Reissues can be a tricky affair: as Captain Oi! founder Mark Brennan once observed, it's far easier to get a bad name than a good one. This isn't the case with Mike Darby and his operation, Bristol Archive Records, which aims to document the city's leading punk, post-punk and reggae lights from 1977 onwards. Having interviewed and/or spoken to guitarist Nick Sheppard, and drummer Daniel Swan, I naturally had to inquire a bit more closely after eyeballing the Cortinas' "MK I" release on the label's website, www.bristolarchiverecords.com.
For '77 buffs, the Cortinas definitely rank among the archetypal "Here today, gone next year" bands. Formed in 1976, the boys were barely out of their mid-teens before catching the proverbial big break in January 1977 as the Stranglers' support at London's famed Roxy Club. By June, they'd issued their first classic 45 ("Fascist Dictator"/"Television Families"), with the second ("Defiant Pose"/"Independence") capping a triumphant year in December.
Of course, that's exactly when things started coming unglued. On joining the Clash at CBS Records, the band released its only album, TRUE ROMANCES (1978), which tamped down the original unbounded energy for a poppier, more R&B-ish approach (though it's not an unbridled disaster, at least to these ears). Disillusioned with the outcome, the band broke up before the album appeared that fall (though not without the boys dutifully doing a couple of "last hurrah" shows to pay bills).
That's how the party line usually runs, but Bristol Archive's release of the live album, "FOR FUCK'S SAKE PLYMOUTH" -- taped in November '77 -- confirmed long-held sneaking suspicions that was more to the story, and "MK. I" affirms that notion. Of course, both singles are included on this 14-track release, along with seven TRUE ROMANCE demos that show a rougher edge that could have captured adequately...if only the songs had been left alone!
Other highlights include two songs that never got on vinyl, "Justice," and the self-explanatory "I Don't Want To Compromise" -- which would have made an ideal third single -- and rawer-than-raw takes of "Slow Down," and an echo-laden version of "Television Families," hailing from Bristol's own GBH Studios (more on that momentarily).
Boasting stunning black 'n' white back cover shots by Stephen Swan (especially the back cover, snapped during "Fascist Dictator"'s March 1977 recording at Polydor Studios), this 500-copy limited edition will definitely hit all the right notes with anyone remotely interested in that era. Suitably fired up, I emailed two batches of questions to Mike, and these are his replies (7/22 and 8/2/10), presented in the same spirit of his releases.
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): For those of us who know about Nick Sheppard and company, it's exciting to see so much unheard material tumble out (as "For Fuck's Sake, Plymouth" showed). What was the major impetus for putting out this particular record?
MIKE DARBY (DB): Bristol Archive Records was launched to re-release hidden gems, forgotten classics, previously unreleased demos from people who have made up the music scene over the years and should never be forgotten. The label is about the people as much as the music -- THE CORTINAS were the leaders, the first, the trendsetters, the role models the Bristol gods if you like of the 1976/77 scene -- they paved the way for others, including me, to follow, so it's only right and correct that their album should be the first Vinyl release from the Archive. We are very proud to have been given permission to rerelease their music.
CR: What was the source material for the demos, and did they require any special restorative processes (e.g., "baking 'em in the oven," as we've heard done with so many tapes?)
MD: The tracks from Step Forward came directly off the vinyl and were then remastered. The live tracks came from a dodgy old cassette found in Steve Street's attic.
The demo album tracks came from a 1/4-inch Ampex tape that Dexter gave Steve Street at a family party, it didn't need baking in the transfer stage but it did get ruined when going through the process and the tape unwound (fortunately the tracks transferred OK). The three previously unreleased tunes came from a 1/4-inch copy of the original 1/4-inch kept by Simon Edwards and copied in 1977 from GBH Studios.
CR: Who is Stephen Street, and what role did he play in the Cortinas' history? I think his tracks are among the most interesting and/or revelatory on this record...is he still active behind the boards today?
MD: Steve Street started GBH Studios with Andrew Peters in 1977, took it over in 1979 and then recorded virtually every Bristol band from then until the late '80s. Then sold the studio and went to work as the in-house engineer at the Woolhall -- Tears For Fears' studio. Steve was probably the most influential person in the whole history of early Bristol Punk and post-punk.
CR: The Cortinas also did a Peel session between those great early singles and the TRUE ROMANCES album: I imagine that getting it out of Auntie Beeb's hands might be tough, but was any thought given to that scenario?
MD: This session will appear on a Cherry red Anthology CD later in the year. the sleeve notes are being worked at the moment, Shane Baldwin is writting them.
CR: Is there any other unreleased material that might see the light of day (especially since the Peel session contains at least one other title I haven't run across before, "Having It")?
MD: There is one other demo that I have copies of but the tunes arn't probably played well enough to be included on anything.
CR: As we all know, TRUE ROMANCES came across as a bit of a shock to the fans back home -- what accounts for the reception?
MD: I only bought the two singles so can't comment. The impression I get from Nick is that CBS tried to do the usual major label thing and change the band to make them more pop.
CR: A bit speculative, I suppose, but take a stab, if you like -- what do you think the Cortinas would have done, had their recording experience been a bit more productive for them?
MD: Not sure, but dealing with them can be like dealing with a band that is still active. They appear very close, very much a gang, very cynical about everything.
CR: A lot of bands were filmed during the original '77 explosion. Does anything exist from the Cortinas?
MD: No footage that I know about.
CR: Seems like we had a pretty supportive local (TV) station, as well, in RPM -- who's that blond frizzy-haired guy seen doing the painstaking interviews on Youtube (such as the Spics?
MD: Andy Batten Foster, who later became a BBC 1 DJ. Nice guy, recently retired, I've had a couple of meetings with him. At the time he wasn't thought of as especially cool or popular, but when you look back, he did an enormous amount for the local bands and should deserve special recognition.
CR: As I recall from your own interview, you played in a band yourself -- did you find the Cortinas an influence, in terms of, "Wow, they've done it, so can I"? How did Bristol fare, compared to the bigger scenes of London, and Manchester?
MD: My band started in 1980 so, no, The Cortinas weren't an influence as The Rimshots was a Mod band...but me my brother had bought "Fascist Dictator" and "Defiant Pose" in 1977, so we were aware of the brilliance of the Cortinas.
The Bristol scene is and was completely different than everywhere else in the country. More Art than Punk, more laid back than anywhere on the planet, more lazy and secretive, more middle class and more money. A great place to live, a great place to hang out. A great place to talk about world domination and artistic creativity.
Back in 1977 and right through to the mid-'80s there was no infrastructure, no management, no music business. If the kids or the bands wanted to take it seriously they had to move to London, London would never come to Bristol! The only thing that came to Bristol was drugs. The Cortinas were the odd exception - thats probably why they were and are so important to the history of Bristol music.
CR: Has the city of Bristol itself done anything to officially acknowledge the '77 era, and -- in particular -- the Cortinas' contribution to it, given how well-known they are among punk and non-punk collectors' circles?
MD: No and there is no chance -- Bristol is all about Trip-Hop (it's almost as if the early punk stuff didnt exist or have any value except for The Pop Group, who have just reformed - of course, they were mates with The Cortinas.
CR: From your perspective, what does this release say about the Cortinas' legacy? A lot of people have written that the band helped put Bristol on the map during the '77 era -- true?
MD: Completely 110% true. Loads of other bands would have started by seeing The Cortinas, The Pigs are a 1977 example ( their album will be released in October 2010).
Nick Sheppard in particular paved the way, made the grade, had the balls but always supported the Bristol scene and his Bristol mates. Nick was in the following bands, all of which were brilliant and can be found at www.bristolarchiverecords.com:
HEAD...and, of course, THE CLASH.
Check this quote from Mark Stewart - (The Pop Group) as it think it says it all:
"Bristol’s famous for many things like Chatterton the poet, Cary Grant and now the Archive can be added to fellow locals ‘Blackbeard's the Pirate's chest’, as a true treasure trove of wonders.
"Bristol Boys make more noise..."
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