Biography

the Black Lamps are…

the Black Lamps are a product of their diverse experiences and influences. Though they have a shared love for a number of artists such as The Cure, Bowie, Pixies, Ramones, the Bad Seeds they each have their own musical interests.

For Greg it’s post-punk/C86 and more recent artists tapping a similar vein of idiosyncrasy, self reliance and soundscapes. Groups such as Mogwai, Sigur Ros, iLT, British Sea Power . Dean’s love is soul music, largely Northern Soul (he still regularly DJ’s at local Northern Soul nights) but his particular love is Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Liam tends towards songwriters, storytellers from Nick Drake through Bowie to Nick Cave and more recently to John Grant. Lyndon on the other hand is obsessed with that part of the musical venn diagram where electronica meets drone, post-rock and classical. Artists such as Stars of the Lid, Boards of Canada, Tim Hecker. Though he’s not averse to a little noise along the way.

These influences may not be immediately obvious when listening to the Lamps. But somewhere within the mix, they’re there.

Similarly, their experiences bring different perspectives to the group. Liam runs a local T-Shirt company, Lyndon does something vaguely tedious in IT, Greg designs machines that work at the extremes of nature and Dean is a successful and celebrated  graphic artist working for DC Comics and is part of the select band of artists who drew Judge Dredd for 2000AD magazine.

What effect these diverse skills, experiences and influences have on the collective unit called the Black Lamps is unclear. Sometimes there is conflict but mostly there is harmony. Sometimes laziness and apathy and then again periods of great productivity and creativity.

One thing is certain, there is absolutely no desire to ‘make it’, to succeed, to be famous. Those days are long gone. All that remains is a compulsion to keep making a beautiful noise, collectively.

 

As an early review once noted “they could be massive, if only they gave a shit!”

 

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Liam Stewart : Vocals & Guitar

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Dean Ormston : Drums

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Greg Firth : Bass

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Lyndon Scarfe : Guitar & Keys

an unreliable history of the Black Lamps…

According to psychologists humans aren’t as clever as they think they are. We delude ourselves as to what happened, we create false narratives where our memory fails us and over time we start to believe these false stories. So, with that in mind it’s probably best to take the rest of this with a pinch of salt or maybe cross check some of these dubious claims using Google.

Anyway.

The Restricted & Y?

If Pete Frame was doing one of his Rock Family tree things on the Black Lamps, right at the very top would be a punk band formed in Barnsley in probably 1977 called The Restricted. None of the Black Lamps were in The Restricted yet there were members of that band who would link members of the Lamps. I have seen claims elsewhere from people who say they formed a punk band in Barnsley in 76. Well that’s not impossible but I didn’t see them so they’re not part of my inaccurate narrative. So as far as I’m concerned The Restricted were and will always be Barnsley’s first contribution to the emerging world of punk. From what I can dimly remember they were a cross between the Pistols and the Ramones and they featured a brilliant drummer called Paul Gilmartin and a totally cool looking bass player Gaz Bower. Liam claims that they also featured Dave Horne but I can’t remember so that might just be Liam’s unreliable narrative at work.

The link with the current Lamps is that Paul went on to work with Lyndon in the Danse Society and Gaz  (and maybe Dave) later formed bands with Liam and Dean. But how we arrive at the Black Lamps follows a strange journey of bizarrely named bands sporting equally strange haircuts.

So according to the unreliable narrative…

And the Restricted begat the Pock Marked Italians who probably begat a number of other brilliantly named punk bands but ultimately all the begatting results in Gigi joining up with a group of attention seeking punk/glam obsessives (Steve Rawlings, Paul Hampshire, Dave Patrick and Bubble) and forming ‘Y?’.

In 1978/79 or whenever this was, Y? really stick out like a sore thumb. To a town predominantly obsessed with ROCK particularly denim clad ROCK where only a small sub-culture of punk and a few Bowie fans deviated from the rule of ROCK, Y? look like they are from Mars. They sound great too – punky but futuristic with it, featuring bizarre lyrics “Swan Vestas are your tools, when you see the flame your face drools” from the tale of arson ‘Burn Burn Burn’.

the Danse Society

Meanwhile across town in the cellar of Lyndon’s parents’ house, Paul Nash and Lyndon are making strange self-produced tapes. Mostly original stuff of no particular genre but influenced heavily by the first Cure album plus an audacious attempt to re-write Roxy Music’s ‘In every dreamhome a heartache’. One of these cassettes finds its way to the Y? camp. Lyndon and Paul are summoned to a meeting and asked if they wanted to join Y? and start a new group. Bubble isn’t invited. The new group is named Danse Crazy and play their first gig in August 1980 at the Royal Hotel in Sheffield.  A month later thanks to contacts established as Y? the group play to a couple of thousand ‘revellers’ subjected to the hellish conditions of Futurama 2 at Leeds Queens Hall festival. Also appearing are the Banshees, Bunnymen, U2, Psychedelic Furs. This is the gig that stays long in Lyndon’s memory – it is the one where Robert Fripp tells him to ‘fuck off’. A recording is made – No Shame in Death together with Dolphins and some other song that is lost to the narrative.

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Cutting a long story shorter, time passes. Danse Crazy fracture when Dave Patrick and Paul Hampshire (soon to become Bee) pack up and move to London. The remaining foursome change their name to the Danse Society and write and record more songs before adding Tim Wright on bass and quickly releasing Clock and No Shame in Death.

More time passes.

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Self-produced releases on their own label attract managers (the legendary Summers and Napier-Bell) and somehow a single, Somewhere and a mini-album Seduction find the group at the top of the national indie-charts. Major labels sniff around sensing fresh meat, gigs in Europe come and go and at some point the band sign to Arista Records. More dates in Europe and America, a full blown proper album with all the muscle of a major label behind it peaks at 39 in the real charts. More dates, more plans, Peel sessions, Kid Jenson sessions, TV appearances, more interviews, more bullshit, more, more, more until Lyndon realises he isn’t enjoying it anymore and to spare everyone (particularly himself) further pain, he jumps ship.

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A brief aside.

In my unreliable narrative I think that at the time the Danse Society were massively influential on upcoming musicians in Barnsley. Even if that influence is only a reaction along the lines of ‘if those useless ponces can put records out and get on telly then why can’t we’. This is a good thing. The second way the Danse Society influenced local bands was from a ‘whatever you do don’t make the same mistakes as us’ perspective. Be self-sufficient for as long as you can, don’t sign to a major unless you want to give up control of everything and whore yourself to the point that you can no longer look in the mirror. An exaggeration and clearly there are exceptions but…

End of aside.

The Danse Society are never part of a Barnsley scene. They never play a gig in Barnsley. This is a source of some shame and regret, however, it is worth pointing out that unlike now where there is a healthy scene with lots of bands and some devoted souls promoting gigs and releasing and writing about local music, there was fuck all back in 1980.

The Danse Society are forced to tag on (usually unwelcomed) to the Sheffield scene and make contacts further and further from their home. But while they are making progress towards the top of the indie charts a number of bands emerge in Barnsley and start to create a local scene and also make tentative steps to be heard further afield.

Creatures of Habit

Whippings and Apologies front pageAt this moment we need to go back to Gaz Bower and Dave Horne of the Restricted. At some point probably late in 1981 Dave and Gaz are searching for a new sound and a new look and scour the hostelries of Barnsley in search of suitable nymphs. Instead they find the avant-garde Anton Brookes, local radical and sex symbol. My own recollection of Anton was during the phase when he sported a full on Adam Ant look. In a tough northern town in the early 80’s this can only be perceived as being either utterly fearless or completely reckless with a complete disregard for his own personal safety. Consequently Anton spends most of his weekends being beaten up by drinkers unappreciative of his sartorial daring . In addition to Anton there is also Liam Stewart, the not so sweet sixteen year old who was recommended as a guitarist to Dave and Gaz by Gigi’s younger brother Chag.

Liam (who describes his state of mind as ‘shit scared’) attends an audition and somehow strings enough notes together to be offered the role. The final penny drop decision is the poaching of drummer Dean Ormston, the Clem Burke inspired pounder, who complete the quintet.

The Creatures of Habit are something else. A potent mixture of hair, flanged bass, tribal drums, phased guitar,  more hair and heart-felt vocals. They quickly gain a loyal and raucous following, who  delight in mischief. Smashing up the toilets at a Leadmill gig, pulling down a beam at The White Hart, the list should have gone on. But the band only ever play around fifteen gigs And yet in this short time frame they manage to achieve front page of the iconic Zig Zag magazine, NME reviews, BBC radio plays, a mini tour with the Vibrators, support slots for New Model Army and Billy Bragg  and they are voted the best new band on Radio Turin.

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However, this band also know how to implode. A typical example of their capacity to self destruct being when Jane Horrocks, NME photographer and highly connected becomes the bands manger. For just over a minute, until Gaz tells her to fuck off over ‘artistic differences’. To cut another long story short like many other young brains scrambled by the brief burp of success the bands judgement quickly becomes clouded resulting in an unnecessary name change to The Silent Scream.  Soon after they make the odd decision to sack their frontman Anton, leaving the reluctant Liam to step up. This is quickly followed by another name change, this time to This Colossal Youth. The band release two tracks which are featured on compilation albums Bites and Stabs and Torn in Two. By 1984 the band are arguably a stronger musical unit but the momentum is slowing, and eventually they split.

Strangely, or maybe not if you knew of his charm, enthusiasm and exuberance, it is Anton who ends up as the one person in this unreliable story to actually be directly involved with changing the shape of music and culture in the UK and across the world. But not as a singer. Moving to London after leaving the band Anton eventually sets up his own music publicity company Bad Moon Publicity and one of his first clients is Nirvana. He’s still one of the top publicists in the industry and over the years he has worked with Foo Fighters, Happy Mondays, Soundgarden, Beastie Boys and currently Arctic Monkeys.

The story of Gaz and Dave isn’t quite so happy. Sadly both are no longer with us. May their obstinate memories live on.

The Second Coming

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After the split Dean teams up with Dean Peckett and Brian Bettney to form the Second Coming.

Captured in an endearing documentary by film maker Jamie McCoan recording The Return EP, the band sport yet more spectacular haircuts (singer/bassist Peckett manages to carry off at least four different styles in the 12 minute documentary). But there is a great live clip and some nice footage of Dean as Peckett describes how the band go about putting the ep out.

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There’s also an appearance by Steve Bullock, owner of legendary shop Casa Disco.

As well as the EP the band release a single and like the Creatures they also have tracks included on the Bites and Stabs and Torn in Two compilations.

Party Day

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Meanwhile, if we travel back in time to early 81, in deepest Wombwell a couple of lads (Martin Steele and Greg Firth) hear The Danse Society played on John Peel, and after a discussion in the Sir Georges Arms, which went along the lines of “if them useless ponces can put records out and get played on the radio, then so can we”, Further Experiments (in a Crowded Laboratory) are formed. 14 year old Carl Firth is drafted in on bass along with Mick Baker on drums.

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Their first gig takes place at Hoyland Leisure Centre and ends in a near riot with fighting between the territorially sensitive Hoyland and Wombwell youth. Further Experiments comprise of brothers Greg and Carl Firth (guitar and bass respectively) together with Mick Baker (drums) and Martin Steele (guitar and vocals). After 4 gigs the band rename themselves ‘Party Day’. A name described by Steele at the time as “a bit cynical, nothing is as it appears. There’s a lot of underlying nastiness in a lot of things. It’s sinister.”

Party Day survive until 1987 releasing a number of cassette’s, singles and ep’s and mutating through a range of line-ups. The final line-up features only Mick from the original group but now includes Dean Peckett from the Second Coming and Paul Nash from the Danse Society. An album is recorded by the final line-up but is never released. The Party Day story in relation to the Lamps is brief as Greg has long gone, to study in Leeds in 82/83. By the time he returns, Carl is no longer in the band so the brothers form Pastry Dave & The Obvious Wigs. Greg on bass, Carl on guitar and vocals, and also a drum machine, the enigmatic but reliable Pastry Dave

Pastry Dave & The Obvious Wigs play two gigs, sometime during 86, one a surreal confrontation with a heavy rock audience in Bradford. The band is an interlude for the Firth brothers and sadly Pastry Dave is retired as the duo mutate into Biff.

Biff & King Palooka

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In 1987 Biff are clearly ahead of their time but the most significant plot twist in the story is that for the first time three quarters of the Black Lamps are together. Biff comprise of Carl & Greg and former Creatures of Habit band-mates Liam and Dean. Like the Lamps, Biff is not a vehicle intended to propel the band to greater things or stardom but they make a fantastic noise. The band play only a handful of gigs and sadly depart without leaving a recording behind, falling apart through apathy and the loss of somewhere to play.

Wind forward to the early 2000’s and Dean and Greg are keen do something again. They team up with Pat Crawford (Guitar and vocals) and Tom Pope (Bass) and form King Palooka. This time the band manage to record and release some material, an ep called Wellington Street is greeted positively and is played by Steve Lamacq on Radio 1. Things are looking up. But the band goes through a number of line-up changes before Liam is persuaded to rejoin Greg , Dean and Pat. Greg moves back to bass and Liam takes over on guitar.

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But King Palooka are plagued by a mismatch of enthusiasm and desire. Pat wants to move things forward, he is full of drive to rehearse, play and record. The rest of the band realise the time for such intensity has probably gone, they have been doing this since the 80’s and while the burning need to make a beautiful noise and create something is still there, the desire to jump through hoops to be heard has faded. In an amicable break Pat leaves, Liam takes over vocal duties and they move on as a three piece.

Battling Tops

Dean, drummer, DJ, artist and a man who enjoys a visit to a pub, starts to bump into Lyndon on beer drenched nights out. They talk of bands and the 80’s and success and failure. From a musical perspective Lyndon has worked on and off since the late 80’s but always in isolation. Tinkering with emerging home recording technology from the days of Cubase on an Atari ST, to Cakewalk and Ableton. Lyndon produces ambient, techno and house music purely for the buzz of making it. Yet somehow during this time he is bizarrely invited to contribute two tracks to the Italian PsycheTrance (no me neither) compilation Out of Orion. It has been more than 20 years since the Danse Society and Lyndon has forgotten the compromises, arguments, ego’s and mental cruelty that are part and parcel of working with other musicians. So it only takes Dean three attempts to persuade Lyndon to join the group, though he joins as a guitarist and not as a keyboard player.

Names are proposed and rejected, How Many Monsters?, Skinny Leg Dangling, 13g of Space Junk. All are hated enough by at least one of the band to be thrown out. Eventually they settle on Battling Tops. A compromise, not hated enough to be discarded. And Battling Tops start on the long road to develop their own sound. They play live rarely, preferring to practice and practice and practice. Writing, discarding, rewriting, discarding. They record a few tracks with Steve Booth (then of Gaia and now of Mynas) engineering. Not thrilled enough to release them they fall into a common pattern, write, rewrite, re-arrange, record, don’t release. The pile of rejected songs mounts. One or two such as Casa Disco survive the brutal quality assurance programme and are kept. They play more gigs, sometimes averaging as many as 2 a year. Frustration and apathy appears to be taking over until something clicks into place and the group seem to have stumbled on their own sound. It has taken about 5 years to do so and it seems the right time to freshen up. So the name Battling Tops is discarded, it was never hated but never really loved. Greg comes up with the new name The Black Lamps after stumbling across the following text…

…in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the early 1800s, where irate workers formed a group known as the Black Lamp, administered secret oaths, held clandestine meetings in fields in the middle of the night, and may have aimed to achieve both industrial and revolutionary goals.

The Black Lamps

And so The Black Lamps are born. In a modern world transfixed by talent shows, greed and celebrity their goal seems almost as revolutionary as their namesakes. They have no intention of becoming successful. It is enough to get together and make a big, beautiful fucking noise.