By 1981, Talisman had already established themselves as one of the most popular live reggae acts in the U.K. In just four years they’d made the journey from part-time amateurs to polished professionals, Saxophonist and semi official manager, (before and after Chris Parker’s management), Brendan Whitmore takes up the story.
Brendan – “Talisman first started out as Revelation Rockers, and were a 7 piece band. We had singer, guitarist, keyboard player, bass, drummer and I was on sax. It almost didn’t get off the ground, because the night before our first gig at Longacre Hall in Bath, there was a massive bust-up, and the singer resigned. Our guitarist, Desmond, (Lazarus), stayed up all night and learned all the songs, so our very first gig was the first time we played together as a 6 piece. This was one of the things that for me epitomised the band’s attitude, the desire to grasp every opportunity, and make the most of it. “
An early booking was to see Revelation Rockers rechristened as Talisman.
Brendan – “We played around the local scene for a while, and managed to get some gigs in London, notably at the 100 Club in Oxford Street. We were asked if we would do a residency there, playing once a month. When the posters came out for the month’s listings, there was another band included, called Revelation from Hackney. We got a message from the management of Revelation, suggesting that it would be a good idea to change our name. As they didn’t seem like people you should mess with, we decided to follow that recommendation, and so Talisman was born.”
Talisman weren’t content to stay in a West Country backwater and having lived in the capital Brendan knew it was where they wanted gigs to gain them exposure to agents, the national music press and major labels.
Brendan – “I used to live in Haverstock Hill in London before moving to Bristol, and Dingwalls was one of our local venues. When I was looking for places for the band to play in London, I approached the management there. They said they would give us a support spot with the Belle Stars. The funny thing was, it was our first gig under the new name, and the Belle Stars were developing a reputation, so the place was full of music journalists. We were probably quite experienced musicians then, and we played a brilliant set, but because nobody had heard of Talisman before, all the journalists wrote rave reviews about this new band, up from the country, who blew the audience away.
One of the other things to come out of our Dingwalls connection was that we met a guy called John Curd who ran Straight Music. He said he would like us to play on some of his promotions, which led to us playing with, (in no particular order), Bow Wow Wow, Burning Spear, Killing Joke, Bauhaus, The Damned, The Clash and eventually The Rolling Stones. Because Bow Wow Wow were playing in some venues owned by the local councils, and the singers were all under 18, the shows had to finish at 9pm. This meant Talisman were playing hard core reggae at 7 pm. When you came out after a gig it was still light. At one gig, (Warwick University, I think), Malcolm McLaren turned up, didn’t like the production and fired everyone, PA, Lighting, Road Crew etc., the next night a whole new set up was in place, such power.”
Ever one to grasp an opportunity Brendan was always looking for the next gig.
Brendan – “I had been, (still am), a big fan of a band called Caravan, and while walking down Shaftsbury Avenue one day, I saw a plaque on a door saying Terry King Associates, 1st Floor. I knew they managed Caravan. I had been in London for another meeting, and had a carrier bag with some Talisman tapes and press cuttings with me, so I thought, “Why not!” I asked to see a booker, and was introduced to a lady called Angela Davis. She told me afterwards that they were all highly amused at a scruffy Irishman walking in with a carrier bag. They were more used to suited managers with briefcases, but to be fair, she sat down with me and listened to the band, played it to other people in the Agency and they loved it. They had fantastic connections with the college and university circuit, and we ended up doing loads of Summer Balls, Spring Balls, Freshers parties etc. The college scene was much more vibrant and political than it is now, and we soon established Talisman as favourites. We even played at the Social Secretaries Annual Conference, attended by virtually every booker on the college circuit. Angela was also instrumental in getting us the Rolling Stones gig.”
They may have been favourites on the college circuit, but this was the Thatcherite eighties when students still embraced politics, Talisman didn’t disappoint, many of their songs have a political edge, not surprising considering the period they’d grown up in, Desmond (Lazarus) Taylor the band’s main lyricist explained his feelings in an interview in 1981.
Desmond – “I have a message and the only way I can get it out is to write. Society isn’t free and although we’re told it is, the reality is different. We’re governed by laws telling us what we can and cannot do, can or cannot say and I want real free speech. You have to keep making compromises. You can never go out and say exactly what you feel. That’s what ‘Free Speech’ is all about, without pointing any fingers or calling any names. It’s telling people what you feel about what’s going on but in a SUBTLE way.”
Just listen to the lyrics that Desmond wrote, (the bulk of the songs on this collection), and you will be in no doubt as to the concerns that were at the forefront of his work, Talisman were an extremely entertaining band who always gave their audience a great time and had them dancing the night away, but there is no doubting the deeper social conscience to their work that has stood the test of time.
Talisman’s first record deal was with local label Recreational. It was based in the Bristol institution Revolver Records shop in Clifton, the then cramped home of Revolver distribution. The two singles this relationship produced are featured in their entirety on this release as tracks 1 – 4, both were sizeable sellers, but perhaps not big enough for the band. It was just before the release of “Dole Age” that Chris Parker became the band’s first full time manager and it was under his management that the music on this release was recorded.
Brendan - “It’s possible that our first single ‘Dole Age’ would have sold more if we had been with somebody bigger, as it would have got a wider promotion. As it was it sold 5,000 copies so we’re pleased with that, all things considered. But the fact that Chris Parker has been involved with us from the start, and is WITH us, is very important.”
Bassist Dennison Joseph made the bands attitude to signing to a major label clear back in 1981.
Dennison – “They (companies) are waiting to see what kind of deal they can get. For us it can’t be something like Steel Pulse got because in the end they got nothing. They were just taken on, signed up and nothing was done for reggae music. We actually want something done for the MUSIC, and we’re not just in it for the money. We want reggae pushed out there and say: yeah! The black music in this country has got a standing now. None of the guys in the business are willing to stand up and be the first person to put some bread behind that. That’s why I think the public demand will bring us up as we’re the first kind of band who are generating that kind of wider feed-back, considering the music we play, similar to Steel Pulse, Black Slate, Aswad and UB40.”
The deal with a major label was never to materialise, the band were just a little late as the labels had already turned their backs on new reggae acts, but that is easy to see, with the benefit of thirty years of hindsight, while at the time the big break must have seemed just around the corner with Island, Virgin and CBS likely contenders to sign them up.
Although they failed to get a major record deal the band were pretty successful at gaining media exposure, all the more impressive in the days when there were just three TV channels.
Brendan – “Television also played a big part in our development. In Bristol at the time there was a local arts and music programme called ‘RPM’. Produced by David Pritchard, I tried unsuccessfully for quite a long time to get Talisman on the programme. Finally Steve Poole came to see us at Bristol Polytechnic, and loved the band, he agreed to put us on ‘RPM’. We were asked to play 2 songs, when we had finished David Pritchard asked if we could do a few more songs because he had an idea, which he would discuss later. We played 4 or 5 more songs, and actually got a round of applause from the crew at the end. This was not in front of an audience, just the technicians. What David wanted to do was a whole show based on Talisman and we got a film crew for two days to film a half hour show.
We also did a programme called ‘Something Else’ for BBC2. This was a programme put together by local youth under the guidance of a professional crew. They were allowed to have one national band and one local band. In Bristol they chose The Beat and Talisman. The recording was done in London, and we were allowed 2 songs again. The producer told me that our second song would play out over the end credits, so we could play for as long as we liked, and he would cut it to 3 minutes or so in the edit. We decided to play “Run Come Girl”, (I think it may even have been the first time we did it live). We did an absolutely storming version which ran to 6 or 7 minutes, when we finished the producer took me aside and said, “You have given me a big problem, that song was so fantastic I don’t want to cut it at all, so I’m going to have to drop something from the programme, and put it in in its entirety. He did, too and the show closed with an extended version of “Run Come Girl”. I have never managed to get a copy of this show, we watched it in the dressing room at Bath University, prior to a gig.
Another advantage we had was our sound engineer, a guy called Richard Lewis – aka UK Scientist. He appeared to know everything you could possibly know about studios, mixing desks, and effects, but also had a very diplomatic approach to some of the situations we found ourselves in. For example, at the BBC recording for Something Else, he was told he could advise the engineers about mixing Talisman, but he wasn’t allowed to touch any equipment due to union rules. After we finished playing I went to the control room to find Richard sitting at the mixing console explaining to the BBC engineers how to get the best out of it, and the manager of The Beat asking if they could do their songs again, but with Richard mixing. When we watched it, it was the first time I’d heard bass pumping out of a television speaker.
When we recorded a show for Richard Skinner for Radio 1, we were told that we had to finish at midnight, and whatever we had recorded by then would be what would go out. They had just received delivery of a new computerised mixing desk, and we finally emerged from the studio at 5am the next morning. The producer and engineer stayed on because, as well as loving the music, they received a masterclass from Richard on their new equipment, and didn’t want it to finish.”
Although the BBC gave the band plenty of airtime things didn’t always run smoothly, the corporation decided that “Wicked Dem” was unsuitable for broadcast on the Richard Skinner show.
Brendan – “They’d checked it out and told us that it was anti-police, which was wrong as it’s against authority when exercised arbitrarily for the sake of it.”
I suspect that Dave Massey’s contemporary observation was correct and the BBC’s ban was an overreaction to do with the then recent inner city riots, as the ban was subsequently lifted for the band’s John Peel session. The band also received airtime from commercial television, appearing on local station HTV West and with a changed line-up nationally on ITV.
Talisman may not have played a gig in nearly a quarter century, but they are far from forgotten, they left a deep impression on those who saw their shows and even today their music is often brought up on reggae fora where those old enough to have seen them share their memories with a new generation of reggae fans who search out and treasure their handful of vinyl releases.
This release catches Talisman at their peak and shows why they had such a loyal following, it gives fans old and new both of their singles along with a wonderful selection of live performances, who knows with Black Roots having recently reformed and touring there’s always a chance that Talisman might make a comeback, Talisman and Black Roots on the same bill in 2011, now that would be great.
Martin Langford (November 2010) Sleeve notes from ‘Dole Age’ The 1981 Reggae Collection
Sources: Dave Massey interview with the band Future Days fanzine 1981 and unpublished correspondence with Brendan Whitmore 2010.
TAKIN THE STRAIN – PHASE TWO:
Sources: Interview with Desmond Taylor now Dehvan Othieno Sengorfor The Jeli Sound Archive by Alex Cater June 2011
With two strong singles under their belt and looking forward to supporting the Rolling Stones the following year. Releasing an album to capitalise on their success would seem the obvious course, but the first Talisman album wouldn’t see the light of day for another three years and the difficult birth process would ultimately lead to a very different band.
The band that seemed primed for wider success in 1981 was a six piece, and although five of those musicians contributed to “Takin the Strain” only three are credited as band members and keyboard player ‘Stabba’ Winfield had noticeably been trimmed from the band photo on the rear sleeve, whilst some members may have considered Talisman a collective, lead vocalist, guitarist and main writer Dehvan Othieno had clearly adopted the mantle of leader. Saxophonist Brendan Whitmore and lead guitarist Leroy Forbes departed and keyboard player ‘Stabba’ Winfield and drummer Donald de Cordova were perhaps already beginning to feel things were heading in the wrong direction.
In a recent interview Dehvan shared his recollection of the events surrounding the band’s shrinking membership and the recording of “Takin The Strain”:
“I think coming up to recording that album a couple of members left the band. There were six of us and although we were getting reasonable money around about that time some of the members were also beginning to have families and so they needed to feed them. We weren’t getting enough money to look after ourselves on the road and to give to the members to feed their families as well and so some people started thinking about jobs, security, and all that kind of thing. One member left, I think that was Leroy the lead guitarist and then another member left although he would say that he was thrown out and that was Brendan our saxophone player. Whether he was pushed or whether he jumped is debatable but he was out of the band.”
The band had plenty of songs in their play book and Dehvan was the main song writer so even with the loss of Brendan Whitmore and the changes it brought to their sound recording an album should have been a relatively straightforward task, the band embarked on the recording process at Cave Studios located in Bristol’s St. Paul’s area, unfortunately things didn’t go according to plan.
“So we got there and we started recording but this guy was, I don’t know if he hated reggae or he didn’t like us as musicians but he wasn’t giving us what we wanted as an engineer. When we asked him to do certain things he would give us excuses, that can’t happen because of this.”
Fortunately a solution would come from Richard Lewis, (UK Scientist), who had already worked with the band and arranged for subsidised recording time at Right Track Studio in the more genteel surroundings of Bristol’s Redland neighbourhood, the Cave recordings were abandoned and the two tracks already finished were entirely redone.
“The person who used to mix us on live gigs, his name is Richard [Lewis], he knew of a studio up in Redland called Right Track and I think he was quite friendly with the owner. Richard offered to be engineer for us in the studio and help us to produce the album and would speak to the studio owner, which I believe was Liam [Henshall] and got us a reasonable deal. We upped sticks; we decided to leave Cave just take whatever recordings we had by then. I think it was just two tracks, which we got down, but once we got to Right Track studios we recorded them over again.”
Richard Lewis also provided a connection to Ken Pustelnik, he was the owner of Zulu PA, the company for whom Richard Lewis was the live engineer and provided Talisman with most of their PA systems for their live shows. It was former Groundhogs drummer Ken who would release the finished album on his newly formed Embryo Records and no doubt help contribute to some of the recording costs, as with so many local records Revolver as part of the Cartel provided the vital link to national distribution and a wider market.
The use of Right Track at a discounted rate was a lucky break for the band, but also part of a wider policy applied by studio owner Liam Henshall, in a 1983 interview with Andy Batten-Foster for BBC West’s RPM television show he specifically mentioned Talisman, then recording “Takin The Strain”, when discussing how he used the studio’s commercial recordings for advertising agencies to subsidise studio time for local bands.
“What this side of the music business does and tends to do in all studios is, and me as an independent producer, it sponsors things like the Talisman album we were talking about the other week, it enables local acts and small independent labels to buy studio time at realistic prices, as simple as that really.”
The studio time may have been cheap, but the compromise was having to fit the sessions around the studio’s other, full rate, clients, drummer Donald de Cordova’s main memory of recording the album is long sessions at all hours of the day and night, on one occasion not leaving the studio until 5am in the morning, the various musicians each laying down their parts separately with Richard Lewis ever present mixing the tracks seamlessly together.
After many long months of work the completed album was ready to be unveiled to the world and the band booked Bristol’s Studio nightclub as the venue for the album’s launch, the home town crowd gave it a rapturous reception, but as is so often the case a lack of major label funds to promote the album meant it never reached its full potential. The problems within the band were also coming to a head and with no recording sessions or big album sales to keep them together the band would soon fracture apart.
“Once it came out we did a few gigs obviously to promote it but by then again the personnel problems were still dogging us. People were asking for more money and we were having difficulty getting session musicians for those people who had left. I guess it was just the beginning of the decline of Talisman, in terms of that period. The band went down from a five-piece to a three-piece. Ordinarily before with the band you would save some of the money, you know to hire a van for the next gig, and then pay the members, with everyone getting a reasonable amount to put in their pocket. But by this time people were losing faith in the band and wanted to take whatever they could out of the band and started demanding session fees from the band. Myself and Dennison who were the two people who were really left to carry it on decided, ok we pay them a session fee just to keep the band rolling but after a while even that wasn’t enough. The keyboard player Chris, (‘Stabba’ Winfield), and the drummer Donald, they both left and so Talisman came down to two people which was myself and Dennison.”
The legacy of those long hours spent in Right track studio is a fine slice of early eighties British reggae, unlike many other bands Talisman never adopted a rigid doctrinal approach to what reggae should be, they willingly blended other elements into their sound which if not considered authentic by some were always entertaining and welcomed by the masses, “Stride On”, “Ah Wah You Seh” and Lord Of The Dance” don’t have a typical reggae sound, they even included a funk/dance track, “Burn The Bread” to round off the album. Dehvan himself described the Talisman sound as follows:
“Well, it’s reggae although some people would dispute that. I am talking about the purists but it’s definitely grounded in reggae music. The thing about Talisman’s sound is that I believe that the environment that you live in determines how you grow and the things you appreciate. Therefore living in the UK is going to give you a different perspective on life than living in the Caribbean because the climate is different, that also affects your being. You can prove that very easily here in England, you just wait until you have a couple of days of sunshine and notice the difference in peoples behaviour. People are more friendly, they come out of their houses, people will talk to you, say hello, smile. That sun, that climate makes a difference to how you behave so it’s not a far cry to then say that it will also effect you in terms of the things you write and how you play and your delivery of things. All those things, in terms of the atmosphere, is going to affect you. I don’t believe you can live in England and sound Jamaican, apart from the accent and whatever. The things we write about here are different. The things that affect us here in England are different. Many of us came from Jamaica and the Caribbean islands at young ages but we’ve spent most of our lives now in the UK. Although we’ve got grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters and we may have gone back to the Caribbean the perspective on life has changed. When you sit down to write about something you write about it in the way it affects you so therefore Talisman’s music reflected that. It was based in reggae but in terms of melodies, how we constructed our verses and our choruses, they were different to the Jamaica way. I don’t think there’s a particular advantage to trying to sound Jamaican in terms of the way music is written. You just write what you write. As a creative person you have to write from your being. Then you put reggae music to it as you know how and then what comes out comes out. ”Takin The Strain”, we thought it was going to be the thing that launched us onto the little big time because we constructed it in a way which was untraditional. Although it had the foundation of reggae music some of the instruments that we used on there like a violin, some of the melodies that we used and the way that it was produced was outside of the field of your bog standard reggae sound. It was particularly crafted that way because that’s the kind of people we were. As I was saying earlier although we grew up with Caribbean music in our blood and in our bones as far as reggae is concerned, in terms of then coming into contact with European music there was a knock on effect. We started to put melodies in places where you wouldn’t hear melodies. Where you would probably just have three or four instruments playing in a traditional type of reggae sound we started putting melodies and different sounds. We were directly trying to appeal to the mainstream audience as opposed to the underground purist reggae audience because we wanted the big time. We wanted to make some money, to be comfortable. I mean in those days we were looking for stardom if you want to put it in a phrase. We constructed the album to appeal to the mainstream.”
The band’s non conventional approach didn’t see them entirely abandon reggae convention and songs like “Takin The Strain”, “Calamity” and “Ah Wah You Seh” all have lyrical content any roots band would be proud of, unfortunately the harmony they sing about in “Ah Wah You Seh” didn’t extend to the band members. Although Dehvan and bassist Dennison Joseph would use the Talisman name for their 1990 Jamaican recorded LP “Jam Rock” the group that had evolved from Revelation Rockers career culminated with “Takin The Strain” and within a couple of years of this release was effectively finished, this then is the band’s legacy, available for the first time in twenty five years and for the first time ever on compact disc. Bristol Archive Records have added the bonus of five live tracks recorded the following year at London’s Lyceum, including versions of the three roots themed songs mentioned above, along with “Calamity” and the non album “Slow Poison”. Whether you’ve known the album since its release or are discovering it for the first time Talisman’s unique British take on the reggae sound is just as fresh today as it was in 1984 and with this release should reach a worldwide audience it always deserved.
Martin Langford (October 2011) Sleeve notes from Takin The Strain CD release.