Cult Heroes No. 43: Bethnal
This week we bring back to life a band called Bethnal. Wrongly labelled punk or new wave, this late 70s UK band could have been hard rock contenders, if only they’d been better marketed by their label. Check out all previous Cult Heroes here.Words: Malcolm Dome
Don’t you love genres? Fitting bands neatly in, even if it really is a case of square holes for round pegs! And we can all think of bands who’ve been branded one thing or another, when the truth is that such tagging has all but destroyed the credibility of the artists in question. Case in point (as Rod Serling used to say at the start of most Twilight Zone episodes): Bethnal.
“I don’t think it did us any favours being labelled a new wave or pun k band,” says George Csapo now, from a vantage point of more than 30 years. “That was down to our record label, Phonogram, who were trying to market us to fit in with what was happening at the time. The truth is that we were around before punk ever began and that never sat comfortably with who we were.”
It’s easy to be wise after the event, but the fact is that had Bethnal been allied to germination of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, they might have stood a real chance of becoming heroes. Not that they were exactly a metal band, but then…that association didn’t do any harm for Budgie or AC/DC, did it? And, like Bethnal, they were around before NWOBHM blew up, but were able to take advantage of its popularity to raise their own credibility.
The one problem with all of this was that, by the time that all began to happen, Bethnal had gone from the scene, in the end as much victims of their own musical ambition as anything else. But let’s not get away from the storyline, and go back to the beginning.
“We were all from Wood Green in North London, says Csapo. ‘We’ being Csapo himself on vocals/keyboards/violin, Nick Michaels on guitar, Everton Williams on bass and Pete Dowling on drums.
“We’d all met at school, and decided to form a band in 1972, playing pop covers of the era. We did a lot of stuff by the Beatles and also Creedence Clearwater Revival. The latter was great for us, because their songs were so simple, but in a very good way. They weren’t Queen, if you get my drift. We were also big fans of Dr Feelgood and what they were doing.”
The fledgling band decided not to call themselves Wood Green, because it didn’t seem appropriate to the type of music they were playing. Mind you, had they been a prog band…
“We were thinking about Leatherbead, but that a certain skinhead connotation. So, in the end we went for Bethnal (as in Bethnal Green, in East London). That fitted us.”
There was apparently no hard and fast decision for the band to become a serious proposition. It was just a case of getting more and more gigs, and getting better as musicians.
“I was the only classically trained one in the band. I’d had violin lessons. The others couldn’t read music at all, but they were good enough at playing. And I pushed them quite a lot. I’m not sure if that was down to my musical background, or just because of the way that I was.
“We rehearsed a lot, and began to write our own songs. Our ambition was to be the next Who – to play to huge crowds. And the fact is we were doing well as a live act. We could go to a venue as unknowns and pull about five people. But after we’d done the same place a few times, we’d pack it out. That was really satisfying.”
The band eventually got a deal with Phonogram, thanks to co-managers Frank Sanson and Chris Warren.
“They came to see us when we did a gig at the Music Machine in Camden, London. I think it’s changed name a few times since then (it’s now known as Koko). They liked what we did and signed us up. Both of them had experience and connections at labels, and that’s how e got our contract with Phonogram.”
In 1978, the band released two albums: Dangerous Times and Crash Landing (both of Phonogram subsidiary Vertigo) . But with the benefit of hindsight, Csapo now feels neither did the band justice.
“The fact is that we were a far better live act than you’d know from those albums. Kenny Laguna (Joan Jett) produced the first one, and he was really the wrong choice. I think that’s one of the reasons we failed to make it. They didn’t represent what we could really do.”
While Csapo might feel that the records were shadow players as compared to what Bethnal could do onstage, both had a certain cachet that suggested here was an exciting, intelligent band who had what it took to be something special.
This was hard rock at a level that many others would have struggled to emulate, While it might be true that Dangerous Times suffered from a flimsy production – as if the powers-that-be were trying to shoehorn the next Who into being The Damned – Crash Landing was a far stronger effort. It was co-produced by Jon Astley and Phil Chapman, and it was through the former that the band got to meet Pete Townshend.
“Jon was married to Pete’s sister, so he introduced us to him, and that was a real thrill. He spent quite a while listening to our songs and making comments about them.”
On Dangerous Times, Bethnal had dared to cover Baba O’Riley, one of the iconic Who songs(they also did a strong version of The Animals’ We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place on Dangerous Times). And Townshend approved of what they’d done with it.
“He liked the way we did it. That was an example of me using my violin skills. Now, overall, I’m not sure having a violin sound in the band worked, but it was my instrument, so I was keen to have it there, I was inspired by Slade’s first hit (1971’s Coz I Luv You) and also Jig-A-Jig by East Of Eden (again 1971). Both had violin parts in them, so I felt there was room for this in our music. Maybe people would have preferred to hear a guitar solo, I don’t know.”
The fact is that the use of a violin gave the band an extra dimension, and this really cut through on Crash Landing which, with its Hipgnosis sleeve, was all round a much improved album over the debut. But, in some ways, Csapo reckons it was too much of a jump.
“I do wonder whether we made a jump too far. We were heavily into write proper songs. You know, the sort that others might want to cover, But I think what we did alienated a lot of our fans, and they deserted us. Perhaps this should have been our third or even fourth album, and we needed to build gradually towards it.”
Maybe that’s true in commercial terms, but who knows whether Bethnal would have made it further down the line had they taken the less ambitious approach. And we should have been robbed of an album that can still turn heads and impress when u against most from that era.
The problem was probably more on the marketing side of the record. Phonogram failed to appreciate what they had, and that it needed to be directed towards a hard rock audience. Had that happened, we might be talking about Bethnal as one of the biggest influences on contemporary rock of the era. Who knows? Maybe a young Lars Ulrich would have heard it, and Metallica would have taken an altogether different musical direction. Ah, parallel universes…the permutations are endless.
If Bethnal could have only held on for another year or so, then they could have taken full advantage of the change in attitude towards the sort of music they were making. Sadly, it was all over shortly after Crash Landing came out. The band did crash and burn. Three of the band – Williams being the odd one out – did go on to work with former Hawkwind frontman Robert Calvert on his 1981 album Hype (the band had supported Hawkwind in 1977), but then it all faded away.
Williams did go on to become a member of Bernie Torme & The Electric Gypsies for a couple of years from 1982, alongside the former Gillan guitarist, plus keyboard player Robert John Godfrey (yes, the man from The Enid!) and drummer Frank Noon. But that’s as far as any of the Bethnal four got to major success.
These days Csapo is an accountant in North London, and plays music in a wedding band. His son, Tyrone, though, is in a metal band called Skreamer.
“So, he’s carrying on the family tradition.”
As for a Bethnal reunion, that seems less likely than Osama Bin Laden becoming the next manager of Blackburn Rovers.
“We did get together for a jam a couple of years ago, but I felt very uncomfortable singing. It was as if I didn’t belong there. I can still play the instruments, but I’ve been away from the rock scene for so long that it felt weird signing. I don’t think I could ever do it in a reunion.”
Just to compound the band’s lack of current profile, neither album has been reissued, so if you want to get a copy, head for eBay. There you might also find the two singles which Csapo believes best represent the band on record: Don’t Do It and This Ain’t Just A Love Song.
So, for the moment, Bethnal remain lost in time. A band who could easily have enriched everyone’s lives and still been a force today, but denied the opportunity to opportunity to fulfil their destiny and potential thanks to misdirection.
It is too late for the band to achieve anything, but wouldn’t it be great for an enterprising label to pick up these albums, give them respectful treatment and reissue them? It makes sense to me.
Time for the music.
Erm, and that’s it. There’s so little from Bethnal. There isn’t even a dedicated website. Most shocking. The campaign for more of a Bethnal profile on the internet starts here.
Tags: Beatles, Bernie Torme, Bethnal, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cult Heroes, East Of Eden, Electric Gypsies, Everton Williams, Frank Noon, George Csapo, Hawkwind, joan jett, Lars Ulrich, Nick Michaels, Pete Dowling, Pete Townshend, Queen, Robert Calvert, Robert John Godfrey, Skreamer, Slade, The Animals, The Enid, The Who