The Spires, Still Life, Orange – not exactly household band names past or present buzzing around our collective ears. But all have one individual in common – John C Newby. After uploading a copy of Still Life’s 1982 single ‘Away From This Town’ on YouTube along with my comment that the song is “very obscured”, there was a quick reply posted “Not that obscured in my life. I wrote the song with my friend Ian, sang on it played the guitar and several of the keyboard parts.” I stood corrected – which is a nice lesson for us all – something about an opinion being like a backside – everybody has one, ahem. Anyhoo, Mr. Newby was nice enough to grant me an interview (of course after I groveled some and told him how much I’ve always liked the aforementioned song).
Hi Jon, time to clear away the cobwebs and look back a few years – back to the beginning, scary huh? A town called “Louth” in Linconshire, England. What are your faintest and brightest memories growing up there?
The swimming pool, open air, an old barrel wash. If the water was clear it had just been filled up from the spring and would be freezing. If it wasn’t clear it was warmer. Goodness only knows what had warmed it up! Getting a penny to buy some sweets. Singing in church choirs. Not enjoying school. Enjoying listening to music. Still not enjoying school. Going to the local youth club (with a pub just around the corner).
Do you recall the name(s) of the local record shops you frequented as a youth/teen? What music were you into at the time?
The only record shop in town was The Music Centre run by a lady called Bev and they only had a smallish collection of pop/ rock albums. The other place to buy records was Woolworths.
I guess pre ’76 I was in to contemporary rock, Zep, Floyd, Yes , Free, Bowie etc. Then The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Jam arrived, I could actually play these songs!
You play the guitar. Self taught or music school? Any other instruments you’ve played?
Self taught on the guitar having scraped away for some years on a violin and trying a bit of piano along the way. However, my biggest passion is singing, can’t remember a time when I haven’t sung or had music in my head, never needed a walkman or should I say i-pod.
What was the first band you played in?
My first band was called Fine Jade, named after a house I used to lug my guitar and amp past on the way to a friend’s house to rehearse. I think we only ever did one gig where we played the three songs we knew over and over again. I didn’t sing in this band as we couldn’t afford a mic stand.
Tell me about The Spires. Who was in the band and what kind of music did you play?
Named after the biggest thing in town, the 275 ft church spire, the main nucleus of the band were me on guitar and vocals, Andy Dalton on bass with Paul Barratt on drums. Initially we had a second guitarist and vocalist, Malcom Oxborrow who we asked to leave as he wouldn’t shave his beard off! Facial hair wasn’t cool in ’77. Soon after we were joined by backing vocalist Lynne Claricoats. We wrote our own songs and were quite influenced by The Police and Elvis Costello with a dash of punk thrown in for good measure.
Okay, let’s bridge the past and present just a bit and bring you up to when you and Ian Campbell met. Describe the “genesis” of Still Life.
Ian and me met at school or should I say through school friends. I left school aged 16, Ian joined the same school for the sixth form and a mutual friend introduced us. Ian was left “home alone” by his parents and a group of us, all into music, used to spend hours at his house trying to record Barbara Anne before penning our own songs “Do the Brian Jones” and “Bend Over Baby and I’ll Drive You Home”. We became a song writing partnership with Ian supplying the lyrics and me writing the tunes.
Explain your signing to Funzone Productions and how you were approached by Richard Ogden.
For one of “The Spires” recording sessions we asked local “star” Bram Tchaikovsky (ex Motors) to produce us. Richard was Bram’s manager and they both paid for further demos in a London studio. Richard rang soon after to say he liked the songs but not the band. A tough choice with much agonising.
Talk a little about the difference in recording and production of music onto album in the early 80’s vs. today.
Everything was recorded onto tape with all parts played from the beginning to the end of a song. Edits were made by marking the tape with a chinagraph then cutting it with a razor blade before splicing it back together with sticky tape. All synth parts were generally played, sequencers were very basic and MIDI didn’t exist. Every piece of gear had a knob for every function rather than multiple menus. Recording was generally a process of getting a good take rather than recording lots of takes and compiling the finished article.
The 12″ ‘Away From This Town’ is I believe my only vinyl copy of anything on Regard Records. How did you come to sign with Regard? Were there other artists on that label?
We did demos for EMI, spoke to Chrysalis and Regard. We went with Regard as they offered us the best deal, allowing us to keep our publishing rights and were run as a subsidiary of RCA by former CBS MD David Betteridge. Their most well know signing Haysi Fantayzee had a single called “John Wayne is Big Leggy”. Also on their books were a band of pretty boys called Ca Va Ca Va and some time later a band called One the Juggler.
I was pleasantly surprised after reading a little about you that Mathew Seligman, ex-Soft Boy and Anne Dudley (Art of Noise) both played on ‘Away From This Town’. Did you feel you needed 2 bass players?
After Matthew had put his part down it was decided that the bass end of the song needed a bit more oomph to it, so Anne Dudley appeared with a mini moog in an old brown suitcase to double it up.
Was the song written based on personal experience?
The initial lyrics were about a contemporary at school who would go on to inherit his dad’s business, but I think, although you’d have to ask Ian for the definitive answer, that it was just a made up scenario about a boy and a girl.
The b-side is ‘Teenage Fun’. A commentary on youth?
Was Funzone or Regard in high or low promotion mode with this single?
A commentary on youth, teenage angst but no regrets!
I don’t think being Regard’s third release helped our cause, maybe the money had run out, but they didn’t seen to do much with it.
Radio 1 obviously liked what they heard and began playing it on their Round Table programme. What was the “Round Table”? Don’t tell me there were DJ’s named Arthur or Lance on the show.
Round Table was a sort of radio version of Juke Box Jury where a panel of celebs passed comment on new releases and then, I think, voted then a hit or a miss. As far as I know no knights ever appeared on the programme. I seem to remember the singer of The Associates being on the panel when our song was reviewed and it also being a first airing of Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie”.
Why were there not more copies made of the 12″?
I think Regard thought it would take them some time to get airplay for the single but it actually came (and went), very quickly. Too quickly, I think, for them to get any records pressed. I always thought it was quite a good 12” section, compiled by Ian and me at home splicing sections of tape together that we’d brought from the studio and adding further parts over the top.
Other songs you had recorded like ‘Tired of Dancing’, ‘Like A Statue’ and ‘Little Innocent’ were never released. Was this a result of a lack of interest/effort by Regard?
We parted company with Regard soon after recording these songs for them and I think they owned the recordings for some time after.
You left Regard and you and Ian recruited Mark Reeves on keyboards, Tim Bradley on bass and Paul Barratt playing drums. Explain how you guys met and the ensuing chemistry, or lack of henceforth.
Mark was seen by our producer playing in a Brighton band called “Birds With Ears”, Tim answered a Melody Maker ad and Paul had played in all my previous bands. Not sure we ever developed a great chemistry as a band and the whole thing folded when Tim threw a Pukka Pie at Mark in the back of my car. I think I sold the car with the pie still stuck to the back seat!
Your second single, ‘My World’ b/w ‘Passion Play’ was released on Funzone. How did you feel about this pairing on a disc and the end product?
I seem to remember we went into the studio to record “Passion Play” and another song but ended up recording a song we’d just written, “My World” that our manager decided would be our “Vienna”. The end product I felt suffered from a much lower budget, Funzone was a label set up by our manager. I think Ian and me paid for most of the recording of this single from our PRS income.
I found it very interesting that as Still Life you played several gigs in support of Culture Club. Was this a “Funzone” idea or did you have a longing to get close to Boy George? Ok, that was a cheap shot. Sorry, but seriously, how was Boy George?
We played a few gigs with Culture Club but were not actually on tour with them ,so we turned up to the venues in a hired transit van, sitting on deckchairs in the back, in time to watch their road crew sound checking, they turned up just in time to play and left as soon as they came offstage. I never actually met Boy George, although Ian and Mark did speak to him briefly. We did meet the other members of the band, Jon Moss, Roy Hay and Mikey Craig.
‘Passion Play’ was reworked to be the single. What feedback from radio or the public did you get that this was the better song?
Feedback was from a record plugger employed by Funzone and from our manager’s industry friends who felt it was a better choice being more up tempo. Interestingly it was yet another story about a boy and a girl, only this time from Ian’s real life experience.
Nick Griffiths who’s known for his work with Pink Floyd remixed the single. Did you enjoy working with him?
Really enjoyed working with Nick at our local studio The Chapel. We remixed “Passion Play”, recorded “Everyday is Sunday” and “Deep Water” and did about ten other songs as “live” demos specifically for A&M. On the three main tracks Nick got us to use some of the interesting instruments that were lurking in the studio to try and give things a more organic sound, rather than just using the synth sounds we’d employed on our home demo. He also played one of the guitar parts on “Deep Water”.
Then Tim and Paul left the band. Any reasons in particular?
I can’t remember quite why Paul left, probably because like Ian he’s a lifelong friend who I’m in regular contact with and this was just one of many incidents we’ve shared in our lives. Tim, however, left the band to get a job with British Coal so he could get married, just as Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill were locking horns and the industry was about to be destroyed. Bad timing I guess.
Did you feel things were falling apart when Ian decided to move away?
So that was it for Still Life? Are there any future plans to re-release any of your material?
Not to my knowledge, but I have just found some very old 4 track demos, mixes of which I’ll be releasing to Ian!
The next group you were in was Orange. Not the color of the group or the fruit, but the name. Did you have any releases? Was the music style similar to Still Life?
We did some demos but didn’t have any releases. The style was very different to Still Life a funky/bluesy three piece with me on guitar and vocals, Carl Watson (ex Dogs d’Amour) on bass and Simon Hanson (currently with Squeeze) on the drums.
More recently you have moved into teaching. Expound on this career move and how it feeds your passion.
Actually for me this has been a great move. I work as a self-employed guitar tutor mainly in local primary schools and currently have about 150 pupils aged from 5 to 16 and get to strum, sing and share some of my favourite songs with them. I’m also employed by Access to Music at their college in Lincoln where I work with school leavers, teaching them vocals and music tech. I get great pleasure seeing young people developing both as musicians and individuals and feel I’m giving something back to music, something I continue to derive great, possibly ever increasing pleasure from.
You still play in a “covers” band. Do you play any of your own material?
Sadly no, the band is a function band and plays mainly to the same people in different marquees around the Lincolnshire Wolds. However, unlike Still Life, we have developed a great chemistry and thoroughly enjoy our gigs especially the improvised bits and normally have most of those present leaping around to us and then sitting down for a rest when the disco’s on.
Talk about your family. Do you still have the donkey?
Wonkey the donkey is still with us as are the horse, dogs, cat and tortoise. Animals are my wife’s passion. Nearly forgot to mention, we also have two boys, both really into music, but while both have dabbled with guitar it doesn’t seem to be a passion for them.
You now live in Belchford, UK. Ok, I can’t resist, was the town named for a certain indigestion problem that ran rampant at one time?
Actually it’s a small village with only 250 residents famous now for “The Belchford Downhill Challenge”.
I must say I truly enjoyed listening to your new material on your My Space as well as new-er versions of older songs. Readers can listen to and find out more about Still Life on Jon’s Still Life page.