True-Life Rock Tales

Pond Hopping with the Stranglers

The heat is coming on and the pipes are clanking. It is a comforting sound. Across the street is Carnegie Hall. You can see the entrance by looking through the dirty windows. Because it is winter there is no sunshine, only shadows in the canyons of West 57th Street. To add to the grimness there is the noise of crosstown traffic.

February 1981. The meeting is with Ed Kleinman in his small office that is Fast Forward management. The job, tour manager of the Stranglers for their UK tour supporting the album The Gospel According to the Meninblack. The Stranglers are one of the more successful British punk rock/new wave bands of the era and had already had success with singles like “Something Better Change” and “No More Heroes.” (After this tour they would score major hits with “Golden Brown,” “Always the Sun” and others.)

The Gospel According to the Meninblack album cover.

The tour is booked and advance ticket sales are robust. The pay and per diem are good, and Ed seems all right. Besides, I thought, this has the potential for an interesting experience. What could go wrong?

I accepted the job, and, in a few weeks’ time I was at JFK boarding Pan Am’s evening Flight 100 to Heathrow airport (LHR). The flight landed in the UK just after sunrise and returned to JFK that same afternoon. The British affectionately called the flight “The Pond Hopper.” The New York-London rotation, Flights 100/101.

This was back when flying was fun. it was the best Pan American has to offer in terms of the aircraft and the service. Because of this the giants of industry, government and entertainment were regular customers. (The Beatles took Flight 101 on their first trip to the States in February 1964.)

It is March in the UK and the weather is cold, damp, and mostly cloudy. That is their normal weather for most of the year. In New York City we get that weather sometimes, but England owns the patent on this climate. It is the time of Margaret and Ronald and the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. This is before the Falklands War.

We are currently on tour in England and we’re up North. It’s our day off. Some of the group and road crew are hanging in one of the hotel rooms. Nice hotel, big rooms. We have plenty to party with.

Me? I am the only “Septic,” or as it’s said, “Septic Tank.” That is Cockney rhyming slang (Yank = Septic Tank). The rest of the band and crew are from London and the West Country. It is not often that we all get the same day off and are staying at the same hotel. It is nice to just hang with the lads.

I had just hired a new lorry (truck) driver. Our regular driver had become unreliable because he got strung out on Harry, so I had to sack him. That is the thing in rock and roll. You can do whatever drug or drink you would like, as much as you want and whenever you want and most people in the business will look the other way, but the tour and your job come first. If you don’t show up, on time, with your sh*t together, then you are gone.

So, this new guy, Ian, had just separated from the British Army and he was glad to be out. He was stationed in Belfast and in his words it was “disturbing duty” and involved harassing young Irish men. Ian became disillusioned and left. Now he was our driver.

Ian and I have an understanding. We are both military veterans who became disillusioned with our mission. That is why I hired him and now he loves this rock and roll lifestyle. Plus, he has that Army can-do mentality. He gets the job done.

At present we have a road crew of eight and the Stranglers are four, add myself and that makes thirteen. The merchandising group is run by Stranglers’ founder Jet Black’s brother and they travel separately, but I collect their cash along with the box office receipts each night. Sometimes I’m carrying in excess of ten thousand pounds, in which case I bank transfer those monies to band’s bank account in London. That seems to work out to three mornings a week, more or less.

My job of tour manager is much like a crisis manager. I move the business almost daily, two separate entities, the band and their equipment and crew (they’re on different schedules. I hire and fire, collect the monies, sometimes in percentages such as 80/20 (80 percent for the band), but usually, it is a guarantee against a percentage {whichever is greater}. I pay salaries, petrol, and hotels. Schedule all travel. Then do all the accounting (expenses and all cash income). I run every aspect of the company on the road. There is a lot that can go wrong, and things do, but you keep the show going. A bad decision can cost serious money, not to mention the reputation of the band or me. The job pays well and is exciting, engaging, and personally rewarding, not to mention there are some way cool perks. If one is not up to it, it becomes apparent quite soon.

I am acutely aware that carrying a briefcase full of cash makes me a target and that is where Ian and Russell (Ian’s assistant) come in. Being truck drivers means that during the show itself their truck will be parked. Thusly freeing up the boys to do what I call casual security. The British concert scene was much more prone to dust-ups than its American counterpart. My boys, just like me, had all-access backstage passes and could roam the concert hall at will. Their job was first, to keep an eye on me, second the band and crew and finally our equipment.

I need to move around fast and not with an entourage, so they watch over me from a distance. In fact, no one would associate them as being my minders. That is till trouble begins, and then they descend like birds of prey, instantly. Mostly this protocol was unnecessary, but one night in Manchester they more than earned their worth.

Three skinheads jumped me coming out of the promoter’s box office. “You! Septic tank,” the middle one growled at me while grabbing the front of my shirt. He pulled me to him, and head-butted me right in my forehead. Blindsided and suckered I stumbled back on rubbery legs. As I fell into the wall the one on my left punched me right in my jaw and I saw stars, a big white flash and I went down landing hard on my left shoulder. The third one grabbed my briefcase, ripping it from my hand.

He turned to run and was one step away before he was cross-blocked into the wall by Ian. His mates were just behind him when Russell grabbed the slowest one by his arm and spun him around headfirst into the wall. The one left standing was stupefied and backed up a step. Ian grabbed my case from the skinhead on the floor. Russell pushed the one left standing and he staggered backwards down the hallway. Ian grabbed me by my upper arm and helped me up while Russell gave the skinhead on the ground a vicious kick, knocking out a couple of teeth. The skinheads had enough of the fight and scrambled away.

My face hurt and I had the beginning of a big welt on my jaw. “I need some ice,” I said to the boys – and they laughed. “Ken, man, this is England, even the beer is warm! No ice here, mate!” We all cracked up laughing. All in a day’s work.

Next day, we had a gig in Newcastle, (the home of Newcastle Brown Ale). There, drinkers call it “Newkie Brown.” The week before, the Stranglers’ management office had received a letter saying that one of the band’s devoted fans had been paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident and would never walk again. In the letter the fan’s brother asked, “could the band please visit him in hospital?” Management forwarded the letter to me and I showed it to the band. They agreed.

Unannounced, we walked into his hospital room, and the guy could not believe it. It was a special moment. He broke down in tears, sobbing really. His life was over, he said, as he would never walk again. Jet then pointed out to him that if he did not matter, then the band would not have come. Of course he was important, and this was not the end for him, but a new chapter.

The guy’s load seemed to lift and after thirty minutes or so the band said goodbye and this guy had an ear to ear grin, with his spirits by now much improved. This was a “secret mission,” so please, no press coverage on this, J.J. (Jean-Jacques Burnel, the bass player) and Jet Black (the drummer) told me as we left even though it would have cast the band in a flattering light.

Next day we drive south to Nottingham. Normally we play the Apollo and Odeon theater chains. These are mid-sized (3,000 capacity or so) concert halls sprinkled around the UK, but today we were playing a big club for about two and a half thousand people.

That night, backstage I gather the band up and get them up on stage. I head back toward the dressing room and I spy this good-looking lassie smiling at me. Her eyes are sparkling. “I’m Debbie,” she says; “can we talk privately?” “Sure, come into the dressing room.”

I close the dressing room door and she steps up close to me. In less than five minutes she is done with me. I have business to attend to, so I head over to the box office to pick up tonight’s gig money. After counting out the band’s fee I then walk over to merchandising to collect their nights’ proceeds and pick up a silver raven pin (see picture) for Debbie.

After the gig, I load the remaining booze and beer from the dressing room in the boot of our rental car. I grab a couple of band members along with Debbie and we drive back to our hotel.

Next morning after breakfast, I load up both our cars with the band members and head south. Tomorrow night, it is the Hammersmith Odeon, London, sold out.

Rock and roll life has its moments.

 

The Stranglers band image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Stranglers France Service.