Thursday, 24 May 2012

THE ACTION: ROGER POWELL INTERVIEW (2012)


If ever an excuse was needed to chat about the life and music of mod’s favourite sons The Action, the forthcoming biography of the band In The Lap of The Mods by Ian Hebditch and Jane Shepherd surely provides it.  A decade in the making, the book features contributions from all original band members: Reggie King, Mike Evans, Alan ‘Bam’ King, Pete Watson and Roger Powell; over 200 images including many previously unpublished photographs, flyers, posters and press cuttings; first-hand testimonies from fans and musical contemporaries; a complete guide to their gigs; and an examination of how the band’s mod following at clubs like The Birdcage in Portsmouth and The Marquee in London informed their decision making as a band.  In addition, this year also finally sees the release of an amazing new album on Circle Records of Reggie King’s post-Action demos, Looking For A Dream, recorded with his ex-band mates during the late 60s.

With these hugely exciting projects nearing completion it was a real honour and privilege to be asked by The New Untouchables to share a coffee and croissant with The Action’s drummer Roger Powell.

It was a wonderful surprise to recently see on the In The Lap of The Mods website footage of The Action outside the Royal Albert Hall performing “I’ll Keep Holding On” for the Dick Clark Show.  What do you remember about it?
Not a lot.  It was a bit embarrassing to be honest.  There were all these people throwing paper airplanes and generally just being shitty and we were miming and we used to hate miming.  You couldn’t hear anything and had to pretend you were really getting in to it.  We didn’t really like anything like that; we were pretty anti-social, anti-establishment. 

Do you think that might have been why you didn’t go as far as you could’ve?
Oh yes.  When we played with The Move they were saying you’ve got to do all these outrageous things, tie yourselves to railings and wear outrageous clothes, and we thought that was moving towards show business. 

Did your manager Rikki Farr try to push you into a more commercial market and get a hit? 
Yes, we knew we needed a manager as we needed publicity to get gigs.  We’d built up a really good following on the circuit and could’ve carried on just doing that but Marquee Artists and Rikki obviously wanted to make money and get the right record for us because we were on £100 a night and once you had a hit record you’d be on £500 or more and go to gigs in cars, have roadies and stay in nice hotels.   But none of the records I felt were anything near a hit record or anything edgy enough people would remember.  We never felt comfortable going after a hit even though we went along with it putting records out but they weren’t really doing anything.  I think “I’ll Keep Holding On” got to number 39 in the charts.

Was it disheartening to keep putting records out that didn’t hit?
It wasn’t disheartening because we were there for the music; we weren’t there for the hit record although all the people around us were getting them: The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Who, Spencer Davis Group, Manfred Mann.  It seemed everyone we played with at the Marquee had a hit record except for us.

Why do you think that was?
I think because they were doing original stuff and we were doing covers.  And we never got an original cover.  Something like “Ride Your Pony” would come out in America and someone else would do it in England.  At the time we didn’t consider writing our own songs as there was so many cool records to explore we just enjoyed playing them.  If we’d had an original cover first we might have had a hit record.

“Shadows and Reflections” was a very original cover. 
Yes but it didn’t get played, it didn’t get marketed, no machine behind it.  It was who you know not what you know.  You needed the right contacts, like The Who had with Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp.  They had the contacts, the money, and were right in with all the faces of the time, although I think they would’ve hit anyway.

Having George Martin as your producer must’ve helped.
Being with George at Abbey Road helped but although “I’ll Keep Holding On” was alright and “Never Ever” was okay, you couldn’t do it without the machine behind you.  You needed the publicity, to know people at the BBC to plug it.  And a lot of people bought their records in to the charts.  They’d get a little sniff into the charts, once it was there, the DJs would play it, you’d get on the telly and you’d be away.  So from an initial investment of say ten grand you could make it back.

Mike Evans said when “I’ll Keep Holding On” got to number 39 that was when you needed to start buying up all the records.
At that point there was a bit of a woo-hah about it. Early on you had a list of all the shops they took the chart returns from so you could send boys and girls in to buy a copy of this, two copies of that.  There was many twenty or thirty record shops in London where they took the charts from, so if you knew the shops…

You still managed to get on Ready Steady Go a few times.
I think we did it three times.  We did it with Pete Stringfellow who was bought down from the Mojo Club in Sheffield to compere it and we played a couple of songs live on there.  It was the first time anyone played live on Ready Steady Go and it gave us that appeal for the mods on the circuit and we got a really good following from it.

The book is titled In The Lap of The Mods, is that how it felt?
Someone said it to me that we were in the lap of the mods and I thought it was great, so we used it as the title.  That’s how it felt.  They’d meet us on their scooters and we’d meet them in the pub before the gigs.  We were like mates; there was no differentiation between us and the audience.  We were all regular guys; we didn’t put on any airs and graces.  It was all, “You got any leapers?  Yeah, great”. 

We refer to The Action nowadays as a mod band but did you consider yourselves mods?  Did you think in those terms?
No, I don’t think anybody did.  I don’t think people had this idea early on of being this thing called mod.  It was just smart blokes.  We used to like mohair suits and very smart Italian clothes.  We never really had a concept of what it was.  I would say we were a sort of soul band. 
  
The Small Faces had accounts the length of Carnaby Street for their clothes, where did yours come from?  Did you buy them yourselves?
Yeah, John Stephens, Carnaby Street, all those.  We bought them ourselves.  There’s a picture of us in the book outside Harry Fenton’s, once we’d put the clothes on and had our photograph taken we had to put the clothes back.  “The Action supplied by Harry Fenton” but they never gave us anything.  It was the same with drums.  If I wanted to play Premier drums I had to buy them, you needed a hit record before they’d give you anything.  Keith Moon got a contract with Premier.

Were you mates with Keith Moon and The Who?
Sort of because we did a lot of gigs with them and used to support them for quite a while so we were sort of friendly but they were always a bunch of piss takers so I didn’t really want to spend too much time around them.  I remember at the press release at the Marquee for “Never Ever” Moonie was throwing peanuts at us.   

Your drum kit had a two bass drum set-up which others also used, where did that idea come from?
A lot of people may tell you otherwise but I was definitely the first person to get two bass drums at the Marquee.  Definitely.  Then Moonie got two, Ginger Baker got two, Mitch Mitchell got two, and then most of the other drummers got two.  So then I took mine away and just had the one.  Buddy Rich had two bass drums and I thought it looked really smart, but it was nice with the tambourine as it gave that off-beat.  We didn’t have someone playing the tambourine so when I was playing I didn’t use the hi-hat, just used the bass drum for the off-beat with the tambourine, which was important for The Action’s sound.  You could do some amazing things with the two.

It gave you that good Motown sound.  Where were you hearing those records?
We got them through Mike’s mum who worked for EMI so she used to get us all these obscure records.  We weren’t really into the mainstream Tamla, we were into Stax and really obscure stuff.  There was also the DJ at the Twisted Wheel in Manchester.  We used to go back to his house after the club to hear them and Guy Stephens used to give us stuff.  That’s where we got a lot of the info.  Then we’d learn them and try to put our own little spin on them. 

When you did the all-nighters how many sets were you playing throughout the night?
Sometimes we’d do three sets.  Three quarters of an hour each and usually you’d be the only band.  They’d be records, we’d do a set, more records, another set. 

There must be a lot of songs you played live but didn’t record.
In the book there is a playlist of every song we ever played.  We didn’t repeat songs in a night.  We might occasionally do one twice if it was really popular.  We wouldn’t repeat “Land of a 1000 Dances” or anything but “Needle In A Haystack” we might do twice or “Heatwave” as people loved that.  We had a good lot of songs and we used to rehearse all the time.

The collector’s edition In The Lap of The Mods includes your audition disc of The Temptations’ “Girl (Why Do You Want To Make Me Blue)” you made for Decca.  What do you remember about that and Decca turning you down?
Nothing!  I remember going in to this big executive office at their studios.  We played three songs but only one was taped which was that one.  Jane bought it on eBay.  Mike knew it was genuine but was saying it wasn’t to put off other bidders.  

Did you stay for the all-nighters after you’d played them?
Yes it wasn’t worth going back. They’d finish at six in the morning and we’d stay up and drive back with a little help so we weren’t falling asleep at the wheel. 

Were you taking many drugs?
We were all on leapers most of the time because we were doing all-nighters and otherwise you just couldn’t keep going.  We got busted at the Birdcage for amphetamines.   We were all in the dressing room when suddenly all these policemen came in.  Everyone was dropping stuff.  I think they found some amphetamines in Mike’s pocket and took him away to the police station so we had to go and try getting him bailed out so we could finish the gig. 

How did LSD enter the scene?
In the early days we were one of the first people to take acid because it had just come over from America and we knew people in Pond Street who had gallons of LSD.  These people came over just to turn on London.   And when we were staying with Nick Jones in Bognor this guy came down to turn us on and that was our first acid trip.  I couldn’t believe it.

Was the trip arranged beforehand?
Yes, it was a party and it was about twelve o’clock and this guy was about to arrive.  We didn’t want to trip with all these people around so we thought we’d better try and get rid of them so we put on a crazy Albert Ayler LP and everyone said “I gotta go now”.  He gave us this stuff, I think it was me and Mike, maybe Bam, but not all the band wanted to take it.  I remember sitting there about half an hour later and looked at Mike and he looked at me and we just started laughing and laughing and laughing.  It made life so funny and so stupid.  We tripped all night and went out to the beach.  To be honest it did destroy people, I know a lot of people who didn’t make it. You needed a strong inner core and need to be comfortable with yourself.  We tripped actually on Ready Steady Go, me and Mike and then got spiked afterwards.   We’d gone back to this guy’s house and were coming down from the trip and he gave us some toast and we started freaking out again wondering what was happening. He’d put more LSD on it.  It was only when he told us that we thought thank goodness for that. 

There seemed such a huge shift from the mod days once 1967 arrived.
By ’67 all the underground stuff started happening in London with the UFO Club in Tottenham Court Road.  A lot of the psychedelic bands were self-indulgent nothing.  I didn’t like Pink Floyd or any of those bands, I couldn’t get into it.  The all-nighters at the Roundhouse people were all over the place.  The drugs had changed.  With the old amphetamines everyone liked a chat, wanted to be your mate, it was brilliant.  When people were taking acid it was totally different.  It’s an important thing drugs and culture, they’re a totally interlinked thing.  I mean, but even if the mods weren’t taking uppers they were very chatty, friendly people.  At the Roundhouse people were isolated in their own heads, doing their own thing.   It was like chalk and cheese.   Mod gigs and the Roundhouse, unbelievable difference.  I didn’t like the Roundhouse, it was too self-indulgent. 

So what was it like when you were then playing one song for 45 minutes?
I wouldn’t call it psychedelic by any means.  It was more jazzy, rock-jazz, but I liked the three minute things.  In the space of half an hour you could get loads of brilliant records rather than one long thing.  We lost touch with the club scene after a while, at the end of The Action, and got a bit disenchanted with it.  The early days of The Action were the most exciting, when we were playing the Birdcage and stuff like that.  That was an incredible time in the clubs.  

When The Action got back together in 1998 it was great it was all original members, which is very unusual.  How did that feel?
It had to be.  We wouldn’t have done it otherwise.  It was exciting and it felt like there was unfinished business, that somehow we hadn’t really closed the circle.  We knew it wasn’t going to be the same as we weren’t twenty anymore, so we knew it was going to be different but it was still worth doing as it was nice for people to see us again.  It was awesome.  I’m really pleased we did it as we got to meet people like Jane and Ian, Rob Bailey, yourself.

On some of the reunion shows you included a sax player and percussion; would you have liked to have had a Hammond player or a sax player back in the day?
I think so, it would have been great.  That’s what I liked about Jimmy James and The Vagabonds; they had a nice big fat sound with an organist and a sax but the vocals were the main thing with The Action. 

Did you help arrange the vocals harmonies? 
Oh no, I wasn’t musical at all.  Reg used to say, “Just shut up and bang the bloody drums!”  People used to call him Reg, and he’d say “Mister King, to you”.

Reggie was quite a character.
Reg was always a bit of wild card.  He just started going funny, a bit out of control, towards the end of The Action days.  We were playing a gig at the Blue Lagoon and all of a sudden Reg started climbing up this palm tree.  The bouncers came up, Reg jumped off the tree, we’re still playing and the bouncers are chasing him around the audience whilst he’s still singing.  “You’ll never play here again!”  Then he got arrested on the M1 at the Blue Boar services.  We’d eaten and had come out and were sitting in the van, ready to go, and it was “Where’s Reg?”  We looked around, couldn’t find him and twenty minutes later this policeman comes up and knocks on the window.  “Do you know Reg King?  He’s just been arrested for threatening someone with a plastic knife”.  I don’t know what it was about, something about where he wanted to eat his egg and chips.  Eventually we just decided, a sort of mutual thing, to move on.  But he got his head together a bit and we worked with him on his album.  The trouble was once we started doing stuff like John Coltrane’s “India” what was he going to do while we played that for half an hour?  Stand there and go “Elephants… Elephants”?     

Did you think Reg leaving would give the band more freedom or did you think that was going to be the end?
No, you just go through a transition you don’t think “oh I’m changing now into something else”.    It was very subtle.  It’s only when you look back in retrospect you realise you’ve changed from A to B.  So it didn’t affect us that much.  After Reg, Rod Stewart was going to join The Action at one point.  We knew him quite well and when Reg didn’t make a gig at the Twisted Wheel Rod sang a few songs with us.  But it didn’t materialise as he then got into the Faces as they’d had some hits and were bigger than we were.  We also tried to get the organist Keith Emerson.  I went round to his flat to ask him if he’d be interested and he said he would’ve been but was just joining The Nice.  We got Ian Whiteman and Martin Stone in and become more of a jazz-funk-jamming band.

How did that go down with your audience?
It depended where we played.  Some people were bored with it; some people sort of liked it.  We got to point where we didn’t know where we were and the audience didn’t know quite what we were doing.  It took us a bit of time to find our direction with Mighty Baby when we started writing our own stuff.

How long did you keep The Action name after Reg left?
About six months I think.  It was a bit of a mess really.  We wanted to somehow change.  Pete Watson left, even when Reg was still with us people would come up to us at gigs and say “Oi, you’re not The Action”, which was fair enough really because we were doing new stuff we’d written and all wearing Granny Takes A Trip suits.  It was a transition period.  We started getting into West Coast, Captain Beefheart, Love.  Things like “Dustbin Full of Rubbish” which Ian Whiteman wrote was still The Action, but it wasn’t The Action.  We didn’t have a new name basically until we went with John Hurd at Head Records and we said we had to change the name and he came up with Mighty Baby, which I wasn’t that keen on as it felt a bit silly but in retrospect it was all right and we did a couple of albums.

Do you look back at the periods of The Action and Mighty Baby differently or is it one continuous thing?
No, as different lives, definitely.  The Action was very exciting.  The whole scene, the music, the atmosphere in the clubs was brilliant. As soon as you walked in those clubs, the Marquee, the Birdcage, you could feel people were really into it.  With Mighty Baby you had to create an atmosphere with the music, you really had to win them over, which was more difficult.  With Mighty Baby we were searching, it was a time of introspection and because we’d all downed massive amounts of LSD what we thought was real wasn’t real.  Once you’d taken acid, tables were like vibrating with energy and flowers were absolutely stunning, you know.  You have to rethink totally who you are and what life’s about.  We became like travelling philosophers.  I was listening to one of the Mighty Baby tracks on the train coming down, “Tasting The Life”, which is all about seeking, searching, holy islands.  Whenever we’d do gigs as Mighty Baby if there was a castle we’d go there, Stonehenge we’d stop there, so we were always seeking some meaning in life through our music.  In Mighty Baby we were analysing life, who we were.  In The Action we weren’t, we were just being the life.  

For other MonkeyPicks interviews with The Action see:

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this - awesome, but then pretty much anything on/by/about The Action is perfect by me. You're one lucky man to get the interview and I have to say that it's great to hear the story from Roger's perspective - I'm zo looking forward to the book. Whilst its a shame that they never got their due they never fade either. Off to play Rolled Gold now.....

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  2. Very lucky indeed. Roger was a generous interviewee and lovely chap. Interesting how he viewed The Action firmly in the club soul field with contemporaries like Jimmy James & The Vagabonds and he also mentioned the Alan Bown Set. That's not quite how I saw them before despite the songs they did. Also liked how he contrasted that period to just a few years later and how rapidly things changed. Top man.

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  3. Once again sir I am gobsmacked! Well done!

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