Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Don't Knock The Baldhead! - Exclusive: Interview with Winston Blisset About His Days in UK Ska Pop Sensation Headline
One of the joys of writing this blog has been the opportunity to discover and pay respects to all the bands that contributed to the entire canon of 2-Tone era ska. One such band that caught my eye and ears was Headline. They were a 6-piece ska-pop band signed to Virgin Records who released several singles, including the catchy "Don't Knock The Baldhead/Highway Hassle" and a self-titled album in 1980. Based on their sound and their look, Headline quickly became UK media darlings, who were noteworthy for their sense of fun as well as their wild stage entrances. Here is a wonderful description of the band from a support slot they played with The Stranglers in July of 1980 that appears on Strangled.com, a great fan web site devoted to band:
IT’S JULY 1980 – and rammed at the Rainbow. Spirited, devoted black leather bomber jackets are rightly omnipresent and correct, ready for The Stranglers’ first night of the ‘Who Wants The World tour’. Nervy, expectant excitement is in the air: It’s just ten days from their release from French jail following the Nice University riot. A swirl of dope flits across the front of the audience. The house lights fade. Support band Headline step onstage, unknown, unloved - and face to face with the headliner’s audience; you can almost hear a smart silver tie-pin drop in the quiet hiatus. 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".
According to Strangled.com, Headline had its roots in a southeast London funk band called Raw Funk who were quite popular in the funk and soul clubs in that part of the city. Then one day as 2-Tone was taking the UK by storm, the band decided to switch from funk to ska. As the children of Jamaican-born parents, they had all grown up on ska. Within the space of just two hours they shaved off their 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 had just left Steel Pulse and joined the band as their vocalist. The band's first gig was at the Nashville and they quickly booked support slots that got them positive vibes from the music press.
Even though they got the gigs, Headline never got that big break, like so many bands. By August, Riley and bassist Winston Blissett left the band in search of something more politically weighty and musically challenging. They formed Bumble and the Beez with John Martyn, with a gig at Hammersmith Palais supporting Siouxsie & The Banshees in 1981. After replacing the duo, Headline continued and follow-up with, the Folkes Brothers cover, 'Oh Carolina'. But the ska category was already ably filled with the likes of various 2-Toners and rudies, such as Madness, The Specials, The Selecter, Bad Manners and The Beat.
I was able to connect with Headline's bassist Winston Blissett, and he was kind enough to take time while on tour with The New Beautiful South to answer some interview questions for me. Blissett, who is also the bassist for Massive Attack, shared his experiences growing up in London, his musical education as a bass player and memories of what it was like for Headline to support The Stranglers on their 1980 'Who Want's The World' UK tour.
What was it like growing up in London in the 70's?
Lewisham & Deptford weren't as developed as today but we had fun as kids being able to play/hang out on the streets more than what you'd notice now with the today's youngsters. I spent some of my weekends, Fri & Sat nights going to Blues party's held in friends of friends homes. You got wind of a party & gate crashed. Sometimes it was an "edge" to get in (Edge = 50 pence). This became a First Later (1 pound)... inflation. Most of my partying was during my school days before going to college. Going to gigs was something I loved to do when I had enough money. I saw bands such as the Ohio Players, Fatback Band, Kool & The Gang, James Brown, Toots & the Maytals & other Reggae & Soul artists mainly. Later I spent most of my time being broke as a student so not too much partying & clubbing by then.
Politics... mum & dad were always moaning about the cost of living, taxes, rates etc, a bit like me moaning these days.... Ask my kids. The politics of the day was always something everyone complained about. In 1979, Mrs Thatchers party were voted in which gave us plenty more to moan about after a few months in power... a turning point in our history in my eyes anyway. Dad was a bus driver & mum worked part time in a Hospital so they were not in the high income bracket. Being a black kid was always an issue as racism was more upfront & in your face then so me & some of my friends always felt unwelcome as we were all seen as immigrants (I was born in Greenwich Hospital).
Choosing a musical direction was a challenge but being keen & determined at that age made you blind to most of the challenges. I remember there being more places for up coming musicians to jam at i.e. pubs & clubs & getting gigs seemed easier. Also getting to the gigs I remember being easier as fared weren't as expensive as they are today (relatively of course).
Did you grow up listening to ska and reggae music? Did you get caught up in punk?
I was brought up listening to Blue Beat, Ska & Reggae music (with only Jim Reeves on Sunday) & later discovered Funk & Soul music. I wasn't a Punk fan but during the late 70's & early 80's had much contact with that scene as "Rock Against Racism" kinda fused the two genres which was weird as the two groups seemed so far apart socially, but also I don't remember there being that much confrontation with the two groups as, I suppose, the Anti racism message united the two. That's my view which may be a bit romantic but that's how I recall it. Trouble came a bit later when Skinheads got involved... not saying it was perfect before....
When did you discover that you could play the bass?
At the age of about 14,15 a friend invited me to his Pentecostal Church where most of the kids could play an instrument or sing. I suppose a bit of peer pressure/pride made decide to take up an instrument, the bass, as it had less strings. Within a few months I felt this was a natural thing for me to do.
What kind of bands did you play in before Headline? How did 2-Tone effect your decision to start Headline?
My first band's were a local reggae group, Friction, a Calypso band and then onto a Funk band called Raw Funk Band. RFB gigged for a couple of years till we decided to disband then reform as Headline. We felt as we were all of Jamaican origin, we could blow all the other bands away by playing ska music which we grew up on. The band members were: Lascelles Forest - Guitar; Tony (Jegger) Read - Drums; Richard Read - Keyboards; Kevin - Guitar; Paul Pryce - Guitar; Mike Riley - Vox;Winston Blissett - Bass
How did you end up choosing to name the band Headline?
The name was chosen as we all shaved our heads & when lined up in some photo shoots it seemed like a good idea and also to make a statement to say "Don't Knock The Baldhead". "Bald Head" being a non Rastafarian in the Reggae community and we weren't Rastas.
How did you meet Michael Riley who had been in Steel Pulse?
Mike knew Raw Funk as he had business with the manager of RFB so we'd see him at the management office from time to time. Mike helped with the concept of Headline & later his wife, Claudine, gave valuable help with press exposure & advice on creating interest in the band.
As a predominantly black band playing ska/pop during the height of 2-Tone, what kind of reception did you get from audiences? How did skinheads respond to the band?
Everybody really loved the music, even the skinheads who hated the band at times due to the colour thing. Unfortunately on a couple of occasions, violence did break out as we were an obvious target for the racists, especially when we were the support act, but on the whole I remember a positive response.
Can you share any unusual stories about any shows that were particularly memorable? You opened for a variety of bands from The Stranglers to Killing Joke and Bad Manners?
Supporting the Stranglers was an honour even though it was a revival for their band, we'd all grown up with the music & knew some of the tunes. On one occasion, we were literally the support as the whole venue was shaking with the crowd going wild & us lot plus bouncers were keeping the PA stacks from falling over. People were passing out & carried backstage to be revived (Slapped around the face a few times with a christening of water). Great vibe though,,, health & safety would have went crazy ( I think that was at Birmingham Odeon, not a gig venue anymore.)
The Bad Manners tour was good fun as we often travelled together in our vehicles and had a few laughs at motor-way stops. Douggie, Bad Manners lead singer, definitely loved his grub as he'd demonstrate at these stops. Didn't he have the record for the most eaten Big Macs in one session in the UK ?
You were signed by Richard Branson to his Virgin Records label fairly quickly after starting the band. What was that like? Did he have big plans for the band?
It was quick compared to how long it usually takes. Virgin/Mr Branson was really committed as the response or feedback about the band was positive from all areas, gigs, press reviews etc. There was definitely a lot of commitment from Virgin as Mr Branson personally signed the band to the label.
What are your fondest memories of recording the 'Don't Knock The Baldhead" LP? Do you have a favorite song from the record?
We did have fun recording the album. Bob Seargent produced it. He was great to work with & produced a few other pop acts of the day. We did like to take the Mick out of him & I remember we mentioned him in Highway Hassle. Bob used me as a session musician on projects he was working on after Headline. I think "Highway Hassle" was my favorite but "Don't Knock The Bald Head" always if not equally was on par with 'Highway Hassle.'
You and the lead singer Michael Riley left the band shortly after the album came out in 1980. Why did you leave? Tell me about Bumble and The Beez?
Mike & I left due to creative & some personal differences but the band continued... not sure why it came to a halt later on. We formed Bumble & The Beez as a fusion project, mainly Reggae, Classical & Rock styles to try something different. We gained some interest from crowds & eventually got signed to EMI. Apart from Mike & myself, we had Dan Lee on Reggae guitar, Simon Walker on Violin & Keyboards & Nick Page on Rock/classical guitar. We started out with a drummer, Tony Hawkins, a good player but not quite the style we needed who later became a music journo. Apart from what we were playing, we gained some interest in the way we played. Even though we were looking for the right type of drummer, in the meantime Mike the lead singer, played bass drum & Cowbell which made an interesting sound with Violin doing Reggae chops, funky dub bass lines & no drummer.
We were blackmailed (In the nicest possible way) by Siouxsie from Siouxsie & the Banshees to play in this format as her support act at the Hammersmith Palais which was a great but nerve racking first gig. Things went on for a while but as with many bands we ended up going our separate ways but still remaining friends. Mike launched the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra with some of the Bumble & The Beez tunes. Nick went on to form "The Rain Gods" then "Transglobal Underground" and then went on to form "The Temple Of Sound". He now works as a producer/ songwriter sometimes from the Real World studios & calls on Mike & me to help out on his music every now & then.
You've gone on to become a professional bass player and have recorded with Massive Attack, Robbie Williams and are currently touring with The New Beautiful South. How do you look back on your days in Headline?
We had some great times performing the Ska tunes as we had it in our blood, so to speak, & the punters knew it was authentic as the vibe was electric.... audiences always pick up on this & get a feeling of excitement from connecting with the band.... sounds corny but it is true. This does give me a feeling of regret that we didn't stick it out & work on the differences that divided the band. When I left, the other members continued after which I lost touch with them.
What do you think of the Bad Manners cover of 'Don't Knock The Baldhead"?
To be honest, I wasn't aware that Bad Manners had covered the tune. I listened to it on You Tube & looked on their web site but saw no mention of a credit to Headline for the composition of the track. Weird as it's done exactly as we performed it. It was great to hear them play it & play it so well.
You can catch Blissett live in action touring with The New Beautiful South who have two shows on Saturday May 30th at Britannia Stadium in Stoke-on-Trent and later that night in Sunderland at the Campus Academy. You can also see Blissett with Massive Attack, who have announced ten dates for their UK tour this fall. The tour will kick off with two nights at the O2 Academy in Brixton, London, on September 17 and 18.