Sunday, February 22, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with Steven Morley of The Ska-Dows: From Pre-School Children's TV Show Performer to 2-Tone Era Ska Bassist

By far, one of the most interesting and intriguing stories of the entire 2-Tone era is the story of The Ska-Dows. Often overlooked and under appreciated, the band were written off by the UK music press as bandwagoneers, though they were contemporaries of their 2-Tone brethren and their first single 'Apache', a cover of the classic instrumental originally written by The Shadows gained decent attention and airplay. However, little is know of the band's origins. Believe it or not, the core of the band started out as costumed musical performers on the popular 1970's UK children's television show 'Animal Kwackers'.

Animal Kwackers was a preschool children's lunchtime program shown on ITV beginning in 1975. It was similar to the Banana Splits here in the U.S. in that there were three men and one woman inside large costumes with huge animal heads. Each member of the group played a musical instrument and they were fronted by Rory the lion (Ska-Dows guitarist and main songwriter Bev Doyle).

In the opening animated titles of the show, all four characters would appear in a flying saucer which would land on earth. The show was mainly about music but would also have a story or two read by Rory. The other members of the group would all begin chanting "Rory, Rory tell us a story", "Rory, Rory tell it like it is." Rory would then tell a story often with a moral attached to it. Rory was joined by Boots (a tiger with a patch over one eye), Twang (a monkey) and Bongo (a dog). At the end of each episode the four would board the flying saucer and leave for the stars. There were at least 39 or so episodes of the show covering what was then three seasons. Each episode lasted approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. The show's catch phrase was to "Keep Kwacking."

If you are not familiar with the program, it needs to be seen to be believed. Many adults in the UK who grew up watching the 'Animal Kwackers' remember being frightened by the characters and the slightly trippy feel of the whole affair. Below are some videos from the show. The first is the opening credits, followed by Rory reading a story and a very ska/rocksteady version "Swing On A Star", which would suggest the core of the band were already planning the sound of their next permutation as The Ska-Dows.

Though not the original line-up for the first two seasons of the show, the line-up for the third season and for the touring version of the show included three of the future members of The Ska-Dows including:

Rory (guitar) - Bev Doyle
Twang (bass) - Step Morley
Bongo (drums) - Atalanta Harmsworth
Boots (guitar) - John Basset

The Ska-Dows got their start right before 2-Tone broke big in the UK and were formed in late 1978 by vocalist Tony Sibthorpe and saxophone player Andy Dummett. Sibthorpe had been a skinhead in the early 70's and had a huge collection of ska and reggae records which influenced the sound and direction of the band. They met up with Doyle, Morley and Basset (who moved to drums)from Animal Kwackers. The band's first recording "Apache" (a cover version of the old Shadows hit) was kicked around to all the major record companies in London. Finally, Chas Chandler of Animals fame who had started Cheapskate Records signed them. He loved the track so much he released it in its original demo form. Unfortunately it wasn't until late 1979 that "Apache" hit the airwaves and record stores and by then The Ska-Dows were accused of jumping on the 2-Tone bandwagon. Nevertheless, "Apache" was deemed record of the week on BBC Radio 1 and held the #1 spot for a week on the stations airplay chart. The Ska-Dows had 3 singles released on Cheapskate Records, the last being 'Skas on 45' which was released after they split up.

Below is a rare publicity photo of the band taken to promote the release of 'Apache' and a poster to promote their final post-humous single "Ska's On 45":

Though they never achieved the kind of recognition or respect they deserved from the 2-Tone scene, they recorded and released some superb 2-Tone styled singles and a very entertaining album's worth of ska and reggae songs that are among the best of the rest of the 2-Tone era. The band's sound and look comes closest to a combination of Bad Manners and Madness.

I connected with the band's bass player Steven Morley, who agreed to conduct an interview with me about his days in 'Animal Kwackers' and how that experience lead to the creation of The Ska-Dows. Below is the interview:

Can you tell me about your introduction to music?
I started learning guitar at Grammar school after hearing a guy at school who could play all the chords. Me and my mate Bev (Doyle, the guitarist from the 'Dows) started meeting to talk about our favourite bands and roped my brother Ron and his mate Jim in to form a band. Bev knew one more chord than me so he became the lead guitarist and I was bass.

How did you end up as Twang - the bass playing monkey on the ITV children's TV show 'Animal Kwackers'. How long were you on the show?
Bev and I stayed in bands together until 1976 when we both joined different bands. I stayed in Germany where we had been touring and one day, when I was thoroughly fed up with being there, I got the call from Bev saying Pete, who was Twang, wanted out and would I come back.

Was it difficult to play your instrument while wearing the costume?
Yes. We were primarily there to entertain the kids and after much experimentation with live playing we couldn't maintain accuracy and move about. the costumes were large and unwieldy. So we played along to a backtrack and sang live.

What was the creative process on 'Animal Kwackers' like? Who wrote the songs? Who decided what songs you would perform? Did 'Animal Kwackers' ever tour as a live show?
I was only part of the Kwackers for the live shows. By the time I joined the third and final TV series had been recorded. I enjoyed 7 years of touring with the AKs. Much fun. For the series all the songs and story lines were decided on by the creator, Peter Eden and his team. We had carte blanch for the live shows though and recorded loads of stuff specially for live work.

What kind of influence did the UK music scene of the late 70's have on the music performed on the show? There is a clip of you all performing to The Clash's 'Bankrobber' which seems like an interesting choice for a kids show.
We did like to be cheeky! Most of the time we played strictly for the kids though but you cant let the parents get bored and that's the stuff that was around then. I we were doing it now I would like to think we'd stick in the odd track by Anthony and the Johnsons!

What was the genesis of The Ska-Dows? What attracted you all to playing ska in particular? How did you meet Tony Sibthorpe and Andy Dummett?
John Bassett ran a recording studio and we recorded stuff regularly, mostly Bevs original stuff. I have always loved reggae, especially the early stuff and when the new ska explosion happened I was determined to be part of it. I came up with the idea of a faithful - ie recorded in one take and using all dynamic mics - cover of "Apache". We did it in one take too, apart from the vocal and sax overdubs. I also naturally came up with "The Ska-Dows" as a naff but funny pun on the band who first had a hit with it, The Shadows. I had worked with Andy in Germany and Tony had just joined the Kwackers as Bongo replacing Bobby Parr, who left to pursue other things.

Tell me about meeting Chas Chandler and signing with his Cheapskate Record label and recording your first two singles 'Apache' and 'Telstar'?
We had intended to release Apache" on our own label as we were running another band, with the same members (apart from Tony) alongside and had a single ready for release (Never Gonna Lose Me" by the Sax Maniax). We hawked it around a bit and Chas, who was starting up his new label, saw it as the perfect vehicle with which to do that.

What were your first live shows as The Ska-Dows like? Who were some of the bands you performed with? Are there any particularly memorable shows from that time?
Most of our shows were The Ska-Dows supported by the Sax Maniax! How about that? Most of the Dows gigs were full of skinheads who chanted a lot but there was never any trouble as our material was all joyful stuff. The most memorable gig was in Canning Town where my 1963 Jazz bass was nicked.

What kind of reception did the band get from the 2-Tone scene and the UK record buying public?
We weren't part of the 2 tone scene being a London band. Our early singles, Apache and Telstar, got good exposure in London but not so much further out.

Who wrote the songs on your album 'Ska'd For Life'? What was the idea/thinking behind recording 'Ska on 45'?
The songs on Ska'd for Life were a mixture of originals "Twice", "Grooving Power" were written by Bev. "Ska'd For Life" was written by Bev and John and "Wish You Were Mine" by Tony and covers such as "Apache", "Monster Reggae", "Mrs Walker" etc. "We Gotta Get Out" was started by us taking the piss out of Chas who used to be in The Animals

Why did the band break-up? Were you part of the version of the band that reformed in 1989?
Musical differences :-) Unfortunately the recording of the album coincided with personality clashes within the band and we had effectively split before it was released. Tony reformed the band in the 90's with Andy. Bev John and I were not part of that.

Are you still in touch with any of your band mates?
Yup. I still see Bev and we play the odd gig together.

What are you doing these days?
Musically I am in a 60s covers band called The retros. Other than that I am training to be a flying instructor.

Here is video of the album title track 'Ska'd For Life'

The band's one and only LP "Ska'd For Life", dating from 1982, has been in and out of print over the years. It was re-issued on 2001 on Captain Mod Records including 7 bonus tracks to give a near complete document of The Ska-Dows complete recordings. Included are the singles 'Apache', 'Telstar', 'Yes Yes Yes' and 'We Gotta Get Out Of This Place'. You can find it online depending upon where you live. There is one copy for sale on in the U.S.


Tone and Wave said...

Very interesting...and just a bit creepy.

Anonymous said...


Nice post, it reminded me of a boston band called Ska'd For Life.. do you have any info on those guys, I saw them once open for Bim and loved them.


dublinsax said...

An under-rated album I think, some really great tracks like Wish You were Mine, Man Of Mystery etc. I did see the reformed line up in 1989 at a Ska Festival in Herne Bay. They were at the bottom of the bill and disappointingly not very good