"It's A Game, so, come on and take me to the Circus!!!" A String Driven Thing
interview with guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Chris Adams and violinist
extraordinaire Grahame Smith!!!
String Driven Thing is a Scottish band best known for their second self-titled LP released in 1972 on the Charisma label, and featuring the single "Circus" which has been a favorite of mine since I first heard it on WOAI, an AM radio station in San Antonio, TX, USA. Recently, Chris Adams and Grahame Smith of String Driven Thing were kind enough to share the band's saga with It's Psychedelic Baby's Kevin Rathert.
Chris, where did you grow up? What role did music play in the Adams household?
Chris: I grew up in Glasgow. There was a piano in the house but neither of my parents played and seemingly I never showed any interest in learning.
How old were you when you began playing music? Was the guitar the first instrument you played?
Chris: I was about fifteen when I first started playing music and it was on guitar.
When and how did you meet your wife Pauline? How long had you known each other before you began playing music together?
Chris: I met Pauline when I was nineteen, at which point I was playing bass with a band called The Witnesses. It was a year or so before we started singing together.
Did you play original songs straight away or did you begin by playing cover tunes?
Chris: Almost from the start, I began writing my own stuff, but we did cover songs by artists like Dylan, The Byrds and The Loving Spoonful.
What was the first song written by the band and who wrote it? What was the first song you recorded as String Driven Thing? Was it an original or a cover?
Chris: The first demos were "July Morning," "That's My Lady" and "Another Night In This Old City," which are all my songs. We never recorded any covers.
String Driven Thing became a trio when percussionist John Mannion joined the band. How did you come to know him and when did he join the band? The three of you were joined by Les Harvey and Jimmy Dewar (both later members of Stone The Crows, thus forming a sort of Scottish supergroup). There were recordings made at this time. Do you remember the songs you recorded? Have these recordings ever been released?
Chris: John played 12 string guitar, not percussion. (That's an internet factoid!!!) I met him while doing a summer job, selling vacuum cleaners. We only ever did one session with Les and Jimmy, but we never even picked the tapes up because the studio sound was so bad!
In 1969, you, Pauline and John went to London with some acoustic demos. You signed with Concord Records to record an album, but only one single was released. What was the single and how was it received?
Chris: You have this wrong. The single "Another Night In This Old City" was from that self-titled Concord album, which was recorded in 1969, and then released in 1970, although I'd say it escaped rather than being released.
In 1970 your debut, self-titled album was released. Where was it recorded? How long did it take to record? Who produced it? What label was it on and how many copies were pressed? Did the album receive radio airplay? How was distribution handled and how many units were sold?
Chris: It was recorded in a studio on Denmark Street in Soho. I finished up producing it myself and it only took about a week all in. It did get some airplay, and it was distributed through CBS but the record label was hopeless, so I never even received statements showing sales figures.
String Driven Thing became a four piece with the addition of bassist Colin Wilson. How and when did he become part of the band?
Chris: Colin, who died last year, joined us in 1971. His brother, Charlie, was our roadie and he was a really talented player, so I invited him on board.
Grahame, how and when did you become a member of String Driven Thing? Whose idea was it to change the sound of the band so dramatically with the addition of you on violin?
Grahame: As far as I remember, I joined SDT about 1971 or 1972. I was a member of the Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson (known in the business as Flash Haggis). I had a good job there are assistant leader. I started moonlighting with a band of school kids, mostly Glasgow Grammar, a band called Chaconna. It was highly psychedelic jazz/rock/prog. What it wasn't was blues, more classical if anything! Chris rang me and persuaded me to play a few gigs with SDT. I liked it a lot, especially because it was already popular, and I got paid. Therefore, I moonlighted from the other band, in which of course I had been moonlighting from the orchestra. It really worked with the violin. I think it worked because I didn't really know what I was doing. I was certainly not all that blues, so I brought an unusual element, which contributed to the magic the band already had.
Chris: I saw Grahame playing with another outfit and invited him along to our flat for a jam. So it just happened, like adding nitro to glycerine!
In 1972 you went to London to shop a three song demo tape. What were the three songs on the demo?
Chris: The three songs were "Let Met Down" "Easy To Be Free" and "Regent St. Incident."
Can you tell our readers the saga of how String Driven Thing came to sign with Charisma Records? What were the terms of the contract?
Grahame: It was a fairy tale. We were offered a contract, a wage and a record. I left the Scottish National Orchestra. They were glad to get rid of me because I was an embarrassment with my long hair. They thought I was crazy. (They may have had a point.)
Chris: I went to London to meet with The Strawbs manager as Dave Cousins and I were friendly. With time on my hands, I went into a phonebox and found "Stratton Smith Enterprises" in the Yellow Pages. The guy I spoke to handled Strat's music publishing. He told me to come round to their office which was above a dirty book shop on Brewer Street. When I got there, he listened to the demos and asked if I could leave the tape. I said "No" and explained about The Strawbs meeting but promised to send a copy. When I did, Strat came up to Glasgow to see us play and obviously liked what he saw.
Your second album, also self-titled, released on the Charisma label in 1972, had all the makings of a breakthrough for the band, including the single "Circus" which gained much airplay both in the US and UK. Where was the album recorded and how long did the sessions last?
Chris: As I remember it, the album only took a week to record at IBC Studios, because Shel Talmy was old school and didn't like to hang around. In fact the Hipgnosis sleeve cost more than the recording.
How were sales of the single and did it chart anywhere? "Circus" was my first exposure to SDT. I've got to know, who wrote the song and what inspired it? When you recorded this single did you think you had something special going on?
Chris: I think we were told it charted in Monte Carlo!! I wrote the song after seeing posters for a travelling circus that came through Glasgow. Charisma didn't release it as a single initially, because it was "too long" (this is years after "Like A Rolling Stone" should have consigned that sort of thinking to the waste bin.) The American label, Buddha, just cut the last verse off and it became a "turntable" hit in parts of the States.
How was it working with producer Shel Talmy? Would you share some recollections from the sessions? Were you pleased with the finished product? How were sales for the album? What was the mood of the band at this point? Did you feel like you were on the verge of a real breakthrough?
Chris: On the first album we worked from late morning and finished early in the evening. Shel was into six hour sessions, capturing a performance, which is what he undoubtedly did. He was really good at getting fresh energetic takes on tape. He left the engineer to handle the sound details and concentrated on catching the essence of the song. Sounds simple but very few "producers" can do it. On the downside, there was a lack of attention to detail. At this point we were very "up," convinced that we were just about to break through.
What was the relationship between SDT and the band Genesis? You had played New York City with them and were slated to tour the US and UK with them, but tragically this was not to be. Health issues would not allow SDT to play all the dates. Chris, would you describe for our readers the health problems you suffered at this time? How much of the tour were you able to complete and what impact did playing those dates have on your health Chris?
Chris: It wasn't easy to have a relationship with Genesis. Apart from Steve Hackett and Phil Collins, they were all Public Schoolboys, very upper class, remote and unapproachable. Peter Gabriel was genuinely shy, but nice with it. Steve was a great guy and Phil used to give Pauline all his cracked cymbals for her set up. As for the other two…. My health problem was a simple collapsed lung. We did actually do the UK stage of the Foxtrot tour with them, but then I did something which upset Strat greatly…I smuggled a drummer into the band.
Grahame: We got on well with Genesis. Peter Gabriel was one of the nicest people I met in my rock years.
As of 1972, the four piece lineup included guitar, bass and violin, but as had been the case since the band's inception, no drummer. Was this a conscious decision by the band or was it more of a case of simply not finding the right person to man the drum kit? In 1973 you released the prophetically titled "The Machine That Cried." Did the title reflect the mood within the band following Chris' illness? Where was the album recorded and would you share some memories of the sessions? This was SDT's first album recorded with a drummer, Billy "The Kid" Fairley. Why did the band decide to add a drummer to its ranks? Was it a case of the band wanting to add a drummer or did Billy just seem to be a good fit for SDT?
Chris: The album was a direct result of my hospitalization, which was freaky to say the least. It was also recorded at IBC, Shel's default studio, but unlike the first, I insisted that we spend time getting the little details right, so this time we often worked well into the evening. I also smuggled Billy in because we had come to the conclusion that we were at a real disadvantage having no drummer. It had worked in small clubs, but as the venues got bigger, it got harder to have an impact without one. Billy came to us through a contact of mine and hit the ground running. He did the audition and got the job. His two favorite drummers were Ringo and Charlie Watts. Need I say more?
Grahame: The band did not fit in to any of the usual rock categories-the record company was baffled. What the band did have, and has, is the X factor-charisma!
The album rocks harder than previous SDT recordings. Did you play all the guitars, Chris? Do you have a preference as to whether you play electric or acoustic guitar?
Chris: It rocks because that's what constant gigging does for you. If you want to survive on the road, you stop taking prisoners. I'm playing an old Telecaster on this album and it had a lot of bite. As for acoustic or electric, it's just forses for the courses. I can't imagine playing "Heartfeeder" on acoustic!!
That same year the band released what may be its most memorable song, "It's A Game." Who wrote the song and what was the inspiration for it? Did you think you had a hit on your hands? Did it chart in the UK? How many units were sold?
Chris: I wrote the song because we were being treated like pawns. Shel Talmy was in Greece when we made the demo, so Strat let us go into IBC with just the studio engineer, Damon Lyon Shaw. We recorded, mixed and mastered it in six hours at a cost of 150 pounds sterling, and yes, we thought we had a hit, but Charisma did not put it out to the shops SOR (Sale or Return), so it never charted. I have no idea how many copies it sold.
Following the release of "The Machine That Cried" it would be nearly twenty years before you two recorded another SDT album, 1992s live "Suicide Live In Berlin." That's a long time. What brought you back together? Who were the other members of the band that recorded the live album? How did it feel to be back on the stage together?
Chris: It was Chris Hewitt who organized the reunion gigs. Without him it wouldn't have happened. I put a band together from players who had worked with me on a solo album called "The Damage." (Drummer John Bradley and Guitarist George Tucker still play with me from time to time.) I haven't seen or heard from bassist Nick Clarke for over a decade. Playing again with Grahame felt surreal, but it's a bit like riding a bike, once you're up there, it feels natural.
Chris Hewitt's Ozit/Morpheus label has made the classic String Driven Thing albums available once again. How did SDT and Chris become acquainted? Why did you choose to sign with Ozit/Morpheus?
Chris: We met Chris because we went to the same East German dentist. We signed with him because he was into the music, simple as that!
The heyday of SDT live has been documented on two Ozit releases. "Live On The Foxtrot Tour" includes performances from the 1972 tour with Genesis while "Live In Switzerland ‘73" is included as a bonus disc on the reissue of your 1972 Charisma album. Are these good representations of String Driven Thing concerts of that vintage?
Chris: I'd say the first of these two is very representative of the four piece SDT. There was a special unique energy going on that it captures really well.
Grahame: The band went down really well with audiences. In my view, the record company had no idea. The things that made SDT a bit odd were the very things in its favor.
Have you two recorded any studio material under the String Driven Thing moniker since "Suicide Live In Berlin?" Are there plans to record any new material in the future?
Chris: We've had two albums out in the noughties. "Moment of Truth" and "Songs from Another Country."
(Please note: April 2014, a new String Driven Thing LP "The Steeple Claydon Tapes" featuring sleeve notes by Pete Frame of "Rock Family Tree" fame, will be released by Ozit/Morpheus Records, UK. A link to the label for further information regarding the release follows this interview)
What are Chris Adams and Grahame Smith up to these days (2014)?
Chris: Nowadays, the band plays mostly around Glasgow, but we do make forays down South now and then and if the promoters budget will allow then Grahame is added to the band…We've had the same rhythm section for over ten years, Andy Allen on bass and Dick Drake on drums. My son, Robin, plays lead guitar and sings blood harmonies. We're talking about doing another studio album soon, so watch this space.
Grahame: I have retired from a successful teaching career, write novels and still play and teach music.
Is there anything that was not addressed in this interview that our readers should know about Chris Adams, Grahame Smith, or String Driven Thing? Any final words from either of you?
Grahame: It was a great trip. We made mistakes. Given, the time again, I would have stood up to the record company more, but then, hey, we are still here, and still performing! And I must not forget the high quality songs from Chris without which none of this would have happened!
Chris: Charisma didn't really know what they had with us and if we'd had good independent management we would have never broken up. But then again, Pauline and I would never have had two more sons, Mervyn and Robin, both of whom we wouldn't trade the world for!!
Please visit the band's official website at: www.stringdriventhing.com
A brand new String Driven Thing LP is due out April, 2014, "The Steeple Claydon Tapes!" Featuring sleeve notes by Pete Frame of "Rock Family Tree" fame!
For information regarding the LP please visit: www.ozitmorpheusrecords.com
Other wonderful String Driven Thing releases are available from Ozit/Morpheus Records at the website above. Many, many thanks to Ozit/Morpheus owner and String Driven Thing manager, Mr. Chris Hewitt for his kind assistance in conducting this interview and for caring about "the music." Chris truly "Gets It!!!
Interview made by Kevin Rathert/2014