we’d had proper management with business knowledge and industry contacts they might have been able to hold the band together by finding other solutions, and offering us hope, because being dumped by a record company is pretty difficult thing to get over. It’s like being laid-off from a job only more personal because they seem to be saying “your creativity sucks” but in reality they’re saying our returns aren’t big enough in a limited time span.
There were other problems too, like musical direction – as I said before, Roland wanted to move towards soul (which he did with the Fine Young Cannibals) and I wanted to move towards dub and jazz, which I did. Then there was issues of musical ability, Fred was a brilliant bassist, Roland turned out to be a great singer (he worked hard on it to achieve his success), Steve Pears who joined the band as lead singer turned out to be a natural saxophonist, Stevie B and I were competent, but Piotr unfortunately, was severely limited as a drummer. If we’d carried on, we would have had to dump him, and none of us could bring ourselves to do it.
We did have the chance to replace him; after the first couple of days of recording on the Desmond Dekker sessions, he was back in Hull and in the pub with his girlfriend one day when a mirror behind them fell off the wall. He put his hand up to protect himself and his girlfriend and the mirror smashed, sending a shard of glass through his hand. The glass cut some tendons in his hand and he was out of action for about three months. He was therefore unable to continue the Dekker sessions, which ironically was lucky as they were going to send him home anyway because he wasn’t up to the job. Lol Gellor the producer on the Dekker sessions played drums for the remaining tracks we played on. Had we taken advantage of the situation and replaced Piotr we may have saved the band, but the guy was suffering enough already and as we didn’t have any gigs lined up, we had no excuse.
Are you still in touch with any of your old band mates from The Akrylykz?
No, not directly, I did keep in touch with Steve Pears for a while after the band split and used him for sax for a jazz-reggae project a couple of years later, but then I moved to London and lost touch with him. Roland and I were not exactly on speaking terms when the band split, and I never saw Fred again (though I did bump into his girlfriend – who originally introduced us – a couple of times in London, as she lived in the same area as me and was neighbours with some friends of mine).
Stevie B’s brother recently contacted me through the MySpace page and he is still friends with Roland, so I suppose I am almost in contact again with Roland and Stevie B, but I’m not going to push it unless they make it clear they want to be in touch, it is, after all, nearly 30 years ago now. That’s a long time.
Are you still involved in music?
Oh yes. Music is what I exist for!
After the Akrylykz split I set up my own label, Vital Records, and released a number of records under my own name and with other bands, but mostly I produced. The biggest project we did with that label was an album of local Hull bands who had played at the Welly Club, the record was called Mrs. Wilson’s Children after the old woman who owned the club.
In time I formed a new band, called Bushfire, playing jazz-reggae fusion. This band was formed with students from Hull University, but the first line-up of Bushfire ended when our pianist, a genius jazz pianist, was deported back to Swaziland. Unfortunately we never got that line up into the studio, which was a shame because it was one the best bands I ever worked with. The next version of that band was also very interesting but not as jazzy because we lacked personnel with good jazz skills.
Jazz-reggae fusion has been my staple ever since. Though nowadays I call it jazz-dub, as the reggae elements are not always explicit, but the dub aesthetics tend to make an appearance even when I write avant-garde jazz or fusion. I don’t gig very often these days because of my health, but I continue to compose and was in the studio just before Xmas working on some demos and should be back in the studio again in February to record an album.
The ska style that I loved the most was that jazzy instrumental Skatalites groove (of course they were all jazz musicians at heart you know; as Monty Alexander once told me “those guys, they just wanted to play bebop all day, but the studios dem pay fi ska.”), and so I do find myself composing the occasional jazzy ska track from time to time. After 30 odd years, it’s become coded in my DNA.
Below is a short clip of 'Spyderman'
Here is video of Desmond Dekker performing "Israelites" on the BBC's Top of the Pops in 1980 to a backing track by the Akrylykz (who didn't get to be on telly!).
Fi nally, here is a dowload of 'Smart Boy/Spyderman' 7" that was released on Red Rhino Records:
The Akrylykz - Smart Boy/Spyderman
Nik has also posted six songs on the band's MySpace page including three that were never released.