In February this year I’d heard that Cherry Red Records was planning a retrospective on one of my favourite bands, Sheffield’s One Thousand Violins. The band existed from 1985 to 1989 and was split into two distinct halves, each with a different frontman and each lasting two years. The new compilation was going to concentrate on the first two years, when the band were on Dan Treacy’s Dreamworld label, and briefly Report, in the UK and Philip Boa’s Constrictor in Germany.
I hadn’t originally planned to get involved but it became apparent that Cherry Red were missing some songs from their preferred tracklist and it just sort of “happened”. Guitarist and main songwriter Colin Gregory, while in discussion with Cherry Red, pointed them in my direction as a possible source of rarities. Fortunately, I have almost everything the band put out, including many live bootlegs, rare flexis and demo compilations sent to me by Colin back in the day.
Below are my original sleeve notes, which were tweaked slightly by joint project manager John Reed of Cherry Red. In the same way that the final CD has “alternative” versions of the band’s output I though I’d share my own original mix of my sleeve notes as an alternative to the ones published in the excellent booklet with the CD.
My own pedantic obsession saw me check with lead singer Colin as to whether this song had a “the” or that song had parentheses. I figured if I was to be involved I wanted everything to be ‘just so’. This was an underappreciated band and, after much discussion between John and I, three songs – Halcyon Days, You Ungrateful Bastard and Candleman – are repeated on the final CD in different version due to a desire to include “everything” and that’s as it should be.
There had been the briefest of discussions about it being a double but due to “difficulties” it was felt more appropriate (and less complicated) to stick with an all-killer no filler single disc.
If I Had a Sleeve Note
There’s no rhyme or reason why some bands escape the shark-filled pool of pop to the safety of the shore of success while others drown, kicking and screaming for anyone who’ll listen. One Thousand Violins never made it back to dry land. Like so many bands before and since they have their hard luck stories and tragic tales of what might’ve been. But these psychpop-soaked guys coulda, shoulda been champions.
Colin Gregory and Dave Walmsley met through mutual friends at an ice skating disco in the early 80s and became inseparable. “David and I became instant best friends…His mum used to have a cheap organ thingy at home and we would mess about on it. As soon as I managed to play “Are Friends Electric” on it with one finger I knew I had to start a band and live music…so we did”, remembers Colin.
Their first adventures in sound, while they were living in Dave’s home town of Halifax, saw them join up with Dan Treacy’s London-based Whaam! label and in September 1983 the double whaamy 7” of You’re My Kind of Girl and In Love With You, with Colin on vocals, was unleashed (another track Honey would appear on the label’s All for Art and Art for All compilation). The demise of Whaam! in 1984 – did Wham!, the band, really pay them off for £15,000? – saw Colin and Dave follow the Television Personalities very own pied piper to his new venture with Dreamworld Records.
Their common love of all things 60s took them to a year of “hanging around Carnaby Street dressed as mod psyche-out freak brothers” before they moved back up North to Sheffield. Not being from Sheffield they never really fitted in: “We weren’t part of their scene. We started our own little thing and were quite insular. The other bands just ignored and blanked us”.
Meanwhile they continued to play Anarchists’ balls in derelict steel work and squats as “The Landlords” before hooking up with Sounds journalist Roger Holland, who helped co-manage the band along with Dave and Dan while Colin concentrated on music. “He decided to write a full page review for Sounds of a gig we never actually played and called us ‘The Surf Pistols’”, laughs Colin. They also made a flexi (1000 copies) but hid them under a bed and forgot all about them. This rarer than rocking horse poo release was “Failed Bankrupt Businessman”. Stuart Cant, the pearly king of Edinburgh’s indie scene in the 1980s and owner of a copy, remembers the flexi as “not a great record but very funny”.
John Wood was soon recruited as vox humana after Colin and Dave heard, and liked, his Scott Walker-esque timbre on a cassette. Initially the multi-tasking Colin played/programmed bass and drums – a Roland TR808 drum machine fact fans – but Sean O’Neill (“he looked like he should have been in Dollar”) was enlisted to play drums on the band’s first John Peel session. However, Sean departed and a new rhythm section of Darren Swindells (bass), who had answered an ad posted on the wall of Sheffield’s Leadmill, and Peter Day (drums) were added to give the band a fuller, more potent sound.
The band’s name came by way of the opening line of Orange Juice’s Consolation Prize – “a thousand violins will play it for you” – and Colin liked it so much he penned Like One Thousand Violins, which appeared on the b-side of Dreamworld debut 12” Halcyon Days. It would end the year nestling rather cosily between The Woodentops’ Well Well Well (48) and The Shop Assistants’ shambling anthem All Day Long (50) at the lower end of John Peel’s Festive Fifty. No mean feat for a b-side. This was also where I came in.
I’d always been a sucker for 60s music and modern pop that was influenced by it and this new cosmic beat group were the perfect combination. However, it wasn’t until September 1986 I first caught them live. Aforementioned Violins uber-fan Stuart Cant – he’d seen them supporting his favourite band the Television Personalities and fell in love with them – had been making fanzines and running club nights and gigs for years and his Speed 3 club, in association with Jeff Duffy, had brought One Thousand Violins to Scotland’s capital on a number of occasions, as well as Glasgow, Stirling and Perth. During a drunken penniless walk home from Edinburgh to my sleepy suburban home – some 8 miles away – I spotted a poster for one of their promotions, a One Thousand Violins gig (supported by The Fizzbombs) at the Onion Cellar, a club run at The Mission on the capital’s Victoria Street. It was to the start of an obsessive relationship during which I would see the band over 20 times, more than any other. I’d never slept in so many bus and train stations for one band – Perth, Newcastle and Manchester being some of my more salubrious dusk hangouts.
John Peel was a big fan and following their well-received first session in September 1985 they returned to Radio One in November the following year for another four-song set. It wasn’t until the run up to this session and their recently-released second single, the non-stop guitar-driven, keyboard-soaked shuddering express ride of Please Don’t Sandblast My House, that I first saw them live (22 September 1986 to be exact) as they played wherever and whenever in support of it.
“Oh how I need the world, but do you really need me at all?”
The hipsters of Sheffield and London may not have taken to them but Scotland and Germany did, where they would play many times in their all too brief existence. Indeed I only saw eight gigs during the whole of 1987 and they were all Violins’ shows and all, bar a trip to Manchester’s Boardwalk, were north of the border.
Extensive tours up and down the UK and Europe with nothing to promote were becoming frustrating. Dreamworld’s cottage industry was not to be rushed and it would be almost another year before Locked Out of the Love-In would arrive to positive reviews. The band had become as renowned for their song titles as they were for their music. Had this been a conscious decision? “Yes it was, probably the best bit!” While Dan Treacy had shown the band the Halcyon Days cover as a fait accompli, they took a trip to the derelict steelworks at Attercliffe with some flowers and designed Locked Out of the Love-In themselves and it serves as the inspiration for the cover of this collection.
Following an audition at the YMCA on Sheffield’s Eccleshall Road, Ian Addey replaced Peter Day in the spring of 1987 as the band tried to build on their (indie) chart success, Please Don’t Sandblast My House peaking at number 11. While Dreamworld’s marketing machine was grindingly slow, Philip Boa’s German Constrictor label offered a greater sense of urgency and managed to release an album, a mini-LP – bringing together some singles tracks – and the aforementioned chart-middling You Ungrateful Bastard single during their tenure.
The band’s final release for Dreamworld, the psychedelic pop-fest Locked Out of the Love-In, also troubled the chart scorers (number 13) and the band seemed set to build on this steady progress. Their first single with pseudo-major hucksters Report Records, If I Were a Bullet (Then For Sure I’d Find a Way To Your Heart), also proved to be the last with them and also the last to feature John. A difference of opinion over his desire to contribute to the songwriting, which Colin, and to a lesser extent Dave, had dominated, saw a parting of the ways and the end to the first chapter of the band.
John departed with a heavy heart. “As much as I loved the excitement of singing on stage with them, I had to grow up a bit and get a life, as they say. I don’t think I would have been very convincing singing much of the songs that came after me anyway, I wasn’t ‘far out’ enough, and I was far too earnest. It was going to take more than my fare of pots of tea and a plate of fancies to reach the required altered mind state to pull off the likes of ‘Hey Man, Your Granny’s Digging My Love Bus, But My Trip Is Fully Booked’.”
The new chapter would bring in another German tour, this time with a new singer, Vince Keenan, although this wasn’t a unanimous decision. “I wanted Colin to take over the vocals…I always thought his vocal sounded soulful” – Darren.
Darren remembers his time with the band with much fondness, “As a group we weren’t always on the same page, yet despite our differences we did on occasion create magic, which is what making music is all about, and I’m proud of us for doing that.” Ian put it in simpler terms, describing his Violins adventure as “cool and groovy”.
In anticipation of joining the band on one of their wild German tours, I got my first adult passport only to find out that the band had split. This was in the autumn of 1989. Many people have great memories of One Thousand Violins. I’ll never forget Stuart and I, with the band, being chased out of an Oxford University “Spring Fling” by a man with a cleaver having earlier that night been on stage singing harmonies, which was a wonderfully typical evening in the company of One Thousand Violins. Gone (but not forgotten) is the sound of happiness.
“I won’t keep you any longer”
Paul Johnston (aka Misery Guts)
Halcyon Days: Complete Recordings 1985-1987 brings together all of the band’s released tracks with Dreamworld, Constrictor and Report as well as rare tracks from compilations and a flexi.
Colin Gregory now runs a chain of coffee/sandwich shops in Sheffield.
Dave Walmsley died of cancer in 1992.
John Wood went on to form The Chrysalids and a retrospective called Neither Love Nor Money was released in 2012.
Darren Swindells runs Sing and Play The Easy Way in Galway, Ireland offering music lessons and instruction and still plays regularly.
Ian Addey works for an NHS Trust in Abertawe, plays guitar, brews beer and keeps bees.”
I’m pleased that the CD has been so well received. As well as helping to put the CD together I was made an admin for the band’s Facebook page set up by John. I want to thank everyone who has ‘liked’ the page and made a contribution, however small. I especially want to thank Colin, Darren, Ian and John from the original for agreeing to be interviewed by me by email. It was great to catch up and share our collective memories. Ian was also a great help in providing information like dates for gigs so I could update my gigography. He also provided many photos, as did the aforementioned Stuart Cant who toured many times with the band, including trips to Germany. (I was also about to go to Germany with them and had ordered my passport when I found out they had split – a sad day).
As well as helping John with the Facebook page, I updated the band’s page on http://www.45cat.com, which an excellent musical research site for information on singles (I used it a lot for my radio shows). The One Thousand Violins’ page is HERE and I also contributed to their Wikipedia page.
I hope everyone gets as much enjoyment out of the CD as I did. The band were a big part of my life in the mid to late 1980s and I still, to this day, hold them dear to my heart.