TEXAS IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK IT IS
‘Texas is not what you think it is’
‘What do you mean?’
Well it is not all Monument Valley and tumble weed.’
‘So what is it?’
‘Well mile after mile. Make that hundreds of miles after hundreds of miles of pine forest.’
Imagine this rather abstract conversation being had in a Lancashire burr and a tempered Scottish accent.
The conversation is between Tim Whittaker and myself. And we are having it in the bay window seats of The Grapes in Egerton Street, Liverpool. It was Tim Whittaker telling me about Texas. This was back in the Summer of 77.
I had first been in awe of Tim Whittaker in late 1972, when I had just started at Liverpool School of Art. It was his prowess on the bar billiard table in the common room of the sculpture department that I was in awe of. No, that is not quite right, it was not so much at his prowess at the game, it was the way that he would talk while playing the game. He would just come out with these random facts, that you could never be quite sure if they were actual bona fide facts or not. But the way he said them made you believe you were hearing them from a Zen master. I had a tendency to believe everything he told me.
Between late 1972 and the summer of 1977, Tim Whittaker had graduated from Liverpool College of Art to become the drummer with local superstars Deaf School. And I was still in awe of him. But this was the first real conversation that I had ever had with him. Before then, it was as if Tim had been addressing the room, or eternity or some other vague higher presence, but on that summer’s evening in The Grapes in Egerton Street, Tim was actually talking to me. He was telling me, Bill Drummond, what Texas was really like. Like how it did not look like anything we knew from the Cowboy & Indian films we used to watch as kids. And Tim knew because he had been there the week before.
Deaf School had just returned to Liverpool like conquering heroes from their coast-to-coast tour of the USA. Nobody in Liverpool since The Beatles in 1964 had done such a thing. (Okay, that last statement is not quite true as I know The Liverpool Scene toured the States in the early 70s, but I will not let that get in the way of this story.)
And here I was actually talking with Tim Whittaker on the day they had flown back, and he is listening to what I have to say as well. Not that I remember what I had to say.
Tim then went onto tell me about a film he had seen in Los Angeles – Yes, they had actually gone to Los Angeles and played at the Whisky A Go-Go, where The Doors used to play.
‘Bill, it will go down in history as the greatest film ever made. It was like The Bible and A Hard Days Night rolled into one, but set in the future and in space.’
‘What was it called?’
Over the next 19 years I had many other conversations with Tim, all of which seemed to contain a strange ethereal magic that was not entirely down to the words he said, but the way that he said them. It was always if Tim was dealing with a logic that was not quite of this world. Without him The Lonely Spy would not have sounded so lonely.
THE LONELIEST SPY
David Balfe and I had attempted to make our version of a disco record. This was back in 1979. But we were neither black or from the USA, thus it was not a disco record as would be understood by the makers of disco records in New York or Philadelphia, where the great disco records were being made. But our disco record did feature Syndrums which in our book was the hallmark of any great and unashamed disco record.
As far as we knew no one else in Liverpool had attempted to make a disco record*. Nobody else would have dared. Our disco record was called Touch and we, the artists, were called Lori & The Chameleons. Lori was an art school girl we had seen on the street and thought looked the part, Dave and I were The Chameleons. We released the record on our own independent label Zoo. It was then picked up by a major down in London. Dave Lee Travis made it his record-of-the-week on his afternoon show at BBC Radio 1. This meant he played it on every afternoon for one whole week. It rose to number 70 in the national charts. This seemed phenomenal to us. But it did not rise any higher. If you were to listen to the record today on You Tube you might be surprised that it ever got that high in the first place. It was also the end of our career as the producers of disco records.
But the major record label that had put the record out wanted another record from us. So we wrote a song called The Lonely Spy, it was as far from disco as you could get. Even as we were writing it we knew it to be a sure fire number one. But we also knew for it to be a number one it had to have an X-factor. Something mysterious and that could not be explained. All the greatest number ones in the history of pop music had that mysterious thing that could not be explained, whatever the genre, be it Strangers In The Night by Sinatra or Albatross by Fleetwood Mac. I could give you at least another 40 examples but now is not the time. Instead I will tell you that the most mysterious thing that we knew and it was something that definitely could not be explained was Tim Whittaker. If we only got Tim Whittaker on the record in any capacity then some of his mystery would rub off onto the recording. Tim agreed to play timpani drums on the record.
We drove down to Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire south Wales in Dave’s dad’s car. Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen had been recorded there, that had definitely been a number one with mystery and a record that could not be explained. If Queen could make that record at Rockfield studios we could make our number one there to.
It took us three days to make the record. Other than Lori doing her vocals, Dave playing keyboards, Tim playing percussion, me playing the acoustic guitar parts we got in a bloke to play the trumpet. Tim didn’t play an actual drum kit, he just played a military side drum as if he was in a marching band and on top of that he played a pair of timpani drums. On a pop record even at the birth of Post Punk this was unheard of, it gave the record mystery way beyond what Dave and I could muster.
On the eight-hour drive back to Liverpool, we knew we had a record that had enough weirdness and unexplainability it would probably not just be a number one in the UK but around the world. Nothing would stop it. Tim did not seem as convinced as Dave Balfe and myself.
When the record was released, it did not even make the top 100. That was the end of Lori & The Chameleons. But it was not the end of Dave Balfe and I working at Rockfield and using trumpets and timpani wherever we could on the two albums we made down there. These were the debut albums by our then charges Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes.
Tim Whittaker’s unseen influence can be felt wafting through both of those albums without him ever actually being on them.
As an artist Whittaker’s greatest works were not the actual paintings that he did or the percussion he added to certain recordings. His greatest works were contained in the conversations he had with people. The influence of his mystery and unexplainability found its way across a whole generation of Liverpool music maker, poets and thinkers. Without those conversations the cultural life of not only Liverpool but this country would be different in all sorts of unseen and subtle ways. And far less the rich for it.
We loved Tim for reasons we could not explain then and still not to this day.
*‘What about the Real Thing?’ I hear someone at the back mutter.