|Trouser Press August/September 1976
|Mike Patto, Ollie Halsall, and Keith Ellis
describe the paths that led them into the ring.
Interview by Ira Robbins
After discovering the group Patto on late-night FM radio several years ago, it was depressing to learn a few months later that the group had broken up. However, since then it has been interesting to watch the two main figures of the group, Mike Patto and Ollie (Pete) Halsall, go through various musical periods. Mike spent time with Spooky Tooth, and Ollie played guitar for Kevin Ayers, Tempest and Grimms as a sessioner and sideman. In the past year, after a brief reformation of Patto, Ollie and Mike got back together in a new group which they dubbed Boxer. The other members are Tony Newman on drums and Keith Ellis on bass.
Since the history of Patto as a group has been extensively discussed in an earlier Trouser Press story (issue #7) by Ben Richardson, we’ll leave that out here. What does concern us is pre- and post-, areas in which all four Boxers have rich knowledge. As we were only able to interview Mike, Ollie and Keith, they’re the focus, but in terms of experience that should be enough. We’ll start at the beginning, with Patto.
I have you down with a group called the Bluebottles in 1963.
MP: Shit a brick! How the hell did you know that one?
TP: There are others. But tell us about the Bluebottles.
MP: That was the group I turned professional with. It was a rhythm and blues band. We used to back Graham Bond before he formed his group with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. He used to travel up to Norfolk (where I lived) in an old ambulance that had an organ in the back. The Bluebottles played like Georgie Fame, Zoot Money Big Roll Band -- that era. We had an organ in the band as opposed to a rhythm guitarist. After the Bluebottles broke up, there was a guy called Jack Barry who managed a guy called Boz who now plays with a little skiffle group called Bad Company. He sent me to London to cut a record and take it to Robert Stigwood’s office. I sat outside this glass wall while they played and talked about the record. I was getting really nervous because there were all these stars walking around. After a while, Jack Barry poked his head round the door and asked if I’d fancy compering (emceeing) at rock concerts. I got real mad and started shouting about my music, but when he told me it paid 100 pounds a week I decided I could compere, sure.
There was this great tour -- I’m so pleased I did it -- because I used to open up with three songs before anyone knew I was the compere. The bill was Chuck Berry, Moody Blues (who hit number one with "Go Now" the first week we were on the tour), Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men, Graham Bond Organization, and this band called Jimmy Powell’s Five Dimensions, except that Jimmy Powell split. [Note -- Rod Stewart had been in the Dimensions, but left before the tour in question. The group released two singles on Pye in 1964.] They were backing Chuck Berry and they also backed me for the first three numbers. After the tour I went and lived with the Moody Blues who had this big pad. I met the Beatles there -- they used to come around and swim in the pool, get stoned. After that, I went up to Norfolk to spend some time with my folks because I’d run out of money.
The Bo Street Runners offered me a gig -- they were doing well on the R&B scene. Tim Hinkley [Jody Grind, Vinegar Joe and Humble Pie] was the organist -- he saw me when we supported them -- I was in a band called the News that was originally called the Continentals -- we wore red jackets. Tim dubbed me Norfolk’s Chris Farlowe, and got me into the Runners. He wasn’t an original, but he was the only one that could play. The rest of them were just past the skiffle three-chord stage, but since they’d won the Ready Steady Go TV contest for amateurs in 1964, they were getting work. After that, I formed a band with Viv Prince [see the Pretty Things in TP #131] called Patto’s People. It had Tim Hinkley and Louis Cennamo on bass and a trumpet player called Mike Fellana, a Nigerian cat who played with Graham Bond. This was around the end of ‘65 or early ‘66. After two months we sat down and very deliberately named ourselves the Chicago Line Blues Band. We did pretty well, but one day we stopped at a traffic light and Viv Prince got out and said, "That’s it, I’ve had enough. No hard feelings." Then I took up an occupation that I’d always wanted to do -- I sang with a London Youth Jam Orchestra. We used to do songs that Mel Tormé or Joe Williams did.
TP: How did you meet Ollie?
MP: He was in Timebox, and they needed a singer. They’d had this black American dude who was stationed in England on an air base. They were on stage one night, and he got taken away by the MP’s. They needed a singer and John Gee, who managed the Marquee on Wardour Street, dug me. He was a Frank Sinatra freak and I was a rocker who was singing with big bands. He figured I had integrity. He got them (Timebox) to come see me sing with LYJO, which was a 24-piece big band. I got the gig, and the group trotted along merrily for about two years. We even had a hit single with a Four Seasons cover called "Beggin’." Decca kept giving us these demos of songs, telling us what our next single was. We protested, but they kept telling us that we were young and if we had three or four hits their way, then we could go off and play our far-out stuff. When we did that, we got promoters saying "You’re nothing like your records -- what the hell am I booking you for?" Then the organist left. I was out in the cafe having lunch and Muff Winwood came over and said that the group was now called Patto. The explanation, according to Muff, as to why the group’s name was Patto was that every European country could pronounce it. All the other guys’ names were too hard to say. Patto went on for four years. When it became Patto, Ollie switched from vibes to guitar. He’d never played guitar before. There’s a fourth Patto album that was never released, called Monkey’s Bum. It was done after the ‘72 tour with Cocker. When Ollie and I break through IN A BIG WAY (snicker) Island will put it out. Two-and-a-half years after Patto broke up, it reformed to play some benefit concerts for the family of one of our road managers who was killed in Pakistan.
Spooky Tooth was my next band. I joined with Keith Ellis who had been with Bobby Whitlock in America. We had a day-and-a-half’s rehearsal. On the first tour I had idiot cards with the lyrics printed on them pasted all over the stage. Gary Wright wanted me to do a Mike Harrison impression. Me and Gary didn’t get along too well. I did about six tours and an album, The Mirror, in the year I was with them. It was getting to be a good band until I tried to sack Gary Wright. He tried to sack me -- he told everyone that I was the wrong image for the band. They came down to my hotel room and said "Gary wants us to fire you." I said, "Let’s go fire him!" I was writing songs that didn’t fit his idea of old Spooky Tooth songs. They wouldn’t take any change. After I left Spooky Tooth I was broke, so I ended up working as head of promotion for my manager’s [Nigel Thomas] record company -- Good Ear. That’s what I was doing when Ollie and Tony came to see me about putting something together. They’d both been playing with Kevin Ayers. We tried out bass players -- Greg Ridley didn’t work at all, so we got Keith, and that’s how Boxer started.
Having followed Patto up to date, we turned our attentions to Keith Ellis, another figure of long historical note who doesn’t look his age. Ollie, who had lost interest in hearing Patto retell his tale somewhere around the Bluebottles, was sitting on the windowsill, trying out a new movie camera/toy on some buildings across the street. We start the story in late 1965.
TP: You were in the Koobas, weren’t you?
KE: Yeah. We did the last UK Beatles’ tour with them. We were just starting out and I was 18. We had a single out that got to 19 or so. We did more and more singles and more tours, and gradually decelerated. We were sitting around one day -- we’d just done our only album (on EMI) -- and we realized there was no point in continuing. We finished the album, then we finished the band. I went off and joined Van der Graaf. This was 1968.
The town I come from is really small. There were only two bands in the town -- we were the Thunderbeats, and the other was the Midnighters. We took the guitar players out of the other band, and me and the drummer from my band and formed the Kubas. The name was later changed to Koobas, when it was decided that the double "o" would be good for designs.
Van der Graaf was a progressive revue band at University. They used a typewriter for performing some songs. My job was to turn them into an electric band. I did that for about a year, but it seemed like nothing was happening at all, so I quit that. I was only on Aerosol Grey Machine. Then I went into Juicy Lucy. I did that for about two years. After that, I met Bobby Whitlock. I was with him -- including rehearsing, playing and recording -- for about two years. Then I was refused entry at Toronto, so the band broke up because I couldn’t get back into America. I went to England, played around with various people, then went into Spooky Tooth, which is where I met Patto. Spooky Tooth, well, Gary Wright didn’t suit me at all. I didn’t like meeting him at breakfast. I’d stagger down after like two hours’ sleep, and he’d be sitting there playing with his beads and talking about his weird dreams. Grrr! When Spooky Tooth finished, I moved to L.A.
Well, with Patto working for a record company and Keith living in L.A., things were just about ready for the formation of Boxer, a job credited to Ollie and Tony Newman, who’d played together in Kevin Ayers’ band. Ollie, who’s not nearly the talker that Mike and Keith are, took a few questions to get started. We tried to cover as much ground as possible but it got rather hopeless.
TP: How did Boxer get started?
OH: I was working with Tony and we got Mike to put the backbone together with us. I didn’t know what kind of band it was going to be. When I was on the road in Europe with Kevin, I used to joke with Zoot Money about how incredible it would have been with Patto singing. Zoot was the keyboard player, Tony the drummer, and Rick Wills the bassist.
TP: What was your first group?
OH: It was called Pete and the Pawnees. I played drums. Then we were called the Gunslingers. I was in one called the Music Students. I was in Rhythm & Blues, Incorporated. That leads up to about 1964.
TP: When did you go semi-professional or pro?
OH: I started semi-pro at the age of 13, playing drums, and went professional when I got out of art school, at sixteen. We formed a band called Take Five, after which I went to Timebox. Clive Griffiths, the bass player, asked me to play vibes, which I’d never played before. I practiced on strips of paper until I got vibes, then I listened to Milt Jackson records and copied solos. When the singer we had got picked up by the MPs for being a deserter, I had to start doing the singing. I was a seventeen-year-old, vibraphone-playing, singing twit. We were desperate to get a singer, and Patto just appeared. We got along real well. That band developed, until we got a record contract. Then we chased a hit single for a while. We did a lot of hard work -- we used to rehearse in a cinema that our manager owned. We used to write a lot.
TP: How did you get involved with Ayers?
OH: I was in AIR London studios, working on the Tempest album, and Kevin was there also. I was just sitting around, and Gerry Bron had his pocket calculator out, fooling around. Kevin came down the corridor and asked if there was a guitarist in the house. He needed a solo put on a song ("Didn’t Feel Lonely Till I Thought of You") on the Dr. Dream album. When he got his band together, we did the English tour, and then the June 1, 1974 concert and album. With Ayers, I had to hang back until the last number, when I’d do this routine -- I had a rope attached to the guitar, and I used to swing it around my head, and drag it across the stage and do all this stuff to generally wreck it. The song was "Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes." It was pretty frustrating playing with him because I had to hold back so much of the time -- I was just doodling about. It’s something I’m good at -- I can play melodically. The thing I haven’t mastered yet is a high energy thing where I can perform solos and chord work more spontaneously. That’s the direction I want to go in. I can play nice licks on solos, sure, but my musical direction is this band.
TP: How did you like playing with Grimms?
OH: It was the same thing as Kevin Ayers, only ten times worse. They’re all so cynical. They asked me to play like Jimi Hendrix. They asked me to play as though I were a policeman, or a carpet salesman. You can do it because it’s easy to do, but I could never let go.
TP: What about the future of Boxer?
OH: We’re going to start writing the second album; we’ve already got three songs together. I won’t do sessions anymore. It’s like being a plumber. They get you in to patch up a track.
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