Of all the bands that hovered around the UK punk and post-punk scene at the tail end of the seventies, so many of whom trailed away having left barely a mark on the popular consciousness, one of the most invigorating was Ski Patrol.
Firmly cast within the same kind of waters as Public Image, Killing Joke and Gang of 4, all dark dub and fractured rhythms, shifting unease and the cardiac shuffle, Ski Patrol blazed bright but fitfully. But after three decades spent haunting the darkest recesses of the post-punk collectors dreamscape, they now emerge into the limelight courtesy of a magnificent new compilation.
Compiled by guitarist Nick Clift,Versions of a Life (Recordings 1979-1981) tells the full story of the band; while Clift also sits down with Goldmine to give us some background to what - so far, anyway - ranks as the most deserved, anticipated and thrilling anthology of the year so far.
Naming the band for a cut on John Cale’s Slow Dazzle album (which could have been worse, says Clift; “thankfully we didn't end up being called ‘Dirty Ass Rock n Roll’ or ‘Mr. Wilson’), Ski Patrol founders Ian Lowery, Francis Cook and Clift met in Sunderland, in north-east England, “around the time punk broke really big, I guess the Autumn of 1977.”
Clift explains, “Francis and I were in college there; Ian was a local guy from Co. Durham, who already had a reputation as something of a loud-mouth and a frontman. Ian recruited some guys from the local art school to form a band called The Wall, who played a kind of proto-punk in the style of The Clash and I was more into power-pop like XTC and had a band called The Debutantes.”
GM: I remember the Wall very well.
NC: The Wall became quite serious, moved to London and released several singles for the excellent Small Wonder label. Ian was unceremoniously kicked out of his own band in late 1979, by which time I had moved to London too, so we decided we were sick of bands that promoted peer pressure, and were going to form a new band that would throw out the operator's manual and start tinkering with the songwriter's machine in a new way.
GM: The Debutantes were known for an experimental edge, weren’t they?
NC: Interesting looking back, you can hear even then both bands trying to inject experimental ingredients into very basic song structures. We were by now heavily into PiL and Joy Division, and coming to the Brixton area was a revelation, it immersed us into the dub reggae culture around us very quickly, and so Ski Patrol was born. Ian and Francis were three years older than me and gave me a crash course in Can, The Residents, The Stooges and much else besides. It had a profound effect on my decision to use texture as much as proficiency in my playing.
GM: Was John Cale an influence at all?
NC: The name was a bone of contention. I wanted something with a sense of permanence, and we couldn't really agreed on anything. We all wanted something that had nothing to do with jokey punk names, even though some of them were fun. Ian finally came up with Ski Patrol after visiting a friend's house and flicking through their record collection he came across Slow Dazzle. ‘Ski Patrol’ just jumped out at him I guess. I went along with it, even though it gave no indication of who we were artistically. I don't think any of us has ever been skiing to this day.
GM: Tell us about the early shows... I remember seeing you a few times in various places round London, and your name always seemed to be out there.
NC: Our early shows were in late 1979 and we mostly played pub gigs like The Windsor Castle on Harrow Rd, supporting bands like The Carpettes, who Ian knew from the North-East, and who were lovely guys but nothing like us stylistically.
Our first drummer was a lad called Bruce Archibald, who had moved with me to London from college and he was a great player, very jazz-inflected style but a solid beat keeper and he was largely responsible for helping me forge the angular dub style that some of our songs were based around.
Bruce got disillusioned, though, and went home to Wales. Our new drummer Alan Cole was a force of nature, and at that point our live shows became more spontaneous and combustible affairs. The more loosely arranged songs were never the same twice, and Ian was becoming ever more unpredictable onstage, which I think created considerable word of mouth.
We did a show in Stockwell where he just lost it, and even though it was probably a great spectacle, it was a bit upsetting to see a singer fall apart emotionally in front of an audience. He would do that occasionally; he would get shitfaced before gigs and barely keep it together. Other times he was clear-eyed and marvelous to watch.
GM: A lot of gigs, but Ski Patrol left a fairly small vinyl legacy. What happened?
NC: We played decent shows in and around London throughout 1980-81, art schools, ULU, The Rock Garden and The Moonlight, a CND benefit here and there, and some support slots nationally with Killing Joke.
Money was always an issue, though. I was working full-time at a DHSS at that point and funding most of the rehearsals. We finally started recording seriously when we signed with Malicious Damage, and were able to upgrade to better studios. We did three singles, a BBC session for John Peel, and a final session that was never released (until the new CD collection).
We had material to make a brilliant first album, but we weren't getting along by that point, and things got physical in the back of a van one night after our last show at Charing Cross Hospital of all places. After that, Ian and I parted ways, but re-kindled our friendship a few years later.
GM: I’m assuming Versions of a Life contains everything you did, then... Was it easy gathering together all the tapes?
NM: All of the original master tapes were lost. But by sheer chance, I was contacted by Josh Cheon of the boutique vinyl label Dark Entries in San Francisco, offering to release a Ski Patrol retrospective.
Over the past year, we worked together doing digital transfers and clean-ups of mint vinyl copies and my cassette archives. Then the best news arrived, a former label partner at Malicious Damage told me he had found the original 2" multi-track and 1/4" production master of the March '81 session we did, including "Cut", "Faith in Transition" and "Extinguish".
We baked the tapes and restored the sound quality, and it turned out they were versions that had not been on the 7" and in fact were far superior, in hindsight. But the real kicker was that I could now approach the original engineer Mark Lusardi with his original stems, and get him to do a full vocal mix of "Extinguish" for the first time ever.
He agreed, and his 2014 Restoration mix appears as a bonus track on the CD and Digital versions of the album. Mark is still very in demand as a mixer and engineer, and he was one of the first London producers to really apply the mechanics of dub-reggae to rock music (Killing Joke's "Turn to Red"). What he did with "Extinguish" is epic, and while staying true to the original performance, he dragged it screaming into the 21st century. He did us proud.
GM: He really did.
NC: I sequenced the tracks chronologically, and you'll be able to trace the development of the band's access to decent recording technology throughout.
The early recordings were unfussy, we just turned up and played, didn't really arrange anything too much. We were lucky on "Agent Orange" that Jaz Coleman [of Killing Joke] dropped by to see how we were doing; we were label mates by then and I think he wanted to make his presence known, as he is want to do, so he just started holding down this A minor chord on this synth they had, and manipulated the filters and waveforms to start creating these amazing washes of sound. It was a happy accident and actually brought the song alive.
By the time we were really hitting our stride in 1981, we were recording with Mark Lusardi at his Mark Angelo studio and beginning to use effects, percussion and delay to bring out the sense of drama in the songs. The three unreleased tracks from April ’81 we all thought were a fantastic progression for us, especially “Concrete Eternal” which was dark and sinister and had incredible slow groove to it.
GM: Any memories of recording the Peel session? I remember listening to it when it was originally broadcast; it was great to see it on the album
NC: The Peel Session was an incredible experience. I recently connected with the producer Tony Wilson (no relation to the Factory boss) and the engineer Dave Dade, and amazingly they remembered it.
With Peel Sessions, you were always against the clock, and supposed to do four songs, which was standard, but we had this new piece called "Where The Buffalo Roam" which was barely rehearsed and Ian really wanted us to do it. It ran about seven minutes long, a tone poem almost, so Tony and Dale were very accommodating and we ended up doing three tracks but with a little more time spent on the production.
I used a kitchen knife to create the slide guitar tones, and they then looped a lot of the guitar harmonics to create atmospherics. They also double-tracked the drums so Al's performance is super tight and punchy. The session sounded amazing if a little under-rehearsed on our part, but what we lacked in planning we made up for in the studio.
GM: The band broke up... I know Ian went on to the Folk Devils; how about the rest of you?
NC: After Ski Patrol I went to work for Rough Trade in the sales and distribution division for many years. Ian and Francis Cook, our bass player, formed the short-lived F For Fake, a jazz-punk combo echoing what was happening in New York's 'No Wave' scene. The Folk Devils came after that.
GM: Ian sadly passed away in 2001. I guess the album is, in many ways, a tribute to him?
NC: Yes, it is. I moved to the USA in '91, and had very little contact with the previous band members - Ian formed Folk Devils in 1984, and then King Blank in a deal he signed with Beggars Banquet. He continued to try to break through in the '90s for many years but always fell short of making his mark. Then he died suddenly in 2001, and I had absolutely no idea he has passed away until I was reading some random article online around 2008.
I remember my blood froze when I read it. I decided I would start using the internet to honour his memory, first a MySpace site, then a Facebook page. I started pages for Ski Patrol and Folk Devils and gradually people started to reconnect with me, but sadly not Alan Cole the drummer who is still MIA to this day. (If he reads this he should get in touch).
GM: I loved the Folk Devils - another of those bands that you wish everybody could have heard.
NC: Those were probably Ian’s most prolific and acclaimed years, and he was working in a style he was best suited to, a kind of libidinous, snarky, amphetamine swamp rock. He was an amazing lyric writer and very under-appreciated. Not an easy guy to love, but a lot of his pain and anger was turned inwards I think, and it got the better of him in the end.
GM: You can hear some of that on Versions of a Life...
NC: I want this Ski Patrol release to be a kind of testimony to his hungrier, more open-minded period, when he was unshackling himself from the trappings of punk fashion and really beginning to grow as a writer and wordsmith. I really wish he was still around to hear what we did in a fresh light, and I hope anyone who followed us at the time can still feel our stuff has some relevance to their memories of that special era in British music.