|Barry Presley and Charlie Batts at Hamburg's notorious Top Ton Club in 1962.|
In his first interview this decade, Barry Presley, the band's reclusive singer-songwriter talks to PDCC about the demise of former guitarist Pete Purple, bitter rivalry with the Mersey Green Tops, and of course ... 'that song'.
PDCC: That is too good a name to be true. I am guessing you changed it for the stage?
BP: Yes, our manager insisted I change it from Gary to Barry.
PDCC: Whilst we are on the subject of names, you have often been accused of trying to cash in on the success of another of your contemporaries: The Rolling Stones. Why is it that the band names are so similar?
BP: When we were in Hamburg in 1962 we were called Chip Fat. In those early days we played almost as much cricket as we did music. We would play six shows a night and often with little or no sleep have to take the field in the morning.
One day we were playing in the same side as the original drummer from Perry and the Pacebowlers - I can't remember his name but he was quick and over bowled. He had also been gigging the previous night and during the lunch break said he was so tired it was like 'bowling stones'.
I thought to myself that's it; and we used the name for the first time that same night. I am sure the band you refer to hadn't heard of us either until at least 1964 so I am not suggesting that they nicked it from us; it's just one of those coincidences.
PDCC: And your drummer changed his name to Charlie Batts?
PDCC: Your bass player called himself Bill Bye-man?
PDCC: Given that the 'Bones' were hardly short of work, why did you play so much cricket in those days?
BP: We didn't make any money from music at that time. Despite our popularity the music paid for our keep and little else.
We were handy cricketers and there was money to be made playing cricket in front of expatriate soldiers who never quite made it back from the war; and their girlfriends, who possibly cared less about the game but liked to watch a bit of rough on a Saturday.
PDCC: Sounds like they would have been better off joining the Kennel Club. The romantic view is that the Bones were at their happiest on the field but it seems as though you played cricket out of necessity.
BP: In many ways we had a lot in common with the prostitutes and strippers who we would socialise with every night in between sets.
|Caption: Barry Presley strolling down the 'Keeperbahn' in 1962.|
PDCC: So the prostitutes played cricket also?
BP: To a reasonable standard.
PDCC: You were young and ambitious, how long did you think you'd last?
BP: An over or two at the most. As I said I barely slept.
PDCC: You made your first record in Hamburg. You must have been very proud?
BP: Hardly; losing eight games in a row to a team of prostitutes was highly embarrassing.
PDCC: But if we can return to your music for a moment, Hamburg was a time of highs and lows. The Bones might have been the most successful and tightest of all the 'Pitch Invasion' bands, but there were problems behind the scenes. How much of a blow was it when your lead guitarist vanished without a trace until he made headlines as an environmental activist a decade later?
BP: Things like that happen in bands. Life on the road wasn't easy for Pete Purple.
PDCC: Pete's exit was complex. I understand drugs were involved.
BP: Yes, and vegetables. There was a lot of acid going around at that time. One night someone spiked his gaviscon with what was called an 'LBW trip' and he developed a liking for it.
It changed Pete completely - even when he wasn't on the stuff. He started giving away our cricket gear to orphans, homeless people, anyone in need or even not. We would turn up at a match to find out we only had the one bat, no pads, and so on.
The drummer from Freddie and the Beamers had to fill in for a month when Charlie broke three fingers keeping wicket without gloves. Later on we wrote the song All You Need is Gloves about it.
PDCC: You mentioned vegetables?
|Pete Purple performing 'I Beg Your Pardon I Never Promised You a Radish Garden'.|
BP: He became obsessed with them; it was his only interest. Near the end he would only write songs about vegetables: Give Peas a Chance, Lettuce Spend the Night Together, Eight Days a Leek, A Whiter Shallot of Pale and Turnip, Turnip, Turnip.
We just couldn't use any of them. He did his own thing for a bit but it really frustrated him and then he vanished. We decided to return to London.
PDCC: And you really didn't hear anything from him until all those years later when you heard he was boarding Greenpeace?
BP: Pete was never an eco-warrior - everyone gets that wrong: he was hoarding green peas. They had to get someone from the Council around to put an end to it.
PDCC: I see. 22 Yard Birds guitarist Bob Squash jumped ship to join you and things started to really happen.
BP: We were topping the billing at Lord's Tavern by night but come day we were relying on cricket to get by - just like Hamburg. Only this time it was more to do with odd jobs like selling scorecards, net bowling, or partnering one of the MCC members at bridge.
Meanwhile our manager was hawking a demo tape about. It was one rejection after another until producer Joe Tweak showed an interest. That led to a three-record contract with Pye Chucker Records.
PDCC: And you were an immediate hit?
BP: Not at all. 'Pitch covers' were the norm in those days and our first two singles flopped badly. First of all the people at Pye insisted that we revive an old Lord's Shop Quartet number: Yes Sir, That's Tom Graveney.
After that bombed we were sent back into the studio to record an equally poor version of the Jerry Lee Lewis hit My Old Man's a Twelfth Man.
We didn't know it at the time but it was this early failure that was to be the making of the band. Pye were ready to drop us and didn't really care what we did next so we decided to try out a couple of our own songs. For the first time we sounded on vinyl like we did on stage.
PDCC: You must have been disappointed.
BP: At first but Tweak assured us we had a hit on our hands. We all thought Night Watchman in White Satin was the obvious 'A-side' but were talked into releasing My Declaration as the single.
|Pete Purple in 1995: 'V for vegetable'.|
PDCC: Hope I die before I get bowled - finally young cricketers were able to listen to music that was written for them.
BP: It went down well with young opening batsmen who were into the 'Blockers' motorcycle club scene that was big at the time; but that was unintentional.
Strangely it was later embraced by 'Hard Hitting Mods' - a gang of free scoring middle order batsmen that over time would shave their heads and evolve into the 'Six Heads'.
The lyrics are underdeveloped as they were hurriedly put together on the morning of the recording. This proved to be fortuitous as it allowed people to interpret the song in a variety of ways.
PDCC: But it was this ambiguity that allowed the song to gain such broad appeal. What was it really about?
BP: Innings closure is used as a metaphor for social forfeiture. Declaring an innings closed is analogous to the emotional risks taken when failing to carry out civil obligations, such as concealing a contagious disease. People do it all the time.
PDCC: Please carry on while I wash my hands.
BP: Sorry but I will need to use the tap first. I was treating a rash before you arrived and have accidentally rubbed some Hepatitis B cream into my eyes.
PDCC: Thanks for clearing that up. My Declaration was the pinnacle of a very successful period for the Bones; but it would also prove to be a very high benchmark that you would forever be judged by. Is it fair to say expectations were too high?
|The Mersey Greentops enjoying a rare visit to Lord's to promote their 1964 hit: 'I Should Have Bowled Better'.|
BP: Yes they were; but it wasn't all our doing. In a wider and more significant sense all 'Rock and Bowl' bands were compared to the Mersey Green Tops.
It was a tough comparison because with the exception of their last LP, every record they put out was better than the one that preceded it. I never rated them as highly as many people did but I can't think of any other band that managed to consistently improve in such a way.
It was as if everyone was saying: "Have you heard the new Mersey Green Tops record? It's not as bad as the last one".
We on the other hand were judged very differently. In many ways My Declaration was a bit like God suddenly appearing from nowhere - how do you top that?
Our second record - And Your Third Man Can Sing - was better than anything the Mersey Green Tops were doing at the time but it was like Jesus showing up a few weeks after God. People thought "this is brilliant but we've more or less seen the whole thing before - it's all a bit Second XI".
And so it went on. Every new release produced wails of dismay because people were hoping for a new deity. I am not saying it is right or wrong but we had become more boring than Jesus.
PDCC: So the writing was on the Wailing Wall?
BP: We could have continued on but Rock and Bowl was evolving and we were under pressure to change. We just weren't into the whole 'Summer of Gloves' thing, or 'Progressive Tony Locke'.
We never broke up as such; but in 1969 we decided to take a break which has stretched to the present day.
If circumstances were different we would probably be on the 'golden oldies' circuit but despite not having sold a record since 1971 we haven't needed to work.
PDCC: The year your mother died. She must have been proud that so many artists have covered your music. What were her favourites?
BP: She particularly liked Roger Whittaker's version of New Ball in the Morning.
PDCC: And you?
BP: They are just royalties to me so I like those that have sold best. Val Doonican had a big hit with D'Oliveira's Donkey, Petula Clark went to number 1 in the US with Paul Downton, and the Singing Postman's version of Hev Yew Gotta Light Roller Boy is still massive in Norfolk.
I have never even heard the Bee Gees version of How Deep is Your Mid Wicket but I bought the rights to the entire Mersey Green Tops catalogue with the proceeds.
PDCC: And Pete Purple? I understand he was working with Captain Beefheart in the seventies.
BP: No, he ended up working as Captain Birdseye. He didn't get the TV gig - just supermarket appearances; that sort of thing. He still wont touch money so he agreed a rate of seventy frozen peas an hour. He was still doing it last I heard.
PDCC: Barry Presley, thank you for your time.