“DAD! YOU’VE GOT TO GO AFTER THEM! THEY’RE USING YOUR STUFF…” Graham Killin talks about the highs and lows of Bleak House…
It’s a criminal shame that in their lifetime Home Counties’ quintet Bleak House recorded just two singles – albeit two extremely good singles – to bear testament to their abilities. With a name drawn from a Charles Dickens’ novel the band was one of the many that actually pre-dated the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal but who only came to prominence once the spotlight had been turned on the new breed of metal bands. The foundations of Bleak House in fact date back to 1972 when Graham Killin, Paul Hornby, David Alexander and David Riddell came together to form their first band. “We were all at the same school and were about 16 at the time,” recalls Killin. “It was funny really because there was only one amp and all three of us were plugged into it, and it was an almighty racket really! We just used to practice and try to copy other people’s music, or try to come up with ideas, just jamming really, trying to get a feel for it. No-one had ever played with electric guitars before; we’d had acoustic guitars, and been in each other’s bedrooms and that sort of thing, but this was like ‘let’s do it for real!’ and give it a try; and we found it was a bit harder than we’d thought!” he laughs.
As fledgling musicians the four schoolfriends were not short of inspiration. “If I remember rightly, the likes of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Yes, Wishbone Ash were early influences. But being in St Albans we were lucky back then as the City Hall pretty much had bands on all the time: people like Vinegar Joe, Elkie Brooks, Robert Palmer, Edgar Broughton Band, all that sort of thing. We used to go every week and you saw people up there and you wanted to do it yourself. And that’s how it started to come together really.”
But the more you start to strive for something, the more the cracks start to show. “David Riddell,” starts Killin, “well, he was more of a classical guitarist. He was properly taught, and I think he found it difficult playing within a band set-up. If you play classical guitar it’s more of a solo thing, I would have thought, so he left. And David Alexander… David was a really good friend, and we were always good buddies at school, but he found it very difficult to hold a rhythm down. And it was very painful because Paul Hornby and myself, we were starting to get our own music together and were desperate, desperate, to do this; and we needed somebody who could, well, actually drum without watching our hands going up and down and copying us, drumming along to us strumming.” He laughs again. “It was bloody hilarious, really!”
So with the two Davids falling by the wayside and with Killin covering guitar and vocals duties, Hornby on bass and discovery of thirteen-year-old drummer Roy Reed, Rasputin was born. “We had two or three drummers that came along and didn’t last very long – no real commitment – and funnily enough one day we were auditioning for drummers and Roy came along with his dad but it was too late; we’d already given the job to somebody else. And then of course this guy – I can’t remember his name – he came and went like a few others, so we advertised again and Roy called and asked if he could come along and, my God, he was a just kid, but could he play! He was brilliant. There are people who play drums, and there are drummers, that’s what I always say, and he was a drummer. He had it, y’know?
“It wasn’t a serious game plan to go out as a three piece, continues Killin. “We just wanted to get out there and play. We’d put our own material together, Paul and myself were composing the tracks, and we just couldn’t find anyone else to sing with us. Everyone who’d come along, they just weren’t the sort of thing we wanted; we wanted that heavy drive with the music but most of the people were influenced by the likes of Steely Dan, stuff like that, the sort of West Coast sound. So eventually we thought ‘let’s cut to the chase; let’s do it ourselves: let’s just get out there and do it ourselves.’ So we did. But after a while, well, I didn’t want to be doing the vocals all the time, so we experimented with vocalists and then a little later we thought ‘let’s get another guitarist in’. And although we were advertising and had people coming along, all the time in the background was Bob Bonshor.” A schoolfriend of Roy’s, Bonshor used to help out with the gear. “Roy said one day, ‘he’s got a guitar, he plays, he copies all our tunes, he’s good’, so we said ‘well, bring him along, let’s have a go’ and that was it. He was in.”
But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here. In 1975 Ronnie Neighbour moved in as full-time vocalist and Rasputin became Rock Bottom; within a year Neighbour had been replaced by Jim Winspur and Rock Bottom became Ripper in a band that seemingly had a fixation with the letter R...
“Yeah, Ronnie…” Killin begins. “He was from Welwyn Garden City. He was good. He was in the mould of, well, he was a good showman, and he had a voice like Steve Marriott. And he was great with an audience; he really knew how to work an audience. He used to listen to Nazareth a lot, he used to go and see bands like that, and UFO… But, unfortunately, well, I don’t know if it was an ego thing, but he didn’t seem fully committed to it and sometimes he wouldn’t turn up for rehearsals or said he wasn’t in the mood for gigs, and when we’d play if he wasn’t ‘in the mood’ he wouldn’t put his heart and soul into it, and it showed. In the end there was a row and he said ‘I don’t think I want to stay’ and off he went.” A great shame… We used to do support slots at the Alban Arena – what was then St Albans City Hall – and the first one we ever did was with a band called the Doctors Of Madness. It was around the early time when punk was just starting to get going, and the Doctors Of Madness were, whichever way you look at it, a manufactured band. They were set up. But we got to play with them and we went down really well, and it was like, ‘yes! This is going to work!’ But obviously it didn’t!” Another laugh.
“And Jim Winspur, he was good. He was a good vocalist, he had a bit more soul to his voice. He was a bit like whatsisname from Simply Red, Mick Hucknall. He had that sort of edge to him. But heavy rock was not his bag, really; though he was a good singer, and he was good with an audience and things, it was the complete opposite to Ronnie; Jim and Ronnie, they were chalk and cheese. Both could sing, but where Ronnie would throw himself around the stage and whip up a crowd, Jim would ‘speak’ to the crowd rather than rabble-rouse them. And if he wasn’t getting a response he would sort of step back a bit… He wanted more of an intellectual sound, perhaps, but he didn’t like the raw energy of the rock and he wanted to move on from that.”
Although Winspur’s tenancy with the band was short-lived his legacy – in terms of renaming the band – was immense. His aversion to ‘heavy metal’ names, led to his suggestion of Bleak House as an alternative; at once the band went from the generic to the unique, and the exclusivity of their name would match the individuality of their material. “I don’t honestly remember some of the names now,” admits Killin. “We were called Rock Bottom at one stage and we took that from the, well, we were starting at the bottom anyway, but UFO had that track ‘Rock Bottom’ and we used to use that as an intro tape before we came on. That was when we were playing youth clubs and places like that when we first started. But anyway, in St Albans there’s a house that used to be called Bleak House. When Charles Dickens visited St Albans, there’s a lot in the book ‘Bleak House’, a lot of bits and pieces and places he visited in the area that appear in the book. And this particular house appears in the book. It wasn’t called Bleak House then but later the people who owned it wanted to associate it with the novel and so renamed it Bleak House. And then we sort of attached ourselves to that, if you like…”
In 1977 Winspur was replaced by Graham Shaw. “Graham came in much the same way: we advertised for a vocalist and along he came. His influences then were Alice Cooper, Judas Priest, that sort of thing. He liked the early Rob Halford look; not so much the leather stuff but the early look. They used to play St Albans a lot in the early days and we used to go and see them and he liked that way Rob Halford used to move around. Graham had a pretty good voice and he used to carry it live as well. And he liked what we were doing and we liked what he did so it clicked.” But at pretty much the same time Paul Hornby quit the band. “It came to a point where he thought he was doing more than everyone else. In fact, he had the van and carried the PA around and everything else. We had a meeting and he felt that he couldn’t work with us any more and he wanted to move on. I’d known Paul from when I was five years old, we went to the same primary school, our parents knew each other and we were good friends for a long, long time,” says Killin, “but he wanted to leave and that was that.”
All of which hit Bleak House with the double-whammy of having neither a bassist nor transport. “We had a PA but no way of transporting it around. Fortunately, shortly afterwards Roy passed his driving test and bought a van to move his drum kit around – which was enormous, he had a massive double kit – and so he got the PA as well! And then with Gez on board we were going once more.”
Another advert had led to the recruitment of Gez Turner to take Hornby’s place. A renowned bassist who first appeared on Pussy’s 1969 album ‘Pussy Plays’ Gez was older than the rest of the band and was relocating from London. “He always said that he didn’t want to move out of London, he wanted to stay, but his wife did. So they moved to St Albans but he told his wife he’d move as long as he could join a band. At the time he was a fair bit older than us, he was getting on for, I’d say, seven or eight years older than the rest of us, so he was like the old man of the band! He fitted in though, his bass playing was superb, and so we said, ‘right, if you’re up for it, you’re in’ and we gelled very well.”
By the time Killin, Reed, Shaw, Turner and Bonshor finally felt ready to set foot in a studio the NWOBHM was in full swing. Released in the summer of 1980, ‘Rainbow Warrior’ made for an exciting (and now well-regarded) debut. In a plain white cover proudly adorned with the band’s logo in black the 7” single was flipped with ‘Isandhlwana’ (the site of the first major battle of the Zulu War) and the easier-on-the-tongue ‘Inquisition’. “At the time ‘Rainbow Warrior’ was the track we were in love with,” recalls Killin. “That was the track that we thought would be the best… When we played live that was the track that people really seemed to like and it seemed to create a buzz, so it was the natural A-side. Lyrically it wasn’t so much about the Greenpeace ship of the same name but the movement as a whole. We’d sometimes have an intro tape of whale song. It’s the whole thing about whales, really; I used to love anything about whales, I always wanted to go and see whales for real, and what the Rainbow Warrior was doing really inspired me. As for ‘Isandhlwana’, I loved the film ‘Zulu’ and I got totally into the story of the battle of Rorkes Drift. I started to read about it and was drawn in by it.
“I do listen to the EP from time to time,” he continues, “but I sort of find it, well, a bit ‘tame’, I suppose. I don’t know how best to describe it. I’m not embarrassed by it or ashamed of it at all but I find it a bit dated, if you like. But at the time it was great. We all thought that. What was really funny was that when we first pressed it I sort of hawked it around the local record shops – you know, ‘I’ve got our little EP here, would you be willing to take some and sell them on our behalf?’ There were quite a few record shops in St Albans back then and we were quite well known locally, so on the whole they said, ‘well, yeah, we’ll take five and we’ll let you know.’ At that particular time I was moving out from living with my parents, I was able to buy a little old house which I was renovating, but I didn’t have a phone and of course there were no mobile phones back then. And I got a note through the door saying ‘you’ve got to get up to the record shops, these things are in great demand.’ It was like, ‘blimey, I don’t believe this!’” He laughs. “They were selling shedloads of them! And we were so proud of it then. It became like our ‘Stairway To Heaven’. If you went to see Zeppelin you wanted to hear ‘Stairway To Heaven’. If you came to see Bleak House it was for ‘Rainbow Warrior’. That was the one everyone wanted to hear so we used to save it to the end.”
Having built a great reputation and loyal following around the Home Counties Bleak House recorded the follow-up to ‘Rainbow Warrior’ in November 1981 at Quest Studios in Luton. Boasting four songs (‘Chase The Wind’ / ‘No Reply’ b/w ‘Down To Zero’ / ‘Flight Of The Salamander’) the 7” ‘Lions In Winter’ EP appeared again with a plain white cover, this time not carrying the band’s name but the title in a similar font to the band’s logo in a striking blood red. Released the following year, ‘Lions In Winter’ was overall a heavier outing for the band, more akin to their live sound, and nowadays an original pressing is an even more highly sought-after prize than its predecessor.
“I liked ‘Lions In Winter’. I thought it was a natural progression for us. ‘Chase The Wind’ I do like, I still like hearing that, I like the hook on it and everything else. In fact, the whole EP I was quite taken by; and ‘Flight Of The Salamander’ I always thought worked quite well as well. When we used to play live and needed a bigger PA we used to hire one from a company called M&G. They were from London, run by a couple of guys called Malcolm and Graham, and they got involved in tours; do you remember Tenpole Tudor? They used to tour with them, and also hire their PA out. Anyway, Graham of the set-up was a drummer and he used to know how to get a really good drum sound in a live situation and so when we went into the studio we took him in to help engineer it and produce it. After it went off to be mastered and pressed he reckoned that they’d messed around with it and taken a lot of the raw sound out of it. Personally I always thought the production was pretty good, but he was disappointed; he thought they’d knocked a lot out of it in the mastering and often said he wished he’d been there to stop them doing that.”
The gigs were getting more expansive too. “We had some great times. I’ll never forget the first time we headlined St Albans City Hall. We managed to get the local promoter there, Barry Clarke, to come along to one of our rehearsals so he’d give us a support slot with any band that was touring at the time. Sometimes they had a tour support, but we were able to fit on as a third band or whatever. We’d got quite a following, people were buying the singles, and he decided to put together a night of local bands with us headlining. I can still remember it now; I can still remember everything about it. And it was brilliant. The place held one thousand and it was something like three or four people short of a sell-out. One of the biggest crowds we ever played to. And we really went for it. For our set, we had a guy who used to help us with visuals, and he built a box which he profiled out ‘Bleak House’ in the same style of lettering as the single which he was able to light. And as he worked at the City Hall he was able to drop this down with like flares coming out underneath it; it was fantastic. We had a lot of false Marshall stacks he’d got hold of that we pumped dry ice out of during ‘Rainbow Warrior’. It was brilliant! It was a great night, and my only regret is that we didn’t get it videoed or anything like that. It would be so easy to do that these days, and yet all these things have passed by now. You can’t help thinking, ‘if only we’d done that, and we’d done this…’ But that’s the way it goes. And we headlined there two or three times and we always put on a big show… We’d put all the money into producing a grand show. When ‘Lions In Winter’ came out we hired an opera set – the ‘Barber Of Seville’ opera set – and there was like a balcony which Roy was on; and he was sat up in that, and he was about 12 feet off the ground. It was a bit sort of Kissified” – another laugh – “it was great!”
So, by 1982 Bleak House had a stable line-up, two highly-regarded releases and a loyal fan base. What could possibly go wrong? “Looking back now I think we got a bit complacent. We weren’t trying to push enough, the new material wasn’t coming through so easily, and when we were going out playing we were just rehashing what we’d done before. We should have knuckled down and put some new material together, and done more gigs. We should have stuck at it. You look back and you think ‘if we’d stuck at it and done a few more gigs, put some more new music together, who knows what might have happened.’ But that raw energy that had been there at the beginning was missing and we got a bit stale, I think. Gez wanted to earn some money from it and we weren’t doing enough gigs for that and besides, whatever we used to earn we’d plough straight back into the band for merchandise and to cover recording costs and have more singles pressed, stuff like that. But he wanted to actually earn something, make some money out of it; and yes, he did join a country & western outfit, as the urban myth goes, and yes, he has made money out of it; he joined a band that was actually making money. And he ended up marrying the singer! As for Roy, it was inevitable that he might get an offer from somebody else. At one stage I think he had the opportunity to audition when AC/DC were looking for a drummer. But he didn’t go! He bloody well should have done; I’m sure he would have got in because he was such a great drummer. Anyway, so another advert led to Jon Kocel [bass"> and Maurice Hollingsworth [drums"> joining us. They both knew each other; they came from another band [Spare Parts">, and they came as a bit of a unit. They were really good, but Jon, if I remember rightly, wanted to change the sound a bit. We sorted of messed around with some of our numbers and played them slightly differently live, and some of the die-hard fans didn’t like it so much. And to be fair I can appreciate that. I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen do ‘The River’ in a different way and I didn’t like it so I know what they mean,” he laughs. “There was a bit of confrontation too. Jon was a brilliant bass player, but he was more in the style of Mark King of Level 42, y’know, he could slap the bass and all that sort of thing. He was good and he spurred us on a bit and we did write a few new numbers and came out with some different stuff but, well, it wasn’t really working, it wasn’t gelling as well. We sort of said we’d give it a rest and see what happens and it just faded away really. I had other distractions. I’d got married and although my wife wasn’t against the band by any means – she’d come to all the gigs and she was all for it – we’d got our own house and started a family, and that was it, really. After Gez and Roy left I don’t think the magic was there any more. Bleak House got put on the shelf, and there it stayed. I think that was around September 1983, and we never played live again after that.”
But that’s not quite the end of the story… “My youngest son Sam went to university and did a sound engineering course. He started up his own band and amongst their original material they played ‘Rainbow Warrior’ – they did their version of it which was a bit sort of punkified, which was great. It was unfortunate because I had to go into hospital at one stage and when I came out and was recovering I wasn’t allowed out of the house. There was like a Christmas concert and Sam’s band was asked to come and play a couple of numbers. They played ‘Rainbow Warrior’ and my wife was there and she said it was great. Afterwards a couple of people came up and said ‘I used to follow a band called Bleak House’ and they said ‘well Graham Killin, who played the guitar, that’s his son’. It was really strange to hear that people still knew the stuff. And it’s my one regret that I wasn’t able to go and see it.”
And of course ‘Rainbow Warrior’ itself would attain some measure of fame later in 1986 when commentators noticed that Metallica’s ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ appeared to borrow heavily from its intro, which given the Americans’ awareness of the NWOBHM wasn’t unlikely. “It’s quite funny because when Sam was at university doing his course he covered a module on copyright. He called me and said, ‘Dad! You’ve got to go after them for this. They’re using your stuff and you’re not getting royalties for it!’ Killin can’t hide his amusement at the thought. The irony of the situation is that ‘Bleak House’, the novel from which the band took their name, has at its heart a lengthy legal argument that consumes everyone and everything. “So every now and then it’s a little topic that crops up in conversation, y’know? And I think ‘would it actually be worth approaching a music solicitor and saying that as it’s my intellectual property would I stand any chance of getting anything?’” he laughs again. “Who knows?”