Sometime last year, in a venue in Chester, against a backdrop of a quite stunning RSVP gig, I stumbled across two or three Twiddlys in the crowd. It seemed to happen a lot in those days: I'd come across some of them on a dusty track at Glasto' '93 and again at an Allan Holdsworth gig in early '94, where one of the band was shamelessly heckling Holdsworth with the words 'less notes' !
The Wizards of Twiddly had made the short hop from Liverpool to see how Richard Sinclair (RSVP, Caravan) shaped up, and inevitably talk turned to future plans. Andy Delamere (drums) confided that they'd been thinking of approaching Kevin Ayers, hauling him over to England and offering the services of guitar, bass and drums for a possible tour. It seemed to be one of those perfectly conceived ideas that never actually happen.
Well, this one did. Writing this piece in April ('95) Wizards of Twiddly are just about to head off for Italy, France & Ireland , to build on the success of their first tour with Kevin Ayers. There's talk of a live album, maybe recordings with Kevin as his backing band...the possibilities are endless....!
The tour with Kevin Ayers will certainly have brought the music of The Wizards of Twiddly to a wider audience. And not before time. Quite aside from being the Ayers 'backing band' , they performed for over an hour each night as support with their own brand of delightfully barmy music and will have converted many. There are many who should have been converted long before. The Wizards of Twiddly have been in existence for about seven years, and I'm surely not alone in seeing the Ayers/Twiddly concerts, on musical merit alone, as a double header. Now the difficult bit- what are The Wizards of Twiddly like ? Journos have quoted a long list of soundalikes including Zappa, Gong, Madness, XTC, Ian Dury, The Bonzos, Kinks and still not really got close. Basically they're very much their own fellows.
A musical ensemble that encompasses sax, flute, trumpet, occasional keyboards or trombone, three very fine vocalists, a stunning guitarist and a tight rhythm section tells some of the story. But thats forgetting the compelling stage presence, even without one time 'narrator' Keith Lancaster, who provided a running visual commentary on proceedings with sketch pad, announcements, occasional vocals and disturbed dancing. Anyone not found found grinning their faces off during a Twiddly set has a problem. Their sets can include a repertoire of jazzy TV themes gone haywire, loon tunes about vegetables, yobboik punk numbers, outrageous guitar heroics and the most blissful sixties-drenched pop.
They've been quite my favourite live act since that night a few years back, when, drawn by the absurdity of the name and a quite baffling demo tape, I trekked out to the Witchwood in East Manchester, to see what they were all about. Blown away by the sheer energy, noise and visual confusion of it all, I nevertheless remember writing about their 'terminally glum bass player'. Little known to me, bassist Andy Frizell had taken a visit to the dentist that day, emerged several wisdom teeth lighter and was now neglecting his normally cavalier singing role in favour of a vantage point on top of a rather large speaker cab, looking even more urchin like than usual.
Three years on and it's Andy Frizell , thankfully neither glum nor toothless, and singing drummer Andy Delamere (hereafter referred to as Andy F & Andy D) who I meet up with in a restaurant in the bands native Liverpool. We start talking about the Ayers connection. How had it come about ? ''Well we phoned him up and said 'do you want to play with us?' and he said 'all right then'. That was basically it - its a bit longer than that....'' opens Andy F. Some time after Andy D's prophetic words in Chester there had been talk of Kevin Ayers looking for a few musicians to tour the UK with. Andy D: '' I didn't have The Wizards of Twiddly in mind. I just thought of me, Carl (the guitarist) and Andy. We sent him a CD, then we got that support and then he rang up within about two weeks.''
The support was at the Powerhaus in Islington last autumn ('94) where the band backed Kevin on a couple of numbers and that really open the floodgates. their first 'proper' gig together was in Liverpool in December, that in turn led to a Radio One session with Mark Radcliffe and ultimately a UK tour.
''It was odd'' suggests Andy F '' because I was away with Kaboodle ( Liverpool based theatre company that the band have close links with) in London and I had a bizarre conversation with Andy on the phone because Viv Stanshall had just come down to see the show (King Lear) and ended up working with him ! Whilst I'd been away Kevin had been on the phone and said 'do you want to do some stuff ?' ''
Andy D : ''And I didn't know that he didn't know ! I didn't know he was going to be working with Vivian Stanshall, and I said '' Well you're going to be working with Kevin Ayers as well !'' The tour was booked as well. Kevin said 'I'm coming up in December' and in the space of a month the started to get booked.'' ''We had a a week to get this Liverpool gig together'', says Andy F ''It was supposed to be an incentive to work'' says Andy D. ''and I said to Pete (Twiddly manager) 'I don't need an incentive to work with Kevin Ayers!'
Andy F. It was a day and a half into rehearsals before he started singing.... ( he starts out the intro to 'Why Are We Sleeping?' )...dong,dong, dong , dah-dah....and he was just sitting there and he just stood up and came over to the mike and came in with the first line. And I looked at Andy and just.........' (simulates wobbly legs, jaw dropping and other gobsmacked antics ).
Kevin Ayers can rarely have found such a conducive band to work with - in band terms you could say he's got a new Whole World (Kevin's early 70's combo that included radical busker Lol Coxhill and a teenage Mike Oldfield ) in his hands; in guitarist terms he may have found a new Ollie Halsall. In band terms, whilst the Twiddlys could hardly be called subservient, they have tailored to Kevin Ayers' needs - brass much more likely to be muted trumpet and flute. The Twiddly's two lead vocalists (Simon & Andy F) share backing vox duties with drummer Andy. Its a splendid counterpoint to the classic Ayers songs, topped by the guitar work of Carl Bowry. His work with The Wizards of Twiddly has marked him out as a very gifted musician: he can be so impossibly fast that a major part of the impact is a certain amount of self-caricature. There's a subtlety and a range of styles too, apparent in the Ayers/Twiddly band.
But enough about the Ayers collaborations. OK, so I'm heavily biased, but I came away from each night just as excited by the Twiddly's own sets as their exquisite collaborations with one of my favourite songwriters. On the recent tour with Kevin Ayers the band have showcased hefty slices of new material, interwoven with more familiar blasts from the past. Their forte has always to keep things short and snappy, sometimes outrageously so : a band performing nine new songs and still having time to cram in a dozen oldies clearly don't hang about. There's always an anarchic bent to some of the set, which first became apparent on the thrashy numbers from the first album 'Independent Legs'. 'Shocks,Tyres & Exhausts' 'Inarticulated Lorry' and 'My Sore Head' all struck a discordant chord at a breakneck speed.
The second album 'Man Made Self' may well have featured more 'songs' as well as moments of extended jamming ('Young Man Motorway') but the spirit was kept alive as the band dabbled with their first 'Tanks'. To explain : one of the abiding memories of early gigs was watching song titles appearing on stage in a variety of ways. Some titles too: 'Eye of the Potato' , 'Sex Drugs and Morris Dancing' 'Armitage Shanks' from the first album alone. Then 'SepticTank' started to appear at gigs segued with the equally manic 'Old Crone'. A madcap instrumental with lots of brass blaring and general buffoonery. 'Anti septic Tank' when it arrived was more manic, shorter and even more bloody-minded. End of story ? Hardly ! On the Ayers tour the band unveiled 'Anti Tank Tank' with its close harmony massed nasal scat singing (!).
Walking in about fifteen minutes into the bands set in London, I briefly thought they might have gone soft, with new songs such as 'Sounds of Success' and the remarkable vocal harmonies of 'We Are Not Free' almost wowing the audience. Not for long. 'Man made Self' saw to that !
So what, then is the History of The Wizards of Twiddly ?
Try this for size from Andy F '' I bumped into him (Andy D) and then he bumped into Simon, but I had already bumped into Simon without knowing he had already bumped into Simon. Then Simon bumped into Carl, then you (Andy D) bumped into Carl at the same time, so I rebumped into you and then we all bumped into Martin, which was quite a shock for Martin, I think ('because he didn't know he was being bumped into') and that was it really.......('We bumped into each other...' adds Andy D)....and then we all bumped into Keith. Pete bumped into us at our first gig and became our manager. ''
We rehearsed for a year and forgot to gig. We were less a band and more of a travelling laboratory. We used to get together and have rehearsals and sort of do these tunes, but I'm not sure whether that was more important or sitting around in cold flats listening to music was more important'' All members of the band were involved with other bands (one, The Vernons recorded an album on Probe; another featuring the Andys prophetically called Whatevershebringswesing).
The name still raises a smile -back in the early 90's Liverpool seemed to be permenantly festooned with gaudy posters bearing the bands logo. The madcap monicker , an anarchic stage approach and their close links with bands such as Urban Strawberry Lunch (and later the new psychedelic breed such as The Great Imperial YoYo and Kava Kava) has given them a slightly 'crusty' image. In fact the name came from a highly scathing review of Canadian rockers Rush, found by Andy D, who is also responsible for the bands distinctive artwork.
''The first gig,in 1989, was extraordinary'' continues Andy D.''It was at a Liverpool University Common Room . It was one of those where they have a telly in the corner and a bar and comfy chairs. And we just asked our friends down, people who'd been wondering what we'd been up to for months. Loads of people -all mates-turned up. It was really early in the evening, sill light and we only did nine songs but the vibe was amazing. I remember being very excited about the whole thing.....this was something special.''
Andy F. ''Early on we got a residency at a club called Vivaldis. We played once a month for about three months and we built up a following. Those were hard gigs because we packed the place out and we had to think about what we could do next month...a different angle.'' This was probably where the theatrical side of things stepped up a gear. Andy Frizell performs and writes musical material for Liverpool based theatre company Kaboodle (the band played and acted in Kaboodles 'Threepenny Story' touring UK and Germany 1991/2) and an integral part of the band at the time was Keith Lancaster, a most extraordinary individual. By the time I got to see the band he had taken the role of expressionless, silent compere, seated half off stage, equipped with various drawing materials, and an endless supply of paper with which he would solemly inform the crowd of the next number.
With Twiddly songs tending to be on the short side, it was sometimes a race against time. His alter ego was as a psychotic dancer, or, memorably, on the yarn 'Errols last Supper' and the truly surreal 'Slug Alert' (complete with sound effects - have you ever wondered what a slug sounds like? - Keith knows.) as narrator. He was perhaps responsible for the most renowned comment yet made about the band : 'Bonkers jazz-influenced Scousers featuring a 'Bez' with sketchpad and crayons' (NME) that seemed somehow appropriate.
Preceding the 'Keith's got crayons' period (Andy D !) the band had other ways of confusing audiences 'We used to have Valerie Singleton posters and 'The Contraption' ' reveals Andy F 'It was a bicycle upended on its side and on each wheel of the bike we had an an axle and that was attached to another thing. And there was a roll of wallpaper and you turned the wheel and it was like a Camberwick Green thing and the songs came up. But what that meant was that you had to unravel a whole sheet of wallpaper before each gig, painstakingly paint all the songs in the right order, whatever.''
Andy D ''Pete used to do that and he needed about four days notice....you couldn't be spontaneous'' Andy F ''One time we got it wrong in Edinburgh - we were doing a two set gig and got the order wrong. There were only five people in the audience in this tiny cafe. There was a guy from a Radio Station sitting right in front of us, grinning his head off while we did 'Ace of Spades'. There were a lot of people who hadn't seen it happen! In Edinburgh we did about fourteen gigs in a week the majority to about five people !''
''There was one gig at Vivaldis where we decided that we would all march in playing 'Independent Legs'. Meanwhile Carl was onstage with a big cloth over him with hand drawn question marks all over it, ready to be revealed and launch into the next tune. Carl stood there for half an hour while we tried to re access the venue! He had a right cob on!' Andy D '...Those were wild days. Theres a tape from one of the Vivaldi gigs and it sounds like King Crimson's 'Earthbound' album with stupid characters singing. Every song sounds like its sung by a different, weird person. Martins audibly going 'totally pissed ! totally pissed !'' and he was! Every note he plays is wrong - wrong -loud & wrong!''
I asked what had happened to Keith, who's not been seen with the band for a while. Andy D says in funereal tones ''Keiths not with us anymore'' Andy F ''He's moved on. He's doing this that and the other but basically getting on with his acting career. he may have left the band in terms of being a full time band member but he's not getting away with it that easily ! He's excellent and will definitely be on the next album''. Meanwhile the Twiddlys aren't without a convincing visual stimuli. Trumpeter Martin Smith (never shy of unreasonable stage antics) has the hair, general gait and energy to draw your attention - Andy Frizell is close behind with cheesy grin and his straight legged , high stepping progress around the stage. And Simon James continues to terrorise the mike with sax and vocals. I had to point out the contrast with equally exhilarating but somewhat saner sets they did with Kevin Ayers:
Andy F : 'Yeah, but hopefully we can draw all those things together because they're not all that far apart.'' Andy D ''We sat him down at rehearsal and asked if there was anything of ours he'd like to sing? and he said 'I'll have a go' so he sat there while we played him a song and he'd say 'Well it sounds fine when you sing it' We thought it might be good for him to sing 'Man Made Self.''. 'Man Made Self', the title song of their second album, has become practically the Twiddlys anthem, with its over-the-top metal riffing, ranting in unison and condemnation of 2.4 culture ( 'I know exactly what I will be doing a year from now/ I shall be making provision for the year after') It hasn't happened yet but would surely suit the Kevin Ayers growl. There is nothing the Twiddlys would like more than for Kevin to perform one of their songs, or even to write stuff together. Andy D : '' Kevin brought along one of his new songs, or a riff, which was far more exuberant than anything off 'Falling Up'' or 'Still Life With Guitar''. There's stuff from the early years that we'd like to recreate the spirit of..''
In the meantime they'll content themselves with sharing a stage (''There was one rehearsal where Kevin fell on his back and carried on playing !'') fine food and drink (Andy D: ''Within an hour , when we first met him properly, he leaned over to me and asked 'Do you all drink wine?' ) and the Twiddlys shiny 'new' van:
Andy F: ''We've got a big new van, a big police van but its had it's riot shields taken out. It's got little notices by the handles on the doors saying 'Keep Latches Open Except When Under Attack....' .''