It might be unjustified, but I’ve always North London indie band BOB were in debt to me. I’d discovered them, as I did most things back then (then being the cusp of the 1990’s) by listening to John Peel, and there, shoehorned in between experimental electronica and dub reggae (probably) was this gorgeous, uplifting, glistening piece of perfect indie pop. Called ‘Convenience’, and released on their own House of Teeth label, it not only made Peels Festive 50 that year, but also made itself a permanent resident on my turntable, and a staple of just about every compilation tape (that’s how we rolled in those days) I made.
Having availed myself of not only the single, but just about everything they had done to that point, I’d snapped up a ticket to see the band at Huddersfield University (the glamour), and this is when it happened. The van broke down on the way, and the gig was cancelled. I never managed to see BOB in the flesh. And although I continued to wear the t-shirt, and buy the records, I always felt that BOB owed me one.
The band, Richard Blackborow (vocals, keyboards, guitar), Simon Armstrong (guitar, vocals). Jem Morris (bass guitar), joined by drummer Dean Leggett via Gary Connors, released a handful of singles on two labels, Sombrero and their own House of Teeth, a compilation of the Sombrero releases is an LP, Swag Sack, and their one true long player, Leave the Straight Life Behind (1991), before they became one of the many victims of the collapse of Rough Trade distribution. Slim pickings for a band that could write such affecting, shimmering pop music.
Obviously the people over at 3loopmusic thought so too, and they’re re-releasing Leave the Straight Life in expanded 2cd format, on April 21st. Listening to the record once again it still mystifying why BOB is a band who are not much more than footnotes in indie history. The album opens with moody slow burner Dynamite, all soaked in echo, before the album explodes into life with the joyous Skylark III, before one of the albums highlights – the fantastic organ layered, harmony laden Nothing for Something.
Through songs like Who Are You and Old Jean Blues and The Belly, its as if BOB hankered back to the indie scene that preceded, a time of straight up indie – not twee, but theres a whiff of Postcard records in the air. Elsewhere on the record theres nods towards the baggy scene that followed, Take Take Take, which has this sort of funk driven bassline, and more of a wash of guitars, while 95 Tears could almost be early Inspiral Carpets, shawn of organ.
After moments of repose and thrust in Skylark II, there is the fantastic Trousercide, a song that lives up to its title, again the organ subtlety adds its voice as these brass interjections that help turn the corners of the song, which has this melody that’s both aching and uplifting. The title track is more of the glittering melodic writing the band were capable of, and is joined by the equally good Many Strings. There’s just time for the hazy Bloodline, before closer, the stuttering charm of Another Crow.
The second cd is made up of Peel and Radio Humberside Sessions, which feature versions of Trousercide and Bloodline, as well as the obligatory Convenience. There’s also earlier singles Esmerelda Brooklyn and Kirsty, and a handful of other gems, including the fantastically titled, Brian Wilsons Bed, a track which is almost vaudevillian in its approach and features the fantastic line ‘And I can’t afford the LSD/ So I’m dropping strongly sweetened tea’.
In anticipation of the release, we caught up with Richard and Simon
BM: So, welcome back BOB – How has it been preparing for the reissue of ‘Leave the Straight Life Behind’?
Richard – It’s been fun. I think that just about enough time has now elapsed for me to be able to listen to it reasonably objectively! And it all reminds me of mainly great, carefree times.
How did it come about?
Richard – Our drummer, Dean, has always been the band’s networking superstar. He joined us early in 1998, having already occupied the drum stool for ‘Clive’ (alongside various members of what became The Family Cat), Jamie Wednesday (soon to become Carter USM), and The Siddeleys (from whom BOB stole him, somewhat inconsiderately, but to our great good gain). From the word go he came armed with a diary full of gig contacts (and an irresistibly persuasive line in patter), gathered along the way, and put to great use in the building of several great BOB tours of the UK and chunks of Europe. More recently, to answer your question properly, I think he got to know Julian Fernandez of 3 Loop Music through his ongoing friendships with members of The Family Cat and Carter USM.
And how hands on have you been able to be?
Richard – We’ve been very hands on, I think. I spent some time rummaging around in the BOB archive for master tapes and such, and also managed to turn up a long-thought-lost master for a live BBC Radio Humberside session, recorded in 1989. Our ex-manager, Paul Thompson (who had worked as tour manager for The Housemartins and then managed The Beautiful South), took a look in his loft for me and found the tape, along with a few other rarities (of which more later). Finding this tape made ‘The Complete BBC Sessions’ element of this new release possible.
Simon and I had mixed a number of 8-track BOB demos back around the turn of the millennium for a planned but never realised BOB release, and a selection of these were dusted down and buffed up a little for use as bonus tracks in this new release. Various unreleased images, items of memorabilia, period reviews, etc were also liberated from the archive and used for the new CD.
Of course many people remember you for Convenience, which is indeed a fantastic song, but to me the album is a real treat as well – was it disappointing at the time it didn’t propel you onto the front pages of Melody Maker and things?
Richard – Thanks…it’s great that you like Convenience and the album. To be honest, I’m not sure that the album was disappointing in that sense. It was disappointing that we had to finance the album ourselves in the first place, and it was disappointing that Rough Trade collapsed, meaning that it was hard to get hold of and there was no chance of a re-pressing and no chance of being paid for the few thousands that did sell. It forced us to stay on the road until we’d recouped the album’s costs, and that probably contributed significantly to our eventual demise. But yes, I suppose that if the album had thrust us to the forefront in that pre-‘Brit-Pop’ era, then the story may have been different. In those final years, bands playing with us included Blur, Radiohead and Pulp. But we’d had enough by then.
There was problems with the distribution, right? Did that really set you back?
Yes it did, I think. There were about 5000 copies of the album in the original pressing (a mix of CD and vinyl), and I think these sold pretty quickly, helped by decent reviews and lots of gigs to promote it. But Rough Trade collapsed just a couple of weeks after the release, and it quickly became clear from people we met at gigs that it was hard to buy a copy anywhere. With the collapse, there was no chance of re-pressing the thing to meet demand, and there was no chance of being paid for those 5000-odd sales, since there were bands like The Smiths and the KLF who were well ahead of us in the pecking order for remuneration, and the relatively small amount we were owed hardly justified the engagement of a lawyer to fight our corner. So, we bit the bullet and hit the road.
When you were looking back at the record, what were your memories of it, both in terms of the writing and the recording?
Richard – My memories of it are somewhat mixed. Simon and I were reasonably prolific as songwriters, so by the time we came to record the album, we had a good number of songs to draw from. I think that whilst we wanted to showcase new material (Dynamite, Skylarks II & III, Take Take Take, Nothing For Something, Old Jean Blues, Saying Goodbye), we also felt that there were a number of older songs that deserved a ‘proper’ release (Trousercide, LTSLB, Who You Are, The Belly, 95 Tears). As a consequence it is slightly disjointed stylistically, seen as ‘an album’, but, as a collection of individual tracks, it stands up rather well, I think. We were on form as a playing unit, and the basic backing tracks of drums, bass and two guitars were done live in most cases, with vocal and esoteric overdubs added, as appropriate. Personally, I’ve always thought that Simon had a great album and that I had a reasonable one! By that I mean that the songs he sang came across really well and he was in a rich vein of guitar form. I had my moments in terms of the arrangements, but I didn’t sing that well during the crucial couple of days in which all the vocals were recorded. It prevented me from listening to the thing for years. With hindsight, I did OK, but I’ve done better since. I regret that we opened the album with Dynamite – we should have remembered George Martin’s maxim that an album should kick off with a toe-tapper! I love the simplicity and pop power of 95 Tears, which was written when we were young and carefree, and I think that our arrangement for Skylark II had some real class. I regret re-writing some of the words in Trousercide for the album (and using a synthesiser to add brass lines to it), but I think Skylark II rocks. So yes, mixed memories, but mainly fond.
Overall, I’d say the album works just great in the context of the new release. I like to see it supported by some of the other versions/stuff that we did. It makes more sense to me. For me, BOB was a near 10-year journey, not just a few weeks in a studio in Wales.
Legend has it you met John Peel in rough trade early in your career – is that just a legend, or truth?
Simon – Entirely true. It was a Wednesday evening, and I was in the Ladbroke Grove Rough Trade shop to hand over a few dozen copies of our new flexi disc for them to sell. I was at the counter giving them to Simon, I think his name is, when Peely came and stood next to me. Simon – to whom I’ll be eternally grateful – put a copy onto the turntable behind him to play out into the shop while we were going through the business side of selling them and John was going through a box of 45’s.After a minute or two, he asked for a copy as apparently he was in there looking for something to play on that night’s show. I hope we didn’t make him pay for it…
What did you say to him, or was it a case of just thrusting a tape into his hands?
Simon – Well, I’m sure I wasn’t able to stammer out much of any significance – the man was my utter hero, and getting any recognition for the band from him was just about all we’d ever hoped for. I do remember walking out of the shop six inches off the ground, and finding a phone box right away to call Rich. After that, it was off to Birkbeck College to see The Siddleys, which was great as well, and then to Richard’s brother’s flat to see if Peel did play the disc or not… He did, of course; towards the end of the show. Deep joy. We’d been huddled round the speakers poised over the pause button since 10 o’clock on tenterhooks. I’m married with kids now, so I have to be a bit careful with what I call the best days of my life, but that Wednesday was right up there.
And he was very supportive of you, giving you 3 sessions – was that important to you/what are your memories of those sessions?
Simon – It’s easy to imagine us packing it all in before we started touring and making proper records without his support. The first session was another fantastic surprise – we got the call at very short notice after another band pulled out, and we were at Maida Vale a couple of days later… How many people didn’t first hear about us on the John Peel show? Like so many other bands from that time we wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting on the radio without him.
Richard – The sessions were a mixture of blind terror and open-eyed wonderment. Terrifying because you didn’t get many goes at getting it right, with serious looking engineers and producers behind the glass of the control rooms, and wonderful because we got to use the BBC Hammond Organ and the BBC Steinway Grand Piano. I still can’t believe I had the nerve to ask them to mic up the Steinway for the piano part in Brian Wilson’s Bed. The version of Extension ‘BOB’, Please! on the new CD, which features the C3 Hammond, is definitely a personal favourite.
Back to the record, I love trouserside – do you have any favourites from the album?
Simon – Some of the tunes on there were quite old by the time we recorded it, but some were new enough to have not been demo’d yet, and there does tend to be something about the first go at a song that’s hard to capture again, so I like the short Skylark for that reason. There wasn’t much time for studio weirdness, but we had a laugh hitting a Calor Gas bottle and playing that back in backwards on that one.
You’ve not given everything up from your back catalogue in this release, any chance of some more things appearing at any point?
I’m hoping that there could be another double CD set in about a year. In my mind, this would bring together all of the BOB singles and EPs (all re-mastered, some re-mixed) on one CD (that’s about 30 songs) plus a second CD containing the best of the band’s 8-track demo recordings. We were lucky to have an 8-track studio at our disposal from the beginning to the end of our run, and we loved using it. Consequently, I have about 300 BOB recordings of one sort or another, and, thanks in part to modern technology, much of it is potentially of releasable quality. We’ve also recently found a multi-track recording of a gig we played in Berlin in 1992, well recorded by German radio engineers. Of minority appeal, to be sure, but interesting to some, possibly
Looking back, do you think releasing things yourselves via your own label helped your careers, or got in the way?
Simon- Well, a few records did come out on the fantastic Sombrero label, so it wasn’t all off our own bat; having said that, we were pretty heavily involved with that particular branch of the human happiness industry as well. There was one trip to Bristol to sort out distribution or something, with members of Reserve and The Siddeleys that I’ve got fond memories of; it was like being in being in a big old gang for a while. Probably not the hardest gang to have hit the streets, though. The House of Teeth label was never really much more than us spending whatever cash we’d managed to scrape together from gigs and various publishing deals to get the next record out. I think we just took it for granted that that was how it was going to happen; I certainly don’t remember turning any offers from proper labels down. So, if we hadn’t have bothered, that would have been it…
And no chance of playing any shows with this release?
Simon- Well, among other things, there are geographical issues there – we do live a long way apart from each other. If we can get into the same room for an evening, with our instruments and enough beer to see us through, we’ll have a better idea if we can still make a convincing noise together. That is certainly the plan. We’ll see.
And musically what are you all up to now, if anything?
Richard – I’ve continued to write and play pretty much ever since BOB finished. I made a couple of albums worth of ‘solo’ material before de-camping to Land’s End about 10 years ago. Since I’ve been here, I had a long stint with a notorious local live band called ‘Pondlife’ (a 10-piece Ska band of great joy), I made an album with a band called ‘Ethatone’, playing keyboards and singing backing vocals, and I now play and sing in a sort of farmyard funk band called ‘Pigshed’. I’ve also recently set up a new recording studio and record label, and produced forthcoming releases for a singer-songwriter called Catrina Davies and an amazing outfit called The Ascension Plan. Hopefully you’ll hear more about these in due course…
Simon- I’ve started knocking about at my local folk club, doing one song a week from the floor. I’m absolutely loving that – finding something new to do each time, arranging it and trying to learn all the words is a great way of keeping my hand in. Being up there with just a guitar for company doesn’t half make you miss being in a band, though.
Thanks a lot.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ll get my wish to see BOB live on stage. But after spending a few glorious hours with Leave the Straight Life Behind and its various extras, do you know what? Me and Bob are even.