Vinyl and tape transfer, audio restoration and mastering by Patrick W. Engel at TEMPLE OF DISHARMONY in September 2020.
“LOOKING BACK ON IT, IT WAS A MAGICAL TIME...”
Like many bands, Toad The Wet Sprocket went through a number of line-ups before achieving critical mass, but once the four key elements – vocalist Mehmet Mustafa, guitarist Mark Ridout, bassist Pete Austin and drummer Martin Wightwick – were in place the band’s line-up remained stable throughout its lifetime. But despite reaching for the stars the band – like so many of their peers – never attained their full potential.
The story really begins back in 1971 when eleven-year-old Pete Austin responded to a musicians-wanted advert. “When I first got a guitar,” he recalls, “I answered an ad in the Luton News, a local newspaper, and so I ended up being in a band with some other kids. And although this band kept changing names and members and kept coming and going, that was the starting point for what would become Toad The Wet Sprocket. Four years later, by the time I was in my final year at school, the name was there, and the four main people in the band were all in place by ’75 or ’76. I wasn’t actually at school with any of that final line-up,” he adds, “but two of them were at the next school (they were only about a mile apart), all in the same school year, the three of us, and the singer Mick was a couple of years older.”
Enter Mehmet Mustafa – Mem to his friends, Mick to the music world – whose parents came from the Turkish side of Cyprus. “When I first joined the band, to avoid having to explain things, when people asked ‘what’s your name?’ I’d just say Mick. If I said Mehmet it would take far too much explaining. So Mick kind of stuck. That said,” he laughs, “when we were at EMI they called me Michelle!
“It was 1975 when I joined the band,” he confirms. “I answered an advert in the local paper for a band wanting a new vocalist, I went along and passed the audition and it all went from there. I didn’t know them at all. In fact, I’d just recently moved up to Luton from London so when I first joined, I thought the guys... Well, let’s just say I was from the wild side of the tracks and they’d lived a sheltered life compared to where I come from! But we were all definitely on the same level as far as the music was concerned.”
Mem reckons the rehearsal material included “‘Smoke On the Water’, some Status Quo songs, ‘Silver Machine’, a couple of Ian Hunter songs as he had a couple of singles out... At the time I was excited, obviously, but looking back, whatever direction my life was going in at that time, with the decision to go to the audition my life just took a different course for the better. It was a great time. To be honest with you, it was one of the best times of my life.”
The band’s new singer was seventeen when he joined. “So I was the oldest in the band, I think the others were just about sixteen, just finishing school. I’d already left school two years before that and I was like the ‘elder statesman’ of the band!” One of his earliest band memories is their appearance at the Watchfield Free Festival on 26 August 1975, when a typed running order billed them erroneously as ‘Todd & The Wet Sprockets’.
The next to enlist was Mark Ridout, aka Curly. “We really took off when Curly joined us,” Mem affirms. “We’d heard about this guitarist who was like Jimi Hendrix, and Curly thought that he had the spirit of Jimi Hendrix in him – and he had the hair! He was one hell of a guitarist. He knocked us out, and we really wanted him in the band. And when Curly joined us, we went up another level. The word got about that this band, every one of us was good at what we were doing, and also now we’d got this guitarist who was a bit tasty. So when Curly joined us we became more of a serious – well, we were always serious – but when Curly joined us it became much more of a band.”
The final piece of the jigsaw was Martin Wightwick, who, Mem recalls, used to go to school with Mark. “We were Martin’s first band but he was a natural, a fantastic drummer, and a massive part of the band. Curly knew Martin from school. And between them they took the band up a step or two.”
It was Pete who volunteered the unusual and unique name. “It was just one of those things. You sit around forever trying to think of a name for a band, and I think I came across Toad The Wet Sprocket on TV and I don’t know what made me do it but I suggested it.” The name originated from the fourth episode of Eric Idle’s Monty Python Flying Circus spin-off show Rutland Weekend Television, in which the band is name-checked during a parody of The Old Grey Whistle Test. “Someone then said ‘you can’t just do that,’ so I wrote to Eric Idle and he did send me a reply, saying ‘good luck’, ‘that’s fine by me’ and ‘you can use it’, that kind of thing. I can’t find the letter now. I hope one day to open a box of old stuff and find it in there as I don’t remember throwing it away. I just have no idea where it is!”
Idle unfortunately re-used the name for ‘Rock Notes’, a sketch on the 1980 Monty Python ‘Contractual Obligation’ LP, which is where the Californian band of the same name first came across it. “When I first heard about their album,” Pete remembers, “we were getting into that kind of time when I thought someone might be re-releasing some of our old stuff so I was looking around for it, wondering what was on it and thinking I might buy it. I then quickly realised it was completely unrelated. I didn’t really mind, but if I could have found Eric Idle’s letter it would have been fun to have waved it at them!”
Mem, though, found it “quite upsetting. The name was so obscure that the chances of them coming up with it... They took it off us. I’m quite certain they only heard of it through us. When we first heard about it, I said to the guys that we should be contacting them, saying ‘oi, we were Toad The Wet Sprocket before you so go and find a different name!’ But I think it bothered me more than it bothered everyone else.
“Gigs weren’t flowing at first,” the frontman continues, “and we actually started off doing weddings and parties, which is really weird, playing rock songs to families – and them getting up and dancing as well! – so that was strange! But the whole thing was about gaining experience so we’d play some gigs where maybe there were about ten people in the pub but we’d still be professional and perform so we’d end up treating them as paid rehearsals. Everything added to the experience. Everything we did, we learned from.”
Pete describes Toad The Wet Sprocket at the time as “a pretty traditional heavy rock band for quite a long time,” influenced by the likes of “Zeppelin and Deep Purple and Humble Pie. And then punk came along and everything and I think we just got tired, thinking we were the only people playing this type of music and that everyone else had given up. And I guess it was just like... Well, you’re very enthusiastic when you’re first in a band, and then it feels like its losing steam. So we wanted to try something different.” ‘Something different’ refers to the band’s first single, 1979’s ‘Pete’s Punk Song’. “I was messing around and I came up with that. It was quite uncharacteristic of the band, really, because we really sounded more like Judas Priest or Budgie.”
“We were The Sprockets,” adds Mem, “but Peter was Mr Sprocket. The whole band revolved around him. At that time we just took it for granted, but Peter really was Mr Sprocket, in my honest opinion. He was the main man. He was the one who got the PA together. The first time we went to a recording studio was arranged by Peter, and his brother Jim who was the band’s main roadie and who with Peter did all the behind-the-scenes work. And ‘Pete’s Punk Song’ was self-funded and the cover was designed – as was the second single, come to that – by Peter. He designed it, he instigated it, and he arranged it.”
“Mark, the guitarist, always thought there should be another instrument to fill out the sound a bit,” says Pete. “So we did have a second guitarist very briefly, who doesn’t appear on anything, and we did have two keyboard players at various times...”
...Which explains the presence of Pip Domino on that first single...
“That’s Mark’s little brother,” laughs Pete, “Nick. He was a couple of years younger than us, and he’s a music teacher now. He was a good piano player, and I suppose he’s made a living out of music in some other way.”
Flipped with ‘Feel It’ and appearing on their own Sprocket label, the band’s debut 7” didn’t exactly set the world on fire. But as the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal gathered momentum, new opportunities arose.
“The thing is,” Mem suggests, “we didn’t consider ourselves a metal band. By this time, we were more progressive rock with some funk. We weren’t directionless, but I wouldn’t characterise us just as a heavy rock band because we were funky as well. But when the NWOBHM came along we started playing gigs at the Bandwagon [Neal Kay’s Bandwagon Heavy Metal Soundhouse rock disco">. Samson were playing at the Bandwagon, Iron Maiden played there, and that’s when we started becoming associated with the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.”
“We used to play a lot of the pubs that had music on Friday and Saturday nights, and we did play at the Marquee quite early on, 1976 or 1977 or so,” recalls Pete. “But somehow or another we found out that the Bandwagon was this place, well, the only place, that had other heavy rock bands on at the time, and we got to know Neal Kay really well and so for a few years we were one of the regular bands there. So that was almost like a resident gig for us and we were quite close to Neal and used to have a laugh with him. In fact, the very first ‘Headbanger Of The Year’ competition was at the Bandwagon, and me and Mark and two of Iron Maiden were the judges. It was a great atmosphere, really, just like a pub where you go if you’re in a heavy rock band. Because most rock fans are very friendly, generally. They might all look like scary bikers but they’re really just regular guys!”
The connection with Neal Kay led to the band’s inclusion on the February 1980 EMI compilation album ‘Metal For Muthas’, which the DJ compiled. “He put us on it, really, because I think we were one of his favourite bands,” says Pete, although Mem suggests their contribution, ‘Blues In A’, “stands out like a sore thumb.”
“I think they had a lot of bands at that club and they all sounded a bit like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest,” Peter points out, “and at the time, well, one of the things that people seemed to like about us was that we were a sort of bluesy, Free, heavy r ‘n’ b kind of band, and I think Neal thought he’d put one song on that was different to all the others. Which was actually a big disservice to us, really. We got picked to be the band with the softer song. It wasn’t the one we would have chosen. This was when ‘Pip Domino’ was still in the band and he and Mick wrote that song because there weren’t really enough slow songs. Well, there were, but they were more in the heavy rock vein, not bluesy. We didn’t have another song like that.”
“Being on ‘Metal For Muthas’ was fantastic,” Mem agrees, “but we didn’t have a say in what track they’d use. Neal Kay, every time we played at the Bandwagon, used to go crazy when ‘Blues In A’ came on. And he decided on it for the LP. ‘Reaching For The Sky’ would have been a better representation of us. But it is what it is, and it was exposure that was well-needed at the same time and we were thankful for it. I guess we could have pushed it, we could have said we could do a track that would represent us better, and I think we might even have suggested it, but Neal was hell-bent on ‘Blues In A’.” The song was a one-off, recorded at EMI’s studios. “The funny thing is,” the singer continues, “my memory of it is quite sparse, to be honest. It was a long time ago, I know, but it was such a big event in my life I should remember it more.”
“What I remember is that although it was a good studio,” says Pete, “the engineer was quite unusual as he didn’t listen to instruments separately, but made us play together whilst he tweaked the sounds.”
14 May 1980 saw the band in another major studio, this time recording a session for BBC Radio’s The Friday Rock Show at their prestigious Maida Vale studios. “From memory it was like anything we did at the time really. We would just send a tape out and a letter to anyone,” replies Pete when asked how the session came about. “I think I just sent a tape to Tommy Vance and they rang up a little while later. That was a good day out, and I remember it being good fun. And it came out well, too. I think that was us, you know? I think that showed us for the band we were. A lot of our problems, as it were, or mistakes, when you look back, came from the fact that we deviated from what we really were just because we were bored, or because somebody said, ‘let’s try a piano player’ or things like this. It diluted what we were doing. It made it confusing. I think we ended up not knowing what we were.”
“That was amazing, that session, and I do remember it,” Mem enthuses. “It was a great studio and it was a great experience. The guys there knew exactly what they were doing. The thing is, though, I was a milkman at the time, believe it or not, so we used to do gigs and I get back into Luton at five o’clock in the morning and go straight out on the milk round!” he laughs. “When I think about it now, I think, ‘how the heck did I do that?’ But I remember in one of the songs, I think it was ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Runner’, I was really struggling to hit the notes in the studio. I’d been up since early that morning and done a milk round and I was really knackered, and so I was struggling a bit. When I listen to it – and I don’t know if anyone else in the band realises – it makes me cringe a bit even now. I hope it’s just one of those things, but for me it really stands out.”
The rest of the band, incidentally, worked in the same factory. “If we had to be somewhere early for the soundcheck, and if it was in London, well, we just couldn’t get there unless we left at about 2 o’clock or something,” recalls Pete, “and it was a bit embarrassing when we all called in sick on the same day.” Nothing obvious there, then...
The same month as the BBC session was aired – June 1980 – The Sprockets were booked in Quest Studios, in Luton, where they recorded their second (and final) 7”, ‘Reaching For The Sky’ b/w ‘One Glass Of Whisky’. “‘Reaching For The Sky’, that was the main song that everyone was waiting for at our gigs,” says Mem. “It became a bit of an anthem for the band. As I said, if that was on ‘Metal For Muthas’ that would have been a better representation of us. And I was chuffed with how it came out. I was very impressed.” As for the B-side, “yes, well, we went through a little phase of being influenced by Rush and ‘One Glass Of Whisky’ was the result.”
“I think ‘One Glass Of Whisky’ was a big song, an anthemic sort of song, with some different parts in it,” Pete agrees. “Not just the usual three-minute song. But that single... Well, we’d done that kind of thing for a long time and had felt out of step – we’d done it before Iron Maiden and Def Leppard and everyone else and hadn’t got anywhere. But now music had changed, with the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, and we just went back to something more similar to what we’d been doing beforehand.”
The band’s material was birthed in the rehearsal room. Aside from the occasional cover for a second encore, “back then your credibility was based on playing your own material,” Pete explains. “So one of us would bring a riff or two to the rehearsal and we’d just develop it from there. Like the first single: I’d largely done the music on that but I didn’t do any of the words. I did most of the riffing bits of it and the singer put whatever he thought over the top of it.” Songs were credited to the band because “a lot happens in rehearsals, doesn’t it; it’s where you thrash things out.”
“One thing about this band,” suggests Mem, “is that you know how bands have disagreements – someone wants to go in one direction, someone else in another? Well, we never suffered from that. We were always on the same page, and were always pushing in the same direction. We never really had to deal with egos. In rehearsals, and when we used to write songs, Curly or Pete would come up with a riff or an idea and I’d come up with some lyrics and we’d develop it from there. There were never any disagreements.”
As their name got around The Sprocket’s gig diary began to fill up nicely. “We did quite well because the pub scene was quite strong, as was the college scene,” says Pete, “and as long as you badgered the landlords and booking agents you could get a couple of bookings a week. So all the pubs around Luton, Dunstable, Aylesbury, Watford, St Albans, North London... If we could get there and back easily we’d go. So we played all around that area.”
“Remember what I said about Pete being Mr Sprocket?” adds Mem. “He decided to arrange a mini-tour of the north in January 1980 – I think we did three gigs, Chorley, in Lancashire, a gig at the Spinning Wheel in Carlisle and the other gig was in Birkenhead. So it was Carlisle, Birkenhead and Chorley, and that was a fantastic experience. All pile into a van and off we go. Great fun!”
The band also played with Iron Maiden, as Mem recalls. “A few times, actually. That place in Camden [the Koko">... It was the Music Machine at the time. I’d seen Whitesnake there and thought, ‘wow, I’d love to play here’ and a few years later we did! We supported Iron Maiden there and it was a great experience – it was a massive venue and we were all so excited! A big occasion for us. You know what?” he adds. “In this day and age everyone’s got cameras on their phones and stuff and you’ve got social media, but back in our day you had to wait to be noticed by an A&R man or have someone put a good word in for you. If we were going at a time like this, today, with social media, I think we would have done really well.”
Toad The Wet Sprocket kept plugging away, but the fruits of success failed to materialise. “Well, all that happened, was that nothing really happened!” remembers Pete. “We kept going, and then we ran out of steam. A lot of the bands around us seemed to be getting deals, or at least getting on a bit, but we weren’t getting any further forward. In the end, Curly who was – well, still is – a great guitarist, very competent, said he wanted to do a music degree and went to Dartington College in Devon to study, and so that was really the end of the band. That was in 1982. None of us really stopped doing anything music-wise, we all joined different bands, things like that. We never fell out, and a couple of us might have been in a band at the same time, but we never got back together either.”
Mem thinks the catalyst for the breakdown was their manager. “A guy called Ian Harrison, Sparky, owned a musical equipment shop and to cut a long story short he liked us and wanted to be our manager. And, looking back now, that was the beginning of the end of the band. We were The Sprockets, but we became Sparky’s Sprockets. We ended up playing stuff that wasn’t really us. He joined the band and played keyboards, and took us in a direction that was out of our comfort zone.
“Looking back now, though, there were so many great moments from being in that band that it’s hard to choose just one,” the singer says, in response to a question. “But when we did The Friday Rock Show session, on the night it was being broadcast we were actually playing a gig in the Queensway Hall in Dunstable. That was our local venue where Judas Priest and everyone, the big bands, played whenever they were touring. And so we always wanted to play there, and we did quite a few gigs there in the end and they were always memorable. It’s an Asda supermarket now,” he adds. “But, anyway, that night [27 June 1980"> we were opening for Budgie and Vardis, and after our set we all dashed to the changing rooms to put the radio on and listen to it. So, it was, basically, come off stage, all sweaty, good gig, and then turn this massive soundblaster radio on and listen to our session. So that was a real buzz.
“Looking back on it now, it was a magical time,” he concludes. “It was a lot of hard work, and maybe we didn’t get to the next level, but I don’t regret one single second of what we did.”
This album is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Jim Austin (1955 – 2001)