Friday, 7 January 2011
THE ACTION: REGGIE KING INTERVIEW (1995)
This interview took place at Reggie’s south-east London flat one night in early 1995. At the time he hadn’t had any contact with his old band mates for about twenty five years. I conducted it for my Something Had Hit Me fanzine but for reasons long forgotten it wasn’t published until 1999 in issue four of Shindig! A couple of years ago it also featured in the book Shindig! Annual Number One. The following as a very slightly edited version but I feel worth making available to all as it’s the only interview of its kind with the late, great, Reggie King.
When did you start singing?
I used to sing every Saturday as a kid at the Hampstead Playhouse. All the kids would go there and watch films. And then the kids would get on stage and sing. If the other kids liked you they would cheer and you would get an ice-cream. So I used to get a free ice-cream every week! I used to sing things like ‘Blue Moon’, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’, ‘When I Fall In Love’ and ‘Moon River’, which were everyone’s favourites then.
How did you meet the other members of The Action?
I went to school with the drummer, Roger Powell. He and I were school pals. There was this local pub that we used to go to occasionally when I was 18 where I’d get up and sing – The Malden Arms, on the border of Kentish Town and Hampstead. I got a band together with Roger and guitarist Alan King. Roger and I wanted to form a band, we were the nucleus. Alan wanted to join also, because he could hear I was a good singer and Roger a good drummer. It was Alan that knew Mick Evans, so gave him a ring. We rehearsed in Bam’s [Alan King’s] living room, at his mum’s house. We were all right, you know, just a four piece: guitar, bass, drums and a singer.
What year was this?
1963. No, 1964. But we did need a second guitar, a lead guitar. Mick Evans found Pete Watson. Pete’s father owned a pub opposite St. Pancras station. Pete came along with his big guitar, no slim thing, a great big thick thing, I’m almost certain it was a Gibson. This was before he had his Rickenbacker. It had a nice sound, a sort of soft sound.
Where did your early influences come from?
We used to go down The Scene club. Me and Roger used to go there all night, before the band really started, and listen to Tamla Motown, Stax label things, great records, and get our influences there. All black music. I don’t think The Action ever played any songs by white artists.
So you genuinely were mods down The Scene club then?
Oh yeah, we were really into it. As well as the music it was hip to seen in all the gear. Prince of Wales checked trousers, the shirts, everything. Chelsea style clothing in the true mod image. Plus a French influence with the French beret and Paris t-shirts. We played up this image as we liked it very much.
It’s been written that when The Action played in Brighton the mods would give you a scooter escort in to town. Is this true?
Strictly speaking no. It was, as I remember, our manager Rikki Farr’s idea, simply for the press. Although, we were very popular in Brighton, and in fact all the other south coast resorts we played.
Going back to the beginning, how did your recording career start?
We were playing one day and this guy called Mike Court came in and spotted us. He then worked for Juke Box Jury television show. He asked how we would like a manager. He wanted to put a record out and asked if we could write. I said yes I do a bit of writing. And he said he had a girl singer, Sandra Barry that he wanted to put us with. We groaned but said we’d give it a try. It meant leaving our jobs and turning professional. The spark was in my eye from the off but I didn’t like the idea of walking into something that was going to fall on its face.
We had some songs and by and large it was out songs they we played and sung on. Sandra Barry would come in and overdub her voice on top of it. This was at Decca. We recorded ‘Really Gonna Shake’ but he never managed to get it on Juke Box Jury. It sold fairly well actually, we got our names in the papers and got some good regular work from that. Then Sandra started being all on this “I’m a superstar, you’re my backing band” kind of trip. We went “What? Don’t start that with us darling or you’ll never work again!” So we finished out contractual obligations, until the end of the month, and left her.
Around this time we’d met this great gut called Ziggy Jackson. He said he could get us work in Europe, said we were a good band and should do what the Beatles did and exercise ourselves over there and give crap to the Germans and they’d love it. By the time we get back we’d be an excellent band. Over there, we didn’t do two half hour spots, we’d do six or seven slots per night. This was in Hanover and Bronsreich. Bloody hard work but when we got back we were really tight. It did exactly what Ziggy had said.
What happened after you got back from Germany?
We needed a good agent and we found Mervyn Conn. He said “Okay boys, I can get you work.” He then told us to get into country and western because he said it was going to become very big in the UK! We obviously told him to go away! But to be fair he did get us some good work. We worked hard, earned well, but we wanted a record deal, wanted the big time.
We did one gig in Southampton, at The Birdcage, and Rikki Farr who was looking after that club said “You haven’t got a manager, I’m your boy.” We were a bit apprehensive but he set up an office in London and looked after us. He went screaming round to see George Martin, who was then setting up his independent production company. He told us to go round to Abbey Road studios and he’d see what we were like, whether we were worth recording. Rikki told us this and we went “Wow!” But we didn’t really know what songs to play him. Rikki thought George wanted to hear any creations of our own but also to have a couple of covers as standbys for B-sides or whatever.
We went there and it was like “Hello George”. It was like meeting the Prime Minister of Rock. We were nervous but he put us at ease. It was, “Come on boys, relax, you won’t put anything down well on tape unless you relax. Don’t let me worry you, just do it your normal way.” So that afternoon we recorded ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ and, I think, ‘Since I Lost My Baby’.
Rikki wasn’t there because we told him not to go anywhere near the studio. We didn’t want him jumping down George Martin’s ear while e was trying to work with us. Anyway, George got in touch with Rikki and said he'd like to take us on. We were overjoyed, we’d go the best producer in the world. George said he wanted to release ‘Land of 1000 Dances’, said we were an excellent band and he liked us very much. So we contracted with George and his Air-London and put our records out via Parlophone.
What about the single you made as The Boys?
Yeah, that was for Pye. Kenny Lynch. I can’t remember how we bumped into him but I remember he was looking for a back-up band at the time. He’d seen us play somewhere and wanted us to go and see him. We went along to the studios and he asked us to play a couple of our own songs. We took ‘It Ain't Fair’ and ‘I Want You’. Kenny liked the songs, said they sounded good and they came out on Pye. The record didn’t actually flop, it more kind of slid! It sold a few to be honest, did alright, got our names in the papers etc.
Whose idea was it to change the name from The Boys to The Action?
I seem to remember all of us throwing names around. The Action was put in by Roger or Mick, or both. We kept the name The Boys after Sandra Barry and The Boys and then eventually changed it, as then we were playing some excellent material, moving into the soul field. However, when Mike Court spotted us, we were called Aden Marlow and the Rainchecks!
The second Action single, ‘I’ll Keep Holding On’, was nearly a hit. Did you play that when you appeared on Ready Steady Go?
Um, I don’t know. I’m almost sure we did ‘Land of 1000 Dances’. We might have done two songs on there so the other one would probably have been ‘I’ll Keep Holding On’. I loved that song. The ones that sounded better from us were the ones we loved that most. That’s proved by listening to the songs. In the ones that come across best you can hear the feeling come across. That band was good, I always felt proud standing there singing with them. It was other influences, other things that messed us about in the end, which was a shame. But the band as it stood them, were truly an excellent band.
You changed some the songs you covered, adding your own arrangements to them, didn’t you?
Yes. A lot of bands in this country were taking good American soul songs and simply copying them. That’s never been good enough for me or any of the lads, because we weren’t copyists. We’d take an influence and use it. To a certain degree you are copying, because you’re playing the same song after all, but what we’d always do was take the song and add to it. We’d play around with the song and do our own arrangements so by the time it hint he stage it was worth playing. I used to love The Action’s three part harmonies, the detail in them.
That was you, Pete Watson and Alan King, yes?
Yeah, that was it. They were very good harmony singers, Wally and Bam. And Roger Powell had a very good falsetto voice but we never actually used it as such. We’d mess about with it in the van singing on the way to gigs, Beach Boys songs, ‘Good Vibrations’. Roger could sing very high indeed but I don’t think he could’ve sung and played drums at the same time because he was such a powerful drummer. Mick was always the silent one, stood at the side and didn’t say much. He’s very much the underestimated one of The Action.
‘Never Ever’ was the only original Action song to be an A-side single. Was it George Martin’s decision to release covers?
We were not a hit-singles band really. We wrote album sort of stuff. We had no problems putting songs together, arranging them. And they were good because I would refuse to do anything that wasn’t, or that we didn’t really enjoy playing, or suit us perfectly. But we didn’t really write songs that would be big hits. We were good at what we did. And people, like you, are still writing about The Action today, so how bad is that? I mean, think of all the bands that were going then, how many of them are still remembered now?
The B-side ‘24th Hour’ was a good song too.
Often I can remember exactly when I wrote songs, and ‘24th Hour’ was written in our flat in Chelsea. I just sat there in the bedroom one evening and sang it to myself. It was quite a simple song, you know, ‘I love you darling and want to be with you 24 hours a day’ kind of thing. Wrote it through to the grisly end. It was quite a plonky little tune but I enjoyed it. It was going to have about 60 seconds of a minute, 365 days of the year etc, but in the end I kept it simple to 24 hours of the day.
There was a competition in Rave magazine to design the cover of The Action album. Did that album actually exist at the time?
No, it was a Rikki Farr gee-up. We’d had a bit of success and Rikki was telling people that we were working on an album. He didn’t actually say we were recording one! Anyway, Rikki got this competition idea for the sort of sleeve that the fans wanted to see. We got quite a lot of ideas sent in. Most of them were pretty daft but there were one or two good ones. But there was never an album as such.
I’ve seen some film of The Action performing tow songs by The Ronettes, ‘You Baby’ and ‘Do I Love You’. Were these recorded?
No. George Martin was very tied up with The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper at the time. So we only had time to try and make do. That time was really just spent on the songs that came out, with a couple of exceptions.
What do you remember of Pete Watson leaving?
He didn’t leave – we sacked him. We got fed up with two things. His musical ability was good but he wasn’t getting any better. We were getting more progressive and developing and he wasn’t really up to it. We didn’t really know what to do at the time. We went back to a four piece for a while. Eventually I think it was Mick Evans who got hold of Martin Stones as the new lead guitarist. Martin used to sit on his bum facing east. Whichever way east is when you’re inside a bloody recording studio.
You wrote ‘Something Has Hit Me’ with Nick Jones who at the time was a writer for Melody Maker. How did that come about?
The group lived together in a flat and Nick moved in with us. We were just sitting there one night and Nick says, “Come on, let’s write a song”. I was playing guitar and doing the “bow, bow, bow, bow-bow” bits. It just went from there. We played it to George Martin and he liked it but said it needed a middle-eight, so he helped us with that.
What was it like working with George Martin?
It was always good working with George Martin, he was such a perfectionist. He knocked me out, absolutely knocked me sideways, when we made ‘Shadows and Reflections’. All that on just a four-track machine. I couldn’t believe it, the mixing that he did with it, so clever. A genius. I’ll never forget Paul McCartney coming in when we were doing ‘Shadows and Reflections’. He says, “That sounds like a good song Reggie, I like it”. I just replied, “Oh, thanks a lot Paul…”
You had a residency at The Marquee for a while didn’t you?
We started off supporting The Who at The Marquee but their manager Kit Lambert got us sacked. Kit wanted a band to go on and be a nice little rhythm and blues band, la-di-da, then “Now… The Who!” and everyone would notice the difference. The Who were very good every time they went on in any case but we were good pros and Kit could see that. We were there as The Who tied up their recording deal, so when The Who finished their residency we took over. And we held the record at the time for packing more people in to The Marquee than anyone had done before. How about that? And I’m still bloody skint! I always looked forward to those gigs, they were fantastic and always afterwards we’d go to The Speakeasy. McCartney used to go there and Lennon used to pop in.
You knew Yoko Ono early as well, is that right?
Yeah, I met Yoko at the Middle Earth in Covent Garden. She said “Reggie, you look very much like John Lennon” – which a few people had said before because I guess I do look a bit like him. “I’d really like to meet John” she said. As we had the same producer as The Beatles she wouldn’t leave me alone. It wasn’t me she wanted, it was John. So I said, “Look, if it helps, John does occasionally go to The Speakeasy. I see him there sometimes on a Tuesday night.” The very next Tuesday she was there. Before, she’d had all the flower dresses on, the psychedelic outfit, but in The Speakeasy she had the West End girl look. All smooth and smart. That night Paul and John came in. Paul said hello. And John used to say to me (adopts heavy scouse accent) “Aye, ye Action Man!” That was all he ever used to say, but he spoke to me at least! Yoko stood there dumbfounded, “Wow, you really do know The Beatles.” Within fifteen minutes she was in there and the rest is history.
How did working with George Martin and Parlophone come to an end?
George told us that he was going to make ‘Shadows and Reflections’ our last single. If it didn’t make it big he was going to have to say goodbye. And as much as it may have deserved to be a hit, it just wasn’t. It sold pretty well, got to about number 50 or something, but it didn’t go that high. So that, unfortunately, was that.
You must’ve been disappointed The Action weren’t bigger.
The Action in their day were a superb band. They really did get to quite a prominent position by sheer hard work and a lot of rehearsing and we were all disappointed. Like, when I hear some of the half-arsed crap that’s around it makes me want to cry!
Pete Watson blamed the collapse of The Action on your manager Rikki Farr.
Yeah, I mean, we were working for him in the end without realsising it. Because we were out on the road, ,so busy, either rehearsing, travelling or playing, or collapsed in the corner of a hotel or whatever, done in by it all. We just didn’t time to think about how much tax we should be paying, all that rigamarole. He was busy collecting on our behalf and in the end we had lots of bills that were just not paid. We had writs and all kinds of things out on us. So, we went back and had a meeting between us and Rikki and said enough’s enough and we left him. Shortly afterwards I had an offer from Georgio Gomelsky to work with him at Marmalade, a subsidiary of Polydor records and produce Gary Farr I their old four-track studio in Stratford place. The engineer there was Carlos Olmes. Before that though The Action had gone in that studio with Carlos and made what would have been an album for Marmalade. That had some great stuff on it. I believe you’ve heard it, ‘Look at the View’, ‘Brain’, all those other things.
Yeah, there’s some brilliant stuff on it.
A version of ‘Little Boy’ that was on my Reg King album, ‘Climbing Up The Wall’. ‘Come Around’ was one of my favourites – I play piano on that one. I play a bit of piano and guitar on the Reg King album as well as sing. I produced those tracks, some are good and I like very much, others didn’t quite sound right to me, which is good really because it means you’re never fully satisfied with everything you do. There’s always room for improvement.
Why didn’t Marmalade release that album?
What Georgio wanted for the label was a smash hit single, which he finally got with Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger’s ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’. But he wanted from us, or The Blossom Toes, a good rock hit. From the material that we did he couldn’t see one. I thought ‘Come Around’ could have been a good hit single. It just had a nice feel to it. I’d have liked to have taken that to a proper 16-track studio and really worked on it. Remember we’d just done it on four-track. Georgio liked the stuff but there wasn’t to his mind a commercial single.
You said earlier that Martin Stone used to face east in the recording studio around this time. Is that how it was getting then? All a bit strange?
Er, not really strange, no. I always kept the same mode of operation whenever we recorded as The Action. Not that I was the boss but I kept good tight arrangements for everything we did. However delicate we wished to be, however jazzy of psychedelic or way-out, it had to be structured perfectly. But when Martin came in it did loosen up quite a lot.
What was Ian Whiteman like, who joined around the same time as Martin?
He was good. He always reminded me of the college loony. You know, a bit of a clever arse with a big scarf, get pissed as a fart and pill his trousers down and show you his bum! That type. But he had a lot of good musical sense and knowledge. I credited him with a lot of common sense music wise. A good harmony singer as well.
How did you come to leave The Action?
I got the offer from Georgio Gomelsky to produce Gary Farr. I knew that The Action were stuck in a position where they couldn’t do anything about it. In the end I said to the lads that I was off after we’d fulfilled all our remaining contracts. They understood. If I’d stayed I don’t think it would have lasted much longer. They reformed themselves into Mighty Baby but I kept in touch with them for quite a while, meet up with them for a drink. So much so that I got them to play on the Reg King album. After I left they changed their name, as I said, to Mighty baby because without me it wasn’t The Action, which was a nice pat on the back for me.
What did you think of the Mighty Baby albums?
Strange as it may seem, I never heard their albums. I don’t think I saw them perform because I was so tied up with producing and then working on my own solo album.
What did you do after you finished the Reg King album?
I went on the road with my band for a while and then I just took a long, long holiday. A bloody long holiday in fact! I left the band and just got pissed off with the world in actual fact. The Rock ‘n’ Roll world I mean. I’d just had enough. I hadn’t gone mental, crazy, or anything like that, I just thought “That’s your lot mater” and packed it in. I’d worked my balls off and when you’re badly ripped off in this business it stains you and marks you and leaves you feeling bad. It’s not pleasant but you have to get on with it and sort yourself out.
What were the best bits about your career that you look back on most fondly?
Erm… there were so many best bits. For me, every gig was gold. Like I say, we worked bloody hard and however long the journey, however hard the fight to get a song really, really good, whatever the pain in getting there, the satisfaction in being on that stage and performing in front of people has always been in my heart and always will be. And that’s it, it pays for it all, being on stage.
What was your favourite song The Action did?
I’ve often though it to be ‘Something Has Hit Me’, but then again ‘Wasn’t It You’ is a very good song. I’ve always enjoyed that one but I don’t hink I’m capable of picking one and sayin, “That’s the one – that’s the best we ever did.” There might be some that are techinically speaking better than others but I liked ‘Something Has Hit Me’, ‘Wasn’t It You’, ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ and ‘Shadows and Reflections’.
Would you like to get back into music?
I would certainly like to get a band together. A good back-up band for a gig or a recording session. Just something so I could get into a rehearsal room and rehearse well, go back really to roots. The Action were good because I rehearsed them through and through. I don’t mean I was the boss; we all put our ideas in. But I’d like to get a band now, rehearse them into the ground, get half a dozen songs really good and tight, then record them properly, and with a bit of luck, grab George Martin. Call it Action 2!
Click for further MonkeyPicks Action interviews: Mike Evans, Roger Powell, and Pete Watson.