ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST(WORLD):
As the leader of British outfit The Pack, singer, songwriter and guitarist Kirk Brandon’s unique musical vision was far too adventurous to be constrained by the limits of Punk Rock so he folded that band and moved forward with new ideas. By 1980, he had formed Theatre Of Hate, which included bassist Stan Stammers, saxophonist John Lennard, guitarist Steve Guthrie and drummer Luke Rendle. During their first two years of existence, the band released a few studio singles as well as a live album, HE WHO DARES WINS. By the time the band entered the studio to work on their debut full length, Guthrie had departed and Brandon took over all guitar duties. With The Clash’s Mick Jones in the producer’s chair, TOH began work on what would become a milestone in Post Punk history – WESTWORLD! With a mix of tribal rhythms, Spaghetti Western riffs, Post Punk guitar slashing and Brandon’s passionate wailing, Theatre Of Hate was a band unlike any other. While the band was known for their live performances, they took on a different form in the studio. Pre-dating his Big Audio Dynamite recordings, Mick Jones brought a lot of his experimental ideas to the sessions, which worked extremely well with Brandon’s vision. The end result is still being talked about today…
While TOH folded in 1983 – making way for Kirk’s next project, Spear Of Destiny – their musical legacy lives on. The band has reformed with various line-ups over the years and are now making waves again with both a new album (KINSHI) and a deluxe three CD edition of WESTWORLD. This excellent reissue on Cherry Red includes a remastered version of the album alongside non-album singles, Peel Sessions, alternate mixes and a live concert taped during the WESTWORLD tour. Still sounding fresh and invigorating, this expanded edition is the definitive version of an album that helped pioneer Post Punk in the UK.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee sent off a few questions to Kirk Brandon, who was gracious enough to take the time to respond…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Nearly 35 years after it was originally released, WESTWORLD is getting the deluxe treatment that it deserves. How are you feeling about the way this release turned out?
KIRK BRANDON: To me, as to a lot of people, it is long overdue – times a hundred – but it had to be the right kind of release. Something that would be proud to say what it was, and packaged in a way that didn’t in any way let the album’s content down. Not, a cosmetic release, something just banged out to make a few dollars. This, as I’m continually told, is a ‘historic album’, something we released in 1982 and even more proud today of its legacy.
SPAZ: The album itself was absolutely unique then and now – sounding unlike anything else that was happening at the time. What inspired you to move away from the rough and raw sound of The Pack and take this direction?
KIRK: The direction and production was left in the extremely capable hands of The Clash guitarist, Mick Jones. He had the vision what with all the reverbs, tape backwards, film overdubs, forwards and backwards. Mick allowed us to come to terms with being in Wessex Studios and making what was to become an iconic album. Song-wise, as well as sonically, we were exploring, and in them days there was time to explore, on a grand scale. We took it. Jeremy Green was the engineer, who had worked on the Sex Pistols album, Clash albums and The Pretenders albums. Jeremy had a lot of experience at a very young age and was unafraid to take risks.
SPAZ: The heart of the album is very tribal, rhythmically, and spacious, sonically. The songs were melodic and emotional. Were you hoping that this combination would be commercially successful or were you not even thinking about hit singles when writing recording?
KIRK: In all honesty, A.) I never thought the band would actually get to record the album and B.), that anyone would be interested in it. The sounds and songwriting were not typical of the time. This wasn’t three chords and the truth shouted as loud as possible while semi blotto in a recording studio dungeon. I know a lot of my early life and experiences were put into the album. For me and the band it was a heart and soul job. Youth did not go against us in this instance I think. Naivety most probably worked in our favour. It was expression with no baggage to weigh us down. As for singles, we were clueless in Babylon. A single hadn’t even entered our collective consciousness. But ultimately it was to be as clear as glass, ‘Westworld’.
SPAZ: The band was known for their incendiary live shows. Did you try to capture the sound of those shows on tape or were you hoping to venture into new sonic territories in the studio?
KIRK: It wasn’t a recreation of the ‘live situation’. For me/us that would have been impossible. It only worked when actually on a stage. This was a departure, even though a lot of people expected us to do just that, attempt to recreate. If you can manage to do that, you have been extremely lucky I’d say.
SPAZ: The band is now labelled Post-Punk but Theatre Of Hate never really fit comfortably into any category. When the band formed, which genre did you feel more aligned with? Were you still a Punk at heart… or did you try to avoid categorization at all?
KIRK: If it had a handle it would have to be Post Punk, but that phrase hardly – if at all – existed in those days. Bands were moving on after the initial breakthrough of Punk. It was experimental times. Those who had the will and curiosity moved away from emulation of the 1976/76/78 period. That had ‘happened’ and something new was in the offing in late 78/79/80.
SPAZ: The band’s line-up included a sax player, which was unique at the time for a Post-Punk band. When you envisioned this new musical path, was a horn player an integral part of your vision?
KIRK: The answer to this would have to be yes. The bass player, Stanley Stammers, and I had had conversations how we’d like to get a sax player similar to what Roxy Music had done on their first album. John Lennard turned up at an audition and it just fitted. I think a motivation almost continually, was to sound very different, John brought that to the band in bucketloads.
SPAZ: How did you manage to get Mick Jones to produce the album? Did he offer much creative input during the recording sessions?
KIRK: Mick was a friend of Terry Razor who managed Theatre of Hate at the time. Terry did merchandise for The Clash and Ian Dury along with working for Stiff Records. Mick came down to our show at The Venue in Victoria, London, and liked what we were doing. He volunteered to produce the singles and then the album. As I said before, Mick came to the studio and elevated the sounds and performances to a place I never knew existed. It was a magical time and an enormous learning curve working with someone like Mick who was/is a genius.
SPAZ: You are a very unique and gifted songwriter – even to this day. However, you are also unconventional so its not always easy to define your influences. Who or what inspired this particular batch of songs?
KIRK: Some songs are personal, some are pure observations and some political. I say political, but maybe socially aware might be a better take on it. I never set out to write a song V/C V/C middle eight/Solo VC etc…. In fact each song has its own reasons for existing, and in the forms that they evolve into.
SPAZ: Do you feel you achieved what you set out to do with WESTWORLD?
KIRK: We were lucky and achieved much in a great studio, Wessex, with a giant production-wise, Mick Jones. The album WESTWORLD became – as we were to shortly find out – an ‘entity’ after it was released. It confounded those expecting something more conventional, but showed the way for us the band. The blinkers were off even though we didn’t know what it was we were looking at. I always remind myself that, decades have passed, and the perceptions or judgements of today listening to it, are through the lens of 35 years or so having passed. At the time it was fresh and new, truly unique amongst those trying to emulate the very recent past of the times.
SPAZ: The album has been re-issued many times over the years but this triple disc edition is the definitive version. Do you feel that it is a really good representation of the band at this stage in your career?
KIRK: I think this is perhaps the definitive release version. A lot of time and care and consideration has gone into it. So too its re issue/packaging. It not only sounds the part but looks the part. A bit of an achievement so many decades later. I/we can look back to what this album achieved and to what the band achieved in such a very short time in its early existence.
SPAZ: While the band did start the process of recording their second album, they split and you and Stan formed Spear Of Destiny. Why did you decide to abandon TOH and essentially start again with a new outfit? And would the second TOH album have sounded a lot like the first SOD album had you finished it?
KIRK: There were several issues surrounding the band at the time of its break up. Some internal, others, bad advice. I look back on some very young guys creating something brilliant but, without the knowledge or having had the guidance to have taken it to where it deserved, in my opinion, to have got to. If I had my time again, I would have made sure everyone took a break for six months or a year, and reconvened at a later date. After having reflected on what seemed like a ride on a driverless runaway freight train, we needed, deserved, to have had time out and a bit of reflection, and then to have moved on. If the second TOH album had been completed, it would have been a great piece of work I believe, in whatever its final form. Regrettably, this didn’t come to pass. In answer to your question, I doubt very much if it would have sounded anything like the first Spear album. Period. Two very different animals.
SPAZ: What’s next for Kirk Brandon and Theatre Of Hate?
KIRK: We have now finished completion on a group of songs we have been working on for several years on and off. This has resulted in a new album titled KINSHI. A Japanese word meaning forbidden. We are extremely proud to have finally completed this album, and as those who have heard it say, ‘it has the Theatre of Hate sound definitely’. No better tribute.
Thanks to Kirk Brandon
Special thanks to Matthew Ingham and Nick Kominitsky