If you know anything about Stiff Records, the first great maverick Indy label of the punk-era British 1970s, you’ll know Larry Wallis. Author of one of the finest singles in that label’s entire canon, 1977’s “Police Car,” he also produced a handful of the label’s other best-loved acts, the Adverts and Wreckless Eric included.
He .was one of the Takeaways supergroup whose “Food” (co-starring Nick Lowe, Sean Tyla and Dave Edmunds) pops up on 1977’s A Bunch Of Stiff Records compilation, and he toured on the still-legendary Live Stiffs tour that same fall. He blazed across Mick Farren and the Deviants’ seminal Screwed Up EP; and he was single-handedly responsible for proving to the punk rock cognoscenti that long hair (Wallis’ reached past his armpits) wasn’t necessarily a sign of old fart redundancy. In an age when Angry Young Man style guitar was valued above any other musical attribute, Wallis played angrier (and younger) than virtually anyone you could name.
Wallis’ pedigree reaches back to the early 1970s, and a roll-call of bands that included free festival favorites The Entire Sioux Nation, former Tyrannosaurus Rex percussionist Steve Took’s Shagrat, Blodwyn Pig, Lancaster’s Bomber and, briefly, metal heroes UFO, before he joined the Pink Fairies in time for their third (and possibly finest) album, Kings Of Oblivion. The band broke up following its release and, in 1975, Wallis reappeared in Motorhead – a move that the guitarist unhesitatingly describes as pre-ordained. “It was just as if the serendipity fairy had arrived, Lemmy had been `imprisoned in Hawkwind`, and was now flexing his leathern wings…. It just had to be.”
Together, Wallis and Lemmy alchemized one of the hardest hitting bands of the entire pre-punk era; indeed, claims that the original Motorhead physically predicted the punk movement would not be out of line. In terms of aggression, noise and sheer bloody-mindedness, the handful of shows that the group played during this period was nothing short than the absolute revision of all that had taken place before.
Certainly their label of the time, UA, was absolutely baffled by the band, sending them into the studio first with Edmunds, then with former beat boom survivor Fritz Fryer, before deciding that nothing the band did was actually marketable. The band was dropped from the label and the tapes were buried in a lead-lined box, figuratively if not literally. And they remained there until – surprise, surprise, Motorhead became late 1970s superstars, and suddenly anything with their name attached seemed eminently saleable indeed. On Parole, titled for one of Wallis’ own compositions, was released in 1978 and has been available ever since.
Wallis departed Motorhead around the same time as they were dropped and, throughout 1976, he led a revitalized Pink Fairies line-up around the London club scene as it lurched from pub rock to punk. By late summer, the Fairies had signed with Stiff Records – itself a vital bridge between the two genres – and released the single “Between The Lines,” the label’s second-ever release. They also appeared at the first Mont de Marsen Punk Festival that August, a gathering of the clans that pitched the likes of Nick Lowe, Little Bob Story and Eddie And The Hot Rods into the middle of rock’s latest firestorm. Of them all, the Fairies came out on top but, with a sense of timing that they had long since perfected, the group announced that this moment of absolute triumph was the ideal time to break up.
Wallis reflects, “We always had bursts of enthusiasm, usually when one member of the band motivated the others to `do it again`, but these soon fizzled out. I really don’t know why, we were a funny old band in many ways.” The guitarist himself, however, wasn’t allowed to bow out of the scene quite so freely. Visiting Dingwalls night club one evening, Wallis found himself cornered by both Stiff co-founder Jake Riviera and labelmate Lowe, and offered “the proverbial offer I couldn`t refuse – ‘why don`t you give the Fairies a rest and get modern?’ It was a `come in with us on this new adventure` kinda thing, and so it began.”
Enthused by the atmosphere of undiluted creativity and madcap enterprise that was Stiff Records, Wallis flew into action. “One thing about being with Jake was, he made things happen – and they happened fast. One Friday night I wrote a song (as I watched Angie Dickinson in Police Woman) called `I`m a Police Car.` A pal got me to play it to Jake on the Sunday afternoon and, somewhere around Tuesday, me and a couple of Hot-Rods (bassist Paul Gray and drummer Steve Nicol) went into Pathway studio to record it. About five minutes later, it was in the shops. What a deal!”
Backed by a tight new version of “On Parole,” “Police Car” was stunning, a tight riff tied to a foreboding lyric, a musical re-enactment of the heat that every punk felt when he went out on the streets. It also persuaded Riviera that Wallis – who produced the single himself – was just the man to take over one of the label’s most exacting jobs, the role of house producer. Nick Lowe had been handling most of the label’s releases but, as Stiff grew and Lowe’s own career took off, the workload was simply too great for one man. In March 1977, Riviera took Wallis aside and told him to be back at Pathway the following week. He was producing the first single by the Adverts. Wallis simply nodded. “Bless him, Jake rarely asked anybody anything. He TOLD them.”
Wallis was not completely inexperienced, of course. He’d self-produced “Police Car” and, having written much of the Fairies’ material, “when it came to recording I always knew what I wanted – y`know, ’2000 guitars all with echo please.’ But the Adverts was the very first `I`m a hero/I`m the goat` situation, and I found it terrifying. Not only was I at the helm of a studio, I also had an engineer and four tiny, young, expectantly-upturned faces asking me, ‘please sir, what shall we do now?’ Gaspo! But it all worked out okay, the record was actually record of the week in NME or some such, and a star was born.”
Adverts’ vocalist TV Smith remembers, “We didn’t even know what a producer did, but ‘Police Car’ was a good record and we liked Larry straight away despite, or maybe because, he looked like an old hippy. We still weren’t clear why we needed a producer – until you try it yourself you don’t realize how difficult it is to ‘capture the sound of the band,’ which is what Larry did.” Indeed, the band were so impressed with the resultant “One Chord Wonders” that, having left Stiff for major label Anchor, they promptly recalled Wallis to handle their next single, “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.”
“Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” was a UK Top 20 hit that summer, while Wallis himself became a star turn on the autumn 1977 Live Stiffs tour of Britain. Billed alongside Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Wreckless Eric, he took the stage with an all-star band dubbed the Psychedelic Rowdies and drawn (as were Lowe’s and Wreckless’ accompanists) from the pool of musicians traveling with the tour – Nick Lowe, Penny Tobin, Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello’s drummer and Wallis’ own flatmate), Terry Williams, Dave Edmunds and the occasional Blockhead. Several gigs on the tour were recorded and highlights, including an absolutely incendiary “Police Car,” were released on the Live Stiffs souvenir album. And, in the new year, Wallis began work on a solo album.
Linking with Deke Leonard of Man, bassist Big George Webley and Pete Thomas, “we went into Eden Studios ready to lay down taped dynamite.” They succeeded with room to spare. A stunningly rehab-ed version of “Police Car” rolled into view, alongside another new version of “On Parole” – “no disrespect to the Hot Rods from the first versions,” says Wallis, “but I was so excited to be working with George, Pete, and Deke, in a big studio with unlimited time; how could I say no?”
A couple of covers crept in, albeit in heavy disguise. Wreckless Eric’s “There Isn’t Anything Else” was transformed from the endearing punky thrash that Wallis produced for Eric’s first album, into what verges on a stadium rock version, while Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” traveled in the other direction entirely, as “a load of wasted individuals” played the tune, while Webley and Thomas had “what they considered to be a `New York Argument`.”
Elsewhere, “As Long As The Price Is Right” later became a Top 40 hit for Dr Feelgood; two further tracks, “Leather Forever” and “Seeing Double,” would be re-cut by Wallis himself for an early 1980s single; and a third, “Crying All Night,” resurfaces (alongside a virtual stretch-limo version of “Police Car”} on Wallis’ 2001 Death In The Guitarfternoon album.
Other gems, too, peeled out – “Story Of My Life,” “I Can’t See What It’s Got To Do With Me,” “Story Of My Life” and Mick Farren’s mach-20 “Godzilla.” But the album was not to be. Wallis recalls, “We went merrily at it for a week, [label head Dave Robinson] came in to see how we were doing, and the next day produced the contract for SEVEN albums.”
Somewhat taken aback, Wallis refused to sign – and was promptly dropped from the label. The album was shelved and the guitarist moved on. Further stints alongside Farren were interspersed by gigs with Wayne Kramer and a decade-long songwriting career with Dr Feelgood. He reconvened the Pink Fairies, and his own bands too… including the Death Commandos Of Love, possibly the best-named band on the eighties. He’s made some cracking solo albums too, but none of them were Wallis’ first cracking solo album. That remains locked in a vault who knows where. But come the revolution, when all such doors will be blown off their hinges, the police car will be waiting. And it won’t be filled with police.