Next week Tuff Life Boogie’s seven-gig autumn season begins with an indie showcase featuring Lancashire favourites Big Red Bus. MALCOLM WYATT spoke with guitarist Dave Spence about the band’s return
They had a couple of close calls with indie fame, enjoying some prestigious supports – not least with The Stone Roses – and had a mini-album and a couple of singles released on Action Records’ own independent label.
While UK fame never quite followed, they enjoyed success in Japan and Norway, with enough local interest to ensure a one-off reunion at The Continental in 2013.
In fact, that proved such a blast that Tuff Life Boogie – aka Preston-based promoter Rico La Rocca – invited them back for a reprise next Saturday, September 19, supporting acclaimed solo artist and former A Certain Ratio bassist Jez Kerr at Preston’s Blitz nightspot.
The Big Red Bus set forms part of a celebration of Gordon Gibson’s Action Records, and includes a big screen showing of Chased By Nuns, an acclaimed short film about the legendary Church Street record shop and indie label.
According to Rico: “It took years of sensitive negotiations to tempt Big Red Bus into reforming, and guitarist Dave Spence has flown in from his retirement home in Costa Rica especially for the occasion.”
Our second gig was supporting The Stone Roses...
With that in mind, I asked Dave – joined in Big Red Bus by singer/songwriter Mick Shepherd, Dave’s brother Neil Spence on bass, and drummer Roland ‘Scrub’ Jones – for a potted history of the band, while pondering how their date at Blitz – now at the former site of Coda and the Frog and Bucket on Lords Walk – got to be one of seven forthcoming Tuff Life Boogie gigs.
Wasn’t the organiser – after a two-year break from promoting alternative live music events in his hometown – originally intending a far more modest programme?
“Tell me about it! When I bumped into Rico in July, he said, ‘I’m only going to be doing one a month’. I said, ‘That’s a good idea’. But six weeks later, it seems he’s got 160 bands on!”
So take us back a bit, Dave. Your band remains revered in Preston indie circles, but when exactly did the Big Red Bus journey start?
“Our first gig was at the Bodega Bar on Cannon Street, on May 12, 1989, when we’d been together three or four months.
“Then, bizarrely enough – and a case of right time, right place – our second gig was supporting The Stone Roses at the Guild Hall foyer at the end of that month.
“It was just before they released their first album, and they were doing small gigs – just before it went massive, and dates like the Winter Gardens that August bank holiday.
“We gigged fairly heavily from 1989, and Gordon from Action Records put the album out that autumn. We recorded it quickly, in retrospect, probably a little too quickly.
“We then recorded a whole second album in the summer of ’90, but never released it, and in the mist of time, I’m not even certain why.
“Again, we were probably not the wisest in our decisions about where to spend the money, but did get a single out, All I Need.”
Very evocative of that era it was too. Actually, I was just watching the promo video.
“Yes, that was put together on some really old equipment, but it wasn’t high on our list of things to do. We were doing a lot of stuff ourselves.
“That was the single that got Radio 1 airplay and got record companies coming to see us. We featured on an early-evening slot with Mark Goodier. That was how you got to be heard in those days. There was no internet, that’s for sure.
“That generated more interest, and we had a couple of offers on the table, but nothing materialised. Then Scrub, who was drumming with us then and is again now, had to leave due to work and family commitments.
“But we got another drummer, and for some reason we proved really popular in Norway, going on tour there four times, selling more records than all of England combined.”
Go on then – why Norway?
“We did a charity gig in Preston, and a lad down there with a contact in Bergen saw us, really liked what we were doing and arranged our first trip over, taking a load of records over.
“It escalated from that. The first time we went was in 1990, the last in 1994.
“We played a lot of support roles and got on to some fairly big stages – from Edinburgh to London, including one with The Saw Doctors at The Town and Country Club.
“But we never quite made that transition to signing something.”
Back to that fateful show in Preston, did you know much about The Stone Roses then?
“We were given a tape and told we were supporting them the following week, and while we’d heard of them – because they’d been around a while – the first time we saw them was when we came off the stage at the Guild Hall and went back out front.
“We were just blown away by what they were doing. I don’t know what it held then, but the foyer wasn’t even full.
“But it was just – and remains so – the most electric atmosphere I’d ever encountered at a live event. And I still go to plenty. It was amazing, and they were riding the wave at the right time.”
As it turned out, the band featured with the Roses once more, in Birmingham at the end of June, 1989.
Initially they were set for a gig at Edwards No.8, but that was dropped at the last minute by the main act, who that week adorned the front page of the NME.
Another show quickly replaced it though, Big Red Bus joining Ian Brown and co. at the Birmingham Irish Club, by which time Roses mania had truly hit.
Big Red Bus may never have scored a crossover hit, but one Action Records act from that era did, Merseyside outfit The Boo Radleys. Yet the label-mates they felt closest to – and played most with – were Dandelion Adventure.
“They were a lot more grungy, and were releasing records at the same time. Actually, Mark Waring from the band lives quite close to my family home in Longton, and I saw him only last week.”
That may sound like an easy commute, but Dave’s not quite so close to Longton or even Preston these days.
“I’ve been over in Costa Rica since late 2012, but spend a couple of months a year here, although the draw of Pacific beach life and the River Ribble are different things!
“I worked at Preston College for close to 18 years, first teaching music technology after my band days, but a few years ago it wasn’t happening for me. I ended up in a suit telling other people how to teach, wasn’t particularly enjoying it, and just fancied a break for a year.
“Next thing you know, I’m down in Costa Rica and three years have passed. Zero planning, but so far so good!”
As well as the Central America link and the band’s past popularity in Norway, Big Red Bus are big in Japan as well, as the music cliché goes.
Word has it that huge numbers of Big Red Bus 12” records were shipped to the Far East from the Action Records warehouse a few years ago.
“Bizarrely enough, we still get requests through our SoundCloud page and Facebook from people from there looking for copies of the album and two singles.
“When Gordon shipped them out over there they went like hot cakes, and in Japan there’s an indie underground original vinyl market, and they’re big collectors.
“At the gig we did at the Continental two years ago, people were asking if we could come over. The answer was, ‘We can, but only to do a 40-minute set, and we haven’t played together for 18 years’.
“But as it turned out, even though it was our first show since 1995, it was brilliant!”
And now Big Red Bus are rehearsing for their second Preston reunion.
“It’s amazing. Because we gigged a lot, we were tight, so although I haven’t played these songs for nearly 20 years, I can go through them once and remember them.”
Will there be any new material this time around?
“Well, Mick was our main songwriter and wrote the lyrics, and while he still plays and writes, he’s a headmaster at a primary school in Blackpool now.
“So we haven’t had the time.
“But if we did, it would be nice to see what we could do.”
Maybe that could happen if a fresh offer arrived on the table from Japan or Norway.
“Or if someone could fly the band out to me, I’m sure I could arrange a nice rehearsal on a beach in Costa Rica.”
Jez Kerr, top of the bill on the night, made his name with Factory Records legends A Certain Ratio, who regularly supported Joy Division and proved New York favourites in the early ‘80s.
His first solo single, Play Sumthing Fast, earned plenty of acclaim, was single of the week on The Radcliffe and Maconie Show, and enjoyed several airings on BBC 6 Music and Radio 2.
That was followed by an album, Numb Mouth Eat Waste, with five-star reviews in Mojo, Q and The Guardian, live performances following alongside The Fall, Badly Drawn Boy, Mark Stewart (The Pop Group), The Lovely Eggs and New Order on their latest UK tour.
Jez’s latest solo single, Control Myself, is on Welsh indie label Higuera Records, while there was a well-received session on Marc Riley’s BBC 6 radio show early this year.
For more on Jez Kerr, head to his website at http://www.jezkerr.com/
Chorley’s Nick Ainsworth also features on the night, returning to Preston in one of his many guises – as Former Bullies, Dinner Party, Secret Admirer ‘or maybe something else’.
Rico added, “He hasn’t decided yet.
“However, you can be sure it will be great.
“Recent sightings have reported back that Nick is now channelling Neil Young and Crazy Horse.”
l For more details, head to http://formerbullies.tumblr.com/
For tickets and further details of Jez Kerr, Big Red Bus and Former Bullies at Blitz, Lords Walk, Preston, on Saturday, September 19, including a screening of the Action Records short film, Chased by Nuns, go to https://www.facebook.com/events/490287277819001/
• Malcolm Wyatt is a Lancashire-based freelance writer, and his blog can be found at http://writewyattuk.com
Tuff Life Boogie’s seven shows for autumn then continue with:
• Sunday, September 20, at Korova Arts Café, St Wilfrid’s Street, Preston:
R.M. Hubbert, Mike Kneafsey, Oliver Day
• Thursday, September 24, at The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston:
Thomas Truax, Totally Mild, Terrible Truths
• Saturday, October 3, at Blitz, Lords Walk, Preston:
Stanley Brinks and Freschard with the Wave Pictures
• Saturday, October 24, at Blitz, Lords Walk, Preston:
The Icicle Works, Martin Bramah, The Long Lost Band
• Sunday, October 25, at The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston:
Un-Peeled 2015, a John Peel-inspired all-dayer including several of the legendary late DJ’s favourites, including Maximum Joy, Glaxo Babies, Sauna Youth, Monotony, JD Meatyard, John Hyatt’s Glamogoth, Eton Crop, Pulled Pork, Pill Fangs, Cannonball Statman, John Lee Hartley, Peaness, Fighting.
• Saturday, November 21, at The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston:
Galley Beggar, the Fates, One Sided Horse