October 4, 1975
Any band who leave the Rollers speechless must have
something going for them.
A FEW weeks ago, the Bay City Rollers, plus entourage of managers, accountants and the rest were whisked out to The Manor in deepest Oxfordshire, to view the latest studio facilities at that stately mansion. Ushered into the control room they were greeted with the sight of four very different musicians looning about, putting the finishing touches to an album.
"We went up to meet them and they wanted to hear some sounds. So we played them ‘Gonna Work Out Fine’ at full volume, because there’s not one guitar on it. It’s all keyboards through phasers! They didn’t say anything when they heard that, but they looked round at each other. Then the manager nodded and they all filed out."
The speaker is Ollie Halsall, one-quarter of Boxer, the band the Rollers heard.
It must have been a bizarre meeting, because Boxer represent everything in rock that the Rollers’ image-builders have turned away from. As musicians, they’re fiercely independent, they’re explorers and they take risks. They are also equally talented at composing and performing. The result might well be the most exciting and intelligent new hard rock band to emerge for some time.
‘New’ isn’t the word for Boxer, though. Their origins lie deep in the mists of the Sixties with a London club band called Timebox, one of whose singles, ‘I’m Beggin’,’ was recently exhumed on the Decca ‘Hard Up Heroes’ compilation. In that group were a youthful Ollie Halsall on lead guitar, fresh in town from Southport, and one Mike Patto as singer. When the organist left, this pair together with the rhythm section of John Halsey and Clive Griffiths stuck together with a new repertoire and a new name, Patto.
It lasted for three years, and soon became what is known as a musician’s band.
"Our bandrooms used to be a joy to behold" recalls Mike.
"Full of well-known faces. We got a lot of healthy respect but it didn’t pay the rent."
One of the early fans was Muff Winwood, who went on to produce four albums with them:
two for Vertigo – ‘Patto’ and ‘Hold Your Fire’ – and two for Island – ‘Roll ‘Em Smoke ‘Em, Put out A Line’ and one that was never issued called ‘Monkey’s Bum’.
Those titles begin to give a flavour of what Patto was about. It was the archetypal hip London band of the early Seventies, which was both good and bad. Good because they experimented with words and music in songs like ‘Singing The Blues On Reds’ and ‘Hold Your Fire’, combining Patto’s pungent, witty lyrics with Halsall’s restlessly inventive playing. But the other side was what Mike calls the band’s "introverted" tendency: "It was jokesville, too oddball. It was –‘thank you for digging us because you can dig where we’re at’."
Nevertheless, it was clear that the Halsall-Patto combination was a potent one. Their ways parted three years ago when the Patto band split up. Mike now says that "I always knew I’d work with Ollie again," but in between they went different ways. As avid readers of record sleeves will know, Ollie has been very much in demand as a guitarist for sessions and tours. He was with Jon Hiseman’s Tempest for a while, and more recently with Grimms and Kevin Ayres. Patto joined Spooky Tooth for an American tour, and returned to start on a solo album.
At this point, the two met up again. "I knew I’d work with Ollie again", Mike says, "It just had to happen when the mixture was right." The decision to get another band together was clinched when Halsall and Patto found out that drummer Tony Newman was looking for a gig. "You don’t get First Division players free every week," as Mike put it.
A full list of everything Tony Newman’s done over the last decade would go on forever, but the high spots include periods with Sounds Incorporated in the days when they backed every American singer on tour here, a Cilla Black world tour, a spell in the stormy Jeff Beck band with Ron Wood and Rod Stewart and more recently, Bowie’s ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour. A good man to have on your side.
The Boxer line-up is completed by another experienced musician, bass-player Keith Ellis. His credentials include the original Juicy Lucy, the Bobby Whitlock band in America and Spooky Tooth, where he met up with Mike Patto. Both Halsall and Patto stress the importance of the right rhythm section in a tight four-piece band.
"The strength of the rhythm section – the bass guitar and bass drum – gets through to the solar plexus. The lyrics, guitar and voice get through to the brain at the top. The Patto band tended just to get to the brain, but there was nothing to get you on your feet. With that band we learnt a lot – mostly what not to do. With Boxer, we’ll be more direct, get out there and make it happen." Mike adds that "if you liked Patto, this one will show you what we were trying to do."
Just as important as the sound in the Boxer mixture are the songs, mostly the result of collaboration between Patto and Halsall. As Mike points out, "There are so many good players around now, but not many bands whose material is at all strong."
Both he and Ollie have been writing steadily over the last three years, Patto for his yet to be completed solo record and Halsall for Tempest during his time with them. For Boxer, they got together for a month and pooled their ideas, usually with Mike writing lyrics to Ollie’s.music: "I understand Ollie’s writing and he understands my lyric things very well. When we get together it sizzles."
The next step was to go into the studio, even though there was as yet no recording contract. They felt very strongly that rather than sell the idea of Boxer to someone, they would present them with the music itself. The resulting album lives up to the optimism both Patto and Halsall have about the band. It’s best summed up by ‘Gonna Work Out Fine’, which includes a passage where Patto repeatedly wails out the immortal line "there’s a moose on the loose" over Halsall’s driving, fluid guitar and Newman’s powerhouse drumming. Overall, too, the lyrics are studded with witty gems, like the ‘Town Drunk’ who has "a little disease they call the DTs", while in a quieter vein, Patto himself regards 'More than Meets The Eye’ as the best love song he’s ever done.
The album, which hasn’t yet been set for release, suggests that Boxer will make quite an impact as a live band. Already their date sheet for the rest of the year is being filled up, to follow their London debut next Sunday at the Victoria Palace.
The song which contains the line, "there’s a moose on the
loose", is "All the Time in the World", not "Gonna
Work Out Fine".
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