Remembering Gary Holton – the Original Heavy Metal Kid

heavy-metal-kids_5Twenty-eight years ago today, the world lost Gary Holton – one of the greatest rock frontmen that the seventies had to offer.  Remembering the irreplaceable…

The first time I met Gary Holton, sometime during the summer of 1975, I was wearing a pair of electric blue satin (or thereabouts) flairs, a T-shirt and a Bay City Rollers scarf, homemade in a fit of ironic excitement after some schoolfriends and I broke into their show at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens. The Rollers were at the top of their game at that time; “Bye Bye Baby” had just given them their first UK number one, and press reports from the attendant British tour were dominated by one subject, and one subject alone. Girls!  A Rollers gig, as my friend Jon put it, was “wall to wall talent. We should go and pick up some birds.”

So we went, charmingly oblivious to the fact that—having clambered in through a conveniently open window, and found ourselves in a crowded womens’ bathroom—being the only men in sight was not necessarily the ticket to sexual abandon that we imagined it would be. The audience’s hearts had already been pledged, to Les and Woody and Derek and Eric and Alan. (Osmonds fans, I discovered later, were a lot less loyal.)  We returned to school disheartened and dishevelled, with our ears still ringing from the screaming from the stalls. Carving up a piece of tartan fabric that I located who-knows-where, and painstakingly stitching on the Rollers name in individually hand-cut lettering was probably an act of catharsis that I couldn’t avoid. Although why I then chose to wear it to a Heavy Metal Kids show, I cannot imagine.

The Heavy Metal Kids were one of those bands that everybody seemed to have a soft spot for. Wrapped in a Dickensian image of street urchin chic, and living larger than life whether gigging or ligging, the Kids first emerged in 1973, and made an immediate mark on a London club circuit that was furiously trying to tear itself away from the prevalent proggy fascinations, and into a more musically honest arena. That turned out to be Pub Rock, but the Kids weren’t dismayed.

As Holton cackled, “it’s the performance that counts. That’s what you’re up there for. What you do offstage is boring, no-one really cares. So what you have to do is, make what you do offstage as exciting as what you do when you’re on, or at least make people think that’s what you’re doing.”

The Heavy Metal Kids’ genesis lays in a jazzy-blues band called Heaven, who plied the UK club circuit and were, for a time, being billed as England’s answer to Chicago.  By early 1972, however, their original four-piece brass section had  been reduced to a lone sax/trumpeter, and an ever-revolving line-up that had just one original member left.

The end drew even closer in May 1972 when, in short succession, drummer Pete Phipps left to join Gary Glitter’s band, and manager Rikki Farr finally called time on his involvement, and took back their van, amps and equipment – only to loan it back when newly arrived guitarist Mickey Waller suggested playing a farewell show, with bassist Ronnie Thomas, singer Terry Scott, keyboard player Brian Johnston, and two members of Long John Baldry’s recent touring band, drummer Keith Boyce and guitarist Bob Weston.

Boyce laughs.  “Rikki Farr thinks we’re doing one gig in England, but in fact we absconded with the van and gear to France where Mickey had set up some gigs. We ended up staying there for five months and went from rags to riches, there and back again.”

Only at the end of the summer did the band return to England, minus frontman Scott, who decided to remain in Paris.  “So we decided that we’d try this singer Gary Holton, that Mickey and Ronnie knew from another of Rikki Farr’s bands, Biggles. Gary came down and sang with us and we thought he was great, so that was the beginning of the Kids.”

With Weston having departed to join Fleetwood Mac, and Johnston, too, leaving (he later reappeared in Whitesnake), the newly named Heavy Metal Kids recruited Argentinean keyboard player Danny Peyronel and played a handful of shows as a four piece, before Boyce and Holton spotted guitarist Cosmo in another band.  “We thought he was amazing, so we asked him to join us.”

From the outset, the Heavy Metal Kids were playing with image, wrapping their raucous blend of streetwise rock, reggae and balladry into the aforementioned Dickensian drag, an homage of sorts to one of Holton’s old acting gigs, playing the Artful Dodger in a production of Oliver, crossed with a trip through Biba’s dustbins.

Boyce: “I used to share a house with Gary and his French model girlfriend and a couple of our roadies in Kennington in South London, and we used to like going down the East End to Brick Lane on a Sunday morning, where we used to buy lots of stuff for the house. You could pick up some great gear in them days for next to nothing there.

“We furnished the house with all sorts of Thirties, Forties and Fifties gear. Lots of kitsch stuff that we were really into. We thought our place looked like something out of the film Performance, which we all loved, but thinking about it, it probably looked more like Steptoe and Son’s house! Anyway, we used to buy tons of old clothes down the Lane as well and that’s how our early look came about. All old second-hand clobber, but we liked the look of it and it was dirt cheap.”

They were also unrepentant Glam fans.  “We loved it, as we thought music had got too serious, and everyone was looking terrible, dressing down in tatty jeans and T-Shirts.  It was great to see some flamboyant styles and colour come back, and hear some good, short, sharp, poppy songs.”

heavy metal kids-docking in 77But audiences did not necessarily agree.   At the Gibous Club in Paris, the bottles rained down so hard that Holton had to hide behind the amps, and there were several UK shows where the crowd left the room, long before the band stopped playing.

There were some magnificent performances, as well, though.  “The Kings Road Theatre in Chelsea for one. We did a few nights there and all the darlings were out and they loved us. We also did a few nights at Biba’s Rainbow Room in Kensington, and that was great as well. Very Glam and such a cool room, with all those pretty, skinny girls dressed up in their Biba dresses and make-up, and all the guys in their snakeskin and leathers. That was real style.”

The Kids were treating the Speakeasy to a typically irreverent set when Dave Dee, of Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich fame “discovered” them.  Boyce recalls, “one of our managers, the late Laurie O’Leary, managed the club, so we played there every few weeks at the start of the band. It was a great club to go to, but it was a really tough audience to play to, and mainly full of older serious musos, some of them big names, and music business types.

“Most bands died a death there, and we had a hard time at first.  But Gary became more lippy and funny with the crowd as the weeks went on, and pretty soon we were going down a storm there. So I think that sold Dave Dee on us, because if you could go down well there, you could pretty well be sure go down well anywhere.”

By the end of the year, the band was signed to Atlantic and recording at Olympic Studios.  Now it was time for the real work to begin.

Fifteen years old, aspiring guitarist and Glam fan James Stevenson was an early convert. He caught the Kids at Biba’s in August 1974, around the time their eponymous debut LP was released, and he carried their memory with him for years to come. “A very underestimated band. If they’d had short hair, they’d have looked like a Punk band. They wore ripped jeans well before The Ramones.”

Brian James, as he pieced together the Damned, was equally impressed. “The Heavy Metal Kids were great fun. Gary used to take the piss out of himself so much, and they kinda filled a little bit of a gap amongst all that pomp of the early 1970s. You had the hippy side, you had the Glam thing that was taking itself so very seriously, and then there was Gary and his boys, just being silly.”   West Country art student Tim Smith agreed. “They cared about their look, wearing makeup on stage, dressing up special for gigs, which was the kind of stuff we were looking for. Silly lyrics, funny, energetic on-stage.”

Having signed to Atlantic on the strength of their live performance, the band’s eponymous debut album emerged in mid-1974.  Produced by Dave Dee, the Heavy Metal Kids took an already streamlined live show and honed it to needle sharpness, although Holton insisted, if you listened carefully enough, you could hear “all the same mistakes we used to make onstage.”  No matter.  The Heavy Metal Kids was one of the most exciting albums of 1974, no questions asked, and their record label knew it.

Keith Boyce: “Atlantic were right behind the band, and they did splash out a lot of money on promotion, which led to some people were saying we were a hype.  I guess because we had these full page ads in all the music papers, and we were on the TV and stuff like that.  But we had been building up to it since late 1972, so it wasn’t an overnight thing, although it might have looked like we just burst onto the scene to some people.”

In fact, the Heavy Metal Kids never became stars, never won any readers polls, never had a hit record.  But, if you could roll back time to that moment in 1974 when the very first needle hit the very first pressing of their eponymous debut album, it would be impossible to prophecy that sordid fate.

“We had so much fun doing [that album],” Boyce recalls.  “Gary was an extremely funny guy. Ronnie Thomas is hilarious as well, so with the pair of them carrying on we used to laugh ourselves silly.”

The music was pretty entertaining, as well.  Part unrepentant boogie band, part pub rock leviathan, and part good time distillation of the best of Slade and the Faces, fronted by Holton’s irresistible cackle, the Kids’ flash slash-and-sashay assault had a cosmic energy that could transform even their ballads (“It’s The Same,” “Nature Of My Game”) into air-thumping anthems.

“We Gotta Go” is simply unadulterated bliss, and the laconic reggae of “Run Around Eyes” became a dry run for the Stones’ later romp through “Cherry Oh Baby.” although they were not the only souls impressed by that particular track.

Boyce continues, “we were in Olympic studios recording ‘Run Around Eyes,’ and I sensed someone was behind me. I looked round and there’s this guy all dressed up from head to toe in green, with a cloak on and a hat with a feather in it, looking just like Robin Hood, and he had a black girl on each arm.

“I was pretty taken back by this sight, and with that, Ronnie turns round and we all stop playing.  Suddenly I realised who this guy is, which is when Ronnie says to him, ‘What the fuck do you want? We’re trying to record here mate’, and I’m whispering to Ronnie. ‘Ronnie, Ronnie, shut up, don’t you know who it is?’”

It was David Bowie, apologising for disturbing the band, but explaining that he’d so enjoyed what he’d heard from outside the room that “he couldn’t resist coming in to have a look at these white boys playing reggae.

“He then invited us into the studio next door where he was recording and he played us this new song he’d just finished. It was ‘Rebel Rebel.’  It sounded incredible! Anyway we spent a good while there talking to him. Really great interesting guy and easy to get on with.”

“Ain’t It Hard,” “Always Plenty Of Women,” “Hangin’ On”… Heavy Metal Kids walloped so many highs that the end of the album arrives much too quickly.  But the closing “Rock’n’Roll Man,” heralded by one of the most resounding screams in rock’n’roll history, is followed not by the sound of needle scraping label, but by a violent reprise for what remains the Kids’ finest hour, the stomping, storming “We Gotta Go.”

But they would be back.

I adored the Kids, bought the first album on the strength of one single; saw them on the Whistle Test and wished I could carry off a haircut like Holton’s—a broken bird’s nest atop Keith Richard’s head, after a few backward jumps through a hedge; and even toyed with adopting a Cockney accent like his, before realizing that Home Counties English didn’t quite lend itself to such romantic distortions.

Now I was going to see them for the first time, and I must have arrived early because Holton spotted me across the empty venue the moment I walked through the door—the Nashville, I think, but maybe not. “Fuckin’ ‘ell mate, what do you look like?”

Cue chronic blush, cue mumbled response, cue undiluted hatred for the Bay City Rollers. But Holton wasn’t finished. “’Ere, look,” he called over to a tableful of friends. “It’s Woody from the fuckin’ Rollers.”  And then a laugh and a pat on the back. “What’re ya drinkin’?”

“Cider, please.”

Cider, please,” he parroted back, exaggerating my own tones to BBC newsreader perfection.  “Don’t we talk posh.  For a Roller.”  And so on, a barrage of good-natured mockery shot through with genuine affability, until I accepted that, so far as he was concerned, I would forever more be named Roller Boy.

A year had passed since then, the Rollers scarf had long since been retired, but Holton always asked after it when he saw me. Except, just recently, he didn’t seem quite as observant as he used to.  In years to come, I would discover that a recreational drug habit that he adopted just for kicks had, around this same time, become something more of a problem; had stripped away a lot of what people used to love about Holton, and was transforming him into a moody, miserable and, most of all, unreliable so-and-so.  At the time, so hopelessly naïve about the potential effects of hard drugs that I still thought they could make you look like Keith Richards, I merely assumed he was having a bad day.  A bad day that had lasted for most of the year so far.

A new single arrived.  Blue Eyed Boys” was an early taste of the slowly-gestating second Heavy Metal Kids LP, confusingly released under an abbreviated new name, after somebody decided that the band’s name was putting people off.  After all, not everyone has read William Burroughs, so if you’re calling yourself the Heavy Metal somethings, you’d better play Heavy Metal.

With their homeland steadfastly ignoring them, the Kids set out to conquer America; “a few weeks with ZZ Top,” recalls Keith Boyce.  “They were a really great band, and lovely guys. We also did a week of gigs with the Chambers Brothers, another amazing band and also great guys. Others we played with were Bob Seger, Flo and Eddie, Freddie King, The Average White Band, all great bands and fun to be with.

“We were playing to really big audiences most nights, and we were going down great, so it was a really good time for us. I’d already toured the States [with Long John Baldry in 1972], but for the rest of the band it was their first time there, so it was great seeing them all open-eyed, as it was so different there from Europe.

“Everything seemed to be open 24 hours a day, TV was on all night, the bars stayed open late, people were really friendly, just a great place to be then. I had my 21st birthday on that tour, and that was really something. I couldn’t have thought of a better place to be at the time.”

But even with the name-change, and despite a burgeoning reputation for hotel-wrecking hell raising (they were banned from at least three national chains), America as a whole refused to pay any attention.  The band returned to Britain, and “Blue Eyed Boys” was ignored as well.

They opened for Alice when he brought his Welcome To My Nightmare show to England… they’d played with him in the States as well, and the resultant friendship was a genuine one.  ”I think we watched the show every night for weeks, and never got tired of it,” recalls Boyce. “Likewise, Alice would watch our show from the wings most nights. By now, Alice was a solo act and I think he could see that we were very much a band, and a gang much as the original Alice Cooper were.  I think Alice dug that.”

1976 started well for the Heavy Metal Kids, but rapidly launched itself downhill. A spot on television’s Top Of The Pops had failed to push them forward, while their second album, Anvil Chorus, tumbled as hard as their first. And now, just to make things worse, there was a bunch of new bands coming up who had taken what the Heavy Metal Kids considered their forté, the streetwise swagger and “I don’t care” demeanor, and were making the newspapers believe that it something new and exciting.

The Kids spent a lot of their free time drinking at the Roebuck pub on the Kings Road; Holton even started a pool hall for bikers in one of the upstairs room. It was there, drummer Keith Boyce recalled, “that we started noticing these spiky haired blokes hanging about. Then it turned out all these guys who were about to be in bands like the Damned and the Clash, the Pistols, the Adverts, Chelsea, the Pretenders, Cock Sparrow, had all been coming to our gigs, because we were one of the only bands they could identify with.”

He was right, as well; in months to come, I too would start recognizing people onstage from the dancefloor at Kids shows, and kicking out much the same effervescent energies that we’d once merely admired from ground level.  Their name might be a stylistic misnomer, but the Heavy Metal Kids were punks before any of the rest of us.

These newfound acolytes did not initially impress the Kids. With Holton the inevitable ringleader, the group delighted in taking the piss out of the flourishing new look. Boyce continued, “we thought it was a bit of a laugh, as these guys all reckoned they were something really new and outrageous, or at least the press did, when in fact they were just playing rock’n’roll with spiky hair. I mean, have you seen photos of Mick Jones and Johnny Rotten and all before they cut their hair? They were all well Hippy, and listening to Prog rock!”

Even worse than the photographs of Rotten, though, was Gary Holton’s first glimpse of the young man at work. Bug-eyed and wiry, leering and louche, Holton had long ago perfected his onstage impression of the psychopathic hunchback from Hell, and he merely shrugged the first time someone told him that the Pistol had lifted a lot of his look. But then he saw the performance in the flesh and he was furious. He caught up with his döppelganger in the Roebuck.

I wasn’t there, and neither was Keith Boyce. But, he told me, “I heard Gary had a right go at Johnny. He told him to stop ripping him off, and a lot more, so people told me. For once, I heard that Mr. Rotten was speechless!”

He would quickly recover, of course, and Holton rarely bore grudges for long. The next time the pair met up, the Sex Pistol solemnly pinned a gold safety-pin to Holton’s lapel and mourned, “you’ve been ripped off, Holton.”

The Pistols and the Kids continued to eye one another warily, but elsewhere, the ice quickly thawed.  The Damned, in particular, befriended the Kids very early on, and Boyce “had a lot of time for those guys. I think because, like us, they didn’t take themselves too seriously. They also had a lot of energy and some good songs.”

Yet there was also something gnawing at the Kids for which even friendship couldn’t compensate, the growing sense that, somewhere along the line, events had overtaken them. Weeks after that confrontation in the Roebuck, with their third album already in the can, the Kids broke up. Like so many of the groups that arose at the wrong end of the early 1970s, and then got lost in the shuffle of the developing new year, the Heavy Metal Kids were just a little too far ahead of their time.

The last time I saw Gary, a year or so before his death, he was a star.

A minor (but memorable) role in Quadrophenia, was followed by better billed appearances in Bloody Kids and Breaking Glass, and a banned-by-the-BBC Norwegian chart topping cover of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.”  Now he was ”Wayne” on the breakaway television smash Auf Weidersehn Pet; the voice of Tennants Lager’s latest TV ad campaign, and co-starring with Paul Jones in the West End smash Pump Boys and Dinettes.  He was chatting with friends in the stalls before the show, and I thought of going over to say hello.  But years had passed since our last encounter, and the Rollers scarf was even older than that.  Plus, he looked busy.  I figured I’d catch him another time, because hey, that’s how it works, isn’t it.

Not this time.

Bollocks.

(A biography of Gary, “Fast Living: Remembering the Real Gary Holton,” by Teddie Dahlin, is now available.)

A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at www.krausebooks.com 

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