INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Facelift SEPTEMBER 1997 - by Stephen Yarwood
Until 1980 when he quit the music business, Bill MacCormick, bass guitarist, songwriter and occasional vocalist, had been a key player with Quiet Sun, Matching Mole, 801 and Random Hold, as well as session man for the likes of Phil Manzanera, Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno and Gary Windo. There was also a brief flirtation with Gong, and a near miss with Roxy Music, but more of that later. I met up with Bill at his south London home to look back on his musical career.
"I was born in London in 1951, my father had been a fighter pilot during the war and worked for a variety of airlines afterwards. My mother, who was also in the RAF, took a more academic path and moved into teaching. While I was at Dulwich College, she worked for a while at the Preparatory School across the road, as did Honor Wyatt, Robert's mother, with whom she got on very well. I soon discovered that Honor had a son who was a musician, which immediately aroused my interest. Eventually my brother Ian and I were invited to a party at some exotic and arty place in Kingston to see Robert's group perform."
This was August 1966 and was Soft Machine's first live appearance.
"After that we thought we'd better keep in with these guys as it all seemed very cool. Some time later they all moved into Honor's house in Dalmore Road, West Dulwich, and as this was on the way back from school we started calling in. They had all their equipment, including the ubiquitous one-hundred-watt Marshall stacks, in the front room. Basically we used to hang out there and drink copious cups of tea whilst listening them rehearse or alternatively to the records that Robert would play. It was a real education, and we started picking up on music well outside of the mainstream like Miles Davis or even Cecil Taylor, whom we actually went to see on one memorable occasion, unbelievably impenetrable stuff! Even so it really opened our ears to what was possible. Ian and myself would supplement this education with frequent visits to West Norwood Library where there was a good music section. By our mid teens the standard stuff on the turntable, apart from the Beatles, would be Pharaoh Sanders, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane plus orchestral pieces by modern classical composers such as Stravinsky."
Elder brother Ian later became a well known and influential music journalist with the NME under the name of Ian MacDonald. As an author he received much acclaim for his Revolution In The Head: The Beatles' Records And The '60s, a detailed analysis of the entire Beatles catalogue song by song.
"Around early '68, we decided to get a band together at school, the key figures being myself, Phil Manzanera and Charlie Hayward. Others members were part of a floating complement that came and went. I was the vocalist, I didn't actually take up bass guitar until I left school. Our influences were very much the psychedelic groups of the time, so we started out playing covers of songs by Cream, Jefferson Airplane and those sort of people. We played the school annual arts festival on a couple of occasions, pretty much taking it over in the end. We also played at Dulwich Swimming Baths during the winter when the pool was boarded over. It was a good venue, quite a large hall with a stage. We'd send out invitations to other public schools in the area and end up playing one-and-a-half hour sets to four or five hundred people. By now we'd written some of our own stuff and had a couple of guys who did the lights, one of whom had been with me in the States in the Winter of 1968 and seen all the top San Francisco light shows at places like the Fillmore. On our return the physics lab was raided for slides and projectors to create some pretty impressive visuals. The school were amazingly tolerant of our activities, we had a great time.
"I left in the summer of '69, Charlie Hayward and Phil Manzanera stayed on a bit longer. Charlie had originally been asked to join because he had a superb red Premier Keith Moon style kit, with the two bass drums, extra toms, etcetera. The fact that he could play was a bonus, his parents had paid for lessons over a number of years and he was technically brilliant. After a while he said we could rehearse at his house, a huge Victorian place across the road from Camberwell School of art. We used one of the downstairs rooms which had some sort of primitive soundproofing with egg boxes stuck to the walls. This would be a regular thing two or three times a week and went on through the final year at school and beyond. Charlie's mum would bring us something to eat from time to time, but that would be all we'd see of his parents despite the fact that we were rehearsing in one room, and listening to all sorts of exotic music on Charlie's hi-fi in another.
"Eventually we felt we needed a change of direction, we were writing more instrumental stuff for which we wanted keyboards and sax, plus a new bass player. I had decided to become a second drummer, so I bought myself a kit and began to practise with Charles. We soon found a sax player, and then Dave Jarrett came in on keyboards. He had also been at Dulwich College and was very much a Mike Ratledge clone. Still we couldn't find a suitable bass player, we had the instrument but nobody to play it. In order to rehearse I said I'd learn the parts and fill in until we found a permanent replacement.
"We carried on this way until I realised I quite enjoyed it, and the others thought I was doing a good job, so quite by accident I filled the vacancy. The sax player had left by this time and we were down to the basic four piece. We recorded some demos, a couple of songs, one by brother Ian and another of Phil's, but nothing really happened. Warner Brothers had a small studio somewhere in Dorset where they let us record for a few days, most of the material ended up being rerecorded and rearranged for the Mainstream album four years later.
"The name Quiet Sun had come into being sometime in 1970 after my brother had come across an article entitled The Years Of The Quiet Sun, which examined a period of time when sunspot and solar flare activity had been particularly low. We organised a few gigs around West Norwood for a fairly loyal following mostly of people who had known us from school, and occasionally played other places. I particularly remember a shambolic appearance on Worthing Pier supporting Steamhammer, but live dates were pretty few and far between. In the end Warner Brothers decided not to sign us. We were probably a bit too obscure to have any real chance of getting a recording deal."
As the momentum within Quiet Sun began to fade other avenues began to open for individual members.
"In early 1971 Quiet Sun were still working but in an increasingly desultory fashion. Around this time Phil answered the Roxy Music ad in Melody Maker and subsequently got the job once they had decided that David O'List was not up to it. One of the few gigs Quiet Sun did play was at Portsmouth supporting Symbiosis, who had Robert Wyatt on drums that particular night. Apart from Gary Windo, their line up tended to be very fluid and depended on who was available. It was the first time Robert had actually seen me play. Towards the end of the Symbiosis set we were asked to go up and jam, and for whatever reason this lodged itself in Robert's memory.
"By this time life for him in Soft Machine was pretty awful, he was very depressed. I thought they treated him very badly, he gave that band some humanity. Mike Ratledge in particular wrote technically fantastic stuff that I enjoyed listening to, but Robert wrote the good songs. I recall one occasion when he came to see us rehearse. He sat in the corner and a pool of gloom just oozed out of him and seemed to cover us all. In September 1971 he asked me if I would be interested in getting a band together, and a couple of months later we started trying a few things out at a house in Notting Hill along with Dave Sinclair and Phil Miller, neither of whom I knew. We rehearsed Moon In June, some of Dave's longer Caravan pieces, and a few other ideas that were developed for the album."
These new ideas virtually took over the first Matching Mole album, which was recorded under difficult conditions during a time of power cuts resulting from industrial action in the mining industry.
"Much of it was improvised and some of it recorded completely solo by Robert. It was rather thrown together and certainly not what CBS were expecting. Eventually Dave Sinclair was eased out, he was never entirely happy with the way we were progressing. It was a bit too free for him. We did play some gigs with both Dave Sinclair and Dave MacRae in the line up, mainly in Belgium and Holland, but it wasn't really working with two keyboard players. Looking back I'm not sure whether Robert was ever really satisfied with what we were doing. We were also very short financially. I'd had a job for a while the previous year and at one point I ended up paying the other members of the band."
Soft Machine had always been more popular in mainland Europe than in the UK, and so it was with Matching Mole.
"In the UK we were paid very poorly for our live performances, whereas in Holland, Belgium or France you'd get paid ten times as much. In those countries it was a different sort of audience, particularly in France, much more arty. We always went down well in Amsterdam, especially the Paradiso Club where we played on a number of occasions. In fact we were recorded live there by a radio station, but as far as I know the tapes have never come to light. I'd like to hear that again as I recall we played pretty well that night. Our set at that time included bits and pieces from Soft Machine numbers, borrowing Hugh Hopper chord sequences and various other things. It was a very enjoyable period."
Around this time the emerging Roxy Music were making waves.
"One of the first breaks Roxy got, apart from a rather over the top review of their demos by Richard Williams of the Melody Maker, was at a big festival somewhere in Lincolnshire in May '72. They'd recorded the first album and this was to be their first high profile live appearance after the sessions, but with about a week to go bass player Graham Simpson had a nervous breakdown. Apparently they phoned me but I was in Paris with Matching Mole. That was that, I was in wrong place at the wrong time, but who knows? With their track record with bass players I might have only lasted a couple of weeks."
Meanwhile back in the real world, Matching Mole were writing and recording.
"At my suggestion we hired Robert Fripp to produce the second Matching Mole album. A very nice man, but as it turned out totally wrong for the job. Unfortunately he terrified Phil Miller, to whom Fripp was the ultimate guitar player. Phil would try to do his parts with Fripp watching from the control room and find it most intimidating. It has to be said that Fripp wasn't terribly helpful under the circumstances. He had a very dictatorial approach to his production duties, he insisted on the final say in everything.
"I also suggested we get Eno in to do some of the synthesizer parts on Gloria Gloom and other things. Dave MacRae took this as a grave aspersion on his keyboard abilities, which I couldn't understand because he was a brilliant electric piano player but hadn't as far as I knew used synthesizers. The whole point about Gloria Gloom, for which I wrote the music and Robert wrote the lyrics, was to create an atmospheric piece. The voices on that were David Gale, Julie Christie and Alfie doing separate monologues about totally different things. We just took bits out and edited it together.
"Anyway we finished the album and went off on a tour of Belgium and Holland with Soft Machine, the Jenkins/Marshall/Hopper/Ratledge line up. It was a nice tour, I didn't particularly like the music Soft Machine were producing then, but we all got on well. It could have been very fraught with Robert meeting up with Hugh and Mike again. The audiences listened and seemed to like both bands. The last gig was in Groningen in Holland, and in the hotel restaurant the next morning Robert suddenly announced he was breaking the band up.
"I was never really sure as to what the reasons were. It has been suggested that he didn't like the responsibilities of being the leader. Yes, nominally he was the leader, but if you look at the credits for the music it was actually spreading out amongst the rest of us. We were all writing and it seemed to me that we were developing a sound. Whereas the first album had been very much improvised around some very simple riffs, the second album had a greater structure to it. It also seemed as though we had some kind of identity with an audience, certainly in mainland Europe there was a definite market, people were keen. We were playing festivals and getting good billing and money up front, we could play any major French/Dutch/Belgian city or town and pull a decent sized audience.
"I couldn't quite see what Robert's problem was, perhaps he just didn't like the music and was too polite to say. Phil and I were absolutely flabbergasted, it really didn't seem to us to be a reasonable or sensible thing to do. We both got pretty angry about it, in fact I got extremely angry. The second album had just come out to good reviews, helped along by my brother who was by now assistant editor at the NME, and the live reviews were favourable. It was all in all a very strange decision."
Later on that year there was another interesting phone call, on this occasion Bill was there to answer it.
"I had a very brief sojourn in France with Gong. I think it was in the Autumn of '72. Robert phoned me to say that Gong were looking for a new bass player and were auditioning at the Manor, Richard Branson's studio. I wasn't too sure about it but turned up anyway, although I've never been happy with audition situations. There were about half a dozen others there whom I was convinced were all better than me, so I did my bit and was amazed when a few days later I got a call asking me if I wanted to join them in France. So I picked up my guitar, flew off to Paris and was taken to this hunting lodge somewhere in the countryside. It was around November and it was freezing!
"The band at the time included Daevid Allen of course, Didier Malherbe, who was wonderful, another Frenchman on guitar (probably Christian Tritsch, recently switched from bass), and a drummer whose identity escapes me (probably Laurie Allan). The house was full of the Gong entourage, who were all very pleasant, kids running around and all that sort of thing. The band were essentially French, Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth were both fluent in French, so that was the common language. The only opportunity for me to communicate effectively was through the music.
"I began to resent the fact that I was there, I had nothing with me apart from the clothes I stood up in, I couldn't sleep because it was too cold, I spoke very little French, and nobody seemed to be going out of their way to communicate with me. Some of the sessions got very weird, it got almost competitive between Daevid and myself. We'd be on opposite sides of the rehearsal room sort of eyeing each other, perhaps this was part of his creative process. It was very strange, I don't know why it happened that way at all. The tapes were often running, I know he must have recorded some of stuff we did because a bass riff that I had started ended up on one of the albums. In some ways it might have worked if I could have sustained it because there were a few sparks flying, Didier was enjoying himself tremendously.
"After four or five days though I told them I just couldn't handle it. So that was that, and they drove me back to Paris. Oddly enough a few months later Charlie Hayward went and joined up with them for a while. Looking back I might have been better off with them as I did very little for the best part of a year after that."
Meanwhile back in London.
"Robert had gone off to Venice, Julie Christie was making Don't Look Now, and Alfie was working on the film as an editor of some sort. Robert and I kept in touch and I suggested various musical projects. Through his connections I met up with Francis Monkman and Gary Windo, and eventually Robert agreed to Matching Mole Mk2. Whilst he'd been away in Venice he'd been writing some stuff on a portable keyboard, quite a lot of which ended up on Rock Bottom. We started rehearsing, although I use the term very loosely, it was in fact a couple of afternoons up at Alfie's flat. I do remember one day Robert and I went across the road to a pub where they had a band, and we ended up playing rock 'n roll songs. Given my background these were things I'd never played before, so it was quite interesting trying to work out the bass parts that every bass player in the world knew as standards. I'd just never got round to it. My bass playing had all come from playing written parts for Quiet Sun songs. Then Gary and I did a couple of pubs gigs with a pick up band including John Halsey and Ollie Halsall from Patto. We were stopped by the landlord at one of the gigs, it wasn't what he was expecting."
The thought of an unsuspecting publican being confronted by the uncompromising blowing of Gary Windo is one to savour. Meanwhile the Matching Mole revival gathered pace.
"I think the announcement had gone out in Melody Maker saying that Matching Mole Mk2 were ready to go and were currently rehearsing. Then of course we had the awful accident, I'd been invited to the party but hadn't gone. Robert had seemed enthusiastic about the new line up, admittedly I'd badgered him into it. It was a great shame because quite a lot of Rock Bottom had already been written, and when I heard the album I thought if things had been different it could have been us. The accident happened on a Saturday night and I found out on the Sunday, by the evening I was in hospital with appendicitis. The doctor said it could be brought on by stress, or a sudden shock. After the operation I did very little for several months apart from visiting Robert at Stoke Mandeville Hospital on a fairly regular basis. He was fortunate in that people rallied round after the accident, Pink Floyd arranged a benefit. When he came out of hospital I was a frequent visitor at his and Alfie's flat, I was amazed how cheerful he was. I did a few sessions for Eno's Here Come The Warm Jets album in September '73, appearing on a couple of tracks, but basically I stopped playing for about eighteen months."
This musically inactive period was very active in other areas.
"I joined the Liberal Party in December '73 and became heavily involved in the General Elections of February '74, and in May that year I stood in the Council Elections. I had also wanted to go to university to read politics, but having obtained the necessary qualifications I turned down offers from the London School of Economics and Warwick University in favour of reviving my musical career. Phil Manzanera had come up with the idea for the Quiet Sun album in November '74 and in the end there was no contest."
Late 1974 saw the beginning of the sessions for Phil Manzanera's first solo album Diamond Head. Running parallel with this project was the recording of Mainstream by the temporarily reformed Quiet Sun. Was Quiet Sun's one and only appearance on vinyl a true representation of their sound?
"Yes, there wasn't time for anything fancy as it was entirely recorded during Phil's sessions. He'd book the studio for say twelve hours, then do eight hours of his stuff and then four hours of Quiet Sun, usually after midnight. It was all done very quickly. Having got Dave Jarrett away from teaching mathematics or whatever it was, we'd managed to get a few days rehearsal. The production on the album was pretty minimal, apart from a few treatments by Eno.
"Phil knew Eno from Roxy of course, and I knew him from the second Matching Mole album and my sessions on his first solo album. The Quiet Sun sessions were really good, I think it probably sound a bit off the wall because that's the way it had to be recorded, we weren't trying to make it sound pretty or anything. Phil just wanted to put it out because it made sense of the couple of years we'd spent getting the material and sound together. It was a cheap album to make and I'm still getting royalties from it."
The Bill MacCormick tonsils finally got an airing during the Diamond Head sessions.
"Alma was a Quiet Sun song, it was my first lead vocal on record, although I'd sung on demo tapes before. Quite a lot of the tracks on Diamond Head were fragments of songs that didn't make it on to the Quiet Sun album. Phil had this sprawling twenty minute piece of which Alma was the final part. I think it actually started with the guitar solo thing Lagrima, then went into other sections that were never recorded."
In May 1975 there were sessions for Robert Wyatt's Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard album at the Manor.
"The Manor was a very nice place to record, the guys in the studio were great, the food was good. It wasn't technically outstanding, but the engineers got a good sound and were prepared to try anything. It was nice to work with Robert again. I suspect he felt a bit taken over at times on those sessions, there were some very forceful personalities around, but it was a great two or three weeks. It was quite funny really, the tension between the out and out jazzers like George Khan and Gary Windo, and the rest of the rockers. Basically Brian Eno thought jazz was crap, and they couldn't quite understand what this rather bizarre looking character was doing in the studio. But it worked really well and I really enjoyed it. There are a few things on that album where I felt I played particularly well, Team Spirit was one, Five Black Notes And One White Note was another."
Team Spirit was particularly outstanding. The song had a strange history tied up with Frontera off Phil Manzanera's Diamond Head album.
"Frontera was a Quiet Sun song, Phil wrote most of it, Ian and I had contributed parts, and then on the Diamond Head album Robert came in and did those lyrics, Spanish gibberish basically. For one reason or another I didn't get any credits for it on Diamond Head despite the fact that I'd written the top line. For some reason Robert remembered this and thought it would be a good idea to do it again, but this time I would get a credit. So we did a jazz version of Frontera and called it Team Spirit."
Another musician involved in most of the Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard sessions was Gary Windo.
"Yes, he was the wild man of the sax, a great player, lots of enthusiasm. When I heard he'd died (1992) it was a great shock, he seemed to have so much life left in him. In April 1976 I played on the sessions for his Steam Radio Tapes. It started at his flat in Hampstead, quite a lot of it was working on songs that Pam his wife had written. We actually put a band together which played one gig, at Maidstone College of Art. We had Nick Mason on drums, a guitarist whose name escapes me (subsequently discovered to be Richard Brunton), and Pam playing piano and singing. From that it evolved into the Steam Radio Tapes. down at Britannia Row. Myself and Hugh Hopper played bass, often both of us on the same number, it's virtually impossible to tell who is playing what."
The next significant project was 801 with Phil Manzanera and Co.
"801 came together during 1976, and sprang out of sessions that eventually ended up as the Listen Now album. The sessions had been going on for a long time because of Phil's commitments with Roxy. Eventually he decided he wanted to do something in the summer, and suggested getting a band together and playing some festivals."
In addition to Manzanera and MacCormick the short lived 801 Mk1 also included Brian Eno on synth/vocals, Simon Phillips on drums, Francis Monkman on keyboards and Lloyd Watson on slide guitar/vocals.
"Lloyd Watson had been support on one of the early Roxy Music tours, and was a solo singer songwriter who played slide guitar. It was an interesting combination, a slide guitar player and Brian Eno.
"As we all had a free summer we were able to get it together in the country. We had the use of a house near Ludlow in Herefordshire so we spent a few days down there examining the possibilities. We looked at songs from Phil's albums, Eno's albums, some Quiet Sun stuff plus a few cover versions. I'm sure the others will claim otherwise but it was my idea to do Tomorrow Never Knows, but I think the idea of doing the Kinks' You Really Got Me just came out of jamming around. We had further rehearsals at the Island offices, and then were supposed to go off and do a series of festivals in France for which we would be pretty well paid. About two weeks before the first event at Orange in the south of France, there was a riot at another festival which resulted in Giscard D'Estaing cancelling all similar events in France that summer. As you can imagine this was a bit of a blow. We'd already been booked to do the Reading Festival, plus a warm up gig in Cromer, but we could see all this money we'd been expecting to earn going down the tubes. So to compensate Phil suggested we make a record, this became the imaginatively titled 801 Live.
"Matching Mole had played Reading in 1972 and that had been a real mismatch, we didn't go down well at all. When we played there with 801 it had been raining so hard it had become a sea of mud, you could see the steam rising off the crowd. As we hit the stage the sun came out. It was a wonderful moment, and more steam rose from the bedraggled assembled masses. It was a great set, we really played well. Then we did the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the Island Mobile recording it. It was great fun and the album incredibly cheap to produce, it was one of the top selling imports to the USA that year, I could never understand why Island didn't release it over there. It still sells and the royalty cheques still come in."
About a year later there was a tour under the 801 banner to promote Listen Now.
"The 801 tour in the Autumn of 1977 was good fun. Along with Phil and myself, we had Paul Thompson on drums, Dave Skinner on keyboards and yet another Dulwich College old boy Simon Ainley on guitar and vocals. One night at Manchester University we had Kevin Godley, Lol Creme, Eddie Jobson and Andy MacKay up on stage, a very small stage actually.
"801 was a good outlet for songs that Phil and I had got together. By this time he'd bought Manzanera Towers as we called it, a huge house over in Chertsey. We just used to go over there and spend days working on various new ideas.
"Listen Now came out of a lot of half finished things that Phil had, which Ian and I took away to write lyrics and melody lines and generally knock into shape. It took a long time to record, December '75 through to July '77, and featured a cast of thousands including Simon Ainley on all lead vocals, Simon Phillips, Dave Mattacks, Mel Collins, Eno, Francis Monkman and Eddie Jobson.
"Around this time I also had a brief foray into journalism. I did a few things for the NME, the first one about football hooliganism, then an interview with Julie Christie about her anti nuclear stance, and finally a look at the unwelcome rise of the National Front . The latter piece caused a few problems as I ended up receiving a death threat and subsequently had Special Branch crawling all over the place. These sort of issues were reflected in the lyrics on Listen Now, it was an unpleasant and threatening time in this country, it seemed like we were moving towards a totalitarian state. I did a couple of things from America for Streetlife magazine, interviewing Warren Beatty about his political activities, and covering the 1976 Presidential Elections.
"K-Scope, the second 801 studio album, had no political concept and was musically a much less coherent piece of work, although recorded in a shorter period of time at Chris Squire's studio. Tim Finn did most the lead vocals, with his brother Neil helping out on keyboards. Their band Split Enz, whom Phil had been instrumental in bringing over from New Zealand, had just split up. Neil and Tim of course later found fame and fortune as Crowded House. It was very co-operative throughout the sessions and overdubs, then Phil rushed off and mixed the whole thing very quickly. I had nothing to do with the final mix at all, and when the album was released it didn't really come up to my expectations. The reason for the haste, it later emerged, was that Roxy were reforming so Phil was keen to get everything else out of the way."
The Bill MacCormick playing technique seemed unorthodox in its development, starting with the complicated time signature stuff in the early days, and ending up as a more orthodox rhythm section style.
"Yes that's certainly true, in Matching Mole you were effectively soloing a large part of the time. In fact I was sent some tapes recently of one of our live performances and it really was make it up as you go along. I don't know how we got away with it sometimes. My playing was all about trying things out and taking risks. If it didn't work fair enough, if it did it would be exciting. Working with Robert was always a challenge, you never knew what was going to happen next. Post Matching Mole my playing became simpler and I began to feel more relaxed as part of a rock rhythm section, as long as the material was interesting."
The next project came from yet another Dulwich College old boy connection.
"David Ferguson and David Rhodes formed Random Hold sometime in 1978, and I provided the finance. I'd watched them play and thought they were quite interesting, so I put some money in and was later invited to join. Like myself, they too had been at Dulwich College, although a few years after me. In fact at the start there were four Dulwich College old boys in the band with Simon Ainley, who'd been on the 801 tour, on guitar and vocals. We struggled for some time to get any interest, but eventually I was able to exploit some of my contacts in the music business, in particular Alan Jones at the Melody Maker. Polydor were due to come and see us rehearse at some old wharf building near Tower Bridge and had already failed to show on two previous occasions. I phoned Alan Jones and suggested he might like to come down and have a listen. So he turned up, and for the third time Polydor didn't.
"We played for about half an hour while Jones listened, and a photographer took a few shots. I have to say we were a little surprised when we saw Melody Maker the following week, we had both the centre pages, running on to a third. We'd only played a few gigs, mainly at the Rock Garden, we hadn't recorded anything and we hadn't been on the radio. The Melody Maker piece certainly had a dramatic effect on the record companies though. Having been in a situation where nobody was interested, we suddenly found ourselves in an auction between three record labels. We successfully played them off against each other and ended up with a pretty substantial advance of eighty-thousand pounds from Polydor, which we immediately blew on expensive guitars and other such luxuries."
So far so good, but there were storm clouds gathering.
"There had always been tension between the two Daves and Simon, who was very much the popster, he wanted to be a rock 'n roll star. He wanted a good time, lots of babes, lots of guitars on the wall and as big a bank balance as possible. But Rhodes and Ferguson were artists, serious people with serious objectives in life. They wanted to do something deep and meaningful, and Simon wanted a good time.
"Dave Leach, the original drummer, had an illness which seriously affected his joints and caused him to stiffen up quite badly, so it was getting quite difficult to rehearse with him. Rhodes and Ferguson had their eye on Pete Phipps, with whom they'd worked on a couple of occasions and who incidentally used to be in The Glitterband! I think they had decided that once we had a record deal they'd get him in. They used Dave Leach's health problems as an excuse to get rid of him. It was at this time, and without reference to me, that they decided to fire Simon, too.
"Looking back, this was an error of judgement on two counts. Firstly Polydor regarded him as the front main, which of course went down very badly with Ferguson and Rhodes, particularly as they wrote ninety-five percent of the material, and secondly it meant that the whole image became one of too much shade and not enough light. Simon was a fairly easy going individual and it reflected in his contribution to the band, it lightened what at times was rather gloomy music. His singing was quite good, but his guitar playing was too lightweight for Ferguson and Rhodes, personally I felt it worked quite nicely. It gave counterpoint to the rather dour Rhodes approach, a brilliant technician but rather introverted. Polydor were unhappy about Simon's departure and they were never too keen after that."
Despite the personnel upheavals there was interest from an unexpected quarter.
"We discovered Peter Gabriel was something of a fan. I don't know how he found out about us but he got his people along to the Rock Garden to see us, but we'd signed the record deal with Polydor the week before so it was too late. If the timing had been slightly different I think we would have signed for another label and it might have been better for all concerned. After Gabriel had persuaded his manager Gail Colson to sign us up for a management deal, she had us go down to Gabriel's place and work with him on his new material. She was fed up with paying several thousand pounds a week to employ the likes of Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta for Gabriel's albums and tours. They were brilliant but very expensive. We spent a couple of weeks down in Bath working on the songs and structures that became his third album. We didn't actually play on the album itself, in the end he decided to use the American super-sessioners.
"Gabriel had wanted to produce our records, but his own heavy schedule at the time got in the way of that. Instead we ended up with Peter Hammill who was part of the same management stable, a very nice guy but in my view the relationship didn't work. We spent about three weeks in the residential studios at John Lennon's old house, complete with guitar shaped lake! It was very nice and a good laugh, but probably not really what we needed at that time, we could have done with a bit more discipline. The tapes were taken somewhere else for mixing, it was then that we realised just how dictatorial Mr. Hammill was. We had no say in the mix at all, we used to sit there and get more and more pissed off, eventually I stopped going.
"When The View From Here came out I found the sound a bit thin in places, but aside from the production I don't think we performed well in the studio. The demos we did for Polydor with the original line up and produced ourselves were infinitely superior. I also felt it was a pity that the second lot of Random Hold stuff never saw the light of day, there were about half a dozen tracks recorded on a twenty-four track that we produced ourselves. I've got loads of reels of tape in an old flight case in the attic, and I did put a lot of stuff on to cassette, but they were stolen from my car a few years back. I suspect I've still got the originals on reel to reel but I don't have the hardware to extract it. They've been up in the attic for years and are probably in a very poor condition."
There had been a fair amount of live work.
"We toured England with XTC, and then again supporting Peter Gabriel. The Gabriel tour then moved on to the States. The great thing about supporting Gabriel was that he went on stage each night and introduced us, and the nature of his audiences was such that they would listen. He didn't like to tour but knew he had to, so if he was going to travel all round the UK and the USA he wanted to enjoy it. To this end the strategy was to find the good hotels first and then see where the nearest decent sized venues were. He and I sat down with the Good Hotel Guide and planned the tour. We stayed in some fantastic places both here and in the States.
"Our album had been released over there and the tour went pretty well, our American label were setting us up for a number of club gigs in our own right. At the end of the tour rather than stay on we decided to return to the UK first, fully intending to go back for the club gigs, but once we got home it all fell apart. It had been a bit fraught for some time, Dave Ferguson and I had major political disagreements, him being a member of the Labour Party and me the Liberal Party. Towards the end of the American tour we had a few more serious clashes, and when we got back the two Daves decided they wanted to carry on without me. They had unfortunately forgotten that the band owed me rather a lot of money, so when I called in the debt it effectively killed the band, they obviously hadn't thought it through properly. By this time I was fed up with the whole business so I just dropped out completely, the end of my music career. Been there, done that!"
What of Rhodes and Ferguson?
"Dave Rhodes was a great songwriter, and despite all the animosity I helped him produce some demos immediately after the band broke up, but eventually he seemed more comfortable as a backing musician on Gabriel's projects. Dave Ferguson went onto a successful career in TV theme and incidental music. I haven't seen either of them for some years. Random Hold hardly sold any records, and I've long stopped receiving royalty statements, which were laughable anyway."
Despite Bill MacCormick's misgivings about the production I can highly recommend all the Random Hold recordings. The sound is dark and occasionally austere yet always capable of moments of high drama and excitement. They bring to mind the aggressive metallic sound of mid-'70s King Crimson but in a more song orientated format. I caught them live at Oxford Polytechnic in February '79 with the original five piece line up and they were brilliant. The essential items are the eponymous debut twelve-inch EP and the album The View From Here. For completists a rerecorded version of Etceteraville from the album was released as a single, with the previously unavailable Precarious Timbers on the flip-side. At the end of the day personality clashes and record company indifference ensured that Random Hold never fulfilled their undoubted potential.
Post music career?
Bill worked for the MP Simon Hughes for a while, and then went on to become London Organiser for the Liberals, working at Party HQ until 1989. By this time he had become involved with the market research company of which he is now a director. He is currently a Liberal Democrat Councillor in South London.