Out of the ashes of North East bands Moonhead and Lucas Tyson, Sunderland band Cirkus emerged on the ‘70s progressive music scene. With the right backing they were confident of achieving success on a national scale….
Every band thinks that they have something different to offer. We also had two agents at the time, Ivan Birchall who was a true professional as a booking agent, and Mel Unsworth.
The line-up was John Taylor (bass) Stu McDade (drums & vocals) Paul Robson (vocals) Dogg (guitar) & Derek Miller (keyboards).
We played all the usual clubs and were lucky to play the University gigs. The University audiences gave us the benefit of the doubt but the club audiences were unsure how to react to our set. We opened with ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ a King Crimson song.
Incidentally we got our name from one of their tracks. In fact on several occasions, we didn’t even get to the bridge and were ‘paid off’ on a regular basis (laughs).
In 1974 the band went into Sound Associates/Emison & Air Studios in London. What was your experience of recording ?
We were encouraged by the reaction to our songs from Ken McKenzie. He owned the studios where we had demoed our songs.
This resulted in a fight for our signature between songwriters and producers, Dave Dee, Mickie Most and Chinn & Chapman. Finally we signed up with a guy called Robin Britten who was manager of The Hollies. But this is where it all went pear shaped.
We were already earmarked by Chinn & Chapman for the project known as Smokie, but Britten intercepted negotiations and we recorded the album Cirkus One, incorporating Beatles producer Ron Richards and Tony Hymas. The album included orchestral arrangements, a 32 piece orchestra and chorus.
What did you think of the album ?
It’s a good album but some of the mixes are questionable and poor old Ron was struggling. But timing is everything. We seemed to be doing alright on a retainer and with our own apartment in Central London, but as Britten was about to hand over the over produced and over engineered concept album.
The Sex Pistols were telling everyone to ‘eff off’. And prog rock was dead.
Britten lost a small fortune and failed miserably trying to get it off the ground. Anyone that has been sacked will relate to this. I still remember being called into the office and having that sinking feeling ‘Is he talking about us?‘
How did you handle this situation ?
Our bassist John Taylor, with his unstinting optimism suggested we all return to the North East and regroup. This idea was a bit of a sickener as I had just set up in London and got a job at RCA records.
The ultimatum was return to Geordieland or be replaced. For reasons I find hard to understand now, I hired a transit van and returned.
Did you have any nightmare gigs where everything just went wrong ?
We had a couple. Namely the Marquee in London where there were loads of reps from record companies to see us. What happened was that the pa actually ‘blew up’ and we couldn’t continue.
Then there was the time our manager Robin Britten was trying to sell the band, so he chartered a private plane to fly to a gig in the North East, Ashington Central to be precise.
It was a nightmare flight, with sick bags being handed around. We done the gig, but we were awful. Not a great way to sell the band.
On another occasion we invited Mike Chapman (songwriter/producer) up to see the band at the Londonderry Hall in South Shields. It didn’t start well as Chapman arrived at Sunderland station and walked into the glass doors, he was expecting them to be automatic. We thought it was funny, he didn’t.
He wondered what sort of hell he had walked into when a police car was overturned and set on fire – just a normal Saturday night in Shields. In the end the gig was cancelled.
By ‘75 lead vocalist Paul Robson left to be replaced by Alan Roadhouse (ex Halfbreed) who also played sax….
Yes, along comes Alan, multi-instrumentalist, singer and larger than life character. Exactly what was needed to kick start Cirkus the club band.
Paul and Alan were both great vocalists in their own right. Alan had a certain flamboyance which the club audiences lapped up. He also played sax and flute. This allowed us to tackle all sorts of covers from Gerry Rafferty to Moody Blues. We became a live juke box.
We rehearsed all week and had a new song nailed by the weekend. We had a winning formula that continued for several years. The highlight of the first set was an explosion of pyrotechnics at the end. It worked like a dream scaring the sh** out of most people.
Especially when sparks landed in the bingo machine and set fire to it. In the end we had to pay for a new machine (laughs).
One highlight was watching the roadies trying to use a foot pump to inflate our blow-up doll ‘Melissa’ by the end of the song (laughs).
Everything seemed to be hunky dory then ?
Yeah, at this time we were still writing new material. We recorded a couple of our own songs, Amsterdam, Pick up a Phone, and Melissa. We performed them live and mixed them in with the covers in the set. The EP sold well, and we recouped our outlay.
By the early ‘80s ‘ I’m On Fire’ was featured on a Battle Of The Bands album but this proved to be the final offering from Derek.
We were deciding if we should invest the proceeds into a new EP or divvy up the dosh. John, Stu and Dogg thought it was a good idea to divvy up and that was the beginning of the end for me. I decided to leave the band.
In my opinion we were going nowhere. We were repeating ourselves and going back to the same clubs every three months. I think the lads kept going for a few years after I left, and I lost touch with the band.
But you know looking back over the years we were lucky to be able to recruit some of the most talented guitarists, like Keith Satchfield of Fist. Yes, there was some hiccups along the way but we did have some brilliant gigs.
We did a series in Holland where the Dutch people seemed to like our original music, tho’ it might have been what they were consuming (laughs).
We had some great gigs in the clubs as well. At one time we were gigging eight shows a week, two on Sunday. My dad, who was horrified when I packed my job in at the Shields Gazette, was immensely proud to see the queues round the block on a Saturday night.
Other bands around at the time were Geordie, Goldie, Burlesque and The Piranha Brothers, that was the peak of the club land scene in the North East.
The 1990’s saw sporadic releases from the band with ‘Cirkus II The Global Cut’ and only Derek Miller featuring from the original line-up. Then in ‘98 the much anticipated third Cirkus album ‘Pantomyne’ was released.
This brought together original members and main songwriter, Stu McDade and featured cameo performances by an array of other musician’s most notably former frontman Alan Roadhouse. How did these recordings happen ?
I wanted to record some new material, so I built a little recording studio. I was working with a new singer called Ian Wetherburn, who I thought had a great voice and also looked the part.
We put an experimental album together and Audio Archives picked up on this and decided to distribute the cd. It was basically demos but I decided to release it anyway.
We pressed 500 copies and as with Cirkus One is highly collectable. Off the strength of the Global Cut album, I met up with Stu McDade and we decided to pool our resources and record a new album. Pantomyme was the result and again Audio Archives agreed to distribute.
For different reasons we lost touch until about three years ago when we decided to record some new material. Sadly in 2016 we lost Stu, leaving some unfinished tracks.
With a brand-new set of talented musicians, we managed to finish the tracks and also add some new ones. ‘The Blue Star’ album was released in June 2017 and is dedicated to Stu.
Can you bring the Cirkus story up to date ?
The new line up bears little resemblance to the original band as we have morphed so much over the years and Cirkus V is the new band.
Now we have Mick Maughan (guitars, vocals, production), Nick L Mao, (vocals, guitar, production), Brian Morton (bass) Dave Ramshaw (vocals), Paul Moose Harris (vocals) and me on keyboards.
On the back of the success of The Blue Star album comes Trapeze. We all record remotely passing tracks back and forth with someone ultimately doing the final mix. The tracks are all written by the band and as we speak the album is nearly finished.
Interview by Gary Alikivi October 2019.