Random Hold… 1983 New Wave… moved from tape to live music… against the masturbatory disco experience

The Chris Welch Interview Musicians Only 22nd, December 1979

IS THERE STILL room for experimentation with rock music, or is it doomed to be held tightly in the grip of dictates of fashion? There is nothing intrinsically wrong with fashion as a form of entertainment and light relief from daily pressures and responsibilities. But if rock becomes too bound up in ephemera and froth, then it does so at its peril. For trends tend to die very suddenly and without warning, leaving many a chief advocate stranded and gasping for air. Ideas are seized upon like deposits of uranium and get exploited in a mad scramble.

What rock and all forms of popular music urgently require are prospectors, bold individuals who are-prepared for isolation and hardship as they explore unknown territory. Without the prospectors, then reserves of ideas and energy can sink to dangerously low levels.

Among the most hopeful explorers to surface in recent months have been the studious but reasonably merry men of Random Hold.

While they tinker with synthesisers, and use guitars as sound machines rather than solo instruments, they are also known to play a mean game of pool. Random Hold have just completed their first major tour, supporting XTC where they got a fair hearing from partisan audiences and sympathetic reviews. They are still crystallising their direction and attempting to hone their stage act, which they admit falls somewhat short in the superspectacular department. But the essence is that Random Hold have put together an interesting and intelligent combination of sounds and influences. The beat is solid (but don't call it disco).

The vocals from cropped-haired David Rhodes are precise and very British, while the drums, synthesisers, bass and keyboards form a powerful, attacking raft of sound. The founder members of the band are Rhodes and another Dave - Ferguson, whose keyboards, include Mini and Micro Korgs, Logan String Melody, Wasp synthesiser and various stylophones. Rhodes plays Fender Stratocaster, Fender Jazzmaster and Dan Armstrong see-through guitars. Was the XTC tour a useful exercise for the band?

'We learnt a lot of simple things most pop musicians know about anyway,' said Ferguson. 'We learned what it's like to play in a different place every night, which we've never done before. And we learnt an enormous amount about how to present ourselves on stage. By the end of the tour we were a lot looser and there were more attempts to project.'

Did they regard themselves as rock musicians?

'We'd never considered it before the tour, although Peter and Bill did because they'd done a lot of it before in different groups,' said Rhodes. 'We had naive views that you just went along and played and people would naturally get involved very quickly. And, of course, they don't. They go to see a show a performance. You have to be careful not to be too self-indulgent. Through your actions, you should be handing over, giving the music.'

I remembered them saying once before that they wanted people to dance to their music. Did this still apply?

'We say that people should feel the music. Body movement is an essential part of rock. We want to disturb people's emotions,' said Rhodes.

Did they think they had managed to do that on the XTC tour.

'Well, it wasn't strictly our audience. We were there as guests. Paying guests! Sss, ssssh!'

There was much hearty laughter at this musician's joke. Ferguson felt that it was good experience to play to an audience that wasn't strictly prepared to see them. They had received some critical praise along with somewhat paternal suggestions about how they could improve. I wondered how they reacted to people telling them what they should and should not do.

'The reviews have been quite fair,' thought Rhodes. 'They've said we've got a lot of work to do and that's true. We've got to make the thing - an act. Having got involved in rock music we have to accept the gradings, the criteria. But it would be nice to start breaking down the categories and cubby-holes they put you in, so that people aren't always just going to see guitar and keyboard soloists.'

Said Ferguson: 'It's a shame people don't judge each individual piece of work put out on its merits. I can say there is a recent Cliff Richard single which was great, and so was the first Specials' single. You should be able to pick and choose from any area and judge them individually. But people find it a lot easier to associate with groups or cliques. We'd like to appeal to a very large cross-section.'

What was the basis of the Random Hold sound?

Said Rhodes: 'It's rather pompous to talk about our "sound". But we use all four instruments working towards one end, in a democratic way. The four sounds are supposed to meld together. We're not keyboard or guitar based as such. Our ideas haven't changed about that, but they've been damaged slightly by involvement with The Biz. But that is to be expected. We get people telling us what to do all the time. They say we are "old-hat" and that we've got nothing to offer.'

I was astonished to hear this as I was under the impression that Random Hold represented the New Wave of 1983, at least until August of that year.

'Because we don't fit into any of the current trends, they don't know what to call us. We're not on any bandwagon,' said Ferguson firmly. 'It's an incredible thing. As soon as you use synthesisers, people start saying you sound like Pink Floyd, or Genesis or Gary Numan or Kraftwerk. I don't think we sound like any of those. Neither are we mechanical nor flashy. What we are doing musically is very crude, and we're trying not to be dry about it. We're not playing Mekanik music. It's emotional music. Some nights things go better than others.

'I used to get very upset if things went wrong at just one gig,' said Rhodes. 'I'd brood over it. But you learn to accept that while you'd love each show to be complete, it doesn't always happen!' Rhodes burst into highly emotional, unmechanical roars of laughter. 'That's why we go out every night and play. We're searching for that one magical gig when everything goes right.'

Originally the band were going to release a double album as they felt every track was so important, but eventually they put out their EP 'Avalanche' on Polydor which sold for a mere £1.49. The tracks included 'Meat', 'The Ballad', 'Avalanche', 'Film Music' and the popular 'Montgomery Clift'. The EP was produced by Peter Hammill.

'The album, when we do it, will be called THE VIEW FROM HERE' said Rhodes, 'and that will be out in February. Working with Peter was good, although some people don't think it was the best production in the world. But it isn't flashy and it was true to the way we were. We've actually changed quite a lot in our approach since. But in no way are we ashamed of the EP. It was the first time we'd ever put anything on record.'

David Ferguson (26) does not claim to be a gifted synthesiser player but uses the keyboards as a tonal colour machine. He was previously a member of the experimental group Manscheinen, and at one time studied Serbo-Croat at the London School of Slavonic Studies. He also taught Drama at my old school, Catford Secondary. David Rhodes (23) was also a member of Manscheinen and studied Fine Arts in Leeds for a while before being lured to the glitter of stardom in rock'n'roll.

'I like to think I approach the guitar in the same way as Dave,' said Rhodes. 'Just making sounds. I don't know any licks or standards.'

Did this mean he couldn't play 'Johnny B Goode'?

'No way. I once spent a long time learning "Storm In A Teacup" . . do you remember that pop song?'

'Vaguely,' I lied. This was a cue for Rhodes to start singing. 'Pitter, patter, pitter, patter,' he warbled blithely. It seemed unlikely that Random Hold would fare too well in the Eurovision Song Contest. Once David had been restrained from singing any further, I asked them how these two unlikely experimentalists had come together.

'Originally we did experimental things with tapes,' explained Rhodes. 'David played stylophone and an old bass guitar which was barely in tune. We were just making noises, and the idea was to do workshop things. We had the idea the audience should be able to switch on and off various elements in the music. We never got that together. The idea was they could control what we were playing through switching or by giving them buzzers and bells for instructions. The concept came from film, where a movie goes to a certain point in the story line and then the audience can choose it's ending.'

It struck me this could lead to anarchy and chaos.

'When it came to playing the workshops, the music went quite strongly and in fact we didn't want to leave it up to the audience to decide, admitted Rhodes. 'We wanted control. We ended up doing backing for a couple of small theatre shows. We also did our own show with slides, but decided that just playing to twenty people a night wasn't much fun for them or us, because everybody felt very self-conscious. We wanted to do some songs and that's how we got involved in rock music. But neither of us had really done anything before that. Initially the songs were very stilted. We used a rhythm box and would play and sing along to our tapes for a few months.'

Rhodes and Ferguson got in a guitarist and singer who worked with them for nine months, and drummer was added. Then, after some changes, they ended up with Bill MacCormick on bass guitar who had previously worked with Quiet Sun, Matching Mole, Gong, This Heat and 801. They went through a couple of drummers and the original guitarist, and finally brought in Peter Phipps, who had previously worked with the legendary G Band.

'It was only when Bill joined that we stopped using backing tapes,' said Rhodes. 'We realised that with an audience, we needed flexibility of tempos, depending on the vibe. That's why we moved from taped to live music. We still use them far linkage, but not for effects because with voltage supplies varying you never know if you are going to be in tune with them. That was a problem we used to have. We'd be miles out. And to use a rhythm box you need incredibly close monitoring. We used to give our old drummer headphones when we were using tapes, just to keep him in time. None of our previous drummers could keep in time with rhythm boxes or tapes, except for Pete. Trouble is rhythm boxes don't swing!' said Rhodes.

A lot of their songs seemed to be concerned with the environment and put in a social context. Was this correct?

'We try not to be specific,' explained Rhodes. 'We're in an urban environment, and we try to recognise the emotions that occur within that. We don't say these buildings are wrong, or cars are bad. Our songs suggest the idea of people surviving in these circumstances, trying to cope. It's dodgy territory, you see. We might end up saying people ought to be doing something else, which is not true. Things are as they are. We are not preaching revolution. All you get from revolution is a state of affairs equally bad if not worse because the equilibrium has gone. We recognise these things and hope other people will lock on to it.'

Said Ferguson: 'Our piece called "Central 'Reservation" however is very objective. It is about speed, rush and collapse. Motorways can be dreadful places, but they can be so exhilarating. You should be able to enjoy your surroundings. Even industrial buildings can be beautiful. There is a bridge on the M40 that seems to hang suspended over the road, and everytime I look at it, I think, "that is marvellous!" Music is the same as building. You have an idea then go out and construct it. Our writing is structured. The only reason some building is awful is because they have not been thought out. The great thing about working in the music environment is it does afford you extra time to think about what's going on around you. I had to catch the Tube in the rush hour recently, and I'd never had to experience it before because of my job. But you can see what society has constructed which takes over from the individual. Nobody seems to take any responsibility. But when you are on a stage, you are in a way, responsible towards the audience and you're trying to share an experience. You've got to work at pulling that together.'

Did the rest of the band share their convictions: 'Oh yes,' choruses the two Daves. 'They certainly aren't doing it for the money! Their input is huge,' added Rhodes.

'The great thing is playing to audiences who really care,' insisted Ferguson. 'Playing those kind of gigs like Friars Aylesbury is really good for us and Peter's audience are very fair. They will get into the support act.'

I had described Random Hold's music as being somewhat disco-oriented, at least as far as the rhythm section was concerned. 'Disco is maybe a bit too specialised, thought Rhodes. 'We're more into the body feeling, and rock is body music.'

Ferguson was more emphatic. 'We definitely do not have anything in common with disco. People treat something that is very ordinary and try to make something special out of it. I find it pretty weird that we should devote large periods of time to dancing to type music, when you are not getting any emotional feedback. You are just performing, and if you are into performing, their for God's sake go out and do something real.'

I wasn't suggesting that Random Hold were a disco band, but that they used the disco licks as a pulse. Once again Rhodes was more acquiescent. 'We don't actually change rhythms during songs. But I don't see that as restrictive.' Weren't they making intelligent use of a fashionable rhythm? This seemed to cause Dave Ferguson's hackles to rise perceptibly.

'Only one song that we do has got a disco rhythm and that's "Central Reservation". On the EP some of the songs are waltzes. So? That's not particularly fashionable. And they're much slower than disco tunes.'

It seemed I had caused a certain amount of chagrin within the ranks by harping on this aspect and apologised. But it was no use. Dave Ferguson aimed a punch at my head, and Rhodes began turning over the office furniture. We fought steadily for some ten minutes and then decided to continue the conversation on a more rational level.

'I just thought it was an interesting aspect of the music,' I panted, wiping blood from my eyes and rearranging the desks and chairs. 'We do want to groove,' said Rhodes conceding my point, 'although that is a very old-fashioned term.'

'You see,' said Ferguson, breathing heavily. 'The discotheque is not a shared experience, it's a masturbatory experience, if you'll excuse the term. All they are concerned with is their own dance routines and they don't give a (expletive deleted) what the music is like as long as it has the regulation beats per minute. It's gone up to 132 now. A couple of years ago it was all 126.'

So they were experts in disco. In fact Random Hold are bringing back the fresh winds of experimentation to rock that has been in the stranglehold of formalised amateurism and bland machine-tooled pop. There are no categories for Random Hold's music, and I refuse to invent one. Go and see them, and find out for yourselves in a shared experience at your nearest human communications centre.

 

The two Davids in playful mood
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