Here’s a piece I wrote a few years back for a particular destination; things changed, people moved-on and the feature didn’t end-up being used. These things happen and that is part of the freelancer’s lot – but its been sitting on my hard drive hoping to find another home and it seems a shame not to let it out into the open. It’s an interview on Paul Roland’s early work and the labels upon which it appeared. I thought about going back to the source interview and expanding it – and would do if anyone visiting sees this piece and wants it for a print or electronic publication, but for now, here it is in its original submitted form.
Spread across numerous labels, including such highly collectable imprints as Bam Caruso and Imaginary, and with Robyn Hitchcock, Andy Ellison and Nick Saloman amongst his esteemed collaborators, British psych-pop guru Paul Roland’s back catalogue is an eclectic mix of psychedelic, goth, folk-rock and baroque styles, worthy of re-evaluation. Thirty years ago, as a nineteen-year-old, he dug deep and financed one side of a double A-side single, ‘Oscar Automobile’, setting out on his singular path, creating inventive and wide-ranging music that took its central vibe from psychedelia and its themes from writers like Wells, Verne and Lovecraft.
Since releasing his first LP, Werewolf of London, Roland has enjoyed creative peaks and endured fallow periods. In 1997 he walked away from the music business completely and was unheard from as a musician for the next seven years, but he’s re-emerged with very strong new albums on the Italian label, Black Widow (Pavane, Re-animator) and Germany’s Syborg Records (Nevermore), whilst his 1980s albums have also been refurbished on Syborg.
Most fans would take Werewolf of London as your starting-point, but tell us about ‘Oscar Automobile’, which pre-dates Werewolf...
Oh, dear! My initial influence was Marc Bolan; I was totally immersed in his work, particularly Tyrannosaurus Rex, Electric Warrior and The Slider. My original songs were very Bolanesque. I did that single with fellow Bolan fan, John Danielz, who’s now leader of the T-rextasy tribute band. Releasing our own single was a very practical thing to do; we shared the costs, his song was on one side, and mine was on the other. We got no airplay, but we sold them all.
What name was this under?
This was as Weird Strings. John later released another single, ‘Criminal Cage’, using the Weird Strings name, but I’m not on that. I saw a copy on E-bay recently for £40 where the listing suggested I played on the record – I definitely didn’t!
Was there a follow-up to ‘Oscar Automobile’?
We went to do a second single, but John’s track didn’t work out so I took over the session. That was ‘Public Enemy’, released under the name Midnight Rags. John Peel played it a couple of times, which was encouraging. In those days, if you released your own record, Rough Trade would take a hundred, Bonaparte Records in Croydon... these guys were used to selling indie stuff.
What was the turning point?
I went to Geoff Travis at Rough Trade and played ’Oscar’ to him. He said it wasn’t the sort of thing he could put on his label, but that I’d have no trouble selling a thousand. That was the moment when I knew that I could write sings. If he’d have just said, “Oh, you can’t sing” or “this is rubbish,” I might not have continued.
So you went from those singles to your first Midnight Rags LP, Werewolf of London?
Some of the tracks worked wonderfully, ‘Blades of Battenburg’ and ‘Lon Chaney’, but my preoccupation with Bolan, and with horror movies, showed my immaturity. I had good quality musicians, the songs were interesting, the lyrics intriguing and the voice was unusual, so I came across as someone with his own vision even if the record was uneven and self-indulgent. But there was enough good stuff to make some headway.
Leading to your first ‘proper’ label?
I’d written a Marc Bolan biography, so one paper did a feature with me as the author of the Bolan book but also as an artist inspired by him. Tom Hibert, of New Music News, recommended Armageddon Records, managed by Richard Bishop, which had The Soft Boys and Knox of The Vibrators in their roster. Richard was unconvinced, he thought Werewolf... was a bit patchy, but I told him I was going to re-record a few songs and substitute others for better ones I’d written since. He heard the new material and agreed to put it out.
How long did that relationship last?
Richard got in touch with an off-shoot of RCA; they’d heard ‘Blades of Battenburg’ and wanted to put it out as a single, but they couldn’t get the mix right. Then Nems Records came along and bought me out of the Armageddon contract, reimbursed Richard for his investment in pressing the album and destroyed them.
Did any leak out?
The first version of the album was on the studio’s own label, that’s with a black and white cover and they pressed a thousand. The Armageddon release is the one with the colour cover, and I think Richard sold a few hundred. I guess he’d pressed about three thousand of those and shipped Nems the unsold copies. Nems didn’t come up with the promised advance, so I left them.
What’s the most unlikely label you’ve been associated with?
After Werewolf... I recorded an unreleased Bolan song with Andy Ellison, of John’s Children and Radio Stars, and Knox of The Vibrators; I wanted to put that out under the group name Beau Brummel. Rocket Records, Elton John’s company, offered to release it but then they discovered it was an unreleased Bolan song and they needed to get it into the lawyers. Because it hadn’t been ‘published’ it couldn’t be covered, so they dropped it.
Was it eventually released?
Yes, it was ‘Hot George’. I put it out, as Beau Brummel, on my own label, Moonlight Records. But I was floundering and for three years I didn’t write any music. I’d tried a second Midnight Rags album but the songs weren’t properly developed.
What happened to those songs?
Some got used on my first ‘proper’ album, but others just gathered dust until I reissued the Werewolf album and included them as extras. Someone started a website to campaign for the album to be reissued, so there was interest in it. Some people think it’s a seminal album of the Goth period.
What was your first single under your own name?
That was ‘Dr. Strange’, which Andy Ellison co-produced and sang on. I’d finally found my style, a general fantasy theme with a psych-pop edge to it. I released that on Aristocrat Records, but even completists seem unaware that it also came out on the Irish label Scoff. I’d been in Dublin on holiday and done interviews there with Hot Press and RTE radio and so got some attention.
Your most obscure collectable?
That would be ‘The Cars That Ate New York’, which was pressed just before the Armageddon deal in 1980; Richard Bishop persuaded me to have them all melted-down to clear the slate for Werewolf..., but I’d already posted out a couple of dozen promos. If anyone’s tracked a copy down, they’ve done better than I have!
You moved on to associations with some highly collectable labels...
Around 1985 I went back to Armageddon, then called Aftermath, with some of the aborted Midnight Rags album, songs like ‘Captain Blood’, ‘Puppet Master’, and ‘Cairo’. I added some new songs and released a mini-album, Burnt Orchids. Then I attracted the attention of Alan Duffy, who was to form Imaginary Records, but then had a tape-only label called Acid Tapes and issued a cassette of Burnt Orchids and Werewolf of London tracks. It was a wonderful time; he’d ring me up and tell me about American magazines that wanted to review it or interview me. So when he started Imaginary and asked me to contribute to his Syd Barrett covers project, I was happy to. Later he did other tribute projects, but I didn’t want to get a name for covering other peoples’ songs.
Then you were on Bam Caruso for Danse Macbre?
That was a label I was very keen to be on, and happy to be in their stable. That album was half finished when I arrived at Bam Caruso, and they provided a studio and a producer, which I didn’t really need but that was the package and I accepted it on the understanding I’d have final approval of the mixes. But when I’d finished the recordings they put some terrible plastic-sounding keyboard sounds on it, and when I objected they refused to honour the agreement.
By this time you’d started to get deals with European labels...
Well, fanzine editors in different countries introduced me to labels that they liked, so I was on New Rose in France, Pastell in Germany, Diva in Italy, and Di Di Music in Greece. Suddenly I was recording an album and four different labels were issuing it.
Since your music is very English in its settings, what do you attribute European interest to?
There was a 60s revival, for want of a better expression. When I went on tour in ’86, I noticed the fans were dressing in Carnaby Street clothes, or if you went to somebody’s house there’d be posters up of Barbarella or The Avengers; I think they saw me as this ‘60s creature come to life, this Adam Adamant character with the cloak and the top hat. I asked the guy at Bam Caruso, ‘How long do you think this ‘60s revival will last?’ He looked blankly at me because, to him, it was his entire world and always had been.
You recorded A Cabinet Of Curiosities for New Rose...
I didn’t want them to just put out another compilation, so I wrote a new mini-album with lots of strings and harpsichords. I wrote any crazy idea that came into my head, so it was quite whimsical. Things like ‘Wyndham Hill’, about an Edwardian flying machine. I remembered nick nicely, who did the ‘Hilly Fields’ single a few years before, I wasn’t thinking about it as a Beatles pastiche, I liked the strings on it and its pastoral psychedelia, so he came and sang on seven tracks.
Are there any contributions to other musicians’ work that collectors might not know about?
I sang on Knox’s Plutonium Express album, just one track, ‘Love Is Burning’. I also produced an album, Reds, by an Italian band called The Gang, which came out on Sony. I’ve had a lot of people guesting on my own albums. When I was on Armageddon, Richard Bishop sent Knox and Robyn Hitchcock to play on the second Midnight Rags album. Richard had suggested I call Robyn, but not to be intimidated because he’d always answer the phone by saying, “Pieces of Eight, Pieces of Eight,” like a parrot! Robyn played backward lead guitar on a track called ‘Madelaine’, but he just played this one note that was buzzing like a demented bee, so I got my regular guitarist to play a conventional backward lead over the top.
It seems like there are a lot of different versions of your vinyl for the dedicated collector to track down?
I’d assumed that if I was offered a release by a label in France, or Italy, or Greece that those albums’ distribution would stay within those countries. I was a bit naive, I didn’t realise that UK fans, for instance, would feel obliged to buy those editions. I thought that by authorising a release to a small label in, say, Germany, I’d be reaching a new audience... which I did as well, but it adds to the confusion that is my discography.
Tell us about some of the varied editions of your catalogue?
The first 1,000 copies of the German compilation House Of Dark Shadows, on Pastell, came with a bonus single. The first 500 copies of Confessions Of An Opium Eater, which Di Di Music released in Greece, had a free radio sessions 7”, whereas the second and third pressings were on coloured vinyl but without the EP. There’s another coloured vinyl, a German single called ‘At The Edge Of The World’, released in 1989 on Bouncing. New Rose added a free 7” EP with initial copies of A Cabinet Of Curiosities and Happy Families. I included my reading of one of my short horror stories with a 1986 12” EP, Death Or Glory, and that’s never been otherwise released. I wanted to make every record special, really.
You’ve not had the collecting bug yourself then!
As a Bolan fan I used to collect radio sessions and live versions of songs, but I never felt obliged to buy the US edition on Blue Thumb of an early Tyrannosaurus Rex record if it was the same as the UK release. Now I realise some people want to have everything their favourite artist has put out.
What’s the most special disc that you’ve owned?
I had a management deal with David Enthoven and June Bolan. One day June brought in a box containing Marc’s handwritten lyrics and other personal items and produced a one-sided acetate of his first recording, ‘Gloria – The Road I’m On’, a demo cut when he was about sixteen, under the name Toby Tyler. It was Marc’s own copy, and June gave it to me. I’d played Marc’s acoustic guitar in his parent’s flat once, but this was something tangible to treasure, which of course I did! But I later sold it to a Bolan fan who wanted to release it, and that paid for the recording of A Cabinet Of Curiosities. Another copy was sold much later for £4,000, but for me it wasn’t about the money, it was a magical rite. I wanted the acetate that June gave me to be transformed into my own album, in a way. I’m sure Marc would have understood the symbolism, even if collectors think me barmy!
The latest reissues you see as being ‘definitive’ editions, but that includes tweaking them a bit?
I’ve always viewed with suspicion any artist that revisits their older recordings and tampers with them, though I once heard Bryan Ferry say that he wished he could re-record his entire back-catalogue. I understand what he meant, because you’re always seeking perfection; I’ve a good number of tracks that I recorded in the way that I envisaged them and I’d never tamper with them. But there are others which from necessity were imperfect because I was on a low budget. For instance, in the early years I might book a studio that wasn’t well-prepared to record the drums, so later on I’d re-record the tracks and use them as radio sessions. Then I’d have those alternative recordings to substitute for the originals when I had the opportunity to reissue an album.
How about out-takes, live recordings and the like?
I’m the sort of artist who needs to know that his music is going to be heard. I’m doing it for myself but I have to know that somebody is going to be enjoying it. I always had limited studio time, so I had to record just what I was going to release. I don’t maintain a live archive; I’m not precious about it in that way. When I play live I’m there to meet the people who like my music, I don’t need to hear the songs again, I’ve already recorded them.
You own the rights to your back catalogue?
I paid for the musicians and the studios, so I owned the tapes and just licensed them, which meant that I was always free to give tracks to whoever wanted them. I saw that as a positive thing. But you talk about the vinyl being collectable, there’s crazy prices on Amazon for some of the CDs! My ‘regular’ albums are up there for £75 or more. That’s another reason for doing the reissues. It’s about collecting everything together and getting it to a definitive state.
Finally, is it true that you destroyed your master tapes when you temporarily left the business in 1997?
Well, it does prevent me tampering with old recordings!