Whenever British-made Americana music is discussed you can, pretty much, assume that, sooner or later, the name Geraint Watkins will come up. Born in the village of Abertridwr, South Wales in 1951 the multi-instrumentalist would go on to carve out a successful career as a working musician, first with the band Red Beans and Rice and later backing the likes of Nick Lowe, Mark Knopfler and Van Morrison. Now in his 70th year he’s still performing, writing and recording but, arguably, his finest hour came back in the early 80s, when he assembled the best Cajun and Swamp Pop band ever to come out of the British Isles: the outstanding Balham Alligators!
A chance meeting in an Islington pub, The Hare and Hounds, one of the bastions of the pub rock scene, in 1983 was the catalyst that brought together the founding members of the Alligators – Geraint Watkins (piano, accordion and vocals), Robin McKidd (fiddle and vocals), Gary Rickard (guitar and vocals), Arthur Kitchener (bass and vocals), and Kieran O’Connor (drums). The Alligators played a hybrid blend of musical styles, mainly focused around Cajun, Zydeco, and Swamp-Pop. This was perfectly in keeping with the music scene at the time, especially on the pub circuit, which was more than a little eclectic and would often see strange musical bedfellows rubbing up against each other. The early 80s saw the “New Folk” boom in the UK, which produced bands like The Pogues and The Men They Couldn’t Hang, that were taking traditional material and attacking it with some of the energy inherent from the punk movement. It was also a period that saw something of a skiffle revival, with bands like The Boothill Foot-Tappers, and renewed interest in Rockabilly, via the likes of The Stray Cats. Cajun-oriented music sat alongside these music styles very well and brought a good-time vibe to the pub circuit.
The story goes that Diz and the Doormen, a popular band on the circuit at the time, playing New Orleans style R&B, had a regular gig at the Hare & Hounds. One night frontman and pianist, Diz Watson, wasn’t able to make the gig and asked Geraint Watkins to dep for him. Robin McKidd, usually a guitar player, was also depping, in his case on bass. The impromptu band played a set that included a couple of Cajun songs that went down particularly well. Over a drink at the bar, McKidd and Watkins, who hadn’t previously met, discussed putting a Cajun band together. The thing that sealed the deal was that McKidd had started to learn the fiddle and could provide the violin counter to Watkins accordion – two-thirds of the holy trinity of Cajun music (a guitar player being the third – and something there was no shortage of around London at the time!).
The London live music scene, at this time, was booming, and a good time band like the Alligators had little trouble establishing themselves on the pub circuit, quickly building a substantial following. Equally as fascinating as the gigs themselves was the band dynamic of a bunch of musicians who, while they could make great music together, didn’t always get on with each other particularly well. Gigs could descend into chaos as they argued over what song to play next or who should be playing which instrument. It added spice to the live gigs but it was never going to be a recipe for a long lived band. Watkins himself has said, “On a good night we were unbeatable, we’d pull the house down, on a bad night we’d be utterly terrible. There didn’t seem to be anything in-between. Great or awful.”
Their first recording, in 1983, was made possible by a £400 grant for the then Thatcher government’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme, allowing them to start a small record company which then organised the recording of a single, ‘Oh, Marie/Sacre Bleu’, and the pressing of 500 vinyl singles that they sold at gigs. Their first album, “Live Alligators” was recorded at the Half Moon in Putney, another stalwart of the London pub scene at the time. Soon after this, family circumstances meant original bass player, Arthur Kitchener, had to reluctantly leave the band, to be replaced by former Peddlers’ bass player, Pete Dennis. This seemed to halt the band’s progress a little because, although they resumed live work as soon as Dennis was integrated into the band, it would be three years before they would secure a record deal and record their first studio album, 1987’s self-titled “Balham Alligators”, released on the Special Delivery label, a subsidiary of Topic Records. It was produced by Juice on the Loose frontman (a band that had also included Geraint Watkins), Ron Kavana, who would guest on the album on mandolin and guitar and would go on to become an occasional member of the Alligators himself. There would be a second album for Topic the following year, “Life In the Bus Lane”. Like many of the bands we would consider pioneers of what we now call Americana music, the Alligators albums were well-received critically, but they didn’t sell well and didn’t bother the charts. It’s a problem we’ve touched on before, looking at other bands from this period. The London pub scene was one of, if not the liveliest live music scenes in the country, and bands like the Balham Alligators would pack pub venues to the rafters wherever they went on the circuit – but it wasn’t that big a circuit and many of the pubs didn’t have huge capacities; these bands were, effectively, very big fish in very small ponds and their popularity wasn’t transferring to the larger market. Slowly the toll of touring started to tell on the band. There would be an official release for the “Live Alligators” album in 1990 (it had, originally, been pressed up only for sales at gigs) but, when an increasingly ill Kieran O’Connor shuffled off this mortal coil in 1991, the band called it a day.
Watkins and Gary Rickard joined forces with Charlie Hart as Rickard, Watkins & Hart, before Watkins set up his own band, The Wobblers, with drummer Bobby Irwin, just returned from session work in the U.S. and Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers bass player, Paul Riley. McKidd formed western-swing band The Companions of The Rosy Hours and continued to work the pub circuit but he was constantly getting calls from people wanting to book the Alligators. After four years, Watkins and McKidd decided to give the band another go, simply moving Irwin and Riley across from The Wobblers to be the Alligators new rhythm section. This lineup would go on to record two further albums, “Gateway to the South” in 1996, the title taken from Peter Sellers’ comedy sketch, “Balham, Gateway to the South”, and 1997’s “Cajun Dance Party”. These two later albums were slicker productions than those of the earlier line-up and the new rhythm section added a professionalism that was lacking from those earlier albums. These recordings also attracted a number of higher-profile guest artists, such as Bill Kirchen, Martin Belmont and sax player Nick Pentelow. As ever, the albums were well-received critically but, as ever, failed to find commercial success and the band finally called it a day after “Cajun Dance Party” (also released as “A Po’ Boy and Make it Snappy” in some markets).
The Balham Alligators deserve their place in history as the best Cajun music band the UK has produced to date. On their night, they were an unstoppable force and one of the great live acts of the pub rock scene, but they also saw success on the festival circuit, playing throughout Europe, often to great reception. Like their contemporaries that have been mentioned in these pages before (Eggs Over Easy, Brinsley Schwarz), the Alligators were ahead of their time. In today’s market, they might have been far more commercially successful – but they might not have been so much fun. If you can find it there’s an excellent 2-disc compilation of their music, from Proper Records, under the toe-curling title of “Bayou-Degradable”!