Tony Poole Interview

Those of a certain age, together with earnest music historians, will be familiar with the U.K. 70’s band Starry Eyed and Laughing. Formed by Tony Poole and Ross McGeeney in 1973, their title was taken from a line in the Bob Dylan composition Chimes of Freedom, a song recorded by The Byrds on their 1965 debut album Mr. Tambourine Man. Poole’s trademark Rickenbacker playing combined with Mc Geeney’s Fender Telecaster sound was further evidence of The Byrds influence on them but they matured into much more than a mere tribute band, developing a distinctive stamp of their own with material that embraced both countrified folk with a sound that would be tagged today as power pop. Signed to CBS Records in 1974 they recorded their self-titled album that year followed by Thought Talk in 1975 and also three John Peel Sessions over that two-year period. A poorly managed career promoting tour of the States together with their management company folding unfortunately derailed the band, who finally disbanded in 1976. You’re left to consider what heights they could have reached had they been launched five years earlier, as the arrival of British Pub Rock followed by Punk and New Wave in the mid 70’s alienated theirs’s – and many other band’s - core sound.

Tony Poole’s musical career in the intervening years concentrated more on production duties, working with numerous acts including Maddy Prior, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Rose Kemp and Danny and The Champions of The World.  He has recently returned to creative writing and performing duties in collaboration with Danny Wilson (Danny & The Champions of the World) and Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires). Bennett Wilson Poole, their self-titled album, is due for release next month following some excellent pre-release reviews in many publications including Lonesome Highway.

Tony Poole’s continuing enthusiasm and positivity is a joy to behold, well in evidence as he articulated the highs and lows of his career to date and his passion for his current project with Danny Wilson and Robin Bennett.  

What career expectations did you have when Starry Eyed and Laughing were signed to CBS in 1974? 

You know, at the time there was really no 'career' expectation at all - just a drive to write and perform, inspired by the music of The Beatles, The Byrd’s, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and all those great artists who expressed honestly what it is to be alive in this time, and find some understanding of it all. I think that is still the motivation for many artists doing the same today - a 'career' is just about being able to keep doing that.  

Fond memories or regrets looking back at that period?

Many great memories - probably the best was playing the Amazing Zigzag Concert at the Roundhouse with Michael Nesmith, John Stewart, Help Yourself and Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers. Pete Frame and John Tobler's Zigzag magazine represented that same honesty I mentioned. It was incredible to be a part of that celebration and fantastic to have had it all recorded ('The Amazing Zigzag Concert 5 CD Box Set' on Road Goes On Forever Records). The only regret I can mention is that we didn't survive longer and have a chance to grow as a band.

The pub rock scene was particularly vibrant at that time with bands like yourselves, Ducks Deluxe, Ace, Eggs Over Easy, Bees Make Honey, Brinsley Schwarz, Kilburn and The High Roads and Dr. Feelgood at the leading edge. Did you consider yourselves part of an alternative movement to the overblown prog scene at that time?

All Great Bands! But not really - we were kind of in our own bubble - our virtual 'scene' was populated by those artists I mentioned. And, strangely enough, although we were playing in that same 'pub-rock' period, (and played many pubs!), we never felt part of that scene either - our music didn't quite fit, and we only briefly interacted socially - usually in 'dressing rooms' (a euphemism a lot of the time) or in service stations at 4am after gigs.

You toured with some heavyweights in the U.S. at that time. Who impressed you the most and what are your memories of that tour?

The biggest impression was when we supported Flo & Eddie (The Turtles) for three nights at The Bottom Line in New York. The place was heaving, the atmosphere magic and they were fantastic. In the audience were Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Slade (!), The Flying Burrito Brothers (who we invited on stage to play with us!) - I recall meeting Eddie Tickner, The Byrds' legendary manager. And of course, after becoming friends with Mark & Howard (Flo & Eddie), they eventually produced the very last Starry Eyed and Laughing records. Apart from our gigs, being on Columbia Records meant we got to see Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder show in Hartford - absolutely amazing to be in the presence of the music and words live and right in front of our eyes and ears: Dylan, Baez, McGuinn, Joni, Mick Ronson and the rest of that gypsy gathering. We were kindred visiting gypsies on our US tour too!

Some of the bands or their members seamlessly (with shorter hair and narrow trousers!) infiltrated the punk movement or new wave as it eventually became. Were you a supporter or coconscious objector to Punk / New Wave 

Definitely a supporter! I loved The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Siouxsie, never saw them but their records were amazing (for different reasons- The Pistols for their sheer force and amazing production, and The Clash for their rawness). And although I also loved many of the suddenly short-haired skinny-tied new wave 'punks' (Elvis Costello, The Police - sorry if that offends anyone), I never felt I could do that convincingly and never did - I did have shorter hair and a skinny tie though!

Tell me about your efforts to regain the rights to the masters of the albums and the remastering process that followed?

Luckily for us, our record deal was cleverly negotiated by our manager Norman Lawrence (a wonderful man, sadly died at 58 from Leukaemia in 1998), through a licence to CBS that had an expiration date. So the rights in the recordings are all ours. Recovering the actual masters was a trial of endurance, as nobody at the label even remembered we'd been signed! Eventually I managed to trace them, and then had the well-known problem of disintegrating Ampex tape. The re-mastering was a long process, sometimes of trial and error, but became easier with more recent archive tracks as the music software increasingly approaches a kind of magic 

You survived in the music industry in the intervening years and still maintain an obvious enthusiasm for all things music. What were the highs and lows of that period?

The high that matters is really just having managed to survive doing (mostly) the true thing I love to do. Specifically: being able to produce Danny's album, getting to work with The Dreaming Spires, knowing Roger McGuinn and getting his ultimate praise for what I do (still a dream to produce him!).

The lows (living in my car, being broke consistently, being virtually paralysed for 3 months with polymyalgia 4 years ago - those are ones that come to mind) don't even seem that low in hindsight- just part of life's adventure - we're soon gone anyway!

What musically has impressed you most since then and how does the standard of recording and performing artists compare to those of your early career?

I think there's been a consistent thread of genuine artists and songs that carry the same honesty and questing of those that I mentioned at the start - I'm so happy to be connected to the ones I've come to know, and to play with or produce. Recording has becoming so much easier and available than when we started - I think becoming a recording engineer (as it really was in the analog days of mechanical machines) and producer comes from my frustration with that. But the essence of it remains the same - the intention and the 'realness' of a record is far more important than how perfectly auto-tuned and quantised it is (to quote the great Robin Bennett: 'you can ride your horse to win, but that's not the race we're running in').

Which brings us to the present and your involvement in Bennett Wilson Poole. Had you ambitions at the outset to record and perform with Danny Wilson and Robin Bennett or how did the project develop?

Our manager, Howard Mills, says it was absolutely inevitable that we'd do something together! We're such great friends, and having sung and performed with both of them previously, I think he's put it perfectly! (He’s a very wise man).  For me, it's been completely serendipitous - a natural confluence of skills, personalities and common outlooks on what we're here for.

Who took the lead in respect of the song writing duties?

This all started with Danny and Robin deciding to write some songs together on Facetime. So, I think that was pretty much equal between them. When they'd had a few written, they asked me if I'd get involved and sent me some demos - that was a no-brainer, and would have been without hearing a thing! They're both incredible songwriters. I sent them a couple of phone demos of unfinished songs which they liked, and we three finished them very quickly on the morning of the first session - it was a wonderful 'common-mind' experience. For 'Lifeboat', Robin actually took the phonetic sounds I sang in the chorus and wrote down what he thought he heard (' I don't know ...there is no easy way to know how we got here'), - it worked out perfectly. I wrote 'Hate Won't Win' the morning after the murder of Jo Cox, a Thursday which happened to be two days before a session, and sent them a phone recording - on the Saturday, we finished the song together and had it recorded by the end of the day - up on YouTube on Monday. The short answer is that we’re all very pro-active and have all been 'front men' in our careers, so it's a completely equal thing.

What tracks on the album are you most proud of?

I couldn't possibly choose - they're all like children and have taken a life of their own. Time will show which means the most eventually. And to be contrary to what I just said, I think Danny and Robin's 'Hide Behind A Smile' is probably going to be the classic ... it's such a universal truth of this culture we're all living in.

The closing track Lifeboat (Take A Picture Of Yourself) is very much a reflection of the double standards that prevail today and at nearly eight minutes long is epic. What was the motivation for the song?

I saw a news front page that had a photo of an overcrowded and possibly sinking refugee boat in the Mediterranean - right next to an article on 'selfies'. The juxtapositon just hit me - two sets of humans on this same planet, yet in such different worlds. How could it be? The drowning mass unseen and ignored by the individual self-obsession of this culture. I just thought I'd put them all in that same boat. In which we all are, ultimately. My original words were a lot stronger actually, but as is usually the case with extremes, less effective if understanding is the aim, rather than destruction.

The album has been receiving great review even a couple of months before its official release. Have you been taking by surprise by the reaction?

Very surprised! Though I must say Danny and Robin's enthusiasm for the album, and the reaction from many friends we sent copies to did form a kind of thought that we'd hit something special, and a modest expectation that people would like it. You get a feeling that the wave is pulling you, rather than you pushing against it. I've had it just twice before, firstly in Starry Eyed And Laughing when Geoff Brown wrote a glowing review in Melody Maker of our 8th gig ever, and we just seemingly sailed upward to a major label record contract within months.  Secondly, after I produced The Men They Couldn't Hang and became their de facto manager (I was the only one with a phone!). The wave for them - such a great band! - was an absolute surge - No.3 in John Peel's Festive 50 in 1984, front page of the Melody Maker, and clandestine handing over of singles for exclusive reviews! It's a different world and music business now for sure, but the positive wave feeling still applies. I think we've just been very honest with our thoughts and influences in the writing and recording of the songs, and those thoughts and influences are shared by so many.

You’ve already starting performing the album live. Are you intending playing as a three piece or with a band when you perform at The Kilkenny Roots Festival in May?

We're playing as a three piece at The Kilkenny Roots Festival in May - it's shaping up to be about 50-50 Full band/trio gigs over this summer.

Can we expect some Starry Eyed and Laughing, Danny & The Champs and Dreaming Spires material on the set list or all Bennett Wilson Poole originals?

Yes! We've rehearsed 'One Foot In The Boat' and 'Flames In The Rain' from the 2nd Starry Eyed LP ... we're also doing some Grand Drive, Goldrush and Dreaming Spires tunes - specifically The Dreaming Spires' amazing  'Searching For The Supertruth' which I played and sang on and produced. A wonderful Goldrush song that made the charts 'Wide Open Sky'. Grand Drive was Danny's band before The Champs, and we're doing a great song of his about Elvis: '5th Letter'. Coincidentally, I produced and played on another song Danny wrote about Elvis: 'Colonel & The King' on his 'Hearts & Arrows' album - I like that connection. And one of my favourites of Danny's (there are lots!): 'Old Soul' from his solo album 'The Famous Mad Mile' - soon to be released on vinyl I think! I'm sure there'll be more ... and also some surprises!

Interview (in the style of Zig Zag) by Declan Culliton