February 28, 1976
by Dave Laing
BOXER: raw and wild
"I’D RATHER you didn’t use that word," said Mike Patto good-naturedly when the term ‘old troupers’ was used to describe the four members of the hot rhythm combo Boxer.
Nevertheless, much of the special edge possessed by the band in the overcrowded world of hard rock quartets derives from the many years of diverse and bizarre musical and extra-musical experience under (or below) their collective belt.
Between them, Patto, Ollie Halsall, Keith Ellis and Tony Newman span most of the several ages of British rock. Drummer Newman emerged with Sounds Incorporated in the coffee bar and Cliff Richard era of the early sixties, moving on to work with Cilla Black, the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart, David Bowie and Kevin Ayers, where he met Halsall.
Bass-player Ellis joined the Koobas towards the end of the Merseybeat boom, went "progressive" with Van Der Graaf Generator, went Stateside with Bobby Whitlock (of Derek’s Dominos) and fell in with Patto in a late version of Spooky Tooth.
Patto and Halsall complete the mixture as graduates of that very exciting period of London music a decade ago when rock and roll, jazz, blues, dope, scotch and Coke, poetry and lunacy were in the melting pot to produce jam sessions and even the occasional gigging band with as rich a musical brew as had been seen this side of New York.
It’s their partnership, in fact, which lies at the heart of Boxer. They’ve been writing songs together, on and off, ever since they first met over water pistols in the Blue Boar on the M1. "He was in the Bo Street Runners, no it was the Chicago Line Blues Band . . ." says Ollie.
"I was in Timebox and we needed a singer. I’d been doing all the vocals because the American singer we’d had was repossessed by the Marines one night after a gig at Sybilla’s. I’d heard about this Patto bloke before, singing with the London Youth Jazz orchestra at the Marquee, wearing a shiny Sammy Davis suit."
Patto remembers that first meeting too. He, Tim Hinckley (currently with Snafu) and others had been running amok with the water pistols: "After I refilled my water pistol, I went into the toilet and a note came under the door. It was very embarrassing ‘cos I recognised Ollie’s shoes. . ."
Anyway, he joined, to find himself in a strange schizoid group, condemned to play the ballrooms of Britain but harbouring secret fantasies of jazz-rock fusions in its midst.
The Timebox years were genuinely schizoid for Halsall and Patto. On the one hand were their featured numbers like ‘Billy’s Bag’: "Mike used to sit on the front of the stage and do the bongo solo in the middle. Then one day he lost the bongos. So when we got to the break he read a Zen poem out of a book."
Cue for Patto to recall a tale about a man chased by a tiger who falls over a cliff to clutch at a vine only to find another tiger waiting beneath him and two mice gnawing at a vine. "Nearby was a wild strawberry. He picked and ate it. It was the sweetest thing he had ever tasted."
The other side of Timebox was the attempt by Decca to make them into pop stars. "We got called into the office", says Mike, "And were told – ‘we’ve seen your stage act, it’s a bit jazzy. Record these A sides, then later on you can do your own stuff.’ We did ‘Beggin" the old Four Seasons song. It reached the glorious heights of number 27 in the charts.
"Then a nasty smell arose and there was talk of buying-in and all that going on. We were one of the groups that had the finger pointed at them. But it was being played to death on the radio – Jimmy Young used to open his show with it."
Soon after, the Timebox compromise fell apart, and Ollie and Mike moved on to their very own underground band. The name was suggested by Muff Winwood, who was to produce the group’s four albums.
It was, in many ways, the archetypal late sixties underground group. The songs were either politically direct (‘Hold Your Fire’) or full of hip humour and references. The music was jagged, experimental, with Ollie Halsall developing his unique brand of guitar playing in front of small, intense audiences on the club circuit.
The vices of Patto (artistically speaking) were those of a band almost too set on avoiding commercial success, enjoying its status with the hipsters.
So, just as Patto took shape in reaction to the Timebox experience, Boxer is conceived by Mike and Ollie as a giant step on from Patto. "If there was any direction, any forethought to this band, it was simply that we wanted a white rock and roll band – that’s all," says Mike.
The group virtually picked itself. On bass, we asked Greg Ridley first, but Keith fits in marvelously. It’s very intimate with four, very raw when I’m singing with just guitar, bass and drums behind."
With the group only a few months old, Ollie finds it a challenge still: "I’ve not got to grips with it fully yet. Playing on stage, there’s a lot of freedom. It’s a bit wild, it goes berserk. You really do have to take a step back sometimes, to get hold of it."
That barely reined-in energy is one of the most evident aspects of ‘Below The Belt’, the first Boxer album, recorded in 10 days last autumn at the Manor. It’s not a polished album, but, Mike insists, that wasn’t the point: "It’s a nice way to do a first album – the songs are all raw, they were just written. The feel was the important thing between us – that fusion of the right people at the right time."
The fusion of the right people at the right time is what makes good music great, and Boxer have it in them to do just that. – DAVE LAING
This issue of Sounds had several other Boxer-related bits, all about the controversial album cover...
From the NEWSDESK page:
BOXER's controversial album cover has continued to cause trouble up and down the country. Expansion Records of Bristol had more than 20 complaints after they displayed the album in their window which culminated in a visit from the local constabulary after which they tactfully withdrew the album from prominent public view. And Virgin's own record shop in Aberdeen has also suffered similar problems.
Meanwhile, Boxer, who are currently on tour, will be joined by Widowmaker on their tour as from next Wednesday at Leeds University.
From the JAWS column:
BOXERMANIA: Some groups will do anything to get into Jaws and Boxer keep their name about with that infamous album cover. This week's obscene report comes from Expansion Records in Bristol who had 20 complaints for their window display of the Boxer girl. Finally the police asked the store to remove the display. And the same thing happened in (wait for it) Aberdeen's Virgin Record shop.
From the LETTERS page:
IN REPLY to the letter printed from a Be-Bop fan this week (SOUNDS 14 February) about the Boxer ad, at least Boxer go all the way when using a nude model, not like the half-hearted attempt used on the Be-Bop Deluxe cover.
Not only are Boxer nudes better, but Ollie Halsall is a better guitarist than Bill Nelson could ever even dream of being -- John Shipcott, Worcester Park, Surrey
Nitpicking: The "Beggin'" single got as far as
position #38 in the charts, not #27.
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