Ok so this is the pitch, a true life story of an imaginary Manchester band called Sulkin Serpents. The inside history of the albums, the stories, the bust ups, the tours, the hi-jinks and more. A story that ranges from the late 1970s to 2011. All of it true. But fictional. The story of The Greatest Band That Never Existed.
I am aware that jumping straight in loses context but hope it can be enjoyed as a fun, whimsical read to give a sense of the full picture.
Here are collected excerpts of how the band initially came together. The following takes place 1977 – 1978…
Chapter 1: Early Days
Caught up in the punk wars but too young to have served on the front line, John and Mitch decided to form their own band in the early days of ’77, the year after The Sex Pistols infamous gig at the Free Trade Hall (they never claimed to have been there unlike seemingly thousands of others). They were motivated after seeing various punk bands pass through the city, not to mention the rise of local groups such as The Buzzcocks and the plethora of other kids starting bands:
It feels like such a cliché when you talk about punk now, you feel daft saying the things that a thousand other people have said. They’re all true though, the point of punk was that it reconnected music with the audience. I loved Bowie and Roxy Music but the entire point of them was that they weren’t like you. Bowie was an alien, he was like a demigod. Bryan Ferry was a posh guy who was smarter than you. That was the deal. Then you had all the pretentious bollocks going on with Genesis and so on and it was total self-indulgent wank. None of it had any connection to real life. Then punk happened and that did. You went off to see bands and they’re were all a set of knob heads. It was guys who lived in houses like you did and did the kinda stuff you did. You saw a punk band and you though “I could have a bit of that”. It was a realisation that you could be involved, you could do something. That’s what punk was: about handing the reins over to teenagers and stripping all the rules away. You were being given a clean sheet. We formed a band cos there was no reason not to. (John)
The name for their band came about remarkably quickly: the boys were making a list of potential titles in their shared bedroom, scribbling on a notepad. The Ninja’s was one suggestion. It’s the only alternative now remembered. What is known is that there was a list of about eight scribbled in pencil when Mitch suggested: ‘Sulkin Serpents’. It stuck. Mitch claims that he has no idea where the words came from; they just popped out of his mouth, neat in their alliteration. John took to the name claiming that it was naff but cool at the same time and sounded just right for them, they became Sulkin Serpents.
The next decision was also made in their bedroom and so in a similarly swift fashion, what instruments would they play? As both were (and are) massive fans of New York arty punk band Television, a band famous for their innovative, revolutionary twin-guitar attack there was no debate – they would buy cheap guitars and John would sing as well, thus being their Tom Verlaine, Television’s awkward and poetic front man.
Who else would be in the band? The first recruit outside of the brothers came about when John got talking to a lad in a record store in Oldham. He was wearing denim and steel toe capped boots, he looked like a bovver boy and John would have dismissed him as a Slaughter & The Dogs fan. However, John was curious as not only was he was carrying a MC5 LP, he was nosing through the jazz section. John decided to risk and ventured over to say hello. It turns out the lad was looking for a Kenny Ball record for his dad’s birthday. John rather liked Kenny Ball after seeing him on The Morecombe and Wise Show, but this he would never have admitted to liking in a time when The Stranglers were looked upon with suspicion. John tested the waters by asking if he’d heard Low by Bowie. The lad replied that he liked it before declaring his name: Andy. John and Andy got talking about punk and John was surprisingly upfront about the band that existed only in the bedroom and minds of the Fearne brothers. Andy didn’t laugh at the name so John invited him to be their bassist, providing he provide the bass. Andy shrugged, claimed he’d never even touched a bass but said OK.
John and Mitch became friendly with Andy, feeling that he was right for their band; clearly bullshit was a long way away from the realm of Paul Andrew Sutherland and the last thing they wanted was some punk poseur. They also liked the fact that Andy could drive, which meant easy access into Manchester to catch gigs as opposed to having to catch the last bus back to Oldham. They both overlooked the suspicion that Andy’s licence didn’t seem to be 100% kosher, but then the car didn’t seem to be 100% his.
After scraping together enough money out for cheap instruments they began learning how to play as a three piece. They got the hang of the three chords by learning punk songs, the same as everyone else was doing. Progress was hampered however due to a lack of drums until Mitch had a brain wave: they vaguely knew a lad back in their school days called Steve who they had seen since in various pubs playing snooker. Mitch’s reasoning was that being good at snooker equated to being good at the drums . So they tracked him down to a pub where he had been making a few quid on the tables and looked in danger of getting his teeth kicked in. They offered him the position of drummer. Steve was hardly convinced but John had an ace up his sleeve by pointing out that if the band was successful it would mean he wouldn’t have to get a real job. Steven Dempsey was in the band.
… a short while later…
The less punk orientated Serpents were slowly getting better. Deciding to strike while the iron was hot and build on their new direction, John announced they were going to get a trumpeter to broaden the sound. The others, particularly Steve, were highly resistant to the idea, but John insisted, which would start a very long tradition of John getting things his own way.
Although Andy was hardly besotted with the idea himself he did know of a trumpet player who was regularly picked on because of this fact at his school. An odd boy called Douggie Warburton. Andy asked around his native Rochdale and found him rather happy in his job working as a painter and decorator for his dad. Andy offered. Douggie refused until Andy pointed out all the possibilities for free advertisements. Douggie agreed provided it was only after working hours and an advert board could be displayed on stage at every gig. Oddly John agreed to this strange demand, mainly because he found it funny, reckoning that all the punters would consider it ironic.
Rehearsals with Douggie didn’t get off to a good start as Steve insisted that the new boy shouldn’t get paid as much the others, Douggie responded by suggesting Steve get an actual day job instead of spending all his time playing snooker. Similarly, early shows were a bit rough around the edges but once these were smoothed out, the band sounded better with Douggie’s trumped adding extra texture to the songs and his workmanlike attitude added to the group’s identity.
…another short while later…
It was around this time that John started coming into his own as a lyricist, purveying a bizarre brand of detached surrealism and nonsense talk. Not entirely original but they proved a fine counterpoint to the other vocalists in town.
The new funk sound of the Serpents attracted their first influential fan to do them a favour, namely Tommy Corduroy, lead singer of The Spot Welders Of Cleckheaton, a Yorkshire reggae act. They were all were delighted when Tommy asked John if they would like the support slot for The Welders upcoming tour. They were delighted to have the regular work and it was cool to be invited on a proper tour. Tommy Corduroy proved influential in teaching the boys about the ins and out of touring.
Andy had this van, we never asked where he got his transport from by the way, so we stuck all our stuff in it and that was us on tour. We’d all meet up after work and pile in and Andy would drive us to wherever The Welders were playing. Andy used to drive like a maniac, especially if the gig was fucking miles away. Have you ever seen the film Hell Drivers? It was like that and Andy was like Patrick McGhoohan. We were stopped numerous times by the police. It turns out he did have a real license after all. (Mitch)
Steve drove sometimes too, but he was worse than me. I preferred driving myself cos it was better than being in the back, it was always a mess of tangled limbs and equipment back there, and it wasn’t nice at all. The tour was cool though, the guys in The Welders were really cool and dead helpful. They were all big kids though and they all took a dislike to Steve though, cos everyone does, so one day they got a llama to have a shit on his coat. I don’t know where they found a llama in Tranmere. We all thought this was funny but out of team solidarity we felt obliged to put their bass player on a train to Inverness. Literally on the train. On the roof, it wasn’t easy I can tell you that. (Andy)
There were a lot of hi-jinks but we were very grateful for those guys, that support slot was a massive help to us for the next couple of years, they stayed loyal to us. We worked hard and kept our head down, they liked us for that. It became really comfortable and it was perfect for helping us to get into shape in front of an audience and to build up our confidence and improve our playing. (John)
I saw the band quite early on and was rather taken with them, they had this good funk energy and they didn’t take themselves too seriously, which a lot of bands back then were prone to doing. So I sorted it out to get them to support us. It worked well; they were a good set of lads. Apart from Steve, he was a prick. We were into practical jokes back then, especially our bass player Kenny. Steve got the treatment first then things kind of escalated. (Tommy Corduroy)