Scratch the Surface: The Passmore Sisters – First Love, Last Rites (Sharp Records, 1988)



Scratch the Surface is a pretty new development in the Backseat cannon, providing long reads of forgotten, under-appreciated or just classic albums from the outskirts of pop music.

Bradford’s The Passmore Sisters are a case in point. Formed by Howard Taylor, Martin Sadofski, Peter Richardson and Adrian Lee, they clearly weren’t sisters, but through a handful of releases on Peterborough’s Sharp Records and three Radio One Sessions – two for John Peel and one for the Janice Long Show, the band proved through their engaging 80s indie sound (one which, when needed, could flex its muscles as well), they had a ear for melodies, a penchant for telling tales and making barbed political points, and could mix it up musically.

That they weren’t much bigger is the real shame of it, but 1988’s First Love, Last Rites pulled together everything that was good about the band. Through the wonder of instagram, we managed to hook up with the band, and they have done a brilliant piece for us on the album.

The album as a whole isn’t on spotify (our streaming platform of choice currently, although another more recent compilation is. Missing are three tracks, which aren’t on YouTube either; Goodbye Billy Wild, Sally Why and Foundry of Lies. We’ve put together the album minus the three missing tracks, in the order they appeared in, so you can listen and read along as it plays. Do go and investigate more of the band, including a rather fantastic version of The Monkees Last Train To Clarksville thats out there.

BACKGROUND

HOWARD TAYLOR: The album came out on 5th August 1988 a few months after we’d split up, it was a compilation of songs taken from our single releases plus John Peel and Janice Long Radio session tracks.  We’d all gone at the band 100mph for a couple of years and it had just burnt out and reached a natural end. 

Our record label was owned by a Peter Sharp, a supermarket owner and music fan from Peterborough, he wrote to us and suggested the idea and we all thought it would be a nice final statement. 

Ian McEwan had a compilation of short stories called “First Love, Last Rites” which chimed with some of Martin’s lyrical themes and given the album content covered the band from its beginnings to its end it was the perfect title. 

The songs were recorded over a number of years, so there isn’t a single location or mood that can be attributed to the album, it’s a mash up of the different places we were in and experiences we were having. Bradford, Liverpool, Manchester and London.

There were six musicians in the band at different times during our sprint around the sticky floors of 80’s UK indie. Martin Sadofski (vocals) and myself (bass) were constants, Peter Richardson our original guitarist left to be replaced by Brian E Roberts after the first two singles and Adrian Lee the bands’ first drummer left to be replaced by Robert Grace a short time later.  

Peter and Adrian were both studying Graphic Design at Liverpool Poly for the first year or so of the band, between them they designed all our subsequent record sleeves, continuing to do so even after they’d both left the band. Martin and I would take the National Express coach from Bradford and visit them in their flat above a barbers in the Kensington district of the city, immortalised beautifully by the Shack song ‘Streets Of Kenny’. The flat had a huge armchair which we christened ‘the original rock n roll chair’. We went drinking in The Everyman, The Philharmonic and an after hours club called the Casablanca which I remember just seemed just to be a house on a regular street. This was right in the middle of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as UK Prime Minister and we were all young northern lefties intent on putting the world to right.  Music is everywhere in Liverpool it’s a wonderful city, I was a huge Bunnymen fan so it always felt like a bit of a pilgrimage whenever I went there. 

The first two singles and first John Peel session with Peter in the band had a different sound to everything that came once Brian had joined. Pete was pure art school, simple riffs, great clothes and a ton of attitude, music was written on instinct. With no music theory to fall back on we used to put chords together randomly until something stuck.

Brian is a musician in the classic sense, a natural on the guitar and a great composer with a wonderful ear, so once he started to contribute ideas the songs became much broader in scope. He played through two Vox AC30 amplifiers connected via a pale blue stereo chorus guitar FX pedal, it sounded loud fat and brilliant. 

Brian lived in Didsbury, Manchester and  soon after he joined we moved the band from Bradford and started rehearsing in a deconsecrated old church called Platt Chapel in Fallowfield which was right opposite the “Toast Rack” Modernist building of Manchester Polytechnic. 

Manchester in the mid 80’s; The Smiths and New Order were huge of course, the Stone Roses were up and running although yet to break through nationally and there were a number of  venues in the city in which to play, it was a great time and place to be in a band.

In 1987 Dave Haslam had a Thursday night at the Haçienda where he’d play the dancier end of Indie plus some early house tunes, we’d go down there and have a blast, it was such a brilliant vibe, before the guns and gangs cast their shadow.   

We were all absolutely skint, once coming back from London I jumped out of the van at a Motorway service station and heard the only money I had, a £1 coin needed for my bus fare home, bounce out of my coat pocket and chink onto the tarmac. I was searching for it when I saw Brian through the window of the food hall very clearly approaching the till with something. Knowing that non of us could afford service station food I sprinted in to find him about to hand over £1 for a sausage sandwich. 

After clarifying where he’d found the money I snatched it from his palm leaving him stood there hungry and with the plate of food in his hand.

Peter, Adrian (sat in the original Rock n Roll chair) and Martin – Liverpool, 1985

Track By Track

Difficult

HOWARD:  Rob had been in the band for 24 hours when we recorded this one, no one can remember why we decided to record so quickly after he came in but never the less, with one quick rehearsal under his belt we went into Elephant Studios in Wapping to record this and ‘June In The Water’. He absolutely nailed it, a real rush of adrenalin, the sampled snare sound carbon dating it as pure 80’s. 

Elephant was a great studio and we felt blessed having the opportunity to work there. The Pogues ‘Rum Sodomy & the Lash’ had been recorded there and there were Smiths master tapes up on the shelf, appropriately enough they were the shelved Troy Tate produced recordings of their first album. 

Every Child In Heaven

MARTIN SADOFSKI:  The Midland pub in West Didsbury Manchester, now called the Metropolitan was back in the day quite a wild west saloon. A hangout for local libertines and lowlifes. It was my local and also my neighbour’s Ian Brown. We had just released ‘Every Child In Heaven’ which and was getting some night time airplay. 

Whilst having a pint one evening Ian came bouncing over with his usual energetic mix of friendly menace. He wanted to know the secret to getting airplay for our single while ‘Sally Cinnamon’ was being ignored. Ian was a bit miffed. I had their record and liked it a lot but outside of Manchester at that time The Roses were getting little recognition. Of course we know how the story panned out from there, to quote the song from ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’… “from the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success”

‘Every Child In Heaven’s’ lyrics are influenced by The Redskins whom I adored and also Joe Strummer who coincidentally had given the song a positive review on Radio 1’s Round Table programme.  There’s a verse that’s a coded attack on bands selling out to big American major labels, ironically a comment on The Clash and CBS. 

Goodbye Billy Wild

HOWARD: This is from our second John Peel session, you really felt the hand of history on your shoulder when you went into Maida Vale Studios, the bands that had passed through over the years, from the Beatles to The Fall and pretty much everyone in between, just the fact you were in the BBC. I saw Robert Plant in the canteen and shat myself, what the fuck was I doing here?  He was very cool though and waved me ahead of him in the queue with a mock bow and an “after you sir”.

Brian had only been in the band a few weeks before this session, it was a real scramble getting the material together and meant we were still making adjustments in the studio, using up precious time. The BBC only gave you a very strict set number of hours in which to record a session, which of course was the point. 

With 20 minutes left to go on the clock, Brian still hadn’t done any guitar overdubs. He asked the Producer (the late great) Dale Griffin to run the tape and keep it running and then proceeded to overdub all four songs perfectly in one pass. I was at Robert Plant levels of being impressed. Dale turned round to look at the rest of us and just said “That lad can play”.

The Passmore Sisters: Howard, Martin, Rob, Brian – Wapping, London 1987
The Passmore Sisters: Howard, Brian, Rob, Martin – 1987

Shatter

ADRIAN LEE: A version of this song was recorded in our first Peel session.  I was round at Martin’s watching a video when my brother rang up. A mate of his had been listening to John Peel who’d said that he’d been wading through a sea of demos but hadn’t found anything that was quite right when ‘an impossibly handsome youth’ had given him a cassette at a Top of the Pops recording – and it was just what he wanted … ‘so if any of the Passmore Sisters are listening – get in touch.’

A quick call to directory enquiries later and I was on the phone to the Beeb. A receptionist put me through to the studio and, as I mouthed silently to Martin, “it’s John fucking Peel”.

I don’t remember much about the call – presumably he asked us to ring back the next day and book a session date. I do remember him saying ‘I’ve got to go now – the record’s finishing’.

Credit where it’s due: the impossibly handsome youth was our manager Andy Winters who was also in a band called the Cabinet, Gawd bless yer, Andy

Sally Why

BRIAN E ROBERTS: This was very much a last minute song that was thrown together a few days before the session. I remember thinking I hadn’t really had any time to play into the part so all I felt happy doing was a basic chord chug that I knew I could remember OK and bang down under pressure. Doing a Peel session was a massive deal for me and whereas the other guys had already done one, this was my first time at the hallowed Maida Vale Studios. I don’t recall whose idea it was or whether it was totally spontaneous, but at some point the chugging country rhythm part I was playing suggested itself to adding a spoof rendition of the John Peel theme at end of the song. It was a pretty good impression, though I say so myself which thankfully got a chuckle out of the great man, describing it as “very lifelike”. 

I wondered if any listeners may have had some kind of Pavlovian episode, reached for the off button on their radios, finished their cocoa and gone straight to bed.

A Safe Place To Hide

BRIAN:  A great example of what not to do when you have the luxury of a couple of extra hours studio time, is to add a timbale. Which is what we did on this song. 

The tune was upbeat and pretty catchy and pencilled in to be the follow up single to ‘Every Child in Heaven’.  So I think it was in the back of all our heads to make it count and to try and tick all those “single” boxes. What we should’ve done was spend that extra time getting the tempo just right and basic stuff like that. Instead we decided it needed some timbale on it. 

I can’t even remember if we had to hire one or it was just lying around in the studio. We spent those last two precious hours coaxing a timbale take out of Rob. I would like to think he at least had a laugh trying to get it down but I don’t think he did.  Apologies Rob. The rest of the song turned out OK but that timbale will for ever serve as a reminder that having too much studio time to record simple guitar based pop is not a good thing. 

Dance the House Down

ADRIAN The band was formed by me and Pete at the Bradford School of Art where we were both foundation course students in 1982-83. We named the band after a fellow student (a man, obviously). In September ‘83 the two of us moved to Liverpool to study graphic design. It was there we designed most of the early sleeves, badges, flyers etc. under the name of Fashwan – an abbreviation of ‘fashionable wankers’ – an insult casually tossed in our direction by a fine art student. 

The sleeve was collaged from found and created textures as there was no way of using a single image to summarise Martin’s multiple images of machismo, sexism, denial, the media, love and war, hedonism and nihilism.

This song became the lead track of our first EP, ’ Three Love Songs’, recorded at breakneck speed in a London studio during a Summer so hot the newspapers made it front page news.

Passmore Sisters: Peter and Adrian – Fashionable Wankers, Liverpool 1985
The Passmore Sisters: Peter and Adrian – Corbiers, Manchester 1985

June in the Water

MARTIN:  Like a lot of bands in the mid-eighties the Smiths loomed large with their daring lyrical pop. This is a song inspired by an urban myth in Manchester at the time that a man was going around hitting women with an iron bar. So the lyric was about a deranged young man attacking women and throwing them into the canal. He goes out with girls, they don’t quite live up to his first love ‘June’, so he throws them into the canal.  It’s a dark weirdly black comic tale, inspired by the macabre short stories of Ian McEwan.  Drowning, water, seas, rivers, features a lot in my lyrics. My brother was saved by my dad from drowning in a swimming pool when he was very small and my cousin and I nearly drowned in a dinghy that burst on holiday once and I didn’t think I could make it to the shore.  My favourite line in this song is rhyming decent with precinct! It’s very fleet of foot, a bouncing upbeat pop tune. It’s told from the POV of the killer which gives it a disturbing set of moral values

Foundry of Lies

BRIAN:  I really love this song, not only because of its energy and aggression but also because it’s the only Passmores recording that features both myself and Pete who came along with us to the BBC at Maida Vale when we did our third session there, this time for Janice Long. By now I’d established myself and had developed my style and songwriting . The sound and direction of the band had evolved a bit as well since Pete quit.  Although our playing styles were very different from the moment I joined the group I had tried to embrace elements of his choppy, stratchy approach which I loved. Being a fan of Television and Talking Heads made this fairly easy to tap into. Pete was handed my Telecaster just before we started mixing and he dubbed on a one take pass over the short instrumental section. And of course it was pure Pete; scratchy and chaotic. After that I incorporated his take into our live performance but it never sounded quite the same. It did once though. He joined us one stage during the encore at a gig in Westward Ho and reprised his performance, it was probably completely different but it sounded great. It was the only time we shared a stage in a five man Passmore Sisters line up.

The Grim English Joke

MARTIN:  The Passmores to me was always about the heady mix of love songs, politics and manic energy. ‘The Grim English Joke’  is a political attack on the dumb lads and lasses of the thick working classes. In the mid-eighties there was still this feeling that the working class belonged to that Orwellian tradition of proud, hardworking and politicised. The hoi polloi were socialist and unionised. But Thatcher had destroyed that. The common people were now less community organised and more “every man for himself” if you were poor it was YOUR fault. I was angry that they had been conned by the promise of trickle down economics. The song ends with a kitchen sink vignette of a young mum abandoned by her husband. I always liked bringing these small domestic scenes into political songs to make them personal and human. ‘Up the Junction’ by Squeeze was a big influence on me and XTC making ‘Plans for Nigel’ too.

Red Star Blue Heart

BRIAN:  Once the novelty of being in a band with a jokey gender fluid name had worn off I never really gave it anymore thought. It was just the name of the band.

However, spring ‘ 87 saw us booked onto an all female band night at the now demolished Sir George Robey venue in Finsbury Park London. Either a genuine case of mistaken identity or a booker with an entry level sense of irony. Whatever, we decided to keep it low key and instead of the whole band, Martin and I did a short acoustic set before the main act, The Deltones. Despite Martin being somewhat worse for wear having drunk several pints of Robey tap he stormed through a blistering version of ‘Red Star Blue Heart’, the song very much tapping in to the vibe of the evening. 

A footnote on that Robey pub. It was a popular venue on the indie and punk gig circuit and we’d already played there earlier in the year supporting The Three Johns. My first memory of the place was loading in and immediately nearly stepping on a fresh steaming dog turd right in the centre of the stage. A present from the resident Alsatian.

The Passmore Sisters: Martin – Sir George Robey 1987
The Passmore Sisters: Brian at the Sir George Robey, London 1987

All I Need is Change

HOWARD: We recorded this one with a fantastic engineer called Wilson Sharp who had a studio in London called Electro Rhythm. The studio had a cat and Brian as we quickly discovered had a cat allergy. But Brian is also a consummate professional and when the allergens prompted the irresistible urge to sneeze during the recording of his acoustic guitar he nailed the expulsion of air right on the beat, so as not to spoil the take. It can be heard on the recording towards the end of the first verse.

The sound of church bells coming through an open window one morning was Brian’s inspiration for the guitar riff that starts the song and as the tune ends he pulls off an impressive likeness of a peal in full flow. 

As well a cat, Wilson also had the first audio sampler we’d ever seen. Keen to show it off, he sampled a snippet of Martin’s vocal and conjured it into a ghostly “Aaah” sound which we used all over the track. It certainly worked better than adding a timbale and meant that by the time we got home we’d convinced ourselves we were Art Of Noise.

Beautiful Now (unlisted track at the end of side 2)

BRIAN:  In early 1988 we went into the basement studio of an old bandmate of mine to record what would prove to be our final session. I was excited because we were engineering it ourselves and had a fairly relaxed timescale. This was the house where I’d once sat next to Martin Hannett at a party and not recognised him. So the omens were good I felt. 

We recorded 3 or 4 tunes including a version of live favourite ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ which we rattled off first in a few hours. 

‘Beautiful Now’ was approached last of all as it was different, it had a diminished chord in it which automatically classified it as daring and unorthodox (for us anyway). The lead vocal was a challenge for Martin as it was in a higher key than he was used to but I remember him just doing one vocal take and it was perfect.

I suggested we have a cup of tea before we moved onto recording the backing vocals. We’d run out of milk but Martin was very quick to volunteer to go out and get some.

After about an hour Martin hadn’t returned and we began to worry. I went out to search. I even went to the shop to ask if a bloke answering Martins description had been in. He hadn’t. I went back to the studio half expecting to find him there drinking tea laughing his head off. But there was just Howi, as confused as I was. We finished the session best we could and went home.

At some point later that night or possibly the next day Martin calls Howi and tells him he’s in London, that he’d gone straight to the train station from the studio, that he didn’t buy any milk and that he’d left the band. 

RECEPTION

HOWARD:  By the time the album came out we’d all moved onto other things, I was in Leeds band The Hollow Men and Brian soon joined me where upon we signed a record deal and enjoyed 18 glorious months spending as much of Aristas’ money as we could. Brian had the finest sausage sandwiches on tap for the duration. 

The album seemed to be well received, the Melody Maker review comes to mind.

The Passmore Sisters: Melody Maker Review of First Love, Last Rites

Martin became a script writer for stage and TV, Adrian become an art teacher and our manager the golden eared Andy Winters went onto manage amongst others the band Dodgy. We lost touch with Rob completely. The album kept popping its head up occasionally over the years and then the internet arrived and people from Japan were asking about it and a CD bootleg appeared on Ebay.

LOOKING BACK

HOWARD:  John Peels’ patronage was key of course, his sessions and support kept us on the Indie map, when we split up I got a letter wishing us all well, which was lovely of him. It was a great way to spend my youth. I’m amazed people still care given the small footprint we made, that 80’s jangle pop / C86 scene which we get associated with seems to have a niche but worldwide following these days.

NOW

HOWARD:  We lost Pete to cancer on 23rd August 2013, he was only 51. 

In 2018 we decided to compile all the singles and B sides onto a CD release, I had a beautiful print of Pete’s that he’d given me as a present, it was called ‘The Original Rock ‘n’ Roll Chair’ from his student days in Liverpool and it became the sleeve and title of this new compilation. He was a brilliant graphic artist and made a career from that once he’d left the band, it was nice that we could complete the circle by having his artwork on this release.

You can find The Original Rock ‘n’ Roll Chair on Bandcamp.

https://thepassmoresisters.bandcamp.com/album/the-original-rock-n-roll-chair

Since 1994 Martin, Brian and myself have been putting out music under the name Fever Hut, to be still making music with your best mates is a wonderful thing.

Martin, Brian and Howard today.

FEVERHUT BANDCAMP LINK: https://feverhut.bandcamp.com/music 

Coincidentally we reconnected with Adrian just a few weeks before we were asked to do this piece, the four of us on Zoom laughing about timbales and milk.

www.instagram.com/thepassmoresisters

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