Terraplane Fixation CD
[Messthetics #101]

...a reminiscence by Susan and Ralph

We met in early 1978 outside a Wire/Adam and the Ants gig in Bristol -although we both lived in Frome (a small market town in the West Country) and had attended the same seminal punk gigs we hadn't met until then. We made a young and idealistic punk couple: keen anti fashion victims, listening to records and John Peel, making day trips to London and to gigs in Bristol or Bath. Naturally there was a band. We practiced at Nigel's farm, near Nunney, first in the playroom, but soon graduated to the egg-packing barn. Initially it was Ralph singing and playing guitar and harmonica, with Nigel House on bass and Geoff Norcott on drums, but something was missing. (Ralph had developed his singing style in a Dr. Feelgood-style R&B band) so Susan was persuaded to take over the vocals.

We called ourselves Animals & Men after an early Adam and the Ants song (the best version is on their Peel Sessions LP). Through Nigel's influence we were also listening to Pere Ubu and the Pop Group, as well as American '60s punks. We wanted to be one of those obscure bands that you might discover on a Nuggets type record, but like the Velvets we also had pretensions to being multi media with films and so on, especially later on. Unfortunately, we also had the idea we could be mavericks out in the sticks, occasionally releasing brilliant singles, say, like the 13th Floor Elevators.

Our first trip into the studio in June 1979 produced excellent results: we sent our demo to John Peel and Allan Partner, a local promoter. Peel thought we should do a single, while, fortuitously, Allan (who was managing Moskow and got them signed to Rialto) loved us and wanted to put out a record straight away. He created his own label TW and released "Don't Misbehave in the New Age" / "We Are Machines" in September 1979. Good reviews and Peel play brought a number of major labels sniffing around for another Undertones or a poppy Banshees. Unknown to us at the time, however, Allan had insisted that we were part of a stable of other actsso we left his patronage. Another bombshell came when the Royal Navy posted Geoff to Gibraltar. We found a replacement in Paul (Puddle) Collier from Warminster, who'd been in Stalag 44 and shared our musical tastes. With money borrowed from friends we released "Terraplane Fixation" / "Shell Shock" ourselves in June 1980.

The A-side was originally entitled "Car Crash Blues:" about the evils of cars (Susan is a conscientious non-driver). "Impress my car upon you" refers both to conspicuous consumption ­and using the automobile as a lethal weapon. Things also got a little confused with J.G. Ballard's novel Crash, which we were reading at the time. (And Terraplanes -a short-lived American car of the 1930s- entered the picture by way of Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues.") The record did well although only 1000 were pressed. The B-side, "Shell Shock" got a positive NME notice and most of the airplay, but we could never get distributors to pay us on time and we were always in the red. Meanwhile, Nigel was becoming more of a Londoner and we were not getting to practice (he left the band in September). Puddle suggested that we get Dave Cole in on guitar from Moskow (who'd just split). Dave, however was a proper musician and as we had a long time mistrust of people who could really play, we declined the offer, which caused Puddle to leave, too. In the meantime, Allan had gotten his longed-for package-deal, so when Puddle, Dave and Wallace "Boris" Stevens formed Silent Guests, Allan put out their single, along with a re-release of "Don't Misbehave" with a different, mis-titled ["Modern Age"] cover, though we never got a copy.
We took the difficult route, changed our name and our sound, and found two spirited teenage punks, Andy Payne and Dave Mackay, to play drums and bass respectively. The Terraplanes were born rehearsing above the Pack Horse pub: none of us owned motorised transport which made forays to studios a serious logistical problem. A John Peel session was offered but we thought we'd better play our new stuff to him first -and when we did we never heard back! We wanted a new sound and somehow we decided on no guitar at all, as generally Ralph's morale as a guitarist was low and the available local guitarists all came from the country or rock genres. We were trying to find a trancey sort of sound a bit influenced by ESG, but it also seemed a good place for Ralph to indulge his Little Walter side on harmonica...

The result was "Evil Going On" / "It's Hip" (May 1981), which didn't get much airplay or sales though it did get some good reviews. One major problem with self releasing is that it's hard to get real feedback for what you are doing until it is too late. We didn't help matters by settling into a comfy little world down in Somerset, where a group of about 15 of us kept basically to ourselves, inhabited the quietest pubs and of course went to gigs. We started a fanzine 'Stranded in The Jungle' that didn't get to a first issue but it did enable us to meet Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Bo Diddley, etc. when they toured. The Terraplanes played a few gigs, including one that was filmed at the Granary Bristol, but pretty much ran out of steam.

That would have probably have been the end of the story (and it certainly was as far as vinyl is concerned), but then Geoff Norcott returned from Gibraltar -and he had a car! (We gave him a chauffeur's hat to celebrate.) Dave and Andy had matured into loyal and hard-working musicians who were just coming into their prime and since Geoff and Andy got along famously, the two drummer set-up was a natural. (The fact that the Ants had two drummers was actually a reason against it, but that was the only negative reason. We saw the Burundi drummers at the first WOMAD festival and were knocked out -and after that it was drums all the way.) The sound was great and we had retro fantasies about ironic pop songs in the classic style. To add more oomph to the vocal sound we got in Brenda Austin as a kind of Everly Brothers thing alongside Susan, and we started gigging again in early 1982.

Our history with Adam Ant was one of friendly missed connections (we'd stayed kind of pen friends from the early days). We were supposed to open for him on the 1980 Ants Invasion tour, but a band with, shall we say, more aggressive management won out. Despite our name-change, Adam loved "Evil," and when he heard the Right Track Studios stuff with Brenda and Geoff, he figured he had WEA ready to sign us for 300 grand or so -and he told us "Never Worry" was a sure-fire top-10 hitalthough it might not actually be us playing on our record ("No one does these days"). Adam was starting a publishing company and he was looking for a roster of bands to get published, get a record deal and so on. He already had Danny and the Nogoodniks, led by his friend Danny Kleinman. The easy road to success was not without its allure so at Adam and Marco's behest, we became El Dorado, although we were strictly under wraps as far as gigs and records were concerned. One final line-up change was made with Scottish chanteuse Anne Morrison (sister of Hilary from the Flowers), replacing Brenda.

But fate presented Adam with an unexpected chart hit in "Goody Two Shoes," and a new lease of life as a solo act, while the Nogoodniks failed to make an impression. Adam was off to the U.S. so would we spend the next year perfecting our craft? Well, no, frankly... We played along with the secret name-change and worked on our would-be hits, but somewhere along the way we got rather jaundiced. We weren't beautiful pop people and couldn't really see ourselves on kids TV and so on. John Peel had only played "Evil" once and we weren't in the Bristol fashion to play gigs there. The punk thing was all Crass and those type of bands and we weren't much interested in that because of the violence, the idiotic people who liked it, and the fact that we were offered a support with them once and they insisted reading our lyrics, first.

We realised early on that we probably weren't ruthless or ambitious enough to make it -especially compared to the people we met who were on the road to success. Someone from Sounds once rung up and offered us a prominent article as long as Susan did something sexy for the camera or said something "tabloid" -we obviously said no but we could see how female-fronted bands were presented and we wanted no part of it. Enthusiasm had been flagging all around and we had had enough. Susan wanted to start a family and when Ralph tried to carry on with the band it all seemed a bit empty. So we called it a day.

Now Ralph stayed involved in a few musical projects over the years, but Susan is now singing again for the first time in 20 years and we're both writing songs. We have three teenagers, one of whom is responsible for our web-page and another who plays keyboards with us. Luckily they have reasonable tastes in music. (We keep suggesting they get a band going.) Recently we've been playing with Dave, Geoff and Andy again, which has been sort of bitter-sweet: the Terraplanes never gigged much and the sound would have gone down well live. Some new recordings will soon be on the 'Net. We're probably still just as naïve, but since our taste in music hasn't changed, and our musical ability remains should be interesting. Details at the Strange Days website...