Monday, August 24, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with Tony Jacks of The Tigers - From DIY UK Label To A&M Records Darlings

It goes without saying that I am enamored of 2-Tone era ska and reggae bands and artists that didn't quite reach the audiences that they deserved. Though many of these bands plied their trade nearly 30 years ago, I believe it is my job to champion their sounds to those of you who may also be interested and maybe a bit more open minded now then listeners were during the heyday of the late 70's and early 80's.

One band that I initially discovered via a variety of British ska compilations was The Tigers. I was intrigued by their intelligent, pop-driven ska and reggae songs as well as the voice of their lead singer Tony Jacks. The songs I heard were definitely in the vein of Elvis Costello's pop-reggae 'Watching The Detectives' or Joe Jackson's 'Beat Crazy' LP which dove into an exploration of reggae with heavy pop overtones.

When I dug I little deeper I learned that the band had used the 2-Tone records blueprint to start their own record label Strike Records in London in the late 70's releasing singles to critical acclaim from the British music press which lead to a recording contract with A&M records here in the U.S. What was really unique about The Tigers is that they by-passed establishing themselves in U.K. music market (indeed their one and only LP was never released in the U.K. or Europe) to first try and make their mark in the U.S. just as American audiences were being introduced to ska and reggae via 2-Tone bands, The Police and Joe Jackson. Unlike their British contemporaries, they had to work all that much harder to connect with American music listeners as they were being promoted like a new American band signing rather than a band that has crossed organically to the U.S. That experience of slogging through a variety of good and bad club gigs up and down the East Coast of the U.S. made me respect them immediately.

Unlike many of their U.K. contemporaries, The Tigers approached the making of demo recordings of their songs as if they were making master recordings. The Tigers released their first singles - 'Savage Music,' 'Jack it Up' and 'Kidding Stops/Big Expense, Small Income' on their own Strike Records. The band had support from BBC Radio One's John Peel Show and helpful suggestions from Elvis Costello's manager Jake Riviera regarding "upping the ante.'" With their second single, 'Kidding Stops', the music press took notice. In the 1979 pre-Christmas edition of the New Musical Express (NME), made it 'Record of the week' with the following description, "Forget The Police, forget Madness and The Specials...My God this is a big hit record"

Major record labels pricked up their ears and The Tigers were signed to Warners UK who had brought The Pretenders to the label and to the top of the UK charts with 'Brass In Pocket".  At the start of 1980, the band were signed by renowned Joe Jackson producer/A&R supremo, David Kershenbaum to A&M Records for the U.S. and Canada. The band toured small clubs around the U.S. and had some success in major markets like New York and Los Angeles where they were fĂȘted at the infamous Tropicana Hotel in Los Angeles and The Tudor on 42nd Street in New York where they held court. Some positive reviews of their one and only American LP 'Savage Music' and their live gigs at the Whiskey A Go Go and Madame Wong's in Los Angeles and Max's Kansas City in New York made them popular with American celebrities like Lauren Bacall, the Kennedy Kids, David Carradine and others.

Sadly the band only lasted long enough to record and promote the 'Savage Music' LP in the U.S. during 1980 and 1981 before the lack of record company promotion and the expansiveness of the U.S. took its toll on the band members who returned to the UK and moved on. I was lucky enough to connect with the band's leader and lead singer Tony Jacks a few months ago and was able to conduct an interview with him about his days in The Tigers and their experiences here in the U.S. as new wave was first taking off in the early 80's. Read on....

What was it like growing up in London?
London has always been a fantastic ‘boiling pot’ of a city. Now it has emerged as the’ New York’ of Europe, but back in the 1960’s & 70’s it was a slightly different story. Fuelled by the twin success of the England soccer team in the World Cup of 1966 and the explosion of groups like the Beatles, Stones , Kinks & Who, the UK was a buzz of pop and sporting culture amidst the still somewhat shabby buildings ,drizzle & fog. Needless to say I was, and remain, a big Chelsea fan, and still get a tingle when ‘Waterloo Sunset’ comes on the radio.

When did you pick up the guitar? When did you make the conscious decision to be a musician and songwriter?
I got my first guitar when I was about 9. It was a bit of a bashed up Spanish number that a cousin had blagged off a school friend. My mum had told him that I wanted to play guitar, and it really was something of a surprise. I do remember thinking “why has it got a hole in the middle of it and where do you plug it in?” The electric didn’t materialize until I was 12 or 13. Then it clicked!! After playing in groups at school and college, by 19 I wanted to get serious. Come early 20’s I’d hooked up with co-writers Al Price and Jim McIlroy, wrote a bunch of songs, signed to Jimmy McCulloch’s (ex Wings guitarist) publishing company, met producer Hugh Murphy (“Baker Street “-Gerry Rafferty) and recorded some demos with him for Arista Records.

What was the genesis of The Tigers? Is it true that you picked the name of the band based on the American colloquialism of calling a man 'Tiger'?
The Tigers were formed after I returned from a trip to the US in ’79. I was working in a series of dead end jobs in London after the Arista interest blew cold, and the publishing company grounded after Jimmy McCulloch died. I decided to take some new demos and try my luck. The West Coast was a blast at the time, the club scene vibrant with acts like the Plimsouls, the Busboys & The Go Go’s. I was fortunate to meet some great musos and celebs like Rick Danko of the Band, Bonnie Raitt and David Carradine through mutual friends, which lead to some management interest in LA.However, I wanted a UK ‘feel’ to my band, and a specific set of guys that I knew could ‘get the boat rocking’. So back in London, I hooked up again with lyricist Al Price and began writing what were to become the core tracks. The band was named after a line in one of the first songs written, ‘Savage Music’. “Bite like a tiger, strike like a snake”. We could’ve been called ‘the Snakes’!!!

Tell me about the reasons and decision behind the start of Strike Records?
The punk movement had been a refreshing blast of energy into the UK music scene at the time, and bought a new found DIY approach into the promotion of new music, writing and art. The rise of fanzines and stores like Rough Trade meant there were at last alternative ways to reach an audience without relying on the whims of major labels and music press editors. Starting Strike Records with Carole Striker was just that vehicle. An initial solo EP released in mid ’78 after the Arista interest faded, was largely ignored, but picked up a decent trade press review, which led to instigating some initial contacts in distribution & export which proved useful after The Tigers formed a year or so later.

Did you grow up listening to ska and reggae music? When did your interest in ska and reggae music start?
Late teen interest in ska acts like Max Romeo & the Upsetters’ led to a a ready acceptance of the reggae explosion in 1970’s West London culture. One evening in the early 70’s I bumped into a friend who told me there was a special gig going on at the Greyhound pub in Fulham Palace Road. It sounded too good to miss, I got there pretty late, but knew the bouncer and the owner, a great character from Glasgow called Duncan, who, although the place was ‘rammed’ let me in. I was totally hooked by the mesmerizing sounds coming from the small stage. The bass, the drums, the vocal harmonies – extraordinary- and the undeniable charisma of the lead vocalist. I had unwittingly witnessed probably one the first UK gigs of Bob Marley & the Wailers, and I was hooked!

Early on the band made a conscious decision to focus time and energy on writing and recording songs and releasing them instead of playing out. Was this DIY approach considered unusual at the time? A lot of bands tried to build word-of-mouth through live shows.
I think at the time, and with the advent of ‘band’ administered labels like 2Tone, there was more of an inclination to have at least a single out there to hopefully garner some attention, even if it were fanzine or local radio feedback. It could often, even then, be a costly exercise to try and break thru’ on gigs first and foremost,unless like acts like the Jam or the Clash who were signed to majors from the onset ,you had a budget to help support extensive touring in tandem with releasing a single every 3 months and slowly establishing a larger fan base over a 12 to18 months period. 2Tone released not only The Specials, but put out initial recordings by Madness and The Beat and Selector, and this no doubt helped to up these acts fees for live shows, allowing them to profitably tour from the outset. It’s true that The Tigers did focus on the recording side initially. The idea was very much to create as best an ‘album’ as possible. To that end a budget was set and deals were struck with the studio whereby we would record in the “graveyard shift” when the studio wouldn’t be booked i.e. midnight – 5 am. There were some college and London gigs around the release of the‘ Kidding Stops’ single, but you’re right that extensive touring didn’t really kick in until Strike licensed the album in the US and attention was focused on its release there in 1980.

What did you learn from working with noted engineer Alvin Clark on the Tigers first single 'Big Expense,Small Income / Kidding Stops'?
The first single released from the Tigers was actually “Savage Music”. Envisaged as a limited edition – 500 copy ‘taster’ for things to come. It received positive one line reviews in Zigzag & Melody Maker and was given prestigious John Peel radio plays, paving the way for the follow up - break thru’ single ‘ Kidding Stops’. I like to think of the working relationship with Alvin as mutually productive. We both brought ideas to the project. A friend of mine had been recording in Sound Suite Studio and invited me to take a listen. I really liked the sound of the place. The mid & bass was really punchy. Alvin was a dab hand at getting the echo & dub effects spot on. I had a knack for a nifty backing vocal arrangement. As we got further into completing the album, it seemed a ‘no brainer’ to give Alvin a co-producer credit.

The NME gave the single a glowing review. What kind of effect did that have on the band's fortunes?
The positive Danny Baker NME review meant instant re orders for the single and helped to firm up a deal with Moira Bellas, who had signed the Pretenders to Warners UK. There had been some interest also from other parties following the ‘Savage Music’ single release, but everyone was only prepared to commit to two singles until that review. It ‘upped the ante’, and we were able to talk album commitments. Our only regret was that other than Italy, the album was never released in Europe, only some singles saw the light of day.

What was it like to go from being on your own DIY label to signing with A&M Records in the U.S. which was then home to both Joe Jackson and The Police, two bands that The Tigers were often compared to by the US music press? Tell me about recording the 'Savage Music' LP for A&M?
The US deal came about when A&M’s UK A&R man heard the single after the NME review and wanted to hear more. By then two thirds of the album had been mixed and we were in the process of pressing some Strike promo copies. Tapes were sent to the US and we got a call to say that David Kershenbaum, who was then head of A&R, liked what he had heard, was coming to London and wanted to meet. He specifically wanted to see the band play live. As there were no scheduled live dates the week of his visit,we hired a staged rehearsal room in West London,invited all our mates, bought the beers and had riot of an evening!!. We must’ve played a set that impressed,as Carole and I were flown to LA to strike a licensing deal for the record with A&M supremo Jerry Moss himself. The A&M offices were something else,housed on the old Charlie Chaplin film studio lot,incorporating recording studios,cutting rooms etc. You’d occasionally catch an earful of Herb Alpert blowing his horn in the afternoon sunshine!! Totally Hollywood. All the bands at the time used to stay at the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard which duly saw its fair share of riotous partying. So it was quite a blast to go from gearing up for a release on our DIY operation to have A&M on board in the US.

The band made a big effort to break into the US market. What were your impressions of the US in the early 80’s? What kind of reception did you get from audiences here?
We were able to negotiate a tour and marketing budget in our US deal, consequently we enthusiastically made a big effort to break there. Audience response was generally great- when there was an audience! Initially we were based in NYC for about 6-8 weeks, touring up and down the East Coast.We played everywhere from tiny bars in Long Island with 3 guys and a dog,to large clubs in New Jersey on a Saturday night with 2000+going beserk !!

The US in the early 80’s, particularly NYC, was not quite the gentrified post-Guiliani city it became. One rare Saturday night off, a few of us headed to Brooklyn to catch the Jamaican act Third World. After the show, and back on the main ‘drag’ trying to find a taxi to our hotel, a gunfight erupted and we spent the next 30 minutes cowering in doorways, nudging our way, a doorway at a time to a cross street where we managed to catch a local kerb crawling unlicensed ‘taxi’. We jumped in the back – the driver had a neck twice the size of Mike Tyson – We said “Can you take us to 42nd St?” He said “Man, I ain’t been further than 21st St”, we said “That’s cool man, just keep going for another 21 blocks and it’ll be fine”. I think he went halfway round Manhattan just to avoid paying the toll in the tunnel!!. A memorable night out – We gave the ‘cabbie’ a good tip – He was well pleased! – but he really saved our bacon that night – there were 2 or 3 bodies on the sidewalk on our little drive back to Manhattan.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows in the U.S. that were particularly memorable?
I could go on all night about all the stories surrounding our live shows in the US. However, one of the more memorable was our very first. As previously mentioned, the initial centre of activity for the band was the East Coast as the Police / Joe Jackson etc. ‘NEW WAVE’ thrust had originated there. We were eager to play a ‘warm up’ gig as out first legit NYC show was a popular radio sync’d live broadcast from a lower west side club. The agent duly arranged a late nite slot for us the day before at Max’s Kansas City, a pretty well known late 70’s stomping ground. We hit the stage around 12:30 – 1 am, did our stuff – but it was really hot – I don’t think the aircon functioned as well in those days. Coming off stage covered in sweat, but felling pretty good after, what was a well received debut in North America, I became aware of a rather refined lady striding head on towards me. She put her arms around my neck, kissed me and exclaimed that this was a fantastic show that she had just witnessed, wanted to know all about us, plus buy me a drink pronto. I was somewhat taken aback, but thanked her for her praises, saying I’d better first deposit my guitar in the dressing room – collect a fresh T-shirt etc. On route to the cockroach encased Max’s ‘band cage’,it transpired that the mystery lady was none other than Lauren Bacall !! It transpired that she had a grandson who had played with a support band on the nite. There was also a journalist from the Midwest who had, by chance, been in the audience as well that night. He also loved the band, wrote a piece, and the Tigers had that night, arrived Stateside!

When and why did The Tigers break-up?
The Tigers were a ‘one off’ – one album, one-plus years of frantic activity. Several tours- but always in the trail of bands like Police, who really became’ the’ A&M “priority” act. Even though the Tigers LP was a breakthru’ record on the Billboard chart at the time in the Atlanta area for example, little promotion and no gigs were scheduled at the time to coincide with the disc being well received by radio in the southern states. So a little frustration maybe crept in. The band de-camped to the UK at the end of 1980, recorded a couple more singles that saw some radio exposure in the UK and Scandinavia, but we finally called it a day and sought alternative employment as it were, the following year.

Tell me about your musical journey since then.
After the Tigers I retreated into Nick Lowe’s studio in Shepherds Bush for a while,recording many tracks,of which only ‘I Hear a Heartbeat’ got released as a 7” single. Keyboard player Nick Coler and I teamed up as ‘Wise Guise’ for some releases in Germany. He now works with the pop production powerhouse Xenomania, who produce and write for UK acts like Girls Aloud, Sugarbabes& Gabriella Climi. You can’t get into his guest washroom for all the gold & platinum discs he has on display in there!! Guitarist Ross McGeeney & I formed the ‘Pool Sharks’ with lyricist Leslie Adey who’d had some hits with Jack Green in Canada. Bassist Nic Potter has recently played festival dates in Italy with some of the very best young rock musicians there, releasing a live album in the process. Drummer Pete Dobson was last heard of in Portugal, enjoying the laid -back life there and providing impeccable rhythm for a wide range of live bands.

We’ll be releasing ‘Savage Music’ on CD in November to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the first singles releases. Do check out the website at where also from November a new track currently under production- ‘On Expenses’, will be available to download.

You can learn more about The Tigers and download a free copy of the song 'Savage Music' at their Web site.  A number of their ska songs including 'Ska Trekking" and 'Kidding Stops" are available on a variety of ska compliations including 100% British Ska.


jeffen said...

Great piece here,as always.

Marco On The Bass said...

Thanks Jeffen. This was a fun piece to write because so little is known about The Tigers and yet they came pretty close to making a mark for themselves. With better promotion and tour support they may have had a shot.

jeffen said...

Yeah, this my favourite era ('79-'81) for coulda-beens (so many good ignored bands).

P.S. I found some deeply obscure, early eighties British ska. Can't let the cat out of the bag (coming in about a week) just yet but I think you'll be into it.

Marco On The Bass said...

I'm definitely intrigued! Let me know when you get it. Thanks.

gobshyte said...

nice interview marco.ive just read it at work where they have barred all websites but havent worked out about blogs yet.a great informative piece to pass a boring day at work.cheers mate!


Literature Review Example said...

I am so happy to see this blog,and I hope, you share more interesting Articale,great work

janice said...

well your work is pretty good and i really like your post . .every thing in the post is awesome . . . .gr8 job . . .keep sharing :)
literature review