Martin Newell remembers GYPP

February 1997

Flying in fashion's face can be careeer suicide
by Martin Newell

This year, while many bands were reforming in order to celebrate 20 years of punk rock, I was busy elsewhere. I was re-learning lyrics about meeting Titania in a forest. I was busy trying to acquire some hipster canary yellow flares. I was cycling 20 miles a day and racing through the woods with my dog in order to get match-fit for the Gypp reunion.

You've never heard of Gypp? We were East Anglia's finest. Progressive rock band, that is. Noodling keyboard pieces, big echoey guitar solos and a histrionic frontman who made Freddy Mercury look restrained. I'd previously sung in a glam rock band. I should have collected my 200 quid for passing Go and gone straight on to punk rock. A prat? I fear so.

I was there during the summer of punk in 1977. At the marquee club in Wardour Street. That's me on the stage with the chest-length hair, the yellow loon-pants, the blue clogs and the Robert Plant pose. The bearded guy with the velvet jacket, Rick Wakeman hair and doubleneck guitar? That's my mate Ian Peppercorn. Over there on the kit, with the long hair and beard, Johnny Butters. Filling out the sound on keyboard solos and longer beard, Brian Rudd.

We were the kings of bad timing. We didn't give a Flying V for those trendy London punks and their horrible gobbing. Why should we, when we could pack out Sutton village hall with 300 bikers and their molls? We had our own circuit, fan base and concept cassette. We had reason for optimism. Sure, punk rockers were grabbing the headlines but Led Zep and Genesis were selling the albums, weren't they? Punk rock would all blow over.

We released our own, a three-song EP in July 1978. Nothing happened. In October of that year I returned home after a week in Germany, where I'd had to busk in a pub to pay off my manager's bar bill. I was almost broke, my girlfriend had left me, my flat was a tip and my cat was ill. Having spent my last two quid on cat food and an NME, I stood in the supermarket queue and read my First Ever National Review.

Outside the shop I cried. Who was Danny Baker and why did he hate me so much? We'd bust a gut to get that record out. We'd got ourselves into debt and tied ourselves up with a duff management deal. And all this work had come to two paragraphs of slagging-off in NME.

Do the critics build their career ladders from the smashed-up remains of artists' work? Or did we deserve it? Yes. The record was appalling. A decade later, two of the band members built a recording studio in a Suffolk village. They used many of our unsold records as large washers to hold the interior sound-proofing boards to the main walls. Another box of 25 discs is hidden inside my piano. It's as if the things have a half-life, like nuclear waste. Years on we still don't know what to do with them. Upon discovering a box of the discs on sale at a gig in Germany recently, I stole it and hid them.

In England, outside our native rural East, we were embarassing dinosaurs. Punks would come up to me after London gigs and say "Duntchoo fink yore a bit aht of date?" I'd say, No not really. I mean, we exist now, don't we? We were stubborn East Anglians. We just couldn't see that there was a problem.

In a similarly rural area of Germany, however, we were becoming rather popular. We routinely blew the little Westphalian towns apart with our sound and performance. Frequent trips there kept up morale. But as I often used to remark, 'Germany is like another country.'

The thing about Gypp was that they were the nicest bunch of blokes I'd ever played with. No rows or ego battles here. It was like being in a good-humoured family. If the electric power faded in some rural studio or rehearsal room, Ian would say in his Suffolk accent, "Nip up the road, John, and tell the vicar to pedal a bit harder." Upon seeing bondage punkettes at the Marquee for the first time, John Butters mumbled "That makes yew wonder what they'd look like without all that get-up on." by 1979, however, I was demoralised. I left Gypp and became a musical recluse, a studio rat. I didn't play a live gig again for many years.

Ian Peppercorn phoned me in late 1995 to announce a band reunion in autumn 96 in Germany-- sponsorship money had been raised by a local brewery. With so many friends and ex-members accompanying us, 41 people in all, we wouldn't make much money but we wouldn't lose any. So, late this summer, I found myself in a church by Ipswich docks with chaps I'd hardly seen in 18 years re-learning prog rock songs written 20 years earlier. At first it was hard going. Lengthy songs lumbered arthritically to their feet but stoically refused to dance. We were rustier than a North Sea dredger.

Rehearsals paid off, however. The members of Gypp plus two Suffolk blues bands went out to Germany for the two all-day concerts. I found myself sharing a tour bus with men in their forties and fifties. Two of the bands' members were grandfathers. We almost qualified for a Variety Club Of Great Britain Sunshine Coach.

In the event, both concerts were very good. The band was better than I remembered. Even our former roadies said so. The reunion wasn't even the big piss-up I'd expected. It was extremely moving to see and work with all these people again. I hadn't expected that at all. It was lump-in-the-throat stuff. My cycling and running had paid dividends. I was able to roar round the stage and swing from the girders as before. It just hurt a little more afterwards.

It made me think what a cruel thing musical fashion is. Here was a perfectly good rock band written off at the time because the wind changed and we got stuck like that. It made me wonder about people I meet now who say "Yes. I was there. I saw the Sex Pistols. I was a punk rocker." They couldn't ALL have been there. Because I wasn't. I was here in the country being a lead singer in a prog rock band. In my perverse way, I'm sort of proud of it. Because now I know who the real rebels were. And althought I don't bear him any grudge, my former critic at the NME is currently a TV soap powder salesman. Cutting-edge stuff or what?"

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[Thanks to Ian C Stewart]