Sunday 22 September 2019

Larry Wallis, May 1949 - September 2019, A Complex Man

As a young art student I was a fan of the Pink Fairies. I owned (and still own) a copy of their Kings Of Oblivion album. It was an important part of the soundtrack of my art college years. I listened to it a lot, and anytime I hear it now I’m instantly transported back to dark nights in coal fire heated rooms in the early seventies. The simultaneous glory and desolation in that record still rings in my head.

I moved to London with a girlfriend. We rented a big flat and it was grim. Spacious but grim. We had no money to decorate the place so we stuck everything we could find that was nice to look at on the walls, and then it was cheery and hippy and bohemian, and when we burned the furniture it was even warm in there for a while. 

The flat was on the ground floor and the toilet was the old outhouse outside the back door off the kitchen. It had been made into an inside toilet by means of having a glass conservatory built on which was just big enough to house the refrigerator, and this was just as well because there wasn’t room in the kitchen because the kitchen had been divided in two and the other half was now the bathroom - sliding door, pedestal wash basin, bath tub, ancient yellow gloss paint…

The old outhouse toilet was freezing, but quite jolly with all the stuff on the walls, and in pride of place was the three section insert from Kings Of Oblivion: Russell Hunter, green faced and ghoulish hooked up to a Gordon’s Gin intravenous drip; a stoned looking Duncan Sanderson reclining on an ornate bar top; and the star of the show, Larry Wallis, sprawled on a craps table - hair, aviator shades, leather jacket - a picture of decadence.

I got a deal with Stiff Records and recorded a tune I’d written called ‘Whole Wide World’. I met Ian Dury and he and his girlfriend, Denise Roudette, used to come round to my house to play the drums and bass respectively. We recorded another of my tunes, ‘Semaphore Signals’, and that became the B side to ‘Whole Wide World’, and that was a bit of a hit and suddenly we were going on a package tour.

I was sitting in the pub next to the Stiff Records office with Ian one evening talking about this tour we were supposed to be doing.

‘Don’t look now,’ Ian murmured, ‘but there’s that bloke from the poster on your toilet wall.’

A six foot brick shithouse in a Lewis leather jacket, mirrored shades framed by more frizzy black hair than I had ever seen coming out of a man’s head in my life. A larger than life-size living monument, the Furry Freak Brothers all rolled into one, and twice as scary.

‘Fuck! He’s coming over here’ I whispered.

A small and quite high voice emitted from the face somewhere in the hair:

‘Are you Eric? Hi man, I’m Larry Wallis.’

Within ten minutes I was in love. Larry had that effect on people.

The Pink Fairies had made a single for Stiff, 'Between The Lines', and now Larry had a solo record, 'I’m A Police Car', coming out to coincide with the package tour which he was going to be on as well.

I had never met anyone with such a voracious appetite for alcohol and drugs. Larry was a fellow Taurean and we soon became fast friends. He was complex. From a distance he exuded confidence, he had swagger and style. He took his jacket off, put the guitar on, then put the jacket back on over the guitar strap. He was funny and moody, gentle and affectionate with an occasional cruel streak. He lived in two separate South London residences: a three story flat on the Walworth Road which he shared with his girlfriend, and in part of an old church hall around the corner which he shared with his other girlfriend, and where his living room was the stage.

‘That’s right Eric - I actually live on a stage.’
After we'd survived the tour - the drugs, the drunkenness and the occasional outbreaks of violence - it was decided that I should make an album. I needed a producer and the obvious choice was Larry whose only instruction was to empty my head. So we went into a demo studio and recorded enough tunes to convince Stiff Records that it might fly, and to book us into Pathway Studio for an unspecified amount of time.

The sessions invariably started with lunch in the pub where our idea of a balanced meal was a large Bloody Mary and a packet of peanuts. We were fairly drunk most of the time but we still managed to work hard. Larry was very conscientious but I never once felt like he was telling me what to do, he just helped me to do it. I’d assumed that you needed to use a big amplifier to get a good guitar sound in the studio but I felt I got a better sound out of a small amp like a Fender Champ or a Princeton, so that’s what I used. Larry showed me how a five watt Pignose amp, a practice amp, could sound like a Marshall stack. Recording was all an illusion he told me. He explained the magic of David Bowie’s post Diamond Dogs recordings, the strange placings of things in the mix. 

I had an old Broadway guitar, a chunk of mahogany that could have been hewn from the fittings of an old Southern Region railway carriage. Larry said that it could only be improved by the addition of a rev counter. I actually ended up using my Rickenbacker 330, and the only addition to that was some sort of 3D plastic sticker of a diver that Larry had found somewhere.

We worked late into the night, until long after London’s public transport had shut down. Not that it really mattered because Larry only travelled by taxi and taught me to do the same, and to always get a receipt in case you could charge it to somebody else. It wasn’t cool to be seen on the tube. It also wasn’t practical because we were both quite famous and fairly instantly recognisable. Our appearance was a stumbling block - taxi drivers were apt to turn off their yellow For Hire signs when they saw us on a street corner.

‘There goes the final taxi,’ I said as another yellow light flickered out at three o’clock one morning.

‘Eric man!! That’s a song title!’

It was, and I eventually wrote it.

He was unexpected - he once told me his favourite piece of music was ‘Love Is Blue’. We stood round a microphone late one night in Pathway Studio, myself, Barry Payne and his older brother Davey. Larry towered over us, all hair and leather.

‘It needs to be more... more... Walt Disney! That’s it - Bambi - it should sound like Bambi...’ 

He threw back is head, closed his eyes and emitted gentle oohs and aahs. We followed his lead and created constellations on a black velvet sky.

We took time off from Pathway and my album to mix some tracks for the Stiffs Live Stiffs album over at the more salubrious Rak Studios owned by the pop producer Mickie Most, the force behind Rak Records which was home to Suzi Quatro, Hot Chocolate, Smokie, Racey, Herman’s Hermits, Mud... good clean wholesome commercial pop written by Chapman & Chinn. I couldn’t imagine what a couple of deadbeats like us were doing in a place like this.

My big favourite record at that time was Althea & Donna’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking’. Larry liked it too and that surprised me, him being the fearsome metal guitar slinging animal and all.

Someone had given us a red plastic bus with a battery powered electric motor. It whirred and trundled around in a circle, a small annoying bell tinging intermittently. We were obsessed with unlocking the rhythmic intracacies of this thing. It needed a big space to do a perfect circle, and a smooth hard surface. The marble entrance hall at Rak Studios was perfect and the acoustics made the bus sound good. It trundled around, clunking and tinging and Larry led us in syncopated finger clicking. We had quite a groove going when Mickie Most, the pop swengali himself, breezed through the door and almost trod on the bus. He didn’t say anything but his appalled and bemused expression caused much hilarity. This wasn’t the sort of thing that happened in the world of Rak Records. I still laugh about it.

Larry fell in love with a song I wrote for the album called ‘There Isn’t Anything Else’. Though he didn’t have to he just about begged me to let him put a guitar solo on it and worked up the idea during a day off. 

‘Oh man! Have I got a guitar solo for you!’

He certainly had. He plugged his red Strat into an overdrive pedal and directly into the desk. I didn’t know you could do this, I thought you had to use an amplifier with a microphone in front of it. I found out in years to come that plugging directly in was considered to be one of the mortal sins of recording, though that’s exactly what Prince did a few years later. Larry was ahead of the game. 

His solo, two guitars in harmony, sounded fabulous. Before I went out on tour he made me come over to his house so he could teach me how to play it. I never quite got the hang of it. Some years later he asked me to come to a rehearsal for a recording session he was doing with Pete Thomas on drums and Big George Webley on bass. I played the song with them and for them but as far as I know they never recorded it. I would love to have heard Larry singing ‘There Isn’t Anything Else’ on a record.

Larry may have exuded confidence but a chance remark or action could sour his mood or turn him into a cringing wimp. He flirted with flick knives and kept a python as a pet, and yet he had a phobia about anything that was pointed - he couldn’t walk past a set of railings with spikes, and once when someone who didn’t know used the expression it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick he almost fell to the floor and had a fit in the middle of a crowded pub

‘Don’t say that!’ he wailed.

He was prone to depression - a day could start out very jolly and suddenly turn dark. I can always hear an underlying sadness in the music he made, even in its fullest glory. A mutual friend told me that he once said of me: ‘Eric is fiercely intelligent, blindingly insightful, and his own worst enemy.’ I’ll take it, all of it, though I think he could as well have been describing himself.

He’s one of the most talented and surely the most underrated musician I’ve ever worked with. His guitar arrangements are practically symphonic. He had a unique sense of melody and his guitar playing was always full of unexpected twists and turns. He borrowed my guitar at a festival once to play with the Screaming Blue Messiahs. A solid batwing Epiphone with one single coil pickup. It was a very weedy guitar. He walked on, plugged it straight into a Fender Twin, turned everything on the channel up full and shredded through the set with taste, control, elegance and style. I still can’t understand how he got that sound out of that guitar.

I have a fond memory of him coming to see me play at the Marquee Club in London at a point where I’d done a lot of touring, curbed my worst excesses and got it together. We were halfway through the set and it was going well, I turned around and saw Larry watching us from behind the amplifiers, a huge grin on his face. So pleased, kind, generous and warm-hearted ... and that’s how I’ll always remember him.