The Story of The Members by Adrian Thrills (NME)
The Members were one of the wittiest and most imaginative guitar bands to emerge in the aftermath of the 1977 punk explosion. Having got together in the sleepy suburbs of Bagshot and Camberley, they were too far removed from the new wave’s fashionable London cliques to take their place alongside such pioneers as The Clash and the Sex Pistols.
When they did break through, with’Sound Of The Suburbs’ in 1979, they did so not by singing about high-rise living, dole queues and anarchy, but with a song that wryly reflected their somewhat more mundane suburban roots.
With their style built around guitarist Jean-Marie ‘JC’ Carroll’s nimble, twangy riffs and frontman Nicky Tesco’s cutting reflections on suburbia, The Members were the new wave’s great satirists. They sang not about the ‘big issues’, but about a series of pathetic characters and trivial, everyday frustrations that anyone could relate to. In doing so, they became a part of a great British pop tradition which dated back to Ray Davies, of The Kinks, and now stretches forward to encompass Mike Skinner, of The Streets. As Nicky Tesco once told me, “We stand for the social underdog”.
The Members were also noteworthy as one of the first British guitar bands to fully incorporate reggae into their music. Just as Blues had been a key influence on white Rock in the Sixties, Reggae was the alternative genre of choice for the Punk generation. And while the late Seventies contained plenty of shining examples of the punky-Reggae party — The Clash covering Junior Murvin’s ‘Police And Thieves’, The Special AKA launching 2-Tone — The Members were one of the prime movers in the era’s cross-cultural interplay. As Neil Spencer, writing in NME, said of them in 1978: “Of the many Rock bands co-opting Reggae into their act, few do so with as much love and style as the The Members.”
“My rhythm guitar-laying is definitely Reggae-based,’ JC told me when I interviewed The Members for NME in 1978. “It’s not the same as blasting an audience with full-on Rock riffs. It gets them moving in a different way. But, having said that, we’re trying to play Reggae in our own style. We’re not singing about Jah Love. We’re singing about living in Britain.”
The Members made their first live appearance at The Roxy Club, in London’s Covent Garden, in September 1977. The show was, by all accounts, a calamitous outing in which Nicky Tesco’s attempts to harangue the audience met with an indifferent response. Within months, though, the band were in a studio with Eddie And The Hot Rods producer Ed Hollis and drummer Adrian’s brother Steve Lillywhite (who was responsible for getting them the break), cutting a track, ‘Fear On The Streets’, which surfaced on Streets, a punky compilation put together by Lurkers manager Nick Austin for the first official release on Beggars Banquet.
With an unstable early line-up eventually solidifying around Tesco, JC, guitarist Nigel Bennett, bassist Chris Payne, and drummer Adrian Lillywhite, The Members began to make their mark in London. With Punk being squeezed out of the pubs, gigs weren’t easy to come by. When I first met them, in the summer of 1978, they were combining live shows with day jobs as bank clerks, sales reps, aircraft technicians and draftsmen and driving to their gigs in Ford Escorts.
Onstage, things were rather more exciting. The band usually opened their set with a high-octane instrumental, ‘Electricity’, a track that combined impressive, dub-like textures with experimental sound effects and often finished with JC rubbing a microphone stand along the frets of his Fender Music Master. As a live act, The Members were strikingly diverse, blending punky energy, Reggae rhythms and thoroughly English harmonies. Bennett’s guitar playing, more orthodox than JC’s, added a fluent, classic Rock sheen while Payne and Lillywhite provided an ever-solid rhythmic foundation.
The lively Tesco, too, soon developed into one of the era’s more accomplished frontmen: on a good night, the group thrived on the creative tension between his charismatic showmanship and JC’s ambitious musical visions, and The Members quickly established a loyal following. By the end of 1978, they had become one of the hottest tickets on the London circuit. The band’s set gradually took shape, with covers such as Norman Whitfield’s ‘I Wanna Get Next To You’ — sung by Rose Royce in the movie, Carwash — augmented by an increasingly impressive set of originals.
The band’s first single, the anthemic ‘Solitary Confinement’, came out as a one-off on Stiff in 1978. Produced by Larry Wallis, of the Pink Fairies, it spoke of the tedium of living in a London bedsit and travelling to a mundane office job on a tube train. According to JC, the song was written about his experiences flat-hunting after moving up to the capital from Camberley. “I found a place in West Hampstead that cost me £12 a week. It was pretty rough, with mice running around the floor. But I had a masterplan. I was going to write a hit single out of it.”
If ‘Solitary Confinement’ — later updated by the Newtown Neurotics as ‘Living With Unemployment’ — didn’t give the band that elusive hit, their second single, February 1979’s ‘Sound Of The Suburbs’, did the trick. It was produced by drummer Adrian’s brother, Steve Lillywhite — later to attain legendary status with U2 — and it put The Members in the Top 20. It sold 250,000 copies and featured a Staines railway station announcer reading out a series of destinations in the Surrey commuter belt.
The success of ‘Sound Of The Suburbs’ set The Members up for their debut album, At The Chelsea Nightclub, released by Virgin in April 1979. Painstakingly assembled, it took the band further away from their punky roots, with tracks such as ‘Stand Up and Spit’ and ‘Don’t Push’ emphasising their Reggae leanings. There was also, in a title track cut live at Hammersmith Odeon, a hint of the band’s incendiary stage power. The song itself was a hilarious attack on the shallow socialising of the Chelsea set in nightspots where “half a pint of lager costs 60p”. We should be so lucky.