A Long Cold Winter

In which go on tour with XTC
Random Hold releases an EP (!)
And Polydor come up with several silly album covers

 

Early November slipped somberly past. The complete failure of 'Etceteraville' to generate any excitement, interest or airplay had still further eroded Polydor's faith in the band. On the other hand, as Polydor had done precious little to help the single, it's failure was something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The 'season' at the Marquee helped cheer spirits somewhat. First up, Paul Suter of Sounds penned a decent review, although he missed half the set:
PAUL SUTER, Sounds, 10th November 1979
In which the Marquee plumbs new depths: well would you expect the headliners to go on at 8.45? So yours: truly's decision to watch assorted cinematographic faux-pas on the TV ("For those of you watching in black and white, the yellow ball is behind the blue . . .") before shifting his butt resulted in a mere 50 per cent dose of Random Hold and a firm resolve to see the whole set next time; 'cos they were magnificent.
Any band containing a drummer from the Glitter Band (Peter Phipps), a bassist from Matching Mole (Bill MacCormick) and a guitarist (David Rhodes) who's been working on a Peter Gabriel album is likely to have an interesting approach, and Random Hold don't disappoint on that score.
The assorted synthesisers of David Ferguson are the major element of the sound, couching everything in an eerie air of unreality, which is built upon with a sparse rhythmic approach from the rest of the band, tending to fill out as the number progresses The effect is hypnotic and incredibly powerful, particularly on one song which builds a doomy drone into a shattering climax with a deliberately, discordant guitar break: My notebook simply says 'gasp' at this point . . . 'breathtaking' is a feeble understatement, but the best I can manage.
If parallels have to be drawn, Japan are probably the closest comparison. Both bands rely on creating a surreal atmosphere with their keyboards and then playing briskly but mysteriously on a percussive base, raising the tension.
They tread between the realms of absolute garbage and stirring hard rock, and securing an image and an audience is not going to be easy whilst pursuing this act of brinkmanship. Hopefully they won't be put off though, because the tension and excitement that they generate should by rights be their key to success.
And, on 1st December, Allan Jones again rode to the rescue with a half-decent review of the third gig:
RANDOM HOLD, Marquee, London Allan Jones, Melody Maker, 1st December 1979
WE always seem to meet in the most inauspicious circumstances, Random Hold and I. Last December I saw them in Bermondsey: an audience of one in a derelict rehearsal studio. Later that month Random Hold were threatening to outnumber the audience at the Music Machine. I was relieved last Tuesday to find that they'd invited along a few more friends to the Marquee. Fortunately, there was no evidence of the uncomfortable self-consciousness that has so afar afflicted their studio work.
Tuesday night found a band in control of its (quite considerable) resources, sure of its direction without being predictable. Since the departure of Simon Ainley (gtr/vcl) much of the audience's attention is now directed at David Rhodes. Rhodes responds admirably to the demands of new responsibilities. He seemed not to miss Ainley, and the second guitar was missed noticeably by these ears only on "The Ballad". Rhodes was constantly busy, but his contributions were adroitly placed and newer cluttered. Solos were infrequent, sometimes reluctantly offered, but memorable throughout when they occurred.
The diffidence at their early gigs has been replaced by a cautious confidence. Both Rhodes and David Ferguson (keyboards and vocals) are now more extrovert, though MacCormick still looks nervous and uncomfortable, teeth clenched, eyes glazed, on the far right of the stage. Crucially, they've learned to communicate the intensity of their music without resorting to crass effects or excessive volume. They've invested shrewdly in a modest, but cleverly effective lighting rig.
The bulk of their repertoire is still drawn from the early demo tapes, but some of the newer material - "Dolphin Logic", "The View From Here", especially is shaping nicely. Ferguson's synthesizer back drops are becoming increasingly more assured and varied - especially so on "Precarious Timbers" and "Avalanche". Peter Phipps, who has replaced David Leach behind the drums is a good rock drummer, but perhaps a little too stolid.
The evening's highlight was undoubtedly "With People Out Of Love". Ferguson's repetitive synthesizer motif and the insinuating pulse of the syndrum tape loop created a cool, menacing atmosphere. Rhodes was caught in a pale spotlight, his voice fraught with anxiety and an increasing malevolence. The piece built to a final outburst reminiscent of Roxy's "In Every Dream Home A Heartache", with Rhodes unleashing a scything solo that ran itself blind.
Random Hold aren't quite there yet, but they're on the way. Now it they'd only show Hammill the door.
On the 23rd, the XTC tour started. XTC were going through one of their more popular phases and their current single 'Making Plans for Nigel' was doing well. This bunch of intelligent west-country lads were a pleasure to play with and certainly deserved the modest success they gained over the years and probably a whole lot more. Both bands played a peculiarly English-style of rock music though their was far more humour in an XTC performance than in a typical RH one! The tour started at Nottingham University in The Portland Building, a venue that Bill MacCormick knew, having played there in 1977 with Phil Manzanera on the 'Listen Now tour.

Friday, 23rd November Portland Building, Nottingham University
Saturday, 24th November Birmingham University
Sunday, 25th November Hexagon Theatre, Reading
Monday, 26th November The Odeon, Canterbury
Tuesday, 27th November XTC to Munich for German TV broadcast
Wednesday, 28th November Manchester University
Thursday, 29th November Leicester Polytechnic
Friday, 30th November Langley College of Further Education
Saturday, 1st December Plymouth Polytechnic
Sunday, 2nd December Poole Arts Centre
There was then a fortnight's gap before
Thursday, 20th December Music Machine (not with XTC)
Saturday, 22nd December Friars, Aylesbury
Sunday, 23rd December Brunell Room, Swindon

So, hardly the most strenuous of tours then. Along the way, in the first week of December the next phase of Random Hold's cunning plan for world domination was allowed to escape by their less than enthusiastic record company.

'Avalanche' was part of the strategy designed by Polydor to use up as much as possible of the material so expensively recorded over the summer. It was an EP (Extended Play for those of you too young to remember such things and was a strange hybrid, half single and half album) and it fell again to the Melody Maker's Ian Birch to give it a quick mauling on 8th December:
RANDOM HOLD: 'Avalanche' (Polydor RHX 1). A five-tracker that really promises more than it delivers. The Hold are clearly four gifted musicians with a bundle of ideas, but their post 'Diamond Head'/801 line of attack needs a lot more pruning and consolidation before it'll achieve the desired effect. The songs, mainly written by David Ferguson and David Rhodes, aim to build separate, forceful moods with their gradual layering on of effects and impressionistic lyrics - but they never quite make it. The blame must go in large part to producer Peter Hammill who has kept the overall sound dull and sodden rather than emphasizing the cut-and-thrust of the songs. Still, it's early days.

It came as no great shock when 'Avalanche' repeated the singular lack of success achieved by 'Etceteraville'. Again, media presence was minimal, a problem that was to beset the band throughout its life. It is, for example, extraordinary that with the potential power of the Polydor and Hit & Run behind them the band never played a session for any radio station in the UK. Advertising and in-store promotion were also noticeable only in their absence. It would seem, in retrospect, that Polydor had made an early decision not to throw good money after bad. They certainly did their level best to ensure a negative return on their investment throughout the year the band were signed to them.

As Christmas loomed, Chris Welch of Musicians Only, followed up his approving review of the Canterbury concert with a lengthy interview with the two Davids. It rounded off a difficult year with a morale raising boost.

After the XTC tour the band faced another lengthy lay-off until a resumption of rehearsals on Monday, 28th January. In the intervening period, Bill went into the Hit and Run offices to discuss the planned Gabriel tour of the UK. Peter had kindly invited the band to be his support act for the tour which was due to start in mid-February and he now had an essential issue on his mind: where to stay en route. Peter was not an enthusiastic tourer and had long since concluded that such taxing exercises needed to be done in as civilised a manner as possible. This meant the nicest hotels in the most attractive locations and so he and Bill sat down for a few hours with an AA road map and a Good Hotel Guide and planned the 'Gourmet Guide to British Rock 'n' Roll Tours'.

In the meantime, Gail Colson had been busily calling in favours from friends and two brief pieces appeared in the national press, predicting great things for the band in 1980:
Nina Myskow, The Sun, 4th January 1980
This year watch for British band Random Hold. Their music shows talent, menace, originality and brains. A dynamic combination.

Anne Nightingale, Daily Express, 4th January 1980
Hot 10 for the Eighties
Random Hold is a four-piece band from Oxford, started by ex-stage manager David Ferguson and guitarist David Rhodes. "We don't class ourselves as musicians," said Ferguson. "We wanted to do the sort of show that all kinds of people will come to. There are too many cliques in rock music."

A couple of days before the rehearsals were due to resume, Bill got a call from Robert Wyatt and was invited to play bass on a single he was recording for Rough Trade ('Caimenara') and then, on the 28th, it was down to work. All the while, the two Davids were being driven to distraction by the antics of the Polydor design department. They had been set the task of coming up with cover artwork for the forthcoming album, an issue that had already proved taxing for them on previous releases. Every few days, the boys would meet up and DF would regale them with more hilarious descriptions of new and exotic designs, none of which seemed to have the remotest connection to the music or the band. One cover that remains in the memory consisted of a fish hanging by a hook which was attached to the big toe of a human foot. The band did briefly consider naming the album 'ToeHookFish' in an attempt to confuse the unwary but then they got bored and someone bought another round of drinks to take their minds off things.

Rehearsals went on for eight days before they played a couple of pre-tour warm up gigs. The first was at Queen Elizabeth College in Kensington on 8th February was which remarkable mainly for the seeming lack of damage incurred when David Rhodes vigorously head-butted a parking meter that tried to mug him in a nearby road. three days later they played at Darwen College, part of Kent University. On the 14th they schlepped off down to Shepperton Film Studios to do some run throughs with the Gabriel sound team on one of the big sound stages (a facility not often offered to support acts). A few days later they picked up the large Peugeot estates that was to be their transport for tour and early on Wednesday, 20th February they piled into the car and headed off down the M4 towards Exeter.

The Gabriel tour was on.

 


Random Hold, Canterbury Odeon Chris Welch, Musicians Only, 8th December 1979

Art has been known to imitate nature. In the challenging world of Random Hold, art sometimes appears to imitate science. Are they the first DOR band? (That's Disco Orientated Rock to you). Do they have a future? These and other significant, questions taxed my concentration during an intriguing performance by the band at Canterbury Odeon on Monday last week.


It never ceases to amaze me how by a subtle blend of herbs, spices, talent and influences, musicians can keep coming up with new directions within the format of modern rock. Random Hold are succeeding in creating a new sound and approach by melding together various factors that affected their individual pasts.


For example, their drummer Peter Phipps , with pop star looks, was once a driving force in the G band which backed Gary Glitter. Hardly promising material for a band which consists mainly of ex-Dulwich College chaps? Not at all. His muscular drive and metronomic beat is the perfect foil for the more cerebral aproach adopted by synthesiser operative and founder member David Ferguson. The unswerving drum-machine beat produces a manical, almost Teutonic thunder, and indeed one of their themes is set to a spirited march tempo. Occasionally they use a Roland rhythm box, but most of the solid slog comes from the flesh and blood machine.


But one should not gain the impression that Random Hold are producing music for mindless automatons. There is a refreshing intelligence to their lyrics which deal with subjects like the terrors of motorway driving, modern architecture and patriotism, and they have a flair for melody as in the appealing item from their Polydor EP, 'Montgomery Clift'. On this piece guitarist David Rhodes comes to the fore, although none of the band are into displays of technique and scarcely solo at all in the accepted sense.


Ferguson freely admits he is not a keyboard player of any great skill. Nevertheless the sound and concept of the band is strong. Rhodes has a great voice - very clear, very British, and exerts the most effective stage presence. As the band develops and wins a bigger fan following they would be well advised to smarten up their visuals, although they confide that they don't want to fall into the Gary Numan trap.


Bassist Bill MacCormick was previously a member of Quiet Sun, Matching Mole, Gong, This Heat and 801 and indeed it was exposure to Phil Manzanera and Eno's 801 that provided initial inspiration to form Random Hold.


Some of the music has a frantic, Mediterranean feel about it that reminded me curiously of Cat Stevens. 'Central Reservation' had that disco beat behind simple keyboard chords and clear, white light vocals, and 'Dolphin Logic' featured heavy, sustained chords alternating with Morse code-like repetition, like a tape loop left in an abandoned, remote-controlled radio shack. 'Flag' marched with terrifying determination, and reached a groaning climax.


The audience, despite a vociferous lobby for the main group XTC, were moved to applaud in a manner that was both heartening and encouraging for a new group and with a more vigorous stage act they will soon win their own brand of loyalty.


The Gear: David Rhodes (guitar): Fender Stratocaster, Fender Jazzmaster, Dan-Armstrong See-Thru.,Roland JC 120, Roland 201 reverb/echo, Boss 10 band Graphic Equaliser, Black Box Fuzz.


Bill MacCormick (bass): Wal Pro 11 bass guitar, Aria SB 1000, Fender Precision, Peter Cornish pedal board (fuzz, phase, envelope), Ampex V4B, Ampeg SVT cabinet.


Peter Phipps (drums): Sonor Silver Pearl kit, comprising, 22in bass drum, Premier 51/2in snare drum, Sonor tom toms including 14, 15, 16 and 18in. Paiste 15in hi-hats, 18in 2002 crash and 22in 2002 crash, Zildjian 20in crash and all Premier stands.


David Ferguson (keyboards): Korg 800 DV, Micro Korg, Mini Korg, Logan String Melody, Wasp synthesiser, Roland 101 Echo, Stylophone, Yamaha 100W amp, Roland rhythm box, Coloursound fuzz, MXR blue box, Boss 6channel mixer and many tapes and tape loops.
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