THE FLAME BURNS ON for Davy Little ex- guitarist with NWOBHM band Axis


Davy was guitarist with Axis, who along with Fist, White Spirit, Mythra, Raven and Tygers of Pan Tang were at the forefront of the North East New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Axis released their first single in 1980 on Neat Records and appeared on various Heavy Metal compilations. He also played with The Pauline Gillan Band, Kashka and now his latest project Lies of Smiles…. I bumped into former Axis guitarist Mick Tucker at Crash Crallans funeral in 2008. Mick worked with Crash when he was drummer for White Spirit plus working together on Tank’s Honour and Blood album (released 1984). It was a terribly sad occasion, but we chatted about old times and new. In fact it was Mick who kick-started the Lies of Smiles project, he suggested bringing in his nephew Pat O’Neill (Black Rose guitarist) and Tony Thurlow (vocals, Berlyn, Panama). He said he would contribute to the album as well.

The opportunity to work with him and the other guy’s was certainly an incentive. So I got in Chris Wing on bass and keyboards and Keith Naylor on drums from my Pauline Gillan days. We started writing. Pat O’Neill already had the basis of four tracks. We then completed the other songs, which became Cross and Claw released 2010. Absolutely brilliant that I got to play with these great players. Mick guests on a track called Fallen, a beautifully crafted solo.

Pat is an outstanding guitarist as is his Uncle Mick, but Mick trained us both, while I am not in any way in that category of guitar player, I was trained well and I know how to get the job done.  The album was produced by Fred Purser at Trinity Heights studio. Fred used to be guitarist with Tygers of Pan Tang so we knew each other from back in the 80’s. He is a great producer, great musician, a joy to work with.

Do you look back on your time in Axis ? Well back in 2011 Jaap Wagemaker and the MD Steffen Boehm from High Roller Records got in touch with Mick Tucker about an Axis album. I believe their thing is releasing stuff from the NWOBHM era. They already acquired the rights to the single Lady/Messiah and asked if we had any old recordings. I gave them 3 live and 3 studio recordings. What a job they did of the vinyl and cd Flame Burns On, with an 8 page booklet and the original Axis poster for Lady.  They were a great company to deal with, no arsing around, just did the job in spectacular fashion.

What is the story behind Axis getting involved with Neat records ? After a year of gigging we had some interest from Neat Records. They had seen us twice in Sunderland, and then Newcastle Mayfair. I say interest but I always got the impression they weren’t interested at all. I can’t say it was great working with them. Everything was an information fog, if you didn’t see it, it wasn’t true. So my first impressions of record companies wasn’t a good one.

They didn’t think we were heavy enough for the Neat label so put us on a subsidiary label Metal Minded – go figure. Anyway I didn’t really care, it was a way to get something out. The single Lady did really well. Although it seems to be the B side Messiah that gets the more favourable press. We did go back in the studio later with a couple of changes to the line-up. This time Sam Blue was vocalist (Emerson, Samson, Ya Ya) and on bass was Phil Brady (White Spirit). We recorded Flame Burns on, You Got It and One Step Ahead, they have appeared on various compilations.

I’ve only two good memories of Neat. Meeting Chronos from Venom, before he was Chronos of Venom. He worked there and was friendly, articulate, mad on drawing, and he did tell me his band were going to be the heaviest ever! I also met Fist guitarist Keith Satchfield and had seen him play with Warbeck, Axe and then Fist. Great player and writer. When I was in the studio and keeping to the Neat sound of tinny reverby guitar, he told us how to set our amps up so we didn’t get the tinny reverby guitar! Rather kind I thought.

When did you first get interested in music ? I was 15 when I started listening to the first Sabbath and Uriah Heep album’s. When I was 16 I started work at the shipyard so had some money. We would go to Redcar Jazz Club and see Mott the Hoople, Atomic Rooster, Hawkwind and Curved Air.

I also met a great blues player in the shipyard, Kenny Relton. He had a band that did clubs, the White Folks Show band, he used to let me go to gig’s with them. They covered some great tracks, Mountain, Cream, Fleetwood Mac. I think that is really the point I thought this was a good idea. Ken would give me pointers and let me play his Gibson SGs, and L6S guitars. Ken is a great player still, I think he despairs that I play heavy metal (laughs). So I had a basic lesson in all the good things, work ethic, presentation, he was a ‘get it right’ sort of lad.

I also caught UFO and Priest early on at Sunderland Locarno. I actually saw the classic Schenker/Chapman line up. Plus of course one of my great loves Blue Oyster Cult. They influence me lyrically. I don’t think many British bands have the humour, the satire, razor sharp observations, the out there poetry. So my paltry attempts at conjuring images of Sci-Fi wastelands and Starscapes usually falls a bit short of the mark (laughs).

Can you remember your first band ? I had seen Axis live with their original line up. They were great musicians.  I always thought Axis were principally a good blues band, lots of Hendrix, Robin Trower, Wishbone Ash.

In 1979 I was looking for a band to join, I was 23 so late as a guitar player. I went to audition as second guitarist and I remember having to learn a couple of Scorpions, Deep Purple and UFO tracks. However it must be pointed out that I did arrive with a fair amount of cash from my welding job. There were probably better guitar players than me that applied, but I was older and had a decent job. I suspect I bought my way in. You know, give me the job please and I will buy this massive PA (laughs).

The chemistry was good and I got the job and Axis were the first band I was in. Mick Tucker was and is a ferocious guitar player. I knew I could work and learn from him, try to create something different. We had a darker design for Axis.
Who else was in the band ? I was surrounded by great musicians. Mick already had the line-up he wanted. Marty Day (drums) Paul McGuire (keyboards) John Cunningham (bass) Neil Grafton (vocals). They were all very patient with me as I had a pretty steep learning curve. Initially we did lots of covers, Blue Oyster Cult, Scorpions, UFO, Montrose, but our main aim was to have our own stuff as the main part of the set, it just took time.

Can you remember your first gigs ? First gigs were Thornaby Cons club. Lots of the NWOBHM bands played there like White Spirit, Limelight, Son of a Bitch who went on to become Saxon, Tygers of Pan Tang and Vardis. The circuit was pretty good, the Warrington Lion, Sunderland Locarno where I sat on every toilet seat in the dressing room so I could have my arse where Michael Schenker once sat (laughs).

Me and our manager John Lancaster were big pals with White Spirit’s manager Mike Sanderson so we supported them a few times. Gigging was always fun with Axis. I was in a band that is all that mattered. We travelled the length and breadth of the country.

Any road stories from that time ? A memorable one was when supporting former Thin Lizzy guitarist Eric Bell at a local gig. We’re in at midday to set up a huge wall of Marshalls, drum riser, lights, smoke bombs the whole nonsense. Hey we were local heroes (laughs). Then Mr Bell and band arrived. You can imagine the headliner walking in and seeing this mountain of shit on the stage. But what a gentleman, we were young and full of it. He was very gently spoken and just said ‘This isn’t really the way it works lads’. Then much to our relief he said ‘but it’s fine, we don’t need much room, not bothered about a sound check’.

I remember it was packed to the rafters for Eric Bell, not for us, but we did ok. His drummer set up after us. Bass player rolled his amp on, Eric Bell rolled either a Vox AC30 or a Fender Twin on to the stage and blitzed the place. No arsing about, no demands, just played like true pro’s. What a lesson, what a professional. Of course we thought he was brilliant, his band were brilliant, his last words… ‘Pleased you enjoyed it, now you know there is no need for all that shit on stage, and don’t ever fucking set up before the main band gets there’ (laughs). A year later went to see him at the Redcar Bowl and he introduced us to his new band with ‘These are the cheeky bastards who set up before we even got to the gig’ (laughs).

Another time our bus had broken down so we had to hire a Luton van to get us to a gig in Wales. We were on the road to Tonypandy when the Luton stopped, back doors opened and we get out looking at a battered bridge over a gorge in Wales. If you were a sparrow you wouldn’t have landed on it! Apparently there had been a lot of storms that caused structural damage so there was a sign that read something like ‘Safe load..?’

Well this Luton with all the kit and us in it must’ve been well over the limit. To turn back would take hours, so our manager John Lancaster and soundman Paul Cleugh said… ‘Just jump in the back lads, we’ll turn round and find another way’. So we did, like fools. Back door shuts, van rev’s like it’s in a drag race, sets off with wheels screeching and us holding on to anything. We go 200 yards then stop and the back doors open. We have just gone over the bridge of death. Mr Lancaster and Mr Cleugh crying laughing to shouts of ‘Are you fucking mental’. I asked why they didn’t just let us walk across the death bridge. The answer was… “That would have been no fun at all”.

What happened to Axis ? The story ends with guitarist Janik Gers leaving White Spirit to join Gillan and Mick Tucker leaving Axis to join White Spirit. We found it hard to replace a guitar player like Mr Tucker, plus we had too many line-up changes in a short time. Axis called it a day. Mr Tucker later joined Tank and is still touring and putting great albums out now, they have a really healthy following.
Pauline Gillan Band

Where did you go then ? I joined the Pauline Gillan Band who were initially signed to Mausoleum Records, but then Powerstation got us out of that deal, so we signed to them. They were good people I liked them. They had Chrome Molly on their roster and later Little Angels. A couple of singles came from the album Hearts of Fire and we took it out on the road touring extensively around the UK and Europe. I brought John Lancaster the former Axis manager in as road manager. He was and is a great fixer. We also had decent management, a guy called Jim Sculley, also Black Rose’s manager. He worked his ass off for us and spent a lot of money. We did a Tyne Tees TV live music show called TX45 and that was good fun.

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What studio did the band use to record the album ? We went into Fairview studio in Willerby near Hull. It was like Club Paradise compared to Neat. In reality we did what we could, but we weren’t great writers. Powerstation did bring in some outside writers and we recorded some of that stuff. Not sure what happened with it, may have appeared on a compilation.

Have you any road stories from your time in the Pauline Gillan band ? I remember playing in Watford and we had a very famous guest backstage, the drummer from The Sweet, Mick Tucker – not to be confused with Mick Tucker from Axis/White Spirit/Tank. He was very straight with us.. ‘I’m looking for bands to produce, I want to take you into the studio and record that song you do, it has hit written all over it’. The song in question unfortunately was Eric Martins Just Another Pretty Boy and it had been a hit for Mr Martin in the USA. We covered it in the set and he could obviously spot a tune, but unfortunately we couldn’t write one. He didn’t finish his beer (laughs).

Whilst on tour we had a particular Spinal Tap incident in Scotland. We stayed in a great hotel for a few days in a place called the Bridge of Allan and got to meet Jack Bruce (Cream) – he lived there. We bought the biggest bass cab you have ever seen off him. This particular night our management had got us a fill in gig, rather than sit on our arses in a nice hotel we had to get out and work. It was a workingman’s club and we knew we were in trouble when we looked at the juke box. All country and western, the stage had silver and gold tassles at the back. They told us to do two 45 minute sets. Which we didn’t ever do, I mean the night before we had played Glasgow Apollo a real hard rock venue.

Anyway we set up, soundchecked and you could see the bar staff with their mouths open at the sheer volume. Lots of shuffling from the committee men. That night we emptied the place in around 5 minutes, but like troopers we carried on at full tilt. I noticed two white haired old dears sat right at the back, drink in front of them, just staring at the stage. Between a break in a song I said to Pauline ‘When we’re finished I’m going to buy them a beer. Who would have thought the two oldest people would stay through this’.

We came off stage, got changed and were told by the committee that our services would not be required for the second 45 minutes, fine by me. I went to ask the two old people what they wanted to drink just as their carers arrived with their wheelchairs… they couldn’t get out if they wanted to (laughs).

But it was hard for Pauline being constantly compared to Ian (Gillan) who is one of the greatest rock singers of a generation in one of the greatest bands of a generation. But in Pauline’s defence she never wanted to call it The Pauline Gillan Band that was the record company insisting. But it worked and we got great gigs, festivals in Europe, great hotels. Oh we also got backstage passes for some spectacular Deep Purple gigs on the Perfect Strangers tour. We did our best as Pauline did, she was great to work with, fun, articulate and liked to party. I enjoyed that time immensely.

I only have good memories of the Pauline Gillan Band. We seemed to gig forever, that made us a tight band and we had fun wherever we went.

Did you work in any other studios ? After Pauline Gillan I recorded with a band, Kashka. That was for Curain Records who put us in Fairview Studios, the Producer was John Spence.  We had Dave Bell, guitar, Chris Wing, bass/keyboards from the Pauline Gillan Band and our friend Mick King on drums. We worked with two great girl singers Lorraine Crosby and Jackie Fox, and we really found our thing as writers. The usual thing tons of interest. Isn’t there always? Even from the Queen management, they called and said Brian May was interested. We got a lovely letter off him saying he had crashed his car whilst listening to the tracks! He particularly liked the two girl’s voices.

So story goes he took it to America with him. However the view from their company in the USA was that they had factories churning out great girl singers and this type of AOR. As it happened neither of the girls could commit to gigging. They both had decent well paid careers as singers, we couldn’t afford them and they understandably didn’t want to do anything on a flimsy promise of stardom.

What are you doing now ?  I always think Lies of Smiles is what I wanted Axis to develop into. You know the Starscapes, Warscapes, God as an Alien, Lucifer misunderstood. Aliens as controllers of the human race and all that heavy metal bollocks in all its glory.

On both albums Cross & Claw (2010) and Dreams of the Machinoix (2015), Lies of Smiles have produced two huge granite slab’s of classic 80’s hard rock enhanced by Ronnie James Dio ‘Mob Rules’ era vocals. Both album’s benefit from slick, solid, meaty production courtesy of Fred Purser at Trinity Heights studio in Newcastle. Ticking all the boxes of any respected heavy rock/metal album.

There may be another Lies of Smiles album, 3 is a good number, it’s enough to tell a story! Dependant entirely on the boys in the band, we have the means to do it so it’s just time and commitment, and for no other reason than to create. Simple as that.

What does music mean to you ? Maybe it’s mathematical, the laws of physics and mathematics apply to the planet, the Solar System, the Universe. ‘There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres’. (Pythagoras). Thing is music is entirely intertwined with mathematics, even a basic major chord can be described mathematically.

But just listening to it is one of the most important things in life. It touches people and has a deeply profound effect on people’s emotions. It elevates people, makes them happy or sad, brings back vivid memories of times and places. The creativity, comradeship and feeling of creating something from absolutely nothing. Looking back it was all fun, still is. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Contact the band on their official website:  https://www.liesofsmiles.com/home

Interview by Gary Alikivi  June 2019.