Interview: SOUNDS (1977)

January 01, 1977

The following article by Phil Sutcliffe appeared in a January 1977 issue of Sounds magazine...

Making it - Any band with fire in it's belly, sooner or later, has to gamble on that make-or-break trip to London. This is an account of how Newcastle's highly rated Last Exit sought fame and fortune in the Big City.

Dingwall's felt more like the warehouse it used to be than the key new-band rock venue it has become. It was a downbeat Monday night. The pubs were only just chucking out when the DJ announced the support act, a name no Londoner had ever heard of, and the few dozen present hardly raised an eyebrow.

Except, that is, for the determined squad of friends clustered round a corner table. They clapped long and defiantly. The band said hello, and tore into a greased lightning piece of Horace Silver funk with everything pulsing and throbbing, the sound brash and loud. The anxious smiles on the friends' faces eased. Hey, they were going to be as dazzling as upstairs in the Gosforth Hotel every Wednesday!

The number reached a double-dog-dare-you-to-ignore-us climax and the friends went moderately bananas, hoping to keep their enthusiasm a decorous notch below ostentation. Elsewhere a few hands clattered reserved acceptance, a few feet moved away from the bar at a pace consciously not uncool.

The band were Last Exit from Newcastle. They were playing their first London gig and this is the story of how they got that far along the road towards 'making it'.

That morning Jim, the roadie who was taking a week of his annual holiday for the trip, picked me up at eight in his Bedford van. We drove over to Terry's and roused an aged neighbour but not Terry, moved on to Gerry's and loaded up his piano and an armchair for extra comfort on the trip; then went back to find that Terry had been sat ready for an hour but his doorbell wasn't working. He carefully packed his three guitars.

The tour of grotty old city flats finished, we travelled down to Ronnie's neat little box in Washington new town and piled his drums in. Gerry went to the general store across the road and brought back a bottle of orangeade. I knew London would never believe this was a rock'n'roll band if that was the only stimulant they had aboard so I scored eight ounces of Rich Tea biscuits.

Terry and Dorothy (Ronnie's friend who makes the coffee at rehearsals three times a week) got into Ronnie's Toyota (christened 'Carlsberg' on account of the four dozen Special Brews stocked in the boot) and we agreed to meet up at Leicester Forest East Services. Bassist Gordon Sumner, 'Sting' to everyone, had driven down at the weekend with his wife Frances in their Citroen Diane.

The day droned like the Bedford's engine. Stevie Wonder boogy-reggaed on through it all. Baldersby. Birmingham 84. Marton Le Moor. London 97. Stoney Stratford. London 34. We pulled up outside Dingwall's nine hours after the punctual Jim had caught me with my pants down and my boots off.

Making it? (Phase One)

In their two years together Last Exit have never had a manager. They can handle their own gigs locally and when you're usually on the gate money from bars which bulge at the seams with 100 in and give the fire chief pause to study the licence - well, you don't want an extra mouth to feed.

Anyway, Last Exit from the outset were perfectly confident they could do it themselves, no trouble. Around Christmas'74, in their early months together, they were making some welcome bread playing in the band for Tony Hatch's musical 'Rock Nativity' when they recorded their first ever demo tape at Impulse Studios in Wallsend, base camp for every Geordie rock and folk act you've heard of.

Gerry said: "We were so convinced of our prowess that we sent it off to Tony Hatch without even playing it back." He listened and replied tartly "We have a dozen bands in London who can do the same thing much better." The fact that much the same evaluation could have been made of Mr Hatch's musical would not rumple a self-esteem insulated by success, power and money.

But Last Exit's self-esteem was deflated. Gerry: "We listened to the tape. It was terrible." A swift comeuppance. Still one good thing came out via Mr Hatch. Frances was playing the Virgin Mary in his show and she and the bassman fell in love. An immaculate conception.

Last Exit peered around the exotic scene at Camden Lock: cobbled yard, canal complete with barge, restaurant, trendy shop, Dingwall's itself.

Isaac Guillory, who they were supporting, came out to meet them full of transatlantic charm and apologised that he would have to rehearse until 7.30 because he'd lost his drummer that day and was weaning a new boy to his material. "Fancy that happening on the day of the BIG GIG !," he joked. Gerry and Ronnie smiled though to them of course it was the BIG GIG.

Making it? (Phase Two)

Early in '75 they thought that maybe TV was the route to the instant break through and their chance came. A half-hour show called 'The Geordie Scene' featuring two bands each week, one established, one new, was being taken by 90 per cent of the ITV network.

Last Exit auditioned and were told: "The kids won't be able to cope with your rhythm changes." Having seen the show the band said maybe they'd been saved from a fate worse than...but they were disappointed.

Terry, famous for being other-worldly and a cake addict (yes, c-a-k-e), entertained us by indulging both pastimes - he couldn't resist a huge cream doughnut in a smart patisserie window and was so enraptured with his visions of devouring it he came out without the change from 50p.

Then they were open (a sorry half hour later than Newcastle) and it was time for me to come the heavy interviewer. Though not before a regular had regaled us with a cassette of 'Derek And Clive Live'. After a couple of pints it had begun to sound funny though one customer didn't even make it to the bar before he pulled up with a look of disgust and headed straight back for the exit. He was probably allergic to lobsters.

Making It? (Phase 3)

Maybe Last Exit weren't proud anymore. Later that same year they entered the Melody Maker rock contest. They were considerably handicapped by the absence of their then guitarist (not Terry) but they juggled the arrangements a bit, Sting played some rafter-shaking lead bass, and they came third out of thirty bands despite a record company rep's entreaties to the judges to let them through. Because only two qualified for the next round. Pondering on the fate of almost every winner of the competition so far the band said maybe they'd been saved from a fate worse than...but they were disappointed.

Last Exit was founded by Sting and Gerry Richardson as a follow-up to a band they'd had in teacher training college. At that point, two years ago, there was no pub rock in Newcastle and they desperately did not want their music to fall into the social club rut: eternal lumbering through 'My Way' and 'She Wears My Ring'.

Sting is the front man on stage. His voice is high and hoarse, truly original. His bass is a generator, an engine a funky driver from the school of Clarke and Pastorius (though he's soloed in folk clubs and played bass in a Dixieland band). He also has presence. He is a strutting axeman soul who happens to play bass just as Terry is a Sphinxlike bass soul who happens to play lead. But the boogying and the shooting from the hip isn't all.

He has commanding stillness. He's fire and ice, transfixing. He's got what Graham Parker sums up as 'intensity'. What would Tony Hatch give for star quality ? What will the A&R men give?

His sense of tender intimacy may come from his starting with several years making his own music alone at home. The ability to communicate it isn't explicable. It's one reason why Last Exit are special. Gerry Richardson is more restless, urgent, try-anything-once. Strangely enough he used to have a stall in Kensington Market opposite. To pay the rent he's registered with an organ agency, which isn't what you southern debauchees might think - it handles a pool of Hammond players for hire to working men's clubs.

With Last Exit he mainly uses Fender-Rhodes in sweet sympathy with Terry's guitar and once in a while soloing savagely, the fuzz-box wound up full. On Wednesdays at the Gosforth Hotel he'll sometimes lift the lid on the old out-of-tune upright, feed his voice mike into its innards and play some blues.

He and Sting, separately, write nearly all Exit's own material but recently he's come out as a singer and added a further dimension to the band's scope. His voice is a mainline, rough rock shout, limited but committed.

Gerry and Sting are very nice guys but their old and deep friendship seems to be also the source of the volatile mean streak in Last Exit's make-up. Their classic confrontation occurred when Gerry broke a plate over Sting's head and he replied with a bowl of hot soup. Nobody can remember what had started it but pretty soon they were rowing about which was the worse offence and it was only settled by an agreement that the fair way out was for Sting to break a plate over Gerry's head and Gerry to pour a bowl of hot soup over Sting. Have Last Exit got rock'n'roll violence?

Making It? (Phase Four)

Through '75 they built residencies at the Gosforth and a pub on the Yorkshire moors, plus a Sunday lunchtime spot in Newcastle University Theatre bar rotating with two other bands. They became favourites at a local college and picked up support gigs with visiting tour bands whenever they could.

In Newcastle they were made but, as Gerry says now,"We might as well be big in Hong Kong." So they hovered. Played a festival in Spain which was fun (summer '75). Played a couple more theatre rock musicals which was money. But what next?

That's when Frances, Sting's wife, decided to move off the sidelines. She says: "They were very naive. They would say 'We're not talking to businessmen'. Then they'd change their minds and say they'd go down to London with a tape, without making appointments...' And be greeted like Messiahs?

Sting and Jerry are in their mid-20s but Ronnie Pearson and Terry Ellis are in their mid-30s. They wear it well though in very different ways, adding the more bizarre extremes to the experience summed up in Last Exit.

Ronnie bounces. He's got a right. Among North-east drummers he's The Man. When visiting jazz soloists hit Tyneside he's an inevitable member of the backing trio - his credits include Bud Freeman, Cleo Laine, Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Stitt and Annie Ross.

And then again he's a rock'n'roller of a vintage he finds embarrassing to relate. You remember Emile Ford and the Checkmates ("Whadya Wanna Make Those Eyes At Me For ?") - Ronnie was a Checkmate. You remember Eric Delaney ("The Man With The Golden Arm") - Ronnie's singing debut was with his band. A bottle of cooking sherry, a few verses of "Midnight House" and he'd discovered the soul voice which now makes a more orthodox contrast to Sting's in Last Exit.

Later he was an early member of Back Door, the Yorkshire outfit whose commercial failure after heavy investment gave jazz-rock a bad name with record bosses which it's barely recovering from now.

And decoratively draped round these diverse monuments to our musical progress is a catalogue of utterly obscure local bands. With one of them he made a single called "The Wedding Of The Snowman" which wasn't a smash. Another he sums up like this: "We were so popular we were the only band they sent to Aberdeen during the typhoid epidemic." You do remember the epidemic don't you ? Yes, after the Black Death.

Anyway Ronnie is all right, a cork on the ocean, unsinkable. He may not have made it but he's made out, an object lesson in musical survival. He's played endless Mecca residencies, he teaches drumming, he's just been signed on as a member of the Tyne-Tees TV house band etc...hence the little box in Washington and 'Carlsberg'.

The moment he saw Sting he didn't like him: "I thought he was a punk." After the first tune they jammed together he said: "When do we record?"

It's remarkably difficult to make any rhyme or reason from the landmarks of Terry's career, you have to just accept the player you get. He learnt classical guitar from a recitalist called Mike Watson in Bristol and the evidence is still there in a left hand moving over the frets with mesmeric slowness, economy and precision, no matter how frenetic the sounds spurting from his amp.

He wrote insistently to venerable bandleader Geraldo, who was dealing with the musicians for P&O liners, until he was finally given a sea-going gig. It wasn't quite the romance he dreamed of: "I was in the Palm Court orchestra on the SS Andes. It was a one-class ship."

Ronnie: "They were all slaves."

Terry: "The youngest guy in the band, apart from me, was 50. They used to put these two potted palms in front of the stage every night before we played."

Also he spent a season in Jersey with Ronnie Rand and the Rockets: "He was a stripling of 55." Other than that the anecdotes don't come flooding from Terry's lips. He's quiet, a man who's so involved in his guitar that while he took a lead break he absent-mindedly stood behind one of the pillars that hold up Dingwall's roof. Like Ronnie he's done teaching and played the clubs and Meccas: "They demand something obvious, recognisable, not challenging. A musician stands there all night dying." And the only consolation is he's making a living.

Making It? (Phase Five)

So Frances became the 'legman'. She said: "I had to take on myself the filthy job of taking tapes round the A&R men. We thought it would be quite soul-destroying for the band to have to do that. "Perhaps it's an advantage to be able to joke and flirt with the businessmen rather than saying 'Listen. This is my tape, my art'."

She made appointments, came down for a week in the summer, and left Sting in reception minding their corgi, Turdy, while she saw the A&R men at Charisma, Island, Warner Bros, Chrysalis, Virgin, EMI, Arista... "Nearly everybody liked the music but felt they didn't know what to do with it. They said 'It's really nice and they're obviously incredibly good musicians but...' In the economic situation they are loathe to spend money on something that would be an artistic success but not a commercial certainty."

That is, no takers.

"Still it did break some ground and gave us more knowledge about the music business than we had before." Frances was getting more and more pregnant. The artists had to get back into the mire. When important phone calls had to be made she would plead backache and someone from the band just had to take it on and talk to those alarming London bigshots and money men. At last; Virgin expressed an interest and said they would watch Last Exit in Newcastle, supporting Alan Price. And not just the local rep but a delegation led by Richard Branson, the founding father himself.

Equipped with four of the finest rock musicians on Tyneside, strong and supple from nearly two years gigging and rehearsing, Last Exit's problem, posed to record companies, new listeners and even themselves, is "Who are Last Exit?"

They have the largest working repertoire I've heard of - 70 numbers ready for your delectation given one quick rehearsal, half of them self-penned. It's wonderful value for residency audiences who know they'll get a different show every time: Last Exit's own rock and sexy romance, Stevie Wonder soul, Fleetwood Mac blues, Chick Corea hyperfunk. But with money tight the record moguls demand an identifiable product to package. The new band must be definable in the handful of tracks on its first album. It must be definable in an hour-long set on its first support tour.

That's their way of looking at it and it sounds sensible.Alternatively you could suggest that tough times bring out British management's capacity for a paralysing combination of panic and extreme caution. They become stupid and insensitive and therefore assume their customers are too - their spirit of adventure dies.

Making It? (Phase Six)

In July, Sting, the last Exit to have legit employment outside music, gave up his job as an infants teacher: "The band is more important than security. I did teaching well, very well, but it wasn't for me. It was quite useful experience in not being nervous in front of a number of people, being concise and not too boring. Teaching is essentially entertaining especially in infants school where children play to learn."

And what of wife and nearly-baby? "Frances being an actress she's already into this style of life. Anyway it's been a relief: I've had two jobs for two years and I'm fucking knackered."

The commitment seemed to draw at least a faint smile from the rock'n'roll gods. After the Price gig Virgin wouldn't go the whole way with a record deal but they offered a publishing contract which brought Exit the enthusiastic support of Carol Wilson.

Carol, manager of Virgin Publishing, in her 20s, blonde, wearing tatty jeans, was at Dingwall's early. She had arranged the gig, offering them free, with Virgin recompensing Last Exit with some travel expenses plus three days in a London demo studio: "They'll be supporting at the Nashville in a couple of weeks and then I hope they'll be top at both venues. I'm doing it basically because I love their music. The decision to sign them took several months. Every time I was in doubt I'd play the tape again and be convinced. Now I don't think it's going to be difficult at all to get a deal. The problem before might have been that they were in Newcastle and record people are very lazy. It was hard to get in touch with Last Exit and it took even more effort to go and see them."

Making it? (Phase Seven)

Sting said: "We went to Carol's place for tea last night and she played our tape. It was really weird that someone from outside Newcastle, someone alien, should hear the band and like us and care about us. I never thought it would happen."

A few weeks earlier they had made the biggest group decision of all - to move to London.

Frances said: "They had to get out. It's quite nice for Last , Exit being the big fish in a little pool but in five years time they would just be old men the local kids came to for tips on how to play."

It will mean no more standing in icy phone boxes with the pips going every ten seconds while you try to hold conversations which could decide the whole future of the band. Ronnie, the only one who, in practical terms, has to do more than shift his belongings out of a grotty rented flat in the north and into a grotty rented flat in the south, is right behind the decision. They're off this month.

Sting said: "It's funny. The worse the economic situation gets the more heroic it seems, this odyssey you have to go through. But I wouldn't change it. This is going to be the most exciting period of the band's life. I'd rather be in Last Exit at the moment than in the Stones or even Yes."

When the set finished I didn't care about the inevitable lukewarm response. I was just glad they'd played well, fed on their own energy and cool, showed anyone with halt an ear open that Last Exit are something special. Everyone else was trying to shape an opinion in the vacuum of aftermath.

Gerry: "Terrible. We can learn a lot from what went wrong."

Ronnie: "I enjoyed it. For this place we did all right."

Sting: "The audience didn't really like us. You need that reaction, otherwise you have to go inside yourself. I'm used to the audience being close. If they're not there you wonder what the fuck's going on."

Terry: "It was all right, part of it was good."

Mike Howlett; ex-Gong bassist who was there in a vaguely Virgin capacity, was disappointed in their choice of material, seemed to want more funky stuff. Carol said she was fairly pleased and left further analysis for a post mortem the following day. And that was it. Last Exit stayed till after one," unwinding, appreciating Isaac Guillory and admiring the amazing learning powers of his new-born drummer.

The next day Carol bought us all lunch at a wine bar near Virgin's Portobello Road offices then retired behind closed doors for the inquest - no doubt the first of many heavy sessions on how to encapsulate Last Exit's music in a dozen numbers. Still Ronnie came bouncing out proclaiming: "Success won't change me: I'll still be the same nasty bugger I always was."

They went to spend the rest of the week in Pathway studios tearing through 13 tracks. I caught the train back to Newcastle where I next saw Last Exit on the Sunday lunchtime for their regular spot in the theatre bar. It seemed the only difficulty in getting back was that Terry had missed a bus plus he'd told them the wrong address and phone number for where he was staying. Though maybe I've got that confused.

So come with me I'll take you where
Things might be okay - or bad.
(I'm On This Train - G. Richardson)


Potential cost for the band coming down for the gig and recording would have been:

Petrol (van and two cars) £58
Accommodation (B&B, band plus roadie, five nights at £4each) £100
Studio (30 hours at £8 an hour) £240
Living expenses (minimum £2 per head per day) £50
Total = £448

Although Last Exit actually played for nothing Virgin's backing with studio time and petrol money probably reduced this to about £80 spent to be split between the four members of the band.


We've told you what most of the biggest bands in the land use - now here's a list of equipment bought with sweat rather than record company advances:

Terry: Gibson Stereo 335, Carlsbro Stingray 100-watt amp, Vox AC3O amp, Marshall 4x12 cabinet, Melosphase pedal, home-made volume pedal, Crybaby wah-wah pedal.

Gerry: Fender-Rhodes Stage 73 piano, Simms-WattsPA100 amp, two Unilex Transit 100 watt bins, Crybaby wah-wah, Ibanez phaser, WOZ (= home-made by Jim) automatic wah-wah.

Ronnie: Gretsch kit, Avedis ZiIdjian cymbals, Rogers hi-hat; Ludwig Speed-King bass drum pedal, 20 year-old Ludwig snare-drum pedal.

Sting: Fender Jazz bass, Marshall Super Bassman 100watt amp, Fender Dual Showman cabinet.

PA: two Carlsbro mini-bins, Carlsbro Marlin 1042.

Monitors: H&H TPA 5OD 100 watt Slave amp, twoWhite 2x12 cabinets.

Mikes: Shure Unidyne 111.

© Sounds magazine