Tractor were one of the only few bands to have emerged from that fermenting cess-pitt of English rock music known as the progressive movement (circa. 1970 to '74) to genuinely deserve more success than the fates, or their record company, or the record-buying public, handed out to them. One of those rare instances where the 3-figure price tag sometimes bandied around amongst collectors for "A Candle For Judith" by The Way We Live (released in early '71 - same band different name) and for Tractor late - '72 self titled for Dandelion actually reflects the priceless nature of the music. Based around the core of the exceptionally talented Jim Milne (guitars, vocals and songwriting) and Steve Clayton (drums and artistic input), Tractor were heavy yet never heavy-handed, had an almost frightening melodic insight, they could be aggressive and caressing and packed more punch than a battalion of boxers. Both 'Candle For Judith' and 'Tractor' have been legally and illegally reissued on LP and CD in recent years, most notably 1983's (legit) release of 'Tractor' on Thunderbolt Records which moved through sounds' Heavy Metal charts briefly, and both albums are in the process of being digitalised by the band themselves; "Tractor" is already out on CD with extra tracks and 'A Candle For Judith' should be sent out by the time you read this. This article was prompted by the release of Tractor: Worst Enemies (Sunflower Records SF-CD102), a brand new release of odds and ends from 1971 to the current day which belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in traditional English guitar-heavy rock-trio music played with verve and imagination by musicians of consummate skill. The fact that the songs were recorded variously by a two-piece, a four-piece and anything bar an actual trio is neither here nor there. Tractor are back but although it's too early to say whether the punch has been replaced by paunch or that there freak-flags dropped out long ago both literally and metaphorically (they're working on a all-new album which should satisfy those questions however), this release should serve them to a welcoming new generation of audiences as well as filling a few gaps in the minds of those who have loved "A Candle For Judith" and "Tractor" to bits over the last twenty years.
The liner notes for "Worst Enemies" are a bit sparse on information about when the actual songs on the album were recorded. I must confess that the sudden break in continuity after the first four songs every damn of which are brilliant, scintillating Tractor at there very loudest and best, the arrival of "Word Games" and "Trick Of The Light" heralded that awful, heart-dropping feeling that here were a band that got back together to recapture old times and had got it completely embarrassingly wrong. Both songs are a sorry pastiche of the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver songbook, thick with synthesised strings as automated drums and dripping with misplaced sentiment from a so completely emasculated Tractor that you'd be forgiven for thinking that the wrong tracks had been somehow programmed onto the CD. It came almost as a relief to find out however, that both songs were originally from a brief, miss-begotten and best forgotten era when Clive Selwood (former A & R man Dandelion and subsequently of Jonathan King's awful UK Records label) tried to push Tractor in a more commercial direction. They shouldn't have listened ; but we're all entitled to make one mistake ( if not two). More interestingly, of those first four tracks 'Lost on the Ocean' is the only true vintage number: 'Average Man's Hero' dates from 1981, the last time the band recorded prior to this year; 'Suicidal' from 1974 and 'Argument For One' from 1973. The epic and adventurous 'PeterLoo' ( a suite, an essential element for albums of progressive nature) is complied from recordings circa 1973 - 1974 . In between is sandwiched a bluesy ' No More Rock n' Roll' which briefly made the NME's Indies chart upon release in 1977 as well as appearing on the 'Streets' punk/new wave sampler the same year. If the new Tractor can recapture the feel they achieved on material like 'Average Man's Hero' not so very long ago then we should be in for a real treat with the forthcoming album of new recordings. 'Worst Enemies' meanwhile is unbalanced by those two central songs, but it's nevertheless an important release which should be welcomed into your collection. And so to the interview. The current line up of Tractor is Jim Milne, Dave Addison, Dave Goldberg (keyboards) and Roy Martin ( drums ) . I fired a few questions at Jim, The Way We Live and Tractor guitarist/ song writer from 1968 to date ; Dave Addison, Tractor bass player from 1976 to date and Chris Hewitt, Tractor's road manager in the early 70's and manager from 1976 onwards..........
PT: The thing about Tractor for me was that they always managed to combine bitingly hard guitar edge with a considerable amount of melody, unlike most any other band of the era that I can think of. How did this come about?.
Jim: The 'biting guitar edge ' came from the direct-injecting it into the mixer. I had an ancient Marshall fuzz pedal with two settings - 'Doberman' and 'Rotweiler' . The melody input was all mine, no-one ever said 'Try this tune' . All the others did was stop me overlaying too much goo-harmonised and acoustics in moderation only!
PT: I've always been intrigued by the best part of side two of the '72 album being a 'suite' (in keeping with the era) but not having generic title as such, I mean it's parts 1, 2 and 3 of what?
Jim: You're right - the second side of the Tractor album was a suite of songs I wrote as I tried to come to terms with what I was reading in some booklets given to me by some Christian friends. They were pasted together eventually as you hear them, but I believe they were always meant to be so. Jude, whose credited as playing the music box at the end, was Steve's girlfriend - now his wife.
PT: Why the name change from 'Way We Live' to 'Tractor' ?
Jim: It was a school band which Steve and I , along with Slim Batsch and Alan Burgess on bass and vocals, started at Rochdale Grammar School in the mid/ late sixties. John Brierley was our sound man, roadie, manager and driver. Eventually, Alan was asked to leave because of his love of singing in the key of 'H' and I took over on vocals. Alan remains a good friend and was my best man when I was married a life time later. After 'A' levels, Slim went off to University and I went to Teacher training college, the Band, in that form, finished and then really we overcame our problems of distance and having no bass player by changing our emphasise from gigging to recording.
PT: How did the ' Candle for Judith' come to be recorded?
Jim: I wrote songs at college whilst John and Steve built a small studio in John's bedroom and attic. We recorded during the holidays, it was very primitive really, just two stereo reel-to-reels, a mixer made from a large sheet of hardboard, and about ten thousand controls, all of which John assured us did something. Steve and I would sit down in the bedroom and play, while John sat on high and twiddled. Despite the stone age technology, John made some amazing tapes. During the Easter break of 1970 we did our 'Album' . We were very impressed with what we'd done, patted each other on the back and went for a pint, it took about two weeks but John wasn't finished........ When I'd gone back for some more education, he sent the tape off to some record companies and received a call from the head of Elektra Records UK, Clive Selwood. He travelled up to see us and offered to send a tape off to Jack Holszman for approval. Or - here it comes- he'd sign us there and then to label he was starting with a DJ who he managed. "Do I know him?" I asked. "John Peel " says Clive. "Pass me that pen!" says I. Any man who would re-arrange a whole show just to play a full version of 'Sabre Dance' twice was alright with me.
PT: Did the album eventually come out in it's bedroom- demo version then? It sound very professional......
Jim: No, we re-recorded the songs in London during the summer and they were released during the sinter of 70/71 as 'A Candle for Judith'. I got to use the same loo as Eric, Jack and Ginger since we use the same studio as they did for 'Fresh Cream'. We did the whole album in two days and it took me about two months to get over it ( I was doing all the overdubs ). I thought the end product was OK, but not as good as the 'Album' we'd done in Rochdale in John's house. Maybe we'll release those tapes some day - they really are wild!.
PT: There's a CD of it coming out, any chance you could put some of that original material on there?
Jim: If the company who want to release 'The Way We Live' give us the finance and input we want, we'll put about thirty-five minutes of bonus material on the CD. We're working on digital remastering and remixes at the moment.
PT: What was the line-up of the band at that time of the band at the time that the name changed form Way We Live to Tractor? Indeed ,who else came in and out of the band through their career.
Chris: The Way We Live became just Jim and Steve with John Brierley engineering. After 3 gigs as 'Tractor', Alan Burgess became production engineer (replacing John) and I started as road manager . Dave Addison formed the third side of the triangle in the 1976 band with Jim and Steve. Interestingly ,the very rare 'No more rock and roll' single by the three-piece was produced by John Brierley who was back in the producers chair as a one-off. The 1981 band was Jim Milne, Steve Clayton, Dave Addison and guest guitarist/keyboard player Tony Crabtree. Tony didn't stay long and was replaced on keyboards by Dave Goldberg, so today the band is Dave Addison, Jim Milne, Dave Goldberg and drums by Roy Martin - Steve Clayton has sadly decided not to be involved.
PT: It's a corny question but I always find it irresistible - what other bands and artists did or do you like?
Jim: We listened allot to The Nice, Hendrix, Zappa, Floyd, Toll and the Beatles. I always liked the Moody Blues as well. 'In Search of the Lost Chord' was a bit special to me as was Beck's 'Truth' album. Today I have more than a passing admiration for Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, they make me wish I'd practised more ( or had sold my guitar and bought a market stall ).
Dave: I used to like The Who, Yes, Rory Gallagher and Deep Purple.
PT: Anyway, the next album 'Tractor ' , released on the Dandelion label. How did that one come about?.
Jim: 'Tractor' was a natural successor to the demo tape of 'Candle'. Dandelion had bought us some new recording gear in lieu of an advance and John built an even quieter mixer. I spent hours boring holes in a new piece of hardboard and helping solder 10,000 new pots onto it. Now I know they all did something! I'd finished college and come home for good. I'd got all the songs written in my little garret in Chester and, once the equipment was ready, we made a start. We finished it in about six months but redid it all when Alan Burgess asked "is the bass loud enough?" About six months later we emerged with the album done.
PT: So 'Tractor' was basically recorded at home as well?.
Jim: That's right, I can remember one night, we were recording and we were ready to do a tape. Steve and I sat 'hot to trot' waiting for the Christmas lights to come on - Dandelion had overlooked to send us a red indicator light. We waited and waited, but no music. Thinking that John was resetting something, we sat there for about ten minutes before Steve went up to see what was happening. He came back to tell me that John half way through his tea and would be ready when he'd finished his rice pudding. It rather took the edge off our creative juices that night. Another time, we had to wait while John's sister had a bath as the immersion heater caused interference on the desk. Family life really did bring us budding super-stars back to earth!
PT: The album got some great reviews though?
Jim: It did , we were very optimistic. I remember driving home from the pub one night with Alan Burgess, and we were listening to Bob Harris and Annie Nightingale on the radio. They were enthusing about a piece of music they were about to play and I turned to Alan and said "I wish that was us they're waffling about" and it was. They played 'Little Girl in Yellow' and we nearly hit a bus. I don't think I'd have noticed even if we had. Then they rearranged their show to play another track off the album. I had visions of another 'Sabre Dance' being born.
PT: With the CD release of 'Tractor' three bonus tracks have suddenly appeared. Where did they originate from?
Jim: They're from 1973. By this time John and I had fallen out and Alan Burgess had come back into the fold as engineer. Dandelion was on the verge of extinction and Clive and John had been able to place most of their artists with other labels. We were left dangling so to speak, so Clive suggested a final fling in a studio in Chipping Norton. We took enough songs with us for another album, but work was very slow and those bonus tracks were all managed in a week. So Dandelion forced and we carried on in our own studio in Steve's house until about 1975 when we finally called it a day. Only it wasn't to be 'final' it never is somehow!.
PT: Tell us about some memorable gigs.
Jim: Two gig-stories stick in my mind. I remember a long detour we made on our way to play in Ulverston, near Barrow. Some clown - Dave I think - suggested we took the truck on the ferry across lake Windermere. This we duly did. The guy's face was a picture! We gave him free tickets for the gig as a peace offering but I don't think he showed up. Another time we were playing in Leeds and, at the end of a less than successful night, some of the locals decided they didn't agree with out singalong style and set their alsation dog onto Chris as he was loading the truck. As we left, the lads offered us a parting gift - a lump of concrete through the windscreen. Fortunately they missed and we declined a return booking.
PT: Any particular memories Dave?
Dave: I can't say what I used to get up to - I'm married now! I first met Jim at our first rehearsal. The first thing he played was 'Shubunkin' and I was amazed at the sound coming out of the amp. It's true to say I had never heard anything like it from the guitar. Jim's control over the sound was amazing. That rehearsal was the last for a few years, we did our first gig together the following week though playing at the Deeply Vale Festival. I'd been at the festival for three days before we played and I can reme mber being absolutely freezing. I was very nervous before we went on - lack of sleep and too much dope had helped me to forget how the songs went!. We went on at dusk and launched into the first song which I think was 'The Jester'. Halfway through the song I was startled by the front of the stage exploding into flames. I looked at Jim but he was playing like nothing had happened. There was another burst of flames and it was then that I saw that there was a fire eater at the front of the stage. He was dancing in time to the music and blowing great clouds of flames into the darkness. In my 'altered' state of mind I thought this was magical.
PT: We're into the Eighties now, and I believe there was the first of several reunions in 1981?
Jim: Steve, Dave and I did a reunion gig in Rochdale, again promoted by Chris. It was recorded on 16 track by John Brierley. A lot of time and money went into the project but it was less than successful as I lost my voice two days before and the resulting 'live ' album sounded awful. I'd written a set of new songs for the gig and we recorded one. 'Average Man's Hero' at Penine Studios in Oldham. Chris put out the single on the Roach Records label but it didn't do much business at the time.
PT: Then the re-issue of 'Tractor' on the Thunderbolt label in 1983 revived interest once again?
Jim: There was a feature in 'Kerrang' magazine which revived interest a little in 1983, with the sales of the 1977 'No More Rock n Roll' single and ' Average Man's Hero' happening alongside the Thunderbolt album ( which made it into the 'Sounds' Heavy Metal charts at No 14) Other than that during the 80's I did some recording with Tony Crabtree and Dave Goldberg ( who played keyboard with Tractor).
PT: And what of the future?
Jim: I have a desire to record again, and things are happening in that direction. The new material will hopefully sound like Tractor but without the coating of dust. You can't stand still, you have to keep listening with an open mind. Bands that don't move along the path to a better sound or a better song and are content with former glories get what they deserve - very little. 'The Very Same Men' on the 'Worst Enemies' album indicates where we're going sound-wise. Hopefully the melody content will still be there, but I can't find a Marshall fuzz-box anywhere!
Chris: (typed in bold as an addendum to the above with a note attached saying "add this, it is important") There is a wealth of material from 1968 through to the early 80's, including some live material of the much-gigged but less recorded legendary three piece of the mid 70's. The best of this material will eventually be released somehow, although Jim's new found inspiration means he is now recording some of his best guitar work, which might just kick everything else into oblivion.