"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.
So, just how did Wingmen happen? Apparently, it was a product of the lockdown, something to keep them musically occupied in those dreadful times. Marty and Paul had played in a similar off-shoot, The Sensible Gray Cells with the Captain and they decided to get something going. Leigh was invited to join on guitar and as Ruts DC had toured and befriended The Stranglers over the years, he contacted Baz, who said yes. The album was initially recorded remotely, song files were shared, programmed drum machines kept the beat and Baz and Paul added keyboards. However, it wasn’t until the lockdown ended that all four could meet up and get together to work on the songs properly at Panther studios in Reigate with former Tenpole Tudor bassist Richard “Dick Crippen” Coppen producing. Marty drummed along to the recorded tracks and some brass instrumentation was added and that was it, the album was ready to go. But despite the lockdown and the remote nature of its inception “Wingmen” the album sounds like a proper band – and as they take the stage to the stirring strains of the “633 Squadron Theme” they look like a proper band too. They kick-off with the instrumental “Starting Blocks” and right from the get-go it’s clear there’s a definite chemistry between all the band members and it’s immediately infectious. The crowd respond and soon all secretly guilty thoughts and hopes that they might decide to play a ‘greatest hits’ set after all are forgotten entirely and you’re along for the ride. Stranglers fans will be used to Baz’s onstage banter and the good natured insults soon fly backwards and forwards between him and the audience. Luckily, tonight the PA sound is really good so you can appreciate everyone’s contributions - Paul’s intricate bass runs, Baz’s own underrated guitar work (I notice he has a very cool James Trussart custom guitar) and his superb voice - everything comes over just as it should and this allows the songs to shine. The “Wingmen” album is played in its entirety along with one song that didn’t make the cut entitled “Don’t Look Back”, co-written by producer Crippen this, to me at least, was the best song of the night. The good news is that it wasn’t left off the album ‘cos it didn’t make the grade, more of a case of it being held back for a future release, so watch this space for news. Anyway, they pepper the set with a choice of good-time cover versions from the somewhat predictable, but still hugely enjoyable raucous stabs at Bowie, T-Rex and Stooges songs to a more left-field take on Kraftwerk’s “The Model” which works in its own way as perfectly as Big Black’s version of the Germanic electro-classic.
OK, there are some nods to a couple of their ‘other’ bands after all, there’s the somewhat obscure Stranglers single release “Long Black Veil” taken from the “Norfolk Coast” album and a rousing singalong run through of Eddie & The Hot Rods classic “Do Anything You Wanna Do” which goes down a storm. Plus, they do cheekily slip in a quick blast of “Pumping On Your Stereo” by Supergrass - but that’s as far as it goes. Yes, it’s a brave move to pretty much fill your set with all new material that is probably unfamiliar to half the audience - but Wingmen manage to pull it off in some style. The pace doesn’t drop once, it’s a perfectly plotted set-list so your attention doesn’t wander. This is no mean feat, after all I’ve been to many gigs by long established bands where there are yawn-inducing sections of a live show - or the fearful announcement “and here’s some new songs for you” - which is usually followed by a mass exodus to the bar. Wingmen haven’t just gone down the bash-out-some-Punk-by-numbers route - the music is intelligent, well composed and has real depth to it. There are of course strains of recent Stranglers, Sensible Gray Cells and The Damned’s “Strawberries” album in parts and “Mary Go Round’s” half-spoken vocals remind me of Feline-era Stranglers. However, the bubbling organ at the start of the brilliant “Down In The Hole” conjures up the 60’s Garage Nuggets sound of The Music Machine and “I Would If I Could” has all the dynamics, not to mention the bass sound of The Who’s “Quadrophenia”. The powerful “Brits” has a kind of Mott The Hoople Glam swagger, with some stabbing piano and nice fretwork from Leigh and I’m reminded of the slide guitar powered Rock and Roll of former Soundtrack of Our Lives guitarist Ian Person’s recent solo material. “Brits” also has some wicked lyrics about our favourite pastime, moaning, and I’ll paraphrase here, “you complain if it’s hot or if it’s cold, if you’re young or old, you complain if it’s coffee or tea, but there’s no place on Earth you’d rather be”. Overall, it’s a timeless sound and the reference points are not as easy to pin down as you might think.
For more videos of the show please check out our Retro Man Blog YouTube Channel here.
Another impressive thing is that Wingmen have gone for the jugular - making an album that’s politically and socially relevant today. As already mentioned, it’s a product of the lockdown and so there are scathing attacks on the disgraceful way the NHS has been let down, the debilitating effect of endless privatization profiting from people’s misfortunes and my favourite, the snarling Brexit-bashing “Oh! What A Carry On” which should be decreed the alternative National Anthem - it certainly has a far catchier chorus than that old “God Save The King” dirge. “Backstage At The Opera” takes a swipe at the “Me, Me, Me” selfishness of a lot of modern social media and so-called celebrity culture and Baz loses it spectacularly with a foul-mouthed rant that spins out of control as the song disintegrates. Brilliant! But don’t worry, the album certainly isn’t full of po-faced pontificating, it’s all done with a biting wit allied to great melodies that belie the sometime serious subject matter. Plus, there are also moments of pure comedy gold such as “Louie Smokes the Bible”, which proves once and for all that there can be uses for those Gideon Bibles left in hotel bed-side cabinets after all. Then, there are also much more personal and thought-provoking songs such as one of the album’s highlights, “Down In The Hole” which tackles the depression and the dark thoughts that I guess a lot of us suffered from during the lockdown at some point or other. Album closer “It’s Raining All Over England” is a beautifully bitter-sweet and melancholic number that still manages to drop in a nod to the old standard “Happy Days Are Here Again”. It’s a somewhat sobering end that has you wondering if the happy days are indeed back or is the rain over England just going to keep on coming relentlessly in 2023? All I know is, if Wingmen manage to navigate their busy schedules, take the time to bask in the acclaim that’s been showered on them during this tour and then, hopefully treat us to more of this superb music, then yes, I would say the happy days are definitely here again!
I must also mention the superb solo support set from Members frontman JC Carroll who was armed only with an acoustic guitar, a ready wit and a batch of wonderful songs that put us all in the perfect mood for Wingmen. Due to the early start unfortunately, JC’s set time was cut quite drastically but he still managed to entertain us in some style with memorable moments such as “Offshore Banking Business”, “Chelsea Nightclub”, “Solitary Confinement”, the more recent “Bedsitland” and of course, the classic “Sound of The Suburbs”. He also managed to squeeze in a bit of background to each of the songs before raising the roof with a raucous singalong of “Delilah”. You can check out our Retrosonic Podcast with JC in the archives here. Don't forget our thoroughly entertaining special episode with Leigh Heggarty too.
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