Maker October 4, 1975
By Allan Jones
"IT JUST had to end somewhere," said Mike Patto announcing the demise of Patto, a band of no little potential, in May of 1973.
For six years – longer even, if one considers their earlier incarnation as Timebox – the band led by Patto and guitarist Ollie Halsall, had endured the general antipathy of a rock audience who, while often tolerant of the group’s ambitions, never really embraced them with the enthusiasm they deserved.
In all honesty, one has to add that Patto, despite some honourable attempts, failed to record the killer album they had so often promised. The individual aspirations of the musicians seemed, somehow, to be too disparate to focus on a common theme.
Their albums contained isolated moments of brilliance – particularly from the remarkable Halsall – but lacked a fundamental sense of cohesion. It was, nevertheless, depressing to see a band of such promise go to the wall.
When the band split, Halsall and Patto began to drift.
The guitarist joined Jon Hiseman’s futile attempt at heavy rock, the ill-fated Tempest, and contributed to albums by Grimms and Scaffold, before joining Kevin Ayers in the summer of last year.
Patto, for his sins, found himself in one of these perennial Spooky Tooth reunion bands. He recorded one album with them, "Mirror," before extricating himself from that unmemorable combination to settle, in some ill-defined executive capacity, at Good Ear records.
It was inevitable, though, that the Patto-Halsall divorce would be resolved amicably and the two would find themselves once again arm in arm. And, indeed, one now finds them in such a situation with their new band, the evocatively titled Boxer.
The heart of Boxer beat, in fact, within the line-up of the last Kevin Ayers band. Ayers, having left Blackhill for the apparently greener pastures of the John Reid organisation, delegated to Halsall, his musical lieutenant, the responsibility of forming a band for a European tour.
An album had already been recorded ("Sweet Deceiver"), which had put some strain on the relationship between Ayers and Halsall, and it was the somewhat excessive behaviour of the band Halsall had organised for the continental jaunt which eventually precipitated the complete disintegration of the Ayers personality.
Alarmed by the escapades of Halsall, Zoot Money, who had been enlisted on keyboards, and Tony Newman (drums), Kevin split for the Java Seas – or somewhere similarly exotic – to regain some semblance of normality.
No-one was smiling when the band returned from Europe. It was reported that Ollie was lurking in silence and nursing his disappointment at the break-up of the Ayers band, while Zoot – as always, still on his feet – teamed up with Kevin Coyne. Newman, like Halsall, was in a state of unemployment.
"We were out on the street," says Halsall. It was all a complete shambles. That was the best band Kevin ever had behind him. We were the only ones strong enough to carry him when he wasn’t at his best onstage. Which was quite often.
He’d be off on some moody if some lady hadn’t turned up to meet him at a gig and would pretend that he wasn’t going to play.
"It was such a waste, man. I really loved Kevin, and that band was just so f— good."
It seemed only natural that Newman and Ollie should attempt to organise a band of their own. They were old "gutter mates," says Halsall, referring to many years of drunken looning together, and felt that they were musically compatible.
They are featured together, incidentally, on what is destined to be an overlooked album by Terry Stamp called "Fatsticks."
It reveals a much more aggressive style of guitar than Halsall has previously evinced, and this is a particular characteristic of his work with Boxer, especially on tracks like, the magnificent "Loony Ali."
"Lost a lot of brain cells on that album," Halsall reflects, adding that his only memory of the sessions is of having all his clothes torn off him by Newman while he was standing at the bar in Morgan studios.
Anyway, the intrepid pair, having prepared some new material, decided that they’d need a record company to finance the project.
"They came to me," says Patto. "I hadn’t seen Halsall for years. After Patto split I just couldn’t stand the sight of him. But one day him and Newman came tearing into my office. God knows what they thought I could do for them.
I explained that just because I had an office it didn’t mean that I ran the entire music business. Newman just looked at me and said, ‘Christ, you’ve got FOUR f— telephones on your f— desk, ring some f— up and get us a deal!’
"Then, Ollie said that they weren’t only looking for a deal, they also needed a singer…"
"I knew," remarks Halsall, "that he was still a lunatic and that we could get him."
"I wasn’t convinced. I mean, I had a good job. There was regular money, I could pay the rent and feed the family, but I was going bloody mad stuck in that office. I missed being in a band.
"So I said I’d do it, and no amount of money could buy the feeling of being a musician again. It’s been so f— great these last two months. It’s been crazy, but I wouldn’t be without it."
The band was completed by bassist Keith Ellis, and without further delay they took themselves off to the Manor to cut an album which took a mere ten days to complete. For a first album – albeit by experienced musicians – it’s extraordinarily promising.
Patto’s vocals have improved immeasurably since the last days of the Patto band, lending an impassioned edge to such songs as "Waiting For A Miracle" and "All The Time In The World," and, in contrast, leading the band with commendable energy on "Shooting Star" and the potential single "Hip Kiss."
The rhythm section is direct and uncompromising. And then there is Halsall. Now, there are guitarists and there are guitarists’ guitarists, and there are even those guitarists who remind Carlos Santana of typewriters. And THEN there is Ollie Halsall.
The man’s taste and technique are impeccable. Even when he’s carving out the most audaciously razor-edged riffs with a frightening proficiency, he simultaneously retains a sense of lightness and grace. He’s never oppressive, even when he’s running circles around one’s head with some manic burst.
The most immediately powerful performance on the album – which should be released in November – is Boxer’s version of Terry Stamp’s "Town Drunk." It’s a great song, and Boxer’s performance has a genuine impact.
Like the whole of the album, it’s characterised by a refreshing absence of most of the cliches so endemic to most current rock bands.
Boxer’s first London gig will be at the Victoria Palace theatre on Sunday, October 5. They will be supporting Babe Ruth.
"It will," says Halsall, "be the last gig Babe Ruth ever play."
– ALLAN JONES.
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