FALSE MEMORY LANE: THE ALLAN CROCKFORD INTERVIEW

Friday, 27 June 2014

FALSE MEMORY LANE: THE ALLAN CROCKFORD INTERVIEW

Bass players - stood on the side of the stage, doing their job, rarely seeking attention, allowing the limelight to shine on others to take the plaudits. That’s the natural order of things but on occasions, for one reason or another, the bassist forgets their place and decides they want a bit more attention. They want to write songs, they want to sing, they want to be the focal point. The results, should anyone bother to listen, are seldom welcome: Bill Wyman’s “Je Suis Un Rock Star”; Bruce Foxton’s “Freak”; John Entwistle’s “Too Late The Hero”; anything to do with Peter Hook; you get the idea. All of which makes Allan Crockford’s successful switch from bedrock of multiple Medway beat combos including the Prisoners, the James Taylor Quartet, the Prime Movers and the Solarflares, to become the mastermind behind the Galileo 7 all the more of a welcome surprise.
Following Are We Having Fun Yet? (2010) and Staring At The Sound (2012) the new Galileo 7 album, False Memory Lane is their best yet. Crockford on vocals and guitar - with Viv Bonsels (organ), Mole (bass) and Russ Baxter (drums) - hasn’t been content to stay on familiar ground and regurgitate versions of his previous bands; instead he offers a fresh perspective on his talent. There’s little of the crash-bang-wallop Medway punk ethos in evidence; replaced with a more considered and thoughtful approach to both the writing and recording. The default position, such as there is one – as shown on previous Galileo outings – is of a bouncy English pop-psych band. There’s a strong 60s feel but on this new album in particular there’s an ear for at least the following three decades to stop it sounding like a pastiche or overly contrived. “Tide’s Rising”, “Don’t Follow Me”, “My Cover Is Blown” and “Don’t Want To Know” are business-as-usual, mixing fuzz guitars and organ, and whilst not truly psychedelic there are spacey sci-fi touches with brightness and colour throughout. But where False Memory Lane excels is when it deviates from the template, and it does so with admirable frequency.
The healthy scope of styles indicates Crockford’s willingness to experiment and a growing confidence in his writing. The title track is the most obvious example with Allan’s vocal backed only by a mellotron, handclaps and a finger-picking acoustic guitar reminiscent of Pete Townshend. Even better is the superb “Fools” which transports Strawberry Fields to Rochester High Street. “Don’t Know What I’m Waiting For” is sung by Viv and sounds like a new wave band mercifully cropping up to save an edition of Top Of The Pops in the late 70s and then covered by The Primitives (“Viv wanted a Primitives type song to sing, so I wrote one,” says Allan). “You’re Not Dreaming” has a spiralling melody and is more sinister sounding yet “Nobody Told You” manages to joyfully mix a clippity-clop Syd Barrett rhythm with a bubble gum ba-ba-ba-ba-ba chorus, vocal harmonies and a hint of the Left Banke. No mean feat. “Little By Little” is the heaviest psych-trip on show and had this been on young whippersnappers Temples’ album it’d be on hipper radio stations’ playlists quicker than you could say Their Satanic Majesties Request. Personal favourite is “I’m Still Here” which ties sepia-tinged lyrics to a magnificent melody and almost Big Star guitars in a way I’ve not heard done as well since Bronco Bullfrog’s albums of the late 90s. “I’m still here,” Allan sings, “saying the things that you don’t want to hear.” Au contraire Mr. Crockford, au contraire, on this evidence I want to hear much more. A terrific album by anyone’s standards.
With that in mind, Monkey Picks collared Allan to quiz him about the Galileo 7; revisiting his back catalogue with Graham Day & The Forefathers; and, of course, gently bend his ear about a couple of his old bands.
Give us a little background to the Galileo 7.
It started as me making demos at home and putting them on-line for whoever stumbled on them. I didn’t want to put them under my own name so I invented a band name. The Galileo Seven is an episode from the original Star Trek series and I always thought it sounded like a band. There was another episode called The Cloudminders that I liked as well. Sometimes I wish I’d chosen that one, because ‘Galileo’ is a bit difficult for some people to say. Having said that, Galileo was a good man for many reasons so he got the vote.
What's the fascination with Star Trek?
I liked it when I was a nipper, and any TV or music you grow up with stays with you pretty much forever. It's the power of emotional nostalgia, not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the thing you're remembering. There was a good few years when it wasn't shown on British TV and its reputation grew during the time we couldn't see it. The power of absence. I'm a big fan of Laurel and Hardy as well, and there was also a time when we couldn't see them on British TV for copyright reasons, so all we had was memories of how great these programmes were. And of course they get better the longer you go without seeing them. Like a good footballer who has a long term injury whose reputation grows in his absence while the team struggles. It's the old excitement of digging out records that you've only heard about, or heard fleetingly on the radio a long time ago. It's not an experience that people younger than us really have any more, because everything is so easy to find nowadays. I like the fact that I can now get hold of any piece of music, TV programme, film or whatever instantly, but I also miss that surge of excitement we used to get when we'd come across something long lost, buried, forgotten or unknown. I'm glad that I had that experience. As you can tell, I'm quite interested in the truth or otherwise of memory.
That’s all right then. With your band’s name and The Prisoners appearing on Channel 4 in Star Trek outfits I was worried you were a Trekkie…
No, I'm not a Trekkie! The uniforms on The Tube weren't my idea. I hate dressing up. But there's no doubt at all that it was a good idea, because everyone remembers us, and it did look good. The shirts were hand made by, I think, Johnny Symon's girlfriend and finished off in the van going up to the recording by someone else's girlfriend. I don't go to conventions or speak Klingon.
After all the bands you’ve been in, the Galileo 7 is the first time you’ve taken centre-stage. Was writing something you’d always wanted to do?
I wanted to try it because I’d started writing songs relatively late in my musical life. I’d been playing in bands for twenty years or more before I wrote my first song. I had no idea whether I could do it. I started writing during my time in The Stabilisers but it was more to do with mucking about making home demos than thinking I was ‘writing’. I didn’t really have any inclination before that at all. I thought it was a dark art and that I hadn’t been blessed. That’s why I was always the one in the bands who did all the practical stuff. I thought I had to make up for being uncreative.
Was there ever any frustration in always playing other peoples’ songs – predominately those of Graham Day?
I never felt frustration as such. Why should I feel frustrated playing Graham’s songs? They were mostly great, and he is one of the best singers of the last 30 years, and even up there with some of the recognised ‘superstars’.
Were you nervous about singing?
Not nervous as such but very aware of my limitations. Maybe too aware and self-critical. I’m not the best singer in the world – I’m not even the best singer in the band - and I’ve been in bands with some great singers so I was always on a loser if anyone compared me to them. But I believe in the songs and I had no alternative at that point. And I wanted the challenge. Being out of one’s comfort zone is good for the soul, although sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, especially when my throat is gone after five songs. I’ve got no technique!
Did you have to find a vocal style you were comfortable with?
I haven’t got a style, I’m just trying to remember the words and sing roughly in tune. It’s a kind of artless style if anything. Maybe kind of close to Syd Barrett. Not as good as him but kind of deadpan and underplayed. There’s no point in trying to develop a style at my age. It would be me doing a poor impersonation of someone else. You can do that when you’re young and still developing because most people end up sounding like something different and unique by mistake. At my age I’d rather just get better by doing it more.

What’s it been like trying to get your own band heard? I guess the recent formation of Graham Day & the Forefathers has helped raise the profile of the Galileo 7?
Well it hasn’t hurt. I’ve never been under any illusions about the amount of people who might be interested in our stuff just because I was in the Prisoners and all the other bands. Musically it’s not a million miles away, but I’m trying to do something a little different. A lot of Prisoners fans are very, very focused on just that band and Graham, and are really not that interested about what I’m doing. I accept that and I’d be the same if the bass player in a band I liked starting his own band playing guitar. It’s always the singer and songwriter that keeps the fans, and rightly so. But the Forefathers starting playing has maybe reminded a few people that I’m doing my own stuff and the more open minded ones have given us a listen.
Did Graham Day & the Forefathers come as a surprise or had you felt Graham itching to get out there again?
I don’t think Graham was particularly itching to start playing again, but it sounded like a bit of laugh when we discussed it down the pub. After the first few gigs it was obvious that we were still good, and more importantly, it was fun, especially picking and choosing whatever songs from whatever band we’ve been in together. It’s a big catalogue of songs and playing the Prisoners stuff was bound to get people interested. But it’s also good to remind people of how well the Solarflares stuff stands up next to it and good for me to play some of the Gaolers songs. They’re all new to me and it brings a bit of freshness to the set.
How does it feel trying to push new material with the Galileo 7 and then seeing peoples’ enthusiasm about Graham Day & the Forefathers playing old material?
Completely understandable, as I said before. I know how much those songs mean to people: they mean a lot to me as well. It’s the acceptable face of nostalgia, as long we deliver them with some attitude and aggression then it works. And it’s nice to feel that we’re stirring emotions in people.
Graham Day & the Forefathers: Day, Wolf Howard, Allan Crockford
Talking of nostalgia, the title track on False Memory Lane contains the line “nostalgia’s not what it was” and talks about rewriting old events. Have you seen this with regard to your career? I’m thinking predominately about the Prisoners who in some ways have taken on a life of their own.
Well, the song is about the way we fool ourselves about our motives and actions when we look back, and sometimes adjust the recollection to suit what has happened since, or build a narrative arc onto our lives as if we weren’t just bumbling along making it up at the time. I don’t know if it applies to the Prisoners, although I’ve told the story of the band so many times that it does seem to have a plot line now, and I can no longer be sure what anyone’s motives were for what we did and didn’t do during that time. I usually now say that we did things because we were young, stupid, lazy or drunk rather than through any master plan or rugged independence of thought. I may be downplaying our intelligence at the time but I think that’s more honest from this distance.
We always read how the Prisoners were such an influence on bands like the Charlatans, Inspiral Carpets, Kula Shaker etc. How does that make you feel? Proud? Guilty? Cheated?
It’s hard sometimes not to feel that we missed out a little bit on some substantial success somehow, but on the other hand that means very little now. The fact that we slipped under the radar many times adds a bit of romance to the band. I’m happy with what we did and glad that we didn’t get sucked into the industry too much.
You got sucked in a bit. The end of the Prisoners came with the acrimonious relationship with Countdown records and all the trouble (fan base, outside producer etc) that brought. After the experiences with Big Beat making Thewisermiserdemelza with an outside producer why did you make what appeared to be similar mistakes again?
Our relationship with Big Beat wasn’t acrimonious at all so I don’t think we imagined that we were repeating any mistakes by signing to Countdown. With Big Beat we felt that we’d tried the record company thing and just fancied doing the next record ourselves. We never fell out with them. Countdown was another matter. We sort of knew what we were letting ourselves in for but it was a last roll of the dice to take the band a bit further. We were warned by various ex-Stiff artistes that it wouldn’t be straight forward and that we would have to relinquish control of many aspects of our sound. But I remember that we had the contract looked over by a solicitor and he said it wasn’t great, but if we were going to sign it we had to throw ourselves into it to make it work. We never did and battle lines were drawn pretty early in the relationship. It was a little bit glamorous at first, with Stiff being a proper famous label, in a posh building with Island Records, but it quickly soured when we were saddled with a producer who hadn’t even seen the band.
If you’d carried on putting out your own records would the Prisoners have lasted longer?
If we’d carried on making our own records we might have made one more, but I think we were all a bit knackered by the end. We didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm for the whole thing. We needed a rest and we took one.
You've put your new album out yourself, is that a method you'd recommend for young bands starting out, to keep as much control as possible?
It's born out of necessity. If someone actually offered to release our album as we recorded it and promised to work hard selling it, then I'd take that option. It's really hard work. I used to be the person who didn't write songs but did all the boring stuff like promoting and selling and essentially managing the band. Nowadays I still do that, but I've added writing all the songs, singing them, recording and producing the music as well. And managing all the processes of actually getting the product available; I think I've gone wrong somewhere. But it is my thing and somehow I have more time and energy to take on the responsibility than the others in the band. As it happens a label has offered to licence the next album and press it up and do all the boring but necessary stuff. If the offer still stands when we've actually recorded some new material next year, I might well take them up on it. As for young bands starting out, it's always a good idea to do a self-release if they're prepared to work really hard to get people to buy it. Making the music is the easy and fun part. The bit that makes it possible to carry on doing it is actually selling a few copies. But make sure everyone in the band does their share if possible.
After the Prisoners came the James Taylor Quartet. I’ve been playing those first few records again recently and they still sound fresh and exciting. Would I be right in thinking that was probably the time you were in the most commercially successful band?
I like the early JTQ stuff. It was an exciting time because it happened quite quickly. I think the early JTQ gigs picked up a lot of the Prisoners fans as it wasn’t that long after the split. Gigs were pretty packed almost immediately and stayed that way. I suppose it seemed like success in comparison to what went before but it wasn’t commercial success. We were making the records we wanted to make and they were selling okay. That’s about as good as it gets at our level of the business.
For a band central to the appearance of “Acid Jazz” you weren’t especially jazzy.
It’s got an innocence about it and it’s got nothing to do with jazz. Just some Medway herberts having a go at being Booker T and the MGs and coming up with some sort of garage version. As soon as funk reared its head I knew I wouldn’t last long in the band. I’m not that kind of bass player and our efforts didn’t sound too convincing or funky. I don’t really like a lot of what the band has done since. It’s just not my sort of music, although I occasionally hear the odd song that sounds like a throwback to what we were doing in my time in the band.
With all your bands - Prisoners, JTQ, Prime Movers, Solarflares, Goodchilde, Phaze, Stabilisers, Galileo 7, Forefathers - you’ve made a lot of records. Do you keep count? Have you kept copies of everything? Kept a scrapbook?
I haven’t counted recently but it must be around 35 albums or so. I’ve got copies of most of them, but I’m not really anal about keeping or collecting memorabilia. Sometimes I wish I had kept stuff, especially when people keep putting stuff up on Facebook that I’ve forgotten about. But I’m always more interested in moving on to the next thing.
What is the next thing? What have you got planned for the Galileo 7 and Graham Day & the Forefathers?
Plans don’t really exist, we just do what we fancy if circumstances allow. If we sell enough copies of the new Galileo 7 album then we’ll do another one. It’s not cheap to put out a physical product and difficult to sell them. But we’ve had an offer from a label to license our next album so maybe we’ll do that next year. The Forefathers will put out a live-ish album in a few months; recordings of songs we do in the set, done power trio style with no frills, in our rehearsal room. And both bands would like to play more gigs, but we’re up against the realities of life, family, work and middle age.
What are your interests away from music?
I'm not really sure. I like reading when I get a chance, but the opportunity for the kind of concentrated, head in a book for hours on end type of reading I like only happens for a couple of weeks a year on holiday. I always feel my brain waking up again after a couple of days of concentrated reading; taking in other people's words, ideas, philosophies, science. I usually get a few ideas for songs on holiday. Keeping fit-ish takes a bit of time but mostly my head is full of music or thoughts revolving around selling our album, wondering about making another one. I really should get a hobby unconnected with music. I'm kind of into history, philosophy and science but it only goes as far as reading lots of popular books on those subjects and watching lots of documentaries. Time to go back to school...
Huge thanks to Allan for his time and his music. For further info, to listen, and to buy from the Galileo 7 shop, visit the Galileo 7 website. 
 
Mark Raison