Obtaining Cult Status: Garage Class Interviewed
"You can live in the blocks way up in the skies, living your life, telling your lies…"
What can a record from nearly 40 odd years ago open up, beyond nostalgia, retrospection and a sense of manufactured romance that never really existed?
Knocked together by an ill-adjusted group known as Garage Class from a nondescript town in provincial England called Alsager, ‘Terminal Tokyo’ and ‘I Got Standards’ are compulsive anthems made in a vacuum. Rough, bolshie, intent on stance and agitation, alive with something else. A pair of tunes that responded to the mediocrities of circumstance with an incredulous drive. Both favour motion, disdain, their own dishevelled ‘standards’ above obliging considerations. They’re a reminder of what the best kind of DIY music can be.
Bonding over a mutual appreciation for the likes of The Stooges and the New York Dolls, the earlier incarnation of Garage Class – known as The Pits – kicked up their own scrappy reaction to the punk movement. Comprised of Tim Shutt aka The Subliminal Kid (vocals), Phil Murphy (lead guitar), Clive Williams (guitar), Lynne Sanders (bass), Phil Bourne (drums / bass on studio recordings) and later Jon Gilhooly (drums, vocals), they made an impressive amount of noise in their own region but never enjoyed widescale acclaim. Before long the constituent members moved on. But, as revealed by a late unreleased offering like ‘Someone Spiked My Drink’, there were distinguishing facets to what they created. A raucous energy, traces of strange and rudimental experimentation, a bitter sense of amusement.
The group saved their best for last, or rather, for when they were already a finished prospect. Subsequently the original release of the 'Terminal Tokyo' single in 1984 was a posthumous one, only ever intended as a means of covering the costs Shutt had incurred in eventually pressing up the record. He had missed the boat the first time round; the single had originally been recorded in 1980. It had also transpired that the single featured the ‘wrong’ vocal track, a mistake the rest of the band weren’t too keen to put The Pits' name to. A surprising dispute given their iconic, nonchalant charm. Perhaps the perceived wrongness is the crucial ingredient? In any case the Garage Class name, coined by their ‘Svengali’ manager Steve Hurt but disliked by most of the band, was consequently adopted by Shutt, becoming an apposite pseudonym for one of the most disorderly, distinctive and intoxicating singles of the late '70s & early to mid-'80s period.
Although the conception of ‘Terminal Tokyo’ seemed mired in misfortune, there were signs all along that The Pits and, by extension, Garage Class were never built for glory. Their time together was littered with bad luck and they displayed a habitual animosity towards conventional acceptance. Too much aggro, too much hubris, too much mishap.
The parents of the band’s guitarist Clive Williams had a mansion with a rehearsal space which they rarely used; a privilege which didn’t suit their impulses. Their first few live shows ended in the police getting called. At one point they could have taken the esteemed title of ‘Best Band in Stoke’ but they were mysteriously disqualified. There’s something sublime about causing such conceited provocation in the mundane fringes of England in the early '80s.
In a recording of one particularly fractious live show the band performed as The Pits, everything is derailed by an irate Scotsman who ferociously lays into them. Elsewhere there’s a recording of an interview at around the same time with Phil Murphy, the band’s lead guitarist, an exchange which is set to such a heightened tone of performative arrogance that it becomes farcical; a lout masquerading as a genius. Besides all this the ‘Terminal Tokyo’ artwork displays a box of sex toys used by geisha girls, a so called "Happy Box". The band had originally intended for the single to be distributed in cigarette boxes. Evidently notions of modesty, professionalism, practicality – and therefore commerciality – were never high on the agenda.
Despite a story shaped by disruption, ‘Terminal Tokyo’ did manage to gain the approval of that last unanimously respected gatekeeper John Peel, as well as a portion of recognition from NME. Success, though, was short-lived. It never cut through. Meanwhile ‘I Got Standards’ never saw the light of day. Even so, both tracks are marked by an air of coolly abrasive bravado that seemed to defy the dispiriting realities the band faced. One line from ‘I Got Standards’ goes some way to encapsulating not only their defining temerity, but their eventual fate too: "I got plenty of style and I know where the cash is/ I bought a new car and I hope that it crashes".
In one short act The Pits and Garage Class made marginal, primitive, emphatic punk music loaded with desire and resentment. The release of their finest moment was in many ways an accident, a fiasco that gave rise to a classic. Over the years ‘Terminal Tokyo’ has become an acclaimed artefact of UK DIY, messthetics and the other names given to a pluralistic scene that was far more interesting and diverse than what have since become the routinely hailed legacies of the time. Its unique appeal has been widely recognized. Jon Dale celebrated the single in his exhaustive and essential The Story of UK DIY for FACT Magazine, and original copies have regularly changed hands for a foolish 40 quid or so.
With the inaugural release on Outer Reaches, a new label by yours truly, ‘Terminal Tokyo’ is rightfully restored and ‘I Got Standards’ is given the release it always deserved. There’s an alternative slant on ‘I Got Standards’ too, courtesy of Optimo’s JD Twitch. Like Muslimgauze remixing Swell Maps, it’s a rework version that finds a latent and formidable contemporary momentum within the track’s terrific unruliness.
Ahead of the single’s release the group’s frontman Tim Shutt retraces the eventful pre-history and lifespan of Garage Class, the group that, in their own dysfunctional way, made a ‘hit’ record when no one was listening.
How did you meet the other guys in Garage Class? Can you describe the personalities in the band and the kind of dynamic you had?
Tim Shutt: The first thing I would like to be clear about is that the autonym of Garage Class is The Pits. We first hooked up together in 1978 in a small town called Alsager in North West England. We shared the same musical tastes: The Dolls and the Stooges, Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers, David Johansen, etc. We all played in different punk bands, but eventually came together as we knew we should make a great band and would write some great songs.
Phil [Murphy, the band’s guitarist] was, and still is, an enigma. He came up with really unusual ideas not just in music but in life in general. He was the one that showed me that there were no boundaries in songwriting and performing. I was quick to learn and before long we were bouncing ideas off each other; a truly creative energy. He was also a great guitarist, and I mean a great guitarist. He played like no one that I had seen then or have seen since. He would seem to wrap his whole body around the guitar and contort his hands to get exactly the sound he wanted.
Phil Bourne [drums / bass on studio recordings] was a really strong all-round musician. He played drums for The Pits but also recorded the bass whilst he was with us. He devised the hand clap routine on 'Terminal Tokyo' which you may notice subtly changes. We always have got along well. He is now a very successful professional photographer.
Clive [Williams, the band’s other guitarist] was also very proficient musically, but he was a magpie. He would shamelessly steal music or lines from anywhere. One night you would have a discussion about something, the next day he had written a song based on it. I would often take his lyrics and re-write them, which was valid because I had often said the words in the first place. His strength was his versatility and his work ethic. The added bonus was that we rehearsed in the millionaire home of his parents. Due to their largesse, we basically had access to a fully equipped rehearsal room within a mansion, but ironically we had little interest in investigating its full facilities due to our mission.
Our bass player Lynne Sanders was part of a trio of Punkette beauties who were on the scene. She was obtuse and defiant, which really added something to the band on tour in the early days. Her striking looks were ignored, much to her relief. I remember the time she had sprayed silver paint in her hair as it seemed simpler than dyeing it. She quit the band, went on to do some modelling work and then became a science lecturer.
After Phil Bourne left to join our contemporaries, The Colours Out Of Time, Jon Gilhooly [drums] joined Phil Murphy, Clive and me. Gilhooly was musically talented, but problematically to me. He loathed the average "rock" gig goer with a vengeance! We played live once in a massive greenhouse type affair at the local art college in Alsager. The audience was about as mellow as could be imagined; he was convinced they were "common scum". He remained by Phil Murphy's side after The Pits with the Regular Guys line up. By this time we had really started to develop our own songwriting style and were kicking out some great stuff. This was put together to make our first album A Coffee Table Vision On A Metal Grid.
The Pits (later known as Garage Class) 1980 – (left to right) Lynne Sanders, Tim Shutt, Phil Bourne, Clive Williams, Phil Murphy
What were the catalysts for starting the band? What were you each into? How did your tastes connect / diverge?
The one thing that prevailed in The Pits (and subsequently Garage Class) was a certain kind of belligerence in conforming as a band in terms of songs or performance. We thought we were different and better than most bands at that time and we were not scared of upsetting people. This could lead to problems. Our first three shows ended with the police in attendance. We got in trouble with the local press for our marketing techniques and we were disqualified from The Best Band In Stoke competition. We only entered to show that we were the best, not concerned with being judged by a bunch of losers. The catalyst for starting the band was really to bring together the most creative and talented musicians in the area together to write, play and perform a different kind of music without compromise.
As for my own taste at one point I started exploring lounge singers in depth. That didn’t go down too well initially with most of the band, except Phil. The others couldn’t get their heads around it, but I think ultimately it really helped to develop my lyric writing and my phrasing. There was a big difference between me and the others. I was focused on being a mechanical engineer. Eventually I became a chartered engineer and a leading technical expert in packaging. Working in manufacturing was not a pleasant place to be in the early '80s. I think it gave me another edge and influenced my thinking and approach.
Tim Shutt aka The Subliminal Kid
There was a manifesto of sorts in one of the recordings of an interview with Phil Murphy about The Pits. "Everything done with the minimum of effort". Looking back do you think that holds true to The Pits / Garage Class?
I think I can explain that explicitly. Our efforts were to only develop truly great ideas and perfect these: HI TECH FAST ACTION. An analogy is perfecting a process in manufacturing to minimise waste. Waste was not tolerated in The Pits.
I believe there was a story about the artwork being constructed via photocopies of Japanese sex toys. Can you trace the story of how this came about? Your artwork was also subsequently shown in an art show many years later. There must be something strange about artwork that was made spontaneously with few resources being celebrated retrospectively as high culture…?
The original artwork concept for 'Terminal Tokyo' was to put the single into a giant cigarette box (pillow box) in the style of John Player's JPS brand, but this never happened. The record pressing plant went bust and it had to be pressed elsewhere at additional cost. At this time I had already parted with the band. I had 2,000 singles with no label and white sleeves and no band. I eventually put the single out to recover some of my costs and because I knew it was a great single. My brother produced the sleeve which includes a photograph of a Japanese "Happy Box", which contains ancient sexual devices employed by geisha girls. I think the association with the song is fairly obvious.
I used the alias of Garage Class, coined by Steve Hurt, the manager of The Pits, as the remaining members were unhappy that the wrong version of 'Terminal Tokyo' was being put out under their name. Previous to that I had put together the cover for my new band Happy Refugees' first single 'Warehouse Sound' by photocopying and Letraset manipulation. Simple, but effective. This was shown in a punk art exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London in 2012.
What was the local scene like? Did you experience much interest from the established gatekeepers back then? (NME, John Peel etc.)
The Pits were from Alsager and The Colours Out Of Time were from Crewe and Alsager. We were the only bands in a wide area who were interesting. Most of the bands were more intent on getting a deal at any cost or just playing in front of their friends. Our horizons were set much higher.
John Peel played 'Terminal Tokyo' and Cherry Red put it out on a compilation called Seeds III: Rock. This is where the cult status of the single commenced and this became much wider with time with the advent of the internet. New York label Acute Records – who reissued the first Happy Refugees album Last Chance Saloon – were going to put out A Coffee Table Vision… but they ran out of steam.
NME gave the single a great review at the time. They described it as "the sound of a vein being sewn up" and “nearly brilliant". The rest of the music industry, media, etc. showed no interest and Steve Hurt was of the opinion that they would soon come to us rather than us go to them. This did not happen in his lifetime (RIP).
You’ve mentioned before how a lot of your live gigs ended in chaos and petulance. Can you recall what led to these kinds of scenes? For instance, there’s a recording of a Scottish guy losing his rag about your treatment of some equipment. What happened there?
Typically I would provoke the audience to get a reaction. It was like poking a bear with a stick. The gigs were often fast and furious. The Scottish guy – a creep anyway – was precious about his own band and their music. We were the absolute antithesis of what he represented. Some glass got broken during our seminal song 'Smashed' and the top came off the microphone. The guy lost it, but I suppose we had unintentionally built him up into a frenzy with our music. The legacy on our cassette release Up Your Ass is quite sad when you think about it.
The Pits (later Garage Class), 1980
You recorded ‘Terminal Tokyo’ back in 1980 but it wasn’t released until 1984. That must have been frustrating. Why the delay? What kind of response did it have when it was finally released?
I think I have covered the problems with the pressing plant, with our manager Steve Hurt, and then me parting to form Happy Refugees. My focus switched to my new project, but I still felt that it was imperative that the record came out and also ideally I wanted to recover some money. The single was distributed by Red Rhino in York, who were part of The Cartel of leading independent record shops – including Rough Trade – that sold DIY records at the time. It sold around 150 copies. It has been a slow burner over the intervening years, but once it is re-released I think it is likely to eventually get the type of attention it deserves.
Tim Shutt aka The Subliminal Kid
There’s a lot going on in the lyrics to both ‘Terminal Tokyo’ and ‘I Got Standards’. What was your approach to writing them? Can you recall what inspired you?
I could, but I don't really like to talk about it. To me it is like trying to explain a joke to someone who does not understand it. I think people need to make what they will of the lyrics. Some will really get them, others won't.
What are your thoughts on the longevity of appreciation ‘Terminal Tokyo’ has experienced since? Why do you think the record has endured? What does the record mean to you now?
Essentially it is a classic: the rhythm section with the guitar, the drums and hand claps really drives it along. The lead guitar pulls you in throughout and the vocal delivery of the lyric is strangely haunting, but conversely comforting too. I still think 'Terminal Tokyo' is a great song. I also think that there are other songs that were recorded that are equally iconic by The Pits or subsequently by myself with Happy Refugees e.g. 'Warehouse Sound', 'What's Your Appeal', etc. or with Phil's Regular Guys e.g 'Horror Show'.
What was different about The Pits / Garage Class?
They were The New Information. While they were sleeping, we were waiting. Simply more stylish, more direct and more interesting than other bands…