Cult Heroes No.13: Gary Holton
The late, great leader of The Heavy Metal Kids remembered. And if you think that’s a photo of Scott (Velvet Revolver/Stone Temple Pilots) Weiland on the homepage, shame on you! Go here to read about all the previous Cult Heroes.
Words: Geoff Barton
It’s extremely likely that many visitors to the Classic Rock website will be more familiar with Gary Holton the actor than with Gary Holton the vulgar vocalist with 70s slam-bang barrow boys The Heavy Metal Kids – the band with gutter as well as glitter, spunk as well as sparkle.
After The Heavy Metal Kids split in 1977, shortly after the release of their third album Kitsch, Holton tried to prolong his rock career via a series of doomed solo ventures – including a forgotten band called The Gems, an alliance with Norwegian musician Casino Steel (Hollywood Brats/The Boys) and a blink-and-you-missed-it stint in The Damned.
Later, in 1984, Holton had a minor singles chart hit with a croaky carouse through Perry Como’s Catch A Falling Star (produced by Jim Lea of Slade, fact fans) before deciding to quit the music business and pursue an acting career.
After a series of unexceptional walk-on, walk-off roles, Holton amazingly managed to land the high-profile part of an East End wide-boy called Wayne Winston Norris in the TV series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, the comedy drama about British brickies on the piss abroad.
The show, recently revived for a present-day TV audience, was a huge hit, and Holton finally found the fame he had craved for so long. But, tragically, he only made one and a half series before he died suddenly of a drugs overdose (in October 1985).
His death threw Auf Wiedersehen, Pet scriptwriters Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement into confusion, as all the outdoor scenes for the second series had already been shot. In the end they decided to prolong the Wayne character and a suitably emaciated, prickly blue-black-haired, bomber-jacketed body double was employed to sometimes scuttle across the background of the remaining series-two studio scenes, somewhere beyond the broad Geordie shoulders of Oz, played by Jimmy Nail.
It was desperately sad to see Holton, who had spent his life on the fringes of rock’n’roll success, reduced to the role of a bit-part player again, even in death.
But I always used to have a wry smile on my face whenever I saw Holton in full flow playing the part of Wayne. Because he wasn’t really acting, he was just being himself.
Wayne was Gary Holton, and Gary Holton was Wayne – a supposedly streetwise, tough-talking jack-the-lad, but secretly an edgy and forlorn figure who would rather pick his nose than your pocket; who would more likely nick himself shaving than nick a motor.
In modern-day television terms, you’d have to say that although Holton had the brash manner to strut and bluster like EastEnders’ Phil Mitchell, in reality had more in common more with Phil’s loser relative, Billy. If Holton were to give to you a slap, it would have been just that – a gentle girlie tap, resulting a slight reddening of the cheek.
An example: I remember meeting up with Holton one time just before The Heavy Metal Kids were due to undertake a huge European tour, I think as support to Alice Cooper. The Kids’ label at the time, Atlantic Records, had just bought them a brand new, specially customised tour bus, and Holton couldn’t wait to show it to me. The vehicle was a real mean machine: a cross between a Hummer H2 and a Chrysler Grand Voyager: six wheels; big off-road-style tyres; tacky chrome brightwork; gleaming black body panels; inky tinted windows.
“It’s great, innit?” Holton declared, bursting with pride as he showed me around the vehicle. “There is one slight problem, ’owever,” he admitted shyly. “The people who was customisin’ the bus for us ran out of time. They didn’t quite manage to complete the job and our tour starts tomorrow. So we said don’t worry about it, deliver the vehicle to us anyway.”
Looking rather sheepish, Holton flung open a vast sliding side door to reveal the compartment The Heavy Metal Kids would be travelling in. I peered inside to discover that there weren’t actually any carpets or seats.
“As I said, it’s only a slight problem…”
The following is taken from two interviews with Gary Holton that I conducted for weekly music paper Sounds in September 1975 and January ’76. Hopefully they’ll provide you with a decent enough insight into the Heavy Metal Kids frontman, who I always thought of as a charmingly arrogant little urchin; a ducking-and-weaving Del Boy kind of sleazer-geezer; an Artless Dodger with an ’eart of gold.
Some used to say that Holton’s swaggering cockney image was bogus and cleverly rendered but, having met him on several occasions, I really don’t think so. As I think I said in some Heavy Metal Kids album sleeve notes one time, with Holton it was less a case of lock up your daughters, more lock up your lock-up.
And the Del Boy comparisons don’t stop there. While researching this latest episode of Cult Heroes I discovered a bizarre fact: in between leaving the Heavy Metal Kids and joining the cast of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Holton made a film called Bloody Kids along with an actress called Gwyneth Strong – who played Rodney Trotter’s wife, Cassandra, in Only Fools And Horses. How spooky is that?
Anyway, when I met up with Holton in autumn ’75, one of the first things I wanted to do was clear up some confusion. (And in 2010 it sounds like a curious discussion, considering how the term ‘heavy metal’ is so commonplace, and so much a part of the music industry’s fabric these days.)
“Is there confusion?” Holton asked me at the time. “Are you confused?” He smiled a toothy smile, as if the object of the exercise really was to perplex me. “Well, that’s okay, then. I fink it’s a good fing to ’ave people wonderin’.”
“Wondering about what?” you may ask.
“You want to know if the band’s still called The ’Eavy Metal Kids or wevver we’ve changed our name to just The Kids,” Holton continued. “Right? Well, I’ll tell you what ’appened. When we went over to tour America, we fahnd aht that there was this fing over there that if a band played badly they’d be called ’eavy metal; everybody’d say: ‘Aww, that was a real ’eavy metal set’, meanin’ that it was a load of shit. So we fought that we’d better drop the front part of our name fer the States. But we didn’t change it permanently or anyfin’, y’know.
“Anyway, when we come back to Britain we find that Atlantic’s sent aht these press releases proclaimin’ big name changes fer the band an’ all that. It was a bit of a cock-up in some ways, but in uvver ways it was good, cos it kept us in the press.
“I like the name The Kids, cos it’s more us on stage. But we’re a loud, ’eavy band, there’s no denyin’ it, y’know what I mean? I will not deny it, it works both ways.”
Way back then, I made the point that, despite the name, The Heavy Metal Kids do not and never really have played heavy metal music.
Boisterous bovver boys, yes; vituperative proto-punk delinquents, for sure. But heavy metal, er, maniacs? Definitely not. More confusion?
“That’s cos the definition of ’eavy metal come after the name,” Holton claimed. Displaying some surprising literary knowledge, he added: “Y’see, we got the name from William Burroughs, donkeys years ago. In ’is writin’, The ’Eavy Metal Kids were in fact a bunch of pooftahs that used to run around wiv truncheons tied to their waists. So anyway, we ’ad the name fer years, then all of a sudden up pops this new brand of music called ’eavy metal. It’s so silly. I mean, I can remember sayin’ that I used to be in a beat group, d’you remember that?”
I put it to Holton that he must have first thought about forming a band called The Heavy Metal Kids some years ago.
“Yeah,” he leaned back and preened his hair with his hands, trying to restore a steadily failing quiff. “I’ve ’ad this idea of ’ooliganism on stage in my brain fer abaht four years now. The actual band ’as only existed fer abaht two years though.”
The Heavy Metal Kids’ biography cited an outfit called Biggles as Holton’s first major band. However, when questioned about his early rock’n’roll days the singer’s usual colourful stream of words narrowed to a trickle.
“Biggles. Disaster. A very expensive disaster,” he laughed coarsely. “A fortune was spent on that band, it really was.”
It transpired that Biggles were in direct competition with another band, called Heaven, and – or so I gathered at the time – Holton was somehow vocalist for both of them. Not surprisingly the two groups flopped rather badly. But even today I seem to recall Biggles being promoted quite strongly in the British music press.
“I dunno. I dunno much abaht promotion,” Holton said, successfully manoeuvring past the subject. “The music business is a funny business. I mean, you journalists are a funny lot, too. I’ve ’ad a lot of ’ostile people in interviews. I don’t know why. You’re not ’ostile, are you?”
(No, I said, as I nutted him…)
Holton first took to the stage at age 11: “I did opera fer abaht two years, believe it or not, just small parts in Sadler’s Wells productions. Then I decided that I wanted to act, so I did a course at the National Theatre fer free years. In the end I got frown aht of the course – fer reasons I won’t go into – and over a period of time I got chucked aht of almost every other school possible. Then I saw this ad in one of the music papers, sayin’: ‘Rock singer wanted…’.”
Jumping forward to that discourse in winter ’76, and The Heavy Metal Kids had just completed their ‘Cheap And Nasty’ tour of Britain – a tour that “was very good fer us,” Holton asserted.
“The audiences are beginnin’ to latch on to some of our songs – why, in some places they’ve even got a little chant goin’: ‘We want The Kids!’ they yell. That’s real emotional. I pissed in me jockstrap the uvver night.”
“No, I wouldn’t do that. Off stage. I had to exercise a bit of control there.
“What else ’appened on the tour? Oh yeah, we got banned from just abaht every ’all we played in. Our act’s a bit lewd, and I fink the management of some of the venues was rather shocked. I was stickin’ knives into the stage durin’ one gig, and afterwards a guy come up to me and said: ‘I wish you ’adn’t splintered it all up like that, we’ve got a ballet on tomorrow!’
“Fer the next British tour we’re goin’, well, featrical,” Holton revealed. “Stage props, everyfing. I’ve got a five-feet tall egg bein’ made, and we’ve got a feast of new songs. I’ve written one abaht fallin’ in love with a policewoman.”
A true story?
“Slightly exaggerated, actually. It was a traffic warden to start off wiv. There’s one who’s always on the beat where I live, and I changed ’er into a police woman. She’s lovely. She writes really nice tickets – excellent ’andwritin’. I like women in uniforms – the ones in Tesco’s especially, the ones who wear nylon overalls wiv nuffin’ on underneaf. Dolcis are good fer that sort of fing as well…”
Going back to the earlier interview for a moment, it’s worth noting Holton’s blatant proclamation that: “I’m already a star, it’s just that a few million people don’t know it yet. I know that I’m a star,” he giggled, almost childishly. “I’m workin’ bloody ’ard at it. It’s all them uvver people, y’know. But I’ll talk ’em round to it. One day.”
Holton also professed to being a perfectionist – which could possibly have been a product of his theatrical background.
“When I go on stage, it’s my fuckin’ stage, y’know. It’s mine,” he insisted fiercely. “That’s why if somefin’ goes wrong I tend to get aggressive. When we played the Readin’ Festival [in August 1975], f’rinstance, John Peel said somefin’ just as I was rappin’, so I lobbed a full Coke tin at ’im and it splashed all over ’is record decks. ’E was well pleased, I can tell you.”
Later, in the second conversation I had with him, I asked Holton how his plans for stardom were progressing.
“It’s all right,” he confessed, “fings are goin’ well. It’s very demandin’. But yes, I’d deeply love to be a debauched and decadent rock star. A touch of the ol’ peelin’ the grapes fer me, milk baths… Lovely.
“Unfortunately,” Holton concluded, adopting a hangdog expression, his quiff drooping in sympathy, “I ’aven’t even got any ’ot water at ’ome at the moment. Me Ascot’s broken.”