Diesel Park West’s album Shakespeare Alabama was one of the most critically acclaimed, drooled-over and striking debuts of the late eighties. Packed with anthemic ‘instant classics’ (Q Magazine) written by front man John Butler, the album was awash with the same jangly folk-rock influences (The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield) that helped fuel contemporaries R.E.M.
However, despite rave press reviews, near-universal acclaim and expert production from Rolling Stones producer Chris Kimsey the album struggled to find an audience. Perhaps the band was, as its label claimed at the time, ‘years ahead of its time’.
In his Debut piece for Strata Books, Jon Butler recalls the early struggles to secure their record deal, the creative challenges they faced in the recording studio and the aftermath of the album’s release. As outsiders swimming upstream against a seemingly impenetrable tide of haircuts, fashions and fads, John’s story is a fascinating insight into the life of an artist, songwriter, and musician for whom it has always been about the songs and the music rather than the fame.
Debut – ‘Shakespeare Alabama’ (Diesel Park West)
by John Butler, Feb 2016
The second Diesel Park West album Decency, released in 1992, baffled most people. Its long drawn out recording process didn’t exactly help the momentum, with a gap of three years from our debut Shakespeare Alabama.
What wasn’t so obvious is that debut Shakespeare Alabama itself had finally come to pass after ten long years in an almost impossible wilderness. With a few notable exceptions, the post-punk transition into the eighties was delivering an avalanche of lame sounding power-pop, new wave novelty or overly earnest Celtic bands. As this was the dominant sound on UK radio and in the UK charts at the time, four East Midland quasi-hippie rockers with an unhealthy Moby Grape fixation and an unfashionable history didn’t easily fit into the musical zeitgeist of the 1980s.
We existed by playing country or sixties covers in pubs and clubs under various pseudonyms and desperately trying to get paid before the audience turned on us. Sometimes with serious drunken aggression.
Against a music business backdrop of bands like The Human League or A Flock of Flocking Penguins, it was tough going. Our sound didn’t fit. On bad days I’d even considered emulating this daft style in some of my songs in an effort to get signed by someone.
I was on the train to London all the time to meet labels – usually some forlorn, hapless, low-level A&R scout – to play them our latest demo. Songs we had all painstakingly contributed to recording during yet another smoke-filled session in Rick Willson’s tiny local demo studio that he ran as a business recording loads of local wannabees.
Between 1981 – when we first met Rick – and 1987, the band recorded over 70 songs. We had minimal creative success but we did get a track recorded and released in 1983 on Albion Records (owned by Dai Davies) called 'Guitar Party’, under the band name The Come On. Funnily enough, years later when the Diesels were in America, we met a record company guy who had a copy of it and couldn’t believe we were the same band who had recorded this highly prized cult record.
We also made quite a few journeys to London to play fourth on the bill at some pub or other for a tenner between us. We thought maybe, just maybe, someone of temporary importance might take a shine to us. No one ever did.
However, during this drawn-out period of frustration my songwriting and Rick’s studio ability got better and better. There were early pointers with songs like ‘Later In The Waking Hour’ or ‘The Girl With The Name’ amongst the crap in 1983, but by early 1986 we had come up with some quality efforts. ‘A House Divided’ and ‘What About Us’ to name a couple. And then, not long after, ‘When The Hoodoo Comes’ and ‘All The Myths On Sunday’.
The gears were audibly starting to shift. As were public and media tastes. People were becoming interested in guitar music again. We got involved with a guy who secured us a couple of showcase auditions at Nomis rehearsal studios in London and, on the strength of our new great sounding demos, he managed to get the heads of both Chrysalis and A&M records down to check us out.
They didn’t go for it in the end. Though they said they were blown away by our power and ability they also admitted they didn’t know how to sell us. We were clearly not kids. We were old men in our late twenties!
We were still in the wilderness. Back in the Midlands playing pub gigs.
On 16 April 1987, we travelled to London to play a gig upstairs in a dingy pub in Putney. It felt like it would be the last time we would make the effort to do a London ten-quid gig. The guy who had secured our previous interest, Will Birch, had jumped ship by then and gone to Venice to get away from us. We were on our own again. He would show up later backstage when we were all over the press but we ignored him. In hindsight, I think that was an early mistake. He understood us, and may well have been a good manager. Whereas the guy we subsequently had imposed on us was merely a placeman to be honest.
Meanwhile, back to April ‘87. I had forgotten that I had sent a demo tape a few weeks earlier to an indie label in Brewer Street called Food Records. The day after the Putney gig – my birthday – the phone rang and it was someone called Dave Balfe, the owner of Food. He told me the demo tape was the best he had ever heard in his life and in fact he had needed to go upstairs to wash his face and then play it again just in case he was merely too stoned and delusion had set in.
He was knocked out by our songs and within a few weeks he and his partner Andy Ross had come up to see us perform. By June ’87 we were signed to Food. They released our demo version of ‘When the Hoodoo Comes’ as a single and when we heard it on late night radio it sounded trippy and unusual with a real seductive vibe to it. It was also the first time we had heard the benefit of radio compressio equalising all the sonic components.
We started to do loads of London gigs and, in turn, began to receive great reviews in the press. We also received a session-of-the-year award from the BBC for a 4-song Radio 1 evening session. The majors gathered round and by late 1987 EMI had signed Food itself in order to get their global hands on the four East Midlands quasi-hippie rockers with an unhealthy Moby Grape fixation!
We were all set. We were going to record our debut album at Olympic Studios in Barnes, London, with producer Chris Kimsey.
I vividly remember driving down to Olympic one sunny January morning in 1988 with Mick Salisbury who had been playing guitar with us for about a year to fill in the sound onstage. For a time Mick had felt like our good luck talisman because almost as soon as he joined positive things had started to happen, culminating in being where we now found ourselves. But he never really had an easy time fitting in with us. He looked different (he was tall & blonde) and used to say we spoke in code to each other. Sadly, it wasn’t long before cracks appeared in his relationship with the band.
Kimsey suggested we concentrate on getting the parts down with Rick playing all the main guitars and me contributing some acoustic rhythm, a bit of electric and some swirly sounding keyboard stuff (‘Waking Hour’ for example). It was a smart move and there was never any debate thereafter that this was the right approach.
Rick is a master guitar player and the move centralised our style (and prevented an ego bog-down on who played what and all of that silly stuff). My job was to sing and do harmonies. Geoff Beavan played bass and Dave Smith drummed. Mick Salisbury went home – a difficult decision made harder because of our emotional connection to him being our perceived good luck talisman.
The vibe of being in such a top line studio was certainly different to our little place in Leicester but we quickly got used to it. Within hours we were blowing through ‘What About Us’ and a few other jams. We were getting the feel and range of the place while Kimsey and engineer Chris Potter were sussing out the positions and sounds.
Balfe came down that first day when we were playing live and he started to freak out at how magnificent the sound was coming back to him into the control room.
I remember him getting all excited and saying how we were going to sell millions of records and make him rich!
Three weeks later we were stuck in the mud.
Balfe had taken a real shine to an old song of ours called ‘Each Little Happy’. The song had a killer chorus, which must have meant an early pre-album hit to him. Understandable I guess. But it was a song we’d recorded several times over the past few years and didn’t really hold in our hearts any longer. After three solid weeks of hearing it over and over again it was becoming a drag. The rhythm track sounded laboured and, to make matters worse, Kimsey brought in a session guy to play a brass intro and middle bit that sounded to us like a sea scouts band. Dreadful stuff. There was an awkward air permeating the studio.
After a while everyone agreed it was a dud, including Balfe, so we abandoned it and set about recording the album proper. The songs started to come pretty fast. ‘All The Myths On Sunday’, ‘Out Of Nowhere’, ‘Bell Of Hope’. The guitar tracks were sounding great and some of the vocals were starting to hit the spot too. Kimsey and Chris Potter were beginning to put a living feel into the mixes and there was promise in the air instead of the earlier awkwardness. Nick Gatfield, the head EMI guy, came down one night when we were doing ‘Jackie’s Still Sad’ and was clearly happy with it. Things were starting to look up.
Most mornings I would walk to Barnes from Shepherds Bush, where we were staying at the Townhouse on Goldhawk Road. I would saunter across the bridge and along the embankment thinking and appreciating the solitude while looking at the deceptive and swirling Thames. I started to realise that the natural power structure within the band was solidifying. No one had ever been interested in writing songs with me during the previous years despite me asking people to do so on many occasions, and now here we were making a debut album with a world class set up for a major label.
Rick and Geoff were happy to let me follow my muse but Dave Smith was beginning to display some resentment towards me for all the attention I was getting as front man and writer. He was also aware that the financial rewards I may receive later were going to be pretty substantial. But as no one had been interested in writing with me when we were in the wilderness I had developed on my own. To my mind, whilst the performing side of things was essentially an equal effort with nobody working harder than anyone else onstage, in rehearsal or in the studio, the song writing itself was a completely different discipline. It was one I now did alone.
Later on, coupled with contemptuous envy from Smith, this caused the original line up to break with his inevitable departure at the end of 1989. I had formed the band with him out the ashes of an old band he used to play for during the seventies so it was a horrible split.
The first few months of 1988 saw us working hard to finish the album and release it into a scene that was becoming ever more guitar-hungry. No one paid much attention to something called house music that was starting to make waves. And, on the face of it, why should we? We felt our record was really shaping up as an entity all in its own class. The title Shakespeare Alabama came to me during some studio banter between Chris Potter and myself in between a vocal take. He had wondered out loud how it was possible for such quality music to come from four Midland working class British rednecks, which we most certainly were.
But I figured we also came from a city steeped in culture and historical resonance. A city that many people were unaware of having had such an important role in English history and a city with numerous places of higher education and universities. So the Alabama bit reflected our shit-kicking outward personalities whilst the Shakespeare reference was something else entirely, something inwards. I think a lot of people got it. Balfe certainly did, and others merely assumed it was a groovy American sounding title. It actually predated the whole Americana thing, which happened years later.
Balfe, who was slightly younger than us and a bit of a new waver – he had found early eighties success as the keyboard player in Julian Cope’s Teardrop Explodes – found it a bit difficult to get into the first few tracks which Kimsey delivered. But the reaction over at EMI was ecstatic. The marketing people there flipped-out completely when they heard ‘Here I Stand’, ‘Like Princes Do’ and then ‘All The Myths On Sunday’. They really did mark us down as being their next global major success along the lines of Queen or the Floyd. On the staircase at EMI head office in Manchester Square our photo was placed next to one of the Beatles during the Pepper time. Seriously. They had that much faith.
Balfe soon lost his initial reservation and got infected with the same evangelical enthusiasm. Kimsey was even allowed to book the London Philharmonic to play orchestral scores written out by Anne Dudley for ‘Jackie’s Still Sad’ and ‘Waking Hour’.Rick and I both dropped acid that morning just to watch those people play our songs and get off on the mighty sound in the studio. Actually we cracked up laughing on one particular rhythmic passage Kimsey was getting them to play which to our ears seemed comical. But that may have been the acid! I picked up a score sheet afterwards when they had all left and looked at all the musical notes that comprised our songs. Pretty mind blowing stuff for a bloke who doesn’t read music.
The album was finished and handed over by early May 1988. More euphoria from EMI followed and plans for the first video were discussed. Videos are strange affairs – there you are being an actor for a day miming over and over and over to one of your songs. We then began the rounds of promotion and touring and all the things that are needed to make success happen.
‘Jackie’s Still Sad’ was the first single and it seemed certain we were going to be supported by radio, which to our minds was par for the course for a major label band. But it didn’t happen. The BBC wouldn’t playlist us no matter how hard EMI tried. Even though the reviews in the press were fantastic there seemed to be a block at the Beeb for Diesel Park West. It appeared to be down to the one guy who headed the radio playlist. A guy named Ric Blaxhill who described us as a pub band. Well, yeah, that’s where we had started like everyone else. But we had honed our thing and delivered this truly great record. So many people were now raving about it. The reaction internationally was incredible and all the European EMI labels and radio stations were going nuts along with the continental press. But, alas, not the state radio at home. Not wonderful Radio One.
Often, over the ensuing years, I wondered why Ric Blaxhill had dismissed us so cruelly. Was it our high-spirited behaviour at a post tour reception in Hammersmith, which I’m pretty sure he attended? We were relaxing and certainly off duty and anyway it was pretty normal stuff. You know – drunk, the odd spliff, some shouting and showing off but nothing horrible or badass. We were happy because we had just played three nights at the Hammersmith Odeon and basically stole the show off the headliners. It was a loose, happy gathering of quasi-hippies with an unhealthy Moby Grape fixation. Of course Blaxhill could have simply thought we were a crap band and that’s all there was to it. But, at the time, if that were the case he was certainly the holder of a minority view.
Years later, I read that he was in fact, prior to sucking his way into the upper reaches of the nation’s favourite, a bit of a wannabee rocker himself who desperately wanted to be signed by a major label. Explanation? Maybe!
Had our album sales matched our global critical acclaim we would have been major players by 1990-91. Certainly on a par with, say, REM. The album did pretty well for us in some countries though. We charted in Spain, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Italy and Switzerland and we seemed to be endlessly doing TV shows. Usually miming to one of the singles but occasionally playing live too.
One memorable live TV performance was in Madrid where we were playing to what seemed to me like a super-cool Spanish audience. Really classy dressers and beautiful women. The Fine Young Cannibals who were on the same TV show were booed off because they were partially miming. But they didn’t care – they had just been told their single had gone to number 1 in America. I also remember having a nasty moment with our manager backstage arguing over something or other. That should have been it with him then but, because we seemed to always do as we were told like obedient working class guys from Leicester who were lucky to be in this position, we let it go. Big mistake number two.
We toured constantly. The first time we went out to promote the album was supporting the anthemic Scottish rock band Big Country. I thought they got a bad deal from the press because almost universally the reviews stated that we were wiping the floor with them. It was untrue but we did do very well and picked up a lot of their fans. The downside for us was that before the tour we had an indie mystique about us, but afterwards that seemed to lessen. The Big Country fans we picked up were hardly hip young things. After that our tours were always headline affairs.
Touring can do two things; it can turn you into an alcoholic drug friendly egomaniac and it can open up the eyes to the realities of this world. Usually at the same time. Throughout the Shakespeare Alabama touring I remember I was listening to two specific albums – Dylan’s Oh Mercy and the New York album by Lou Reed. I had never been a Velvets fan but the weight of the writing on that record blew my mind. These two records and the experiences I was living through inevitably influenced my song writing at the time. That’s where songs like While The World Cries Decency came from I imagine. A good effort flawed but a good effort in making a moral observation on what I was seeing around me.
Sadly the album didn’t achieve the commercial success everyone was hoping for. We were perceived as hanging just outside the golden tent and one breakthrough song would do it. EMI and Food were obviously disappointed but they both maintained their faith and there was absolutely no cutting back on financial support as we moved towards the follow-up album. After all, it was clearly a great album and its reception had been massively positive from most quarters. Of course the middle class Trots at the NME and Melody Maker took the piss but that was their brief. It’s been a source of much merriment to me how over the years most of those guys have ended up writing for the Murdoch press and are also routinely wheeled out to earnestly spout forth about the very heritage music we were championing back in 87-90 when they were still mired in some sort of post-punk ethos. Took a while chaps, didn’t it?
I had some great songs pretty soon after Shakespeare Alabama, some made it onto the second album some didn’t. But because we hadn’t had a big hit there was a lot of interference from Dave Balfe who passed judgement on each and every new demo we submitted. He trashed some really great songs which were displaying our psychedelic origins and actually unknowingly had a lot in common with the soon to be Mancunian ersatz psychedelia of 1990-1991. Balfe though, to be fair, did have a great sense of what constituted a good arrangement, particularly in a song earmarked as a potential hit single so I am not having a go at him. He made sense most of the time. We all love him really.
Even in commercial defeat we stayed together and have gone on to release eight albums in total so far, with talk of a ninth to come. A sign of an inner creative stamina that I would suggest is pretty unique. After we left EMI and all its major power we signed to Jake Riviera at Demon who released our third album The Corporate Waltz. We recorded it with Paul Sampson for about 12 grand in Coventry (Decency and Shakespeare Alabama between them had cost around half a million, maybe more) and we love that record to this day. Had it somehow been on EMI as a ‘last chance hardly any budget just get on with it’ type of record it may well have been a success. Diesel Park West has never split up officially and has always performed somewhere in the world since our inception all those years ago. The core reason for this is our belief in the music – it really is that simple. We still play with a real zest and connected power that seems more plangent than even back in the day.
The debut was a milestone in our collective lives and remains a pivotal album for many people. Onstage to this day whenever that first drum crack ushering in the riff to ‘Like Princes Do’ happens there is an electric charge around the room and off we go into some special rock n roll. There isn’t too much of that around now is there? I know that perceptions shift with age and every generation lays claim to the best music. Even 60-year-old punks now celebrate their decade with a defiant backward glance because it’s a natural process for most people to get into. I have to say however that the fundamental musical manifesto we subscribed to back there in the early to mid-eighties, at the time virtually out of bounds for any contemporary tastemakers, has become increasingly mainstream.
It’s no longer taboo to appreciate the American hippie rock of the west coast sixties or the later seventies grooves which initially came at us wearing flares. It’s common also to see people in bands who are clearly in their late thirties or forties and beyond being taken seriously and given media exposure.
The whole game has grown up. Even young players want to sound as if they are connected to a once-derided creative past that for us, and seemingly us alone at that point, was alive in the eighties. A past where, for a few weeks at the beginning of 1988, we recorded a debut album that was going to employ all the worthwhile skills picked up along the way. We willingly let Chris Kimsey and Chris Potter present it in contemporary form and give it a wider sonic angle, which is why it was never just a retro thing but a major statement pointing to a future that today hasn’t dated one iota and, in fact, stands as a touchstone.