Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Redbeards From Texas started a joke. It very nearly got serious.

A tale of fake beards, real success, and pencil pushing bureaucrats.

A long time ago, a South Birmingham boozer, the Selly Park Tavern, was hosting a radio gathering: lots of people from West Midlands stations, many no longer in existence. 

Onstage: The Redbeards From Texas. A seriously fun band that, later, came this close to breaking though; a whim that almost, almost made it. We’ll get to that. But that night, in front of the assembled might of Midlands radio, they were playing for laughs. They pulled people up onstage to sing with them. 

That was fun... until they fingered me. Ooops. I didn’t know the words to Born In The USA, so I bawled the chorus a couple of times, and retreated in confusion. Oh, the humiliation, and all in front of a roomful of my peers. Bastards. 

If you google ‘Redbeards From Texas’ now, thirty years after their glory days, you’ll find a surprising amount of material – videos, a discography and reminiscences. This was a band that made a mark. Craig Fenney (aka Bud Weiser), has a ton of stories after the jump.

Craig Fenney: "We did enjoy a bit of a cult following. People still talk about it. Our stuff is collectible! It sells for quite high prices. Dunno if that’s good or bad."
 Badge of honour, I’d say… you are remembered! 
"Got a funny story about that. After the demise of the band, I ended up, for two and half years, as a sideman in Slade. Slade ended up as Dave Hill and Don Powell – they’re still going, too – and three of us to make up the numbers." 
"The first gig we did was in Sweden: quite a big football stadium. It was an oldies circuit tour, with several other 70s and 80s bands of the time. Massive venue. We’d just arrived. They were still building the stage. We walked through all this; I was with Dave Hill. There were two guys, quite a long way off, who spotted us… and they bounded over to us. Dave was getting ready to deal with yet more fans…and they turned around and said ‘Ah! Redbeards From Texas! Fantastic to meet you!’ It didn’t happen very often. But there you go… Dave wasn’t happy." 
The band only started as a joke. Craig Fenney was one of two members of the band that worked in a long-gone Birmingham Music shop, The Bass Place
"Ian Allen and I ran the Bass Place. I’d just bought ZZ Top's Eliminator album; we were playing it in the shop. A guy came in who helped us out, and he goes ‘Who’s that? That’s awesome!’. 
Ian said ‘Well, it’s us. Me and Craig did that.’ to wind him up."
"We kept it up for about half an hour, until the phone went – we even pretended it was Warner Brothers offering us a deal. But then we couldn’t keep it up; and showed him the cassette. He went ballistic – ‘I should have guessed! I knew you ****s couldn’t have done anything that good anyway’ and stormed out."
But the joke then morphed into reality. Still back at that same south Birmingham boozer, Craig’s mates had a little problem. 
"We were in a seven piece soul band – Curtis Little’s band, I’m sure you remember - and he had a residency at the Selly Park Tavern. And every six or eight weeks, we'd get an extended license to play later, which brought in more punters. We had to keep coming up with a good reason to do it though – we had to pretend it was somebody’s birthday, to get round the laws. One time we hadn’t got a support band – somebody had dropped out." 
So, armed with five songs, the Redbeards From Texas were born. Fake names, fake beards, ten gallon hats, excruciatingly bad accents – a mashup of Texas and Birmingham… and some cracking rock musicianship. 

The joke went down an absolute storm. It’s worth remembering that back then, the whole concept of tribute and cover bands really didn’t exist. Oh, the Bootleg Beatles and the Counterfeit Stones were in circulation, but that was about it. Even Bjorn Again hadn’t got underway. 
"Nobody knew it was us! From there it just escalated. A guy in a local band had worked out who we were, and asked us to come over to do the same thing at JB’s in Dudley. So we had another rehearsal, and learned another tune. At the end of the JBs gig, Colin, the guy who ran it at the time, invited us to come and do our own night."
 So you allowed yourselves to be persuaded
"Yeah, but it was still a laugh. But we went away and rehearsed some more, and when we came back to JB’s the second time, before 9 o’clock, it was packed out. You couldn’t get any more people in."
"We weren’t that good; we were good enough. None of us played our main instruments. But you know, Slade weren’t that good individually either, but as a band, they were fantastic. No major league solos, none of that."
Of course, there’s only so long you can run a band that's deliberately set up as a joke, unless you want to be a novelty music-hall act like the Barron Knights. On the rock side, tongue in cheek acts like the Tubes or Twisted Sister popped up, and popped down again pretty damn fast. But the band had built a following. The Redbeards were working hard. 
"We ended up with two record companies offering us deals – and we were still going ‘nah, don’t think so’… We’d all got jobs, we were all busy. But we had a lot of work."
So a decision was made. The ten gallon hats and fake beards went. The Redbeards From Texas morphed into the Redbeards, all of them clean-shaven. They hunted out some new material. They signed a record deal. And that, more than anything, was to prove to be their downfall. 
"In the end we did realise what was going on, what was in play. We were moving really hard to shake off the comedy thing. It wasn’t going to get us any further. The fake beards became millstones. Our last single got a lot of support from Radio 1. And it sold enough copies, mainly in the Midlands, of course, cos that was our home territory, to make the top 30." 
A proper national breakthrough, then? 
"But Gallup (the Chart company) decided that because all the sales came from one area, the Midlands, it wasn’t a valid national hit. So they didn’t place us in the chart. And there’s nothing you can do about that. Our record company wasn’t big enough to argue. We’d already done TV. That pissed us off – we’d had TV, we had sales, how could they knock us back? But there’s no way you can argue. And then Radio 1 dropped us, cos we were out of the top 40, we’d peaked."
As close as it came: their beard-free TV shot, just before they got bumped off the charts 
Consider the band’s plight. They had built up a storming reputation. They had graduated from a bit of local airplay on BRMB and Beacon to some clear national support on Radio 1. They had had a hit… they were almost there… and some pencil-pushers at chart compilers Gallup, denied them a tiny extra bit of business validation. That validation might have been the tipping point that pulled them into the major leagues. It's a cruel equation. Bands can make solid progress, no matter how they were conceived, if the ideas and the skills are there. But each hurdle becomes harder to vault as you close on your next target. 
"By the time we got to that stage, we were wearing cowboy gear, no beards, we’d modified our stage names a bit. After the Gallup thing, it knocked the stuffing out of us." 
The failure to get that industry validation – an arbitrary and unfair decision – effectively killed the band. Craig and the rest of the Redbeards went back into gigs and sideman work. And Craig started up his own business. 

At least you had a good run, Craig… 
"Yes. But you know, now it’s really hard. I know lots of musicians who play in five, seven bands. They’re making a living, but only just. It’s really hand to mouth. One of the guys I work with is a phenomenal keyboard player. He’s got two degrees, he writes for music magazines. Lovely guy, late 50s. I can’t bring myself to tell you the kind of money he’s working for. I know people who are working for the same money they used to get twenty years ago." 
So do I… 
"When I was with Curtis, we’d do a lot of wedding gigs. And at weddings, they never want to dance until the last number. That’s when they realised they should have been dancing all along, so they get up. And other gig, after we’d done our set, some guy would come backstage, and ask ‘Can you do another one?’
And we’d go, ‘Well it’s half past twelve, we’ve got to break the gear down and drive back home. You didn’t dance for the past hour and a half, and we played ten minutes over anyway… so, sorry, but no.’
’But I’ll give you some money!’
‘Well, OK… how much are you looking at?’
‘A tenner.’
‘Seventy quid, then’
‘No no, a tenner between you….’
          'That's less that a quid each between us and the crew. Sorry, no'.  
‘But you enjoy it!’
"Obviously we are in a privileged position, because we do enjoy what we do, but that;s not for everyone else to take advantage of. And, by the way, to enjoy it, you got to spend twenty five years learning it, spend five grand on instruments… and then play for pennies?" 
Yup - let's drive prices down, then drive them down further. That said, the quality of the music scene’s never been better, in my view, Craig. And I think that’s because of the web. It makes some things a lot easier, and others a lot tougher. 
"I am a big fan of Pledge Music. I wish that had been around when the Redbeards were getting successful. It would have suited us down to the ground. I’ve just bought all of Jess Roden’s back catalogue." 
Well, what’s stopping you from doing it now? We know lots of people would love to see it. 
"Lots of things. The band won’t be getting back together; not going to happen. We made a pact at the time, which we’ve stuck to, that we would never do anything else with the name. Really, we quit while we were ahead, and because we did that, the legend is probably bigger than it would otherwise have been."
A good legend to have, though, as you said at the start..
"Bizarrely, when we were working three and five gigs a week - big gigs, good money for a non-name band - we all had jobs. So we had a bus for us, and a van for all the gear and the crew. Four in the band, five in the crew. They’d set up, we’d arrive and play, and then go home and go to work the next day. But some of the crew have really gone on to do great things. Two guys have gone on to work for Metallica. Our guitar tech ended up as a monitor engineer – he worked for Catatonia, The Verve and Joe Jackson, among others. And I play bass in his blues band."
"They all did really well. They had successful careers. They all did better than the band – we all went back to our day jobs! There’s a lesson in there somewhere…"

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Anonymous said...

Great interview, I always wondered what happened and why they broke up, i have
news paper and magazine cuttings from the Birmingham Mail, Brum Beat and Kerrang
plus photos of them at the Selly Park Tavern, plus LP, singles and live bootleg cd, what a great band, I saw them loads of times at Selly Park Tavern, a pub in Kings Norton, that I can't remember the name of ( by Lifford Lane I think), The General Wolf
in Coventry.

Anonymous said...

"pub in Kings Norton by Lifford Lane"

Breedon Bar? Also known as the Breedon Cross, apparently. Is it Kings Norton? Dunno, but it was Lifford Lane. Long gone.

Anonymous said...

As one of The Redbeards' crew that went on to work with Metallica (for about thirteen years), I'd like to say I've never had as much fun on the road as I did with The Redbeards. Great blokes, great music, great live shows and more laughs than anyone has a right to have. All the best to the band and crew lads. Happy days!

Anonymous said...

Saw The Redbeards more times than I care to remember - fantastic band, lovely blokes one and all. I ended up with 'Morton' (aka Ian)'s guitar. I sold it to buy a Tele, but there you go! If you're reading this, Craig, thank you for countless wonderful (and drunken) nights. I still treasure my Redbeards records. I've been a pro muso for many years now and it's fair to say that The Redbeards were more than a little inspirational. All the best, Craig - and thanks!

max said...

Fantastic band, even better live, wish you'd come back ?
The Kings Norton bar was indeed the Breedon Bar at the bottom end of Cotteridge - a haven for live music and great acts, Trevor Burton, Stan Webb, Steve Gibbons.
The Roadhouse lies just behind Lifford Lane - great venue - Redbeards do you hear the call.....