The Small Brothers, London, 1980
At the age of 20 Bill Carter moved from Redcar in the north east of England down to Kent, where he enrolled in Bromley (later Ravensbourne) College of Art, gaining a BA in Fine Art. His two passions growing up had been art and music. Bill describes his artwork as "big, screen-print paintings, pictures of the country, everyday things. I don't know if they had much to do with my music, but I always tried to make them quite hard and exciting and atmospheric." Since the early 70s he had also been playing the guitar. His first was a Rickenbacker, "the Pete Townshend one", but he later moved to, and pretty much stuck with, Fender Telecasters. At the local Redcar Jazz Club he would see acts from early Steam Packet, Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart, Julie Driscoll to The Who.
“We used to think the Yardbirds were the best live band until The Who came on Ready Steady Go playing ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’ – It changed my life; Keith Moon in an altered state and Townshend’s shimmering chaos, while Roger Daltrey stammered the lyrics and
John Entwistle holding it all together. I played drums in the school band called the Aliens with Paul Mitchell and co, and got the sack for trying to play like Keith Moon – nothing’s changed!"
Meanwhile Chris Thompson had been playing guitar around his local London pubs and venues, and Kenny Harris had moved down from Beith in Ayrshire to make it as a musician in the capital.
After playing with various bands in and around London for several years the three fell into the same musical gene pool and settled enough to form a group; The Small Brothers.
The Small Brothers
Bill on guitar and vocals and Chris on bass were joined by Pete Lodge on harp and Steve Atkinson (from the Subway Sect) on keyboards. They released a single 'Got The Hurt' on Albion Records. Bill wrote all three tracks, and ex-Vibrators bass player Pat Collier produced. Kenny Harris joined soon after the single release as drummer.
Chris explains the early genesis of the band; “Me and Bill met up a couple of times, totally by chance, and then we started working together as van drivers and talking about bands all the time, so we started trying to form a band. We rehearsed and rehearsed and we got a gig at the Wellington in Waterloo, ‘cos we were rehearsing at Alaska Studios, around the corner – Pat Collier’s place. We did a gig there, called ourselves the Wellington Bombers, I think that was the first gig that we ever did. So we did that and then we made a single to hawk around places. We took it to Albion on Oxford Street and we got a little deal with them and called ourselves the Small Brothers and did the single. The drummer was a bloke called Chico Greenwood, and he left. We did a couple of gigs to try and promote the single – Kenny was playing with us by then. The single was an EP called Got The Hurt, there was a good photograph, mixed up and cut to pieces like a collage on the front and Kenny’s in that, although he didn’t play on it.”
Bill: "Chris and I had been in various musical manifestations before Motor Boys Motor and went back a long way. He had a background of traditional blues music and is a good country blues guitar/slide player. He taught me how to play slide and we both enjoyed playing music together at that time."
Kenny: “It was the age old method of an ad in Melody Maker. The band I was in had just split up, and I was looking for something else – So I called the advert and that’s how I ended up in the Small Brothers. They were going for a while before I joined, they’d had a tour with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, but I only did three gigs with them.”
Motor Boys Motor
The Small Brothers shortly split up and Bill and Chris hooked up with vocalist Tony Moon to form the raunchy R&B outfit Motor Boys Motor. Moon had been a roadie for the Stranglers, as well as being head of the S.I.S. (The Stranglers Information Service – the band's fan club), and had most recently been working at Albion Records.
Taking their name from a song title from Joe Strummer's first band the 101ers, Motor Boys Motor recorded a single, 'Drive Friendly', for SSH Four Records in November 1980. At this stage they were still to find a permanent drummer and Bill played drums on the record, as well as singing on the B-Side, 'Fast 'n Bulbous / Grow Fins', a Beefheart cover.
Chris: “The Small Brothers fell to bits and Bill and I were thinking, ‘Well, what should we do now?’ Tony Moon worked at Albion and we thought he was a good bloke, so we asked him if he wanted to be in a band with us. Then we rehearsed a lot of drummers – I think Kenny was busy with somebody else by this time – and we got a guy called John Kingham in to play drums, so then it was me, Bill, Tony and John. We formed Motor Boys Motor and did quite a bit of touring in Europe and made an album.”
On the 24th of August they recorded a Peel Session at the Beeb's Maida Vale studios, playing 'Little Boy and Fat Man', 'Hooves', 'Clean Shirt and a Shave' and 'Here Come The Flintstones'.
November 1981 saw Motor Boys Motor go into The Workhouse studios on the Old Kent Road to record their eponymous album for Albion Records, with John Brand producing and Seamus Beagan of Madness playing Hammond organ on 'Clean Shirt'.
Motor Boys Motor
Released in April 1982, and followed up by tours of the UK and Europe throughout the rest of the year, the album and live shows gathered favourable reviews from the music press. George Snow, who had illustrated The Small Brothers' single, returned to design the shockingly memorable LP cover, which featured African snake eater Lizwi Caleni with a mouthful of venomous snakes.
Chris: "So we carried on and it was the same old story – it gets to be very hard work and people get fed up being on the road, apart from me, I always liked all that. But it is tiring and you’re stuck in a van for a lot of your life. I think Tony gave up, so then there was me, Bill and John and it all started going down the pan.”
Birth of the Messiahs
Kenny had been working with blues rockers The Cannibals during this time but soon found himself back with Bill and Chris.
“I used to have friends in Ealing and I was over there one weekend, and I bumped into Bill in this pub, we hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years. So we exchanged phone numbers and a couple of weeks later, I got a phone call asking if I wanted to go to Alaska Studios. All he told me was that Tony had left the band, but he made it sound as if the band had split up. So I went up and did a couple of rehearsals and it seemed to be working out really well, and I said to them one night – ‘What happened to John, what’s he up to now?’ They both sort of stared at their feet, and then I realised that John didn’t even know that I was doing these rehearsals with them, he thought the band was still going.”
Chris: “Bill and I were thinking about how to get another singer. Between us we thought, ‘Well why don’t you do it Bill?’ and he reluctantly did. Bill turned into a really great frontman – he had no real expectations, and neither did I, except of course that he was the frontman in the Small Brothers, but he really moved up another gear – we all did.”
Kenny: “I wasn’t that keen on the first rehearsal, but that was mainly because I wasn’t pleased with my own playing,” admits Kenny. “It was the second rehearsal, and I remember when we played ‘Holiday Head’ for the first time and it was a bit of a goosebumps moment, ‘cos we realised, ‘Oh, this sounds quite good’. Bill wanted to call the new band ‘Baby Crockett’. We did a gig at the Hope & Anchor, Motor Boys Motor used to play there regularly and Bill explained to John Eichler, who used to run it, that there was a change of line-up, and the new name was ‘Baby Crockett’, and John said, ‘Fuck off, I’m not putting that in the window!’”
Chris: “I think that we really honed the act at the Hope & Anchor. Motor Boys Motor had played a lot there and Bill and I played there when we were kind of morphing into the Messiahs. John Eichler was great, I think we played there every month and there weren’t many people there, but he just had faith in us and just kept putting us on until there was queues around the block.”
Soundcheck, Utrecht, Holland, 5 December, 1984.
Good And Gone
In Spring of 1984 Ted Carroll of Big Beat Records, who had seen and been impressed by the band, offered to finance a recording session. He booked a week at Elephant Studios in Wapping, London and brought in the late great Vic Maile to produce. Maile had produced Dr Feelgood and engineered The Who's Live At Leeds album.
Bill: "We made a demo at Alaska Studios and I sent it to Vic Maile because I knew he had produced Dr Feelgood, he told me he was not that impressed with my guitar playing or Chris’s bass – too untogether. Vic liked Kenny’s drumming that’s why he produced us. He said could not record a band without a good drummer. Kenny was the engine room behind the band, and Chris and him developed a great rapport."
Chris: “We rehearsed it a lot down at Pat’s and we knew what we were doing. I remember it being a good time. Things started happening, which always spurs you on – Ted Carroll came in and started paying for things. It was great to have the chance to go into a proper studios and do proper work.”
Bill: "Vic also had a lot to do with the Messiahs sound – he definitely sorted out the songs on Good and Gone. So when we came out of Elephant Studios we were ready to gig – almost. Constant rehearsing was a big help, I was not easy to work with! It was a dirty job but someone had to do it. Kenny and Chris locked together and I basically started getting the hang of singing and playing guitar at the same time. John Dummer, the Messiahs’ manager at the time, called it that ‘thing you do’ and it was like a switch that went on that put me into a sort of trance, like an altered state and once I had discovered it I knew everything would be okay. Live, usually once we got wound up I would just make things up and improvise."
They had a record now, but still needed a name. Bill had proposed 'The Blues Messiahs', but it was felt this might suggest a more traditional 12-bar blues vibe. Carroll suggested 'The Screaming Blue Messiahs' instead, to better reflect the band's explosive take on rhythm and blues. As Bill said, "It also gave us extra impetus coz now we had an image to live up to. Now we had to scream!"
Another more mysterious legend of the name emanates from John Dummer, who became the band's manager after their signing to WEA. As Bill explains in a 1984 Sounds magazine interview;
"Our manager, John, used to live in this house in New Cross – and there was this really bad atmosphere there. People who stayed there had really terrible nightmares and things. So in the end, they moved out and on the day they were moving, John felt this horrible kind of presence. They were in the corridor just about to leave and he turned around and on the top of the stairs there was this little blue gargoyle looking at him and shimmering. That's a fact."
The first gig as The Screaming Blue Messiahs took place at Downstairs At The Clarendon, Hammersmith, London on the 11th of June 1984. A handful of shows followed before the release of Good And Gone in the Autumn, from which point things began to take off at speed. Their debut record went straight into the the top 20 of the independent record chart where it stayed for a full six months. The response from the music press to the record, and their ravaging live shows, was immediate and enthusiastic.
Of the record, Andy Hurt said in Sounds; "The 'album' splits 50-50 into the camps of rhythm and blues with the staggering masterpiece 'Someone To Talk To' opening affairs on side one. This song is a total justification of the Messiahs' existence, and if they disappeared forever tomorrow they will not have laboured in vain. It's hard not to pick up the needle before track two and play this scorcher over and over again until that coronary finally catches up with you. A song to die for."
Five songs recorded at Elephant Studios didn't make the cut on Good And Gone. 'President Kennedy's Mile' turns up on Gun-Shy, while 'Holiday Head', 'Let's Go Down To The Woods' and 'Wild Blue Yonder' were recorded afresh for the album, with substantially different intros. 'Growing For Gold' dates back to the Motor Boys Motor days and was never released, though it did feature regularly in early live sets.
Other great lost Messiahs tracks never committed to vinyl include 'Accident Prone', a number played sporadically throughout their career and one that took on all sorts of differing forms through the years. It's a furious machine gun barrage sounding like a runaway freight train tumbling headlong down a flight of stairs, and a number which makes you wonder how Kenny's arms and Chris' fingers didn't fall off by the end. 'Vision In Blues' is a similar driving force with an elastic bass riff and choppy guitar jangles. And 'Destroyer' likewise features more sharp karate chop rhythms over a relentless backbeat.
On the 24th of July the band recorded their first session for the BBC for John Peel, performing 'Good And Gone', 'Someone To Talk To', 'Tracking The Dog' and 'Let's Go Down To The Woods And Pray'. The songs aired on the 2nd of August. The session was popular enough to warrant two releases by the BBC, one a 4-track 12" and a later inclusion of 'Good And Gone' on an album sampler of Peel Sessions.
The Messiahs were also busy on the road performing around London most of the year and in December played five dates in Holland. One of the UK gigs, the Woolwich Tramshed in London, had been witnessed by John Wooler, a producer on The Old Grey Whistle Test on the BBC.
Kenny: “There was seventeen people in the audience. It was a good gig despite the fact that there was hardly anybody there and one of these seventeen people came into the dressing room afterwards and said, ‘I work for the BBC, the Whistle Test production team, and I can get you on the Whistle Test.’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, sure’ – We thought it was the ‘I can make you a star’ sort of bollocks. But it turned out to be true and about a week later we got the date for it – 4th December, and so we were the first unsigned band to do the Whistle Test for years. We’d come back from Holland to do the Whistle Test and then flew back out the next day to complete the Dutch dates.”
On the Whistle Test the band played two live songs; 'Let's Go Down To The Woods And Pray' and 'Good And Gone'. The latter number illustrates perfectly the affect Bill's unusual bare-handed guitar style had on his instruments. Mid-way through the song he breaks a string and has to reach for a replacement Telecaster from his ever present roadie. According to The Old Grey Whistle Test, the Messiahs were the loudest act they had had on the show thus far.
Of Bill's highly unusual playing style Jim Betteridge observed in International Musician magazine; "He plays without a pick, crashing the flesh of his fingers into the strings with little regard for it's mortality. Blood can often be seen splattered across the scratch plate – or the place where the scratch plate would be if it hadn't been removed. To avoid completely razoring the top of his fingers off, and I suppose also because he likes the sound, William uses unusually heavy bottom strings; Rotosound (and nothing else will do) 56, 48, 28, 16, 13 and 12. But he gives 'em such a sound thrashing that one string breaks every couple of numbers and often one a number, and I don't just mean the top strings; Es and As cop it an' all. In the words of his roadie, 'He goes fooking bonkers!' "
'Fooking bonkers' could also describe the reception the band continued to gather from press and punters alike. Major labels had already picked up on the Whistle Test buzz, and in January 1985 the Messiahs were signed to WEA Records. The Good And Gone EP was immediately re-released on WEA and work began straight away on recording their first full album.
However, the sessions didn't get off to the best start. Kenny: “At first it was painful. WEA insisted on these two producers, in hindsight we should have insisted on going with Vic again, but they chose these two blokes; Bob Andrews, who was the keyboard player with Brinsley Schwartz and this bloke Colin Fairley. As far as I know, the only success they’d had was the Bluebells; musically they had nothing in common with what we were doing. So we wasted a lot of time and money in various studios with this pair of chancers. I think the only track that saw the light of day was an instrumental called ‘The Power Glide’."
Chris: “We came out of there suicidal – At least I did! They just didn’t know what they were doing. I remember having a Transit van full of tape that was useless. It was all crap, god knows how much that cost. They couldn’t get a sound – ever, so they just kept hiring all kinds of really expensive equipment. The whole creative process goes down the pan when you’re poncing about for days trying to get a snare drum sound.”
Kenny: “What happened was that we went for Vic, and then Pat Collier did something on it, and Howard Gray – It was sort of patched together from various session.”
On March 30th a gig at the Paris Theatre in London was broadcast live on BBC radio. In a busy year the band also toured the UK and Scandinavia, playing in Finland, Belgium, Sweden, Holland and Germany. On June 14th the Messiahs played their second BBC session, a live version of 'Talking Doll' for Andy Kershaw's show.
Autumn saw the release of 'Twin Cadillac Valentine', the band's first single, from the forthcoming album. Put out in 7" and 12" formats, the latter featured five live tracks from a show at the University of London Union. A video was made for 'Twin Cadillac' featuring Bill hooning around West London flyovers in his Chevy Camarro.
'Twin Cadillac Valentine' has been cited by Bill as being the closest The Screaming Blue Messiahs got to establishing a signature sound for themselves. Kenny: "That happened with me fuckin' about with the drum part and then things got layered on top of that. It took a lot of bashing into shape." Bill: "'Twin Cadillac Valentine' was basically '8 Miles High'. A combination of '8 Miles High' and..." To this day Bill remains unimpressed with the final recording of the song. "Twin Cadillacs' live was fantastic. The actual demos we did for 'Twin Cadillacs' were fucking awesome."
The band finished off a hectic year of touring and recording with a Christmas show at Dingwalls in Camden ahead of the release of their first album in the New Year.
27 April 1985.
The Marquee, London, 1985
Early 1986 saw the release of 'Gun-Shy', the band's first full album, on WEA in Europe and Elektra in the US. The press response was again overwhelmingly positive. Melody Maker: "They have a gut instinct for the roots of blues and R 'n' B and from that sure base they can confidently blast their way through Bill Carter's extraordinarily powerful selection of songs." NME: "On the strength of this album, I'd say the Messiahs are going to be very, very big indeed."
To promote the album the band embarked on their heaviest tour schedule yet. Kicking off at the George Robey in London, supporting Wilko Johnson, they then played Germany, Finland and several more UK dates before setting off for America. Their debut US gig was at the New Music Seminar at the Ritz in New York, where they soundly blew headliners Cactus World News off the stage. There followed a series of concerts right across the US and Canada from East coast to West, supporting the Cramps. It is rumoured that the Messiahs' shows were going down so well that the Cramps' roadies resorted to messing with their gigs in order to level the playing field.
In the meantime 'Smash The Market Place' became the second single to be released from Gun-Shy. The third and final single from the album was 'Wild Blue Yonder', which featured on the 12" B-side their second cover version, John Lee Hooker's 'I'm Mad Again'. A video accompanied the release which made use of stock footage of US navy jets launching from aircraft carriers, buildings being demolished and such like – film clips of the sort that the band would often play on large backdrops in their stage shows.
Following the success of the Cramps tour, and after returning briefly to London to play the Mean Fiddler, the Messiahs revisited many of the previous US venues as headliners this time. Thirty dates took them from the East coast, through the mid-west and Texas, up through California and into Canada. At the end of the tour return flights were taking them through Australia and New Zealand so shows were booked in both countries. On the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of November they played three gigs in my native New Zealand. As luck would have it I'd just left home to go live and work in the UK and missed them by a couple of months. Hopping across the Tasman Sea the band played a 22 date tour of Oz supporting local rising rock band The Angels.
In a repeat of the previous year, the Messiahs played another Christmas gig at Dingwalls in London and looked forward to starting work on their second full album in the New Year.
US tour 1986. Photos Sean Haney.
Trenton City Gardens, 17 April. Photos DC Harbold.
January '87 saw them return to the studio to begin work on the 'Bikini Red' album. This time they had Vic Maile producing the whole record, but even so it still took several months and several studios around London to complete. Rejoining Bill on some song writing duties was Tony Moon from Motor Boys Motor. Often in the studio chipping in with ideas, Moon also acted as something of a muse for Carter, supplying song titles and word images that Bill could run with.
Bill: “‘Bikini Red’ was a Tony Moon title. He told me it was an expression of a state of alert in US military jargon. I wrote a song about someone I knew imagining her glowing on the beach. Tony and did the American cop on the radio vocal on the fade out and ‘zillion’ was his word – I had never heard it before then. The other thing Tony did was project films behind the band of fighter planes and cartoons and stuff long before that was popular. I used to turn round and watch them it was great I actually thought it really worked.”
If 1986 had seen a bumper crop of gigs, 1987 was a virtual dustbowl. Several events conspired to prevent any touring and the band only played four shows in the whole year. The album had taken longer than anticipated to finish, and Kenny's son was born that year and he was reluctant to leave home. But the real kicker came when Bill suffered a trapped nerve in his leg, which resulted in a planned US tour being cancelled altogether.
Then, on the March 20th edition of the Channel 4 TV show The Tube, David Bowie announced that his favourite band of the moment was the Screaming Blue Messiahs. An avid fan of the group, Bowie made mention of his admiration for them on numerous occasions, as here in the August '87 issue of Musician magazine:
"Well! The band this week – I've only just discovered them, so they're my pet project – is the Screaming Blue Messiahs. They're the best band I've heard out of England in a long time."
And again from Words And Music magazine in January 1988:
"There’s an English band I like very much. Nobody seems to have heard of them. They’re called The Screaming Blue Messiahs and I’m pushing them like mad. I think they’re really good. There’s an element of The Clash in them that I really like. But there’s something else there. I’m not really sure what it is. There’s an exciting guitar player. He’s a sort of new wave guitar player, but they’re an angry mob from London."
The admiration extended to an invitation for the Messiahs to join Bowie on a couple of his Glass Spider tour dates in the UK. They supported at Cardiff Arms Park in Wales and Roker Park in Sunderland on the 21st and 23rd of June. Sadly, these would be the only live shows of the year apart from two dates at the Marquee in December.
Upon the release of the Bikini Red LP music press reaction had been favourable, if not totally mindblowing. Q called it "...the best driving album since the likes of (ZZ Topp's) Eliminator and Afterburner, made all the more effective by the slightly off-centre, disturbed British worldview of singer/guitarist/crazy baldhead Bill Carter." And much was made of the variety of styles and sounds on the album. Rolling Stone: "This emphasis on American kitsch, instead of the apocalyptic brooding of Gun-Shy, makes for a somewhat less urgent record; there's little here to equal the sinewy "Let's Go Down To The Woods" from the first album. But thanks to muscular production from veteran sound man Vic Maile... Bikini Red is looser, funnier, more studio savvy (thanks to a few sound effects and the occasional keyboard part) and equally enjoyable." Bill, again like Pete Townshend before him, was equally at home with the keyboard as the guitar and tinkles the electric ivories on the album.
On November 4th the band played their third BBC session on the Janice Long show, running through 'Sweet Water Pools', 'I Wanna Be A Flintstone' and 'Big Brother Muscle'.
At the end of the year 'Bikini Red' became the first single to leap from the album in 7" and 12" formats, with a cover designed by Bill.
Cardiff Arms Park, 21st June 1987. Supporting David Bowie. Photo: Dave (Chalkie) Dawson
Yabba Dabba Doh!
January 1988 saw the release of 'I Wanna Be A Flintstone' and the Messiahs found themselves with an unexpected hit on their hands, peaking at number 28 in the UK charts. Sounds magazine declared the song their Single Of The Week, albeit mainly for the B-side; 'Jerry's Electric Church': "For the real goods, flip over to discover further rumination on the all-consuming eye as hitched to a sound the dear old Three Johns would be pushed to match. 'Jerry's Electric Church' skewers TV evangelist Jerry Falwell from poop-chute to laughing-gear on a gleefully plunged dynorod riff." The reviewer also noted, somewhat ironically as it turned out; "As for 'Flintstone'... it's a hoot and far too mob-handed to be branded as some 'Star Trekkin' novelty."
While 'Flintstone' was proving a commercial success, it was less of a critical one and left a whole section of fans seeing them as a one-hit-wonder or novelty act. This newfound fame saw the band treading unchartered waters, in February appearing on the BBC's Top Of The Pops and Saturday morning kids' show Number 73.
Kenny: “That was the worst thing that ever happened to us. We shot ourselves in the foot by doing videos with cartoons in and doing kids’ shows with polystyrene boulders and all the rest of it, you can’t expect people to still take you seriously.”
Chris: “If you ever saw us playing it live, it was very different, it was powerful and had a kind of sinister edge. We came back from somewhere on tour, went straight to a studio and played ‘Flintstone’ on TV to a load of children and there was boulders and dinosaurs everywhere, and basically the children looked frightened. The way they marketed it as a novelty was very disappointing. Although it was a success, it wasn’t representative of what we did.”
Two videos were made for the song, both making heavy use of cartoon clips from the Flintstones TV series. Later in 1994 the track featured on 'The Flintstones' movie soundtrack. Curiously, the song was only used in the US version of the film, in the closing credits, but not in the UK release. The single appeared in multiple formats, including picture discs and extended 12" remix versions, as was very much the fashion with most bands at the time.
With Flintstone fever in full effect and the band members now gig-fit and ready to go on the road again, a massive bout of touring ensued. February saw them flitting around the UK, France, Belgium and Germany, and in March they went back to the USA for a mammoth tour supporting Echo & The Bunnymen. In April they toured further throughout the US on their own, and late in the year visited Finland and played a handful of gigs back in Britain.
Further upheavals were to follow with their manager John Dummer deciding to quit the business and Derek Savage Management taking over the Messiahs' interests. As John Dummer explains: "After three years of that I was pretty exhausted and, on a whim, Helen and I decided to sell up our ancient grinding mill house in West Sussex and move to France." The band had also switched labels from WEA to Elektra.
There also came the tragic news that Vic Maile had died of cancer. His passing was a double blow in that Bill had lost not only a close personal friend, but perhaps the only person he trusted to capture The Screaming Blue Messiahs sound in the studio.
Another new year and another marathon spell in the studio, or studios, this time to work on what would be the band's last album, Totally Religious. Plans were set to start work on their new album in the States, and Bill moved to Baltimore in April. Recording Totally Religious was to end up being something of a nightmare for the band. Kenny: "It started off with us going to New York where our manager had an apartment right in the centre of Manhattan. After a week of hanging around New York – not the most relaxing place at the best of times – our equipment still hadn't arrived from London and I was turning into a basket case. Eventually the manager saw sense and put me on a flight home."
A couple of days later the equipment duly arrived in New York, and a decision was made to go down to Florida to start work on writing the album. Chris and Bill drove down and two weeks later Kenny flew back from London to join them. After a short break in Daytona Beach where they rehearsed, the Messiahs spent two weeks in Miami Sound studios in the run down Latin quarter of the city before transferring to Criteria Studios, where the Bee Gees had recorded Saturday Night Fever and Eric Clapton was a regular customer.
When Elektra heard the first batch of recordings they were decidedly unimpressed, much to the band's, and especially Bill's, annoyance. However, the paymasters prevailed and asked the band to return to London and continue work on the album there. They spent some time in Alaska Studios in Waterloo, where the three had recorded their first single together as The Small Brothers back in 1980. These sessions went much better for all involved and with Elektra now happy with the demos the green light was given to record the album.
Chris: “We were in there with Howard Gray, the people were really nice, but we didn’t really have any good material and again, we couldn’t get a sound, even though Howard was a very good engineer. It was nothing like with Fairlie and Andrews, but we just couldn’t get a sound. It was all hopeless, so we came back to London and did some demos with Pat Collier in Alaska and in about a week we came up with about six really good ideas – So all that ‘we’ve got to get away and concentrate’ was bollocks. When we got home, we could go home at night, we just rehearsed in our normal place and everything came together fairly quickly."
The Messiahs returned to the US to Sheffield Recording in Phoenix, Maryland. Bill: "The studio where we recorded the album was built on top of a disused nuclear silo. It was really creepy. And the caretaker was one of those Hitchcock characters who always seem to come round the corner at the exact moment you're talking about them, which didn't help. And owner was a guy named Van Horne, which is the devil's name in The Witches Of Eastwick. I thought, 'Ello!"
Totally Religious was finally released in November, and despite the band's initial misgivings about it the press still had plenty of good things to say. The New York Times called it "...a brutal world view, but one that makes for savage, vital rock-and-roll," and Jason Pettigrew in Alternative Press commented: "The band's patented sense of urgency remains intact. 'Watusi Wedding' boasts some lethal slide work, and the absolutely brilliant 'Gunfight' is the perfect soundtrack for a violent altercation (bar fight, high speed car chase, etc.)."
Following the album's release the Messiahs toured the UK late November, (with the appropriately named Holy Shit in support), and in December played six dates in Germany. A promo video for 'Four Engines Burning' was shot, and it can be assumed this would be the first single from the album. In the meantime, however, events in the background were conspiring to ensure that this single would never see the light of day, and much worse to come.
Things had been deteriorating between the band and WEA, as Kenny explains.
“Rob Dickins had signed us, he left to be head of the Brits or whatever, but anyway, this bloke called Max Hole got his job and he didn’t like us. At that time, Elektra, who are the ‘E’ bit of ‘WEA’, had been releasing the records in America, they took on the whole deal because they still believed in us.”
Chris: “It just seemed to them that we were just throwing money away. I thought they treated us incredibly well all the time, but we weren’t getting anywhere. Right until the end they were willing to ignore that, because they had a lot of faith in us and they backed us very well. But it all fell apart around then, and I think Derek Savage asked them for a ridiculous amount of money and they told us to fuck off in the end.”
Kenny: “Elektra just decided there and then that that was it. As soon as they decided that, they just took all the CDs and the previous albums off the shelves.”
The repercussions were swift and brutal. Having only been released in November, Totally Religious was pulled from the shops barely a month later. Further to that, the band's entire back catalogue was removed from store shelves across the world and discontinued. Legal wrangles also stopped the band from touring or recording and even now licensing a Messiahs track is nigh on impossible. Such is the extent of their erasure from history that to this day they still do not even appear on WEA or Elektra's databases.
Despite being now labeless the band had a German tour to fullfil in December.
Chris: “It was very strange because that was at the end, and that was a really horrible tour. I think Kenny and I, independently of each other, just didn’t give a fuck anymore and there was a lot of aggro and a lot of bad feeling in the band all the time. I do remember that the only good bits were when we got on stage, because of the aggravation we were really playing well – I listen back to tapes and I think, ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’ We were trying things, rather than just keeping it safe and we were all going a bit nuts. The time on stage was the saving grace of that tour, because the rest of it was awful.”
On news of the departure from Elektra, the Stone Roses label Silvertone in the UK expressed great interest in signing the band, but again the manager and label couldn't make the deal stick and that was emphatically that. It was late December 1989 and The Screaming Blue Messiahs would never raise hell again. Well, almost...
A slight return
In June of 1990 the Messiahs were resurrected briefly for two final contracted shows at Subterania in Ladbroke Grove, West London. They played on June 4th with support from US:UK, and for the last time ever on June 5th with Well Loaded. Cathy Unsworth in Sounds observed of their final set: "'Happy Home' scrapes the skin off a few skulls and 'Twin Cadillac Valentine' rubs the salt in. They're back for one encore, then disappear, leaving a pile of steaming bodies gasping for more." I myself was fortunate enough to catch them on both nights, and had just introduced a friend to the delights of the Messiahs, not realising at the time that he'd be seeing them for the first and last time.
Kenny: “There was no sitting down and making a decision to split up. Bill had met an American girl from Baltimore and he’d gone over there at the end of the tour to get married, and that was it – Just ‘see you’. We never formally split the band up,”
Chris: “We were tired and we didn’t have a deal and it was fizzling out,” adds Chris. “Bill said, ‘I’m gonna take some time off’. So we thought ‘OK’, and that was that. We thought he was having a holiday, but actually, he’d left. It was the best part of my life really. It’s such a shame – we could still be doing it. It was a great time; it’s a pity we didn’t have a bit of money in our pockets or something, maybe that would have made us a bit happier. We worked pretty relentlessly for very little financial reward, but the great reward was that I loved the travelling, I loved being on the road and I liked playing – So all that just made it worth it to me, because that’s what I’d like to still be doing with my life. I am sort of, I’m still doing music, but I can’t go touring around the world anymore.”
Bill: “By the time the Screaming Blue Messiahs were good enough to gig in conventional terms we were too old and too ugly. We used to turn up at gigs with our gear and the audience would think we were the bands dads bringing the kids’ equipment. Usually we would deal with that problem with a directness of purpose, which seemed to do the trick. In the pre Whistle Test period I honestly thought we were the best band the world.
We made four albums, all of them were difficult to record, none of them as good as the bands live performances. Which I suppose is understandable – you can’t record an altered state, it is a living thing. I do think some peoples’ lives were positively affected by the Screaming Blue Messiahs music, which is great. The early days were fantastic and unexpected. Some might say that the Screaming Blue Messiahs were never going to be a slow burn repetitive job for life, but more like meteors in the night sky."
Since the demise of the band a few new official Messiahs releases have come out.
In 1992 came the 'BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert' CD, recorded at the Town & Country Club in London on the 27th of February 1988.
In 2007 to satisfy the faithful I worked with the guys in the band to produce a self-release of the Zurich 7th December live show. This was later re-issued in the Vision in Blues box set.
2009 saw HUX Records release 'Live at the BBC', a full gig from 1985 and a couple of live sessions, featuring cover art by Bill.
And finally came the 2016 Easy Action Records 6-CD box set, 'Vision in Blues'. My crowning achievement as a music fan and designer was to be invited to design the Easy Action Records box set and all it's contents for this epic package. All four studio albums remastered, most with many extra tracks, the 'Live in Zurich' concert and a special 'Live by Five' extra CD, and a specially pressed 7" single.You can still buy the box set direct from EasyAction here.
Post Messiahs Bill has kept a very low profile. I believe he still tinkers with motorbikes and with music in his home studio. Output has been limited to a few demos posted briefly on a MySpace website some years ago. He is still producing artwork and currently has prints displayed online at Saatchi Art. Limited edition prints can be checked out here.
Chris and Kenny spent a brief spell, "as hired hands" as Kenny puts it, with cajun outfit La Rue, though they never recorded with the band. They then hooked up again with Tony Moon and bass player Ricky McGuire from The Men They Couldn't Hang, (Chris now on guitar and vocals), to form Dynamo Hum, and released a 10" EP entitled 'Four Cute Creatures'. Shortly after that, Dynamo Hum became The Killer B's and a full album of 12 searing blues tracks, including the four from the previous EP, were released as 'Love Is A Cadillac, Death Is A Ford'.
Kenny has all but given up playing now, but Chris still writes and records and plays live when he can. Chris's latest project as of 2020 has been HeadHive. You can see a fledgling website and also download for free the Love Is A Cadillac Death Is A Ford album here!
And no, don't even consider thinking about dreaming of a reunion. Time, it seems, has healed no wounds and if this comment from a very interesting interview with Chris and Kenny on Tidal is anything to go by it's a total non-starter...
"No, we are not in touch with him and as for a reformation, you have a better chance of seeing Elvis on stage supported by The Beatles."
They came out of nowhere, just like lightning hitting the plain.
Bent on destruction. On a mission from God.
A vision of the legend of the Lost Blue Messiahs.
But they're gone now.
This history is an amalgam of information picked up in press articles and the quotes taken from magazine interviews over the years and those conducted by Dick Porter for the Vision in Blues box set.
On the radio at top is the Fast n Bulbous/Grow Fins single by Motor Boys Motor, followed by Twin Cadillac Valentine live in Zurich 1989.