Archive: Century 21 Boys – TV21 interview (June 2001 – Part 2)

Rather later than originally planned here’s the second part of my TV21 interview from 2001:

MMMM’s interview with TV21 mainstays Norman Rodger and Ally Palmer continues with the guys’ recollections of where it all went wrong, the final single and their gigs with the Strolling Bones.

Did you ever think you were on the edge of a commercial breakthrough?

Norman: Yes, briefly around summer 1981 and then again just after the album came out.   When the album stiffed, I think we all knew the game was up really.

Ally: I remember sitting in a pub in Edinburgh discussing how we should do ‘Snakes and Ladders’ the following week on TOTP. We were sure it would reach the top 40. The LP got a fantastic review in the Melody Maker by Paulo Hewit who was a huge fan. Made comparisons with Joy Division (?). But nobody else reviewed it for weeks.

Much as I like the 2 singles off the LP (‘Snakes and Ladders ‘ was a bit different to other stuff around at the time and ‘Something’s Wrong’ peddled a nice line in jangly guitars long before C86) there were one or two songs which were screaming out (to me at least) to be released as singles – the uptempo “Tomorrow” (which always reminded me of the Teardrops’ ‘Reward’) and probably the best track on the LP ‘Ideal Way of Life’.

Norman: ‘Ideal Way of Life’ was our choice as single but the record company wouldn’t have it – they wanted us to re-record ‘Playing With Fire’ and ‘Ticking Away’ – using 10cc’s Eric Stewart as producer.

Ally: There is no doubt that we had commercial songs, but by that time we were no longer comfortable with those songs. Our manager at the time tried to convince us to re-record some of the early stuff but we knew better!

The next release from the band was another single the following year, the “attractive” ‘All Join Hands’ (John Peel).

Marking a significant change in direction the single was based on a more synthetic production but doesn’t to me sound like it was released in 1982. In terms of melodic, moody singles ‘All Join Hands’ is way up there for me.

So I managed to ask a question so dumb it was only surpassed by Jim White (Scottish football presenter) asking Danish international Brian Laudrup, “Brian, why are you so good?”.

Why was “All Join Hands” not Number 1? 

Norman: Probably because it wasn’t very good.  We were trying too hard to be something else by then and it didn’t really work.  When we were producing it, we originally planned to work with Alan Winstanley but he pulled out.  At the rehearsals he suggested that it needed a middle eight to lift it but we disagreed – wrong! It definitely does – I wish we’d gone with his idea.

Ally: I know lots of people now who only ever heard ‘All Join Hands’ and thought it was great. I think it’s just ok.

The change in direction away from obvious guitar music was confirmed by an eclectic final Peel session including a song ‘Omei’ which pretty much only featured drums and Norman singing. Was that session an indication of the likely musical direction of the band had it continued?

Norman: You mean total disarray?  ‘My Chance’ and ‘Omei’ were the songs that I like from that session and that’s how I saw the band going.  Unfortunately, by that time we were all pulling in different directions and we eventually lost it.

Ally: You can tell that we were no longer really a band. All the energy and general enthusiasm of the early work was gone

Were there any other songs kicking about at that time which were never used?

Norman: Loads, some pretty good, some pretty weird and some downright awful.  By the time we split we had the basis of about two thirds of a new album, which with a bit of production and knocking into shape might have been pretty good.  By then though we were without a contract and for various reasons (some of our own making and some down to a certain person that we fell out with) no one would touch us.

The last thing the band did was to support the Rolling Stones on several Scottish dates. How did the Stones’ gigs come about?

Norman: Our then manager had been in the music business for years, having started out as roadie with Procul Harem in the 1960s, then moving on to people like Joe Cocker and Leon Russell, doing all the big tours in the States, including gigs like Woodstock.  He still had loads of contacts over there and was a big buddy of the Stones’ tour manager.  He happened to be talking to him when this guy mentioned that they were looking for a Scottish band to support the Stones on the pre tour warm up Scottish gigs. The rest is history.    Actually, we also had to be vetted by Mick Jagger who listened to and liked the album.

What were they like? Presumably they were your biggest gigs?

Norman: Pretty weird gigs, for all sort of reasons. I don’t know if you saw the article in The Scotsman last year when the Stones played Murrayfield but that kind of summed up the experience – very weird. Lots of stories that we’ve all lunched on for a very long time.  It’s always a good conversation stopper when people talk about having seen the Stones and you go, “well actually.” I don’t think they were our biggest gigs.   We played a couple of bigger ones in Poland in Lodz (about 7,000) and Warsaw about the same as The Playhouse but full – we only played to half filled halls for most of the Stones’ gigs.

Ally: The biggest thrill was arriving for the first gig in Aberdeen and waiting for our brief sound check. Sitting in the empty stalls with Mick Jagger singing Tumbling Dice beside us in the aisle with his then new fangled radio mike was quite a memory. We had all been Stones fans and even then had a grudging respect for them.

And that was pretty much it. There can’t have been too many bands who got a front page feature in ‘Melody Maker’ one week then announced their split the next. Why did the band split up? (The piece in MM about the Stones gigs was a bit vague, from what I remember.)

Norman: Nae dosh, nae contract and nae direction.

Ally: We had expected some response from record companies at those gigs, but it became obvious there was going to be none, Norman took the correct decision to split up the night of the Playhouse gig.

Were there (m)any post TV21 musical careers?  I remember Norman being in Shame (who released a 12″ single in the UK – I have it). And what was the story with Canada?

Norman: I guess Neil was most successful, he joined The Bluebells just after they’d recorded ‘Young at Heart’, so he spent a year or so touring with them.

Ally: Straight after TV21, Norman started working on new material and we got back together again with a band called The Collector. It eventually became Shame. One song Swimming was set to be released on Stiff, but a week before it fell through. We played a few gigs in Edinburgh with a small brass section and for a while I got enthusiastic again about recording and even playing live.

Norman: The Shame experience was another weird and long, long story, too close to Spinal Tap for comfort.  We did release an album in Canada but by the time it came out we’d had it – all sort of protracted legal problems ended up eating the entire advance and we limped home broke and broken.  Had a fantastic few months in Canada though.

The remnants of Shame, Neil Baldwin, Simon McGlynn and myself eventually and over a long period recorded a new album under the name of Sugarland – but nothing ever came of that really.

Is there any chance of an re-issues? 

Norman: When I did the Shame album in Canada we tried to buy the tapes off Deram to re-release Thin Red Line as a tie in but they still wanted £10,000. I tried again about three years ago but again they wanted silly money.  I also tried to buy the BBC tapes, to release them along with the Powbeat stuff and various demos but we needed permission from everyone who played on each session and we couldn’t find Colin Maclean.  So I guess no is the answer to that one.

(Note: The band’s almost complete catalogue did eventually get a CD re-release on Cherry Red/Rev-ola in 2010 although copies are now hard to find.)

Thanks to both Norman and Ally for spending far more time in answering the questions than I ever expected or hoped for. Great stuff and I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did.

Norman and Neil, 2010

Post script:

No-one saw this coming in 2001, but four years later, the band reformed with original members Norman, Ally and Neil joined by drummer Simon McGlynn for the first John Peel Day.

The band gigged fairly regularly in the capital over the next few years with occasional forays elsewhere to the likes of Glasgow, London and Aberdeen, even Cupar for your truly.

They also released a second album ‘Forever 22’ principally based on 21st century songs but also featuring a handful of older tunes (including a re-recording of third single ‘On The Run’).

The band last performed at a benefit gig in June 2013. Whilst I believe there were tentative chats about the possibility of a 40th anniversary show, any chance of that, this year at least, was scuppered by COVID-19. Still, ‘A Thin Red Line’ is 40 next year so we can always hope.

Norman occasionally performs in and around Edinburgh with The Normans, whilst Neil is a member of the Cathode Ray. Simon gigs regularly in various bands including in Blondie tribute act Dirty Harry.

Ally meanwhile is part of the teams behind review aggregator site Any Decent Music? and Scottish football periodical Nutmeg Magazine.

There’s a follow-up to this piece,  a podcast featuring Norman and Ally again, elsewhere on the blog.