Previously unpublished essay commissioned to celebrate The Wire's 300th issue
The A Band occupy a key position in the evolution of the UK underground. Acting as a lightning rod for players like Richard Youngs, Neil Campbell, Sticky Foster, Stream Angel and Stewart Walden, the group brought together many solitary musicians who were then working - primarily intuitively - with new experimental forms. In providing a social network and a creative context for their various appetites, The A Band highlighted the common technique that underlined all of their work: the practice of improvisation. Yet it was an approach to improvisation that owed little to the breakthroughs of jazz, extrapolated more from weirdo rock records and ‘primitive’ folk music than any previously articulated modern praxis. The A Band’s revolving, big band line-up emphasised the collaborative, interactive aspect of improvisation while doubling as a team that could ensure safety-in-numbers when the audience, as they inevitably did, rose up against them at open mic nights and support slots for conventional indie outfits. The Old Angel in Nottingham is the venue most associated with the group, a room above a pub in the city centre where they regularly staged their own actions, adopting the kind of guerilla thinking that has long been a necessary survival strategy for free music in the UK, from The Spontaneous Music Ensemble through Hession/Wilkinson/Fell. But unlike SME or AMM or The Music Improvisation Company, The A Band had no ideology and no formal models. They didn’t see themselves as expanding or exploding any particular genre. Instead they functioned as an umbrella for a range of diverse agendas, a shelter for committed non-musicians, disaffected punks, Hawkwind fans, dole boys, bookish English eccentrics and self-taught players drawn from a variety of backgrounds. In many ways they were closer to defiantly democratic assemblages such as Terry Day’s People Band, Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra or even Gavin Bryars’s Portsmouth Sinfonia, though their lack of any discernable angle differentiated them from the more conceptually-focused art music collectives.
The origins of The A Band can be traced back to a series of off-the-radar art/prank outfits put together by Stewart Walden and his brother Martin in Paignton, Devon in the early to mid-1980s. Two groups were particularly important: The Strolling Ones, a duo inspired by surreal British comedy a la Monty Python and riotous atonal noise, and Well Crucial, a conceptual performance unit that worked as cover for a host of otherwise unconnected cassette tape primitives, all tracing their lineage back to the Waldens and with cells secreted as far away as the Isle Of Skye. By the mid-80s Richard Youngs, then playing in his own experimental outfit Omming For Woks, made contact with The Strolling Ones, including them on a compilation cassette on his own Jabberwok label which in turn came to the attention of Neil Campbell. Campbell penned a fan letter to Youngs, raving about Omming For Woks while castigating The Strolling Ones as “the worst thing I’ve ever heard”. In the summer of 1986 Mark Turner, Campbell’s bandmate in his own post-Throbbing Gristle outfit ESP Kinetic, helped organise a music festival in Kettering, Northamptonshire, then Campbell and Turner’s home town. He somehow managed to scam Omming For Woks onto the bill while setting up The Strolling Ones as comperes for the weekend (much to Campbell’s disgust). In the event only Stewart Walden made the trip up from Devon, dressed in two suits, one on top of the other. “Why two suits in the middle of summer?” Campbell asked. “Because as of now,” Walden replied, “I’m moving to Kettering.” A few weeks later and Campbell was a member of the group. Well Crucial had infected and subverted yet another local scene.
The A Band’s accidental evolution effectively liberated it from
any formal or conceptual considerations. First coming together in
1990 as an impromptu backing band for saxophonist Vince Earimal,
the group originally consisted of Neil Campbell on bass, then
moonlighting in various “shambolic rock bands” after the implosion
of ESP Kinetic and the suicide of Mark Turner, and drummer Jim
Plaistow, a joiner who was also Earimal’s employer. Earimal’s
background was ostensibly in jazz but his diverse interests led him
to all sorts of fringe activities and he was a naturally ‘out’
player. As a teen he had been a prize bodybuilder, an ex-Mr
Nottingham. For the first gig Plaistow assembled a percussion frame
with circular saws and springs on it. Campbell rose to the bait,
tackling his bass with an electric razor and triggering loops of
Earimal’s clarinet before the trio ended the show with an impromptu
version of The Fugs’ “Carpe Diem”. “That's Vince all over,”
Campbell insists today. “He was a sax player, had a gig, then
mysteriously ‘lost’ his sax, possibly had to pawn it, so he
borrowed a clarinet instead.” For the second gig, Earimal failed to
turn up at all, thereby forcing the hand of chance and setting the
stage for the first ‘true’ A Band performance.
4 June, 1990. Upstairs at The Old Angel in Nottingham, Richard Youngs gives a performance of his minimalist spoken word/stand-up comedy routine “171 Used Train Tickets” (later issued by the Fusetron label as an etched one-sided 10”). Arachnid, as the nascent A Band had been christened by Earimal, wait in the wings. As it becomes increasingly obvious that Earimal isn’t going to show, Campbell and Plaistow begin recruiting band members from their friends in the audience, inviting Stream Angel (his actual name, as changed by deed poll) to sit in on a Casio sampling keyboard and Youngs to join on guitar and vocals. By this point Youngs had released his first solo album, Advent, on his own No Fans label and after donating it to a few local record stores he had gone back to find it filed under Advent the group instead of Richard Youngs the solo artist. Campbell ran with the joke, introducing the group as Advent and the first song as “Richard Youngs”. “We thought this one sounded great,” he boasts. More gigs followed, with Earimal by this time all but a rumour and the ranks swollen to a rotating membership of about 20 players including Youngs, Stream Angel, Stewart Walden and Sticky Foster. On the way to a gig in Newark, Plaistow was showing off an anglegrinder that he intended to use on his percussion frame a la SPK and Einstürzende Neubauten and suggested that the group change their name to Anglegrinder for the night. Arachnid, Advent, Anglegrinder… the concept of The A Band finally made itself known not in any kind of instrumental or conceptual methodology, rather in the endless permutations afforded by the gravity of a single, arbitrary letter. “Vince’s absence - there’s another ‘A’ word - was his most important conceptual contribution to the band,” Campbell maintains.
In the meantime, Youngs’s solo career was gathering limited but enthusiastic attention in the US underground after he sent copies of Advent and the debut album from his duo with long-term collaborator Simon Wickham-Smith, LAKE, to Forced Exposure, then a magazine published by Jimmy Johnson and ‘edited’ by Byron Coley. In issue 17, from 1991, Johnson described the final track on the LAKE double LP, credited to R!!! and S!!!, as “a full boar guitar/fuzz/trance-organ/moan monster in a higher mind Spacemen-jamming-with-Cale-in-’66 kinda way” going on to suggest that “some people sit around listening to Moondog & Branca & La Monte & Boyd & NWW & Daniel & C.O.B. because they like to, and they end up blowing their allowance making records like this just to muzzle-fuck you up. Can you say the same?”
After a run of performances that met with what Youngs describes
as “either indifference or bemusement” the conceptual hardcore of
the group – Campbell, Youngs, Foster, Angel, Plaistow, Walden –
pooled their money in order to book some recording time and cut a
7” single. Everything was recorded live to 2-track and Youngs took
the tapes back home to Harpenden where he edited two sections from
the least ‘commercial’ sounding jams and sent them off to the same
pressing plant that he had used for Advent. The untitled 7”,
released on Any Old Records in a run of 500 copies, was immediately
dispatched to Forced Exposure, using Youngs’s name as a way in.
While still struggling for gigs at home, the Stateside interest
slowly began to increase, with the result that Tom Lax’s Siltbreeze label, then the home to
the bulk of the most interesting experimental underground music –
The Dead C, V-3, Alastair Galbraith – offered to release what still
stands as The A Band’s finest recorded moment, 1993’s Artex/A
Lot LP. The second side was particularly inspired, featuring a
live recording of a 15 member line-up (which even featured Earimal)
‘conducted’ by floating member Neil Lent with everyone playing
‘quiet’ acoustic instruments while various interventions - Sticky
Foster breathing fire, players situated across the length and
breadth of the room - took place. The sound pre-dates and
anticipates much of what would later be dubbed ‘free folk’.
But by the time of the LP’s release, The A Band had all but ceased to exist. Youngs was more focused on his solo work and his partnership with Wickham-Smith while collaborating with Walden and Campbell on the Durian Durian album released the same year by Forced Exposure. Campbell became more involved with punk actionists Smell & Quim and, later, Vibracathedral Orchestra. Plaistow gave up music altogether, eventually moving to Hungary to start a family. Foster moved to Edinburgh to study anthropology before heading off around the globe to teach English as a foreign language. Walden continued to work with Campbell, first on an unreleased album with the group name Off and then with Smell & Quim before psychological problems intervened and he found himself living in a caravan in Herefordshire. He recently changed his name to Stewart Keith and now lives in London. Stream Angel dropped off the map altogether, even spending some time in jail, though in recent years he has re-surfaced, DJ-ing, running a mail order service for ‘odd’ second hand LPs and masterminding a cassette label dedicated to archiving some of the more esoteric fringes of the UK underground, including a live 1989 recording under the name Gay Animal Women that features Richard Youngs, and a 1988 grindcore album recorded by the duo of Angel and Campbell.
Across the span of their short existence The A Band provided a rallying point for progressive musicians who were comfortable with neither the monochrome transgressive modes of the post-Industrialists, the more theoretical approach of established experimental music or the maudlin singer-songwriters that then defined the contemporary independent music scene. Instead they enthroned energy as the central organising principle of the music, drew their interests in extreme timbre from rock, their tendency towards repetition and drones from minimalist composers, devotional World music and their limited instrumental palette. At their best, they confused the deliberate and the accidental with all of the inspiration of the greatest outsider art. Indeed, much of what was to happen across the next decade in terms of innovative English music can be traced back directly to the The A Band and their circle, from the high-profile activities of the various players (especially Campbell and Youngs) through their inspirational example, the efficacy of their organisational model and the way they liberated exploratory modes from decades of accumulated intellectual baggage. “We felt totally at odds with almost everything going on in the UK at the time,” Campbell maintains. “Many of us having come through the whole post-TG post-Industrial thing, the boring old Charles Manson, serial killer, existential angst thing was as distant as the post-Smiths mainstream direction so-called ‘indie’ music had headed in. When I first saw Forced Exposure and realised that someone else apart from me and my small circle of friends viewed Half Japanese as one of the Important Bands, it was like another one of those portals into a more interesting universe than the crap UK weekly music paper thing on the one hand and the fake misanthropy of the post-Industrial scene on the other. It was more open and exciting and fun.”
In April 2007, possibly due to a renewed awareness of their historical import, The A-Band re-grouped for a return performance at Warrington’s 4th Festival of Improvised Music with original members Campbell, Walden, Lent and Foster joined by new generation players like Pascal Nichols (of Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides) and ‘Joincey’ (of Inca Eyeball/Ghost Of An Octopus et al). Earimal was, of course, nowhere to be seen.
David Keenan is currently writing a history of the English experimental underground entitled Crime Calls For Night