Rock'n'roll roots of the famous: We used to be with the band
Loyd Grossman, who is taking up punk rock again, isn't the only public figure with an unsuspected musical past. Robert Verkaik explains the appeal while Andy McSmith names the guilty men
Friday 01 February 2008
Some rock bands are inspired by the great rock legends of the past. Others want to rewrite the rules of music. But only one can truly claim to have been influenced by Britain's nuclear industry of the early 1980s.
My band, Magnox 5, named after the British-designed nuclear reactor, was formed by four Kent schoolfriends in recognition of the excellent safety record of our local power station at Dungeness on Romney Marsh. At the height of the anti-nuclear movement, we thought we had identified a gap in the market and unveiled ourselves as Britain's first pro-nuclear heavy metal group.
Unfortunately there wasn't a market for metal bands who wore radiation suits and belted out numbers by Hawkwind and UFO. And even if there had been, Devo had cornered it.
We had technical problems too. At our first gig we used a smoke bomb designed for outside use only. When we arrived on stage, our small, but loyal, audience had fled the town hall, coughing and choking.
Magnox 5 – there were originally five members but one left over nuclear fashion differences – eventually split.
The bass player joined the Bristol fire brigade; the singer moved to Spain to become a painter; and I'm not sure what happened to my friend who played lead guitar. But I know the drummer spent a year on a kibbutz before returning to study law. Now I'm the law editor of The Independent. Sitting in the court room, taking notes on a very dry area of the law, I realise that my drumming days were some of the best of my life.
Looking at the array of ex-rockers shown here, I realise that I am not the only one living off past glories.
Now that the Government has committed itself to building more nuclear power stations and atomic energy is back in fashion, I can't help thinking that Magnox 5 was a band before its time. Naturally thoughts have turned to a reunion. So how about it lads? We could even change our name to Midlife Crisis.
Ricky Gervais: Comedien
At least when he created David Brent, Ricky Gervais intended to be excruciating. But between 1982 and 1984, the comedian was one half of a New Romantic outfit from Reading called Seona Dancing. All the evidence that has survived suggests they were toe-curlingly awful. But their song 'More To Lose', which reached No 70 in the UK charts, was a huge hit in the Philippines in 1985 after a radio station started playing it over and over again. According to the All Music Guide website, "in one part of the world, Seona Dancing's 'More To Lose' became an Eighties anthem as ubiquitous as Peter Gabriel's 'In Your Eyes'". And Gervais did, as this picture shows, look vaguely like a star in those days.
Jet Bronx and the Forbidden
Loyd Grossman: TV Chef
"Taste is Everything" says the headline on Loyd Grossman's official website. As if to disprove this very point, the television masterchef has decided to reprise his youthful role as the frontman with a punk band.
Jet Bronx and the Forbidden, a widely forgotten punk group, was formed by Grossman soon after he arrived in the UK in 1975, aged 25. Their first single reached number 49 in the charts; the second bombed.
After the break-up of Jet Bronx, Grossman was briefly a member of another band, the Commercials, who released record called "Compare and Decide" in 1980. There is no record of how far up the charts it climbed, which may be a mercy.
Grossman, whose posh accent and neat coiffeur are familiar to anyone who has watched Masterchef or Through the Keyhole, is now rehearsing with a brand new version of the band (called Jet Bronx and the New Forbidden) in preparation for the annual punk festival at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, in August.
"Jet Bronx and the Forbidden grazed the charts at number 49 but palpably failed," he reflected later. "I was obviously never going to be a big deal in punk."
The Flared Generation
Jeremy Vine: Broadcaster
The lunchtime voice of Radio 2 made his first bid for fame as an 18-year-old, playing drums for a group called The Flared Generation. "We were going around Cheam in Surrey in about 1980. It was Cheam's best effort to create a punk band and we got everything wrong," admits the former Epsom College pupil. "We were the ones with the most disastrous sense of everything. All our songs were about flared trousers, sensible shoes and university. We were even featured on Radio 1 as the punk group who were trying to bring back flares. Yet you look back and you think that it was all tremendous fun."
Jamie Oliver: TV Chef
Like Loyd Grossman, the Naked Chef also has a rock 'n' roll past – as the drummer with a band called Scarlet Division. Oliver formed the group in 1989, when he was 13, and they performed across the UK during the 1990s.
You can see one of their video clips on YouTube, performing in what looks like an old warehouse.
Oliver's publicist, Peter Berry, said: "He has not drummed in Scarlet Division since 2002. There was one minor hit in 2001 called 'Sundial', which got to No 42.
"After that, they decided enough was enough. But it had its moments. Of course, the call may come from Loyd that he needs a drummer. We await that call."
John Battle: Politician
In Parliament, they know him as a former foreign minister and campaigner against asbestos-related illness. Up north, they remember the mandolin player from the 1970s folk group Black Velvet. Battle recalls: "I went for a concert but it snowed and the train came to a halt at Doncaster, so I hitch-hiked the rest of the way, carrying my mandolin. I arrived frozen and needed a few black velvets to warm up. It was the night my fingers danced."
Cruise Ship Crooner
Silvio Berlusconi: Politician
The Italian media magnate and former prime minister paid his way through university by singing and playing the piano on cruise ships. He has been known throughout his colourful political career for his habit of breaking into song unexpectedly.
While he was Prime Minister, Mr Berlusconi found time to write seven love songs, recorded by the guitarist Mariana Apicella, which sold 45,000 copies on CD. His lyrics included: "With my heart in my mouth/Because your love is everything to me/I know you may make me suffer/But I will never let you go/Even if I have to fight/I will love you until the end."
A C Grayling: Philosopher
Grayling, a professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the author of a biography of William Hazlitt and other books, was once part of the expat rock scene in Northern Rhodesia – now Zambia – where he was born in 1949.
He says: "From the ages of 14 to 16, I was in a group called the Rebels – three guitars and a drummer. I started as the bass guitarist but then it turned out that not only could I not sing well, I couldn't sing at all and play the bass guitar, so I graduated to the rhythm guitar. I wore a pair of black, plastic-sided, high-heeled 'Beatle' boots that were two sizes too small. I thought I was the bee's knees."
The Reform Club
Norman Baker: Politician
The assiduous Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes in East Sussex was once accused of being the most boring man in the Commons. He retorted by pointing out that, for years, he was singer in a rock band called The Reform Club, which worked the pubs and other venues in the town during the 1990s. "It was just fun stuff," he says. "We did cover versions, mainly of Sixties music by the Stones, Hendrix, Beatles and Cream. I have had evenings when I got wildly applauded and evenings when I was booed off stage. In politics, you never quite get either reaction. The band was pretty tight. We made a good sound."
Country Joe and The Fish
Barry Melton: Lawyer
Melton, the public defender for Yolo County, to the north of Sacramento in California, runs an office which handles more than 10,000 cases a year, from driving without to licence to first-degree murder. However, he used to be the lead guitarist known as "Fish" in Country Joe and The Fish, one of the most political rock bands of the 1960s.
He began studying law a few years after playing at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. "What musicians do on the road is watch TV or read books anyway," he said, "so this was just reading books that were more boring." He still performs in his spare time.
Brian Cox: Physicist
Cox, a British high-energy physics specialist who now works in Geneva studying the origins of the universe, was the keyboard player in the 1990s synth dance act D:Ream, whose hit "Things Can Only Get Better" was once a New Labour anthem.
He does not hanker after fame, saying: "We have a machine 27km across in which you recreate the conditions as they existed a billionth of a second after the Big Bang. I don't miss touring. It was great fun when I was 18 or 19 but, when you get to 40, there isn't anything you like less than sitting on a tour bus. I don't know how Mick Jagger does it."
Tony Blair: Politician
Has anyone ever risen to such heights of fame after not making it as a rock star?
As an Oxford undergraduate, he was front man for the Ugly Rumours, whose musicians included Mark Ellen, later editor of The Word, who said: "I remember going to our first gig. We didn't have a van or even a car.
"We had a trolley. And Tony turned up. He was a little bit late, and he was rocked up in his best outfit, and I must admit that there was this slight wince of pain behind the eyes when he realised that this wasn't exactly the Rolling Stones.
"But let it never be said that he didn't get down to it and push that trolley with the rest of us."
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