Monday, March 02, 2009

Interview: Alan Ward and Mike Butcher

You may not recognize Alan Ward and Mike Butcher as household names, but unless you've stumbled in here by mistake, the name Elton Motello will undoubtedly ring-a-ding some big bells.  Simply put, Alan gave voice to Motello, and Mike lent his guitar to the din -- but it neither starts nor ends there.  Both Ward and Butcher's contributions to punk in its infancy are rich, to say the least, and their campy-yet-driving take on r'n'r yielded a signature sound that reverberated through their other projects, like Feather and Jet Staxx.  Contributor Jeremy Thompson talked turkey with the duo through an audio on-line set up deal/thing just last year.  Ain't technology grand? 


Jeremy/Attacking the Beat: First off, both of you have been involved in several different projects, sometimes pseudonymously, so your respective histories are somewhat complicated.  Alan, I've had people tell me that you were in Hubble Bubble, and Mike, I've been told that you wrote all of the songs on Elton Motello's Victim of Time LP.  Would you care to tell me who did what?

Mike Butcher: Well, Alan's Elton [Motello].  and I'm Jet [Staxx].  As for the band history, members, who wrote what...  What should we say about that?

Alan Ward: Hm.  Well, first thing I should say is Alan -- that's me -- I wasn't in Hubble Bubble, but Mike and I wrote most of the songs on the first [Elton Motello] album, Victim of Time.  

MB: Yeah, we wrote them together.  Except for the covers.

ATB: I want to ask about the band Bastard.  Alan, you were doing this band in the mid '70s in London, right?  Were you guys playing out a lot and meeting with any sort of success?  Did you play a lot of covers?  I've seen descriptions of the band as a kind of MC5, Flamin' Groovies-style thing.  Is this accurate?

AW: Well, Bastard was a band I had in England.  I formed it with Dez, who was the bass player, Nobby Goff, who was on drums, and Brian Robertson, who later became Brian James, who finally ended up in the Damned.

MB: Oh, it wasn't his real name?

AW: No, it wasn't his real name.

MB: I didn't know that!  Oh, you're giving something away now?

AW: Absolutely!

MB: Oh, my god!  You're in trouble now.

AW: [Laughs].  It's got to be on the Internet somewhere.  Anyway, so we formed this band.  It was in Crawley, in Sussex, the south of England.  We were a very popular alternative rock band at the time, and we had a really big following with the British Hell's Angels.  We were doing very aggressive rock -- as you were saying, the MC5, etc.  It was down-to-Earth, and I think that's why we connected with the British Hell's Angels.

MB: And were you playing covers?

AW: No, not all.  It was all original stuff -- I mean, we might've done a Chuck Berry song, but that's the kind of thing every band plays at some time or another.  But we played a lot.  We started in the south, and we got this really big following and it moved up into the Midlands.  Most of the area around London was covered by us; we toured there quite a lot.  But we were based in Crawley, Sussex.  That was the band, basically.  We did a few recordings when I came over to Belgium.  We did a few recordings in a studio, and we'd done a couple demos here, a bit of home recording.  But, I mean, that was really on a home recording, where we used to do our rehearsals.  So if there is any of that out on the Internet, I've got no idea.  I don't have any tapes, as far as I know.

ATB: How was it playing with Brian?

AW: Brian is fine.  He's like me: We believed -- and we still believe -- that you have to believe in rock 'n' roll.  It's nothing to make money with.  I think he's now got the Brian James Gang, and what he's doing is a bit more bluesy, but he's still 100% the same Brian that I knew from the start.  We see each other regularly; we talk to each other on the phone regularly.  His birthday's actually the same day as mine.  I'm not going to tell you what that is.  [Laughs.]

MB: Same year?

AW: No, he's a bit younger than I am.

MB:  So he's only 99?

[Both laugh.]

AW: But, yes, Brian's a really nice guy and really easy to get on with.  I know he's had to put up with a lot of shit from a few people, but...

ATB: Did you guys meet each other in Brussels?  How did that happen?  And how did the Rollerball stuff come about?  

MB: We met each other at Morgan Studios in London.  We were both engineers there in the early '70s.  Then when Morgan Studios -- a very important studio in London -- opened in Brussels, Alan went out first.

AW: Correct.

MB: And I went out about a year later.  And it was then that we started collaborating on music, because we knew each other in London, but we never did any music together.  In actual fact, going back, the first thing we did was something I've never talked about -- we did a single called "Stupid Girl" under the name Feather.  It was actually a Rolling Stones song.  And it was kinda pre-punk rock 'n' roll.

AW: It was basically our first feeling of, y'know, getting together.

MB: We did it with some studio musicians that we knew.  Then, when we jump ahead, the Rollerball stuff came out.  This was the beginning of the punk time.  We really wanted to do something that way.

AW: And at the time, Bastard had gotten back together, because they came with me to Belgium.  We did some demos in Belgium, but things didn't quite turn out the way we thought in Europe.  We were going abroad, trying and hoping for more success in Europe, that people would understand it more than [in England].  But they didn't.  They were a bit more conservative than we thought.  So the band actually went back, and that's when Brian went back in town to form the Damned.  And with the other musicians, I'm not quite sure what happened.  I think Nobby, the drummer, went to the south of France, and Dez is still in Crawley somewhere.  So, at the time, Bastard was beginning to fall apart, and Mike and I started to get together more and more.

MB: When Brian went back to England.

AW: Correct.  So, you see, there's a kind of collaboration that started, and we started to understand each other musically.  

MB: The Rollerball thing was signed, actually, to CNR, a record label in Holland, because we knew a producer that had heard what we'd done and wanted to release it.  It was Alan singing, me on guitar, and two assistants in the studio -- two brothers.  One playing bass, and one playing drums.  And we were actually thinking of playing gigs, but for some reason, we never got that far.  I think it's because we didn't get much reaction on the single.  We didn't get any radio plays.  I mean, we were both busy engineers, too, so we were both doing other things.

ATB: Speaking of Morgan Studios...  Alan, what other bands did you record there during that period?  Didn't one of the members of Raxola also work there?

AW: Well, it was a major studio, so I'm not gonna try to do a list, but it went from Rod Stewart to Jethro Tull to Black Sabbath to Plastic Bertrand to Lou and the Hollywood Bananas...  There were lots of interesting things happening there at the time.

MB: And you recorded the Kids, too.

AW: I did.  One of the top bands of the time.  Very nice people.

MB: And what about Raxola?

AW: Yves [Kengen], who was in Raxola, actually played with Bastard for awhile.  At the moment that Bastard began to break up, the first person to go back to England was Dez, who was the bass player.  And we needed a bass player, so Yves played with us.  He was very into it; really 100%.  I remember gigs we did where he didn't stand still.  He was a real aggressive musician.

MB: So did he work at the studio?

AW: Hm...  I mean, he obviously came to some of the demo sessions that we did.  He probably worked on something.  It's a bit far back for me to remember when and on what he collaborated.  I couldn't really tell you.  But he certainly came to the studio when we were doing the demos and stuff.  We knew him before he actually started playing with the band.  He used to hang around with us.  I think to a certain extent, we were -- Brian, myself, Nobby and Dez -- we were kind of the English punk band in Europe and people liked to hang around with us just to sort of know what was happening with the punk scene, or the pre-punk scene, in England.

ATB: I think you guys are one of the few examples of a band that spanned the scenes in both Belgium and the UK.  Can you both talk about the differences and similarities between the two scenes?

AW: Well, as I said, when we came across as Bastard, we were hoping that there was a bit more of an openness to the music.  In Belgium, there was an underground scene, and certainly there were people who appreciated us...

MB: And it was very small.

AW: Right.  It was very small.  Belgium is already a small country.  If you have a look on a map.  It's not very big.  

MB: And it was a bit backwards in that way.  Compared to the UK, anyway.

AW: We did a couple of gigs in Holland, and there, there was a bit more appreciation.  But again, even Holland, with all its worldly and supposedly avant-garde scene, it's actually quite conservative as a country.  You're sometimes quite surprised -- there's a difference between what you imagine a country is, and the reality on the ground.

ATB: Did you see Hubble Bubble a lot?

AW: Actually, I never saw Hubble Bubble.

MB: I never saw Hubble Bubble.  So we never saw Hubble Bubble.

AW: They were another band that were doing quite reasonably well.  They were pushing the limits here in Belgium, but we'd never actually gotten around to see them.

ATB: How did you guys meet Roger Jouret, otherwise known as Plastic Bertrand?  Tell me about playing music with him.

MB: What happened was that a producer asked us to do two songs for him -- kinda punky songs.  These two tracks were "Jet Boy, Jet Girl" and "Pogo Pogo."  And this same producer, a Belgian producer, wanted to do a French version, so that's how Roger came to the studio, and that's how we met him.

AW: I don't speak French, anyway.  I do a bit now, but at the time...

MB: Yeah.  And he became Plastic Bertrand.  And so that's why those two tracks, actually the backing tracks, are the same.

AW: He used the Motello tracks.

MB: Right.  "Jet Boy, Jet Girl" is also the same backing track that was used for "Ca Plane Pour Moi," with a different mix, of course.  And "Pogo Pogo" is the same thing.  So anyway, that's those two tracks -- same backing track.  

ATB: Mike, did you have any bands previous to this?  Were you playing as Jet Staxx before meeting Alan?

MB: I actually played in a band when I was about 19 years old in the UK, but nothing came of it.  We used to rehearse; we never actually played a gig.  I kind of gave up playing until I arrived in Belgium and started doing stuff with Alan, really.  And the Jet Staxx thing came around because I fancied doing something on my own, without Alan.

AW: But we did it together, really.

MB: Yes.  Alan wrote it with me, and he also co-produced it, but with me singing.

AW: Exactly.  It's your ego thing.  [Laughs].

MB: It's my ego thing.  I wanted to show that I could sing.  And I actually did basically play all the instruments on it, except for the drums.  And on "French Girls," where there's an accordion, which I didn't play.  It's actually quite interesting, because having a punk song with an accordion -- I thought I was the first.  But there was a guy called Wreckless Eric who actually did a thing a bit before with an accordion on it.  Was a bit peed off about that.

ATB: So Jet Staxx's "You'll Get the Chop" and "French Girls," once known as "French Boys," could've been on the Victim of Time LP?  

AW: It's true...

MB: Yeah, it was the kind of thing we were doing together, because we wrote the songs together, so...  Yeah, that's right. 

ATB: And was Jet Staxx a studio project, or were you doing playing shows?  And where did you come up with the name "Jet Staxx"?  Alan, where did you get the name "Elton Motello" from?

MB: It was a studio thing.  I didn't play any shows as Jet Staxx.  Well, a couple of TV gigs.  Local TV.  And where'd I get the name "Jet Staxx"?  It just came up off the top of my head.  I don't know why I have these ideas sometimes.  OK, Alan...  Where did you get "Elton Motello" from?

AW: Absolutely no idea.  Can't remember.  What I wanted was the name of a person, but I wanted it to be the band.  So I couldn't so obviously use "Alan Ward," and I didn't want to fall into the trap, the kind of punky trap, of having "the ____," or "the Wish" or whatever.  So I wanted something that was a name, this kind of Italian, over-the-top thing.  I thought, well, why not?  It came, probably, on a night of excess.  Some day the name stuck in my brain, and somehow...

MB: And the record company liked it.

ATB: Tell me about recording the Victim of Time record.  How long did it take?

AW: It did actually take... not an enormous amount of time, but it took a bit of time because it was actually done in bits.

MB: Yes, exactly.  We had the first two tracks, and...

AW: The reaction on that was good from record companies around the world.  Therefore, the record company believed in us and was willing to spend money on an album.

MB: There were another couple of tracks that were recorded separately, too.  "Sha La La La Lee" and "Get the Guy."  They were recorded in a different session.  But then all the other tracks were recorded over two days.  One weekend.

AW: The basic tracks.

MB: Right.  And those were the tracks that Twink played on.  Nobby played on the others.

AW: Exactly.  As I say, it was quite a few sessions that were put together.  That's why the album is quite...  It's got a lot of different directions on it, but it's telling different stories.  It's not always straight-on rock; it's sometimes more complicated than that.

ATB: Any good stories from the recording session?  What was the initial response to the record?  Was it big on the radio?

AW: There's quite a few good stories, aren't there?

MB: Yeah.  It was nice, recording.  You can explain why we didn't use Nobby [on some tracks]...

AW: It was quite sad, actually.  Just two weeks before the session, Nobby strained a ligament in his arm, so we were all panicked, and obviously he was really peeved off that he wouldn't be able to play on that session.

MB: And we had fixed these dates with the record company, so we had no choice.

AW: So I sort of rang around to a few friends I knew, including Twink, and Twink walked into it straight away.  He was full of enthusiasm, and he came across and helped us a lot.  I mean, Nobby would've been absolutely perfect on here, but Twink certainly fit.  He picked up what Nobby was already bringing to the band.

MB: And he added his character, too.  Some variation on the album.

AW: Remember the guy who played piano?  What was his name?

MB: Robbie Finkel.

AW: Oh, yeah.  He was a real character.  

MB: Yeah, Robbie Finkel.  He was an American keyboard session player.  Lived in Paris.  When you asked him if he could play on some tracks, he'd jump right in.

AW: If you listen to his playing, it's mad!

MB: Yeah, he really got into it.  

AW: Exactly!  He translated this sort of madness I wanted to come across in the piano playing, and not the standard "boom-bee-boom-bee."  I just wanted to be really Earthy, and then let this kind of madness creep in occasionally.  

MB: Robbie went on to be nominated for a Grammy a couple years ago.  He's living in Canada now.  And I saw him a couple of years ago.  Well, more than a couple years ago.  Anyway, he's credited on the album.

AW: And someone had left a mellotron at the studio.  And it wasn't ours, but...

MB: ...We added some mellotron some of the time.

AW: [Laughs.]  It was, again, a bit of madness.

MB: And we used some strings, we used some choir things -- the choir on "Apocalypstic."  That wasn't really very punk.  So this was like pre-new wave, in fact.

AW: The fact that we were using their things, there was kind of a punk feeling to it.

MB: Yeah, because I actually played it, and I can't play keyboard.  So that was punk enough.

ATB: What was the initial response to the record?  Was it big on the radio?  And what was the response to all of the homosexual subject matter?  Were people shocked by it?  Did you have a big gay following?

AW: Obviously we were a bit avant-garde, so people were a bit surprised by it, but that was what we wanted.  It was quite big on the radio -- it got quite a few plays.  We were quite surprised, because, as you say, the homosexual subject matter was a bit controversial.  I realize, when I look back on it, that most of the people didn't really understand what it was about.

MB: That's true.  It's a bit like Lou Reed.

AW: "Walk on the Wild Side."

MB: "Walk on the Wild Side," yeah.  When it came out in the UK, nobody really understood the lyrics, and it was played on the radio openly.  But "Jet Boy, Jet Girl" would play in the UK on radio.

AW: There, you know, it was a bit more obvious.  But certainly in Europe, they didn't know.  Obviously we didn't get played in the UK.  In America they had a hard time with it; Canada as well.  But, actually, we weren't trying to be commercial, we weren't trying to please -- I think that's what punk's about, basically.  It's not trying to please, but not trying to offend either -- to at least make a point.  Express an opinion.  If you feel something, you should be able to say it.  So that came across quite well.  So, were people shocked by it?  Yes.  Did we have a big gay following?  I think we had a big gay following, and I think that's normal, and I think we still have a big gay following.  The song -- the lyrics -- rang true for a lot of people.

MB: When we did the second album, the later album, we were told by the New York record company that that's one of the things, like in New York gay bars, clubs -- that they were really into Motello.

AW: I know it touched a lot of people.  It didn't leave people indifferent.  To a certain extent, when you express yourself, that's the point.

ATB: The "Jet Boy, Jet Girl" single was big in Europe.  There are several versions of the song, and several variations of the single's picture sleeve.  One stands out, though...  What's the story with the transsexual sleeve?  Who's idea was that?

MB: There's lot of different versions, yes.  And a lot of different people rerecorded it.

AW: Chron Gen, the Softies...  What else?

MB: Captain Sensible.

AW: Yes, Captain Sensible.  So there's been quite a lot of versions -- even one featuring some girls with an accordion, on YouTube.

MB: And, of course, the transsexual sleeve.  You explain this.

AW: That famous sleeve.  Actually we weren't the instigators of this.  It was the UK record company who came to us with this sleeve.  We quite enjoyed this sleeve -- it was totally what we were about.  They gave us the project, and we said, "Yeah, OK, no problem with it!"  And that's how it came about, basically.  I know I've received different copies.  Originally, the sleeve was just a blue cardboard sleeve, and it was at a later date that I actually got the different version.  But it was part of the project that the sleeve designers at the time had come up with and we had nothing against it.

ATB: What's the deal with the single that just says "Twink" on the cover, but just contains cuts from the record?  Were you guys OK with stuff like this?

AW: We didn't actually find about that 'til years later.  I mean, I don't give a damn.  It's good on him.  And if he enjoyed that, that's fine.  No major problem.  I'm not in this business for a royalty or anything like that.

ATB: Were guys like Jouret and Twink seen as "studio guys"?

AW: Certainly not.  

MB: No.  Twink was part of the scene.  

AW: We'd known him for years.  

MB: And Roger, we'd met later, but he was part of the scene; he became part of the scene at the time.  

ATB: Explain Plastic Bertrand's "Ca Plane Pour Moi."  Were you guys trying to clean up "Jet Boy, Jet Girl" to make it sellable, or was it taken from you?  How did that whole thing happen?

MB: It was just the French version.  Basically, they wanted a French version, so they took those backing tracks.  And later, he branched off on his own thing, so that was basically that.

ATB: Alan, I recently saw a clip from the '70s of you guys playing "Jet Boy, Jet Girl" on some sort of Benny Hill-looking show.  You were wearing a shirt that said "FUCK YOU" on it and screaming into what looks like a stick of deodorant -- all this taking place on some strange "haunted" set.  Can you explain this?

AW: This is an amazing story, because the record company rang us up to say that we had another TV appearance in Germany, and at the time, there were no videos and stuff, so actually getting a hold of this -- we actually never saw it for years.  We went to Germany on this amazing stage with loads of effects.  I put talcum powder in my hair, and every time I hit my hair, it went splash, of course.  You'll notice throughout the clip -- as it was a lot of takes -- that in some parts, there's not much talcum powder coming out because I'd already done it two or three times, so there wasn't much left in my hair.  Anyway, that's a little thing on the side.  Of course, I was wearing this t-shirt, but as it was in Germany, the Germans didn't understand what it was about.  And another thing that was really weird is we didn't realize that this was a kind of Benny Hill show -- there were jokes cut into it!  We thought it was just a spot in the program.  You don't see all of this on TV.  It's just edited together.  [To Mike.]  You weren't actually allowed to play on it.  Remember?  You couldn't come.

MB: Oh, no.  I wasn't there.  That's right.  I had a replacement.

AW: Nobby's brother.

MB: Yeah, he pretended to be me.  And he did a good job, I thought.

AW: Exactly.  So, actually, this t-shirt -- it was what I would wear on stage.  It got by the censors.  Let's put it that way.

ATB: Did you guys always have theatrical shows?

AW: It's true.  And this goes back to Bastard.  Brian and I...  There were always a lot of theatrics on stage.  I mean, obviously, not on the level we get these days, but on our level, on a real ground level.  I used to get carried on in a coffin, things like that to start the set.  I used to go off stage and come on dressed differently during the gig.  Those were the theatrics that were already inherent in the Bastard concept.  It was very earthy and shocking, because you didn't know where you were going.  Things would change on stage.  Theatrics have always been a part of it, for Mike, for me...  We're both outgoing people and we need to go for it.  But it's not quite Alice Cooper.  Put it that way.

MB: But of course, you're talking about the times in Bastard, because we didn't actually play a lot of gigs as Elton Motello, unfortunately.

AW: Yeah.  There were a few in Holland, Belgium, France...

MB: But we didn't do a lot a lot.  So, yeah, touring -- we didn't really tour.

AW: And we were never asked to come to the States, though we were asked many other times.

MB: And this is the thing: After we'd done the Pop Art record, the main instigators for us to do the record were the New York record company, which was Sire.  And Attic Records in Canada.  "Jet Boy, Jet Girl" had been quite a big hit in Canada, and they really wanted us to do a second album.

ATB: Tell me about the direction the band took with Pop Art.  It's a bit more new wave...

MB: It's true.  That's what we were moving into.  The new wave thing.  And we had other musicians.  The band, aside from Alan and myself, was completely new.  We had, you could say, more accomplished, classically-trained musicians -- a very good drummer, very good keyboard player and a very good bass player that also played guitar, because I'm not a very good lead guitar player.  As we were trying to go a little bit further down the road, he did some of the lead guitar parts.

AW: That's why the album is actually quite a mix, isn't it?  There's these right on tracks.

MB: And there's some punky stuff on it, of course.

AW: And there's these more complicated songs, where, actually, they helped a lot, arrangement-wise.  And we're both musicians, and we're open-minded, and certainly at the time we wanted to...  Not go down a commercial road, but we wanted to not stay stuck in a rut of just playing two chords and that's it.

MB: The thing about touring is that we were supposed to do a tour of Canada.  It was the Attic Tour.  It was going to be a tour of like ten days across -- well, ten gigs -- over a couple weeks across Canada with a few bands from Attic.  One of them was Jayne County.  I can't remember the others.  We had our permits and everything, and for some reason, which was never really understood, there was some, we guess, financial thing between the European company and the Canadian company -- something about who was paying for what -- and somehow we got pulled off the gig.  Originally, what was supposed to happen was we were supposed to play across Canada, then fly down to Los Angeles, because before MTV, to do promotion, you had to be there.  Well, to do a radio promotion.

AW: We got asked a lot, actually.

MB: We were supposed to go to Los Angeles to do the radio promotion, Alan and myself, and cross the States, get to New York and fly out.  So that's what they wanted, and it all kind of fell apart.  And that's when the band, later on, fell apart.  Even though we weren't in it for the business part of it, record companies are, somewhere along the line.  We put a lot of effort into the album -- into both albums.  But the other guys in the band, they maybe weren't so dedicated to us and our particular philosophy.  They lost interest, and two of them went off to live in the UK.  We did one other track -- "Getting into Trouble," which Butch's probably never heard.

ATB: Did you ever play with any bands that hated you?

AW: I don't really think so.

MB: No, no.  We're nice guys, basically.

ATB: So were you guys trying to break into the new wave thing happening, then?

MB: So, the new wave thing.  Yes, we were -- we were into new wave.

AW: It was like rocky new wave, not this sort of sweety...  We tried to blend, basically.

ATB: Tell me about any other projects you worked on after Elton Motello had called it quits.

MB: Projects we worked on after Elton Motello...  Well, we didn't, really.  Not as artists.

AW: We still collaborate, we still see each other, we still write songs together -- but things move on, to a certain extent.

MB: Because we're both engineers, I went to work in another studio, totally independent of anything to do with Alan, and we didn't see each other.  I mean, the point was, working in the same studio, we'd see each other every day...

AW: "Oh, look.  I've got an idea."

MB: Yeah.  "Let's go down to the studio tonight" -- because we had, more or less, free reign.  We could go down and do a demo or something.

ATB: Mike told me that you guys recently played a private party.  How was that?  Did anyone tape it?  I wanna see it!

MB: No, there are no videos.

AW: [Laughs.]

MB: And if there are, they will be locked in a vault...  For when the aliens from Alpha Centauri arrive, to frighten them away.

AW: So believe in us, because we're there for you.

MB: We are Earth's defense.

[Both laugh.]

MB: They'll fly their spaceships right back to where they came from.  They're not gonna mess with these guys!

1 Comments:

Anonymous LARZ GUSTAFSSON said...

Thank you very much for posting this very interesting interview!
I' m a big Elton Motello and Plastic Bertrand fan.
I' ve also been in touch with Mr Alan Ward himself and he's proved himself to be a very nice man. I truly appreciate his replies to my e-mails.
Anyway...
I think you forgot to mention that Roger Jouret used to be the Elton Motello drummer for a while.
All the best from,
Larz Gustafsson
larzg@hotmail.com

9:57 AM  

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