Cult Heroes No. 23: Rococo
Rococo were all things to all fans. But not enough of one thing to appeal to the music industry. So while this 70s Brit crew had the ability to be megastars, in the end they were visited by their hairy godfather, who said: “You shall go to the Cult Heroes section.” Almost punk pioneers, as well as being uniquely progressive, Rococo nearly worked with David Bowie, and had one cunning plan scuppered by Elton John. Read on for this tale of mystery and imagination. Check out all of our Cult Heroes here.
Words: Malcolm Dome
It could almost be a panto scene. “Oh yes they are!”. “Oh no they’re not!”. Oh yes they are!”, ad nauseum. In this case what we’re talking about has nothing to do with Widow Twankey, Buttons or golden eggs. No, we’re on about 170s band Rococo, who were progressive rock….yet they weren’t.
“We liked the idea of being diverse,” recalls keyboard player/vocalist Roy Shipston. “But in those days, for some reason unless you were the Beatles or Queen you weren’t allowed to be diverse.”
Which explains why Rococo aren’t a major name about to embark on a huge arena tour. But one finally celebrating the release of their debut album, Run From The Wildfire – a mere 40 years after they first got together! Along the way, this lot got mixed up with the pioneers of punk, nearly got David Bowie to produce their first single, supported many major names and also gave something of a first break to a future member of Status Quo.
Shipston and original guitarist Geoff Ward actually started out in the 1960s as music journalists. The pair, though, had musical ideas of their own, and stockpiled some 300 songs in a five-year period, with styles that ranged from bubblegum pop to full on rock operas.
Shipston got his first break with American soft rockers Formerly Fat Harry, who included one-time Country Joe & The Fish bassist Bruce Barthol, releasing one self-titled album for the Harvest label in 1972.
“I’m not sure they knew what to make of me,” laughs Shipston. “It was an exciting and informative period as far as I was concerned. I had to learn a lot very quickly. I was classically trained and used to playing jazz, which wasn’t what they were about.”
This was in 72. But by the end of the year Shipston was looking for a new gig, as the band returned home to America. But, he seemed to get a lucky break when Deram, Decca’s progressive label, signed he and Ward to a deal for a single, choosing the song Ultrastar as the A side.
“Geoff was in a band at the time, so we brought in the bassist – Gary ‘Legs’ Harvey – and the singer (Richard Stevens) to help us with the recording. We still needed a drummer, but Gary knew this guy called Clive Edwards, so we had a line-up.”
Their first gig together was at Isleworth Polytechnic in West London, opening for Genesis. And there were big plans for the single as well.
“Deram suggested David Bowie produce it, which would have been great. In the end, this didn’t work out, because his management demanded 50 percent of the publishing, or something like that. Personally, I think it’s a shame we didn’t go with him, because it would have been great for our profile to work with him, and also I’d like to have seen what he did with the song.
“To be honest, giving away half the money might have made sense. Having 100 percent of nothing means a lot less than 50 percent of something.”
Getting over the disappointment of losing the chance to play with Bowie (it was the label who made that decision) Ian Raines, an old school pal of drummer Edwards, was brought in to sing the lead vocal on Ultrastar. Shipston was due to do this, but had a heavy cold when the time came to record, so Raines jumped out of a hospital bed (he was in for appendicitis) and hoofed it to Torrington Park Studios in North London, bursting some of his stitches in the process. Talk about suffering for your art!
Stevens did the lead vocal for the single’s B side, Wildfire, which was a popular song in the band’s live set.
“Deram actually thought about flipping the single, and having Wildfire as the A-side.”
But Ultrastar was the main song when the single came out in April 1973, by which time both Harvey and Stevens had left the band and gone to New Zealand. The latter actually started a band called Rococo down there! And that brings us to the name choice…
At one time the band were thinking of settling on Alligator Crawl, until Elton John scuppered that idea.
“He released a single called Crocodile Rock, so out went that name. In the end I went through the dictionary, looking for a good word with ‘rock’ in it. It took me a while to get to ‘R’, but I thought Rococo did the trick.”
The loss of Harvey was overcome with the recruitment of John Edwards, cousin of their drummer (and there’s the Status Quo connection – he’s better know as Rhino Edwards these days. He’s been a member of Quo since 1986). With the addition of guitarist Rod Halling (in place of Ward), the band recorded some songs at Decca’s West Hampstead Studios in North London – none of which was released.
Bu this time, though, they’d landed a residency at the White Bear pub in Hounslow, West London. Not quite Madison Square Garden, but it was a foothold.
“We got a slot every Friday night, after the band who were doing it at the time pulled out. It really tightened us up. We eventually spread our wings and became regulars on the pub circuit in London and also did colleges in the north of England.”
Rococo also got the chance to play at the celebrated Marquee Club in Central London.
“We worked with the Cowbell Agency (part of Chrysalis), who would regularly book us in to support new bands headlining that club, because they knew we had a good following and could pull a crowd. Eventually, we got the chance to headline ourselves. That was great in the summer, when you’d get the tourists coming in. Mind you, the place could get very hot. The Marquee’s idea of air conditioning was to open the back door!”
On the recording front, the band teamed up with the brothers Ray and Andy Hendriksen (who’d worked with some of the biggest names around, from Led Zeppelin to Queen and ELP).
“We must have recorded enough material for two or even three albums at that time,” recalls Shipston. But incredibly nothing ever came of these recordings. Labels would back away fast when they realised Rococo couldn’t be pigeon holed. They were prog, but with poppist tendencies and the odd touch of the gothic. And let’s not forget the country hints. Or, for that matter the influence they had on the punk movement. So, how did Rococo – who were basically quite serious minded old school rockers – get mixed up with the spit and pinhead brigade?
“Well, we entered a Melody Maker contest in 1974. But we didn’t wanna spoil the Rococo name and reputation. So, we came up with a different name – The Brats.”
The final of this contest was due to happen at The Roundhouse in London. In what can only be described as an audaciously daft move, the band decided to take out an advert for the gig, declaring it to be ‘The Brats plus 12 support acts’. Moreover, the ad appeared in – Melody Maker. Nobody at the weekly paper thought this prank at all funny. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t win, despite being the best act on the night (in the opinion of many there).
“We did some gigs after that as The Brats, and started to get a punk audience! But that’s what it was like for us back then. We had such a diverse sound that we could appeal to so many different types of audience.”
Incredibly, some even hailed The Brats as one of the most important proto-punk bands around!
In the end, Rococo put out three singles. Apart from Ultrastar, there was Follow That Car/Lucinda in 1976 through Mountain Records, and Home Town Girls/Quicksilver Mail in 1981 on Paro Records (the latter using the pseudonym Future).
“Follow That Car was our tribute to Phil Spector. It actually sold about 10,0000 copies, which these days would be amazing. Back then it got us just outside the Top 50. One of the things which prevented it getting further was that Mountain were distributed by EMI – and they decided to release about 25 Beatles singles at the same time!”
By 1978, the band had stopped touring, but carried on recording at various studios (with Steve Carman now on bass), stockpiling songs for a potential future album. And in the 1990s, Shipston started to transfer Rococo’s recordings to a more robust format, working at The Mill Recording Studios in Cookham (Berkshire); he and Halling had bought this from Jimmy Page in 1989.
“For the sake of preservation, I moved the tracks from ¼ inch tapes onto DAT, and then onto CD.”
In 2003, the band became active again, with Shipston, Raines, Halling and Clive Edwards joined by former Medicine Head bassist James Fox. And it appears the new line-up are going to be far more active in releasing records than they ever were in the 1970s.
“We’ve just put out Run From The Wildfire through Angel Air, which features 12 songs. There are enough already recorded for at least one more album, while we are constantly doing new songs, so there’s a third album coming as well!”
Given half a chance, Rococo could have become one of the most celebrated names of the 70s. But the very ability to span the spectrum of styles which would now see them lauded as seers and pioneers blocked their career path.
Could it be that, at last, Rococo are about to become a 40-year overnight sensation? Perhaps not, but if nothing else hopefully this article will make you check out true cult heroes, a band also possessed of cheek and a sense of humour.
After all it’s only Roc and roll – but we love it.
OK, people, prepare to be amazed (hopefully) at what Rococo sound like:
First off, here’s Quicksilver Mail
Now comes The Hollywood Brats
And finally, Street Boy
Find out more about the band at www.rococo.ws
Another website worth visiting is www.angelair.co.uk
Tags: Alligator Crawl, Beatles, Bruce Barthol, Clive Edwards, Country Joe & The Fish, Cult Heroes, David Bowie, Elton John, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Formerly Far Harry, Gary 'Legs' Harvey, Genesis, Geoff Ward, Ian Raines, James Fox, Jimmy Page, John 'Rhino' Edwards, Led Zeppelin, Medicine Head, Phil Spector, Queen, Richard Stevens, Rococo, Rod Halling, Roy Shipston, Status Quo, Steve Carman, The Brats