Brand X

Af­ter 17 years, Brand X have re­united. The jazz fu­sion pi­o­neers are back on the road and have just re­leased a new dou­ble live al­bum – their first re­lease in 20 years. Percy Jones looks back, and for­ward…

Prog - - Contents - Words: Sid Smith

The prog fu­sioneers are back and rar­ing to go af­ter a 17-year hia­tus.

“We were work­ing un­der strained cir­cum­stances – it wasn’t very easy,” says Brand X’s Percy Jones, re­call­ing a meet­ing in 1979 af­ter a lawyer in the group’s man­age­ment com­pany said the band should make more com­mer­cial mu­sic.

Jones sighs heav­ily as he re­mem­bers the moment. “I was think­ing, ‘Oh, shit. It’s come to this. I’ve got a lawyer telling me what to do mu­si­cally.’ My feel­ing was we’d just alien­ate the peo­ple al­ready buy­ing our records and prob­a­bly not gain a dif­fer­ent au­di­ence any­way. I put my foot down and said I wasn’t do­ing it.”

The com­pro­mise was to have two dif­fer­ent line-ups record tracks in or­der to cater for both di­rec­tions. Jones teamed up with ex-Qu­ater­mass

key­board player Peter Robin­son and drum­mer Mike Clarke, while Brand X co-founder and key­boardist Robin Lumley, Phil Collins and bassist John Gi­b­lin pro­vided the other half, with gui­tarist John Goodsall diplo­mat­i­cally main­tain­ing a foot in both camps.

“We recorded in shifts with the other band work­ing in the day and we’d go in and record all night. That was the only way we could get it done,” says Jones rue­fully.

The re­sult of these dual ses­sions was 1980’s Do They Hurt? and 1982’s Is There Any­thing About?, the lat­ter re­leased af­ter Brand X had dis­banded. Jones’ hunch proved cor­rect, with the group fail­ing to pick up any new fans with the more song-ori­ented ap­proach.

“I went out and bought a copy of that last one be­cause no­body sent me a copy. I lis­tened to it once and I gave it to the kids next door. I think they ended up play­ing fris­bee with it.”

While Brand X ap­peared to have been tossed onto the scrapheap, they be­came one of those bands whose life was ar­ti­fi­cially ex­tended as vinyl gave way to CD in the mid-80s on­wards and their back cat­a­logue was re­cy­cled via ‘Com­pact Price’ cam­paigns and the ‘In­tro­duc­tion To…’ reis­sue pro­gramme. Some­times such an­tholo­gies ap­peared with sex­u­ally provoca­tive cover art that prob­a­bly said more about the graphic de­signer’s fan­tasies than it did about the mu­sic. But what­ever the predilec­tions of those putting the al­bums out, the fact that they were re­leased at all con­firmed that there was an on­go­ing in­ter­est in the group.

In the 90s, there were a few ten­ta­tive re­unions, but noth­ing that lasted be­yond a cou­ple of al­bums. Jones re­calls talk of an­other at­tempt to put a Brand X to­gether a few years ago that would have in­cluded key­board player David San­cious and, later, Pa­trick Mo­raz. Both at­tempts stum­bled and fell with­out a sin­gle note be­ing played when the man­age­ment un­der­writ­ing the ven­ture failed to put enough dates to­gether to make any of it work. To­day, with new man­age­ment in place, Jones says that things are dif­fer­ent.

“They un­der­stood the mu­sic to a pretty good de­gree, and the lo­gis­tics of the busi­ness, and it takes those two things re­ally to pull off a tour,” he

“Noth­ing stays the same. So that’s why I had an un­easy feel­ing, at least ini­tially, just not know­ing how it would all con­nect.” Percy Jones

ex­plains. “Geo­graph­i­cally we were all spread out. I’m in New York, John is in Min­nesota, Ken­wood Den­nard [drums] was in New Hamp­shire. So it takes some fi­nan­cial help to just get every­body in one place and then more fi­nances to re­hearse. We couldn’t have done it with­out that kind of back­ing.”

That their early discog­ra­phy was fea­tured so heav­ily on the new live dou­ble al­bum, But Wait… There’s

More! was no ac­ci­dent. An on­line poll high­lighted the af­fec­tion and es­teem with which Un­ortho­dox Be­hav­iour (1976), Moroc­can Roll (1977) and Masques (1978) are still held. When Jones saw the re­sults, he ad­mits to be­ing filled with a de­gree of trep­i­da­tion when the band be­gan re­hearsals in the sum­mer of 2016.

“I didn’t know how peo­ple would re­act to those com­po­si­tions in this day and age, or whether it was go­ing to work. The other rea­son, and I think I can speak for me and John for this: we’re not play­ing the same as we did back then. Our styles have changed, our way of think­ing has changed, you know? Noth­ing stays the same. So that’s why I had an un­easy feel­ing, at least ini­tially – just not know­ing how it would all con­nect, ba­si­cally.”

He needn’t have wor­ried. But Wait… There’s More!, their first re­lease in 20 years, finds Goodsall, Jones and for­mer drum­mer Ken­wood Den­nard, along­side key­boardist Chris Clark and per­cus­sion­ist Scott Weinberger, play­ing for a wildly en­thu­si­as­tic crowd. Stephen W Tayler’s de­tailed mix is some of the hottest in­stru­men­tal mu­sic you’ll hear this year.

Percy Jones, who has lived in the USA for 38 years, stud­ied en­gi­neer­ing rather than mu­sic at univer­sity and con­structed one of the most in­stantly recog­nis­able fret­less bass sounds this side of Jaco Pas­to­rius. His lithe runs, pep­pered with daz­zling har­mon­ics and a funky mus­cu­lar­ity, may well have prompted com­par­isons to Weather Re­port’s star player, but the style was all his own.

Hav­ing cut his teeth as a gig­ging bassist with late-60s mul­ti­me­dia troupe The Liver­pool Scene, by the time Brand X be­gan record­ing their de­but al­bum in 1975, Jones was work­ing on Lon­don build­ing sites.

“I was liv­ing in Beck­en­ham and Robin Lumley lived in the area. We got to­gether for a jam in some­body’s kitchen. I was play­ing a lot but not re­ally gig­ging. We also used to do some jam ses­sions up in Clapham every Wed­nes­day night: me, Lumley, Goodsall and some other guys.”

Jones re­calls that it was this loose col­lec­tion of play­ers who were some­how fixed up with an au­di­tion for Is­land Records, which no­body took se­ri­ously at all.

“The world of fu­sion or jazz rock had a ten­dency at that time to take it­self ex­tremely se­ri­ously, but Brand X were com­pletely the op­po­site.”

Stephen W Tayler

“We played for these two A&R guys at Is­land and we were just mak­ing stuff up, im­pro­vis­ing, and they signed us! Amaz­ing. We didn’t ex­pect that.”

As un­ex­pected as this was, Jones says they were even more sur­prised when, af­ter the la­bel re­jected the first al­bum they recorded with vo­cals,

Is­land boss Chris Blackwell gave the go-ahead for an­other record, but this time an en­tirely in­stru­men­tal al­bum.

“That first al­bum had been kind of like an Av­er­age White Band-sound­ing thing. But be­cause we were all lis­ten­ing to jazz rock, that’s what we wanted to do. Our orig­i­nal drum­mer wasn’t suit­able for the ma­te­rial. We had Bill Bru­ford, who came in briefly, but he turned it down be­cause he was al­ready play­ing with some­one else and he didn’t want to spread him­self too thin. So that’s when Phil Collins ar­rived.”

There’s lit­tle doubt that the as­so­ci­a­tion with Collins’ as­cend­ing star in Ge­n­e­sis took the group to an au­di­ence well be­yond jazz rock afi­ciona­dos. Sim­i­larly, when Is­land un­ac­count­ably de­clined to re­lease Un­ortho­dox Be­hav­iour, it was Collins’ con­nec­tions to Tony Stratton-Smith’s Charisma la­bel that en­sured its re­lease.

The Fender Pre­ci­sion fret­less bass heard on their de­but, the in­stru­ment on which Jones built a rep­u­ta­tion, was pur­chased sec­ond-hand us­ing al­most all of the money he’d re­ceived from a pub­lish­ing ad­vance. Robin Lumley up­graded his key­board setup and, Jones wryly notes, John Goodsall stumped up all of his ad­vance on a fur coat.

If Jones’ ag­ile bass has been a vi­tal com­po­nent in their sig­na­ture sound then so too has John Goodsall’s lu­cid gui­tar. Fur coat or not, he was ca­pa­ble of bol­ster­ing quick-shift­ing rhyth­mic ac­cents with an al­most blasé panache, with a knack for bend­ing rock licks into dex­trous, quick­sil­ver shapes.

It’s a part­ner­ship that has not only en­dured but is, per­haps, the bench­mark of authen­tic­ity for any ven­ture bear­ing the Brand X name.

“He’s got a unique style and way of play­ing and he’s got a unique style of writ­ing,” says Jones. “His writ­ing is re­ally in­ter­est­ing and peo­ple tell me that my bass and his gui­tar work well to­gether. That’s what keeps us work­ing to­gether. We’ve played to­gether on and off now push­ing on 40 years.”

The union has lasted longer than many mar­riages, though as Jones can­didly ad­mits, it hasn’t been with­out its ups and downs.

“If there’s some­thing he’s do­ing that both­ers me, I’ll talk to him about it. That hap­pened not too long ago.

I got in his face a lit­tle bit af­ter a gig in Penn­syl­va­nia and told him what I thought. He didn’t like it and he men­tioned a tune that I’d screwed up [laughs] and we had a bit of back and forth. I was think­ing, ‘Oh shit, this is not go­ing well,’ but then the next morn­ing at break­fast we were fine. And I sup­pose that’s the way we deal with it – if some­thing’s both­er­ing us, we thrash it out, try to re­solve it and move on. You can’t let lit­tle things blow up.”

The re­lease of But Wait… There’s More! not only re­unites Jones and Goodsall but also brings back pro­ducer Stephen W Tayler. Tayler, who worked with the band on Moroc­can Roll, says that al­though the line-up may have changed, the orig­i­nal spirit lives on.

“The world of fu­sion or jazz rock had a ten­dency at that time to take it­self ex­tremely se­ri­ously, but Brand X were com­pletely the op­po­site. Their mu­sic is pow­er­ful, in­tri­cate and im­pres­sive, but there’s al­ways a hu­mor­ous sub­text that makes me smile and fre­quently break into fits of gig­gles – and 40 years on they still make me laugh.”

Laughs aside, the pas­sage of time can be hard on mu­si­cians whose stock in trade is dex­ter­ity, es­pe­cially when nav­i­gat­ing Brand X’s high-oc­tane hy­brid of dev­il­ishly com­plex themes and on-point im­pro­vi­sa­tion. Older and wiser, Jones ac­cepts that he has to work hard to main­tain the lev­els of vir­tu­os­ity fans ex­pect.

“It’s tougher than it was back in the day,” he ad­mits. “When we were do­ing gigs back then we would typ­i­cally do a 45-minute set and now we’re do­ing about two hours. So play­ing that old stuff and play­ing longer sets is hard work. I just try to stay in shape. At some point it’ll all fall apart, and when it does, I’ll have to hang up the bass. But I’m not there yet, thank good­ness!”








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