Kelvin, Ros and Alan
Interview by Mike Appelstein
This article originally appeared in Caught In Flux magazine (Spring 1996).
Thanks to David Beardsley for his help with this article.
2006 update: Now out on Kill Rock Stars: Singles & Sessions: 1979-1981. Disclosure- it was produced by a certain editor here...
"We're ready when you are," the Delta 5 confidently sang on their theme song, but apparently the world wasn't ready for them. Like so many British bands circa 1979-1983, they lasted just long enough to create a small, compact set of lost classics and faded away, almost unnoticed for the entire process. They deserve a better fate.
The Delta 5 (two men, three women) formed in the highly-charged petri dish that was the late-1970's Leeds, England punk scene. From their first single, the wonderful "Mind Your Own Business," their sound was defined by an odd two-bass rhythmic thump, a fractured mutant-dance beat, and detached, conversational female vocals. It was a compelling, catchy approach that still sounds fresh. They were contemporaries and friends of the Gang of Four and the Mekons, but where those two bands used their early records for political discourse, Delta 5 were more concerned with the personal. Their records often hailed mercilessly sarcastic vindictives at ex-lovers ("You," "Now That You've Gone"), nerdy guys ("Mind Your Own Business") and stalkers ("Telephone"), frequently to hilarious effect. Just as easily, though, they'd come out with a punk-era plea for individuality ("Colour," "Open Life") or the quite, sensible theory that "anticipation is so much better" than actually getting what you want. What these all had in common was a palpable, uncomfortable distance between the speaker and the subject, between the way things are and possibilities that may or may not exist. "Delta 5's songs are about distance from people; they don't so much try to close these distances as make sense of them," Greil Marcus suggested in 1980.
After three singles on Rough Trade, Delta 5 toured America and signed to Pre, a subsidiary of Charisma, and recorded See The Whirl in 1981, an album packed with solid tunes (though there are a few throwaway cuts on side 2). The band toured the states once more, and began falling apart upon its return to Leeds. After one final single for Pre, 1982's "Powerlines/The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter," Delta 5 split up. The project ended, the records fell out of print, and the band members got proper jobs. A familiar story by now?
I've long wanted to track down Delta 5 for an interview, and I got my chance when Razor & Tie released Totally Wired last year, a CD compilation of 1980's-era British dance and post-punk nuggets. Delta 5's "You" was on this CD, and through the benevolent assistance of executive producer Ruben Cerveza, I was able to get in touch with bassist Ros Allen. Currently a mom and employed in the animation industry, she was keen on answering some questions about her old band and what she's been up to lately. We conducted the following interview, through the mail. Take it away, Ros.
"... Sorry this is so late but I've had the flu. Hope my answers are of some interest (perhaps a cure for insomnia?) When I was reading the copy of Caught In Flux that you sent me, I spotted Stuart Moxham's name, I think I met him when we both worked at Richard Williams studio, summer 1990. He was in the trace and paint department, and I was in the animation bit. I've got an even vaguer memory of borrowing or viewing a bass of his (mine was stolen while on loan to a friend), but I'm not sure. I do know what I was listening to that summer -- Dinosaur Jr.'s Bug, the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon, Love's Forever Changes, Astral Weeks, Jimi Hendrix, and a 12-inch complation of New Order's "True Faith," the Fall, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, R.E.M. and U2, among others. Dick hated us using Walkmans, he thought they spoilt out concentration -- "Earth calling Ros, Earth calling Ros, come in Ros" was a common remark. I also remember George Martin coming in to discuss the music for a film with Dick. George Martin! Wow! That was a thrill for me growing up with the Beatles' music."
Q: When and how did you first become interested in music? When did you first start playing?
One of my earliest memories is driving along the coast with my dad and singing along to "Please Please Me" by the Beatles - throughout my childhood I loved to sing along to a good tune (and still do), whether it was Burt Bacharach's "Walk On By" or Bizet or Rogers & Hammerstein. We listened to the radio a lot, and my mum took us to the cinema to see Beatles and Elvis films and all that. My dad played the piano. "You Are My Sunshine if was a favorite of mine and I learnt the cello at school. I used to go to the ice rink where they played a lot of Tamla, Motown, Beach Boys -- inspiring stuff. As I got older I listened to pirate radio stations late at night as well as John Peel. I remember my friend dragging me over to her house to listen to "The Murder Mystery" by the Velvet Underground ... we were 14 and it was amazing. I swapped some boots for a guitar and tried to play along to my Hendrix records ... ambitious, I know. It was easier to follow the bass lines and I managed to stumble through "Hey Joe" and "Manic Depression," but I was always a closet bassist. It wasn't until I joined the Mekons that I got a real chance to play in a band.
Q: When and how did Delta 5 form?
Julz and Bethan, who were Mekons girlfriends at the time, decided to form a band and asked me if I'd like to play bass (I'd already left the Mekes supposedly to concentrate on my degree -- ho hum!). I thought it might be fun so I did and it was sometimes. We asked Jon Langford to play guitar and Simon Best, who was then the Mekons's soundman, to play drums. With them we wrote a small set, including "Mind Your Own Business" and "You," and played a few gigs. Jon was brilliant in the band -- he's a lot of fun and talented with it -- but his first commitment was to the Mekons. Fortunately we got Kelvin to play drums (Simon wasn't right), and through him we got Alan on guitar. They had both been in bands in York. Kelvin had auditioned for the Gang of Four when Hugo left briefly (not for long though), so that's how we made contact. Jon also did the artwork for the "Mind Your Own Business" and "Anticipation" singles.
Q: Are you from Leeds originally?
No, I'm from Tynemouth, which is or the northeast coast and close to Newcastle. Bryan Ferry, Sting, the Animals. Jimmy Nail and Viz cornic are all from this area.
(Within the next answer, Ros answered several questions of mine at once: "Did the Mekons, Gang of Four and Delta 5 know one another before forming your bands?," "How supportive was Leeds in terms of music?," "How would you explain the political-mindedness of the Leeds bands, and did this manifest itself in Delta 5, given that you rarely performed explicitly political songs?" and a question about the Mekons and Delta 5's early interchangable personnel.)
I went to Leeds to do a Fine Art degree at the university. Most of the Mekons and Jon and Andy from Gang of Four were on the same course, though only Tom (Greenhalgh) and Jon Langford were in my year. Tom, Mark, Kevin, Jon King and Andy Gill had come from the same school and were already friends. We all sort of gravitated toward each other and hung around together. This was in October 1976, and by the following summer the Gang of Four started playing, followed shortly by the Mekons.
The Mekons really picked up on the atmosphere of the time of "spontaneous amateurism," as Mary Harron described it, and formed and played their first gig in about a week! They'd been to see a band at the F Club, which was a popular punk venue, and had managed to get themselves on the bill the following week supporting the Rezillos. They had to get a set together really quickly and as they didn't have a bass player they asked me; they knew I used to play the cello. That gig went surprisingly well. Bob Last, who was the Rezillos' tour manager was about to start his own label, Fast Product, and approached the Mekons that night. We recorded "Where Were You?" shortly after in a cottage somewhere and gave Bob a tape of Gang of Four, who did their first single with Fast as well. The Gang of Four, the Mekons and later Delta 5 shared a rehearsal room, equipment, even a homemade PA at first, and did their best to get each other gigs and lead mutual support.
The university, the Polytechnic, and F club and later Roots were all popular venues. Certainly the F club and the Poly gave local bands the chance to play alongside more well-known punk bands. I don't really know how punk affected the local community as, being a student, I wasn't part of that community; I was part of clique within the student clique, if that makes any sense. I do know that there was a strong National Front contingent in Leeds, and there was a lot of violence and aggression and a few ugly fights. I remember a gang trying to disrupt a Mekons gig by goosestepping toward the front of the stage, clearing the dance floor and Seig Heiling at the front of the stage ... wankers ... I got called a Communist witch by one of them and took it as a compliment. This was a national problem, though, and in response to all this racist aggression Rock Against Racism formed. I think we all felt it was important to support them so we'd do RAR gigs whenever we could -- I think anyone with half a brain finds racism abhorrent don't they? Of course there was also the usual drink-induced aggression as well.
With regards to political - mindedness -- the intellectual atmosphere at the Fine Art department was mainly one of radical, left-wing ideology, certainly from the professor and several of the tutors, and that was picked up and developed by Gang of Four. But Delta 5's members came from more diverse backgrounds, and some were loathe to commit themselves to an obvious political stance (and we were never as intellectual as Gof4). But we definitely stood for equality regardless of race or gender ... egalitanism with the odd flash of radicalism and a hefty dollop of wet- liberals. That about sums us up.
Q: Why two bass players?
Because neither of us played guitar and we thought it would make the music more exciting with two different bass sounds, one trebly and funky (Bethan) and one more double-bass-like (me). It definitely enriched the sound of the band. We also had two guitars sometimes as Julz played occasionally. Come to think of it, we doubled up the vocals as well.
Q: Where did the name come from? Did it predate the song?
There was the Mekons, there was the Gang of Four and while we were messing about looking for a name, someone mentioned the Mekong Delta, and as there were five of us, the Delta was added to the 5 and it sounded OK. The song came later.
Q: Your early songs in particular were quite sarcastic examinations of relationships. Were you deliberately trying to "question the love song, " as Greil Marcus said, or were you just having a laugh?
I think it was a bit of both but you'd have to ask Bethan or Julz, as they wrote most of the lyrics.
Q: How did you get signed to Rough Trade? Did you feel any common ground with the other bands on the label at the time?
Geoff Travis came to see us at a gig somewhere and made an offer to Sue Johnson, our manager, who also worked at Rough Trade and was friends with Bethan. I don't know who approached who first. Personally I don't remember striking up any friendships with others on the RT label. I can't even remember who was on the label.
Q: Where did you play? Who were your favorite bands to play with?
We played all over the U.K., Holland, Belgium, Italy, Finland (with the Slits), and the east and west coasts of the U.S. My favorite bands were the Gang of Four and Pere Ubu -- we had a great time touring with them in 1981 -- and I also enjoyed supporting the B-52s.
Q: How were your American shows? Did people seem to know who you were? Did you ever play in or around New York?
The American shows were fantastic, especially Hurrah's and Danceteria in New York and the I-Beam in San Francisco where even the people at the bar were dancing. It was a brilliant atmosphere. They were all well-attended and we got such a good response you'd think we were well-known. We came to the States twice -- in the fall of 1980 and the summer of 1981. The first tour was definitely the best. We played New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Hoboken, Albany, Boston, Los Angeles (at the Women's Building), San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. We made friends with the Bush Tetras in New York and the Beakers in Seattle, and I left my heart in San Francisco! I did most definitely ... he was called Jonathan and he played bass in one of our support bands. Rough Trade had just set up a store in San Francisco and Sue had gone over there to help get them set up, and I think she arranged all the West Coast stuff and Ruth Polsky sorted the East Coast gigs. There was quite a bit of local press interest ... I think all the British punk and postpunk bands were really popular at the time. The Buzzcocks, the Fall and Teardrop Explodes were all in New York when we went back the following year. In 1980 we were in New York long enough to stay with friends, generally hang out, go clubbing, shop and have a good time. Some of us stayed with Hilary Jaeger who had a great club on the Lower East Side ... I think we played there as well, but I can't remember the name of it.
Q: How did you sign to PRE? See The Whirl is lavishly produced compared to the singles; was this deliberate?
I can't remember! I expect the A&R bloke came to see us at a gig. Charisma had recently started an indie-type offshoot of their company and had signed the Scars, who had also been on the Fast label, but it's all a blur now. I do know we hoped to get more money by signing to PRE and I'm sure that's how the album was so lavishly produced. Yes, it was a conscious decision because we could afford it and we wanted it to be different than our live gigs.
Q: Is it the Anne Clark, the poet/singer, thanked on back of See The Whirl?
No, it's not. Anne Clark worked in publishing/accounts at Rough Trade and then Mute. She was a close friend of Bethan's and Sue's. I think she helped us with our publishing and accounts, but as I was totally disinterested in all that I can't give you an accurate answer.
Q: Why did you name the album See The Whirl? Besides the obvious pun, of course.
Christ, why did we? I can't remember -- I think it's a crap title and I thought so at the time but I was outvoted. It makes me cringe- I don't think it ever went beyond the obvious pun crap.
Q: Whose idea was the postcard insert?
Again, I don't know although it had something to do with the dreadful pun of the title. It's a pretty dull photo. The album artwork's fairly dire we well. Crap title, crap cover, ask me another.
Q: How did See The Whirl do? Were you well known?
It did reasonably well. I don't remember any reviews, but I do remember some large (to us) royalty cheques in the first year it came out. Were we popular? We were legends in our own lunch time we had a small following, some constant fans (who I still come across occasionally -- very occasionally). We got on the cover of Sounds, which at the time had almost as large a circulation as the NME. I think we were at our most popular when we were signed to Rough Trade. Perhaps we peaked 1980-1981 ? They were certainly my happiest times with the band (that includes recording the album). We were never really credible in the way, say, the Slits are -- we weren't that innovative or hip. I don't think our music changed people's lives, but I think a lot of people had fun at our gigs.
Q: What was/is your favorite Delta 5 song? Why?
"Mind Your Own Business" -- everything just gelled so well on it. Great bass line, good lyrics, blinding guitar and a cool cover. "Anticipation" for similar reasons, and the marimba track on the album; Alan and Kelvin were just messing about on this marimba when we were in a studio in San Francisco and they just came up with this tune in minutes. It was simple and beautiful -- still is.
Q: How did the band break up?
It was a slow process. Bulk was sacked toward the end of 1981 because she'd virtually given up on the band. Jacqui Callis joined and she contributed so much as she's got a great voice, can play guitar and bass, and also she didn't play games with people the way Julz did. I can't remember why Alan left; I think it may have been before Julz went. Then Graeme Haigh from Edinburgh came in on guitar. His style of playing was completely different -- he was less accomplished technically, but he came up with some great quirky guitar parts. It was their extra contribution that helped produce the last single. I think there was a lot of potential there. Unfortunately, Sue, Bethan, and even Jacqui felt that Graeme's guitar playing wasn't good enough and they wanted someone more skilled to replace him...I didn't, and felt really let down when they went ahead and sacked him anyway. The guy who replaced him, who since has become a good friend, was way over the top guitar-hero-posturing and he had to copy Graeme's guitar parts for this prestigious gig, which was just ridiculous. I left shortly after that, really unhappy with the way things had worked out. Also, Kelvin had left sometime after the last single -- I'm not sure why -- and we went through a few drummers (a bit like Spinal Tap minus the humour). The day after I left, Delta 5 were dropped by PRE -- this would have happened anyway. I don't think they even knew that I'd gone!
Q: So what have you been doing these past 15-odd years? Do you keep in touch with the other ex-members?
I've been animating! I began in the mid-1980's, working with friends on 16mm and Super 8. Then I went to work for various animation studios, including Disney, Warner Brothers and Richard Williams. Just before I left Disney, I met up with Sally McFall who had been in Ut and we began doing music together -- me on bass, her on guitar and vocals -- doing arrangements of her songs. We were due to go into the studio to record a demo, but my daughter was born the day before so the session was cancelled which is a shame as I really liked what we were doing. Who knows, maybe one day we could pick up where we left off. Sally has her own band now called Quint and I've been on a four-year maternity break, although I've recently gone back to doing freelance animation, working from home.
I've kept in touch with Bethan and Alan, but Kelvin's vanished somewhere and Julz has married a policeman and gone off to live in Hong Kong (or Singapore)! Very odd -- reverting to type, perhaps, as her dad was a policeman. I'm closest to Jacqui; she was my mate in Leeds before we were in bands. Jacqui's the only one who's still writing and performing as far as I know. She was the most talented and imaginative of us all, I think, and she's written some brilliant songs since Delta 5.
Q: Any chance of the album or singles being rereleased? Are there unreleased tracks or Peel Sessions?
I have no idea. Although the Mekons did some great Peel sessions (I was on the first one), I can't remember Delta 5 doing any except for a session for another Radio 1 DJ, Richard Skinner (or Dickie Scumbag as the engineers called him!). That's probably gathering dust on a shelf somewhere at the BBC. We did an unreleased demo of "I'm A Believer" for PRE which I played cello on. It sounded great but too similar to Bananarama (who I think were just getting the fame thing) for the musically-challenged A&R men at PRE to support -- creeps!
Q: Do you keep up to date with current music? What are some favorite bands?
Sort of. "Queer" by Garbage was the best single of 1995 for me, followed by Coolio and LV's "Gangsta's Paradise" and Hole's "Doll Parts." My daughter really likes those as well. I like Whale, Pulp, P.J. Harvey, Bjork and Oasis as well. When I've been working recently I've played Nirvana's Unplugged In New York constantly -- I love it, especially the Vaselines cover.
Q: How did Razor & Tie track you down for Totally Wired ? Have you gotten good response to "You"?
Ruben eventually tracked us down through Performing Rights Society. He sent me some copies of U.S. reviews of Totally Wired and it seems to have had a really positive response -- so it should -- it's an excellent compilation, although I think "You" sounds a bit weak compared to the others ... not enough bass!
Q: Have you met any rabid Delta 5 fans over the years?
More like "very keen" rather than rabid. Mostly sweet boys, the odd strong ones and some rather poetic fan letters, mainly from Belgium (why? I don't know!)
DELTA 5 DISCOGRAPHY
- "Mind Your Own Business" / "Now That You've Gone" (Rough Trade 45, 1979)
- "Anticipation" / "You" (Rough Trade 45, 1980)
- "Try" / "Colour" (Rough Trade 45, 1980)
- 6 (Rough Trade compilation of first three singles, 1981)
- See The Whirl (PRE LP, 1981)
- "Shadow" / "Leaving" (PRE 45, 1981). "Shadow" is from See The Whirl; "Leaving" is a non-LP B-side.
- "Powerlines" / "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter" (PRE 45, 1982).
- Singles & Sessions: 1979-1981 (Kill Rock Stars, 2006)- a compilation of RT singles, Peel sessions and a 1980 live show
"Mind Your Own Business" appeared on Wanna Buy A Bridge? (Rough Trade compilation LP, 1981)
"You" appears on Totally Wired (Razor & Tie compilation CD, 1995)
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