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Desmond Simmons interview

WMO, 1996

Desmond Simmons holds the key to a number of pieces of the Wire story that were missing in the Everybody Loves A History book. Kevin Eden [KE] spoke to Desmond [DS] about his story. The following informative and amusing excerpts from their meeting are important contributions that form part of the collective Wire history.

KE: How did you meet Colin?

DS: I was at grammar school with him, in Newbury, from the age of 11. We were in the same class from the second year onwards. He was always being picked on at school. He was pretty visible. Intimidated beyond endurance. [laughter]

KE: You were obviously drawn to him. Something must have clicked between you?

DS: I was fairly much left to my own devises and ignored. So as a consequence I spent a lot of time with Colin in parts of the class-room other people ignored until it was time to pick on some one. So I got talking to him and we had an interest in music.

KE: What sort of music did you like?

DS: He had The Beatles and things written across the front of his rough-book and I possibly had other things written across the front of mine. We spent a lot of time together.

KE: When did your liking for music become more active?

DS: In the 4th year, aged 14-15, we put the first band together—Tyres. I had a drum-kit and a couple of acoustic guitars. We were listening to a lot of CBS samplers LPs and trying to emulate that. We got as far as doing Black Widow covers!

KE: What did you both play?

DS: I was the drummer, Colin played kazoo probably, and we did do a few tests of everybody's voices. There were about half a dozen of us. And we tested everybody's voices singing along to The Beatles' White Album. From that we deduced who was going to be the lead singer and it came out it was going to be Colin and another guy who had the sheet music to Up Around The Bend by Creedence Clearwater Revival. But this other guy won and Colin got moved sideways to be the percussionist. Eventually we got moved out of our own band! I supplied the instruments and everyone else came along and supplied the talent and ability. So me and Colin just went off and listened to records and gave up. That's when we formed the next variation: CNDS. It sounds like Spinal Tap doesn't it? We became The Thamesmen next! [laughter]

KE: That was an acoustic guitar duo?

DS: We'd bought a couple of acoustic guitars by then and we were experimenting with other things and Colin had been listening to a lot of Tyrannosaurus Rex and we realized that we could get away with not having to write any lyrics, because Colin couldn't decipher the words and decided that Marc Bolan was just singing gobble-de-gook. So we did that for a while.

KE: You taught Colin the guitar.

DS: Yes, I learnt the guitar first from a lodger my parents had staying who taught me a couple of songs and my father was in a skiffle band so he taught me a couple of things. But we had two guitars between us, both mine, and I taught Colin how to play. Then we went out and bought a couple of decent guitars on HP and from then on we started recording everything we did, co-opting my brother on keyboards whenever he was around. But we never really managed to put a proper band together because we never really understood how you did it.

KE: CNDS sounds like a fairly ad-hoc venture.

DS: Very often it would be that we set out at one o'clock on cross-country running from the grammar school and we'd get as far as my house which was just down the road and myself and Colin would go in the front door, sit down and get the guitars out and about an hour later we'd go out and run up the road and join the back of them. That was often how it was done. We were still doing this when we were about 17, because other people were getting girlfriends and me and Colin weren't! We couldn't figure it out, we were putting this band together and thought we would be really glamorous. Nobody was interested in joining the band and we couldn't get any girlfriends anyway! All we did was sit in the dark listening to records, playing the guitar and getting drunk on cans of light ale.

KE: You must have both been in your last year at school at this point.

DS: I'd already left school by this time because I wanted to grow my hair long and Colin was still in his last year. I went to work in a bank as a clerk, until I found out it was just as bad being in full-time employment as it was being at school. I kept getting threatened by the other clerks and told not to be too bright! So I left. Anyway, it was the end of Colin's second year in the 6th form and he'd failed to get into art college and was busy trying to get into anywhere that would take him. So we both got a job working in what passes as heavy industry in Newbury, a gear factory, clearing out the stationary cupboards or whatever. And for some strange reason we were still there together, after six or seven years, thinking that sooner or later you'd get a girlfriend, y'know! [laughter] Sooner or later we'll get to put a band together. We were still recording every single thing we did.

KE: How long did the job last?

DS: We were just in this job for the summer. Then Colin went off to Winchester Art School to do the foundation course, and my parents moved to Reading so I went to Reading Technical College. The two of us then used to commute between Reading and Winchester. I'd go down there for the weekend and we'd go and see bands at the bar, and he'd come up to Reading and we'd go up to the University and go and see Gong and things like that, bloody awful. It was just really dull.

KE: What were you both writing at this stage.

DS: We were both writing songs then that were acoustic orientated in a kind of folksy style. We had a set of pitch-pipes and two acoustic guitars. We had a song about Neasden, written in Reading, and an early version of Reggae in Me Jeggae. Colin was still writing lots of folksy tunes to do with horses and hay! I think we were smoking a lot of dope at the time. He then got into Watford Art School, in September 1974, and I went up to Middlesex Polytechnic in North London to do History of Art. Ironically it was only about 15 miles away from him and after I'd been there about 4-5 months I got a flat opposite the college and Colin moved in, basically because he was going out with one of the girls that shared the flat with me.

KE: You still played together throughout this period?

DS: We spent most of 1974 playing acoustic guitars doing James Taylor songs, very badly, and occasionally whacking up the acoustic guitar with cheap pick-ups through tape recorders and doing versions of Velvet Underground songs. It was during this time that we trying to listen to anything that was heavy; New York Dolls, Iggy and The Stooges, Todd Rundgren, Blue Oyster Cult. At the same time Colin was still writing these little folk songs! I was trying to see how much noise you could make with a tape recorder and a Woolworth's electric guitar. By 1975 we were still thinking "yeah, we're gonna form a band". This has now been going on for ten years nearly. The only difference was that he had a girlfriend. [laughter] We'd still go and see all these awful bands that would play at Middlesex Poly, and then Colin fell out with his girlfriend and he got a place in Watford with Slim Smith who was also doing a Graphics course at the Art School. At the end of the Summer 1975 I went off and bought myself a decent electric guitar. So now we had two electric guitars to play. But come 1976 he was going around with the Watford Art School boys.

KE: This is where George and Ron enter the picture.

DS: Yes, I still went to see him every other weekend and visa-versa, and George Gill and Ron West were on the scene. George was an unspeakable bully. And when I'd go up to see Colin, George would spend the entire time threatening me, because he was determined to form a band and probably thought I was an interloper.

KE: Punk had started to happen by now. Were you aware of it going on?

DS: During the first half of 1976 Colin had been out and seen the Sex Pistols and things seemed to move fairly fast through that summer. I went to see Colin and took the first Ramones album and we were listening to it and George came stamping into the room telling us to take it off because it was too slow and they weren't being real because they were using distortion pedals and not turning the guitars up full! Just before this we'd been to see Patti Smith at the Roundhouse, along with The Stranglers supporting [16th May 1976], where Hugh Cornwell was reduced to sawing up his guitar strings with a hack-saw trying to get some cred. But Patti Smith had a big impact on everyone.

KE: And, of course, Wire evolved.

DS: This band came together around George which became Wire, and I think if I'd have spent more time in Watford I'd have been a logical member of the band, if it wasn't for the fact that George was threatening to kill me every five minutes! I think Graham lasted because he's got a stronger personality. By September 1976, me and Colin and Phil Hayes, who ended up playing bass in a band I had, went to the 100 Club Punk Festival [20th September—Sex Pistols/The Clash/Subway Sect/Siouxsie and The Banshees. 21st September—The Damned/The Vibrators/Stinky Toys/Buzzcocks]. They went to both days and I only went to the first day, and that was interesting—an eye-opener.

KE: You must have seen Wire a lot in the early days.

DS: I went to see Wire quit a few times. Their first gig was at Watford Technical College which was renamed Waldo's Jazz Club for the evening. It was also the first time that George blew it. He got into a terrible state over something and threw his guitar down and stormed off. The rest of them carried on, and he was the leader of the band and they didn't stop. It was obvious from then that things weren't going to go the way George wanted it to go. Looking back now you can see that the four of them had a look and a presence that George didn't. George was a scrapper, he'd have been better off in Dr. Feelgood. The rest, as they say, is history!

Kevin Eden

Originally issued with a WMO newsletter in 1996.