In the first of our three exclusive career-spanning interviews with influential Liverpudlian musician and respected sculptor MIKE BADGER, we discussed Mike’s early years and his crucial role in the original line-up of THE LA’S.
In this second interview with W&H editor Tim Peacock, he reveals the details behind the formation and subsequent exploits of his second landmark Liverpool band – the trailblazing folk-roots-indie combo THE ONSET – and several near misses with fame before speaking about his all-too-brief spell with the under-rated KACHINAS and how a tin of beans and a little creativity helped to launch him as a feted artist.
With the benefit of 21st Century Hindsight, The Onset’s debut album, ‘The Pool Of Life’ (released by stalwart Liverpool indie label Probe Plus in 1987 before being re-issued and expanded with new songs as ‘The Pool Of Life Revisited’ in 1994) is regarded as something of a UK forerunner of all things ‘Americana’-related, but – as so often where Mike Badger’s story is concerned – it was clearly a good decade or so ahead of its’ time. Especially as it was initially unleashed on a British public as yet unaware of other soon-come UK roots-rock outfits like The Rockingbirds and The Good Sons.
“I had worked with Danny Dean (Onset guitarist) at the ‘North Liverpool Musicians Resource Centre’ I referred to earlier with John Power,” Mike says, in relation to The Onset’s low-key inception.
“I started to do some stuff with Danny: kind of country-tinged rock with some Cajun rhythms and some gentle ballads too. Maybe it was inevitable, because I always loved Hank Williams. When I heard his words “the moon just went behind the clouds to hide it’s face and cry” I was gone forever. Also, Liverpool is a Celtic city and country is a massive influence here. I loved Johnny Cash too, so it all fitted in with the Rockabilly night I used to go to at The Mayflower in town. But I also knew there was a lot of stigma attached to it and people would think of the more negative Country & Western cabaret scene.”
Not surprisingly, The Onset’s sound perhaps confused those who equated Mike with The La’s, but the discerning caught on.
“Folk Roots called us “rednecks on speed”, which was quite appropriate, even though we weren’t rednecks or on speed,” laughs Mike, looking back on it.
“The Onset were ahead of their time in addressing those country roots, but really country music is just ‘music from the heart’ for me, and Geoff Davies from Probe Plus recognised this and I still thank him.”
In all fairness, this writer personally believes numerous key figures from the city’s fractured scenes down the years owe Geoff Davies pretty large debts, so it’s no surprise that this legendary maverick and founder of Liverpool’s famous Probe Records store put his money where his mouth is where The Onset were concerned. Not that there was anything as formal as a ‘contract’ involved, of course.
“There was no deal,” confirms Mike.
“He’d had the biggest selling independent album of 1986 (Half Man Half Biscuit’s ‘Back In The DHSS’) and was a music lover. I knew him from the shop and I loved the fact that if he sold you an album he would have a chat to you about the best tracks. In my case it was even better, because I was a guy in my early twenties buying stuff a guy my age probably shouldn’t have been buying at the time, like Louis Jordan or Nina Simone and Geoff, of course, liked this and thought it should be encouraged.”
“The other great thing about that whole post-punk time in 1980s Liverpool was the surreal humour involved, too. Bands like The Mel-o-Tones doing songs like ‘I Walked With A Bugs Bunny Bendy Toy’; Half Man Half Biscuit with ‘All I Want For Xmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit’ and The La’s had ‘My Girl Sits Like A Reindeer’. There was humour in all that and it couldn’t have come from anywhere but Liverpool. I’m glad to say it came out in The Onset, too, with the likes of ‘Talkin’ Space Travel Blues.’”
“But to get back to Geoff and Probe Plus, doing ‘The Pool Of Life’ with him opened up a lot of doors for us. We got press and gigs and tours of Germany, so it helped galvanise us as a band. I look back at The Onset now and wonder what we had done wrong…why we never got that big deal? But then Hank Williams sounds nothing like The Stone Roses and I guess in that way our Country roots worked against us in the beginning. As Jon Savage says in his notes to The Beatles Live At The BBC: “They were more country than anything at the beginning” and that went for us too.”
Nonetheless, despite being recorded on a tight budget and little airplay, ‘The Pool Of Life’ certainly received its’ fair share of good press, sold out its’ initial pressing and got The Onset noticed. Hell, The Independent was even moved to describe it – astutely - as “Tumble down garage eclecticism”. Besides, any album featuring gorgeous songs like ‘Precious Love’ and ‘Let’s Go Home’ is more than alright by this writer.
Looking back at the band’s line-up at the time – including fellow ex-La Paul Hemmings (guitars, mandolin, lap steel) and the country-inclined Danny Dean – it’s tempting to think The Onset might have been thrown together by a collective love of all things American in the way that Fairport Convention’s collective love for The Band’s ‘Music From Big Pink’ proved a catalyst in them pursuing their folk roots in an English context and arriving at the seminal ‘Liege & Lief’ as a result.
“It came from all over, as did the members, ‘cos our bassist Simon Cousins came from Wiltshire and Tony Russell (drummer) was from down the road in St.Helens and it was an eclectic mix, though there was certainly a big country influence,” confirms Mike.
“Mind you, I always thought more Gram (Parsons) than Garth (Brooks), of course!” he laughs.
“Interestingly, Pete Frame was doing his Liverpool Family tree and came across us and noted the pre-‘Liege & Lief’ influence, though we actually never knew the album ourselves. Pete called us “the most arresting band in captivity – older than Yesterday and younger than tomorrow.” This meant a lot to us, as did any good wholesome thing said about us. It drove us on because we had no real income from the band save for funding itself. We had distribution at times when we had no airplay, or we had airplay at times of no distribution and great press when there was no record.”
Such are the murky, incomprehensible ways of the deplorable music industry, and this writer for one can only sympathise when Mike recalls:
“It really was a bitch to co-ordinate at times and it felt weird because we were more well-known in Germany than at home for a while. Over there, people turned up to gigs and knew our lyrics from the radio. That never seemed to happen much in the UK.”
Talking of airplay, one of The Onset’s several near misses with much larger acceptance came with the arrival of their “What Say You?” EP in 1990. Typically, though, the record’s sure-fire radio smash – the still hugely anthemic ‘First I Feel You’ – ended up being relegated to the second side. Why oh why was this allowed to happen?
“We figured – wrongly – that John Peel would play the more indie ‘What Say You?’ over ‘First I Feel You’,” Mike admits ruefully.
“It was done and that was that, then our label mates Fishmonkeyman (whose guitarist and drummer now play with Half Man Half Biscuit) got play listed on National Radio 1 with a daytime slot. Oh well…at least Mike Radcliffe played both sides, bless him. Actually, he even played ‘Weeping Willow’ (later Badger-penned classic with The Kachinas, but more of that later) on its’ eventual release last year!”
Regardless of missing out on chart action with the EP, though, the record’s sound was considerably ‘straighter’, punchy indie rock overall. Was this a conscientious decision bearing in mind the indie-dance crossover success being enjoyed by the likes of The Stone Roses and The Farm at the time?
“No, it just sort of happened,” Mike explains.
“We just got into a more electric sound. We’d still do the roots of, say, Bo Diddley, but would slip into a Jimi Hendrix mode too. This evolved again, though – once again – the kind of pre-Britpop sound we arrived at (much of which is proudly displayed on the 2005 CD ‘The Onset’) arrived a couple of years too early again. Another typical Onset out of time saga.”
Despite the machinations of the industry, The Onset nonetheless played live a lot around this time, quietly mirroring the Beatles’ success by playing in Germany a lot, not least in Berlin: before, during and after the seismic political changes culminating in the removal of The Berlin Wall. Mike’s memories of these times remain understandably vivid, too.
“It was a fantastic time to be going over, it was so historic,” he recalls.
“It was culturally mind-blowing going to East Berlin, like stepping back three decades. On our first trip over, Julian Lennon was at the German border going in at the same time! But we went three times…firstly in 1989 when the city was still divided, then 1990 when we needed visas to get through Checkpoint Charlie at midnight, then in 1991 when it was united. All were incredible times, we loved it all. It’s a little known fact, but Liverpool rock’n’roll even played a hand on the night the wall came down because The Walking Seeds were in town!”
Around this time, The Onset shared stages with luminaries such as fellow Scouse heroes Half Man Half Biscuit and the inimitable Jonathan Richman. Words like ‘tour’ don’t usually equate with Half Man Half Biscuit thanks to their genius leader Nigel Blackwell’s reluctance to spend time away from home, but they did play more regularly in the early 1990s, often with The Onset sharing the bill.
“Yeah, well a ‘tour’ with them probably did consist of maybe two gigs a week,” Mike explains.
“But they all added up and we were playing to full houses on quite a regular basis. Besides, the Biscuits were and still are unique. We played at St.Helens Citadel with Jonathan Richman and he ended up staying at my flat in Aigburth – what a guy!”
Is he as childlike as he appears in real life, I can’t help but wonder?
“Well, it was a huge thing for me,” says Mike. “I love Jonathan, I remember ‘Roadrunner’ (classic Modern Lovers hit single) blowing me away when I was 15 and his music has always inspired me, so the idea of him sleeping in the next room…I could hardly believe it,” he finishes, still scarcely able to take it in.
“I mean, his music’s really special. ‘The Morning Of Our Lives’ was our teenage prayer! Then, the next day we went to Glastonbury with him and he fell asleep on my shoulder! God, he hardly knew me, but he had no inhibitions at all. I mean, think about it – one of your biggest influences, a total legend and he’s asleep on your shoulder! We had a right laugh with him and then went on to London with him after Glastonbury.”
As to Richman’s eccentricity, well that was never in doubt, but his encounter with The Onset also proved that sometimes, just sometimes, your heroes can actually live up to the billing and the idealised view you have of them.
“Yeah, he’s eccentric, but he’s no prima donna” Mike reveals.
“For example, he insisted on helping lifting the band’s gear on the way into the flat and I was chuffed to bits because he loved my tin can car sculptures. We made up a bed for him in the spare room, but he slept on the floor next to the bed with the door wide open! He then woke at 6.30 in the morning and did yoga in our kitchen. Jeanette thought he was nuts, but he’s great Jonathan, he’s all smiles.”
It turns out that Richman’s antics at Glastonbury are still fondly remembered too.
“Yeah, coming off stage at Glastonbury we had to shoot to London and time was pressing on,” Mike recalls.
“So what does Jonathan do? He only jumps out of the car on the way out of the festival site and runs in front of the car for about a mile or so, clearing the way for us to get through, looking back at us the whole time and laughing, of course. We got out of there in about ten minutes flat…it was great!”
Mike’s exploits with Jonathan Richman on tour in 1992 more or less coincided with the dawning of his interest in the tin sculpting: an area which has since formed an equally crucial part of his artistic portfolio. As with so many wonderful happy accidents, however, it all stemmed from a chance encounter with a humble tin of baked beans.
“How life throws things up at you,” says Mike, philosophically.
“One day, I reclaimed a tin of beans from the bin – the contents of which I’d eaten – and cut it open with a pair of scissors and made a car. Then a robot, then a ship and a plane…and before I knew it, I was making a living as a sculptor.”
In the “and the rest is history” department, it’s certainly an impressive one – and the irony certainly isn’t lost on Mike Badger either:
“I’d put all this effort into the music for years and not really made any money out of it, but when I was accepted into the British Craft room at Liberty in the mid-90s it all changed,” he explains.
“I started to tour my own one-man show of re-cycled art in the Lost & Found exhibition, went on ‘Blue Peter’ and ‘This Morning’ and appeared on the radio and in the press. It all seemed a damn sight easier than the music industry!”
And there was more in store, not least further mainstream acclaim courtesy of Badger’s involvement with Liverpool band Space, whose star – at the time – was very much in the ascendancy.
“Thanks to (Space lyricist/frontman) Tommy Scott, they used my work for the sleeve of their album ‘Tin Planet’ (the band’s best selling album) in 1997 and even gave it the title after seeing it in my studio. As a result, my work ended up on National Billboards, rock videos and TV ads. For the first time I was self-sufficient from my own creativity.”
All of which – bearing in mind the travails of the past decade or so – seems like justified vindication, but it didn’t dampen Mike’s enthusiasm for music either, even when The Onset wound down around 1995 and Mike and fellow Onset mainstays Danny Dean, Roger Llewellyn (latter bassist and multi-instrumentalist) joined forces in the all-too short-lived Kachinas with ex-Rain/Electrafixion drummer Tony McGuigan.
Anyone who’s heard Badger’s ‘Lo-Fi Electric Excursions’ compilation (released through his own Generator imprint in 2005) will already know The Kachinas. To the uninitiated, it sounds like the beginning of something truly wonderful, but – with hindsight – all the participants were starting to tire of the industry circus.
“I agree it was great and we played some great gigs too, including a big show supporting Space with Henry Priestman (Yachts/ Christians) on keyboards” Mike concedes, “but we were all getting jaded by this stage. Plus, while I’ve never tried to compete with the kids even as a teenager myself, it was obvious by this stage that the industry weren’t going to give us the time of day. It was nothing to do with the music at all; we just ended up tripping over each others guitar strings.”
Nonetheless, the all-too-brief interlude that was The Kachinas (the name refers to the Hopi Indian name for spirit characters) yielded several of Badger’s finest songs, including the majestic sweep of ‘Weeping Willow’, the energised indie-skank of ‘Red Cloud’ and the mournfully glorious lament ‘Take Effect’: another Eco-conscious diatribe from a man who’s quietly been knocking them out since long before Sting and his cohorts were making overtures about the fate of the Rainforests. Viper’s excellent ‘Lost La’s – Breakloose’ collection, for example, features a spirited La’s rendition of future Onset staple ‘Trees & Plants’ dating back to 1986.
“Yeah, ‘Trees & Plants’ was the first song I wrote on guitar and its’ message is stronger than ever,” says Mike.
It’s hard to disagree, especially with a self-explanatory lyric that goes: “this environment is all we’ve got, you can’t just buy one new/ you’d better take care of it before it takes care of you.”
“My heart aches when I think of what they do to our Earth and the natural habitat of animals,” Mike continues, passionately. “not many people address these matters like Don Van Vliet did”
“That’s all I can say. I’m not ahead of my time in these feelings at all. The Indians were saying it hundreds of years ago – it’s a simple truth “in a world that can’t tell wrong from right”, he concludes, quoting The Onset’s fine and equally spot-on ‘Set for Destruction’.
These days, of course, many may tend to link Mike Badger more readily with Eco-friendly concerns thanks to the success of his tin sculpting and its’ obvious, recycling-friendly stance. Initially, though, the artist himself found it hard to believe that such a venture could bring him such prestige, let alone a living.
“Throw a stick anywhere in town (Liverpool) and you’ll hit a singer/ songwriter,” he says, knowingly.
“But back in the day, nobody was making shit out of tin cans! I am very grateful for this, because it helped set me up as a respected artist, though I am very much a community-based artist who works with people helping to awaken their latent creativity. It’s very rewarding work. I have never been one to network down in London with either my music or my art anyway. In the long run I might have paid financially for this, but it’s a very small price to pay as I see it.”
Wise words indeed, though quietly Mike’s influence has seeped into London regardless. His first exhibition in the Big Smoke came in 1996 (at the British Craft Rooms @ Liberty) and more followed swiftly, such as the Hackney Museum.
“I did get on a roll and obviously the media interest helped,” he reflects.
“At my exhibition in Bristol Museum, thousands went through the door each day. This was of great personal satisfaction to me, as you can imagine, especially because I had no agent or manager…I just did it, and that’s how I continue. The silent message in the work is that it’s all made from re-cycled materials and has not taxed nature.”
As Mike says, his sculptures have helped him to find an audience in places where his music may not have reached previously. Yes, his local reputation may have preceded him in places like Warrington, but perhaps not in the likes of Bristol or Leicester in days gone by. These days he’s hoping to re-tour an updated version of Lost & Found and take in territories such as Scotland and Ireland and indeed his sculpting-related adventures have led to remarkable CV entries such as becoming ‘installation artist’ for Manchester’s first Festival of Food in 1998. It turns out Mike scooped this commission thanks to the creation of his ‘Lucky Fish’.
“Yeah, my magic lucky fish,” he recalls proudly.
“It was at the Castlefield Arena which has canals running through it, so I made a site-specific fish from a canoe hull as its’ floating base. I used catering tin lids left over from the catering tins I’d previously used to make a rocket for Space. The lucky fish is 14 foot long and has since appeared all over the country and on TV, including Gloucester docks, Bristol docks, Walsall docks and the Albert Dock in Liverpool have used it several times for the Mersey River Festival. I’ve now donated it to the National Wild Flower Centre in Court Hey Park (near where Mike was brought up in Roby – ed)and it’s still bringing me luck because I’m about to start as two-year artist residency there.”
Mike’s work has opened some impressive doors thus far, but – without even realising it – many of us have been marvelling at examples of his work dating back to the halcyon days of Britpop in the mid-1990s, when his work formed the backbone of Space’s CD sleeves in and around their bestselling ‘Tin Planet’ era in 1997/98. In typical Liverpudlian fashion, this commission began as a result of much-deserved serendipity.
“Tommy Scott (Space vocalist/ lyricist) was on the N.L.M.R.C scam scheme I mentioned earlier – also featuring Paul Hemmings, John Power and Danny Dean – and Paul took Tommy to see one of my exhibitions and then he came to my studio and really loved my work. Before I knew it, I was on a retainer from the record label to design and theme for the band.”
And - as hinted before - the rest is history, with Mike having since carved out quite a reputation for his tin sculptures. Indeed, as I write, he's due to contribute a considerable amount of his music artwork (including posters, album designs and the Space sculptures) to the major Liverpool Music Exhibition, 'The Beat Goes On' at the Museum of Liverpool Life, running from July 2008 to October 2009.
Who says the good guy can't get the last word, eh?
(**In part three, Mike discusses his role in co-founding The Viper Label with fellow former La, Paul Hemmings, his solo albums, his growing reputation as an Eco-friendly artist this side of the Millennium, his links with Peter Gabriel's Real World label and his new solo album due for release this year.)