The Rezillos: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow
by Keith Bearden
The past is dead. Completely. The best we can hope for is to smell the stink of its rot. Mostly, it is quickly reduced to dust and ash, and with more time, invisible atoms. We can look at the pictures, and hear the sounds, but we cannot make it alive again, no matter how hard we try. Nostalgia, the longing for a past time or event that one was not around for, or was too young to fully comprehend at the time, is a spiritually poisonous trap. To fixate on the past is to deny one’s very existence–it negates present reality and inevitably fuzzes up one’s future destinies. And yes, I am as guilty as the rest.
Musically speaking, the truly vital sounds of today–those with the most cultural relevance, that are open to new talent and are alive and changing–are electronica and hip-hop. Yeah, I hate them, too, but it’s a fact. I think more of us will like them twenty years from now, when they too are dead and concerts are full of our fellow saggy white culture vultures, not threatening dark-skinned youngsters or beautiful ones who remind us of the popular kids in high school. At the halfway point, there are plenty of current bands that draw from the past and add to it, or at least recombine old stuff in a fresh way. The Asylum Street Spankers play my beloved ‘20s and ‘30s novelty jazz, but also mix in modern country, folk, punk–ferchrissake, they even rap. And it works. Even Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard’s new music sounds current.
Make no mistake: Can’t Stand The Rezillos is an enduringly amazing record. We all should be so lucky to be part of anything so fantastic in our years on this globe. Along with Rocket to Russia, it shares the title as the perfect ‘77 punk record. Guitarist Jo Callis’s songs are witty and tuneful, vocals–split between Fay Fife’s songbirdisms and Eugene Reynolds’s cartoon rasp–are excellent, production is clean and punchy (always double track your guitars, kids), and no two songs sound alike. Following a posthumous live LP, the band dissolved. Fay and Eugene continued their sci-fi/drive-in/comic book vision with the poppier Revillos, whilst Jo took The Human League to the top of their popularity.
Twenty-four years after their breakup, here they were on their first US tour. And their reputation as a terrific live band remains unscathed, despite shitty sound at the otherwise wonderful Warsaw club deep in Polish Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They really rocked out, with Eugene Reynolds adding rhythm guitar, Fay dancing and giving it all, and a kilt-wearing Jo Callis keeping it crunchy just like he should. The new songs were good. But something about it all made me sad, and I was not the only one.
At one point my friend Jenn leaned over and whispered, ‘It’s good, but I’m having a Rolling Stones moment.’ God strike me dead if she didn’t nail it. We sneer at Mick and Keef dragging their elderly asses across the globe every few years, decade after decade. Sure, they (reportedly) still put on a good show, but why? Why recycle your past glories for the 5000th time and bore everyone with new material that we all know is painfully substandard? ‘Do not repeat, in spite of encores,’ as H.P. Roche wisely opined. The bigger question however, is why those who snicker at the Stones will gladly lay down greenbacks to see some near-dead Sun Records alumni, burnt-out Nuggets relic or graying Max’s Kansas City vet down on their luck. They all push the same ‘good ‘ol days’ button that draws in bald fatties with ponytails to the Tampax Arena to see the one remaining living Allman Brother. That last image sound horrifying? Beware, my friends, as the Buddhists say, ‘We become what we despise.’
We can’t blame The Rezillos for wanting to play, no more than we can blame our parents for wanting to dance to their wedding song or revisit their honeymoon cottage. ‘Making music is fun,’ said Jo Callis before the show. ‘This tour is all about us having a good time together after all the squabbles have been put away.’
The audience was, in a word, telling. Punk crowds in the ‘70s and ‘80s were composed of adventurous (inevitably male) music heads, college kids and a few oddballs. Today’s Warped Tour/ Lookout! acts bring in lots of young teens, the perfect audience for punk’s reactionary piss and vinegar, and tons of them are girls. Not women, you irate feminist types–we’re talking 12-year-old girl children. The Rezillos show was packed with studied suburban Euro-punk wannabes, perfect caricatures?right down to the T-shirts of bands they’ve probably never heard (The Varukers?) or that were never that good to begin with (the Vibrators) ?of a time and a continent not their own. They are to punk what Fonzie was to a ‘50s hoodlum. To help fulfill their fantasy about the good life before they were born, here was an authentic ‘70s ‘punk’ band (a posthumous US tag, the band itself never considered themselves that?they started off covering Connie Francis and Nat ‘King’ Cole, for fuck’s sake). And these pre-fab punks loved every minute of it’ as long as the band played the hits. When Fay launched into a new (quite good) girl group-style ballad, they trotted off to the bathroom, mystified and offended that that anyone might like a song that doesn’t have a shouted chorus. And to remind us how old punk rock really is, there were graying couples in their fifties and sixties, draped in Dockers, golf shirts and Wal-Mart corrective eyewear, looking for all the world like grandparents chaperoning the Punk Rock Prom. (But if you were thirty when you dug the band at their one-off unannounced CBGB‘s gig in 1977, do the math–how old would you be now?) Completing the set were record geeks like moi, hoping to could consummate live what they’ve dry humped on vinyl for years and years. But as I said before, the past is dead. We can fantasize about it forever, but it will never be as it was, or more accurately, as we imagine it was, or should be.
It probably would’ve been a better night for me if the pre-show interview had gone better. The Rezillos were hungry, tired, and Fay was worried about the show and possibly losing her voice. I won’t bore you with transcripts of it all, but singer Eugene Reynolds (who did not want to be called Alan Forbes, his real name) avoided quite a few questions: he didn’t want to talk about his love of Indian motorcycles, him allegedly threatening Seymour Stein to get out of their record contract with Sire, or the inter-band conflict/ romance that broke them up. Fay was mad I wasn’t asking her questions and then when I did (about her post-band career as an actress) she refused to deluge any names of projects, tapped her fingernails on the table and looked mad. When I tried to lighten it up by asking what music she was listening to currently, she got bored and went to eat, refusing to sign my copy of their first 45. Drummer Alistair ‘Angel’ Paterson (now an architect in Germany) and guitarist Jo Callis were unbelievably sweet, however. But nobody would talk about William Mysterious, the ex-Silly Wizard member (real name Ali Donaldson) who played amazing bass guitar on the band’s one studio LP. I know he wrote for cycling magazines after he was in the band, had a 1982 solo single and produced the Waterboys’ first 45. Original Edinburgh Art School-era bassist D.K. Smythe (now a research geophysicist) says he suffered from a bout of mental illness, but has recovered. But except for that, his stage name has proven to be highly prophetic.
NOTE: To approximate Fay’s brogue, pronounce Liza Minelli ‘Leeza Minalli.”
SCRAM: So why did you all get back together?
JO CALLIS: We were asked to do a spot at the Edinburgh Hogmanay festival over New Years. It’s a very big thing–like 200-odd thousand people partying in the streets. People come from all over the world. Originally we were supposed to do like fifteen minutes, but the interest was quite phenomenal, and we pulled together over a half an hour at very short notice. We had about three days of rehearsal.
SCRAM: Did it surprise you all how much people were interested?
JO: Yeah! And it really surprised us all how much we liked doin’ it.
SCRAM: You are working on new material?
JO: Yes. We actually recorded some new songs four or five years ago, when we tried to get back together then, but the recording didn’t come out quite right. Back then, people had too many things going on in their lives. Now is a better time.
SCRAM: Why do you think there is such an interest in the band now?
JO: I think people are wising up to the fact that music, except dance music and some R&B, I mean rock music, for the past twenty years, has been shite! All this New Metal. Limp Bizkit and what not. Bunch of spoiled white kids angry because daddy didn’t let them have the car that night.
SCRAM: Frat boys who think it’s rebellious to say ‘fuck’ on a record. I think someone should give those brats an encyclopedia: people have been saying ‘fuck’ since the 10th Century.
JO: They should call those records My First Beer. I keep waiting for that shite to go away–but it hasn’t. Luckily it’s not as popular back home as it is here.
SCRAM: Punk was always angry, but it was also witty, and self-deprecating.
JO: Punk was upbeat! And it had good songs. But it took you blokes in the states 20 years to catch on! What with bands like Blink-182 and Green Day. Only now are people really digging what went on back then. So the timing was right to return triumphantly. (laughs)
SCRAM: I know the Revillos have toured off and on as late as 1996. Will the bands co-exist?
EUGENE REYNOLDS: No. I think that would just confuse the issue. We’ve done as much as we can with that band.
JO: But when the New Romantic ‘80s revival takes off next year, you can get another tour going!
EUGENE: We made a point not to do Rezillos songs when we were with the Revillos. But later we started doing some at the end of our set, and that’s what lit the fuse, made us start thinking about doing it again.
SCRAM: Eugene, why your stage name? Why not just Alan Forbes?
EUGENE: I found these black spy sunglasses in the sand on a beach, and I tried them on, and I just felt a different persona take over. And it was Eugene Reynolds. And then I found them for sale at a little corner shop, and I bought the whole stash. They became Rezillo glasses. I’ve never seen them before or since.
SCRAM: Didn’t you sell them through the fan club?
FAY FIFE: No, he used to toss them into the audience!
EUGENE: I did get one set back! So if any of you old fans still have some, toss them back when you see us next. I’m down to two, and don’t know what I’ll do without them.
SCRAM: America thinks of you as a punk band–do you feel that way?
EUGENE: No. It was coincidental. You have to put it into perspective–we had this band in 1975 (as the Knutsford Dominators-ed.) before there was such a thing as ‘punk’. We predated it. In those days, if you weren’t part of the old guard dinosaur rock, you were punk rock.
SCRAM: You toured with the Ramones, and they had a reputation for picking opening bands that they knew would not upstage them, and hating bands that did. Did you have any experiences like that?
JO: I think the unfortunate thing for them is that for the tour before that, the Ramones walked on water in Britain–they could do no wrong. And the British press loves to build you up to tear you down. And on that tour it happened to them, and the press favored us.
EUGENE: They had an extremely obnoxious tour manager, who would hide our guitars when we were supposed to go on. Then they put Generation X as a buffer between us. And we would get scheduled to go on 20 minutes before the door opened.
FAY: (not remembering) What??
EUGENE: So people would be coming in the door and we’d be finishing up our set.
JO: They thought Generation X would suck, and make them look good. But that didn’t happen either, so they got into friction with them as well.
SCRAM: You were very big in England–your album was Top 20. But you never made any money. Why was that?
EUGENE: We only made one record. To make any money you have to make album after album. We found out too late that we never should have broken up if we wanted to make any money.
JO: (defiantly) This band was never about making money in the first place!
EUGENE: The thing about now is that I feel there is unfinished business to take care of. That’s why we are back together.
JO: We separated into camps. It wasn’t harmonious. We weren’t a happy magic family.
FAY: But now it is a happy magic family.
SCRAM: Fay, do you still have all the costumes you designed for the band?
FAY: No! They all rotted away from the sweat and dirt!
SCRAM: One of the amazing things about both bands were the outfits, which got progressively more elaborate with the Revillos.
EUGENE: We thought that was a piss-take. The Revillos were an extreme, more out-there version of the themes we explored with the Rezillos, and the costumes reflected that. To a certain extent we wanted to be so comic book and weird that our crowd became smaller and more fanatic and we alienated the rest. Now that we are the Rezillos again, we’ve had to relearn how to go back to the subtler form. To use the analogy of a horror film: the bad ones you see the monster in the first five minutes, in the good ones you hardly see it at all. We don’t want to show the monster too much. Did you know the name comes from a comic? On the cover of The Shadow #1, the cafe is called Revillo Cafe. We changed the v to a z, and then back to a v…
SCRAM: With the Rezillos, were there any songs you recorded but never released?
JO: There was one track, an out-take.
EUGENE: And plenty of songs we wrote but never recorded.
FAY: (pointing to head) And there are songs in here that have never come out yet…
SCRAM: What kind of music are you listening to now?
JO: Lot of electronic music, dance music. House music. UK garage. I think Basement Jaxx are the best rock music in Britain right now, and they’re all electronic.
EUGENE: I like ‘The Mix’ by Kraftwerk. Listen to it on headphones–it’s an incredible aural experience. But mostly I just blast Led Zeppelin or listen to my girlfriend play guitar.
SCRAM: Putting out a new album?
FAY: Perhaps. We’re planning to make a plan, if that makes sense… there’s no master plan.