Mond Cowie was guitarist with Angelic Upstarts from 1977 to his last album for the band Reason Why in 1983.
‘I was getting interested in the recording side of things and taking note of what could be done in a studio as by then we had worked with a few different producers with different styles. Result was I produced our album ‘Reason Why’ in Alaska Studio’s in Waterloo. It was owned by Pat Collier bassist with The Vibrators. I got some great guitar sounds in that studio and I remember the sound of the guitar solo on Solidarity especially, very Paul Kossoff I thought! I’m really proud of that one’.
Who were your influences in music ? ‘I was listening to bands like Free, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple when I was about 15. My favourite guitarist then was Paul Kossoff from Free, I really liked the Les Paul sound he had and in fact my first guitar was a Sunburst Gibson Les Paul like his. I bought it out of the Exchange and Mart magazine. Me and a friend drove down to London and I paid £320 for it. In my time I had three Les Pauls stolen, one from a gig in Glasgow (when I got stabbed in the back the same night, the joys of touring with The Upstarts) another in New York and one when Lynx Studios, where I was working, was broken into’.
How did you get involved in playing music ? ‘I was originally in a club band with Decca Wade on drums, we were playing rock standards, some Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy and the odd chart songs in the workingmens clubs on Tyneside. We also worked together in Hebburn shipyards, I was an electrician. Mensi used to be a miner. One night we were drinking in our local, The Jester pub on the Brockley Whins Estate in South Shields when Mensi came in and said I’ve just seen this band called The Sex Pistols, why can’t we do that? Mensi wasn’t a singer but neither was Johnny Rotten so we thought we would give it a go. And we did and The Angelic Upstarts was born, in a pub in Brockley Whins’.
Where did you rehearse and when did you start playing gigs? ‘The Upstarts used to rehearse in a pub in South Shields called The Cyprus and a youth club in Biddick Hall called Percy Hudson. That’s where we did our first gig when we only had 6 songs, we played them all twice and then again for the encores. Fearless eh? We also rehearsed at Temple Park Leisure Centre and ended up doing a gig there as well.
Me and Decca ended up playing in two bands, one making money in the clubs and The Upstarts which was really a bit of fun at first.
With The Upstarts we started gigging seriously around 1978, some of the early gigs were places like The Bridge Hotel in Newcastle and The Old 29 on a Saturday afternoon in Sunderland. We were the only band that they put a cover charge on for the punters because they knew it would sell out, it used to be absolutely mental in that place. You couldn’t breathe there were so many bodies in!’
‘We also booked the Bollingbroke Hall in South Shields from the Council and did a couple of gigs there. That was mostly through lack of other places to play at the time. When we stated making a bit of a name for ourselves we got invited to play at the Newcastle Festival. We played an outdoor gig in Jesmond Park with The Showbiz Kids but the most memorable was playing at Old Eldon Square in Newcastle city centre on a Saturday afternoon. There was probably over 1,000 people there because it was a lovely sunny day. We were never one for compromises so we played exactly the same set we always did with Liddle Towers, Police Oppression, Fuck Off and Leave Me Alone, it didn’t go down very well with the mams, dads, grandmas and grandas out shopping as you can imagine. Next thing we knew the police were storming into the square there must have been 50 or 60 of them, and trying to get to the stage to stop us playing but that just made Mensi worse and he started slagging them off and screaming fuck you! Fuck Law and Order! Who Killed Liddle! You get the picture! They collared the promoter to stop the gig but nobody was going to get us to stop, we were loving it. It was mad, absolutely crackers and boy did we get some press from that one! I don’t know who thought it might be a good idea getting us to play there on a Saturday afternoon but thanks for the publicity whoever it was’.
How did the move to London and signing to WEA work out ? ‘Our first album was a funny old story. We were still living in South Shields and had just signed with Jimmy Purseys label, he was singing in Sham 69 then. He asked us to come to London to record some demos so we did that and recorded everything we knew in one day. He phoned me a couple of weeks later and asked us to come back to London to hear the album. I said we haven’t recorded it yet Jimmy but it turned out he had mixed the demos and it was going to be Teenage Warning, our first album. And that’s what is was, it was recorded in one day so that must be a record for a debut album. It charted at number 29 so we weren’t going to complain. Later I heard that he and some of his friends had recorded backing vocals on some songs, but I’m not convinced’.
‘It didn’t come out on Purseys label either, he had a distribution deal with Polydor who sacked us after Mensi had a fight with the doorman but Pursey got us signed to WEA a week later and they released it. We got 25 grand off Polydor and then another 25 off WEA for signing to them so not a bad weeks work. If only we got it… but that’s another story.
By the time we moved to London we were headlining gigs like The Marquee, The Rainbow, The Lyceum and we played an all dayer at Alexander Palace organised by Jimmy Pursey and headlined by his band Sham 69. That was huge for us. We were then signed to WEA for two albums. They had some huge artists on their books like AC/DC, Foreigner, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac so it was amazing to be on the same label’.
‘When we were staying in Wood Green anyone from South Shields that was going to London for a show or the weekend would just turn up at our house and crash, some stayed for weeks, some never went home and some were never seen again, it was a magic time.
Me and Mensi wrote all the songs, I wrote the music and Mensi wrote the lyrics. We wrote very quickly but never rehearsed new material, most of the songs were created in the studio. We tried reheasing new stuff a couple of times but it just didn’t work for us, rehearsals ended up as a drinking session and lots of spliffs which I was very into at the time. The record company would have had a fit if they knew they were booking studios for us and we didn’t have any songs ready cos it used to cost around £2,000 a day for a studio in London haha.
There was a time when we were due to record a new single and the company asked us what it was about, Mensi just made up a story on the spot about the miners, he was good at that. When we recorded it, I think it was England, we played it to them and they looked very confused, that’s not about the miners they said? Mensi talked our way out of it and England was a great song so they were happy haha’.
‘But we felt no pressure, that’s how we worked and it worked for us. And we were daft as brushes and didn’t give a toss, that helped!
Mensi was a prolific songwriter, when we were recording he would turn up with an armful of songs and I would have a cassette with all my tunes on. I used to keep a cassette recorder by my bed with a guitar because I always got ideas for songs first thing in the morning. The recording process was usually me showing the bass player and drummer my idea and arranging it like: intro, verse, chorus, second verse, solo and three choruses to end. Then I would decide which of the lyrics fitted the tune. Sometimes Mensi would say how he thought the tune should go for certain lyrics, like England had to be acoustic for example and sometimes I had already decided which lyrics went with what tune but not always.
When Decca left the band I asked Paul Thompson from Roxy Music if he would stand in on drums until we found someone. He was a mate of mine and we used to drink in The Ship in Wardour Street just up from The Marquee. He ended up playing on England, Kids on the Street, the album Reason Why and he also came to America with us and did a tour there’.
What were your experiences of recording ? ‘Our first time in a studio was in 1978 when we went into Impulse Studios in Wallsend to record our first single The Murder of Liddle Towers, the engineer was Mick Sweeney. I thought the guitar sound was a bit naff but he said he would beef it up in the mix! The lying TWAT. I later found out that all engineers say things like that just to get the recording finished so they can fuck off home early so I’d learnt my first lesson about recording. The reaction to that song was phenomenal, we were really surprised, it got in all the papers and also got us noticed by The Sounds which would prove very beneficial to us. Gary Bushell became a great friend and supporter of the band.
By 1981 we were with EMI and went into Trident Studio in London where some amazing artists had recorded, The Beatles did the White Album, Queen, The Stones, Thin Lizzy had been there and of course David Bowie had recorded Ziggy Stardust there. We recorded England and a few other songs.
EMI owned Abbey Road Recording Studios so they asked us if we wanted to do an album there, well do you need to ask haha? We did the 2 Million Voices album there and that got to number 32 in the charts’.
‘We also recorded a live album for EMI using the Rolling Stone mobile. That got us to number 27. So we were hanging around the charts.
When we were at Abbey Road loads of our friends including Stiff Little Fingers used to come over every night because there was a bar and restaurant down in the cellar and everything you got just went on the bill. We thought it was free until our manager got the bill at the end of the session. He said how can one band drink so much? Haha.
The band played a couple of radio sessions at the BBC for John Peel and Mensi had the idea to write and record a song just for the session as a thank you to Peely because he was always playing our stuff. So I came up with a riff and while we were recording the backing track, Mensi was scribbling some words on a bit paper and out popped ‘Kids on the Street’. Song writing the Upstarts way but don’t try this at home kids!’
What venues did you play and have you any stories from playing gigs ? ‘In 1981 we went on our first American tour. We got there a few days early to acclimatize and The Clash were staying in the same hotel so we used to meet them every night for the happy hour. Happy hours are class in America you don’t just get nuts and crisps you get chicken wings and pizzas and all sorts. We used to starve ourselves all day just waiting for the happy hour. It was a great laugh with them and I remember Joe Strummer saying we’re coming to your gig tonight do you mind if I bring Iggy Pop? We said Aye go on then haha. The gig was in New York but I can’t remember if it was Radio City or Civic Hall but we walked on stage, the lights blazed on and Mensi screamed “We’re the Angelic Upstarts, We’re from England, 1,2,3,4” then just as I strummed my guitar there was an almighty bang, it all went dark then nothing! There was a huge power cut. They couldn’t get it sorted out quickly so we jumped off stage and went to the bar at the back where The Clash were standing and I ordered a Jack and Coke and said to Iggy Pop “It’ll be sorted in a minute, this sort of thing happens to us all the time”.
‘We played all over the States, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, Austin, Chicago, Washington, Seattle and right up into Canada – Toronto and Montreal. In LA we played a place called The Florentine Gardens which was massive and also the legendary Whisky a Go Go. Punk had become a fashion then in the States where in the UK it was all pins through the nose and glue sniffing. I remember one of the barmaids in The Whisky loaned me her sports car for the week we were there, a Datsun 280 ZX and Decca was loaned a Fiat Spyder 2 seater sports car but he couldn’t drive. It didn’t bother him, little things like that. It was unbelievable how friendly people in the US were to us. I loved it and still go back regularly for holidays’.
‘Our manager was called Tony Gordon he also had Sham 69 and Culture Club in his stable. Before he signed Culture Club, I was in the office one day and he asked me if I wanted to come and see a band that night at a club in Carnaby Street. The band was Culture Club and they were fucking shite. I kid you not, probably the worst band I’ve ever seen in my life. I said don’t touch them Tony but he signed them anyway because he thought the singer had something. I have to admit he was right because they became one of the biggest bands in the world at the time’.
What did the ’80’s have in store for the Upstarts ? ‘I was getting interested in the recording side of things and around ’83 I produced the first New Model Army album Vengeance and some singles, my favourite was The Price, after me they got in Glyn Johns to produce them so I was in good company. Glyn Johns had done Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Stones, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, The Beatles he is a legend’.
‘By 1983 I felt the band had run its course, there were no hard feelings when I left but I was looking to work more in production. Also we were on an independent label by then and weren’t getting the big advances anymore like we did with WEA and EMI, we were only receiving recording costs so financially we weren’t as stable.
I headed back home and started working as producer at Lynx Studios in Newcastle that lasted for a couple of years, it was owned by the AC/DC vocalist and fellow Geordie Brian Johnson. I has known Brian since his days in Geordie and we were close friends and still are to this day’.
Whats your thought’s today on your time in the Upstarts ? ‘You know looking back, one minute we were playing the Bolingbroke Hall in South Shields and the next we were signed to WEA in London. One of the biggest labels in the world. I remember one day me and Mensi had gone into WEA to pinch records, I had some record collection in those days, and we were sitting with our press officer, Dave Jaret, he said can we be quick lads because I’m having lunch with Fleetwood Mac and I’m going out with Rod Stewart tonight. Unbelivable eh? Me and Mensi from Brockley Whins mentioned in the same breath as those two… There were a lot of occasions when I had to slap myself to remind me it was all real and YES, it is happening. But that’s music for you, there aren’t many other jobs that can do that for you. And now here we are… 40 years later and still talking about it. Nobody saw that one coming, certainly not us, we thought we might get a couple of years out of it at the most. We must have done something right I suppose. Thank you to everyone who ever bought an Upstarts record, who came to see us playing and who supported us over the years. Thanks for the memories. It was a blast… Love MOND’
Interview with Mond Cowie 24th February 2017 at his home in South Shields
by Gary Alikivi.