In 2009, DENNY POOLEY tells SIMON McKAY about being in Sunderland based The Monoconics (1979-1980) and the local scene.
MONOCONICS: Denny, Dave
St Marys Church Hall, Easington Village 1980
The Monoconics formed in Sunderland in 1979. They were active for two years and in that time gigged heavily and released one single called 'Exit Stage Left' on their own label. They recorded a John Peel session in 1980 that was broadcast three times, ensuring their live performances and record sales were not confined to their local region.
Denny Pooley (Guitar, Lead Vocals)
Grahame Cusack (Drums, Backing Vocals)
Dave Green (Bass, Backing Vocals)
Initially, the band were known as Perfect Strangers until they received a phone call from a band in London with the same name who were about to release a single. The Sunderland band was just starting out so it made more sense to change their name, but with gigs pending there was some urgency: Denny was on the phone to Grahame while he randomly put together words that he liked. He suggested coupling Mono with conics and it stuck. The London band probably did them a favour: Monoconics is a striking name and carries no baggage.
The Monoconics formed in Sunderland but they all came from outside: they didn't have location or musical backgrounds in common. Grahame was from Newcastle and had been a percussionist in a jazz funk band. Dave was from Birmingham and when he was there, had played more traditional rock. Denny was from Shotton Colliery near Peterlee and had been touched much more by the punk thing: "Like everybody there at the time - you'd pick up the guitar and you'd try to be the lead guitarist but I just couldn't master it. I didn't have the patience. It was probably when I heard the Gang of Four and thought 'well that guy's got no respect for the guitar'. There's no awe of the instrument or having to play for 20 years before you even step out and do a gig."
Denny recognises the Monoconics were about ideas. "It was this slightly geometric thing. You weren't doing tasty licks; it was just shapes. I saw Tim Jones playing with Neon downstairs in a pub in Durham. I'd never seen anything like it. They could play but it wasn't about flash and Tim was such an amazing guitarist." At the time, Neon was a three piece and their 'no guitar solos necessay' approach was an influence on Denny. The Monoconics realised that the bass could be used for melody and not limited to root notes. "Grahame came from a jazz-funk background so he was good at filling in the gaps, which worked really well."
Monoconics: Denny, London ICA 1980
The group being influenced by Gang of Four and Neon alludes to there being something in the air in 1979. Further evidence emerged as the band started doing gigs and connected with other musicians. "Somebody would come up to you and say 'oh, I'm in a band and do you want to do a gig? Do you want to play at this?' That's how we met Treatment Room. When we saw them we thought they're not exactly the same but there's enough common ground that if we did a gig together some of the people who liked what they were doing would like what we were doing."
The Monoconics first came to Sunderland because of the Masonic Temple. Grahame's dad was the steward and was able to give them access to the basement for rehearsals. Denny and Grahame later moved into the flat above. Although they lived in the area, played gigs, rehearsed and went drinking there, they didn't feel that they belonged to the area's mini music scene. "When we got the John Peel session of course we were really up about it. There was a record shop in Sunderland, called something like Middle Earth (it had been a hippy shop). I was in there every week buying records. I walked in one day and one of the guys behind the counter said, 'You want to know something? You're the most hated band in Sunderland.' It was like 'Yes!' and it was because we were doing stuff: we weren't just playing in Annabel's, Ku Club and The Wine Loft. We were playing gigs in Manchester, Sheffield and going up to Scotland. To us, that was what you had to do. You couldn't just be parochial."
Although the band all came from different musical backgrounds, from the start, they had a vision of where they were going both musically and how they would find an audience. Denny says, "It seemed like the best way to do it was to par it right down. I'd write the songs the other two knew exactly what they were there to do. There were bits where we said we'd change this or that but largely I'd play the guitar parts and Grahame and Dave just fitted in. The first thing we wanted to do was get some gigs and then the thing that every band wanted to do was get a John Peel session - that's where everything was headed. We did a demo in Guardian Studios in a place called Pity Me [Durham]. It was run by a guy who had been round for years called Terry Gavaghan who was well known in the area. He had two houses that he'd knocked together and made this recording studio. Brilliant place: the first recording studio I'd ever been in but just because of the nature of what he was used to doing, he wanted to drown everything in chorus so there we were doing this angular quite pointy thing and the demo is actually drowned in chorus and that's with us saying 'not as much'. Fortunately, it did the trick as it got us the session."
Monoconics: Church Hall, Easington 1980
Denny recalls how the band got the John Peel session: "I took the day off work and took the train down to London and just sat outside the BBC, which a lot of people did but I managed to time it so that the day I was there somebody in the BBC had a heart attack. I was ringing Peel saying, 'I've got a tape for you.' He asked me to leave it at reception. I said, 'I could do but I've come all the way down from Sunderland and I wanted to make sure that you'd got it.' He said, 'I'm not trying to be awkward but somebody's just had a heart attack in the building.' What it meant is that he actually remembered it and listened to it in the car on the way home and I think John Walters [his producer] rang us the next day or the day after - it happened that quickly. Getting a Peel session got you out to tens of thousands of people - more than you could hope to reach by doing gigs and then you did a single and hope that the people who listened remembered and were interested."
The John Peel session was first broadcast in May 1980 and helped the band to get gigs out of town and enabled them to build up an audience and made it worthwhile to release a single. The Monoconics didn't feel restricted to recording in a local studio but instead, through a connection they'd made with the Diagram Brothers, they travelled to Rochdale to record with John Brierley in Cargo Studios because they liked a lot of the new wave stuff he was producing there. During two days they recorded: 'Exit Stage Left', 'Such a Shame' and 'Sensible Breakdown'.
The Monoconics gave the release the full DIY treatment. Their label was called One Zone i.e. 'one's own'. The records arrived from the pressing plant in white bags, which they wanted to use as inner sleeves but they hadn't measured up for the high gloss outer sleeves they'd had made. The white sleeves didn't fit inside! "We had to spend a day in the Masonic Temple chopping off the corners of the white bags. Also, the glossy ones came flat so we got our mates round and sat folding and 'Prit' sticking 1,000 of them."
The band's promotion of the single was effective and most of the copies were sold shortly after release. Denny explains part of the grass roots promotional process: "You get your mates to go into shops asking for it prior to it coming out so they order it from the distributors." Denny had been able to place it with the distributors (Fresh, Spartan, Red Rhino and Backs) by ringing them up and mentioning the Peel session. Each distributor would take 25 to 50. "Because we'd got out and done stuff we sold copies in places like Manchester. We sold a fair few in Newcastle but I don't think we sold that many in Sunderland!"
Monoconics: The Bell, Horden 1980
Back on the small stages in Tyneside, which could be very small and very edgy, Denny describes a gig played to a 'friendly' crowd on the same bill as the Noise Toys and Arthur 2 Stroke at the Gosforth Hotel - one of the reknowned Monday night gigs organised by Anti Pop. "There was no stage or anything. The audience was right there." (To make his point Denny holds his palm parallel to his face.) "Fortunately, there was quite an attractive girl standing right at the front."
And her breath was alright?
"Yeah, she'd had a Tic Tac or two. I just remember the proximity. You couldn't move. The place was heeving."
The Monoconics encountered a less friendly crowd when they played the Towneley Arms in Rowlands Gill. The band set up, did the sound check and then it hit them. "'Hang on, there's quite a bit of long hair, leather and denim coming in here.' Our mate Chris was sat on the door, they were all coming in and paying their money, and he was thinking we're not going to get out of here alive. The funniest thing is it took them two songs to realise that we weren't a heavy metal band. Really, it should have taken 10 seconds! We had to do two sets. Halfway through the first one they started lobbing the ash trays - they were these chunky glass things. Then they started stomping their feet and there were slow hand claps and we just had to keep playing through it. We got to the end of the first set and of course I was milking it, 'You'll be pleased to know we'll be back in 10 minutes so get your drinks in and your throwing arms ready.' This one guy came up to me and said, 'You're not getting out of here alive tonight like, you lot.' He was sort of half joking but if they'd had half the chance they'd have given us a good kicking. Second half we went on again; we didn't even get five seconds in and the ash trays were coming, anything they could throw they were throwing. This one guy came right down to the front of the stage and he was for having some. Dave accidentally swung his guitar and caught him on the side of the head so that distracted him a bit but (sic). This just went on... we had another half hour to play. It was tribal and we were the wrong tribe. At the end, it was the girlfriends of these guys telling them not to be so stupid who saved us."
MONOCONICS & TREATMENT ROOM:
Wallsend gig poster 1980
There were a lot of unknowns for a band when they booked gigs in the north east at this time. "You wandered into these places and you were never quite sure what sort of reception you were going to get, especially in Newcastle. We did a turn and turn about residency in a pub in Newcastle with Treatment Room - they'd do one Friday then we'd do one as a way to try and get a bit of momentum going. It turned out that on other nights it was where the National Front used to meet: it was very edgy. We enjoyed it but from a slightly nervous point of view."
Once the band got out of town, they felt safer. By way of contrast, in June 1980, the Monoconics played at the first London rock week hosted at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Denny recounts how this came about. "The Diagram Brothers were already booked to support the Glaxo Babies at the ICA and the other band that were meant to be on pulled out. The organisers heard repeats of the Diagram Brothers session and ours on the same John Peel show so they rang up and asked did we want to be the first band on - so that was our first London gig."
ICA ROCK WEEK POSTER 1980
Monoconics (uncredited) appeared with Glaxo Babies
The ICA gig generated interest from Din Disc, the Virgin Records spin off label. It didn't come to anything though and the band was running out of time: Dave needed to spend more time on his PhD at Sunderland Poly. Consequently, rehearsals were getting harder to arrange and gigs couldn't be taken on so spontaneously. They had always known it was a finite thing with Dave: "That's why we were trying to get as much done in as short a period of time, which was a shame because he didn't want it to go that way. He was heartbroken but had too much time invested in his studies not to complete the PhD. We all wanted to take it to the next level and realise more of the band's potential - maybe just make some more recordings... but it all happened in this concentrated period. Maybe it wouldn't have worked as well if it hadn't been like that... we couldn't spend a year honing the songs. Some of them were really rough but you could get away with it because of the energy."
The band's urgency and momentum was perfect for the post punk and new wave era. It was a runaway period when there seemed to be so many possible directions music could develop and audiences were hungry and happy to take the ride as long as the music had urgency. Denny knew they couldn't find another bass player who would fit in as well and would just know what to play so there was no point in replacing Dave so instead the band split. Denny sums up: "We weren't the jolliest band about. We didn't sing jolly songs but bands didn't tend to, round about then. They tended to be a lot darker, lyrically. I didn't think of that at the time but it's clear now."