Steve Rowles interview

Steve Rowles  today

The legendary Steve Rowles was one half of Fish Co and the musical lynchpin of Writz and Famous Names. Steve is now managing director with a leading telecommunications company…

Going way back to Fish Co, how did that particular project begin, and at what stage did you realise it was becoming a little more serious than simply a couple of teenagers just mucking about with acoustic guitars?

Steve and I met in 1966. I was 13 years old and we were going through a period of our life which was later captured beautifully, if a little unkindly by Jeanette Winterson in ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’. Steve was a whole 2 years and 5 months older than me. At 13 that was a lifetime. Within a year or so he became like an older brother. He was articulate, rebellious, had style and flair and he was very different and very cool. Of course, with the age gap he did absolutely everything first and I would listen to every detail of his life as it unfolded, knowing that with any luck, all this would soon happen to me too.

It’s easy to forget the social context. The Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson was re-elected in ’66, the Beach Boys were number one in November with ‘Good Vibrations’ and of course, in July England had won the World Cup. But it was also the year of dark events, of the Aberfan disaster, of the Ian Brady and Myra Hindley trial and the Cultural Revolution in China. Steve and I began writing commentary (rather than protest) songs like ‘Down in the Snow’, ‘Pink Hat Christianity Blues’. We started performing at the Thursday night youth club, or the Sunday evening service. Our first public stumblings were whilst backing our older sisters Ruth and Rhoda Fairnie (now Pike and Marshall respectively) and my dear sister Chris Rowles (now Hepden). One Sunday, I remember everyone laughing when I uttered my first tentative public ad-lib, squeaking “everybody” as I encouraged the bemused and largely ‘pink-hatted’ audience to join in with the last chorus of our latest three chord wonder. Slowly, the reality dawned…. Ruth, Rhoda, and Chris didn’t want to be the Pointer Sisters. The ‘band’ just had to split! 🙂

By the end of ’68 Martin Luther King, Senator Robert Kennedy and Tony Hancock (one of Fairnie’s heroes) had all met their end. Conflict was ever-present. On our black and white TVs we saw reformist protesters snuffed out by Russian tanks in the ‘Prague Spring’, the bloody street battles of the Paris student riots and the re-emergence of the ‘the troubles’ in Belfast after 50 years of relative peace. Meanwhile Louis Armstrong reached #1 in September with ‘What a Wonderful World’. At the ‘Mount of Olives’ Pentecostal church, two Bristolian teenagers listened to firebrand orators and unwittingly picked up performance and public speaking skills, soaking up how to use pitch, pace, pause and tone, the art of alliteration and the ‘the rule of three’. We were singing freeform gospel harmonies, learning how to collaborate on creative work, learning to debate and present an argument and crucially, figuring out how to conquer stage fright. We kept watching… listening… writing and singing. Looking back, we were virtually at stage school.

In ’69 Fairnie made his first film at college, a depressing 4-minute wrist-slitter called ‘A Day in the Life’. It was easy to miss the influence of his French comic film hero, Jacques Tati, but we agreed it was all very James Dean. That summer Fairnie and I hitchhiked to London for the day on 13s 6d. Meanwhile, in ’69 the Americans managed to put one man on the moon and another million on a single farm at Woodstock, but for me the world truly opened when I passed my scooter test and we had our first telephone installed at home! (Bristol 76471). My mother complained “When you get on that phone to that Steve Fairnie, I can’t understand a word you say! – teenagers eh! who’d have um!”

Can't Be Bad album photo By 1970, Steve was at college in Stoke-on-Trent and we had met a talented singer called Rachel Bailey and formed Fish Co as a trio and started to sing at any opportunity. For example, we regularly went to a coffee bar in Torquay called ‘The Spot’. A special spiritual mission perhaps? mmmmm…. the truth is, by now the testosterone levels where high and the girls at ‘The Spot’ looked so gorgeous that Steve and I thought we had died and gone to heaven. We established a number of lifelong friendships here not least with another band which included 4 heart-stopping stunners called Joy, Linda, Judy (who later married Andy Piercy of After The Fire), … and yes, please welcome to our lives, the outrageous, the sensational, the one and only… Beverly Sage. Bev was, and still is a wonderful human being, I love her to bits. Fairnie, in his own very un-emotional way, was completely besotted with Bev for the rest of his life. She became almost literally his other half in everything they did.

Fish Co was now very much a hobby, we were 150 miles apart for three years during term time and months on end would go by without meeting up. By ’72 we were a duo and had recorded songs for local radio and the BBC in London. Steve was a leading light in the establishment of a Christian Arts Centre in Bristol, which opened that year. So… In the same year as Watergate was broken into and 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by terrorists in the Munich Olympic village, I bought my first Escort Van for £470 and we were almost ready to rock and roll. Fairnie was a Frank Zappa, Cat Stevens and Dr John man whilst I was more a Carole King, The Crusaders or Carlos Santana man. We met at Bowie. We wrote ‘Matthew the Miner’ that summer and I’m sure we inadvertently nicked the opening riff from Ziggy Stardust.

So, in the Fish Co days, Fairnie was on that mammoth art course and I believe you were studying to become a music teacher.

In 1974 Steve and I ‘appeared’ in London, the same year as Lord Lucan disappeared from it! Fairnie had won a Fine Art place at the Royal College of Art in Kensington and I secured a music place at Trent Park College in Cockfosters!! What links those two extremes of London life? Why, the Piccadilly line of course, so we spent several frustrating weekends hunting for a cheap flat we could share equidistant from each college. Camden Town to Tottenham was the scope of our fruitless search and we were very puzzled until a kindly black estate agent finally took pity on us and unlocked the mystery of our failure. “We don’t take white people” he smiled and Steve and I looked at each other and began to laugh. Within seconds all three of us had heaving shoulders. “Of course” we said “quite right too.. bla bla.. poetic justice.. bla bla” He was right, we just wanted a place, but his books were full of people who needed a place. We shook hands with him and we retreated to the tube station and headed in opposite directions for our respective college fall-back digs. So, we started our new lives in London that autumn on a geographic basis which remained relatively unchanged for the rest of the story. Bev was already at Bromley, ‘doing photography’ amongst other things.

Do you still remember seeing the first pressings of the first album? Where were you and how did it feel?

Beneath The Laughter cover shot Yes, it was in ’75. Big year. Whilst the Americans were ditching their helicopters into the China Sea as Saigon fell at the end of the Vietnam war, we were recording our first album for Myrrh with John Pac at Morgan Studio in North London. It had taken a while to happen and some of the material already felt a little old to us. We attended the pressing in Wardour Street (I think) and I still have the first one, I felt like a million dollars. I’m sure we scratched our names on the inner rim along with ‘Bilko’ the presser. Bev took the cover photos and we had our first album in the shops.

Listening to it now some of it seems a little quaint, some of the lyrics seem innocent now, but we had written some of the songs up to 5 years earlier. Looking back it explores the conflicts of being held up as a young Christian role model (so say) at the weekends (and taking our faith and responsibilities very seriously) and at the same time dealing with a pretty bizarre life during the week, being young, single and at college. It took me a while to discover who I was and Steve had his own journey, but I can still feel good about the positive influence we had, we didn’t pretend we had all the answers. We grew up very much in the public gaze. By the autumn of ’76 Fairnie was Entertainment Officer for the RCA and booking the Friday night bands. One night, as a result of an equipment crisis, we ended up providing our PA and mixing for George Melly. But usually on a Friday I was watching the likes of Kokomo, Gonzalis and the Kilburns at Trent Park College gigs.

By ’77 our summers were had fallen into a routine of tours to Holland and big band sets at Greenbelt and we were typically playing for Christian organisations in schools during the day and in pubs at night. That January we met our dear mate Jules Hardwick who became the musical cornerstone of the band and was a massive influence on its development. The three of us became very close mates for years. Bev joined us more and more often and the four of us soon became a team. Steve Biko and Elvis Presley both died that autumn and I saw my first punk band in Fulham. When you listen to the second album, Johnny Rotten, Carole King, Boz Scaggs, David Bowie, Lena Lovitch, Jools Holland, Elvis Costello, Gallagher and Lyle, they are all in there somewhere and by January ’78 we are in a country studio near Worcester recording what became ‘Beneath the Laughter’.

Moving onto Writz, you had a stunning stage show, great songs and a strong image. Why, oh, why didn’t Writz crack it? What, with hindsight, had you got wrong?

With Famous Names It was an extraordinary time. The move to Writz was pretty rapid and by the end of ’78 we are a full-on touring band, with Nick Battle and Steve (Arry) Axell both fully committed. By then Pete (now Willie) Williams, Ken (Squad) Watts and Johnny Roden were pretty much full time as crew (by the way – these guys all went on to achieve personal success in the music business). Great memories, great friends, great times. Bev and Fairnie were just terrific up front, Every gig, I’d be singing my heart out, workhorsing all the main lyrics but few people noticed because Fairnie was always doing something outrageous with a rubber chicken or a fake TV screen, or having his temperature taken by Bev in a nurse’s uniform!

In ’79 Dave Rees (then Manager) secured us a contract with Electric Records and we recorded the Writz album. We played over 180 gigs that year and toured throughout the UK and in Europe, we could fill key London venues like Dingwalls, the Marquee or the Music Machine every three months. There were the six of us in the band plus a three-man crew, a manager, a record co, an agent, a lawyer, an accountant, and a publicist. Being on stage was the easy bit. I believe we were one of the most entertaining touring bands of the time, but we couldn’t capture it on record, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme got the closest with ‘Night Nurse’.

Why didn’t we make it on record? Mmm… perhaps a bit of bad luck here and there with record companies, and maybe we were better ‘performance artists’ than ‘recording artists’. At times there was too much going on, we had the kitchen sink in every track, but I’m not sure that was the problem. I think the Writz album is the clue. Listening now it sounds like a decent live band trying to record their live (and very visual) act onto record. With a first class Hons. degree in hindsight, they are very different disciplines. Some of the arrangements are too long for record, they worked well with the visuals on stage but were overkill when recorded. One or two of the best visual tracks on stage became the most sterile on record.

Less important, but still significant is the question, how much did we live up to the phrase ‘recording artist’? In pure musical terms – to be honest – only Jules truly measured up, he was outstanding, Les, Arry and the rest of us were good enough, but not in Jules’ league (if you think of the success of the Blockheads, Ian Dury was only commercially successful when he set his stall out against an extraordinary musical backcloth). We could still very easily have ‘got lucky’, I know less talented bands than us that did and more talented bands that did not. For the record, I was certainly the worst instrumentalist, but I drove the van and knew how to do the VAT!

Was the Greenbelt/Christian legacy too much of a burden?

No, not at all. Although I think if we had made it, the rock and roll press would not have built us up for long before they began to try to knock us down again. If they looked hard enough, I’m sure there would have been the odd ‘kiss and tell’ story to dig up. People like Nick Beggs from Kajagoogoo and other Christians who ‘came out’ at that time, had the luxury of having been ‘converted’ from something to something. Ours was a pretty raw and disjointed evolution/maturation, I certainly had made my mistakes. Through it all, I believe we were genuine, we were just trying to figure it all out ourselves, that just meant that our lives were a little wacky at times.

What were the real high points of the Writz/Famous Names era? Was the Circus Tour really as zany as is often made out?

On stage with Writz Yes, it was Sept ’80 and it was bizarre. Wrestling ring, Klondike Kate, ‘Shock’ the dance troupe, a fire-eater, mad. And yes, it was as much fun as it sounds. We released the single ‘Holiday Romance’ that summer, another high point, and the Circus tour was in the autumn. I met Gill around this time (married her in ’86, she’s great) and she saw the Nottingham Uni show. Of course she was dutifully complimentary but I think privately she thought we had been talking to the little green space men.

Could Venetian Blind have been the hit album that the Writz LP wasn’t? Was it more of the same? Was it better?

I don’t know, maybe, but it was like the ‘growing up’ album that didn’t have the ‘critical acclaim’ album before it so I’m not sure it made sense. It was never really finished and we will never know. We were so broke by then that it was getting very difficult to sustain.

Whose decision was it that Famous Names should be no more? Was it a gradual process where it felt like you were coming to the end of that road or was it more sudden and unexpected? Was it a relief to wake up one day and no longer be a Famous Name, or was it a disappointment?

It was gradual, In January ’81 Fairnie got very sick (second time) and was in hospital with a duodenal ulcer. He was out for 3 months and when he came back in the spring it was almost over. We reformed a band and toured Israel in style but with hindsight, it was a footnote. I was in a flat in Edmonton and spent most of that summer broke, with no electricity and no phone, it was rock bottom for me and it was time to move on.

What happened next? Please put the record straight: what, if any, involvement did you have in The Birdie Song, or was that just some cruel Fairnie wind-up?

It has been alleged that I sold out and spent 3 months dressed up as a chicken for money! Can you believe that?! The story apparently goes that John Glover (our great mate and manager towards the end) got me the gig of putting a band together to exploit the success of that accursed novelty record when it hit the charts in Sept ’81. It seems that people put 2 and 2 together when I had the phone and electricity re-connected at the flat! There is even a tale that Glover and I were spotted travelling from Dublin to Belfast whilst the T’s were on tour there. Allegedly we were in a first class rail carriage, drinking Champagne and giggling like school children whilst counting a briefcase full of cash into piles. Is it true? Well, in the words of the great Jim Thacker, of Yes Minister, “You may say so, but I couldn’t possibly comment”!…

When did you finally make the shift from the cruel world of rock and pop to the slightly less cruel (is it?) world of telecommunications?

I did some production for a while, but it was time to get a proper job and by winter of ’82 I’d taken the mental leap. It was tough. I reluctantly took out the ear-ring, cut off the bleached hair, bought a cheap suit and spent 3 months selling life insurance on the housing estates in south London. Miserable. But whilst there I met a guy called Joe and we started our own small telecoms business called RPL. The first few years were hard, but life has been more than kind to me since.

Looking back, I don’t think I fully appreciated how good the last couple of Bev and Steve solo albums were until much later. They were really good. Maybe it was hard for me to celebrate their progress, particularly whilst I was struggling, but that soon faded and we were soon both grateful that at least one of us could buy the curry. We remained very close friends till his death in ’93.

Do people still pester you about your murky musical past? Has it been pretty much swept under the carpet?

Not really, it was fun, we got close, I learnt an amazing amount, but it’s over.

Finishing up with a couple of questions about Fairnie: Muscle Culture is still a remarkable track and features the most amazing vocal from Fairnie, with him in full dictator/preacher mode. Do you remember him recording that vocal? What was the atmosphere like in the studio? Was it a single take?

That track was pure Fairnie, the man at his best. That performance was special, we may have dropped in once or twice during the vocal but he was full on, pumped up and inspired, living the track and clutching the lyrics for that opening speech which he had written alone the previous night. I guess Fairnie’s legacy from the Writz/Famous Names era is best illustrated with that track somehow. We may not have been as sexy as Hot Chocolate or as cool as the Pretenders, but as an Art Band we were up there with the best of them.

What are your fondest memories of Fairnie on stage and behind the scenes?

Walking... How long have you got? I remember him as a soul mate… giving me hope in a café in ’69 on Blackboy Hill in Bristol when I failed a clutch of ‘O’ levels, or dozing in the front of the Transit on the way home from gigs in the late 70s, or in the late 80s carrying Jake (his son) on his shoulders in the park in the snow. I remember him as my outrageous mate… at 16, sitting with his head in the bass cabinet at a Van Morrison gig, or 20 years later putting his elbow in his curry whilst being ‘a bit tired’ at our favourite Indian restaurant in Paddington, or accidentally smashing up an antique coffee table at Pete Townshend’s flat by treading on it! And I remember him as my mate the star… quipping “thanks for the beer” into the mic, when being pelted with full cans of lager at the ’80 Reading Festival, or perhaps stopping the traffic in Tel Aviv because he was completely surrounded by autograph hunters, or being carried head high over the crowd at the Music Machine…

But I also remember him as a man who drew a thousand people to his funeral. He was my best mate for almost 30 years and so much a part of my life that nearly 10 years later I still miss him like mad.

Something I wrote after he died included the lines “…thought we’d grow old together, the great unspoken plan, the children hold the candle, so much better than we can…”.

Tim, Thanks for helping to hold the candle.

Thank you Steve.