Neon are cited as an important influence by north east bands Treatment Room and Monoconics. SIMON McKAY, having also felt the 'Neon effect', travelled to the depths of the Lake District to meet TIM JONES.
Neon: Mark, Tim & Paddi (Durham Cathedral 1978
Line up credits from the Radar Records promo sheet for 'Don't Eat Bricks':
Mark Dunn - Bass, Grunts & Mumbles
Tim Jones - Guitar / Vocals
Paddi Addison - Drums & Energy
Martin Holder - Guitar (Martin joined later, in time for the second single)
Neon formed as a three piece band in Durham in 1976. Their first gig was the following year in a Battle of the Bands competition in Durham Dunelm Ballroom. From that point, Tim Jones recalls, the band 'just started gigging'.
The drummer for these early gigs was Paul Taylor. However, when Paddi Addison, an old school friend of Tim's, returned from Scotland where he'd been playing in a band called Dragon, he took over on drums. The original drummer preferred to become the band's manager.
Until the point that Neon formed, all of the members had been interested in progressive rock and the bands they played in previously reflected this. But with the influence of punk in the air, Neon took a different direction. "I remember Paddi and I looking at a copy of the NME and John Lydon was on the front and we said, 'There's more to that guy than meets the eye.' It was really weird. What a changeover… In 1974, we liked Gong, Hawkwind and Steve Hillage but then punk came along and it had an energy that was very different. Because we could play, what we tried to do was fuse that with the punk ethic. People think punk is all three chord thrash stuff but it opened the doors for a lot of new music to be heard and for a lot of experimentation." A key concept of punk was to streamline and simplify the songs. "Guitar solos in punk were pretty much an anathema so we tried to keep the solos down and organically, we became a riff based band." Tim's previous bands had played songs lasting 10 minutes. Neon could play four songs in that time!
Neon: Mark, Durham Domefest 1978
Punk was in the news and helped attract a new audience to the band but due to the controversial nature of the movement, it also produced a hysterical backlash from, presumably, otherwise sane people. "We couldn't believe it really. All you had to do was mention 'punk'. We encountered a lot of violence and aggression towards us. It was this thing that was whipped up in the media. If certain audiences got a sniff that you were punk… at Sunderland Poly we had to barricade ourselves in the dressing room. They tried to turn the van over and we were thinking, 'They're going to get us.' One time, before I'd even played a note, I was covered in beer: I remember one guy coming up to the front of the stage chucking a whole pint of beer on me. After five minutes the guitars were covered in beer and were as claggy as hell. You're slipping on the floor… you've got electrics everywhere. When we eventually went down to London and played places like the Music Machine, the Nashville… sometimes you'd just have a barrage of cans and bottles. I turned around to see stuff bouncing off Paddi's cymbals.
Newcastle Guildhall: calmer than May Day 1978
(but still under police observation)
"I remember a May Day gig  at the Guildhall. There was a local magazine called 'Out Now' [set up by Hugh Jones and Tom Noble, run by Phil Sutcliffe, Ian Penman and Dick Godfrey] and they voted it 'Bum gig of the year'. The line up was the Angelic Upstarts, Punishment of Luxury and Neon. The Upstarts fans were like an army. They were heavy duty. Mensi was mental - he had a pig's head on stage. Their fans dressed up as policemen. The Upstarts had been on a side stage, which when I think back reminds me of a dungeon. I'm standing on stage during our set and I'm just watching chairs bouncing off people's heads. It's like the Wild West. Phil Sutcliffe came up and shouts, 'Get off, it's had it. It's finished!' We turned round to go to the dressing room that was at the back of the stage and the PA was rocking and then 'woof' [it fell] into the audience. It's all happening very quickly. I looked round to where I'd been standing and where the mic stand was and there's just a pool of blood and here's Mark, stage right, pulling a girl out of the audience who was kicked to hell. There were police outside the whole time. It was contained so the police came in after the riot to mop it up. People were screaming at them, 'Where the fuck were you?' It was frightening.
"Another instance was the Coach and Eight in Durham. Wevans, the guy that used to do the sound, was knocked unconscious with a pint glass. Somebody just came up behind him, 'woof' over the head. And that went up as well due some fracas with some guys at the previous gig who'd followed us to this gig thinking 'right, let's get them; they're punks'. And they were like townies, you know, with somebody to pick on. We were kids; only 17 or 18.
Neon: Paddi, Durham Domefest 1978
We were supposed to play at a place in Sunderland called Old 29 but that place could be so terrifying that one time we went to see 'Close Encounters of The Third Kind rather than doing the gig because we just couldn't face it, 'The van's broken down', we said."
Punk inspired Neon to play energetically and they immediately found an audience but given the bands wider influences and their ability to play, ultimately it must have been limiting. Punk soon defined itself and became a regime that demanded conformity in look and sound. Did it ultimately do the band a disservice? At the point that they might have broken through commercially, were they left behind because they didn't really fit into punk?
"It became as narrow minded as what went before…the problem was if you didn't wear the uniform. The whole point about it for us was expressing your individuality… It became very restrictive to the point were we were thinking 'is that too complex? How's that going to go down?' It's difficult to write stuff naturally like that. You can't just be like the Damned or the Undertones although I think a lot of bands tried to be."
Neon supported a number of the punk 'name' bands like Siouxsie and The Banshees, Penetration and the Rezillos. How were Neon received by their audiences? Tim said, "The Rezillos audiences would be more open to what we did than a lot of the other punk audiences. For other bands, we would be the warm up because they'd come to see the main band. Reggae was big at that time. I remember us supporting Steel Pulse in Edinburgh because a lot of the punks liked reggae. (The Clash got involved with reggae.) So when you're supporting a band like Steel Pulse that's peculiar; we're playing in all these time signatures and you've got a reggae audience. But again: lovely people. We shared the dressing room with them. They were all sitting round the table gambling. We were kids when we supported them, they would kind of take you under their wing. Some bands are like that. You're no threat to them. It's a case of who the hell are you?"
From the start of their time together, Neon got a lot of gigs in the north east. Tim tells me about the best venues in the area at the time: "There were loads. In The Bridge Hotel (pictured below), that was really a bikers' place - upstairs, the first floor, in the bay window.
Neon 'Bottles' EP
The Cooperage, upstairs. The University gigs were great; there were loads of them in the Canteen on the basement level. There was Newcastle Poly and Durham University's Dunelm House. The May Day gigs at the Guildhall were on every year. They were great as long as we weren't on with the Upstarts!"
While Neon were active, they released two singles. The first, 'Bottles', came out as a one off on Sensible Records in 1978. The label, who also released debut singles by the Rezillos and Sad Café (!), was owned by Lenny Love. "Lenny managed to get quite a bit of airplay for our single. Fortunately, John Peel liked it and he played it a lot so that got us interest from United Artists (UA). Punishment of Luxury had just signed to them. Martin Rushent was a producer for the label and he had done the Stranglers. He was going to start his own label called Genetics through UA but eventually he got the funding from Radar Records run by Warner Brothers. We were led to believe that we'd have more attention paid to us if we were on a small label with this heavy duty producer. In retrospect, we should have gone with UA.
"One single came out on Radar. We chose the wrong song." Tim sounds more than disappointed when he says this, it sounds more like devastation. "I read a review recently that was done years after the single was out and they were talking about the B side, 'Hanging Off an O' and said, 'This has the potential of a hit single'. We should never should have brought out, 'Don't Eat Bricks' as the A side. It shouldn't have been that song but when you've just recorded something, it's fresh and it's the newer song… 'Yeah, let's go with that'. We were naïve in lots of ways. There are all kinds of things that when you look back you could have changed - you could have done differently. That's just the way it is." I don't agree with what Tim about 'Don't Eat Bricks' being a poor choice, it remains my favourite Neon song. I'm not convinced that a review written years after can say how a song would have fared had it been released years before. What Tim is saying seems to be about something much deeper, maybe they felt they were losing their sense of direction and the conversation leads to how they lost control of their own band as the companies who held their contracts took over.
Tim seems to be questioning the direction the band took when they released their second single. "By that time, we had another guitarist, Martin Holder so we became a four piece. And it completely changed what we did. Martin's a wonderful guitar player and it took the pressure off me, but it also changed the direction. Martin was primarily a jazz player so it could be a completely different perspective. The sound changed. Martin Rushent said that we became too jazz orientated for him. It sounded nothing like jazz, but I suppose it wasn't as straight forward as maybe he would have liked." This seems to be the point at which Rushent lost interest in the band.
In March 1979, John Peel broadcast a new session by the band. It made a a difference at the gigs. There was a noticeable buzz in the crowd; more people were turning up to see them play and gigs were easier to get. But charting a path through the music industry is complicated and you need to balance your activities. Tim describes how the band was becoming over committed by the impossible itineraries they were being given by the booking agents that the record company employed. "We'd be battering around in an old transit van with no money and we'd be expected to travel here there and everywhere. I remember we went down to see Martin Rushent because of a particular itinerary we were given - a load of gigs in London and stuff - we were telling him about the financial situation. I remember it was in Advision Studios in London. He was mixing down 'Are You Receiving Me' by XTC. He just turned around and said, 'Doun't (sic) give me your problems.' That's the answer we got. They expect you to do stuff for nothing. At first it's all sweetness and light and you think that they care about you but they couldn't give a shit. You fool yourself into thinking that they actually care about you as individuals but they don't. It's a case of whether you'll make them money or not and if you don't then… It's horrible actually. It leaves you with a nasty taste in your mouth."
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Neon: music paper ad for Don't Eat Bricks, 1979
Neon had signed an album deal with Genetics and Martin Rushent. Initially, the label seemed very committed. "When we did that single they took us to the Manor in Oxfordshire, which was Virgin's studio: this huge mansion in the middle of the countryside with Go Kart tracks and those dogs that are on the back of the Mike Oldfield album cover. Huge dining rooms, great big wooden tables made out of a single tree, four poster beds: rock star land."
They turned your head didn't they?
"Yeah, here's this bunch of kids from Durham who get thrown into that world. The staff, the cooks, the engineers and everybody: they know you're not famous. This is not Mike Oldfield. These are some kids from Durham. You get that from them. It becomes a mindset, 'We are not successful. We are not famous. What the hell are we doing there?'"
Even then, the Manor Studios cost £1,000 a day. The label paid the bill and added it to the money the band owed them. The itineraries that the agencies foisted upon the band were creating more expenses and adding to these debts: "Some of the gigs in London, the prestigious ones, you didn't pay to play but you didn't get paid because if you want to be in front of the right people - A&R people - that's what you had to do… we'd pay for the petrol, we'd organise all the gear, transport, bed & breakfast - you've got to sleep somewhere. It's all very expensive."
Neon performed a spleen-wrenching 300 gigs in the space of three years (1977-1979). Inevitably, and probably in a move of self preservation, the band split up. "We got sick of it. It was no fun anymore…All of the time we had debts and they were going up. We formed a limited company. Even for a couple of years after the band split up we were all still paying them off. If we'd carried on, they would have been enormous."
Neon: Paddi, Mark, Tim (press photo)
When Neon split, Tim had a period of a few years when he played in other people's bands, moving from one to another - Treatment Room, Punching Holes and Punilux - but really, he needed to do be fronting his own songs. In 1994, Tim formed Stone Premonitions with his then partner, Terri B. After his previous experience, it's not surprising that Tim completely shunned the established music industry and formed collaborations with like minded musicians and tapped into an international scene of radio stations, magazines, labels and distributors. Currently, in what are difficult times for all musical ventures, Stone Premonitions are not as active as they were but Tim remains deeply committed to his ongoing musical projects.
"I have tried other things, to find a vocation, a career… but how do you stop it? Sell everything! Sell your guitar! Sell your amplifier!"
"Then you just want to go back. It's very powerful, it's like a drug. It's given so much to me. Without it, I'm not even sure I'd be here. It saved my life and gave me a direction. It's as deep as that."
In comparison to the late 70s when Tim would be jumping about the stage with Neon, he now leads a very quiet life in Cumbria where he lives with his young son. Although it's obvious that he's been hurt by the betrayal of trust he experienced when the band were battered by the demands of the music industry, he maintains a wonderful sense of joy and excitement in music and despite everything, is remarkably honest and open. I think that is indeed a life that has been saved.
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