ANYWHERE BUT WIDNES
by Tim Bowness
Anywhere But Widnes - Plenty (An Origin Story)
Plenty existed from July 1986 to November 1988 and had a partial resurrection in June 1990.
The band fluctuated between being a quartet and a trio, but the longest lasting line-up comprised me, Brian Hulse and David K Jones.
My frequent six-string magician of choice Michael Bearpark was a part of the quartet version at the beginning of the band and also a member of the 1990 trio version at the end.
In January 1983, the 19 year old me saw an advert in Probe Records in Liverpool for a band called A Better Mousetrap who were looking for a singer. Along with groups like Echo & The Bunnymen and Magazine, they’d thrown in Robert Fripp and Peter Gabriel as inspirations. Suitably intrigued, I phoned the number and enquired. A week later, I was sent a cassette of the band’s music - which operated in a fascinating early 1980s Progressive-tinged Post-Punk grey area - and loved it. The original singer Peter Goddard had an engaging and eccentric style, while guitarist Brian Hulse’s singing on the band’s more recent demos was precise and strong.
Auditions were held in a well-known Liverpool rehearsal studio - The Ministry - frequented by the likes of OMD, Echo & The Bunnymen, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Dead Or Alive and Teardrop Explodes. Introductions over, I spent half an hour or so bellowing wildly over the band’s extremely disciplined songs. After only having previously been in guitar bands, it was thrilling to see so many keyboards and effects pedals alongside a reel to reel that was being used to enhance the soundscapes and rhythms. I wanted in!
Despite my self-evident enthusiasm I failed in my attempt to persuade the Mouseketeers that I was what they were looking for. I received a polite ‘Dear John’ letter and was told that the band was moving towards a smoother Art Pop direction and my style was closer to where the band had come from. The good news was that the audition went well enough for us to remain in touch and over the next few years our abilities and aims aligned.
In the Summer of 1986, Brian guested on a session for a self-released vinyl album I made with a band called After The Stranger and that immediately led to a song-writing collaboration that gradually evolved into Plenty.
The first full band session - in early 1987 - took place in Brian’s tiny home studio in downtown St Helens.
In the heart of darkness (or in the shadow of Clock Face, anyway), cramped and close together, Brian, David, me and the 17 year old Professor Bearpark started improvising over a strident drum machine pattern. Within seconds, Brian and Michael’s guitars had interlocked beautifully and David had powerfully rooted his bass to the programmed rhythm. In response to this, I instantly concocted a melody and lyric, and Forest Almost Burning was born. Both the song and the intense yet effortless experience of writing it felt incredibly special. I’d been involved in making some interesting music before, but this felt different. Along with two songs I’d written with Brian in the Summer of 1986 - The Other Side and Towards The Shore - Forest Almost Burning represented the first time I was creating music that I’d actually listen to myself.
Being older than me and gainfully employed, David and Brian were both in possession of intriguing and enviably large book and record collections that I enthusiastically devoured during my time in Plenty. In A Better Mousetrap, and after, they made naturally artful and sophisticated music that had echoes of several of my favourite artists of the then present - The Blue Nile, Thomas Dolby, It’s Immaterial, Prefab Sprout, David Sylvian, Laurie Anderson - and the past (Joni Mitchell, Talking Heads, Bowie/Eno/Fripp/Hammill/Gabriel, Kate Bush etc). As David’s Post-Punk Squire-isms attested to, like me, they also had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Yes (a good thing!).
It was a time of Peter Saville posters, Brian Patten poems, Milan Kundera books, David Lynch films, Dennis Potter plays, Philip Glass soundtracks, Joanne Whalley’s face, the regal Pop reign of Prince, new music technology and infinite possibilities.
Brian and David's studio experience and attention to detail pushed my own abilities beyond where they’d been. Wanting to impress people I admired, my lyrics and melodies improved at a rapid rate (as they needed to!).
The band’s songs were strong, but my singing - much like the music’s production - was too closely tied to the era of large shoulder pads and Reagonomics. DX7, check. Linn Drum, check. Chorused Stratocaster, check. Gated chips and cheese, double check. Quantised piano? Of course. Over-emotive vocalist with a touch too much of a badly constipated Scott Walker about him? Why yes indeed, Sir!
The band’s first cassette - imaginatively called Plenty - was issued in the Summer of 1987. The key track was Forest Almost Burning and it also contained the dark and brooding Wounds (a modified A Better Mousetrap piece), and a delicate Bowness/Bearpark song Learning To Swim (which was a world away from what we’d written for After The Stranger).
A second five track cassette from January 1988 - inexplicably called Prattle (Sultry Songs For Swingin’ Celibates) - no longer featured Professor Bearpark, but displayed a notable improvement lyrically and musically. Including the band’s signature ballad Never Needing (aka Life Is Elsewhere), plus Strange Gods, Towards The Shore, a radical re-working of The Rolling Stones’ As Tears Go By and the uncharacteristically jaunty ode to mental illness Hide, this was where the band found its identity. The music had become a fusion of hi-tech and high emotion, pitching human vulnerability against synthetic precision.
Cassette number three - Stripped (For The Sake Of St Anthony), from Autumn 1988 - exhibited a greater compositional and textural breadth, and developed the band’s new-found identity further. Over the course of Stripped’s seven songs, Plenty’s music felt like it was stretching out at the same time as my lyrics were becoming more abstract. Stripped was leading the band somewhere new (as demonstrated by the song It Could Be Home), but despite this, for a variety of reasons it marked the end of Plenty as an ongoing concern.
In a year and a half together, we managed to play just two gigs. Clearly we travelled far and wide as both were in Widnes.
The first was at the Studio Theatre in the town’s Sixth Form college. Dressed in black suits (very 1980s!), the band performed a solid set which, combined with extravagant visuals and a reel to reel performing a ‘comedy’ drum solo, was kindly received by a capacity crowd of students.
The second and final performance was at the (now closed) Queen’s Hall, which had been famous for hosting gigs by The Beatles and many other a Merseybeat legend. My only recollection of this show is that as the final note sounded, Brian's DX7 fell to the floor sustaining irreparable damage (and, in the process, providing a fine metaphor for the end of the 1980s).
The path to recognition beyond a tiny stretch of the Mersey River was proving difficult.
Future Rock God Steven Wilson arrived on the scene in May 1987 via a compilation album that he was putting together. He’d written to me after seeing reviews of After The Stranger and asked if I’d like to contribute a song. This led to a few interesting phone calls where we discussed tastes and related what we wanted to do musically, which inevitably led to a suggestion that we try and write something together. The resulting compilation - 1988’s Double Exposure - included tracks by Geoff Mann, Nigel Mazlyn Jones, Anthony Phillips, Plenty and others, plus the first officially released no-man song (Faith’s Last Doubt).
I'd started working with Steven in July 1987 and enthused by the results of our early collaborations, we decided to form a studio-based project. The no-man recording sessions were monthly affairs so Plenty remained my main project as Pride Of Passion remained Steven's.
While Plenty valued composition and tight arrangements, no-man was altogether looser and drew influences from a wider palette. Brian didn’t share my interests in 1960s singer-songwriters, 1970s Prog/Rock, or the Jazzy likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the way that Steven did. He'd have found no-man's ‘anything goes’ recording methods indulgent. Plenty worked to achieve a specific musical goal using very particular combinations of contemporary sounds and poetic images. We took song lyrics and compositional structure seriously and many a two hour phone conversation was spent discussing how to more fully develop the band’s music and words. Consequently, there was always a strong sense of satisfaction and hard-work fulfilled whenever a Plenty song was completed. By contrast, no-man created music incredibly quickly purely for the sake of seeing what we could do and where it would lead us. In terms of quality, the results of no-man’s endeavours varied dramatically but the process was thrilling. Plenty consistently aspired to making 'the big statement' (quietly), while no-man revelled in ever-changing contradictions. I loved the music of both bands and I loved both approaches, but a big decision was coming.
Near the end of 1988, Steven suggested that no-man become the main musical focus for both of us. Amongst other things, we’d had some interest from Indie label (now massive distributor) Plastic Head. Steven felt we should exploit this and try as hard as we could to get the fabled ‘music industry deal’. Feeling torn, I presented Brian and David with an ultimatum: If they’d fully commit to attempting to make Plenty professional for a year, I’d stay with the band and remain in the North West. Brian and David had both turned 30 and felt the risk to their careers was too great, so in October 1988 I headed Dick Whittington style to the nation’s capital (sans cat).
Following my departure (or arrival), aspects of Plenty’s music subtly became an influence on a certain type of no-man ballad, and two Plenty songs - Never Needing and Forest Almost Burning - became staples of the early no-man live repertoire.
In late 1989, no-man’s first guitarist - the fantastically named The Still Owl - left the band. Steven had played guitar on a lot of our demos but didn’t consider himself a ‘proper’ guitarist, so we auditioned for a replacement. My first choice was Brian. In a reversal of my audition for A Better Mousetrap, Brian improvised over no-man songs for a few hours in our West Hampstead rehearsal space. Unfortunately, as good as Brian’s playing was, Steven and I felt it wasn’t right for the music of no-man. More significantly, Steven had come round to the idea that he was the best guitarist for the band after all.
In June 1990 - the month of no-man’s Colours being released to career-defining reviews and record and publishing company offers - Michael Bearpark and I travelled to Brian’s new home near Winchester. Over a productive weekend or two, we wrote around six new songs (including Foolish Waking, Broken Nights and Every Stranger’s Voice) and developed a new version of Towards The Shore. We all felt that the resulting cassette - for convenience, let’s call it Poppycock (The Jet-Black Beard Of Destiny) - contained some of the band’s best work.
Despite our enthusiasm for the music, it was never heard beyond a few close friends.
I went off full-time with no-man, Professor Bearpark really did become a Professor, and Brian became ‘King of the computers' at IBM (he might even own the company by now). David remained in the North West and became a senior manager at a college (in Widnes, of course). In the background, the theme to Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? played on constant repeat.
I never lost faith in my belief that the songs of Plenty ranked amongst some of the best I’d co-written, and for many years I harboured a desire to do the music justice and help it reach more people than it did in Plenty’s short lifetime (marginally more than zero!).
Forest Almost Burning was an early no-man b-side, Towards The Shore ended up on Slow Electric’s eponymous album from 2011 and Stripped track All These Escapes was ‘re-imagined’ on my 2015 solo album Stupid Things That Mean The World. There was even a productive 2009 'Samuel Smiles play the music of Plenty’ weekend in a hired cottage on the Norfolk coast.
In the Spring of 2016, the occasional reunion suggestions finally became a reality and over a period of a year the band’s most enduring line-up - me, Brian and David - re-recorded sixteen of the band's songs and set about finally completing the album we’d hoped to release three decades previously.
Whilst re-writing some lyrics and refining elements of the songs’ production, we wanted to remain faithful to both the spirit of the original recordings and the era in which the songs were written. Luckily - given the long absence - the chemistry was as strong as ever. Unexpectedly, in between bouts of re-recording, we wrote The Good Man, the band’s first new song in 27 years (and something that provided a seamless link between Plenty’s past and the present).
Between March and June 2017, White Willow’s Jacob Holm-Lupo masterfully mixed the songs in Norway. Jacob also became a constructive and enthusiastic sounding board and added some musical touches that enhanced the songs further. A Nordic God no less.
Michael Bearpark returned to the Plenty fold to offer a typically searing solo on Every Stranger’s Voice, while Peter Chilvers and Steve Bingham also beautifully expanded the band’s sonic palette.
As always, I became obsessive about the album length and sequencing, and some favourite pieces were cast aside in order to create an effective classic LP flow.
I was genuinely surprised that re-interpreting the melodies, words and mindset of a me less than half my current age wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined it would be. We remained so faithful to the songs that we even forgot to change the keys. Regardless, very quickly, we inhabited the ‘Plentyverse’ of old. Brian and David’s playing and attention to detail had evolved and ‘the band sound’ returned without any self-conscious attempts to evoke it. The present day me (hopefully) improved upon my original performances, while the younger me re-introduced ways of singing I’d long ago abandoned but enjoyed reconnecting with. The ghosts of old relationships and old feelings were evoked - The Good Man is a lyrical offshoot of Never Needing - but the experience was firmly rooted in the present and felt as creatively ‘current’ and challenging as anything I’ve done. The process of making It Could Be Home was one of creating a living nostalgia as opposed to presenting a set history text.
The resulting album, It Could Be Home, fulfilled our brief (and more), while two more Plenty pieces - Sacrifice and Killing To Survive - made their way (in modified form) onto my 2019 album Flowers At The Scene (featuring both Brian and David).
After completing Late Night Laments in 2020, I felt sated. The album said what I wanted it to and I had no desire to write more music just for the sake of it. Plus we were in the middle of the UK’s first lockdown and there was a little thing called homeschooling (N.B. Not conducive to a productive recording life!). Brian on the other hand was dropping songs on a daily basis. He’d become a man possessed and music was coming out of him like vomit from Regan’s mouth in The Exorcist. Eventually, I felt like joining in.
Somewhere between recording some covers for fun and writing for an LNL follow-up, we made some fresh recordings of Plenty songs we felt had been neglected. Inevitably, David K Jones got involved and, lo, Plenty’s fourth (?) rebirth was upon us.
During the first few months of 2021, the Bowness/Hulse/Jones trio tackled some Plenty favourites that we felt were unfairly omitted from It Could Be Home and also delved into the world of recording obscure - and not so obscure - covers.
Beyond utilising some existing parts that Tom Atherton, Charles Grimsdale, Michael Bearpark and Peter Chilvers had performed years before, this was entirely an in-house production and saw Brian take on the mixing and mastering roles as well as 'soundbed generation'. For my part, I suggested the songs to butcher and set about re-recording and re-writing my parts. Oh, and structuring the album of course.
This time we approached the material as we are now. There was no attempt to recreate the period 1980s soundscapes of the original recordings or directly ape the spirit of the songs. This was music from the distant past dealt with in an entirely contemporary way. The unexpected covers, in all but one case, deviated massively from the source material and undoubtedly bore ’the mark of Plenty’. It was good to be back.
With nothing to prove, post It Could Be Home there was more of a sense of abandon about the Plenty sessions. Country, Euro-Disco, noisy Rock music for God’s sake! ICBH was the album we always wanted to make, realised in the way we felt it should be. It was our imaginary 1988 debut delivered more confidently than it would have been at the time we were an active band. By comparison, for better or worse, the music on Enough contained snapshots of where we were sonically and emotionally in the Spring of 2021.
Tim Bowness, January 2018 / April 2021