Bootlace Johnnie and the Ninety Nines
An ex-Curator's Story
I came across Third World War in the spring of 1979. It was my girlfriend, Pam (who was about 6ft 10 tall and looked like Kate Bush), who saw the album in a second-hand shop and told me buy it. The front cover showed a picture of a baby crying and in the mouth of the crying baby, another crying baby. On the back cover was a picture of two musicians looking out through a wire fence like a couple of convicts. To add to the mystery, the labels on the record were blank and someone had written 'Side 1' and 'Side 2' in thick black felt tip on them. We bought it for 50p and took it home.
When we put in on it, was like nothing we had ever heard. A dirty noise, featuring what was described on the sleeve as 'Chopper Guitar', and a voice that sounded like Rod Stewart after he had gargled with lighter fluid. I recognised the horn players from a Rolling Stone album, but that was it. Full of songs preaching nasty, violent revolution, but buried in the middle of side two was a little cracker called 'Stardom Road'. Acoustic guitars and a string arrangement that had started life in 'Eleanor Rigby' but left Liverpool for the south and ended up with chewing gum on its foot.
''They said you ain't got the voice,and you ain't got the chords, Living in Bayswater on floorboards. And you won't, no you won't, no you won't, Take that load Up Stardom Road.'
All in all a little historical treasure - one of my desert island discs. Hearing it should be part of the National Curriculum.
I found the second album 'Third World War 2' in another second-hand shop a year later, more of the same violence and bleakness and this amazing voice. Titles like 'Hammersmith Guerillas' and 'I'd Rather Cut Cane for Castro'. But as far as I could tell there was no epilogue, no 'to be continued'... I listened to the albums from time to time - played 'Stardom Road' to people when I got the chance - and wondered who Terry Stamp and his mate Jim Avery were, and what had become of them. The only other thing I could discover about them was that Dana Gillespie had covered 'Stardom Road' on her Bowie-produced album, 'Weren't Born a Man', which I had never heard but remembered seeing in the record shops in the mid 70's. She featured in a Hammer Horror film 'The Lost Continent', with a couple of monsters. I remembered seeing them on late night TV.
That was it until the summer of 2003. I was on eBay looking for something else when I spotted a Third World War single, 'Ascension Day' for sale. I bid for it (and got it) but at the same time there was a litter of information about Third World War that led from Shepherds Bush across the globe to Los Angeles, and ended at a website with an e-mail address for the elusive Terry Stamp. I had followed a trail of breadcrumbs across the forest floor and now stood before the witch's cottage.
I wrote a short e-mail and deleted it, wrote another...and deleted it. Finally I found some combination of words that I was vaguely happy with and sent it, and stared at the computer screen for a few minutes, wondering what spectre of violent revolution I was conjuring up. My life flashed before me and with sweaty palms I went to bed.
In the morning I found an e-mail that began 'Howdy...' It was Terry Stamp with an American accent. I had asked if he could send me some recent music of his, and I mentioned a couple of tracks of his that I particularly liked: he complimented me on my taste, and said he would send some stuff.
A week passed. I was getting ready for work and a parcel was pushed through my letterbox - four CDs from Terry (free of charge). I apprehensively put the first CD on. Would the reality live up to the legend? I went back to my toast, but after just a few minutes of listening, I was convinced there was still something very special here.
A little about me here. I have written and recorded music since I was a teenager but do not have 'Musician' on my passport. Instead I am the Curator of a local museum. I did have a brief brush with fame as 'Ally the Singing Chef' at a seaside camping park in an earlier life but that passed all too quickly, as fame regrettably has a tendency to do. I write and record CDs that, whilst never threatening the charts, are occasionally requested by people in 'happening places' such as Siberia and Peru. Perhaps if I moved to Lima I might even acquire a celebrity stalker.
I continued an exchange e-mails with Terry, and mentioned that I was a musician and had a studio. He responded by saying that I could do what I liked with any of his songs. I chose three tracks from the albums he had sent, copied them to my multi-track recorder (one of those old fashioned ones where the tapes go round and round), and started playing along. For the first time ever, a neighbour came and banged on my door to complain about the noise I was making, so I was reassured that Terry hadn't lost it. After a few days I mixed the tracks and sent them off to California and waited.
A week later an e-mail popped up on my computer from Terry, its title was simply 'Bloody Great CD!' I had passed the first audition.
A few days later, the phone rang. A gruff voice greeted me from the other end - Jim Avery phoning from London. I guessed that Terry had asked him to phone and check me out. He checked me out. I think I passed the first stage of the interview process. We talked for an hour or so: he told me stuff, I tried not to sound stupid. My partner, Faith and I were going to see a singer, Jimmy Scott, in London in the next week or two and we arranged to meet up with Jim beforehand at 'The Ship' in Wardour Street, a suitably music biz venue.
We got there early and I waited nervously. I drank some wine, and waited nervously. Jim appeared, he drank coke and I drank some more wine. We talked as the ghosts of Rock 'n' Roll brushed past. He talked about Pete Townsend, Thunderclap Newman, Joe Cocker, Denny Cordell, Joe Strummer, Steve Albini... I listened, got Faith to get me some more wine. When I left for a few minutes to go to the toilet, Jim asked her if I was an alcoholic. The interview ended, and we left him to go to see Jimmy Scott. It was a good night; we missed the train, walked half way across London to Liverpool Street at three in the morning and waited four hours for the first train home. I was tired, hungover and happy.
I spent a month in the early spring of this year recording what was to become 'Bootlace Johnnie and the Ninety Nines'. I selected ten further tracks from the pile of CDs that Terry had sent, featuring him singing and playing acoustic guitar. Then after work I would spend two or three hours alone or with musician friends overdubbing instruments. At ten I would stop for tea, and then would find myself returning to my studio to listen to rough mixes - I found the whole experience deeply moving.
I took a few days leave from work and mixed the album, sent it to Terry, and waited... Finally an e-mail came back; he approved, or at least he said he did. Jim was gruff. I had already contacted a record company with the first three tracks I had completed and they had shown interest in releasing an album. This in itself was an eye-opener. I have sent demo's to record companies since my early twenties without a sniff of success - in fact, I am convinced they all have a special bin labelled 'Alistair Murphy's Latest Efforts' that my CDs and tapes go in, unheard. Jim and Terry seemed to have access to the front door of 'Music Biz. Inc.': I sneaked in while the doorman was taking their coats.
So here I am, working on a second album with Terry and Jim, and finally getting replies from e-mails I send to people in the music business. On the cover of 'Bootlace Johnnie and the Ninety Nines', it says 'Produced and arranged by Alistair Murphy'. Perhaps someday in the future someone will be reading the sleevenotes, wondering who I am. I am more than happy for you to drop me a line - we can meet up in a pub somewhere. If you get there before me they can get the drinks in.
Alistair Murphy 2004