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| An interview with Tony Hicks recorded by Pete Bell at
the Lion Inn, Blakey Ridge, North York Moors,
on 21st January 2003
|Pete: When did you first start playing the drums?
Tony : (Laughs) What time is it now? (laughs) It was back at school. I wanted to be the piano player in a group, but of course that job was taken. They said, "If you want to be in, you'll have to play the drums." So that was that.
Pete: What sort of age were you?
Tony: Oh, thirteen or fourteen or something.
Pete: Did you play piano beforehand?
Tony: No. (laughs) Didn't play the drums either. Had to start with something.
Pete: Yeah? What was the band?
Tony: Well, it ended up being "The Fireflys".
Pete: Was that Middlesbrough based?
Tony: Middlesbrough, yeah.
Pete: Did you do many gigs with them?
Tony: Yeah. Loads. Saturday night dances in church halls and stuff,
Pete: There used to be a lot of them, didn't there.
Tony: Yeah, it was great.
Pete: And there was a lot of good bands around Teesside.
Tony: Sure was, yeah.
Pete: What other instruments have you played subsequently?
Tony: Well .Now I'm absolutely addicted to the accordion, I can't wait to stop playing the drums and just be an accordion player. Whether that will ever happen I don't know. I can't get good enough quick enough. What a long hard road that is. The day you decide to get an accordion is the end of life as you know it. (laughs)
Pete: So you start with the Fireflys, tell us a bit about earlier bands that you played in. This would be early '60s, wouldn't it?
Tony: Yeah. I think there was only them really. And then ... I'm just trying to think what happened, it was so long ago. I remember the first job I got was Eric Delaney's band boy. Because I knew Ronnie Aspery in them days, and the job came up and he said, "Oh, get Hicksy to do it." Of course I was only sixteen - I didn't have a driving licence, but I didn't tell Eric. And he didn't ask. He just said, "Here's the keys to the van." Great. (laughs) "The first job was in Margate". Well I'd heard of it, Margate .. head south - keep your eyes open, that sort of thing.
Pete: What does that mean, "band boy"?
Tony: They're called roadies nowadays. I had to do everything - get their bloody suits cleaned, look after all the gear, and play in the band as well. Fifteen pound a week. Pay your own digs. (laughs)
Pete: With Eric, was he playing the timpanis and stuff?
Tony: Yeah, when he went on the timps I went on drums and vice versa, and tubular bells and bits of percussion and stuff.
Pete: Great tuition, I'd guess.
Tony: Hell of a grounding, playing with a bunch of hardened professional musicians, when I'm a sixteen year old lad out of Middlesbrough. You had to learn really quick. (laughs) There were some great players in that band, Eric's band. Steve Gray, Malcolm Soul, Aspery ... tremendous.
Pete: How did you know Ron?
Tony: He was playing around in the groups as well. Messed around in like "River's Invitation " and things, and he was far and away the best musician that I'd ever ... I've still never come across a better one, forty years later.
Pete: When did you first meet Ron and Colin then, how did that come about?
Tony: That's a funny story. I'd been to Australia for a couple of years, 1968 or something, came back 1970, and they were in the Starlight, in the resident band, at Redcar. So I just went in to see them. Of course, my jaw hits the floor - Back Door playing a nightclub. Backing singers - just incredible. So I said to the drummer that they had at the time, "If you ever want a night off, I'll do a dep for you for 50p."
Pete: Did you?
Tony: Of course he couldn't resist it, the drummer. "Oh, great!" Because it was seven nights a week. Ronnie Pearson . he couldn't resist it. So I did a night for him for 50p, and I just stayed. (laughs) That was it, the end of that one. That's how I got the gig.
Pete: What had you been listening to up till then, Tony, what were your influences - both drumming, and just general?
Tony: I've never really been influenced by drummers. You're influenced by who you're playing with. The only people that are influences are my friends, really. Anyone who plays the drums sounds great to me, tremendous, but I've never had a particular favourite or tried to be like anybody, you just respond to the atmosphere and who you're playing with, and hopefully do the right thing. Which, of course, quite often you don't, and you get fired. (laughs) That happens a lot.
Pete: What about general music and stuff? How come there was this band and you want to play keys but you got the job as a drummer instead, that suggests that you were into music at the time?
Tony: Well, it was a result of just being dead bored at school. These guys are getting a band together, let's have some of that. It was just something to do instead of hanging out on street corners, thinking about breaking into joints and that. I'll play some music instead. And you get friendly with guys and say, "How do you do it?" One guy, he was really good on the drums at school, he'd just teach you on the desk with a couple of pencils with rubbers on the end. You'd go "Oh great .yeah". (laughs) Then your dad buys you a snare drum at Christmas, and you're sucked in from there.
Pete: Was your dad into music? Did you get anything that way?
Tony: No. Totally unmusical family. He scratches his head and says, "Where did it come from, being into music? Strange."
Pete: At the Starlight, when it all started, when you all got together. You depped for Ron and then you kept with them. But then the trio itself, how did that start off?
Tony: They'd been going for a couple of years. I think, before I came along, different drummers.
Pete: Including down south, I guess.
Tony: I think so. I think they were working there.
Pete: They'd rehearse down there.
Tony: Always with different drummers. So I suppose I just managed to slot in somehow, fit the bill as it were. Plus I was cheap. (laughs) I think that was the main attraction. And it was about that time, when they were getting jobs in nightclubs - you have to live - when Brian came along, and said "Come and play at my pub, will you?". We started doing it every Tuesday night.
Pete: He's a right dynamo isn't he, Brian. He was a jobbing bass player himself at the time, he was doing a few bits and pieces.
Tony: I don't think he was playing then, Brian. I think he'd knocked it on the head to run this joint. And then of course it started getting dead popular.
Pete: Did he just chance by you at the Starlight?
Tony: I think so, yeah.
Pete: Because it was a late-night drinking spot, wasn't it.
Tony: Sailors and prostitutes, yeah. He said, "Great, come and do a night at the pub," and we started doing it every week, and he said, "Why don't you make a record?"
Pete: Before that though, I've heard stories that when you kicked off you were playing to four men and a dog.
Tony: Yeah, up here, yeah.
Pete: But it seemed to build up really fast, didn't it.
Tony: Yeah. Word of mouth got about bloody quick.
Pete: That would have been when?
Pete: Yeah, it would have been late '71, perhaps early '72 when I heard you. I came here and it was just heaving, packed. Two hundred people, all sitting down in the restaurant.
Tony: That's right, it was a good deal. I think it was a shilling to get in, and you got a free bowl of curry as well. (laughs) Good value for money!
Pete: He organised that.
Tony: And we just played all night, everything we knew.
Pete: Did you rehearse up here? How did you piece the pieces together?
Tony: No, we never rehearsed as I remember it. Colin would come up with some riff of some sort, Ronnie would turn it into a tune, and then they'd try to teach me it. But they'd just play it, and I'd have to try and just learn it as we went along on the gig. Loads of embarrassing moments.
Pete: Yeah, but it's electric that way as well, isn't it.
Tony: Yeah. 'Course it is. Flying by the seat of your pants. That's what it's all about really.
Pete: Was Ron reading dots ?
Pete: It was just off the top of his head.
Tony: Yeah. Astounding stuff really, the way the tunes came together. And of course it's really hard to come up with ones to match them, that were written in that era. You were full of energy . It was a different period. Now everything you write is sort of sad. It's really hard to come up with "Vienna Breakdown" or . .
Pete: Or "Dashing White Sergeant".
Tony: Yeah. We used to just play that at the soundcheck on these massive American tours we did. Soundcheck in a baseball stadium, and we'd play "Dashing White Sergeant". (laughs) All the roadies out of the other bands used to love it. Suddenly we became popular "Well, we'll put it on a record then." (laughs)
Pete: Brian just came up with dosh presumably for the album, which would be late '71, wouldn't it?
Tony: Yeah, around that time.
Pete: Tell us the story. How did that come about, how did you do it?
Tony: He gave us the money for this little four-track studio in London. We just did it on the phone . Saturday afternoon . "Can we come in?" As I remember. We borrowed my dad's van, Cleveland Brakelining Service, full of old batteries and everything. We just piled into that, went down to London and recorded it on the Saturday afternoon. Whack, whack, whack, whack, whack. Mixed it on the Sunday morning, and we were back up here for last orders, (laughs) with the record - "Here you are, Brian. Smashing, mate."
Pete: Did you know the guy, did you know the engineer?
Tony: No, I don't know how we got that studio, we just got it out of the Melody Maker I think, a four-track studio in London. I suppose there would have been one up here, but the thought of going to London, it seemed proper. (laughs)
Pete: Denmark Street.
Tony: Exactly. I'm sure we must have got a parking ticket. (laughs)
Pete: They're still trying to find you.
Tony: It was quite a weekend, that.
Pete: Then selling it, you used to be able to buy it at the bar didn't you ...
Tony: You used to buy it over the bar, and Graham Spring, an old pal from way back, the nightclub days, he was manager of Drum City. He started selling it, and that's how it got into London, Drum City. And I suppose eventually it got round to Ronnie Scott's.
Pete: Through Peter King, perhaps.
Tony: Yeah. And they heard it, and said, "Come and play at our place." (laughs)
Pete: I remember when the news broke here.It must have been quite a big do.
Tony: To play at Ronnie's?
Pete: Yeah, because they organised a coach from here, didn't they.
Tony: I've still never, never, in my life, been as frightened. I was on the loo for hours. When you think of who's played on that stage at Ronnie's - Elvin Jones, everybody ... and now me. You think "Oh God, my God, I can't do this, I can't do it." Cold sweat . I couldn't remember any of the tunes. I was absolutely shitting myself.
Pete: How did Chick Corea respond to the band?
Tony: I don't know about him himself . he's a very odd fellow, Chick. (laughs) I bet he still can't play "The Laughing Policeman". The other guys liked it - Stanley Clark thought Hodgie was unbelievable. And that's when he got a bass guitar as well, Stan Clark. He'd just played double-bass up till then, but he went, "Wow, if you can do that on that - I'm getting one." (laughs) And of course the things he's done are tremendous.
Pete: What's this story about "Hey, Chick?"
Tony: (Laughs) It was the last night of the run, we'd been there three weeks.The bar had closed, still quite a few people in hanging about, draining off drinks and that. And suddenly I had this urge to sing. And Chick Corea was still noodling away at the piano, so I went up and got the mike and said, "Give us a vamp in B flat, Chick." And gave them a rendering of "The Laughing Policeman", at Ronnie Scott's. I'm blushing like hell when I say this. I can't believe I did it. But it's become sort of legendary. (laughs) I'm more famous for that than for anything else I've ever done. People come up and shake my hand. You've just got to laugh in a way. "What ..!" (laughs)
Pete: Prior to that, Blakey had a reputation because of you guys, for music of a high standard. Musicians would call here, wouldn't they. How did that come about?
Tony: I don't know, I don't know anything about it to be honest. Did Brian put other things on, while he was here?
Pete: Not really. It was only when you guys couldn't play that people like Brave New World would dep for you. That was once or twice I remember. Dave Coverdale's band. And people like Bernie Holland would call by.
Tony: Oh, that's right . I remember. Isaac Gillory's band, which I was in as well at the time .. we came up here and . .
Pete: The band spent a month or so .kipping here and working.
Tony: Yeah. With Brian, the friendliest bloke in the world. The other guys couldn't believe it, they'd come up from London, and the sax player was from New York - "What? Wow!"
Pete: Little guy with a peaked cap?
Tony: Yeah .that was him - the saxophone player, Jim Cuomo. Magic elf. Tremendous musicians, them guys.
Pete: Great band. I remember one night Brian saying, it was closing time, "No ..... just hang around."
Tony: That was when we'd start rehearsing, after ..
Pete: And then you guys came trundling out of that room up there, and set up, it was just amazing. And things like, mid-bar, he'd say, "Woah, stop" - whoever was orchestrating, who I think was the sax player maybe.
Tony: Him or Isaac, yeah.
Pete: And then just picking up from where he left it. It was astonishing.
Tony: Oh, it was a smashing band. But of course it all ... Isaac just died a couple of years back, it was terrible. Terrible thing. Sadly missed.
Pete: How come you went up to Australia, in the first place?
Tony: In the first place, to try and get laid I think. (laughs)
Pete: Did you? .. a long fucking way, in' it .
Tony: It was hard work getting laid. (laughs)
Pete: What was wrong with 'The Bongo' (Teesside nightclub)
Tony: (laughs) If it's quality you're after ... No, I was resident at the Riviera Club at Hartlepool, and the singer in the trio .. this Maori showband that came through, because there were loads of them in those days, really good as well. And they came for a week and said, "We need a singer. The singer's leaving, do you want to come to Surfer's Paradise with the band?" I said to her "You've got to do that haven't you. How can you say no to an offer like that?" So off she went and did that, and a couple of months later, missing her, I thought, "I'll go and have a look." Sold my car and bought a ticket, stayed there for a couple of years. Australia's a fabulous place.
Pete: This is prior to Back Door then.
Tony: Yeah. It was when I came back from there, Australia, toddled into the Starlight one night.
Pete: At what point were you working with Assegai?
Tony: When would that have been ... must have been the '70s.
Pete: Was that in parallel to Back Door?
Tony: Ah shit, mate .I'm getting old, no memory. I don't know when it was, exactly. I can't remember where I was living. But I remember going for the audition to do it. Turned up .. everyone was African. All the hangers-on, everyone It was only me was white...
Pete: Like when I was playing with Jimmy Scott, same thing.
Tony: Yeah, an amazing thing. So when they said, "Yeah, you can have the job," I went, "What!" (laughs) .. "Right then". This was like . Dudu Pukwana and all them, absolutely crazy guys, they'd just go off in a van and do all these gigs all over the place, unbelievable stuff.
Pete: Did it happen fast with Back Door, that transition from Ronnie Scott's, Melody Maker picked it up didn't they, NME suddenly had articles about the band. I remember there was a full page in the Sunday Times colour supplement as well about Blakey and Back Door.
Tony: There was all sorts of stuff. To be honest I never used to bother reading it. How do people know? I know what's going on, but it's just bullshit really, people writing about things.
Pete: Yeah, but whereas you sent out demos and stuff, hadn't you, prior to recording your own thing, and got the famous quote from Colin, which was they were all saying, "No singer, no keyboards, no guitar - get out of here." Then suddenly they were all interested.
Tony: I suppose it was doing that three weeks at Ronnie's that gave it a bit of credibility. Suddenly people went, "Oh, maybe it is all right."
Pete: So you were signed to them, and then from working here, really being based here, weren't you, for about a year or so . and doing other bits and pieces around the North-east, were you?
Tony: Yeah, I suppose, yeah. But then that was I always thought, was our biggest mistake, going with a major record label. I liked it being Blakey Records, cottage industry, it suited us. But of course people get dazzled don't they, with money and stuff. But actually you just get swallowed up into the system. I thought it was a mistake to do it, but who the hell listens to the drummer?
Pete: What was the feeling? Because the second album was produced by Felix Pappalardi, you went over to New York to do it. How did that feel?
Tony: It felt sort of ridiculous. I was living in a bedsitter, a one-room joint in Ealing, and this bloody big limousine came to pick us up to take us to Heathrow. I thought, "Hang on, I haven't got any bloody money". I would have got the tube. "Give us the money instead of the limo."
I said, "What the fuck is all this?" It was a first-class air ticket, and I'm living in a bedsitter. I said, "No, this is all wrong. We'll go economy, and give us the money, be sensible about it."
But of course they don't listen, do they. They just live that kind of life, record companies. In them days, I suppose. I'm sure they're no different now. So it just felt a bit silly, I thought. We should have made the second record in Newcastle.
Pete: Or Consett.
Tony: They just shoved us pillar to post with corporate bullshit.
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