The Shapes Sensible People At Heart.
When Punk Rock finally arrived in quaint old Leamington Spa in 1977 it did so in the form of The Shapes. To locals The Shapes were our very own Sex Pistols - & we meant it, maaaaaan.
In their life-time The Shapes released 2 7 45s The Part Of The Furniture EP & Airline Disaster/Blast Off the first on their own Sofa Records - & the 2cnd on Terri Hooleys legendary Good Vibrations Records (home of the immortal Undertones Teenage Kicks EP amongst several notable others: Rudi. Victim & The Outcasts, to name but 3).
The groups entire catalogue was assembled for CD by the saintly John Esplen @ Overground Records in the late 90s & is still available as the Songs For Sensible People CD - now!
As a young Punk I witnessed the glory of The Shapes live many times they were probably as much of an influence on my own entry into the world of Punk Rock as the Pistols & The Clash & I could actually touch them! Probably even smell them too!!
That pungent aroma was set to hang around for far longer than I could have ever imagined at the time. For Rat Scabies & Captain Sensible read Seymour Bybuss (Ben Browton) & Brian Helicopter (Gareth Holder). The clown princes of Punk Rock UK (Warks Div 1).
Copies of either Shapes 45 will today set you back a pretty penny the EP can fetch upwards of £50 - whilst Airline Disaster is a snip @ under £20 if your very, very lucky.
The legacy of The Shapes has absolutely refused to go away - & some 25ish years later the group is a relevant today as it ever was. Come with us now as we delve into the murky depths of rural pogo-tacity one more time for the purpose of posterity & putting the record straight.
Employing the skills of a yr average CIA headcount Jean Encoule eventually (it took 2 years) tracked down Seymour Bybuss & Brian Helicopter to their London & San Franciscan homes (respectively) to sauté them in a sturdy griddle pan with a few courgettes, mushrooms, tomatoes & - obviously, a large clove of garlic. This is what they had to say:
trakMARX - How & when were you bitten by the Punk Rock bug?
Ben - I had a schoolmate Andrew who heard that The Stranglers/Sean Tyla Gang/The Vibrators were playing in Oxford (October 1976). We took the train from Leamington. At Banbury a couple of punks got on. They looked amazing in black leather and spiky hair and shades and winklepicker boots. Dressed up - as opposed to all the hippy dressing-down at the time. We introduced ourselves, exchanged phone numbers, and went to the gig, which was brilliant. A couple of weeks (?) later, Andrew and I went to Lanchester Polytechnic, and saw The Clash/Sex Pistols. This was when I was smitten; the adrenalin noise and energy and paint-spattered boiler suits of The Clash, the casual anger of The Pistols and especially by the enormous stage presence of Johnny Rotten; his rubber shirt and cigarette-burned arms and flaming orange hair and snarling sneering. I met the bands backstage afterwards. I was struggling to understand why I felt in the presence of something so powerful. After the gig, Andrew and I walked all the way home to Leam, our heads buzzing with a wierd energy. I noticed that I was walking differently; I had accquired a punky slouch. Lastly, at the local Art College Christmas Party, the two punks from Banbury pinned me on the dance floor, and with a rusty old pair of scissors, they hacked off all my hair. That was about it...I became a punk. I dressed punk, I listened to punk music, I hated hippies, maaan! The next stage, having been so inspired, was to contribute to the movement...
Gareth - For me, pretty much as soon as I heard it in early 1976. I was introduced to it through the dear old Sex Pistols as were most people of the time. I had actually read a review of them in the NME and they sounded very interesting. Then I saw a whole bunch of their first single Anarchy In The UK in the bargain bin at the Regent Record shop, so I got one for 35p. As it was an original EMI copy, it was probably the most valuable record I ever bought. I played it until it wore out, and all before anyone had sworn at Bill Grundy. When they hit the headlines, I was already well primed. I started buying anything I could get my hands on, and so it wasn't long before you ran into the like-minded souls, which is really where Seymour comes in.
trakMARX - Why was it so much more exciting than learning how to play the riff to "Smoke On The Water" & growing your own denim?
Ben - Because all that stuff was another generation's revolution. Leamington was stuffed full of hippies. All they ever did was get hideously stoned at "hoots" and listen to long-winded old Robin Trower albums and dribble down their dirty shirts and mumble incoherent rubbish about the universe. I did not want this! I wanted noise and anger and energy! I was eighteen. I had angst. I did not want hippies, and I did not want the staid life of my parents. I wanted something more real, more urban. I wanted to live the power I was hearing in Punk music.
Gareth - Well, to start with, I have to admit that I didn't start playing when punk came along. I'd already been in several bands before that, which although they didn't play Smoke on the Water, came pretty damn close. What I liked about it was the urgency and immediacy of it. We didn't have any expectation of having to be "good". We could just do whatever we felt like, which for a monumentally lazy person like me, was right up my street. I didn't want to make serious music, and my previous record collection was full of Slade and The Sweet, with a liberal splashing of the more "serious" glam like Roxy Music. It just seemed like the most natural thing to listen to and to play.
trakMARX - It is alleged that your first "show" featured Seymour & Brian Helicopter miming to "At The Hop" wearing a Gorilla mask & playing an old out of tune piano (respectively). Is that true?
Ben - Actually, it was my audition to be the singer for The Shapes before The Shapes came into official existence. It took place in the sitting room of my then-girlfriend's parents house. There were enormous floor to ceiling curtains. I decided I could make a grand entrance from behind them. As the first bars of "At The Hop" rolled out (played hideously badly by Brian on the family piano, I emerged from behind the curtains. To enhance my chances of succeeding, I was wearing a plastic "Planet Of The Apes" mask that I found behind the sofa. I think I just jumped around for a bit, probably until we both collapsed with mirth. Looking back, it was quite prescient. It seems to typify what came later in terms of Shapes attitude; playfully subverting convention, seeking entertaining daftness, gentle anarchy. Oh, and I got the job!
Gareth Unfortunately, no. It does seem more interesting than what happened really though. Ben had been trying to get it together to play the drums, but lacking a kit was proving a problem. We decided that he should be the singer, and so to prove that he could do the job, I played "At The Hop" on his mum's piano, while he ponced around the front room in a gorilla mask. It seemed to make perfect sense at the time, but re-reading that paragraph leads me to believe that the odd jazz cigarette might have been involved.
trakMARX - The Shapes had an early encounter with John Peel...how did that occur?
Ben - A friend of mine from Stratford College told me last-minute that there was a slot playing for the John Peel Roadshow that night. The Shapes rushed over there, and played the gig. I don't remember much about it, but in retrospect, it was probably an early lucky-break...however bad we were, we had come to the attention of John Peel, the foremost champion of Punk at that time. It would seem that a story (unbeknown to us), started unravelling that very night...
Gareth - Well, I was having it off with my girlfriend in delightful Balsall Common when I got a call from Ben saying that a band had dropped out of a gig at the Stratford College and we could go support The Mekons if we got over there fast enough. Well, we did indeed get over there fast enough, and got to play. However, we were in that early formative stage that is known in the serious papers as "embryonic", or by everyone else as "shite". I mean, we really stunk it up if I remember correctly. We didn't have much material, none of it was any good bar one or two songs, and Ben and I fought constantly with the other two, who really had no business being in a punk band. John Peel was right on the money when he opined that we were "wretched little beasts."
trakMARX - How did the "proper" Shapes line up come about?
Ben - It was when Brian came back from his failed academic career at Newcastle University. He was serious about us doing something. I think he had what I might call "organisational skills" in terms of running a band, having played in crap Leamington bands in the past. His bass-playing was way superior to all the previous bassists. He got Dave Gee in on drums, which led to Tim Jee joining on guitar. Gareth then put an advert in the NME, which led to the diminuitive and whiffy Steve Richards joining on second guitar. I think by then that there was an underpinning of semi-professionalism about The Shapes that led to the need to go into the recording studio.
Gareth - Well, the two duffers finally bailed out on us, and Ben and I were stuck looking for people again. We put an ad in the NME and found Steve Richards that way. Dave Gee had just joined as the drummer, and he put us in touch with Tim Jee, who luckily for Tim, was no relation to him. That's how The Shapes really got going. We had just enough of a reputation that anyone who wanted to join us knew what they were getting into. We could all play too, which was a refreshing change.
trakMARX - Which local venues cause you to go all "misty-eyed" when you recall those heady early gigs?
Ben - The ones connected with The Shapes; The Crown Hotel where we cut our teeth and challenged the existing hippy bands. The Spa Centre which was the equivalent of a stadium gig and from where we were banned for causing a baked-bean fight when our useless manager emptied a catering-sized can of beans over the audience during Wot's ForLunch Mum?, The Pump Rooms because we played a great sticky gig there, the wooded hill overlooking Stoneleigh where we did an open-air Free Floating Festival, the bandstand in the Jephson Gardens when we played the Leamington Festival, Bath Place Community Centre where we did the Leamington Rock Against Racism with local reggae bands, Barford Village Hall where we played for singer Sarah Jane Morrises 21st Bad Taste birthday party which was raided by the Police (I was eating cold baked beans on stage at the time).
Gareth - They're all al blur now, but at the time, they were the core of the circuit. Norwich Boogie House, Nottingham Sandpipers, Barbarellas, The Marquee. It's not so much the gigs that I remember, more the driving, and motorway food. They all blended into one another though, because they are all essentially the same. A dingy room, a toilet/dressing room, sticky floors and a nice kebab on the way home with an assortment of the main bands equipment. As far as Leamington Spa went, there was really only the Crown Hotel and the Spa Centre. We did both of those so many times, we should have been named on the lease.
trakMARX - Apparently, the Part Of The Furniture EP was financed by the sale of Brians goldfish. Was it a very large goldfish or a very small budget?
Ben - Er, I think it was a large budgie, not a small one.
Gareth Both. Actually, what I ended up selling was my Honda 400/4 because all of the rest of the buggers were skint. I paid for the lot. The actual studio bill for the whole Shapes EP was 71 quid. Not bad really. We got the money back several times over, and although I wanted to spend it on a solid gold hat, I ended up using it to keep us in gigs, which was really the general idea anyway.
trakMARX - These recordings were the start of a fruitful working relationship with L/Spa resident recording guru, Johnny Rivers. What do you remember about the other contemporary combos coming through the Woodbine Street doors around the same time?
Ben - John Rivers was my landlord in 1977; It was the first time I left home. I rented out a room on the top floor of the Woodbine Street studio. This is a diversion from the question but I think that's how it started- we had recorded there before the EP session, and John was very supportive, very encouraging about The Shapes while I lived there. John was gay, and he lived there with his then boyfriend Tim. I learned a lot from John about the burgeoning gay world and about sexual expression, and it felt at the time as if I was living through two revolutions - the punk one and the gay/transgender one. There were gay newspapers lying around that I read. It was all a revelation to me. He used to take me to the gay club at the Pump Rooms. It was the time of Tom Robinson's anthem Glad To Be Gay. As I said, this is a diversion from the question, but I wanted to put the record straight(!). I think in some senses, John helped to create the sound of The Shapes, because we were not just paying to be recorded. There was emotional trust and friendship between us.
Gareth - Well, there was the local old school types like The Defendants and Screeens. Neither of these seemed all too chuffed at The Shapes overtaking them on the road to vast riches. I think they sort of looked down on us a bit, because we were not considered serious enough. There of course was the venerable Flackoff too. Of course, Johnny recorded Ghost Town for the Specials there too, so that was his first number one. For all I know it's been his only number one, but I've been out of the loop for a bit. He had all sorts going through there, but I think The Shapes were his first real success out of there. He was so chuffed he came down to the BBC sessions with us.
trakMARX - The debut EP eventually sold around 10,000 copies - a very respectable number - did this feel like relative success at the time ?
Ben - I remember at the time that we were very frustrated. We had many more orders coming through for the EP from distributors and record shops than we could supply. I think we lost a serious amount of sales given the amount of exposure John Peel gave us at the time. Meantime, there was the everyday business of gigging and song-writing to get on with which distracted us from a serious business approach. Because we were doing the music without proper management, we had no sense of competing with a higher layer of bands like The Pistols or The Buzzcocks or The Banshees. We were just happy to see people turning up to our gigs and supporting us.
Gareth - Definitely. That was about 9900 more than we thought that we would sell. It's still selling now 25 years later. I guess it has that quirky innocence that you could never deliberately create. Enough time has gone by that I can listen to it without curling up into a ball.
trakMARX - The Shapes supported some very big groups back in the day, including the Cure, The Fall & the godlike genius of The Saints. What memories do you have of those shows & what were the bands you played with like to work with?
Ben - I remember when we supported The Killjoys in Birmingham. I had a copy of "Johnny Won't Get To Heaven" which I liked very much. After the show Kevin Rowland told me he thought I was one of the best punk singers he'd seen...that encouragement lasted with me for ages. The Saints were very friendly at The Ulster Hall in Belfast. That gig was another revelation to me, because we played with bands from the Good Vibrations roster such as Protex and Rudi. It was eye-opening to be in Northern Ireland, seeing soldiers with guns in the street eating an Ulster fry in the Europa hotel. People were so kind and friendly to us despite the troubles. I remember the other bands like The Cure were pretty distant with us; I guess we were just a provincial band in their eyes. But hey! even back then there was money to be made from a successful band, and we were just audience fodder in their eyes.
Gareth - I remember them all. Some were OK, some were complete arses. The Fall were OK, but a bit miserable, The Cure treated us like shit, The Killjoys hated Kevin Rowland, our guitarist punched Spizz, Talk Talk were really miserable, we had a lot of fun with The Photos because they were country lads like us, etc etc. We used to pick supports for bands we liked because we couldn't afford to pay to see the buggers. It was all quite exciting sharing backstage and dressing rooms with some of these bands. In the end, the mystique of the bands like the Fall disappear somewhat after you've seen Mark E Smith in his underwear eating chips. The Saints were good too, if only for the complete descent into dissolution of Chris Bailey. Protex, Rudi, The Flys, The Models, the list goes on. I'm having flashbacks trying to remember it all. I do remember the driving though, as I said. What I did notice though, was that even though they were famous, all the bands were as skint as we were. Somebody was making money off it all, but it wasn't us.
trakMARX - John Peel was very supportive with airplay for the EP. How did the session you did for his show go off?
Ben - I found it deeply exciting, to be in the studios of the BBC, doing something I had heard other bands doing for years; recording a session. The adrenalin was running. It helped my singing. I can still hear this when I listen to the tracks on the Songs For Sensible People CD. It only took a day, but it felt liberating to be in a strange studio miles from home and in which we had limited time to make our mark. When John Peel broadcast it, he did all these funny little knowing introductions to the songs in his inimitable dry style "it's those little rivulets of oil creeping across the wings that worry me..." for Airline Disaster, and "I think someone must have slipped some of that Spa water into my fodder..." for Leamington. That was it for me...I was so proud that we wrote a song about shitty little Royal Leamington Spa, and that millions of people were going to listen to it that night. That was my highest point in the career of The Shapes.
Gareth - It was a hoot. We were like the country oafs we were in the big city. We drove down, got arseholed, played a blinder and got paid. Even then, I had the feeling that "this was it". We were in a huge studio with a name producer, and no one was trying to throw us out. We responded to this great occasion by trying not to steal too much, although Dave did fuck up a set of tympani for the BBC light orchestra. Much hilarity followed. It was a grand day out to be sure. I loved the huge sound they got. We actually veered pretty close to heavy metal there for a bit.
trakMARX - How did you hook up with Terri Hooley?
Ben - I just remember he came to Leamington, and plied us with vast amounts of beer in The Warwick Arms. He was a very warm, funny man. He did his glass eyeball stunt. When I came to the next day, Brian told me we were doing a single for Good Vibrations Records.
Gareth - We were looking for somebody to release the second single. We thought that if we could get someone to do that, we could concentrate on touring and playing more. We had already recorded it ourselves, but we had trouble getting a deal that we liked. At the time, the head of Virgin records distribution was a guy called Willie Richardson, and he put us in touch with Terri Hooley, who it has to be said, was then, and probably still is, quite mad. He came up to Leamington Spa, and we went to the pub, and before we knew it, we were a Good Vibrations band. It was much the same as not being a Good Vibrations band actually, just with less money, but significantly more alcohol.
trakMARX - It must have been great to be on the same label as The Undertones.
Ben - It was then that it hit me that we had attached ourselves to another movement from another community. I felt that the concerns of Middle-England Shapes were a bit insignificant compared to the label's main roster, living as they did in such a dangerous trouble-riven place. In retrospect, I feel happy to have had that association, and to have seen first-hand, on two occasions in Belfast, the way that Politics and Religion can tear communities apart.
Gareth - It was indeed. It did lend a certain cache to it all. We played Belfast a couple of times with all the Good Vibrations roster. All of them except The Undertones, who were far too grand at this point to be seen in the company of a bunch of rural oiks like The Shapes.
trakMARX - Eventually alcohol, women & very poor drugs began to tear the Shapes apart (Mmmm?). What are your memories of the death of the Shapes?
Ben - It wasn't like that. We recorded Planet Skaro/My House Is A Satellite/Jennifer The Conifer with John Rivers in the hope that we could get back on track by releasing another EP. This never happened. I think my head had moved on...I wanted to get out of Leamington. I felt I had run out of things to say. It's why I insisted on putting Blast Off as the last track on Songs For Sensible People...kind of a swansong. My lyrics were inspired by Bowie's Space Oddity (a song I love)...it was about going into Outer Space and never coming back, losing communication with the past. I applied to go to Art College and eventually escaped to Goldsmith's in London, a place where I felt I could start a new life.
Gareth - Well, we never really officially split up. We just sort of got tired of doing the whole record, gigging, record thing. Time and tastes had sort of passed us by too, and we were very much in our own little niche. We could have gone on doing what we were doing, and ended up like The Toy Dolls, who although very good, are clearly influenced by The Shapes, and still trotting it out in the same size of venue that they've been in since 1983. You have to give them credit for it, but I don't think I could do it. For The Shapes, we just sort of stayed hanging out together, but we just stopped doing so much driving. Eventually, we all drifted off to other things, but we all stay in touch. I still am in contact with all of the ones that matter.
trakMARX - Sitting around in the rubble at the end...did you ever get the feeling youd been cheated?
Ben - As an artist, you do the best you can at the time with the resources at your disposal. It's all zeitgeist. Certain time, certain place. Winners and losers. When something has no life left in it, move on to the next project.
Gareth - Not really. We actually worked hard at it, got as much success as a band like us could get at that time, had a lot of fun, and were right in the middle of all the exciting stuff. At the time, I felt that we could have done more, but looking back, I'm still very proud of it all. The fact that I'm doing this now 25 years on, and talking about a release again means that we had a place in a few people's hearts. I get email from people who have rediscovered us through the CD release, and they all seem really happy that they can play Batman in the Launderette again, and I'm happy for them. Now where's my cash?
trakMARX - How have the lives of the men that shaped the Shapes shaped up?
Ben - I have continued a creative life, a journey that has led me to some interesting places. I am currently running Ambassadors Of Plush, a music collective playing the first songs I have written since the demise of The Shapes. We will release a three-track CD in the very near future. Find out more, including my full biography, at:
Gareth - Well, I'm sure that Ben will fill you all in on the wonderful world of plush. I stayed around playing for a number of years after The Shapes. I made some more albums and did more tours and sessions and generally lived the rock lifestyle. Then I decided to give it all up and become a professional skydiver, which I did for a number of years. I moved to the USA, became a citizen, and live in San Francisco. I still skydive at the weekends, and build Harley Davidsons in my spare time. I have a cat. He is called Colin. Tim lives in Lewes, and is still quite insane. He is a fine artist I believe, but he may be lying to me again. We still talk and he keeps threatening to come over and visit. I keep threatening to move if he does. Steve Richards turned out the most normal of all of us. He is married, works as a printer, and has a grown daughter. He raises show horses in his spare time, and does quite well at that it seems. He is three feet tall. Dave runs a staff recruitment agency in Northampton. I believe he has started playing again. No plans yet for a reunion and tour though I suspect.
trakMARX - We understand plans maybe afoot to re-issue the EP & possibly the compilation "Songs For Sensible People" (Overground Records) on vinyl in the near future - any news?
Ben - Correction; there is a possible re-release of "The Part Of The Furniture" 7" vinyl E.P. with original artwork ina limited edition run of 500 copies. John Esplen has no plans to re-issue the "Songs For Sensible People" CD., and the rights have reverted back to us. There are around thirty copies of this left from the original 1000 release in 1998, which can be ordered from me via above Plush website.
Gareth - I have heard that a company was thinking of re-releasing the first single on vinyl, which would be very cool, and every now and then, I get a request to release a track on another compilation. It's still ticking along merrily. The rights to the album have reverted to us again, so if anyone wants to release it again, they know where to find us.
trakMARX - The Ambassadors Of Plush are set to rise from the ashes of The Shapes. Whats it all about, Alfie?
Ben - The Plush project is a very small dinghy at present, so no. The nucleus of it is my songwriting, which is a summation of my musical and life experiences of the last twenty-five years. It operates as a loose collective, with musicians guesting on tracks, and the occasional live outing. I would love it to turn into an ocean liner one day, gliding through the shark-infested waters of the musical ocean, but we'll see.
Gareth - Buggered if I know, skip. You'd have to ask the Ben for that.
trakMARX - How do you feel about the interest surrounding the band so long after the fact?
Ben - It's odd. I had a kind of amnesia with regard to my time spent as the singer with The Shapes until 1998, when John Esplen from Overground contacted me. It was only then, when I discovered that compilation CD's had been released in the 1990's featuring Shapes tracks, that I began to realise what was going on. Around that time I was also contacted by Danny Holland, who had a band in Kircaldy in Scotland called "The Muck". He must have been half my age, but loved our songs. He sent me local newspaper articles which had photos of them posing in the pub with cardboard shapes on their heads, just like we did back then. He sent me a tape which contained the song "John Peel", in which they ask "Where are The Shapes?". Even more amazing, he sent me a video of a live performance by The Muck doing "Wot's For Lunch Mum?" and "Batman In The Launderette" and "Let's Go (To Planet Skaro)". It was amazing. I think they played the songs better than The Shapes ever did, and the songs still sounded really fresh ! I can't really gauge the level of interest in us, but that period was a fantastic period in the history of popular music, and there are stories to be told. If I keep being asked to recount details of the The Shapes small contribution to that movement known as Punk, I'm more than happy to do so.
Gareth - Well, it's very satisfying. We were dismissed by a lot of people because they thought we were contrived and not serious. They were right about the not serious, but we were never contrived. We just did what we thought sounded good. We approached the whole thing with a complete naivety that I think still sounds refreshing even now. You can tell that you're listening to a bunch of oafs having a good time. We've outlasted many of our contemporaries in some ways, and I think that a lot of people can actually say they liked us as a guilty pleasure. It's still nice to think that you made a little dent on some people's lives in a good way.
trakMARX - Is it better to shine now than have burnt out then?
Ben - It's just great to have done The Shapes thing and be proud of it, but also great to still have the energy for new projects.
Gareth Absolutely! I think that we had a definite shelf life. We just didn't know it at the time. I would have hated to just slog on and on for diminishing returns. I think that we are best remembered as we were. No Holidays in the Sun at Blackpool for The Shapes. At least - not yet anyway.
trakMARX - And finally...if you had your time again...would you change anything?
Ben - Impossible! Then again, if I had a Tardis or an H.G. Well's type Time Machine...hmm.
Gareth - Yes. I'd be much richer, have more hair, and a solid gold hat. You know, I often thought what we could have done differently, but then I think it wouldn't matter. If we all went back today, we'd still just be The Shapes, and bugger it all up again in our own special way. It would be fun though.
Jean Encoule tMx11 09/03