John’s “Masters Of Middle Earth”


John (guitarist and vocalist of Masters of Middle Earth) wrote an account of the formation of the band and his entrance into the Carlisle punk scene back in 85. It s an entertaining story, mentioning people we know and the bands that were around Carlisle in the 80s (it is very strange to see oneself in print and to be seen through the eyes of someone else!).
This account can be played out all over the UK I guess, not the ‘rock and roll life style’ of movies but empty halls and a crap sound! But it is rock and roll is nt it?
I include the full account here, but I have also inserted it in the MME page along with photos and mp3s. Nice-one John…

“In autumn 1985, I joined a band with some old friends. I played guitar for a couple of weeks, but it was soon obvious that my influence was not wanted. They didn’t like distortion. I was always too loud, even when my amp was barely ticking over. They were doing Smiths-y sort of things and new wave covers, and didn’t want my Steve Jones influence spoiling things. I didn’t bring my guitar to the third practice and had a go at singing instead. They’d start playing, I’d start singing, they’d stop and tell me to sing it more like Morrissey (we actually practised Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now). The guitarist took over as singer. At the fourth practice I just stood and listened. I didn’t go to the fifth. It was then that the bass player told me that I’d only been invited along so he could get a lift off my Dad.

Later that year I answered an advert I’d seen in the Pink Panther record shop. Someone called Kevin wanted to start a band. Even better, he was into the same bands as me. He seemed an affable sort, and came round to jam in my attic bedroom that Sunday afternoon. I was surprised when I met him for the first time. He wore a brown suit and a Barber jacket, and instead of the spiky punk hairstyle I was expecting, he had curly light brown hair. He brought a black left-handed Antoria Les Paul and a WEM combo. I had a Westone Thunder 1A guitar, a Vox Escort combo and a cheap echo unit. We started off by establishing some common ground – lots of songs from the first Clash album, maybe some Pistols and Damned. We also tried out a couple of originals. Kevin preferred a clean guitar sound, and liked to play on the off beats, like ska.

The first of my songs that we learned was called Ronald’s Germany (also USA Gestapo), a sort of homage to a Ramones song about Ronald Reagan laying a wreath on some SS graves. At the time I believed that to be in a proper punk band you had to sing with a cockney accent and you had to have a song about Nazi Germany. My Dad had had the house re-wired earlier that year by some ex-members of a local band called The Thin Yoghurts. I think they had a single called Larry Grayson’s Joining The Gestapo, which had been played by John Peel. I’d obviously decided that this was a good enough idea to use myself!

My other song had a Killing Joke-inspired guitar riff (let down by a wimpy chorus) and was called Attack. The words were about my former bandmates, and were partially written by me with large parts stolen from songs by the Sex Pistols and Crass (and in the case of the entire last verse, an Anti-Nowhere League song). Kevin had a couple of songs, You Can See Why and Vive La Resistance. He said he had a friend who could play bass.

A week later he came round with Smiddy (Pete Smith). He was slightly older than me and played a semi-acoustic bass that refused to stay in tune. He and Kevin had been in a band called the Afterbirths a while before. By the end of our second practice we had about 8 songs. Smiddy was a fan of the Damned, which added a whole new dimension to our sound.
I bought a £10 Dixon’s microphone which we attached to a broom handle with insulating tape and jammed between two chairs to make a mic stand. We all brought a few favourite covers to practices. Pete chose Don’t Cry Wolf by The Damned and Silver Machine by Hawkwind. Kevin had All Or Nothing by The Small Faces, and I had Breaking The Law by Judas Priest (and Spinning Round by Red Lorry Yellow Lorry but we quickly ditched it). We used a basic pre-set drum machine to keep us (roughly) in time. It was raw, amateurish and noisy, but I loved it. My cousin came up from London to visit when we first started. He said we sounded like Joy Division, although I couldn’t hear it myself. (nb: after hearing Kevin’s recordings from 1985, I think my guitar does sound a bit like Joy Division’s, overdriven with a fast echo).

I went to see my former band practising a few weeks later. They sounded very professional although I thought about half their original songs were forgettable and they relied too heavily on covers. When I reported back to my own band (now christened The Masters Of Middle Earth after the biography of J.R.R. Tolkien), I said they were like the Smiths. This was about the worst insult I could come up with when I was 15!

So… MME had been practising for a couple of months. We had by now acquired a couple of drums (propped up on stools) and a drummer called Pug. We were ready for our first gig! Stars & Stripes was a club at the bottom of Botchergate popular with local punks, “sweaties” and “freaks” according to the kids at my school. It had something of a reputation for trouble, and was run with an iron fist by a man called Les Griffiths. As an avid reader of Sounds, I felt we were going to be like the Pistols at the 100 Club, and that people would go misty-eyed when they talked about how they’d seen us at Stars & Stripes on December 30th 1985!

In the end people did talk about our performance, though not in quite the glowing terms I’d imagined. In the morning I dyed my hair black, but didn’t quite wash all the dye out. Over the course of the day the remains of the dye ran, leaving black streaks on my neck and forehead. That afternoon I went for a walk round town with Kevin. We visited his grandparents, then went round to meet some lads called Grebo and Duncan. I was a bit anxious when he said they lived on Raffles Avenue, but I needn’t have worried as I remember getting a warm welcome from them and their Mum. They did, however, have two large german shepherds which made me feel nervous. I spent a lot of time looking up at the ceiling trying to avoid eye contact with them, as every time I glanced at them they would move a bit closer as if they were hunting me!

Later on we met Smiddy for drinks at the Crown (80p a pint), a pub opposite Stars & Stripes, and I had my first ever experience of social drinking. By the time we “hit the stage” I was in the late stages of intoxication and I felt I was unstoppable. I turned the borrowed Marshall amp up as loud as it would go, unleashing a cacophony of squalling feedback. Our first song was Ronald’s Germany. Where once we had sounded like a second-rate punk band, we now sounded like a second-rate Jesus & Mary Chain with me shouting at the top of my voice over the top of it because I couldn’t hear myself. The sound engineer duly ran on stage and turned the noise down. I turned it back up again. I also remember my guitar cable getting caught in my wah pedal so I couldn’t move it up and down during the solo. During the second song (Attack) I suddenly found myself unable to strum. I looked down and saw that my plectrum had snapped into a hook shape and was catching on the strings. I used my thumb for the rest of the gig. I can’t remember what song came next, but I remember that we had to stop and start again because we were out of time with each other. As we were about to start Vive La Resistance they told us to stop. I don’t think any of us spoke to each other for the rest of the evening. All I remember about the rest of the night was The Beguiled playing a song called Dirty Old Bastard, the guitarist from Them Philistines throwing his guitar (a Shergold Masquerader) on the floor at the end of their set, the double bass player of the Red Alligatorz shouting at a rubber chicken and myself downing a pint of cider and black. If I had been very drunk at 8pm, by 3am I was a lost cause. I walked home with my two guitars and our Crass-style banner (which we never used). It was cold, drizzling and windy. A local punk lad known as Panhead walked with me as far as Rosehill, and we talked about Crass and Conflict. When I got home my Dad was waiting up for me. A few hours later I had to get up and do my paper round, still drunk.

Later that day I realised that I’d left my guitar strap behind at Stars & Stripes, which meant that I had to go back and ask Les if anyone had found it. He was very intimidating, looming over me and my friend, smacking a broken drumstick on the bar and telling me I had a cheek coming into his club to ask for it back. I think he might have been joking, but it was difficult to tell. I got the strap back and was still using it 25 years later. (nb: Unfortunately it got damp and perished in 2009. I had it cremated.)

We went back to practising a few days later as if nothing had happened. Pug never came back, so we tried out a few other drummers. A lad called Brads came along one week. He was pretty good, but never came back. Panhead had a go but didn’t seem to have much instinct for rhythm, nor did my schoolfriend Mark Watson (who went red in the face and broke the wooden spoons I gave him instead of sticks). Even Kevin stopped playing guitar and drummed a few times. Then one week I saw an advert in the Pink Panther for a drummer called Joseph (Nyczaj). He had a kit, so we had to have him! Unfortunately he had the same problem with rhythm as Panhead and Mark Watson, but we chose to persevere. At some point I traded my Vox amp in for a louder Fender amp. Kevin seemed to drift away when Joseph joined. It may have been that my new amp was too loud for him or that he preferred busking with another band called the Red Alligatorz. I don’t think he ever actually quit as such, and he often came along to offer his support at future gigs.

Joseph made improvements. He discovered a drum pattern he could play reasonably well and used it on every song. In the summer of 1986 we got our second gig at Carlisle Cricket Club, as support to my old band (now called the f-pens). The venue was absolutely packed (mostly with under-age drinkers). People were being turned away at the door and going round the back to climb in through the kitchen window. A duo called Flour went on first. They had terrible sound problems. Their singer (Bully) was holding the microphone in such a way that it howled with uncontrollable feedback and the guitarist (Sean) would stop playing his guitar every time it happened to shout at him. I don’t think they were on for long.
We were on next, with an introduction from Nick Beale. We began the set with Ronald’s Germany, followed by a new song called Pop Stars, which I dedicated to The Beguiled. I didn’t know it at the time, but the riff was stolen from Killing Joke’s Pssyche. It was remarkably short. We played more of Pete’s songs than mine. I spent most of the gig with my back to the audience and decided to change guitars half way through our set (I thought it looked professional). We ended with a medley of Silver Machine and Wild Thing. I broke a few strings and it was over. The bass player of the f-pens came running over to say we’d blown them off, and we felt like stars!!! I may have been a bit drunk as I only have a dim recollection of the rest of the evening. The f-pens played their set twice.

After we had finished, the singer of The Beguiled (Jav) asked if I could play guitar for them. It was just to stand in for a week, playing one song a night at a week-long event called the Community Show at Carlisle Market Hall. I leapt at the chance as I loved the Beguiled at the time. They were a loud and fast, a mix of The Ramones, The Damned, Anti-Nowhere League and Motorhead. I hung out with Jav on the saturday after the Cricket Club. He made me look a bit more punk with studded belts etc. I rehearsed with them on the Sunday in their bass player’s (Phil Sharp) shed in Glasson. The rehearsal was difficult. I was in awe of them and a bit scared of their guitarist (Paul Charters), whose West Cumbrian accent was so broad that I couldn’t understand anything he said. They played their set and I attempted to keep up – this was very hard as I didn’t know their songs very well (or at all), and I wasn’t used to playing at 100mph. Somehow I managed to impress them and we learned a song called Suicide Boy for the Community Show. It was perfect for me as it was slower than their usual material and quite easy to play. I had to ad lib the guitar solo, which was nerve-wracking. One day later and I was officially a (temporary) member of The Beguiled!

The Community Show was great fun. People from all walks of life and of all ages took part and created a historical document of life in Carlisle over the years, by decades. Each decade was introduced by a percussive intro played by girls from different local schools. This intro was our cue. On the first night a guy called Charlie Brown set Duncan’s kit up the wrong way round so he had to quickly correct it during the intro. I bought fake blood capsules (which tasted horrible) to add a theatrical element. For the first couple of nights I played a Squier Katana (a sort of cut-off Flying V) but it wouldn’t stay in tune. I changed to my trusty Westone for the rest of the week (with it’s built in distortion for added noise).There was usually a hail of spit from the audience during our song, until the director put a stop to it. There was a lot of waiting around to go on, so I didn’t get to see a lot of the show. There were people with giant papier mache heads going on a hunt, the Red Alligatorz did the 1950’s segment, and some of the performers got a bit over-excited on the last night and bared their arses during the grand finale.

When the Community Show was over it felt like all the air had been sucked out of me. I called Smiddy and Joseph and we started practising again. We didn’t know it at the time, but the Cricket Club was to be our zenith. We were improving as songwriters, and had dropped most of our older songs. Even so, we were still producing an awful lot of chaff. Our one surviving practice tape shows a glimmer of what was to come in “Carlisle Song”, which was my best to date. I had been introduced to a band called Husker Du by a lad I met at the Community Show and had become a bit obsessed by them, as well as The Beguiled and thrash punk/metal in general. The first song on the tape, Road Warrior was an homage to Mad Max with a guitar riff ripped off Deadly Skies by Husker Du. I wanted it to be really fast, but Joseph couldn’t do fast. Another song, Holy War, was co-written by Robert Bulman of Flour and was more Crass-inspired. The tune may have been lifted from Tube Disaster by Flux Of Pink Indians. Smiddy had a new song called Losing My Mind. Originally it was pretty standard sludgy punk, but changed radically over time into a song we knew as “The Girly One”. There are a couple of covers, Purple Haze and Silver Machine segued together with silly noises from my echo chamber. I had discovered that you could make all sorts of weird noises and runaway feedback by randomly adjusting the rate and repeat knobs. It became an integral part of our sound for a while.

A few months later I booked St. Aidan’s church hall for a gig. I wanted the f-pens to play as well, but they had either split up or didn’t want to do it. I asked a local punk band to play. They were older than us, but they had amps we could borrow. I printed loads of posters and put them up all over town/school etc. With a 50p admission fee I thought that people would flock to see us… as usual I was wrong. Hardly anyone turned up, just a few of Smiddy and Joseph’s friends, although some local punks turned up for the support band. There were quite a few people I didn’t recognise, some of whom were smoking dope in the entrance when I got there. As soon as the support finished, their audience left with them (I think The Exploited were playing at Stars & Stripes). I asked a girl I recognised from the Community Show (who turned out to be Smiddy’s cousin) to hit the record button on my tape recorder when we started playing. Unfortunately she forgot, thus losing an important part of Carlisle’s musical history. A punk from Brampton called Mike stayed until the end, as did Kevin, who sat in front of the stage on an old chair. Mike provided much needed lager during our performance, some of which got sprayed around during the silly noises part of Purple Haze etc. Kevin joined us on stage for a rendition of Teenage Kicks at the end. It was a bit of a depressing night that I tried to make as enjoyable as possible. I was further deflated when I had to hand over the proceeds from ticket sales to the caretaker and there wasn’t enough to cover the hire of the hall. A few days later he rang to tell me that several items of ecclesiastical clothing and a silver cross had been taken and I would have to pay for them. He never called again, so perhaps they were returned? I don’t know. I do know that bands have never been allowed to play or practice there since.

One afternoon I was walking through Scotby Village and I noticed that the door to the youth club was open. I had enjoyed going to the youth club when I was about 10 or 11. They used to have an old record player that you could put a stack of singles in, mostly punk and ska. I remember the artex on the walls that would cut your elbows if you were careless playing pool, a poster of Marc Bolan and Friggin’ In The Riggin’ being played an awful lot. With these happy memories in mind I felt enthused enough to offer our services as a band. Surely the youth of Scotby would love to have a real, live punk band perfiorm for them? Crass used to play unusual venues, I reasoned, so why not us? The lady in charge didn’t seem very interested. I didn’t expect to hear from her again. I was wrong.

At about the same time (September 1986) I started 6th form at school. A friend of mine called Susan Finlay told me she had a cousin who had just started a promotions company, and he might be interested in us. I went to see him at his office on a tiny cobbled lane off Lowther Street. He wanted to see us play, and by chance the lady from the youth club had called me back a few nights before and asked us to play. I gave him the details and didn’t expect to see him again.

The youth club gig came soon enough. When we got there we were somewhat perturbed to see that it was full of small children and toddlers playing with toys. We were pleased to find out that the older kids were due in an hour. We set up our gear (with one massively overloaded power socket bristling with plugs and adaptors) and raised our Crass-style banner (now with the legend “your music’s dead, so long live ours!” stencilled on, Crass-style). There was no sign of Smiddy, however, and as time went on the little kids went home and the older ones came in. They were not the receptive audience of angst-ridden teenagers I’d hoped for. In fact I don’t think any of them were teenagers at all. They seemed to be in the 8-12 age range, and they were not happy to see us. As usual I jollied things along as if nothing was wrong. Smiddy turned up at the last minute, straight from work and totally pissed off. He brought along a multi-socket extension so we didn’t electrocute ourselves or burn the place down, and gave me a good telling off for doing something so stupid and dangerous. Finally, with a sense of great stoicism in the face of insurmountable odds, we started playing. The kids sat sullen-faced and emanating bad vibes for the duration of our set, as if it was a punishment they had to endure for something they’d done wrong. I felt my spirits lift slightly when I saw a couple of my friends walk in. I launched into Pop Stars with a new found enthusiasm borne of adversity and broke my low E on the first chord of the first chorus. I didn’t have a spare. It completely threw me and I lost all enthusiasm after that. I remember asking them to get up and dance and hearing someone say “how can we dance to this?” The man from the promotions company turned up as we were playing, stayed for a few songs and left without a word. We ended with the “psychedelic medley”. I got a bit angry, made some mad noises with the tremolo arm and threw my guitar on the floor. Nobody cheered. I heard one brave soul shout “you’re a poser!” Another depressing night. We snuck off to the pub, but they wouldn’t serve us so we had to have tap water and peanuts.

And yet we carried on… Joseph got us a gig at his school (Lochinvar, Longtown) in December. I was starting to get the feeling he wasn’t into the music – he had told a friend that he thought punk was dead and really just wanted to do rock covers and chart stuff. He was also moonlighting with Flour, who he seemed happier with. With this in mind I had jotted down the number of a drummer advertising in the Pink Panther, just in case. Still, he seemed enthusiastic about the school show so we went ahead.

There was something in the air that night, a bad feeling. It didn’t bode well. I was unable to contact Smiddy, and when he eventually got in touch he wanted to cancel. He was expecting another youth club debacle. I managed to talk him round. Brads came along to see us. For the first time we had “a look” – black leather bikers jackets and jeans. Not particularly original, but it felt good. We set up and started playing soon after. We played well and sounded better than we ever had before. I could hear myself sing, so I didn’t have to shout. I felt that I was in fine voice. The audience cheered politely. We played Carlisle Song, Whitehouse Blues and a couple of others. We had planned to play more, but Smiddy introduced Whitehouse Blues as being for MI5 and as the song ended, the curtains began to close. I couldn’t understand it, we were doing well. In the confusion I made a few harmless remarks, ending with “we’re not coming back”. I said it rather meekly, almost apologetically, but it was misconstrued as being inflammatory. There was a low murmur from the crowd. It grew louder and was followed by a load of people bursting through the curtains to confront us. “We don’t want you back, you’re shit!” said one young man. Joseph’s mum came and had a go too: “I’m not having you causing a riot!” Other people were more understanding and conciliatory. They told me the lads who’d stormed the stage were troublemakers who liked to sniff petrol.

The next day I got the call from Joseph. He was going to join a “show band” and didn’t want to play with MME anymore. It was obvious his mum had put him up to it. I still hadn’t realised my faux pas from the night before. I thought we had really improved. I put the phone down and felt sad for a moment. Then I called the number on the scrap of paper from the Pink Panther.

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