"Right, you might have heard about these other bands we’ve all been in" Baz Warne addresses the Islington Academy crowd and with a sly grin he sweeps his arm round to point at his fellow bandmates in turn. “He was in the Bay City Rollers, he was in Showaddywaddy, he was in Depeche Mode, he was in The Glitter Band and I was in Black Lace!” Of course, we all know that Baz is really the singer and guitarist with The Stranglers, but just who are the rest of his colleagues that make up this new band Wingmen we are all waiting in anticipation to see tonight. Well, to Baz’s left is former Eddie & The Hot Rods and UFO bassist, Paul Gray, who is back for his second stint with The Damned. At the back is drummer Marty Love who was in Case and currently the Johnny Moped Band and then there’s Rob Coombes from Supergrass behind the keyboards. Finally, the familiar looking chap with the Gibson SG guitar, trademark trilby and shades is Leigh Heggarty, once of The Price and now plying his trade with the mighty Ruts DC. Although I’m not doubting there’s some excellent pedigree there, Wingmen might not quite qualify for the “Supergroup” status that’s been bandied about in almost every glowing review and feature so far, a fact they have acknowledged themselves with self-deprecating humour in their choice of band name, Wingmen. I suppose they could have gone for The Side Kicks if Wingmen had already been taken. This is because on stage is a collection of mighty fine musicians that nevertheless may well have been considered as overshadowed, underrated, underappreciated or overlooked by those not in the know. However, Wingmen is very much a band in its own right, as Baz also makes a point of telling us, and who are we to argue with Baz? If you want to have a go, I’ll hold your coat.
Seriously though, it’s very refreshing to see that Wingmen are not overdoing the association with their parent bands - a brave move in these nostalgia-filled times. So, there’s no “Babylon’s Burning”, “No More Heroes” or “New Rose” on the set-list, no chance. Tonight, they are going to play the new self-titled debut album in its entirety and despite someone yelling out “play something we know!”, people around me down the front are soon singing along to the new songs as they would have done to all those old familiar classics anyway. This proves that the album is already making quite an impact and tonight, the songs sound even better performed live. I wasn’t being flippant by saying this is no Supergroup, and the band’s own modesty is down-playing the often-overlooked contributions that all the members of Wingmen have had on their ‘other’ bands and now they deserve to have the spotlight on them for a change. I mean, Marty Love has been part of the recent resurgence and reappraisal of Johnny Moped and he really is a bloody great drummer. Sorry I can’t be more technical than that I’m afraid, I’ll have to get in my some-time Retrosonic Podcast colleague and legendary sticksman Buddy Ascott for that. Powerful, yes of course, but Marty accentuates the songs perfectly, adding a swagger, a real groove to Wingmen’s sound. Can I say that without sounding like my dad? “It’s got a good beat to it, son.” Rob Coombes has been supplying keyboards for Supergrass since 1997’s “In It For The Money” and although he didn’t feature on the Wingmen recordings, getting him on board for the live dates was an inspired choice, as the organ sound throughout the album is key. Former Price guitarist Leigh Heggarty has reignited Ruts DC with his blistering contributions to the “Music Must Destroy” album and the superb new release “CounterCulture”. It must have been an unenviable task to follow in the footsteps of the much-missed guitar genius that was Paul Fox, but Leigh has more than deservedly made the position in Ruts DC his own, along the way becoming one of the most respected go-to guitarists for discerning artists such as TV Smith and Alvin Gibbs among others.
Then from a more personal point of view, Baz Warne ‘rescued’ The Stranglers for me. I’d fallen out of love with the band even before Hugh left and it wasn’t until Baz took over lead vocals and they reverted to the traditional four-piece line-up with the stunning “Suite XVI” album that I decided to go and see them live again. I went along to the Shepherds Bush Empire around the time of the LP’s release, the first time I’d seen them play since Hugh Cornwell’s last show at the Alexandra Palace. I was blown away, the band were on fire with a sound harking back to the snarling era of “The Raven”. That’s down in no small part to Baz’s contributions in re-energising, not only the fans, but obviously the band too. Now I’m as avid a fan as I was back in the day, as you can discover from my features in the new book “The Stranglers Live (Excerpts)”. Similarly, Paul Gray re-joining The Damned got me back into the band after I heard the brilliant “Rockfield Files” E.P. with Paul’s bass lifting the sound to another level, something that I’d personally missed for many years. In fact, I first saw Paul play live at my second ever gig, as a 16-year-old down the front of the Lyceum in London. It was 1981 and The Damned were supported by Black Flag on the “Black Album” tour - it had a huge impact on me and is pretty much still my favourite era of the band. “The Black Album” and its follow-up “Strawberries” along with arguably the best 7” four-song E.P. ever released, “Friday 13th”, still rank among my favourite Damned recordings. Again, no small thanks to Paul’s contribution, whether that be his ultra-cool stage presence or distinctive Rickenbacker bass sound, something that obviously, judging from tonight’s show, has hardly changed in the 40 something years since I first saw him play.