Bedraggled Part 5

Kevin McDermott

Bedraggled Part V

by Marco Rossi

So, if you’ve been following this exceptionally fitful, decade-straddling chronicle, let me first of all warmly commend your persistence. You may recall that when we last checked in with each other, the members of KMO were standing in a manner that ’80s youth would have enviously described as ‘big leggy’ on an iron staircase behind the Hammersmith Odeon, as I knew it then and doggedly continue to refer to it despite the fact that it has changed its name in the interim more often than Puff Daddy, the diddy. As I teasingly indicated last time, the next item on our agenda was Europe: but before we flit over there, I should really address a couple of points. Or one, at least.

Reading back over Bedraggled IV, this piece’s fustian precursor, it strikes me that I didn’t really put across how it actually felt to be in the band. My default setting is taking the piss – partly an inbuilt defence mechanism, partly a sincere acknowledgement of my limitless shortcomings – but as a component of that unit, whenever and wherever we tumbled onto a stage and initiated the rammy* in D that prefaced ‘Statue To A Stone’, I felt pretty fucking invincible.

*‘Stramash’ is also applicable.

We were playing Kevin’s considered, insightful songs, for a kick-off: gold-plated get-out-of-jail-free cards when so many of our peers were in effect trading handfuls of Bazooka Joes. Jimbo was already a universe-class drum deity even as a teenager, Steph offset the zen directness of his bass playing with pitch-perfect high harmonies, and Kevin himself must have put the fear of Yahweh into those uninitiated souls who espied his acoustic guitar and anticipated a cosy, crochet-friendly evening of apologetic, non-threatening ‘singer-songwriter’ fare. He strummed an actual hole into the soundboard of each of his Takamine guitars. He used them as racquets, clouting mic stands aside. Not unlike Iggy, he was (and remains) a lightning rod for heightened audience emotions, a cathartic conduit, which is why KMO gigs routinely took on the frenzied air of religious conversions. Rugby conversions, sometimes. It was loud, unruly and exultant. If you recall the bewildered fanzine editor I mentioned in Bedraggled IV, who didn’t know why he liked us despite our being a ‘major-label band’, perhaps he recognised the fact that we all lost ourselves unconditionally in the music, but remained tight – both as a performing entity and as pals.

And in the middle of the tumult, Kevin would drop in something like ‘Angel’, a beacon of legitimate, unsentimental, matter-of-fact sensitivity: and you’d hear knees buckle all the way to the back wall.

Geek alert

As an adjunct to the main thrust of the Bedraggled narrative and before we properly pick up the reins once more, here’s an extraordinarily tedious rundown of the gear I was using onstage, purely because – you never know – parts of this might come in useful later on. Might not. (Readers of a sensitive disposition really should skip this bit entirely and use the time catching up instead with Razzle/50 Shades/Livestock Today, depending upon orientation.)

Guitars: An edge-bound ’62 replica Fender Telecaster shouldered the bulk of the set over the years, capoed all over the shop and occasionally treated to a dropped D tuning on the bottom string (for ‘Hole In The Ground’ and ‘Somebody To Believe In’, for example). Early on, there was also a white Fender Stratocaster with a graphite nut and springs, so that I could floor the tremolo arm like a showboating buckaroo without putting the bloody thing irrevocably out of tune, in theory. Halfway through our American tour supporting The Alarm – we’ll get to that eventually – that guitar just… died. I don’t know how else to put it, and I’ve never experienced such a phenomenon again since. I picked it up one day mid-tour, and it just felt and sounded as listless as Droopy reading a pauper’s will. No amount of fettling ever fully reanimated it: although, to be fair, I did subsequently manage to use it in the studio over the coda of ‘Everything Is Over’. A fine swansong.

Then there was a lovely, cherry-red, edge-bound Gibson 335 Studio – the type without the f-holes, although if you don’t know what f-holes are, you probably feel like tearing me a new one round about now. It wasn’t exactly the most obliging guitar in the universe when it came to staying in tune, but – fantastically – it would feed back harmonically on any note: invaluable if you needed a wee breather mid-solo before deciding what the fuck you were going to play next. (You can hear it doing just that throughout the title track of For Those In Peril.)

Then there was Kevin’s borrowed G&L Telecaster-ish, which I appropriated for use on ‘Diamond’, ‘Slow Boat’, ‘Mother Nature’s Kitchen’, ‘Is Anyone Alive’, ‘All That I Am’ and ‘Icarus Landing’, off the thinning top of my head. Low-strung, tuned from B to B instead of E to E, it was a ballsy-sounding ruffian, capable of turning any speaker cone into black paper scraps. When you played it, it made you jut out your lips like Steve Jones and grind your pelvis like… Mary Berry. (Sorry, mind went blank.)

There was also an achingly beautiful Rickenbacker 360/12, like the one used by George Harrison in A Hard Day’s Night, bought from a marvellous shop in Doncaster which was also selling the actual 12-string Ricky played by Carl Wilson on mid-’60s Beach Boys recordings such as ‘The Little Girl I Once Knew’. (Next to that on the wall in the shop was a 1968 Coral electric sitar, finished in imitation crocodile skin. I was salivating so heavily by this time that the shop staff were washed into the street.) I didn’t use my Rickenbacker on stage very much – it was just too pretty to be sweated over and bashed about, and keeping 12 strings in tune in the trenches was very hell. Nevertheless you can hear it still, chiming away like a mantelpiece clock on ‘Everything Is Over’ and ‘Bad Thing’, prefiguring the 12-string lines I played on a different Rickenbacker on ‘Hayley’s Comet’, ‘Seeing Out Loud’, ‘Navigator’, ‘Dealing In Silver’, ‘C.K.I.S’ and ‘Windows On The World’ (the choruses of which feature the guitar part I’m proudest of in the entire KMO canon, oddly).

Amps: For amplification I used a little Mesa Boogie Mk III combo, as dense and pitiless as a black hole. It weighed eight-and-a-half stone, the same weight I was when I joined KMO, so whenever I carried it anywhere I was essentially being an ant. It was a real Marshall-stack-frightener, a tiny cube of eardrum-perforating malevolence: and at some of the smaller gigs in the early days it fell to our lovely crew to lash bits of flight case to its outer edge to act as sound baffles, so that everyone else in the band could hear anything at all that wasn’t just pure sheets of nerve-shredding treble.

On the last couple of Scottish tours we did, I took to using a hired Marshall and Vox AC30 set-up, with the signal diverted to either amp by an A/B footswitch. The Marshall was for the chunky, gonad-swinging parts, and the AC30 for the more textural and/or tremoloed bits. This experience confirmed my long-held belief that AC30s are truly exalted amplifiers – nearly all of the recorded KMO stuff I played on was piped through a 1960s ‘Top Boost’ AC30 – and it also instilled in me a mistrust of any Marshall built later than 1975. In my experience, no amount of fiddling with the tone controls on those amps could dial in any of the saturated bottom end for which they were renowned. I’m not saying they were all like that, but I certainly worked my way through a duff batch. (I think ‘Duff Batch’ was a member of Guns N’Roses at one point.)

Effects: Apart from an Ibanez Tube Screamer and a succession of wah-wah pedals – Morleys and Cry Babies – which experienced a shocking rate of attrition due to my habit of inelegantly landing on them like a plummeting safe, I pretty much relied upon a rack-mounted Roland multi-effects unit to handle everything else. (Ironic, really, as I had no rack within which to mount it.) I can’t remember the serial number, but you’re surely relieved about that. I am too.

I set up the Roland to handle a bunch of delays of differing lengths and intensities, used the compressor as a boost for ‘clean’ solos (ie, ‘Master Of The Man’) and deployed a sprinkling of chorus here and there. All well and good, but the problem with the unit’s pedalboard was that it would completely mute the signal for a fraction of a second whenever you pressed any of the pedals: just long enough for you to think that your amp had packed up. This was apparently because I didn’t have a MIDI interface, but I had no conception then (let alone now) of what MIDI was. I thought it referred to the kind of skirt that the actresses in the turn-of-the-’70s BBC series Take Three Girls wore. I therefore became reasonably adept at stomping on the appropriate pedal marginally ahead of the beat, so that the strum-plus-restored-signal would come in directly on it. I ask you, what a bloody palaver.

So, yes, where were we? Europe. I have less than no recollection of what I might have written in the first two long-lost instalments of this vulgarly indulgent history, so do forgive me if I’m re-treading old ground here: but on the off-chance that I haven’t mentioned it before, I really ought to point out that KMO’s first European gig was an in-store showcase in the Parisian Virgin Megastore which proudly flaunted its wares on the Champs-Élysées… back in the days when record shops mattered. Say what you (and I) will about the profiteering, profligacy and inhumanity of the music business at its wanton height, I still can’t help missing it, somehow. Virgin Records is probably just one bloke and a laptop now.

Anyway. Over in Paris in 1989, we were impatient to sprint out of the traps and prove ourselves to a whole new country, but hadn’t considered Europe’s 220V electrical system and its potential ramifications vis-à-vis our amps and my innately hostile rack-mount effects unit (see ‘geek alert’ above). My amp basically went from Charles Atlas to Charles Hawtrey at this gig, and its newfound weediness was compounded by the fact that my effect presets all basically reprogrammed themselves. Any time I stood on a pedal, a random and unedifying thing would happen. Doorbells, cow moos and jackpot machine noises poured forth. Streetlights sparked and dimmed. My trousers fell down.

Our petulant response to this, as ever when events conspired against us, was to start lobbing stuff about like sacked jugglers. Our brief set concluded with a ragged ‘Mother Nature’s Kitchen’: Kevin batted his mic stand over and smartly pivoted on his heel to walk away. I was playing Kevin’s hefty G&L Telecaster, so I took it off and threw it high in the air. And as I turned to follow Kevin offstage, I saw from the corner of my eye, in agonising, cinema-cliché slow motion, the French promoter leaping up to re-erect Kevin’s fallen mic stand. My guitar landed on the promoter’s head with redoubtable exactitude: and as we ascended to the dressing room in the glass lift, I gazed down with horror on a gore-bespattered scene of properly Parisian Grand Guignol carnage. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but he did sustain a bit of a cut – the only ‘sustain’ that guitar had generated all evening, ironically. ‘Rock and roll!’ he beamed later on when he came up and bled all over the dressing room, bless him: but I was already prostrated with Catholic guilt, and convinced that I’d single-handedly destroyed our career in France. And spookily enough, conspiracy theorists, we never did have a hit record in that country. Makes you think, eh.

As the balmy spring of 1989 morphed by degrees into a similarly agreeable summer, we rarely came off the road for any significant length of time. I can’t account for our every move, but I do know that we put in appearances at Calton Studios in Edinburgh on Friday, June 30, Fat Sam’s in Dundee on Sunday, July 2 and the Mayfair in Glasgow on Monday, July 3. (There was also the small matter of the video for ‘Where We Were Meant To Be’, which we filmed in Los Angeles on Saturday, June 17: but I’ll cover that episode when this memoir eventually washes up on the traumatising shores of America.)

And what do you know, Saturday, July 8 saw us back in the Moles Club in Bath. We had evidently calmed down a bit since the previous time, and the bar staff had replaced most of the broken furniture and teeth. As far as I can recall, the gig even slotted in somewhere between ‘convivial’ and ‘triumphal’, as evenings go. Kevin and I got into a conversation at the bar afterwards with an amiable and highly complimentary gent who, we simultaneously realised, was Nicky Tesco of The Members: a vote of confidence that suited us both just fine.

I note from my scrapbook-of-sorts that I stayed in room 213 of the Britannia Hotel in Manchester on July 10, so we must have been playing in an International-or-other in that fine city on the date in question: but again, the more pertinent details elude me. Two days later, we apparently gigged at Edward’s No 8 Club in Birmingham. What does patently emerge from all of this is that we kept ourselves incredibly busy throughout that year. In my mind, Europe happens before America in the KMO timeline: but upon checking back, we had already flown out to America twice to make videos and get arrested, etc (I’ll get round to this in a future Bedraggled, promise), before a concentrated little spell in August when we criss-crossed the borders between France, Holland and Belgium to play at several small but perfectly serviceable festivals. I loved this interlude, cannonading in the van through sunny villages in the Legoland-flat Low Countries, absently fumbling with coins of the invariably wrong currency in a pre-eurozone dither, trying to commit to my frontal lobes the very same picture-postcard images which I doubtlessly would have instagrammed to the point of exasperated overkill two decades later.

I usually rode shotgun in the front passenger seat, in part because I wanted to take in as much scenery as possible – and, like a dog, I always enjoyed sticking my head out the window with my tongue and cock flapping in the breeze. The other reason was that I was filled with post-punk egalitarianism, and felt so guilty about having a crew to look after us and our gear that I wanted to do everything possible to avoid any perceived them-and-us situation. In hindsight, I can’t even begin to imagine how much of a knobber I must have seemed in any case over the years to Grazza, Deaf Stef, Davey, Lewis, Andy, Phil, Buddy, Brian and everybody: and again, I can only apologise.

So, anyway, on August 15 we performed at the Marktrock Festival, on a stage erected at one end of Leuven’s lovely, elegant Oude Markt. The bill was decidedly tidy: if you’d rolled up on the day, you could have seen us, Squeeze, Fischer Z, The Inmates (who had the good taste to cover both The Standells and Jimmy McCracklin) and The Average White Band, all free of charge. Man, we didn’t know we were born. Island Records actually filmed our set: that would make a powerfully evocative little keepsake for anyone whose sleuthing pants are sufficiently robust to track the footage down.

Earlier in the day, we were also filmed for a short TV piece outside the Stella Artois brewery in Leuven, which overooks a canal. As I recall it, Jim, Steph and I were instructed to mime on a barge like simpletons, while Kevin was told to stand on the towpath and pretend to hitch a lift from us: a deliciously naff, definitively europop initiative that even Pat Boone would have condemned as punitively passé in 1958. Needless to say, I lapped it up like ambrosia, and would give any number of my less crucial organs to see it again.

The following morning, a rumour circulated that the Average White Band had done a runner from the hotel, leaving the rest of us to – ahem – pick up the pieces. I never did find out if this was corroborated by forensic evidence or filed under urban myth, and I only mention it here because I’ve come to value the AWB’s music a great deal in my dotage. Feeling about them the way I do now, I’d have driven the getaway car for them.

Next up was the Bemdfestival in Arendonk, Belgium on August 26, at which we were followed by The Blues Band and Katrina & The Waves. Beforehand, when the announcer suddenly barked the name of the Dutch rock group Tröckener Kecks, we all interpreted it as an order to ‘drop yer kegs’, so we meekly started disrobing.

It was around this time – I think – that we also played in Amsterdam’s justly legendary Paradiso with Stewart Copeland’s band, Animal Logic: I slammed my nostrils against the walls and deeply inhaled the pure essence of Pink Floyd 1968. I learned a valuable lesson from this gig – ie, when you’re in a band van coming back through French customs, don’t blithely say ‘Amsterdam’ when they ask where you have travelled from. Whatever the French is for ‘get out the fucking van’, that’s what the customs lady bade us do, while her colleagues literally took the vehicle apart – unscrewing the panels, the works – searching for the drugs that we categorically didn’t have. I tried jovially explaining to her that we were a Scottish drinking band, but the look she gave me would have frozen over the surface of the sun.

The day after Bemdfestival, a Sunday, some kind of BOGOF deal was evidently in the offing as we ended up playing two festivals in the one day. In the afternoon, Zomerpop ’89 at the TT circuit in Assen had us filling out the bill alongside Cockney Rebel, Aswad, Golden Earring and the now evidently ubiquitous Tröckener Kecks. A last-minute seizure of discretion mercifully prevented me from approaching Aswad’s Brinsley Forde and telling him, with absolute sincerity, how much I admired his work in The Double Deckers.

In the evening, we apparently played for an hour-and-a-quarter at the provocatively-named Biske Fiste Festival in Vrijthof, which was quite a weird one. It felt more like a fete that we had somehow burst into the middle of, with a bemused, demographic-defeating audience including wincing village elders, rudderless children and rutting farm animals. Also on the bill? Happy Household, Kong, and Silly & The Sukkels. Let’s call it an uneasy truce on either side: the audience tolerated us, barely, and we barely tolerated them barely tolerating us.

The flight home took us from Brussels to Glasgow, but with a stop at Edinburgh. The tiny section of the flight from Edinburgh to Glasgow, therefore, involved the plane attaining cruising height and then dropping like a stone with a bigger stone strapped to it. Steph and I involuntarily clutched each other in the rictus of imminent death, and a bloke across the aisle (whose first rodeo this evidently was) had to be prised off the plane ceiling with a fish slice. We were now squarely in the era of enervating long-haul flights, inexplicable panic attacks and customs officials who seemed adamant in their contention that bulk quantities of opiates were to be found up our crevasses: but that’s another story for another day. Watch this space for Bedraggled VI – the American bit…