An alternative history of UK americana over the last 50 years from one of the originators.
Maestro of the Rickenbacker 12 String, helm of Bennett Wilson Poole, studio wizard and veteran of the pub rock years, Tony Poole spills the beans on the new Starry Eyed And Laughing album, released just 46 years after their last one – beat that ABBA!
Starry Eyed And Laughing released two albums (in 1974 and 1975) on the CBS label, a big deal at the time, but their UK brand of Byrds like jangle and CSN&Y influenced songs never bothered the charts. Nevertheless, they were a hard working lot, playing the college circuit and becoming one of the serious music press’s favourite bands. However, as with so many of their contemporaries, bad luck dogged them at times including a tour of the US which was truncated. A final 7″ single release, produced by Flo & Eddie of all folk was their swansong. In 1976 the band (Tony Poole, Ross McGeeney, Iain Whitmore and the late Michael Wackford (on drums, naturally) split up. Poole went on to carve out a career as a record producer and a sought after mastering engineer but he has kept the Starry Eyed flag flying over the years with a judicious selection of reissues and rarities.
Poole was catapulted into the limelight when Bennett Wilson Poole, the trio he shares with Robin Bennett and Danny Wilson, took the UK Americana world by storm in 2018. Winning awards right, left and centre and knocking out audiences throughout the land with their outstanding live performances, Bennett Wilson Poole are hungry to get going again in the new year. In the meantime, Poole, along with Iain Whitmore, has revived Starry Eyed And Laughing and released ‘Bells Of Lightning’, an astonishingly brilliant collection of Byrds’ influenced songs, with his trademark 12 string Rickenbacker jangle very much in evidence.
Tony was kind enough to spend some time talking to AUK via Zoom about the album and about his history, and, boy, does he remember a lot. What follows is what Zigzag magazine used to call, a long and rambling conversation. There’s a lot of names and, rather than detail who everyone is, why not Google them and fall into a rabbit hole of rock’n’roll lore.
Anyhow, first off we had to ask Tony how he has coped with Covid.
Due to long-term health problems, I’m one of those folk who has really had to isolate pretty much since it started. Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep in touch with lots of folk via Zoom and WhatsApp and such, Danny and Robin and I have been having regular online chats and I speak to Pete Frame every week, he’s up in Scotland. It’s great that things are starting to get back to some kind of normality and my friend Tom Collinson invited me to a Billy Bragg show the other week. I knew a whole bunch of people who were going but I still hadn’t had my booster jag so I decided to wait it out a bit longer. But here’s hoping.
First off, I just want to say that I love the new album. It’s been such a long time since we’ve had a new Starry Eyed And Laughing album but I recall that you were talking about doing an album with Iain back in 2013. What took you so long?
Well, Iain and I had kept in touch over the years and we ended up playing as a duo in pubs for a while and we actually recorded a couple of records under the names, The Falcons and The Sun. But we were writing songs and decided to do a new Starry Eyed And Laughing album and recorded the first song in 2013. But then I came down with this thing called polymyalgia which just about paralysed me for five or six weeks and then I was on steroids for about three and a half years and I couldn’t do anything. I came off the steroids and I was able to get back into doing more stuff but then I got involved with Danny and Robin for BWP and that really took off. However, Ian and I got back together in 2018 to do some more recording and, to cut a long story short, we were almost ready to release it when the pandemic and lockdown happened. So that put and end to it for the time being. However, we’ve got a whole lot of fans going back to the 70s and I thought we’d better get the album out before it’s too late for them to buy it so we decided to give ourselves a deadline in order to spur us on and we said earlier this year it would come out in September. That gave us the impetus to finish it. The weird thing is, I did a pre-order which offered a free copy of a covers album, with every vinyl sale of ‘Bells Of Lightning’, even though we’d only recorded one cover at that point. So, we had to get that done and Iain was stuck in Devon at that point but we managed to record another nine songs over the internet and we did that in two weeks, which made me wonder why it took so long to make the actual record.
I was pretty much gobsmacked when I heard the first song you released from the album, ‘Set Me Free From This Lost Highway’. It’s such a joyous electric jolt of Byrds’ infused rock music.
Iain and I discussed what we wanted for the record and obviously we were always very Byrds influenced so what we decided on was to make a record which sounded like The Byrds but with our songs. I wrote ‘Set Me Free From This Lost Highway’ during the worst part of the Trump era and there was definitely a template for our recording in The Byrds. It was quite deliberate because I wanted to make it familiar, so it starts with the bass riff and our first record started that way and then the rest of it is very much based on the Byrds. Some folk have asked me if I’ll be sending any royalties to McGuinn and Crosby.
Well, that aside, although there’s an obvious Byrds influence it’s definitely a Starry Eyed And Laughing album, especially with its trilogy of songs about the band’s US tour. Again, I’m quite astonished by the sheer sound you and Iain achieve especially on ‘Dreamyard Angel’ which is like a psychedelic jumbo jet taking off.
We definitely didn’t want it to come across as a pastiche. As I’ve said, The Byrds template is there but I wanted it to sound the way I would have loved our third album to have sounded like if we had released it back then. And yes, it’s just the two of us. ‘You Feel Like Home’ was recorded back in 2013 when we first set out to make the album and the rest was done in sessions in 2018 and 2019 and most of it was recorded right here, although we did have to finish off some of the songs remotely and Iain managed to send me his parts using his Iphone. Just like the BWP album, I added quite a lot in the studio and it seems to have worked well.
There’s what sounds like a pedal steel on some of the songs.
It’s actually a Stringbender or B-Bender. A couple of years back, Danny Wilson was on at me to buy one so I found a good old Telecaster with a string bender attached and that’s what I used. You mentioned ‘Dreamyard Angels’ and that is kind of connected to this as it’s based on a gig Starry Eyed And Laughing did in the States. We were supporting Flo & Eddie at The Bottom Line and Ed Tickner, who was the original manager of The Byrds, came to the show and brought some of the Burrito Brothers along and, with the arrogance of youth, I asked them to come on stage to play with us. It was Gene Parsons, Joel Scott Hill and Gib Guilbeau. Anyhow, it was Gene who had invented the string bender and at the end of the tour, Ross, our guitar player went to LA and had Gene fit one to his guitar, it was probably just the second one after Gene had made one for Clarence White, and Ross used it on a couple of our latter singles.
You dedicate ‘The Girl In A Gene Clark Song’ to an online buddy of mine, Ingrid Neimanis-McNamara.
Yeah, Neon Brambles she calls herself online. I don’t really know her but she has a campaign to elect Gene Clark into The Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame and a while ago she had asked me to talk about Gene for her newsletter Echoes. I was really trying for a Gene Clark feel when I was writing the song and she came to mind as such a champion for more recognition for Gene so I thought it would be nice to dedicate the song to her.
You mentioned a vinyl release earlier, when’s that due to come out?
We had hoped that we would be able to release the CD and the vinyl at the same time but, first of all, the test pressings sent to me weren’t acceptable and we had to send them back to be done again. And of course that meant that we are now caught up in what seems to be a worldwide delay in getting records pressed. I don’t know if it’s true but I’ve heard that the major labels, with acts like Adele, have booked up all the pressing plants for the time being so I reckon it won’t be until sometime next year that we’ll have a finished copy. So, sorry to anyone who has pre-ordered a copy. Aside from that, there have been huge problems in sending out CDs to Europe. Right now, out of 50 I’ve posted there’s only been three received and two have been sent back to me due to some problems with customs and such. It’s all down to Brexit of course and it looks like it’s almost impossible to send merchandise to Europe so I’m looking to set up a distribution deal with some people who are still in the EU. It’s small beer really, it might mean I miss out on some sales but what saddens me is that there are fans out there who can’t get a hold of the discs. There’s a genuine love out there in Germany and Belgium and France and it breaks my heart that they can’t get a copy.
I’ve been lucky enough to have had a sneak preview of the covers disc, ‘Love|Song’ and again, I’m knocked out by how good it is and the sound the pair of you create. How did you go about choosing which songs to cover?
That’s quite a tangled tale. They are all favourites but there was a lot of happenstance involved. We had already recorded John Stewart’s ‘Lost Her In The Sun’ several years ago for Peter O’Brien (editor of Omaha Rainbow). We also had a live recording of Moby Grape’s ‘Murder In My Heart For The Judge’ with the late Richard Treece (Help Yourself) on guitar which I thought we could include. I knew I wanted a Gene Clark song on the disc and ‘American Dreamer’ is kind of obscure, hidden away on a Dennis Hopper movie. It’s just Gene and his guitar so I tried to imagine it as if The Byrds were playing it. The Byrds also figured in the Jackson Browne song, ‘Birds Of St. Marks’ which Browne wrote when he was about 18 and had said he wanted it to have a Byrds like feel. ‘To Ramona’ is just a favourite song of mine and again I was thinking, “What if The Byrds had recorded it?” So I changed the tempo, Dylan does it in 6/8 time and most others do that but I changed it to 4/4. As for the others, my friend Nigel Cross was working with a band called Saphron who did a version of Lesley Duncan’s ‘Love Song’ and that reminded me of Elton John’s cover of it and it was Nigel again who reminded me of another Moby Grape song, Bob Mosely’s ‘It’s a Beautiful Day Today’. Michael Chapman had just died and I remember listening to him on John Peel’s show back in the 60’s and I had mastered a wonderful version of ‘Rabbit Song’ by Bridget St. John, recorded live at The Betsy Trotwood, so I thought, I’m nicking that.
Essentially the disc is a mix of English and American folk rock singers that I admired and I asked Iain to suggest a cover in the same vein. When he suggested a song, ‘What Goes Around’, by Justin Timberlake I thought it was kind of missing the point. However, I listened to it and bizarrely the chords are kind of similar to a Neil Young type of thing so I thought, well, let’s just do it and it turned out all right. It certainly doesn’t sound like Justin Timberlake’s version. And on a little side note, it was written by Timberlake and two rappers and one of them is called Mosley and someone thought that meant that we had three Moby Grape songs on the disc!
Can we go back a bit and talk about how you got involved in music and how Starry Eyed And Laughing got started?
Like most young teenagers in the early 60’s I was listening to pop music, The Beatles, Stones and such and used to listen to Radio Luxemburg on a transistor radio. I was at boarding school, aged 15 when ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ came out and that was the sound for me. Ross McGeeney was at the same school and he was taking guitar lessons from an older pupil and once we became friends I started to learn the guitar also. We started a school band and, in the spirit of the times, we called ourselves The Chymes, with a Y. I remember our first gig at a school concert, we did ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ of course and then we did ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’. At that point I was the bass player and that was the beginning really. I kind of realised that academia wasn’t for me and I kind of dropped out and within a year or so I was just playing music. Ross and I kept going as a duo, acoustic at first but when Iain and Michael got involved we were an electric band, playing in the pub rock circuit at first.
When did you start playing a Rickenbacker guitar?
Sometime in 1969, I was at home one day when Ross dropped around and he had this Rickenbacker 360 with him which had apparently belonged to Pete Townshend. Ross had bought it on the never never but didn’t have the money to keep up the payments so eventually it went back to Townshend. That was the first time I’d actually seen one. When we started to play more professionally, I was using an acoustic 12 string which I used to play busking in the streets but we got a management contract around 1973 and they told us they could give us some money to buy instruments. So I went down to Denmark Street looking for a Rickenbacker and found one, the guy selling it told me that it used to belong to Steve Took, from Tyrannosaurus Rex. But when I tried to play it, the thing about it, the sound that The Byrds got, it turns out that a lot of it was all down to electronic trickery and I couldn’t get that sound at all. There was no jangle, it was too low, and it took me a couple of years to work out how to do it properly, you have to put compression on and change the electronics. By the time of the second album I had it down but when we recorded the first album it was the studio engineer who worked it out, he had recently mixed a Byrds’ record and knew how to do it. Another story about that guitar was that the guy who sold me it was Sid Bishop, he had played guitar in The Deviants and had a shop, Top Gear, in Denmark Street. I never had a proper case for the guitar, I used to stuff it into an old acoustic guitar case I had, but round about 1990 I decided it was time to get a proper case for it. The Rickenbacker franchise was in Chappell Music at the time and I went along to buy one. It was in the basement and I went down and standing there was the same Sid Bishop, ready to sell me the case.
One of the highlights of Starry Eyed And Laughing’s career is The Amazing Zigzag Concert, held in The Roundhouse in 1974. You shared a bill with Michael Nesmith and John Stewart. How did that come about?
We were doing loads of gigs at that time. We had a lovely agent who was our drummer’s father and he was booking us into everything he could find and so we played a gig at Aylesbury Grammar School. Pete Frame, one of the founders of Zigzag magazine lived nearby and he was very good friends with the headmaster of the school. Anyway, Pete came along and that was the first time I met him. He really liked us and became like, a huge champion for the band. Weirdly enough, John Tobler, Pete’s partner in Zigzag had actually gone to the same school that Ross and I had gone to. Anyway, Zigzag was like the internet of the day, the way to find out about the best bands although if you ask him today, Pete’s far too modest about his achievement. Despite this Zigzag was run on a shoestring, they were just about surviving from issue to issue but to celebrate their fifth anniversary they had the good luck to find a financial backer in Tony Stratton Smith which allowed them to put this concert on. Basically they just asked some of their favourite musicians to play and it shows how much esteem they were held in when Mike Nesmith and John Stewart agreed to appear. We apparently were one of their favourite UK bands, along with Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers and Help Yourself. The three UK bands shared a dressing room and the Americans were elsewhere so I never actually got to meet them but I watched the shows from back stage and I remember Pete Thomas from The Chilli’s playing perfectly with John Stewart after just one quick rehearsal.
It’s a miracle really that we can listen to the show. The concert was recorded by the legendary Vic Maile who was in a mobile studio truck outside, all of that paid for by Andrew Lauder, who worked with United Artists. They were basic stereo recordings and they somehow vanished and that was that. However, sometime around 2009, Andy Childs, who edited Zigzag for a while, found the tapes in his loft. Nigel Cross found out about this and got the tapes and gave then to Ron Geesin, another legendary figure, who transferred them into some digital format. Nigel then gave them to me as I had this reputation as some king of studio wizard to see what we could do with them but none of my computers could open the files that Geesin had made. It took me almost a year to work out how to get them into a format I could work with but we were able eventually to come up with really clean recordings which sound great. We also had some great pictures from Tom Sheehan so Pete Frame came down from Scotland and together we sorted out the artwork for the release. If you look at the booklet, it says Design by Polly and Petra, that’s me and Pete. So, eventually, the five of us, me, Pete Frame, John Tobler, Andy Childs and Nigel Cross, had this lovely box set of the whole concert which was issued in a limited edition back in 2010.
Finally Tony, can I ask you about any plans for the return of Bennett Wilson Poole?
We have a record recorded, finished just before lockdown. It will be coming out sometime next year but that’s about all I can say right now. I can tell you that back in 2018, we took the ferry over to Belfast to do a Ralph McLean show and the show was postponed from the afternoon to the evening. So, with some time to spare we booked into a hotel room and the three of us spent the time making up a list of our favourite songs and we might be recording those for some kind of release. We’re not sure but we’d like to have something going on because it’s been difficult with us all being separated for so long. As I said, I’ve been shielding all through this but now all jabbed and hopefully with a booster in me, hopefully we can get together again as soon as possible. As soon as it’s feasible, we’ll be back on the road. I’d also like to have Starry Eyed & Laughing back on stage as well, maybe a live launch once we have the vinyl ready.
>>> Please help to support the running costs of Americana UK, run by a dedicated team in our spare time, by donating £2 a month to us - we'll send you an exclusive 20 track curated playlist every month plus the opportunity to win our monthly giveaway. Click here for more information.