The Swinging Laurels
Had things progressed differently, the Swinging Laurels' story would have had all the dramatic hallmarks of any great music biography, containing all the sublime and ridiculous anecdotes required of any pop star's existence. As it is, they are, only now, being recognised as - with the help of the Internet and a generous dollop of hindsight - pioneers of 80's synth-pop. This resurgence in interest has, no doubt, much to do with the 1980's taking their turn in the nostalgia spotlight. Lay your thumb heavily on your television remote's channel button for a few minutes and see how many 80's musical giants are now reappearing - in various forms - across the dial. For a band whose career highs and lows have been described by at least one journalist as a "last minute goal-line clearance", however, much of the credit for the band's renewed presence must be attributed to, more than anything else, the sheer bloody-mindedness of founder members Gary "Gaz" Birtles and John Barrow.
The short and simple version is that in 1980 John Barrow and Gaz Birtles founded the SWINGING LAURELS. This, of course, ignores the years spent by any musician either locked in a bedroom with a stack of records and a sudden, strange desire to emulate the sounds within, or moving from band to band - in small and, often, sweaty venues, searching for others who hear the same sounds in their head.
This story, also, hinges around the saxophone, an instrument which is today much maligned, but up to and including the 1980's had served valiantly in most forms of popular music and was as much a part of rock and roll's birth as the now ubiquitous electric guitar.
Gaz Birtles had, following a stint in THE WENDY TUNES been fronting a Ska/Rock band in Leicester, THE NEWMATICS. His friend, John Barrow - who had been, for several years making his way around the country with various bands including BLACK GORILLA. Their hit "Gimme Dat Banana" - which saw Mr. Barrow make his Top of the Pops debut - was actually recorded by unknown session musicians. When it began to played regularly in clubs around the UK, record companies realised the need to have a band to tour the "hit" and recruited the band in which John Barrow was currently playing, SISTER BIG STUFF. The group soon became disillusioned with playing other people's songs live, and John Barrow was soon drafted in - on a guest basis - to his friend Gaz Birtles' band.
It was during this period that Birtles and Barrow decided that they would like to produce some more experimental music than previously, with the help of an old Elka organ Drum machine and a Roland SH1 Mono synth, they began to make their first recordings as a sax and synth duo. This relationship soon developed into a serious project and a band name became necessary. Whilst taking photos in a local cemetery Gaz passed a wind blown Laurel bush and the Swinging Laurels were christened soon after.
Birtles and Barrow tried to seduce the Newmatics with their new found direction and name but the rest of the band were not so easily convinced. So, with the help of Newmatics drummer and songwriter, Nick Murphy, they went into 8 track WOODBINE STREET STUDIOS in Leamington Spa, and recorded SWING THE CAT, and PEACE OF MIND under the experienced guidance of producer JOHNNY RIVERS. Johnny was/is (?) an eccentric, experimental producer who helped and encouraged the band to try out wild ideas. It was during this session that Johnny bought out his newly acquired gadget, THE CLAP TRAP and suggested putting it on the tracks. Especially PEACE OF MIND. This was a sonic revelation to the band then. The odd combination of synthetic claps, added to a live drum beat lent the songs an original edge.
The success of the demo convinced Birtles and Barrow that there was a future in the new band and sound. Recruiting trumpet player Dean Sargent (also of SISTER BIG STUFF and BLACK GORILLA) to play Bass Synth. Then they advertised for a synth/keyboard player. The flamboyant Mark O'Hara fitted the bill exactly.
After reworking some of Birtles' and Barrow's previous demos and writing a selection of new songs, they were ready for their first gig. For this they decided to hit all of Leicester in one night!! Adverts were placed in the Leicester Mercury and 5 different venues were found where they would play 4 songs each and then proceed to the next. From the first gig (THE WHITE HORSE in Oadby) to the last one (THE HAUNCH OF VENISON - now the ORANGE TREE on High Street) they went down a storm and people followed them from one venue to the next.
In 1981, on the strength of 3 or 4 instrumental tracks Birtles and Barrow were offered a publishing deal with ALBION PUBLISHING. After pursuing outside record contracts, Albion decided to put out PEACE OF MIND on their own label, ALBION RECORDS. This went on to reach the No 1 slot in the embryonic independent charts.
During 1982, THE SWINGING LAURELS began to gain national press attention and building a solid reputation as session brass players.
During a hectic year they: Recorded a Radio One session for JOHN PEEL Released a 4 track. EP A TASTE OF... on DINING OUT RECORDS Signed to major label WEA RECORDS Played session brass on the FUN BOY THREE hit THE TELEPHONE ALWAYS RINGS , making several TV appearances in support of the single, including: TOP OF THE POPS, and CHEGGARS PLAYS POP.
They also recorded brass sessions for, amongst others: THE APOLLINAIRES, WORLDBACKWARDS, MUSICAL YOUTH, SPLASHDOWN, 24HRS and TEAM 23 (Later, chart-toppers KING). A Fun Boy Three follow-up single SUMMERTIME also featured the Laurels.
The first SWINGING LAURELS WEA release, RODEO, hit the streets in September, featuring the distinctive percussive influence of SCRITTI POLITTI drummer TOM MORLEY. Despite extensive Radio One airplay, however, the single was restricted to lower reaches of the national chart.
CULTURE CLUB producer STEVE LEVINE lent his expertise to the second single Lonely Boy which originally featured a fine vocal contribution by BOY GEORGE but due to contractual objections by his record label Virgin Records was eventually released minus his efforts.
1983 saw the SWINGING LAURELS, in their own right and as a special guests of CULTURE CLUB (at the request of BOY GEORGE who was a self-proclaimed fan) tour the UK. A JANICE LONG Radio One session was followed by a highly-successful Dutch festival tour where they supported NICK LOWE and OSIBISA alongside headline dates of their own.
Due to the poor sales - and the promotional cock-up surrounding LONELY BOY the band parted company with WEA Records in the same year. Rather than signing to another label, however, they formed their own: HAPPY RECORDS based, at their Leicester studio HAPPY HOUSE.
The first HAPPY RECORDS 12" single ZOOM (TAKE THE TEST)appeared in 1984 and achieved critical acclaim. This recording featured the guitar talents of Leicester friend, RICH BARTON who later went onto play with one of Leicester's formidable guitar bands, DIESEL PARK WEST. The B side also featured the experimental track, RAMSI RAMSI RAMSI which used a backwards tape loop taken from SPIKE MILLIGAN'S GOON SHOW.
During 1985/86 the band changed their name to HAPPY HOUSE and and featured regular guest vocals by ex-SPECIALS vocalist RHODA DAKAR. HAPPY HOUSE also saw the band incorporating a live drummer in the shape of PHIL BIRTLES - Gaz's younger brother.
1987 ushered in another SWINGING LAURELS 7" single, PUSH AND SHOVE, again on HAPPY RECORDS.
In 1988, Birtles and Barrow, along with Coalville trumpeter, TONY ROBINSON, were the session brass section with FOOD/PARLOPHONE act CRAZYHEAD, most notably on an eleven-nation tour of Europe and Scandinavia as special guests of godfather of punk IGGY POP.
This was followed, in 1989, by a live T.V. appearance for the Thames Television series THE CONCERT and a slot at the prestigious READING FESTIVAL.
In 1989, one of those moments that changes the course of a musician's life arrived. Due to the Laurels reputation as a brass unit, particularly - with the addition of Robinson - accompanying the well-received CRAZYHEAD, Birtles, Barrow and Robinson were invited to audition for the job of live brass section for a new band, formed from the ashes of the recently defunct HOUSEMARTINS. Barrow was unable to attend the audition due to work commitments. Birtles and Robinson recruited a new sax player, KEV BROWN, in his stead and have been with THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH ever since.
In 1990 NO LABEL RECORDS reissued PUSH AND SHOVE by the SWINGING LAURELS.
In 1991 the Laurels supplied brass alongside SPECIALS Trumpeter and trombonist, ADAM FLYMO for a track by NORMAN BEATON, star of Channel 4 sitcom DESMONDS. Unfortunately Norman died shortly before the track was scheduled to be released and it was shelved. In 1992, they took part on an album by top ska exponents SKA-BOOM for EXTREMELY NICE RECORDS.
The Swinging Laurels wound down throughout the 90's - due to other commitments (a steady job and family for Barrow, THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH and his own band, YELLOWBELLY for Birtles) but the name never quite went away, with tracks from throughout their session career cropping up on a number of compilation albums and "best of's".
In 1997, a six track SWINGING LAURELS CD was released entitled BE SOMEONE, a return to the original duo of Birtles and Barrow, using an 8 track recorder and Atari computer.
BE SOMEONE was released in 2000 by the Internet-based label www.peoplesound.com
and in the same year Barrow completed a highly successful UK/Irish tour with BABY GENIUS as special guests of THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH. BABY GENIUS also scored a prime time TV appearance on BBC's Children in Need with LOUISE and ATOMIC KITTEN.
In 2001, after 21 years, a 15-track SWINGING LAURELS compilation album GREATEST BITS was finally issued on Happy Records. Tracks were recorded for an album called LEARNING TO COPE WITH HAPPINESS by THE CHARMERS in 2002, and for NORMAL POSITION's album RAVE KILLED THE ROMANCE, the following year.
In early 2005, John Barrow was in virtual retirement from the live scene, writing a critically acclaimed book "How Not to Make it in Pop World" about his experiences. Birtles continued to play session brass for THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH and tour with his country-pop outfit YELLOWBELLY, when they were both invited to return to the studio, as the Swinging Laurels, for Leicester-based band, ist. Contributing three tracks to the album KING MARTHA, they have continued to join ist on live dates - including the SUMMER SUNDAE festival.
Birtles also contributed sax to the FUN LOVIN' CRIMINALS album, IN THE CITY, joining them on several dates of their 2005/6 UK Tour.
In June 2006, both ist's album KING MARTHA and single HERE WE GO AGAIN reached number one on both Yanga and Audiofind, the first legal download stores in the Russian Federation - the Laurel's first independent number one since PEACE OF MIND.
The follow up ist album, TOOTHPICK BRIDGE was released in 2009 and was produced by Jay Burnett (Beastie Boys/Africa Bambata/Rod Stewart/Jeff Beck) Gaz and John wrote and arranged the brass.
In 2012 a compilation album CHEAP TRICKS IN A BOX - Dining Out Records 1979-1982 was released on Cherry Red Records featuring two of the very earliest Laurels experimental tracks and work is in progress on new recordings for release later in the year.
It is entirely possibly that the story is far from over.