Neale Floyd talks to Simon McKay about being in Penetration and how, after they split, he was stunned to find himself right back where he started; living with his parents and then on the dole for two and a half years.
In October 1979, while on stage at Newcastle City Hall, Pauline Murray announced Penetration were splitting up. That moment was central to an interview I did with Pauline and Robert Blamire. Guitarist Neale Floyd recently read the piece and contacted me to say he didn't agree with Pauline saying the band split because there was a lot of conflict between him and Fred Purser. I couldn’t find his story online, so I was interested to hear more from him. He told me how he went from being a fan at Penetration gigs to being invited to join them. When they split, after all the excitement, he was stunned to find himself right back where he started; living with his parents, where he would spend the next two and a half years on the dole.
In the early 1970s Neale lived in Spennymoor (County Durham), which is near Ferryhill where Penetration formed. As soon as he started working and had money, he spent it on records and gigs. His first gig was in 1974; Roxy Music at Newcastle City Hall. He regrets missing Bowie's appearance by just a year. He says, "My parents said I was too young and wouldn't let me. I should have run away... I used to go and see Be Bop Deluxe. Doctors of Madness. That's when I started to see people like Gary, Pauline & Peter Lloyd (Pauline's husband at the time). I remember seeing them at the Beehive in Darlington. They wore gear from Seditionaries – maybe it was called Sex then – parachute tops. Wow! I wondered, 'Who are these people. They're cool.' There were no punks then. I used to get chased everywhere I went. There was a lot of violence. One time I got the bus back to where I lived and a gang on motor bikes and scooters tried to run me over. To get away, I had to jump through a hedge and leg it across the fields."
Acne Rabble (Sex Pistols) Middlesbrough interview
In 1977, Neale went to Middlesbrough Rock Garden for a Sex Pistols gig. They were banned by so many councils so they appeared under a pseudonym. Neale says, "They were playing as Acne Rabble, but if you were a big enough fan you found out it was them. It was rammed," In the queue to get in, he spoke to Pauline, Peter and Gary for the first time and afterwards got a lift back with them. "They said they're starting a band. I said, 'OK, I'll come and see you.' I saw them support the Stranglers in the afternoon in the Green Bar in Newcastle Poly which is a bit of weird one, but they blew The Stranglers off. I thought they were much better. I used to see them in Seaburn and other places around the north east. I went down to London to see them at the Marquee."
Neale says Gary Chaplin left Penetration after just one single release because 'he was fed up with the business side of it'. He had been the band's founding member and had written all of the songs to date, so it wasn't clear how things would work out without him. Neale was a fan of the band and recalls they 'were in shtuck'. He was invited to join 'because he was there'. He says, "I used to sit in the dressing room and pick up Gary's guitar and play the songs and he'd show me the bits that I couldn't get. It felt a bit wrong when they did ask me because he was a friend, but it was too good an opportunity to miss."
Neale didn't have much time to settle in before the band began a major UK tour supporting the Buzzcocks. He says, "That was great. That was the best time I had with Penetration. It was brilliant to be supporting the Buzzcocks. I loved them. I had all their records. We went to Pete Shelley's house. It didn't feel like a job. That era was great. Very productive and satisfying."
Buzzcocks and Penetration Tour 1978
Neale found recording the first album, Moving Targets, to be a mixed experience. There was a day of frustration spent working with producers Mick Glossop and Mike Howlett: "They brought in every amp that could be hired in London and asked me to play the same bit again and again on different amps. We ended up back at square one with me using the amp I always used... I wasn't enamoured with the producers. One was from Gong and another produced Camel, who I didn't consider to be the coolest of bands at the time." There were enjoyable moments too. Neale says, "We did some silly stuff... Life's A Gamble. I said, 'What about doing some hand claps and finger clicks like on Satellite of Love by Lou Reed?', expecting everybody to say, 'Don't be so ridiculous', but they said, 'That would be quite good.' So, we did that round the microphone."
Moving Targets was released in October 1978. Prior to that the band were taken out for a lavish meal by somebody from the record company who said ‘it was going to be released on luminous vinyl, but it's OK if it doesn't sound good as then people will buy two copies'. Neale says, "This didn't really appeal to my principles, so I wrote to Sounds and said, 'Don't buy it. It's not going to work. Certainly, don't buy two.' It sounds ridiculous now, people would be trying to sell as many as possible (laughs)... It didn't make me very popular with the rest of the band."
The band were well known for their great live performances, including the Reading Rock Festival in 1978. Neals says, "We all enjoyed it. There was a lot of stage to cover. It was one of the biggest stages we'd been on." He also recalls playing the Rainbow in Finsbury Park, "It was amazing to think, 'I'm on the same stage that David Bowie or Queen were on a few years ago. It was such a high. And then Steve Lillywhite, who would produce our second album, came up to me and said, 'Wow, you were so good.' He'd worked with some great people, so it was unbelievable. He's a lovely guy."
Penetration performing Life's A Gamble at Reading Festival 1978
Penetration performing Lovers of Outrage on Alright Now 1979
Neale plays an Ibanez Explorer. “Gibson did the original, but I couldn't afford that... I always liked the shape. My first punk band was the Runaways in Leeds in 1976. Lita Ford had a black one with white or silver edging. It looked so fantastic – very space age – even though it was designed in the 1950s."
Neale is included in the songwriting credits of about a third of Penetration's recordings including the single 'Danger Signs'. He remembers the recording session as being 'a funny one' and that there was a lot of pressure to have a hit single. Mike Howlett and Mick Glossop were producing again. They chopped the song up and moved the pieces around. Neale says, "They spent all day on it, but then put it back to how it was – just like the amp day. So, I don't know how much that cost us."
Neale thinks some of the recordings in Penetration's back catalogue are really good and says, "I'm quite proud of some, but some are fairly weak and a bit forced due to the business pressures and touring. What we should have done was take 3–4 months off. All go home and try and come up with some new stuff. It never felt like you got enough time to do that – particularly for the second album."
Not taking time off is something Neale links to having to meet the demands of the business side of playing music. He clearly didn't like that and would rather not have signed to the management company that handled Status Quo and Rory Gallagher. In 2008, Pauline said the band were 'connected to the machine'. Neale says something similar when he describes the big managed tours with an agency as being 'lots of machinery'. But this is where it gets tricky... Neale says, "It's really galling that Pauline and Robert accepted all the tours, but in your interview with them, they said we were really worn out and we should have had a break... Come on, you can't have it both ways."
Neale takes issue with a number of things Pauline has said, but perhaps it's not the 'he said, she said' comments that matter so much to him. There's a theme around him not feeling valued as a member of the band. He says: "The band was never that democratic. Decisions were not made as a group. They were usually made by Pauline and the rest of them fell into place." He expresses his disappointment very clearly when he says, "Penetration was worse than it should have been."
Robert Blamire, Pauline Murray, Gary Smallman, Neale Floyd & Fred Purser
Maybe Virgin Records thought Penetration was worse than it should have been too. When the label paid Penetration a £100k advance, it was money they more than expected to recoup with big sales. Neale has already mentioned the pressure to get a hit single when they recorded 'Danger Signs'. He thinks there could have been big hits with the right material: "Fred had an idea we used to do for a soundcheck and it was getting worked up for the second album, but then we heard the same riff on the radio. The Knack had it for 'My Sharona'. It's a simple octave on the E, but they got in first. If you think how successful that song was, if we had worked that up into something before them..."
ESN: "But how would you have felt if that had been a big hit?"
NEALE: "Great. I had no problems... not like the Clash who refused to go on Top of the Pops."
ESN: "If you'd had a big hit the machine would have got stronger and would have demanded more of you."
NEALE: "True, but if you've got the financial gain then you can sit back a little bit more and say, 'We do need time.' I know what you mean, you're going to get pressured more. Am I contradicting myself?"
ESN: "We're fantasising, but it's an interesting idea how it could have gone. It seems you have got the hunger for the big hit."
NEALE: "How many good bands have died because they didn't have a hit? And how many terrible ones are around because they did. Boomtown Rats for one... they were dire. Think of people like the Gun Club from the 80s, who Jack White always references. it's really sad. That's how it worked back then. If you weren't on Radio 1's top 75 you just had to slog away. You try and tell people now – when everything’s available through the internet – what it was like then: Radio 1, Peel, Old Grey Whistle Test. That's about all there was."
Penetration were left with the slog and the band agree that was at the heart of the split. It's also been said that it was made harder again because of tension between Neale and Fred Purser, the guitarist who joined later. Neale says, "Fred's guitar style wasn't mine. He was a way better musician than me. But when adding someone was first discussed, it was always going to be a keyboard player. I thought we were going along that pathway. The next time I went to Pauline's flat it was – 'Here's Fred Purser. We've got another guitarist,' which felt a bit weird." Despite this, Neale doesn't agree that there was tension between him and Fred. They shared rooms on tour and when the split was announced, the two of them were on the train going down to London as they read about it in Sounds.
Neale: "We laughed about it together... that people were saying the split was because we didn't get on.
When Penetration folded, I got a bill for £20k from the management which was my fifth of the record advance. I was on the dole at the time, so they could whistle for that. I was only in the band for 2 years, maybe less. You start off all enthusiastic and willing to do the work, but what we did wasn't agreed between the five of us, so I wondered if my work was appreciated.
I've had people ask me now, 'Why are you so bitter?' I'm not bitter. I'm sick of hearing all this crap that gets trotted out that isn't the truth. You only have to think why did they go to Virgin? They could have gone to Stiff or Small Wonder – somebody independent. It was always there that, 'Yes, we're going to make it', but again I've read over the years the quote, 'We just like to go to London and then back go Ferryhill and we've done our work'. I've got a lot of things I want to get off my chest, I suppose."
Neale with Penetration (1979)
ESN: "You were the first to say you were leaving the band. What did you think you were going to go on to do?"
Neale: "I didn't really know. I didn't have any connections. I should have moved to London. I thought I'd probably meet some other musicians, possibly in Newcastle. Having been in Penetration I thought somebody would be interested in working with me. For a while, I did work with another guy, but we couldn't find a drummer or a bass player so it just fizzled out.”
Neale presents a vivid but very bleak image of life immediately after Penetration when he says, "After being dumped unceremoniously outside my old house with my battered Ibanez Explorer and my broken amp, I was on the dole for two and a half years. Then I worked with my dad for a while. He had a roofing business, but then the work dried up. I worked for a housing association doing repairs for them."
Neale did move to London, but not till 1997. For a while, he managed a small
bar with live music called The Acoustic Cafe on Mannet Street. He says, "That was good. I started there doing bar work. At the time all they did was acoustic music. I said they should branch out as it was just people doing blues and not many people coming in to watch. Gradually, I worked up to getting bands in. Funnily enough, I put one of Pauline's bands on. I can't remember who it was, but they were good." Neale left London in 2001. His wife was pregnant so it made sense to go back to the north east. He's there now, working for BMW. He still makes music for his own enjoyment – at one point he even worked with Gary Chaplin, but that's another story.
The Penetration story resumes in 1999. Twenty years after the split, Neale and the original drummer Gary Smallman contacted Pauline, Robert and Fred to suggest the band get together and play to see what it's like. Neale travelled up from London to Newcastle where the band spent a full day playing the old songs. He tells me Pauline has said in recent interviews it sounded really rough. Again, he doesn't agree. He says, "It was rusty at first, but it didn't take long to gel. It went really well from my perspective. They all got carried away and it was, 'We can do all of these festivals in Europe. And what about America again?' I was, 'Whoa! Hang on a minute. I was thinking a few gigs up and down the country. Maybe just Newcastle.’ Straight away, it was, 'Let's really go for it.’ I thought we were going to continue and we spoke on the telephone after that, but that petered out. I thought, 'Uh... OK.' The next I knew was when I was travelling on the train to work and there was a Daily Mirror on the seat. I was flicking through it. I got to the entertainment section and there was an ad. for Penetration supported by the Lurkers in Derby. I thought, 'Cheers, guys. Lovely. Well done.'" Penetration did reform and brought in local guitarists Paul Harvey and Steve Wallace.
ESN: "Is it that surprising that you didn't get called in to play when you expressed such reservations? How did they respond when you said, 'Woah... hang on a minute?'"
Neale: "I don't know. I think they were a bit taken aback. It was as if it had been talked about before I got there. I thought it was downright rude not to say anything. At least if somebody had called me and said, 'Sorry to say but with you being in London, it's too difficult.' It was like I was just cut out... I wrote them a letter to tell them what I thought about the way they treated me. I thought it was hurtful that I hadn't been contacted and had to find out by picking up a newspaper... [I expected] a bit more respect."
Penetration 'Coming Up For Air' poster (1979)
ESN: "Penetration are out there doing gigs and did an album, getting audiences. How do you feel to not be involved?"
Neale: "I don't feel good about it. It feels like other people have been hired to do some of my stuff. I daresay they've moved on to write their own, but it's the whole thing of not being consulted... I would have loved to have been involved. It was two years of my life and I do feel I contributed, so why was my contribution not worthy of recognition? I've got a bit of reputation for being spikey. I felt I got treated very harshly which is why I contacted you. People ask me all the time how come you're not playing with them? It's embarrassing. Better ask them. I don't really know."
ESN: You're talking about your pride, feeling hurt?
NEALE: Yes. I don't want to come over all bitter and twisted. I'm not really. I've been angry about it, but I should be able to drop it after all this time. I'd be lying if I said, I don't hold a grudge, but I don't want to. It makes me sad. It's a shame because, like that rehearsal, it was really good. It spoilt what we had, what we'd done together. I don't like the finger pointed at me 'because he's difficult'. I was difficult because so many stupid things got done."
It's a complex and at times uncomfortable story, but it could be typical of many bands. Combinations of people who can make great music together, but when they put their instruments down and the music stops, they find it hard to be together. In the 1970s, Penetration had a strong following and they signed contracts with people who expected big record sales. Despite the pursuit of that being a slog, Neale is clear the band had something good and he enjoyed great highs with them. He’s disappointed with how it ended and that he’s not involved now. He takes issue with a number of things said by other members since the split. Of course, everyone is entitled to tell it as they remember it. Recollections don’t match up here, but what Neale has absolute ownership of is how difficult he found the comedown when the band ended. He’s admirably unguarded in the telling of his great disappointment when he was ‘dumped unceremoniously’ outside his old house with his battered Ibanez Explorer and broken amp. Shattered dreams really are tough things to handle. Although he thinks he should be over it by now, it’s clear he's still working on that.
SIMON McKAY (2021)