NME Interview October 1980

Words: Adrian Thrills

© Anton Corbijn

Boys Will Be Girls

Girls At Our Best! in fact. And if you haven’t seen ’em yet. don’t worry, no-one has. You will though, you will…

Sup up your beer and collect your thoughts. A crisp voice is bending my ears across a pint-stained drinks table in a dog-eared city centre hostelry.

“Records are becoming a much better medium than gigs. Live gigs are a pretty limited thing. I don’t like going out to gigs that much anymore. I mean, I’d never go out and see a group just as a night out now.

“I might go out and see a group if I’d bought their records and was interested in seeing what they were actually like onstage, but I’d never actually go out to a gig for a good time.

“With a record, people are much less limited in scope. With a single, you can do a lot more with the sound, the way the sleeves are done and everything. There’s a lot more range with a record.”

James Alan twitches in his immaculately torn and faded denim jacket, unpeturbed by the straight-faced stares of a few distant Friday night boozers who eye our corner of the pub with a mixture of bemusement and suspicion.

The gist of our beery reasoning concerns the current sterility of live rock music compared to the spirited flow of new music still emerging on record.

The major labels and the tours aside, the gap between what’s happening around, say, the agency-dominated London gig circuit and what’s happening with the more nimble independent labels, both in and out of town, has probably never been greaters.

And so it goes.

Or rather doesn’t.

“Most bands are tons better on record anyway, unless it’s something really exciting like the White riot tour. You may as well just listen to your records.”

James Alan – Jez to you and me – ought to know what he’s talking about. As the guitarist in a Leeds pop group called Girls At Our Best! (the exclamation mark is an integral part of the band name, as in Wah! Heat), he is partly responsible for one of the greatest singles of this year in ‘Warm Girls’/’Getting Nowhere Fast’.

‘Warm girls’ released through Rough Trade on the band’s own Record Records label, made NME single of the week back in April. A stunning four minutes of hard, mature pop, it is rugged and instant, but convincingly dressed up in a big and bouncy production.

The excellent Jamming fanzine compares Girls At Our Best! with Delta 5, a fair enough reference point but not one which really gives an idea of their tremendous range which stretches from the bubblegum swing of The Undertones to the structure of Magazine, taking in the raunch of the Au Pairs and the quirkiness of XTC in passing.

That last ingredient – the quirkiness – is something that Jez, whose favourite band of all time is Sparks, is a pains to play down.

“I deliberately try to keep that out of things a bit, ’cause it’s the sort of thing that annoys people. It’s the sort of thing that I like listening to, but not the sort of think that I really like playing, although it probably creeps in.

“Most of the quirky groups put it on. the reason I think that someone like Sparks are so good is that they don’t put it on. They can’t help sounding they way they do. The probably think to themselves that they sound really ordinary, while to everyone else they are really mad. The bands i don’t like are the ones who deliberately go out of their way to sound like that.”

Jez ambled to the bar to get in another round as the other three band members introduce themselves as Jo (singer Judy Evans, Jez’s girlfriend), Terry (bassist Gerrard Swift) and Titch (drummer Carl Harper, the youngest member at a mere 17 years of age and a former Expelaire). Jez returns laden with lager and Girls At Our Best! give me a history lesson.

Jez, Jo and Terry were all in a seminal non-legendary Leeds punk band The butterflies until the start of this year. Before that – as long ago as 1976 in fact – Jez and Terry were both playing together in SOS, concentrating of the Dolls/Stooges end of the same spectrum.

The Butterflies gigged extensively, getting as far south as the Nashville in London where they once supported The Mekons, but fell apart from a lack of vision, confidence and encouragement.

“We were a pretty visual band, but by the time we split we were really bad. People were even coming to see us just to check out if we really were as bad as they had heard.

“A lot of people who came to see us did seem to enjoy it though. We were getting the sort of following where we were on the verge of becoming a cult band, although we always got a mixed audience. There would be the glue-sniffing punks who were into bands like discharge and all the arty types from the university.

“In Leeds, y’see, there’s these two camps. There’s the student camp with all The Mekons, Gang of Four and Delta 5 lot and the town lot with the bands like The Expelaires and Music for Pleasure. We’re about the only band caught between the two. We just keep ourselves to ourselves.”

With the demise of The Butterflies, Jez and Jo opted to carry on alone, recording the two best Butterflies songs with the aid of Terry – who soon rejoined full time – and a session drummer. The resulting tapes eventually became the first Girls At Our Best! single. Drummer Titch became the band’s first full time rythmn anchor only recently, one of the reasons the group have yet to play a gig.

After being turned down by Safari and Beggar’s Banquest, they took the tapes of ‘Warm Girls’ and ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’ to Sue Scott at Rough Trade, who immediately pressed 2000 copies. With two subsequent re-pressings, the single has passed the 5000 mark and Rough trade’s Geoff Travis confidently expects it to at least double that total.

A follow-up, meanwhile, has already been recorded and is due out at the end of this month. This new single ‘Politics/It’s Fashion’ points at genuine progression and a further refining of the group’s delicate pop balance, it’s momentum building softly from a mellow start in direct contrast with the snowballing raunch of ‘Warm Girls’.

With the venom of the new single directed squarely at the American electioneering game, it is to be the first Rough Trade single earmarked for release on both sides of the Atlantic.

As was its predecessor, ‘Politics’ is excellently produced, the sound deep and precise. The self-consciously amateur approach often associated with independents is something they have no time for.

Smiles Jo: “I supposed we’re pretty professionally minded really. The other three people in the group have been playing for a long time and I’m a perfectionist anyway, so we really work at everything. It’s just discipline in a way ’cause it’s really shitty having to work that hard at something. But it’s really worth it in the end.

“In The Butterflies we didn’t even write our own songs, the drummer wrote most of them. We were so sick of playing stuff we didn’t like that we’ve made a real effort to do something that we’re really pleased with.

“Now the problem is to keep up the standard with each release.

“We’ve tried to get a produced sound, but still have something exciting, that really gets you going. People think you have to be rough to be exciting, which is crap. You can be exciting and be tight and professional at the same time.”

In keeping with his almost schizoid approach to playing in the band and his semi-enthusiastic attitude to the circus games of gigging, Jez reckons his talents may eventually be put to better use with him acting as the group’s creative manager, not the financial side – that’s boring – but the personal, artistic side of things.

“Let’s face it, playing live is just ego really, isn’t it? It’s really glamourous ’cause there’s guys thinking how cool you are and girls fancying you, but all that is really transient. Being the centre of attraction is the sort of think that’s here today and gone tomorrow. If you get caught up in all that, then you’re going to come down heavily. that’s why you get all those rock casualties who can’t cope with not being famous anymore.

“But that’s not the reason that I don’t want to be just another guitarist in a group. It’s more down to the fact that the ideas that I have would be better realised as a manager.

“On the one hand I just want to be on the other side of the fence and have someone else doing all the playing. I’ve got some good ideas, and I don’t mean that conceitedly, and maybe they’d come across better if I was a manager.”

So far so good. The graduation of Girls At Our Best! has been largely a series of fortuitous accidents. After starting life as a dodgy, gig-only punk band, they’ve grown into one of the most promising groups of 1980, something they’d probably never have envisaged.

Whether or not Jez Eventually opts to fulfil his dreams posing in from of an amp or fretting behind the console – you can bet he’d do both if it were possible – is neither here nor there. What matters for now is that Girls At Our Best! are ready to catch the moment while it is there and buy themselves another life – getting somewhere fast.

This is an interview from the 25th October 1980 issue of the NME, just after Tich had joined but before the release of Politics.
© 1980 Adrian Thrills