Week of May 9, 2004

Ancient Grease

Graham Mortimer (Morty) - Vocals
Graham Williams - Lead Guitar
Jack Bass - Bass Guitar
Dick Ferndale - Drums

Women And Children First (Mercury 6338 033) 1970
CD: Repertoire (REP 4359-WP) 1993 + one extra track
CD: Free Records (FR2014) 2003 + one extra track
CD: Angel Air (SJPCD260) 2008 + one extra track

For the vast majority of the fans of Racing Cars, their introduction to the band would have most likely come via their hit single, 'They Shoot Horses Don't They?' which reached number 14 in the UK chart in the spring of 1977. The Welsh band with the West Coast American sound had moved up to London from the Rhondda valley in early 1976, taking advantage of the burgeoning 'pub rock' scene of that time and began to get noticed. With Morty as charismatic front man and with an excellent lead guitarist in Graham Williams, it wasn't too long they found themselves signed to Chrysalis Records, which led to the release of their debut album, 'Downtown Tonight'.

Some fans might know that Racing Cars had already existed in various permutations for a number of years prior to moving to London and a few might have known about an earlier version of the band called Strawberry Dust, but surely it is only fanatical die-hards who would be aware that this band actually released an album as far back as 1970!

It's a long, convoluted story so please pay attention!

The South Wales music scene threw out an incredible number of bands during the early to mid-sixties. Outfits such as Vikings, The Blackjacks, The Mustangs, The King Bees, The Smokestacks, Corncrackers, The Jets and The Bystanders might have been virtually unknown outside of Wales, but they were all part of a thriving local scene that grew and grew. By the late sixties Welsh bands were starting to make a name for themselves across the UK. Originating from the Cardiff area, Amen Corner, with Andy Fairweather-Low, had a string of UK hit singles between 1967 and 1969 and Love Sculpture, led by Dave Edmunds, had a major hit with 'Sabre Dance' in 1967. The Bystanders, out of Merthyr, gradually evolved between 1963 and 1968 to become Man, quite possibly the quintessential Welsh band, and one whose members had all, at one time or another, been involved in some way with just about every South Wales band going! Another local band that were having some success were Eyes of Blue who started out as the Neath-based covers and R&B band, The Mustangs, before a change of name in the mid-sixties. The Eyes of Blue played the same circuit as many other groups such as The Bystanders and The Jets taking in gigs in Llanelli, Swansea, Skewen, Cardiff and Neath, and quickly established a strong reputation on the South Wales music scene. As is usual with semi-pro bands, personnel came and went and one such change happened in early 1966 when drummer John Weathers joined the band.

John Weathers was born on February 7th 1947, in Carmarthen, Carmarthenshire, West Wales, before his family moved to the Swansea area. As a young teenager, John had dabbled with the drums, but didn't practice with any great conviction. In the early sixties, aged just 15, John ran away to Liverpool to live with his aunt as, at the time, he was not seeing eye to eye with his parents. His arrival coincided with the explosion of the Mersey Beat era and John suddenly found there was a need for drummers and duly sent home for his drum kit, playing in bands at night and working as a baker's boy during the day. Two years later, upon his return to Wales, John again found he was in demand, having been part of the Mersey scene and his experience got him gigs with a number of local bands such as Vikings and Brothers Grimm.

John can still recall the vitality and excitement of the South Wales scene and the camaraderie between the local bands. "Swansea in the early sixties and, Cardiff as well for that matter, but particularly Swansea, was just full of bands. There were gigs every single night of the week, there was a great atmosphere between musicians because there wasn't this heavy-duty nasty rivalry between bands that you find in other places. We'd all meet in the early hours of the morning in a curry restaurant and have a ball till 3 o'clock in the morning. Got on great with everybody. Touring bands would come down to one of the five major venues in the area and we'd take them under our wing. We'd put them up while they were here."

By the summer of 1966, Eyes of Blue had turned professional and in further personnel changes had brought in keyboard player Phil Ryan and vocalist Gary Pickford-Hopkins from another Neath-based band, the Smokestacks. Around this time the band entered and won the national Melody Maker 'Beat Contest', which offered the chance of a one-year Decca recording contract. Unfortunately, although they released two singles on the Deram label, 'Heart Trouble' b/w 'Up And Down' (1966) and 'Supermarket Full Of Cans' b/w 'Don't Ask Me To Mend Your Broken Heart' (1967), neither made any impact on the charts and are both considered unrepresentative of the band's sound.

Once the Decca contract had expired, the band signed with the Mercury label, and recorded their first album in Chappell Studios, London between March and July 1968. The debut album, 'Crossroads of Time', was eventually released early in 1969 and revealed much more of an American West Coast sound. John Weathers: "In Wales during the sixties there was a big West Coast movement. We were all playing stuff by Moby Grape and the Doors, Love and that kind of thing." The second Eyes of Blue album, 'In Fields of Ardath', was released in November 1969 and is generally regarded as the more successful of the two albums. The album is certainly more progressive and has been described as having 'pop, R&B, jazz, classical, psychedelic and Eastern influences'!

Back in South Wales, John Weathers had noticed an outfit called Strawberry Dust, a popular covers band on the circuit, who, at that time, consisted of Gareth 'Morty' Mortimer (vocals); Graham Headley Williams (guitar); Jack Bass (bass) and Dick Ferndale (drums). John felt they just had something about them. "I first met them in '68 or '69. Eyes of Blue did a gig with them up the Rhondda. And the next time they came down to the Swansea area, I made a point of going to see them. They were a raunchy little band, very raunchy indeed, but they had a great sound. Pure energy, every one of them loved doing what they were doing and Morty is such an outrageous character. I was very, very impressed with them. I was so impressed that I offered to do a demo with them."

To record the demo the band went into the embryonic Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, then a two-track studio, which had been built in a converted hayloft. Back in October 1968, Eyes of Blue had recorded an album backing American singer-songwriter Buzzy Linhart for the Phillips label and John Weathers chose a Linhart song for Strawberry Dust to record at Rockfield. John Weathers: "We did the tune and I took it to the Eyes of Blue record producer Lou Reizner of Mercury Records and he liked the demo. It all seemed to happen overnight, they got a licensing deal and we went in and recorded an album, which I produced for them. The album was recorded up at Morgan Studios in Willesden. We did a deal where we recorded late at night. From midnight to six in the morning! It took about a week. We recorded the album on 16-track, which had just come in. I remember they were very excited and wanted to double-track everything! This was big stuff for a band from the Rhondda Valley. It was their first time up to London and their first time in a big recording studio."

The fact that Strawberry Dust were primarily a covers band and, at that stage, had not written very much in the way of their own original material luckily did not create much of a problem in the studio, as John Weathers recalls. "I had a lot of spare songs around that would not have suited Eyes of Blue, which was much more progressive rock. My songs were more straight-ahead rock and I thought they would suit Strawberry Dust. The album was really just a vehicle for my songs. The Strawberry Dust boys would have recorded anything we put in front of them! I also played drums on one track and Phil Ryan from Eyes of Blue played keyboards on a couple."

Of the ten tracks on the original album, John Weathers is credited as the sole composer of four tracks: 'Freedom Train', 'Eagle Song', 'Mystic Mountain' and 'Woman and Children First.' 'Odd Song' was written by John together with his Eyes of Blue colleague Gary Pickford-Hopkins, while 'Don't Want' and 'Time To Die' were co-written by John and someone called Stevens. John Weathers: "Stevens is, in fact, Graham Williams, for some reason he didn't want his real name in the writing credits at that time, but I'm sure that it's okay to use it now." Of the remaining three tracks on the album, 'Mother Grease The Cat' is another 'Stevens' composition; 'Where The Snows Lie Forever' was written by Phil Ryan, while 'Prelude to a Blind Man' was written by Greg Curran. John Weathers: "Greg is a friend of mine and we decided to use his song on the album as it kind of suited the band."

The finished album certainly features some fine, dirty rock'n'roll complete with snarling guitar riffs and gritty, instantly identifiable vocals from Morty. But alongside hard-driving blues-rock stompers like 'Freedom Train' and 'Prelude To A Blind Man' and the organ-driven title track, there are a number of mellow songs too, such as the slightly unsettling, dreamy, psychedelic-folk of 'Time To Die' and the rootsy 'Mystic Mountain'. John Weathers recalls not being best pleased to discover that he was only going to be listed as co-producer of the album alongside Lou Reizner. "As far as Lou Reizner is concerned, he was only at the studio once for a quick listen to how it was going and then rubberstamping the finished product. He then insisted on being listed as co-producer, probably for financial reasons, I was never paid a producer's fee or any royalties of any kind, neither were the band."

Finally released on the Mercury label in July 1970 and entitled, 'Women and Children First', the album was also curiously credited to Ancient Grease. John Weathers: "That was down to Lou Reizner. He chose Ancient Grease. I don't think he liked Strawberry Dust much." The album came in a nice psychedelic sleeve, all saturated blue and purple, very much of its time, featuring what appears to be a family running through a garden arbour. Strangely, the US version of the album came in a totally different sleeve that shows roly-poly cartoon characters luxuriating in a black viscous liquid that I assume is meant to be grease. Very odd!

Unfortunately, Mercury Records did not give 'Women and Children First' the amount of push necessary to get a brand new act noticed by the record buying public. John Weathers: "It was just not promoted. Mercury (Britain) was really just a tax loss for Mercury (USA). They'd signed Rod Stewart and he'd just finished 'An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down' and they just put everything they had into that. And everything else went into the bottom drawer. You know; 'It'll find its own level.'"

With the album essentially dead in the water and with no support forthcoming from Mercury, Strawberry Dust returned to the South Wales circuit playing again under their original name before gradually grinding to a halt. By this time, Eyes of Blue had also folded, after a third and final album, "Bluebell Wood", which was released under the name Big Sleep. John Weathers played a couple of dates with Strawberry Dust to help them out before joining Pete Brown's Piblokto!, along with Phil Ryan, playing on one single, "Flying Hero Sandwich"/"My Last Band".

In early 1971, Glenn Cornick from Jethro Tull was putting together an early incarnation of Wild Turkey and enlisted John Weathers, together with Gary Pickford-Hopkins and Graham Williams, who, by this time, was making a reputation for himself as one of the most accomplished guitar players around. The band moved into a remote farmhouse in the Welsh hills to rehearse, but within a short space of time, both John and Graham had left to join forces with Graham Bond. Unfortunately, this was to prove an uncomfortable gig for the guitarist as John Weathers remembers. "We were called Graham Bond's Magick. A good band, but it didn't suit Graham at all. He was terrified of Graham Bond and when we were onstage and Graham Bond would nod at him to take a solo, he'd just freeze!" John Weathers would guest on Graham Bond's 1971 album, 'We Put Our Magick On You.' After Graham Bond, John joined The Grease Band in the summer of 1971, playing with them until the end of the year. In the spring of 1972, John was drafted into Gentle Giant on the eve of the group's nationwide tour after their drummer Malcolm Mortimer was seriously injured in a car smash. Despite initially being a temporary arrangement, John would remain in the band until 1980! During his time in Gentle Giant, John also played on occasion with Phil Ryan in the Neutrons appearing on their debut album, 'Black Hole Star', released in September 1974. From the mid-eighties till 1996 (or thereabouts) John found himself, somewhat inevitably, behind the kit in Man, where he became the group's longest-serving drummer!

John still lives in Wales and in recent years has toured with a Welsh pantomime theatre act and also appeared on a number of soundtracks for certain Welsh TV shows. In late 2001, it was reported that John had given up playing the drums due to arthritis in his foot. John Weathers: "It wasn't arthritis of the foot. I was diagnosed with a condition called Spinocerebellar Ataxia, which is akin to M.S., so I've pretty well lost the use of my legs and expect to be wheelchair-bound within the next two years. I'm just paying the price for having had a wonderful fun-filled forty years in music. I'm completely happy." In 2006, John's condition did not stop him playing with the newly-reformed Wild Turkey alongside old mates Gary Pickford-Hopkins and Graham Williams and recording an album, 'You & Me In The Jungle.'

While Graham Williams had been working with John Weathers on various projects in the early seventies, Gareth 'Morty' Mortimer had been singing with a band called Good Habit, performing many of his own songs. Around 1973, Morty was reunited with Graham and, as the singer was looking for a guitarist at the time, his old friend was the obvious choice! Before long, Morty and Graham had formed Racing Cars and began honing their sound. After a few years of ups and downs and the usual changes in personnel, 1976 saw the band, then consisting of Morty and Graham, bassist David Land, guitarist Ray 'Alice' Ennis and drummer Robert James Wilding, relocate to London. Which is where we came in!

Racing Cars released two more albums for Chrysalis, 'Weekend Rendezvous' (1977) and 'Bring On the Night' (1978), but, like a lot of bands from that period, found themselves increasingly sidelined by the rise of punk and finally called it a day in 1980. John Weathers had kept in contact with the guys over the years, even playing with them on the odd occasion. "I was lucky enough to do a few gigs later on with Racing Cars when I was with Gentle Giant. Their drummer was ill or something. I did a couple of University gigs with them and I really enjoyed it." John recalls recording a great album with the band in the late seventies, which appears to have been lost and also working on three or four solo tracks with Morty that also remain unreleased.

In 1988, Racing Cars reformed, touring the UK and Europe for a number of years without a record deal, but enjoying a large core fan base. In 2000, they released an album, 'Bolt From The Blue', on D&A Records and since then have gone from strength to strength. In 2006, they signed to Angel Air Records, and to celebrate their 30th Anniversary they released a DVD, '76-06, 30th Anniversary Concert', which was well received by fans and critics alike. The live album of the same concert was released on CD in April 2007, together with another album from 1981, entitled, 'Love Blind,' which was essentially a Morty solo album originally credited to Morty & The Racing Cars. 2007 also saw the release of 'Second Wind', a brand new studio album. With Angel Air planning to re-issue 'Bolt From The Blue' in 2008, it seems that there is still plenty left in the tank for Racing Cars!

As a snapshot in time of Racing Cars' first musical steps, 'Women and Children First' is an important document that should delight fans eager for more information about the band's pre-history. For students of Welsh rock music, the album also provides that missing piece of the jigsaw that links the various strands of the South Wales music scene in the late sixties and early seventies. Looking back, John Weathers is refreshingly honest in his assessment of 'Women and Children First.' "It was quite a nice album, not the best album in the world by any stretch, but after all I suppose it was the sixties, I was only 23 and very bolshie, and the poor band were just a bunch of boys from the Rhondda Valley who had only been in a studio once before (the demo session that we did in the cowshed at Rockfield), so were total greenhorns. The saving grace though was that it gave them the experience of making an album, something that helped them tremendously when they became Racing Cars, I'm sure."

Keith Smith - November 2007
Taken from the CD reissue of "Women And Children First",
Angel Air (SJPCD260)

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