Assorted scribblings of a dog-eared music journalist

Melody Maker | Feature | 30 May 1992

THE ROCKINGBIRDS
MODERN LOVERS

"Every group should be like a cartoon," says Alan Tyler, former philosophy student, tap dancer and bookies runner, now lead singer with The Rockingbirds. "If you can't think up a decent cartoon based on a group, the group obviously aren't any good."

Walt Disney would turn in his cryogenic fridge at the thought of coming back to life to draw thousands of pictures of The Rockingbirds and their north London HQ. The living room in which the band are gathered for this afternoon's interview is littered with empty beer and whisky bottles and full carrier bags. God knows what horrors lie inside. The coffee table is the ashtray. The kitchen at the rear of the house is straight out of "The Young Ones" and the toilet is a no-go area.

Oblivious to the surrounding mess, Tyler is sprawled across the floor, desperately trying to button the flies of his Levis. Guitarist Andrew Hackett is wearing a Union Jack as a poncho and bassist Dave Goulding can't find his shoes. Drummer Dave Morgan and backing singer/percussionist Sean Reid are here in body but not in mind. The sixth member of the band, pedal steel player Patrick Arbuthnot, isn't even here in body. 

"He's asleep in the cellar," says Goulding. "There's no point waking him. He's been speaking in tongues for the last week." 

••• 

The Rockingbirds are ex-Weather Prophets, ex-Milk and a one-time soundman at The Falcon. Andy Hackett reckons he invented the Camden Lurch. He also takes the credit for The Rockingbirds' deal with the Heavenly label, the original home of St Etienne, Flowered Up and the Manic Street Preachers. 

Nine months after signing to Heavenly, the band are about to release their second single, "Jonathan Jonathan", a new version of the B-side of last year's "A Good Day For You Is A Good Day For Me". A tribute to Jonathan Richman, the track begins and ends exactly the same as "Roadrunner", the anthemic classic Richman recorded with The Modern Lovers. One, two, three, four, five, six... 

Tyler: "Richman has been my hero since the punk days. He was one of the originals. The lyrics of 'Jonathan' are about how he used to follow The Velvet Underground around. When we met him and played him the track, he said it was all true. At the end he said, 'Okay, now I'll have to tell you my Gram Parsons stories'." 

Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies give "Jonathan" a real summery feel, but as with "A Good Day For You", the twanging geetar and pedal steel and Alan Tyler's golden tones make it sound like an English country and western track. Why country music? 

Tyler: "Why not? There's no harm in it." 

Hackett: "The Beatles and the Stones took r&b, made it sound English, and made tons of money – and we're gonna do the same with country. A lot of American country groups outsell Guns N' Roses and U2. When we get out to the States we'll be fucking loaded. The best thing about playing this music is you can completely rip off other people's songs and everyone thinks you wrote them." 

What about the stigma attached to country and western? 

Tyler: "What, cowboy boots, stetsons and all that shit? Yeah, I know what you mean. The trouble is country is treated as a joke in Britain. But it doesn't have to be that way. We're not a send-up band, we're not a joke. We're dead serious." 

Hackett: "I don't actually think there's anything wrong with wearing a stetson. I like a nice stetson..." 

Goulding: "If anybody had told me 10 years ago that I'd be in a country band, I'd have shot myself. But it's great, it's different, it's refreshing. Lurchers, ravers, everyone is interested in what we're doing. We're always getting asked what instrument Pat is playing. But at the end of the day, our pop sensibility is as strong as the country element. The most important thing is we play catchy songs." 

Hackett: "People will get a better idea of what we're about when our album comes out later in the summer. Every track could be a single. If a song can't be released as a single, you shouldn't bother recording the fucker." 

••• 

The Rockingbirds hold Arthur Lee in the same high esteem as Jonathan Richman. They're still buzzing about meeting the legendary Love frontman and Sixties acid casualty a couple of weeks ago. They blagged their way backstage at Lee's London show and, after a few puffs on his pipe, agreed to drive him to his Liverpool gig the following day. 

Goulding: "Arthur took about an hour to check out of the hotel in the morning and eventually emerged with no luggage, just a plastic bag with a toothbrush and loads of hairsprays and gels inside. He climbed into the back of our transit, put two pairs of shades on, lit his pipe, and smoked and slept all the way. 

"At one point, we stopped off at a motorway service station and he staggered out saying how happy he was to be in Liverpool. The best bit was when we returned to London the next day and found his plane ticket back to America screwed up in the corner of the van. We had to bike it to the airport for him." 

Hackett: "I love the way that Arthur is a brilliant performer but a total wreck the moment he walks off the stage. Going up to Liverpool with him was an incredible experience, especially for those of us who dropped acid. It's the done thing when you're with Arthur, isn't it? After the gig, we stayed at a castle with some bloke Dave knew but hadn't seen for years. There were lots of other people there too and Dave spent the whole night trying to remember which one he knew. Talking of which, how are you gonna remember this interview?" 

Er, the tape recorder on the table should help. 

"A tape recorder? Oh. Yeah. Right." 

••• 

The interview is interrupted when a hippy wearing a tea cosy on his head barges open the front door and strolls through the living room without saying a word. A few minutes later, after a lot of banging and crashing in the kitchen, he returns carrying a tray crammed with a dozen or so mugs of coffee. Some nifty elbow work on the door latch and he disappears into the street. 

"He's one of our neighbours," says Goulding. "The poor buggers haven't got a kettle. They lost it in a game of cards." 

Oh. Right. Are you worried that The Rockingbirds might be perceived as a novelty act?

Tyler: "In a way, we are a novelty act. All good bands are novelty acts. I mean, fucking hell, why aren't more bands trying to do something a bit different? All these indie groups, these Spindryer bands, not only sound and look the same, they've even all got the same name now." 

Goulding: "They're all so miserable too. We like having fun, both on and off the stage. We usually have to be thrown out of venues at the end of the night. We usually try to keep the party going right through the next week or two." 

Never mind Walt Disney, Tex Avery is probably trying to get in touch with The Rockingbirds as you read.

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