Cult Heroes No. 48: Silverwing
It’s a hot night – no, hang on, better make that nite – in November 1980. I’m standing near the back of the Kingsbury Bandwagon; next to me is a leading music industry mover-and-shaker.
Words: Geoff Barton
(OK, let’s be honest, in actual fact it’s a bloody freezing night – sorry, nite – in wintry North West London. But let’s not split hairs, okay? Let’s just imagine that we’re inside a steaming American venue such as Santa Monica Civic in flaming August, okay? A crowd of 25,000 is made up entirely of teenage Californian girls in tight red hotpants. Just hotpants. Each has a handbag full of interesting drugs. The stage-set in front of us looks like a starship that’s just landed. We’ve been snortin’ whiskey and drinkin’ cocaine since dawn. Everyone has got a vinyl copy of Kiss Alive! under their arms. Even the stewards and roadies have got Punky Meadows hairstyles. But I digress. Back to reality.)
I won’t tell you the name of the mover-and-shaker who’s right here beside me, for fear of a ruinous libel suit. Let’s just say that he’s dressed in posh Savile Row shmutter, is rather short and chubby, and smells of deluxe aftershave. He’s got rock credibility, oh yes. But in truth he doesn’t seem entirely – make that at all – comfortable in the midst of the Bandwagon’s boozed-up and acutely acne’d headbanging hordes.
We’re at the birthplace of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal to check out a band called Silverwing, the self-styled ‘Macclesfield Mayhem Merchants’. The mover-and-shaker has expressed an interest in signing them to his label (yes, he runs his own record company – there’s a clue for ya) and I’m here to persuade him that that would be a very good idea indeed.
However, it’s Silverwing’s first London date and the atmosphere is tense. There’s also a bit of bother in the air as it emerges that Neal Kay – the legendary DJ who put the Bandwagon, aka Heavy Metal Soundhouse, on the map – has recently had some kind of disagreement with the club’s management. There are pickets on the outside and heavies on the door. Kay is nowhere to be seen but the club’s giant disco speakers are blaring on regardless.
The mover-and-shaker shuffles around on expensive brogues looking distinctly uncomfortable. He doesn’t understand why someone frisked him at the entrance to the Bandwagon and, frankly, neither do I. Maybe they were trying to relieve him of his Rolex. But a sly glance reveals his timepiece to be still attached firmly to his wrist. Indeed, he keeps looking at the watch-face every 10 seconds or so, as if he desperately wants to be somewhere else.
Just as I try to strike up a friendly conversation with the mover-and-shaker, someone sprays him with Newcastle Brown. Well, hoses him, actually. The mover-and-shaker recoils in horror; it’s like he’s never been to a sweaty rock’n’roll concert before. He should be grateful for the cooling effect! Still, I buy him a slimline Gin & Tonic to calm his nerves, and finally Silverwing take to the stage.
I know what to expect as the band begin their set. But the mover-and-shaker plainly doesn’t.
Silverwing let off five ginormous flashbombs in the first five seconds. It’s what they always do; it’s the traditional start to their show. But the mover-and-shaker doesn’t get it. In addition to Newkie Brown he’s now got slimline G&T all down his serge waistcoat. His face has contorted into a look of indescribable horror.
After the explosions, a pall of smoke settles over the Bandwagon, as thick as the mist outta a Silent Hill video-game. You can’t see your hand in front of your face, let alone see the band on stage. But at last the haze clears a little and Silverwing begin playing their opening number. It’s called Rock Tonight (not, sadly, Tonite, but we’ll forgive them for that transgression) and it goes:
‘Gonna rock tonight
Gonna roll tonight
Gonna rock and roll
Alright let’s go!’
Genius. But the mover-and-shaker doesn’t seem to agree. In fact, it looks like he’s been shot by a sniper. He’s standing there with his mouth open as wide as a yawning walrus’s. He’s paralysed by a combination of fear, shock, incredulity and confusion.
He isn’t enjoying himself very much at all.
Thankfully, Silverwing are still shrouded in too much smoke to notice the mover-and-shaker’s reaction. Guitarist Stuart McFarlane, wearing a specially customised ‘Mayhem Tour 1980’ jacket, is leaping around with the enthusiasm of Ted Nugent on a wild boar hunt. Bassist/vocalist Dave Roberts is confounding the audience with the most ridiculous between-number raps, and skipping around using movements straight out of the Paul Stanley book of stage posturing. Drummer Steve Roberts, meanwhile, is beating his skins with the ferocity of a master chef attempting to tenderise a paving stone.
Now that’s what I call entertainment.
The minutes pass all-too-quickly. Silverwing’s set moves inexorably toward its climax, and a song called Rock And Roll Mayhem. It goes:
‘Rock and roll mayhem tonight
Turn up the music
And switch out the light
Rock and roll mayhem tonight
Turn up the music
And switch out the light
Double genius. To ram home the dumb-ass party message, Roberts reiterates, ‘You gotta turn up the music and switch out that Goddamn light tonight!’ as the song struts and stumbles to a close. But, hold up – it’s not quite over yet, as any ’Wing connoisseur knows. The best is yet to come as the band members, endearingly, all wedge their fingers into their ears to protect their hearing from the forthcoming sonic boom of an explosion-to-end-all-explosions.
Hello daddy, hello mum – it’s time for a ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb. Or more likely an M-80. Times several.
First, there’s a countdown. It goes:
From Dave Roberts comes a loud shout of:
More bombs than Dresden, indeed. The Bandwagon is wracked by a huge nuclear blast and its walls bulge outward in sympathy. Dust falls from the ceiling. Windows shatter. Electric cables short-circuit. Water-pipes burst. Broken gas-mains hiss alarmingly. The whole place reels and rocks like a quaint coracle caught up in a massive maelstrom.
But, sheesh, we’re still not done. Dave Roberts decides to set fire to his guitar but, unhappily, the flames go out almost immediately. Slightly nonplussed, he hands the instrument to a roadie who promptly reignites it with a cheap cigarette lighter. Smoke, chief?
I’m having the time of my life. ‘Hard-hitting and often hilarious pop-metal pyrotechnics’ ain’t the half of it. I’m not so much grinning from ear to ear; my smile is extending right around the back of head and meeting at the nape of my neck. This is the most fantastic, ridiculous, outlandish, bizarre, stoopid, over-the-top, in-your-face, tongue-in-cheek, hell-bent-for-spandex rock concert I’ve ever been to.
And it’s all been staged for the price of a packet of crisps and a bottle of Panda Pop.
Still grinning like a madman, I turn to the mover-and-shaker. Regrettably, his face has gone green and all his teeth have fallen out.
“So, what did you think?” I ask jovially.
“They, Geoff…” he snarls (well, as well as anyone who has suddenly become dentally challenged can snarl), “…they are the worst band I’ve ever seen in my entire life!”
It’s the perfect end to a perfect evening.
What more can you say about Silverwing? The band had ambitions to become the British version of Kiss, but despite a valiant stab at realising their dream they ultimately found that rock and roll are, indeed, four letter words.
It’s surely no coincidence that Silverwing originally had their heads turned by Messrs Simmons, Stanley, Frehley and Criss, after seeing them tread the boards at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976.
“We first came together at the end of 1977,” Dave Roberts once told me. “We were just a bedroom band then – that was me, my brother Steve, and a couple of other guys. We wanted to play heavy metal, but it was all punk in Britain at the time and there were no new home-grown hard-rock bands to speak of. The Americans were still doing it though, so we just used to go into the record shops and sift though the import racks. We started to pick up on Rush, then Styx, then Angel… it just took off from there.”
Silverwing sounded like a band after my own heart, a feeling that was confirmed when Steve Roberts revealed:
“We’ve just written an amazing new number called Rock’N’Roll Romance. We want as many of our song-titles as possible to contain the words ‘rock’ and ‘roll’.”
The formation of Silverwing’s own label, inevitably titled Mayhem Records, was just around the corner. Following regular appearances in the nascent heavy metal charts in Sounds music weekly, and on journos’ playlists with songs such as Sittin’ Pretty, Everybody’s Singing, Hot City Streets, Teenage Love Affair and many more besides (not to mention concert bootlegs Silverwing Conquers Congleton and Silverwing Slaughters Sandbach, titled in the singular fashion of the seminal Kiss Destroys Anaheim boot), our budding heroes very nearly got the big break they deserved when they met Bill Aucoin backstage at Kiss’s 1980 Wembley Arena gigs. Support band Girl had pulled out and Kiss’s then (and now late) manager cornered Silverwing, and asked if they could play instead. As bad luck would have it, the band had travelled down to the smoke without… any… smoke. All their stage effects were locked up in a garden shed in Kendal. Plus guitarist McFarlane was absent, so they had to decline.
One can’t but wonder what might have been. But even a song called Flashbomb Fever (with lyrics, I admit it, penned by yours truly) somehow failed to ignite the fire – even though it was dubbed ‘a classic if there ever was one’ in Kerrang!, and ‘a near-symphonic creation’, wouldja believe, in the pages of Sounds.
Talking of which, ace Sounds scribe Sandy Robertson summed up Silverwing’s predicament with unerring accuracy in the June 5, 1982 edition of the mag: ‘They suffer (like me) the eternal cold nitemare of NOT HAVING BEEN BORN IN CALIFORNIA!’
Never was a truer word spoken.
Later, Silverwing broke up and transformed into Pet Hate who released two albums, one of which the legendary Eddie Leonetti produced. The Roberts brothers re-formed Silverwing in the late 80s before changing the band’s name again, to Wild Ones, and releasing a single album. Then it all went uncharacteristically quiet. But it should be noted that around the time of the Silverwing re-formation the Roberts brothers and guitarist/vocalist Ivor Griffiths – one of several members besides the aforementioned Stuart McFarlane to pass through the band’s ranks – did the session work with Belinda Carlisle. Steve Roberts then went on to do similar work with Rick Astley!
Pshaw. It was all a far cry away from Silverwing’s wide-screen dreams on home-movie budgets. Because, as the old adage says: ‘It’s the trying that maketh great mayhem, and it’s the mayhem that maketh great rock’n’roll.’
Smokin’ hot words, indeed.