Surprise! The 80s neo-proggers find themselves back in the studio…
It’s only towards the end of Prog’s chat with Brian Devoil – drummer, manager and keeper of the flame for neoprog heroes Twelfth Night – that he drops the proverbial bombshell: for the first time in 25 years, the band are back in the recording studio. He won’t be drawn on the details, other than to suggest the possibility of new material alongside recordings of old songs, but he does mention a tantalising, though at the time top secret, project that relates to this news.
By now, the cat is out of the bag. On Armistice Day (November 11),
100 years on from the end of World War I, Twelfth Night released a new recording of their anti-war epic Sequences. “We’d never released a studio version of the track, something that is true of a few other Twelfth Night classics, so the idea had been in my mind for several years,” says Devoil. “It was the first time that the stars aligned and the opportunity presented itself to do justice to the track.” Guitarist Andy Revell adds, “Although we kept faithful to the best-known arrangement, we expanded some sections, added some fantastic orchestration, and even re-instated some parts that appeared in earlier versions of the track.”
t’s 40 years since the band first came together at Reading University, and despite splitting up in 1987, their legacy is stronger than ever. For many of us who first came to music during the neo-prog glory years
of the early 80s (this writer included), Twelfth Night remain the most innovative and enigmatic group of that era.
The roots of Twelfth Night stretch back to an instrumental duo formed by Revell and Devoil in the mid-70s, initially to enter a battle of the bands competition, which they subsequently won. The music was based around Revell’s experiments with a WEM Copicat echo unit, creating a shimmering, propulsive guitar tone that would become central to Twelfth Night’s sound. “I wanted to take the ambient atmospherics and driving rhythms of krautrock, but instead of using synths, marry those ideas with the more organic nature of the guitar and blues,” says Revell.
The initial Twelfth Night line-up was completed by bassist Clive Mitten and classically trained keyboardist
Rick Battersby. Artist and friend Geoff Mann joined briefly on vocals in 1979, but decided it wasn’t what he wanted to do at that time. “He then spent the next two years badgering us to get back in the band!” chuckles Devoil.
The band recruited American singer Electra MacLeod and self-released their first single, but soon reverted to playing as an instrumental quartet, and in 1981 put out the Live At The Target album, neo-prog’s first significant release, once again on their own label. “One of the reasons I didn’t have any issues with performing at the same time as punk is because we had that punk ethos in the sense that we did it ourselves,” notes Devoil. Somewhat ironically then, a review of Live At The Target in Musicians Only magazine described Twelfth Night as the best band in the world after Genesis, which led to a rethink in direction, and the decision once again to find a vocalist.
Twelfth Night auditioned potential singers, but eventually realised that Geoff Mann was actually the man for the job after all. Devoil remembers, “He sent us our version of Sequences from Live At The Target, and he’d fleshed it out with a full set of lyrics and sung over it. And it was so much better than anything else we were getting. So we went up to see him in Manchester just before the  Reading Festival and said, ‘You know we’ve been saying for months you can’t join the band… Erm, would you like to join the band?’”
The ‘Punk Floyd’ of the neo-prog scene, Twelfth Night always stood apart from the crowd. Now with the band back in the recording studio, they’re set to play on once again. “I defy anyone to show me better lyrics in rock music. What Geoff wrote was just astonishing, and so true – it’s exactly what’s going on in
the world now.” – Brian Devoil
Mann would go on to make his live debut with Twelfth Night in front of a festival crowd of thousands, and quickly established himself as both a riveting performer and supremely talented writer. While still an inventive and exciting musical unit, the focus of the band shifted to highlight Mann’s uniquely expressed worldview and his rough-hewn, confrontational vocal style.
Back in June, the band released a 3CD Definitive Edition of their 1982 album Fact And Fiction. Lauded by this very magazine as one of ‘The Albums That Saved Prog’, it’s a still stunning showcase for Mann’s humane yet acerbic lyrics and the band’s stark, modern updating of the progressive rock template. Along with a remastered version of the original album, the package also includes a disc of live interpretations of its tracks, plus a disc of covers from prog luminaries including Pendragon, Galahad and Tim Bowness – evidence, if it were needed, of Fact And Fiction’s enduring appeal.
And yet Fact And Fiction was an album that only really came about by happenstance. Looking to land a record deal, the band had demoed a synthbased take on The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. “And that came to the ear – I don’t know how – of Andy Macpherson who ran Revolution Studios, and he thought it had hit potential,” explains Deovil. “So he said come up and record this single, and we could use studio downtime to record other material. And that’s how Fact And Fiction came about.”
Working late at night injected the album with a nocturnal urgency, even if the in-house engineers didn’t always share the band’s enthusiasm. “Some of the engineering is really not up to standard,” says Devoil. “In the end, [Macpherson] spent longer mixing the drums for Eleanor Rigby than it took for us to mix the rest of the album! We mixed it in two days, and of course, it was all hands to the pump and on the sliders, nothing automatic. And then we escaped with the tapes…”
Even if the finished product wasn’t sonically perfect, the material on Fact And Fiction was stellar, with We Are Sane and Creepshow in particular being two of the stand-out tracks of the neoprog period. Much of their impact was down to Geoff Mann’s prescient words and impassioned delivery. Devoil concurs: “I defy anyone to show me better lyrics in rock music. What he wrote was just astonishing, and so true – it’s exactly what’s going on in the world now. One of the reasons I did the Definitive Edition was to focus on the lyrics and to make Geoff very much the central person in the packaging and pictures, because it’s the lyrics that mark that album out.”
Suffice to say that neither Fact And Fiction nor the Eleanor Rigby single set the charts on fire upon their release in 1982, but Twelfth Night were rapidly becoming one of the leading lights of the neo-prog scene. A stunning performance at the following year’s Reading Festival, subsequently broadcast on Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show, should have been a turning point for the band – and it was, but not in the way they expected.
Devoil explains, “We had a lot of interest from CBS at the time. We did some demos with them in the summer of ’83, and we thought that was going to lead to a signing. And then they dropped their interest literally two days before Reading, which I didn’t tell the rest of the guys in the band. They told me off for that afterwards…” And if that wasn’t bad enough, soon afterwards Geoff Mann announced his decision to leave the band. “It was a shock initially, but what we were being told was that record companies didn’t get Geoff, and
“If I’ve got anything to say about it, then yes! I would love to be back on stage with the band.”
– Mark Spencer
we weren’t going to get signed with him,” says Devoil. “Although there was a huge similarity between Geoff and Fish, there was also a huge disparity. In retrospect, if he had stayed, I think we would have convinced the record companies that he was viable, but at the time they said no. So changing vocalists was a way for us to reposition ourselves.
“We did the same as Marillion and Pallas,” continues Devoil. “We replaced our theatrical performer with someone who was a better singer. And Andy Sears was fabulously talented.” He stresses there were no bad feelings though. “When we started auditioning for vocalists – several of whom came to those farewell shows at the Marquee, including Andy Sears – we took videos and sent them to Geoff for his opinion, so he was involved in looking for his successor.”
Also present at Mann’s farewell shows was Mark Spencer, singer at the time with LaHost and subsequently a session player for some of rock’s biggest names. When Twelfth
Night reformed as a live band in
2007, Spencer joined as a multiinstrumentalist, and by the time of the band’s ‘farewell’ show at the Barbican’s Guildhall in 2012, had graduated to lead vocalist. A Blu-ray, DVD and double-CD of that performance is due out by the end of the year, entitled A Night To Remember. It certainly was for Spencer:
“I’d just come off a mini-tour playing keyboards and bass with Alan Reed, supporting It Bites, and we’d all got really ill. I’d done a gig in Glasgow the night before, literally walked off stage, got in the car and started driving back down, unable to speak, and not entirely sure whether I’d be able to sing. So getting as close to singing as I did on the night is quite pleasing…”
Devoil adds, “One of [the Guildhall] students was doing a final year in lighting and production, and blagged about a million pounds worth of lighting equipment – apparently the company he went to, the main guy said, ‘Twelfth Night, no problem,
I used to see them at the Marquee, have whatever you like!’”
There are other retrospective releases potentially in the pipeline: footage and soundtracks from the band’s performances at Loreley in Germany and Tiana in Spain, plus video of Geoff Mann’s farewell shows. In addition, Spencer has recorded a solo version of the entire Fact And Fiction album, which should hopefully be released in the near future.
But with the band (based around a core trio of Devoil, Revell and Spencer) now back in the studio, the big question is: will Twelfth Night ever play live again? “If I’ve got anything to say about it, then yes! I would love to be back on stage with the band,” enthuses Spencer. Devoil is more circumspect, but certainly doesn’t rule it out: “If we were to create some new music, and there was clearly a demand, and somebody made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, then
I think it’s possible.”
ANDY REVELL (LEFT) AND CLIVE MITTEN PLAYING READING FESTIVAL IN 1983.
BRIAN DEVOIL PLAYING NEARFEST IN 2012. GEOFF MANN PERFORMING CREEPSHOW, 1983.MARK SPENCER, 2012.
LETTING THEIR HAIR DOWN AT LONDON’S MARQUEE IN 1983.The new version of Sequences is available from the Twelfth Night website. The Definitive Edition of Fact And Fiction is out now via F2/Festival. A Night To Remember is out soon. See www.twelfthnight.info.