The Hollow Men in action.
The Hollow Men in action.

Looking back at The Hollow Men

SEATTLE – It is 1987, and I am returning home from my first trip to the United States, a wild two-month coast to coast Kerouac-like road trip.

My big distraction, music, had not yet given me the excuse to drop out of college in London, and it seemed silly to stop so close to graduation. That said, a guy I knew from the local record store in Leeds had something cooking. His name was Choque, and he had already recorded an album with singer David Ashmore under the name The Hollow Men to favorable reviews.

My friend Howi Taylor had played bass on their debut and recommended me to them. So I took a trip up north to meet them at the ludicrously named Chocolate Factory, a psychedelic nightclub. There we hatched a plan for me to play on their sophomore effort, "The Man Who Would Be King."

I ended up playing on a good half of the record in breaks between my studies. It was a bit weird playing over the top of a drum machine and existing overdubs, but they gave a bit of freedom to express myself and made me feel very welcome. The resulting single, "White Train," made a bit of noise, so we painted a set based on a French kids TV show ("Magic Roundabout") and shot a video.

I think we had just had our minds blown by Prince a few weeks prior so there were a lot of polka dots and fedoras flyin' around. My personal homage to the purple one (or at least Sheila E) was to buy a bright pink drum kit with our advance from Arista records. The label signed us after a stint opening for the Stone Roses just as they were about to explode.

We thrashed them in a soccer match outside Sheffield University one sunny Sunday afternoon only to be humbled by their stagecraft later that night. I will never forget Ian Brown's prowling menace and the band's utter brilliance rendering those early tunes as they came of age.

It was a great time for live music in retrospect; all the touring bands had traveling supporters, much like soccer, and I think we even picked up a few of our own. We were the…

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Eurovision Song Contest winners, Bucks Fizz.
Eurovision Song Contest winners, Bucks Fizz. (Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain)

Brexit wounds

As a Brit in the U.S., I have watched the whole Brexit referendum unfold with some interest. I watched on in disbelief as my spiritual homeland rejected the concept of being bound by the European Union, in much the same way a teenager recoils in horror when his dad confesses he doesn't love mum anymore and has taken comfort in the arms of the babysitter.

I shouldn't be too surprised, I suppose, as this has been going on since the creation of NATO after the Second World War. Brits refer to "The Continent" in much the same way an astronomer talks about the Sea Of Tranquility.

The first time my mum made spaghetti Bolognese there was an uproar, although in the true spirit of postwar rationing, it contained some unconventional ingredients, which in retrospect I understood to be leftovers.

British Euro skepticism has its roots in some pretty significant history between the key players: Britain has been at war with France no less than five times, including a full-on invasion in 1066. And don't even get me started with the Germans.

That disdain for our overachieving neighbors couldn't be better exemplified than here in this classic old school commercial:

The rivalry is never better embodied than in soccer, particularly with the English, and there are no prizes for guessing who usually comes off worst.

We've long derided our Teutonic bedfellows, with the same old jokes about them taking all the sun loungers around the pool on that Greek Island Holiday. We even had games to reinforce cultural stereotypes like the infamous "It's a Knockout." Here the Belgians were usually the butt of all the jokes, as seen here:

And they say travel is supposed to broaden your horizons!

I think those of us living in the States might realize we have more in common with our fellow Europeans than it might first appear.

But I think the biggest drawback of our exit from the European Union is our ineligibility to participate in the epitome of Eurocentric muzak schmaltz: The Eurovision …

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A young Jonny Cragg on the drums.
A young Jonny Cragg on the drums.

Flowers for Agatha

SEATTLE – It is September 1979. I am in high school in Horsforth, a suburb of Leeds, England. My friend Pete had the kind of drum kit every young rocker dreams about – a black Premier Elite with a full battery of single headed concert toms (very Phil Collins).

He was already playing gigs at parties around town with his band and at one of them, I got horribly drunk, staggered home and threw up everywhere. My dad promptly called up Pete to chastise him for my behavior; something we still laugh about now. I guess my parents clocked him as a bad influence, and they were right in a way.

At the time we were both listening to a lot of Rush, Black Sabbath, Led Zep, Thin Lizzy and other hard/prog rock groups.

With money saved from a paper round I bought a battered chrome Tama Swing Star kit. I liked it because Stewart Copeland played Swing Stars. Once it was installed in my bedroom, I decided it was time to join a band. Sometime in 1982 I answered an ad placed on the notice board at Jumbo Records.

I met the singer, Jon, shortly afterwards. He described himself as an anarchist and was studying politics at Liverpool University. I had never met an anarchist before, and I was intrigued. Jon instructed me to stop listening to Rush because of their admiration of Ayn Rand, who was a fascist. Jon then made me a cassette sampler of Joy Division, The Cure, The Monochrome Set and Echo and The Bunnymen. This cassette became my template for the musical journey I was about to go on with Jon.

I was now in the sixth form studying A levels and we had just read a short story about a dying man called "Flowers For Algernon." I adapted the title to name the band Flowers For Agatha. I was starting to sneak out to the clubs and something else was happening in the city: Goth.

My first ever gig was in a pub called The Packhorse on the edge of a park where the Yorkshire Ripper would take his victims. I was nervous as hell, (not because of the Ripper) but because my parents showed up to chee…

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"Sound and Vision."
"Sound and Vision."

Crossing paths with the Thin White Duke

SEATTLE – It’s 1977, I am 10 years old and I buy my first single: "Sound and Vision" by David Bowie. It's an oddity of a track, all wandering instrumentation, sparse vocals and washy synth.

But it was the beginning of my relationship with the Thin White Duke.

All around me was this fascination with the guy. I dated a girl who was an obsessive, insisting on listening to his albums back to back whilst we pawed at each other in my bedroom. Bowie was liked by the straights, the weirdos and when it burst out of my hometown Leeds, he was adored by the goths, too.

No chicken dance around the dance floor of Le Phonographique was complete without "Gene Genie" or at least "Rebel Rebel."

In 1987, I made my first trip to America. Arriving in New York, my friend Chris and I drove across the country to deliver a Buick to L.A. "Never Let Me Down" was a big hit on the radio, and I got to see Bowie on the Glass Spider Tour in Anaheim. The show was a bit overblown, but I still love that song and can't understand why it was not given more credit.

But in all honesty, I had only had a passing interest in the guy until I met the boys in Spacehog in New York City in 1994.

Here was this young dude, Royston Langdon, who had uncannily tapped into the Davy Jones spirit animal whilst effortlessly playing the bass guitar … and he was from Leeds.

It's worth noting here that the Spiders from Mars were for the most part Yorkshire men, like bricklayers with heels and mascara, and in some ways, we were trying to do the same in a post grunge plaid alt rock landscape. Spacehog quickly became successful, and suddenly I was fielding a lot of Bowie comparisons during our daily press obligations. It was only then that I delved back into the work of our departed hero and gained a true appreciation for what he did to music.

We played a Tin Machine song, "Crack City," in our set so much it felt like our own, and by the time our band had broken up in 2001, Royston and his then wife Liv Tyler w…

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