Matthews and I were 17 and still at school when we decided to form a
band. Mark roped in his old junior school mate Ian Smith, a drummer who
actually had a kit and was in a band called the Rubberman Dozen. Our
immediate role models were the Bunnymen, Joy Division and Orange Juice,
while we were just discovering 60s stuff like The Doors, the Velvets,
Hendrix and other garagey and psychedelic sounds.
After a couple of years of not making much progress with various vocalists we met Mick Murphy through a mutual friend. He had sung in other ‘proper’ bands so it was a coup for us when he joined at the end of 1983. The first Dentists gig was on 12th April 1984 and we built up a strong following in our native Medway during the rest of the year, playing week in, week out, and occasionally got to experience what we then considered the ‘big time’, supporting Ian’s mates The Prisoners in London.
The Medway music scene at that time was very 50’s and 60’s influenced, dominated by The Milkshakes and The Prisoners but including many more like-minded groups. It was a scene that was criticised as ‘revivalist’ but was really all about getting back to what was important in music, the simple, basic raw energy that had been lost somewhere along the way in the overproduced 80’s. There was a conviction about the ‘right’ way to go about things; to use vintage, valve equipment and to record as quickly and as ‘live’ as possible.
We never fully signed up to this ethos but it rubbed off on us in a big way. The fairly dire state of music early 80s made the fascination with the past seem more than justifiable. Unlike a lot of our Medway peers, however, we were also inspired by the few shining lights of the era such as The Smiths, REM, and The Go Betweens. My ideal for The Dentists would have been to match the lyrical audacity of those bands, although maybe with more surrealism than realism, a more direct pop sensibility and delivered with a bit of punky Medway enthusiasm. Not exactly revolutionary, but no-one else at the time seemed close to that combination.
By November '84 we had enough cash to go into the studio to make a record. Although we'd recorded two demos we were still pretty clueless in the studio. Luckily, Allan Crockford from The Prisoners was interested enough to offer to produce the record. He was older, wiser and in a band we liked that was more successful than us, so it was a no-brainer really.
We recorded and mixed all three songs in one day in Woolly studios in Sheerness. I was very excited by the fact that Jeff, the studio engineer, had a Rickenbacker on the premises, which he was quite happy for bands to use. This was like striking gold as Rickenbackers were very expensive. I don’t think I’d even so much as touched one before. Its sound was ideally suited for Strawberries.
By this time we were just starting to be a bit adventurous and confident in the studio, all chipping in ideas as we went along. Mick would try out new backing vocals on the spot, Ian suggested an acoustic guitar coming in on the last verse. I stuck on a super-loud psychedelic lead solo over the fade out. We were delighted with the end result. I thought we’d created a little pop masterpiece and was unashamedly proud of the fact that it sounded more like it had been recorded in the 1960’s than the 1980’s.
Soon after, we were making plans to record an album. We opted for our newest and what we thought were our best songs. In the year that we’d been playing live we’d already ditched a whole set’s worth of material. Half the songs on the LP were written in the 3 months prior to recording.
Most of the tunes originated from Mick, accompanied by very vague idea of lyrics or often just vocal ‘sounds’. The usual process was that either myself or Mark would then translate them into ‘real’ lyrics. We were also very keen on song titles that did not appear anywhere in the lyrics, out of a desire to be ‘interesting’.
In the first week of April 1985 we went into Woolly Studio once again with Allan producing. We must have been on form as we recorded 16 songs on the first day and still had time to start the guitar overdubs. Of these, it was decided that three stuck out as being below par or either just didn’t fit in. These were the three oldest songs of the bunch; Jack, Beneath A Tree and Now You’re Gone, and they were duly shelved in their unfinished state. Other old favourites like Crime Of The Century, Sun In The Sands and Ugly hadn't even made it into the reckoning.
Days 2 and 3 were spent doing all the guitars and vocals. Three or four of the songs still didn’t have any lyrics written, so there we were on the day, feverishly trying to scribble down anything vaguely cool and interesting in time for Mick to have something to sing. It was like a production line. As soon as he came in and grabbed what we’d done, we started on the next one.
On the final day we applied the finishing touches, acoustic guitar, tambourine, a bit of piano, and clarinet, played by Denise Barnes, on Kinder Still and Back To The Grave.
Under Allan’s tutelage, we employed similar production values as on the single. In my mind this meant to get it to sound as much like Revolver as possible. I don’t think we quite managed that but after the fourth and final day we came away absolutely euphoric. The four of us really thought we’d recorded a mini-masterpiece!
Bob Collins (guitarist)
Is this the world's only psychedelic pop album done without drugs? None of us smoked at all, anything, and only Mick did a little bit of speed, but booze...well, I was only a kid.
It is not usual to 'big up' the singer (they normally need taking down a peg or two), but in our case, Mick did completely change us. On the one hand, he fitted ideally into our pop/Velvets vision. Certainly The Dentists bore more resemblance to what we'd been doing than what he had been doing. However, he had, we thought, that vital ingredient, the 'X' factor. He was an enigma, he still is (as far as I can make out). He undoubtedly had a talent for tunes and singing (not so much for lyrics!). Whereas Bob and I, and Mark to a lesser extent, knew our musical history inside out, Mick seemed to know next to nothing. His record collection consisted of one record by The Stranglers, The Sisters of Mercy, Vicki Carr(!) and The Ultimate Action.
The thrill of seeing your own piece of vinyl for the first time is probably something even P. McCartney, G. Michael, M. Loaf or W. Jacko can still recall. When Strawberries came out, we had a thousand discs and no idea how to sell them other than to friends or at gigs. We already had a fair following of people eager to get their mitts on a copy, but, of course, there are people that you're at college with or at work with who also want a copy, signed, "so I can sell it when you're on Top of the Pops"
Three things here;
(1) "When" not "if". There is such certainty in their conviction. I even had my cousin asking for my autograph "for when you get famous". "But you're my cousin. Nothing can change that. You can have a bucketful of autographs if I get famous. I will still be here, with the family, every Christmas, World Tours permitting..." The dreams of these people are always stronger than those of the band members themselves. There are exceptions like Cocker, Cope or Morrissey who know their destiny, but for most of us, we know we are destined to end up as waiters, accountants or civil servants;
(2) "Sell it"? What an insult! I'm nineteen, this is my single. My first single and you want to sell it. It's an extension of the lottery syndrome. Regardless of any talent, the local band are as likely to hit fame as you are of getting five plus the bonus ball. Yet, even if the impossible happens, say this band end up making the Beatles seem like a A Flock of Seagulls, that piece of plastic will still only be worth, at tops, about £120. Enough for a week's groceries at Asda, but surely not a good enough reason to part with £1.50. Only buy it if you want to listen to it and cherish it;
(3) "Top of the Pops" is the yardstick. Television. Take Vic Godard, Nick Drake, Arthur Lee (or Television even). World famous and respected in the right circles, but never on television. They'd never cut any ice with the world's mothers and office workers.
Nineteen years after its release, I had a guy called Eddie in San Francisco want to shake my hand as the man who drummed on "that Strawberries thing" . He used to play it on his radio show in Connecticut in 1985. We had no idea that anyone was playing it anywhere, let alone on radio in the States. A few weeks later I met a couple at a wedding whose three-year-old Lola's favourite song is
Strawberries. It is experiences like this that made it all worthwhile.
Ian Smith (drummer)
Luckily for us, my father was a
gambling man. Horses mainly, with a passing interest in the dogs. His
propensity to go AWOL in search of a bookies at the drop of a hat
caused a certain amount of tension in the Matthews household all
through the 70’s and 80’s, but the one day he was allowed
to be openly cavalier with his cash was Grand National day.
My recollection is that he placed his bet that day with only minutes to spare, and watched the race in the safety of the betting shop. I’ve no idea how much was riding on Last Suspect, or the odds, but Ian assures me it was a 50-1 outsider. When he came home, his face told us all we needed to know; the look of happy embarrassment, coupled with a jovial swagger; the difficulty focussing on any new task that my Mum had prepared as the usual penance; the wandering from room to room unable to settle.
I’m not good on dates but recording must’ve been imminent and knowing that we were struggling to get the money together from just gigging, he calmly handed over what amounted to a major proportion of the funding gap, eyes twinkling, with the caveat that I did not discuss the transaction with any other parent. The punch-line, of course, is that I wanted to know how my father had beaten the bookies and what tips could be handed down, father to son. Smiling, he explained that he’d not had the time to study the form, and, going with gut instinct, had backed Last Suspect “because it was the last horse you’d suspect to win”. Quite frankly, it’s a miracle that I never got on first name terms with the local debt collector during my teenage years if this is the kind of logic that supported his gambling habit.
We had the last laugh of sorts though. Although he donated some cash and pulled together the album’s artwork, he specifically asked not to be thanked or credited in any way. Had he looked carefully at the recipients of the “autographed footballs” listed on the LP sleeve however, he might have noticed a character by the name of Stan Whystemyde, a not-particularly-cunning anagram of his name.
But then he probably had his head buried in a Sporting Life or something, pretending to study the form…
Mark Matthews (bass player)
Andy Kershaw called me at my
parents' house soon after the release of Some People. My mother picked
up the phone and shouted “Micky, Andy Kershaw is on the phone". I
didn’t know who Andy Kershaw was.
“This is Andy Kershaw”
“Andy Kershaw from BBC Radio’
“What do you want?”
“I’ve just listened to the album, there are some good songs on the album and I’m going to play I Had An Excellent Dream"
“That’s good. Bye”
At the time I thought it was Ian pissing around, hence the abrupt conversation. Anyway he played the record so it must have been him.
Mick Murphy (singer and guitarist)