Pulled screaming into this world on March 30th 1953 in a village in Warwickshire called Grendon. Grendon is situated on that historic Roman road, the Watling Street. I must have been pulled out by the ears because they were so large and sticky-out that my mum used to sellotape them back, sort of trying to train them. I have to say that this was especially useful in high winds. Thanks mum.
Spent the best part of the next 17 years living close to, what was then, a quiet market town called Tamworth.
First interest in music seems to have come via my Uncle Graham’s old 78s. ‘Mr Sandman’ I am told was my first love. I drove everyone crazy singing all the parts of that vocal arpeggio at the beginning. This would have been late 50’s/early 60’s. Thank goodness for The Beatles!!! because the music of the 50’s has never inspired me one jot, and Cliff Richard and The Shadows AAARRRGGHHHH!!!!!! I think ‘She Loves You’ was the first Beatle track I ever heard, but when I put on the ‘With The Beatles’ album and heard the first track ‘It Won’t be Long’, that was it, I was lost forever. I’ve never heard anything that makes me feel like I felt the first time that that wonderful noise came out of the tinny sounding speakers of my Dansette.
Didn’t learn to play guitar straight away. In fact, I couldn’t get my head round it. I must be the only young aspiring guitarist in history to have actually been baffled by Bert Weedon’s ‘Play In Day’ book.
Didn’t stop me performing though. I used to hold free concerts out at the front of my house with me and a couple of friends miming to Beatles, Hollies, Frank Ifield (‘She Taught Me To Yodel’), now they don’t write them like that anymore) and Frankie Vaughn records. I very nearly started my concert promotion career early by hiring the local Sunday school hall. I even went round to see the caretaker to ask about how much it would cost, but he wasn’t in and I bottled out.
I used to strum away at my mum’s stringless violin during our doorstep concerts, but obviously, that wouldn’t do for very long. My parents finally relented and brought me a £4 Spanish guitar, which if I remember correctly, was virtually unplayable and a copy of the previously mentioned ‘Play In A Day’.
Several days later (weeks, in fact), I still hadn’t learned to play, so my parents were faced with the prospect of either suicide, or finding the money for some guitar lessons.
Mr Hough, my teacher, was an eccentric multi-instrumentalist who tested me for perfect pitch. But alas, I was never to be known as Phil ‘Wembley’ Bates because I failed the test miserably. I had no real aptitude for music, but we did discover that these ears of mine (now thankfully unsellotaped) were actually good for something. I used to listen to, and then remember the pieces of guitar music that I should have been reading. Of course, this was rumbled fairly soon, and poor Mr Hough and I parted company soon after.
But my love of the guitar has grown massively over the years, and it’s largely down to him (and John Lennon and Peter Green). When I’m playing it feels as if the guitar is a part of my body, albeit a stubborn and uncoordinated part sometimes. One of the places I still feel most at home on this planet is standing in front of a microphone playing and singing, and it doesn’t really matter what, or where, the venue is.
First band was The Teenbeats in 1965, I think. OK, I know, it’s embarrassing but we were teenagers and we played ‘beat’ music (that’s what it was called then) so what else were we supposed to be called? Actually, we were called The Wild Four originally, but we weren’t very wild at all, and our rhythm guitarist was a very inconsistent gig attender, so we were often more like the Tame Three. Somehow, The Teenbeats suited us better.
One of The Teenbeats more memorable gigs was at a village hall for someone’s wedding reception. The bride ended up trying to mortally wound several members of the bridegroom’s family with the knife that, minutes earlier, she had been smilingly cutting the wedding cake. She was last seen rolling on the floor, virgin white wedding dress up around her waist, cake knife in hand (thankfully un-bloodstained) being restrained by several burly young farmer types. Previous inter-family tension was reportedly the cause for this scenario.
The Teenbeats played pop music, and that’s the way it stayed for 3/4 years, until I discovered blues and ‘progressive’ rock. At this point I departed for the bright lights of the nearest city, Lichfield. There I joined a band called Nigel Parker. Don’t ask me why we were called this because there was no-one in the band of this name. It was just that teenage thing of wanting to be contrary, I suppose. The year was 1968, and Nigel Parker was a short lived enterprise.
Next was a band called Source of Power who were a very popular Tamworth band, although mysteriously their popularity took a dive after I joined. But it was with this band that the first slender threads that linked me with the music of Jeff Lynne were established. We did a couple of demos in a Birmingham recording studio, and one of them was a track by The Idle Race, ‘Follow Me Follow’. Spooky eh? Didn’t stay with them long, either.
Next stop was Birmingham. After a miserable stint earning £5.50 (five pounds and ten shillings, in those days) per week in Grey’s Department Store, my dad got me a job at Ringway Music in Birmingham. This was more like it. I got to meet loads of other musicians and bands, and ended up joining JUG; a Wolverhampton based ‘Heavy’ band. I was earning the princely sum of £10 per week. Riches at last. The year was 1970.
High spot of my time with this band were the several weekend gigs we did at The Electric Gardens in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow. That place was an experience and a half, but that story is for another time. Here we played alongside Status Quo, Mungo Jerry (they were big at the time honest), Slade and Tear Gas (who went on to become The Sensational Alex Harvey Band) and loads more. They were good times for a 17 year old.
I’ll try to give you an idea about what I looked like in those days. 17, long, greasy hair, zits, loon pants, an old army greatcoat........... perhaps I should stop before you all throw up. Not an attractive individual, basically.
I’ve always been a bit of a chameleon musically, so my next move was rather radical. Although, in between these heavy metal gigs I was doing deps for various guitarists and bass players in Working Men’s Clubs, Country Clubs, C&W bands, Bierkellers etc, etc. You name it, I did it, and a very good education it was too.
Back to that radical move. I joined a folk/cabaret group called Enigma. So, I went from playing Sabbath and Deep Purple to playing Nana Mouskouri and other similar stuff. Bizarre it was too. Funnily enough, I enjoyed the switch, but Enigma was not a comfortable band to be in on a personal level. Some strong and strange characters. Again, that is another story for another time.
This band sort of transmuted into a band called Quill (or Kwil as it was spelt at the time). It was with this band that I experienced my first record release.
Now here’s a challenge to any trainspotter out there. See if you can unearth a single on the Parlophone label called Spent the Rent by Kwil. Good luck! This was around the 1971/72 period.
A bit later we were offered the song ‘Billy Don’t Be A Hero’ which went on to be a number one for Paper Lace, I think. We were too proud to accept this song, we ‘wrote our own material’. At the time I was a bit pissed off that we turned this down, but is retrospect, it would have been something to live down, wouldn’t it?
Now I think about it I was so pissed off that I decided to leave Quill and give the world Billy Bates, the solo artist. Why Billy Bates? I signed a contract with the inaccurately named Spark Records, and they decided my own name just didn’t do it for them. So they decided on Billy Bates, a masterstroke, eh?
Released my first solo single in 1974. This was called ‘Mr. Hand Me Down’, and was much in the style of Gilbert O’Sullivan. It was a charming little offering, bit sank without trace, and languishes still today with the fish, the crabs and other crustaceans alongside that other great failure, Titanic.
If I were one of those ‘anally retentive’ Brits that Americans so delight in pointing to, I would not tell you about my next single. I know many Americans who are far more retentive in that area than I, so I will share with you my embarrassment at my next project. It was a children’s record, which it was hoped would repeat, nay surpass, the success of The Wombles.
This jolly little offering received quite a lot of airplay, but it sold not a sausage. I suppose I will have to tell you what it was called. Well, it was ‘We Love Bengy the Bear’ and it was backed up by a song about Bengy The Bear’s sidekick, Rumpo The Rabbit, called ‘Rumpo’s Reggae’.
I’ve never heard what happened to the humans who inhabited those fluffy suits, but it seems that two more promising careers were dealt a death blow by "the curse of Phil Bates".
During 1974 I also got the chance to play bass with the legendary Duane Eddy. I can’t remember exactly how this came about, but it was an experience. You have to remember that ole Duane wasn’t exactly flying high in 1974, and so the conditions on this tour were not exactly luxurious, for the backing band anyway.
We were playing ‘doubles’ every night, i.e. two gigs per night, and sometimes these were 50 miles apart. The backing band had to carry the gear in and out, set it up, be responsible for the sound, do all the driving, not have enough money even for bed & breakfast, sleep in the van, you get the picture. This was one of those experiences that is supposed to be character building, and I suppose it was. On balance, I’m glad I did it, and Duane seemed an awfully nice fellow. But did he give me a call when he came back to tour England on the coat tails of a hit record, when things might have been better? The answer is No F****** Chance!
For some strange reason I carried the name Billy Bates forward to my next project. This was a band called Billy Bates Company, and we had one single released under this awful name. This was ‘Take to the Mountains’, and it achieved the distinction of a glowing review in the Melody Maker courtesy of Caroline Coon. This single?...oh, you’ve guessed, sank without trace.
This was all happening around 1975/76, and despite continued failure on the record front, this was a pretty good period for me in lots of ways. By this time I had left Spark Records and moved to a studio called T.P.A. My good friend Colin Thurston (later to go on to fame and fortune in the 80’s as producer of Duran Duran, Human League, Howard Jones and many more) had been the house engineer over at Southern Music studio which was downstairs from Spark, and he got the job over at TPA. I went along as his assistant engineer, but we also used down time to record Billy Bates stuff.
We worked on loads of different stuff at this time. Billy Ocean came in to record ‘Love Really Hurts’, ‘L.O.D.’, ‘Red Light Spells Danger’, and a few other of his hits of the time. I also got to play on a few of his tracks, as well as assisting on the engineering front. We also did a lot of T.V. advertising stuff that went on to be very big in the mid 70’s, e.g. the ‘Jeans On’ campaign.
Billy Bates Company also secured a residency at a restaurant called The Piazza in Piccadilly. We had never been a live band at all, in fact we didn’t even know one song of other people’s. But we auditioned by playing a 10 minute version of the restaurant owners favourite song ‘Rock Your Baby’ by George McCrae which was fairly easy to bluff. It was a 10 minute version because we had no idea how to end it. But amazingly, we got the job.
The playing times were something like 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. (later at weekends), so we had to learn a massive number of songs in about a week. All this alongside doing all the sessions in TPA. We managed to do it, bit I am extremely glad that no recordings exist of us on stage.
We worked all day at TPA, all evening at The Piazza, and after hours recording material for what was to become Trickster. It was exhausting, but well worth it. We did all this without the aid of drugs, but we had one thing on our side.... youth.
I somehow managed to maintain a relationship with Karen through all this, and we got married in November 1975. Karen died in January 1995 of cancer, and although we divorced in 1985, we were very good friends. I miss her very much.
Trickster became a necessity in 1976 because we got the push from The Piazza. We got a deal with United Artists almost immediately, thank goodness, and our first single ‘Flyaway’ escaped not long after.
It was judged that we needed managing badly, and so we were put in touch with ELO’s manager, Don Arden, and he fulfilled this purpose, i.e. we were managed badly. Through Arden’s label Jet Records we did get to do our first album ‘Find the Lady’, and release a plethora of unsuccessful singles in the U.K. and Europe.
1978 saw us flying around the world in a Giant Hamburger…oh I’m sorry, a spaceship. Excuse the joke, but I was struck on more than one occasion, when watching the ELO spaceship show from the back of the auditorium, how much like a giant hamburger bun it looked. The band were the filling.
It was a great experience for Trickster, but we weren’t really ready for it. Our first single, ‘If That’s The Way The Feeling Takes You’, got a lot of airplay in the USA, and sold moderately well, but we did ourselves no favours on stage. This, I think was largely down to the age old ‘kid in a sweetshop’ syndrome. All of a sudden the band was exposed to the limousine life, not to mention copious amounts of illegal substances. And let’s just say that certain members of the band started to live the Rock & Roll lifestyle to the full. This doesn’t really go hand in hand with good stage performances.
Another album ‘Back to Zero’ escaped in 1979, and in fact was a pretty good album. The cover of this album features in a book about the 1000 best album covers. If you happen across this particular piece of high art you may spot an extremely long, thin and stick like figure at the centre of the photograph. It is reportedly me, but I have absolutely no recollection of ever being anorexic, also, a hairy caterpillar seems to have made it’s home along my top lip.
A couple of tracks from this album came closest to giving us that elusive hit single. One of my offerings ‘I’m Satisfied’ actually charted, but it was too late by this time. Jet Records expected a bigger return on their investment, and so we were unceremoniously dumped.
An extra note of possible interest. Mike Groth, who featured heavily on ‘Back To Zero’ as a singer, guitarist and writer, went on to be a presenter of That’s Life and Hearts of Gold with Esther Ranzen. A very talented chap in many directions, and in the words of Tim-Nice-But-Dim, ‘a bloody nice bloke’.
The year between July ‘80 and July ‘81 was my ‘Annus Horribilis’ (to quote the Queen). My brother David was killed in a motor accident in February 1981, and this knocked me seriously off the rails in a number of ways for quite a while. To add to this devastation, Trickster were dumped by Jet Records and all our gear snatched back, John Lennon was shot, a studio into which I had put money and equipment was broken into and vandalised and a lot of equipment was stolen, never to be seen again and I had to work in a supermarket to avoid becoming even thinner.
I felt that the world was trying to tell me something. I never quite worked out what exactly, but my life did change quite radically after that.
In 1981, after several years of living in London, I moved back to Tamworth for a while and rejoined Quill. In fact, I joined on the same day as Jo. There were obvious chemistry in many areas, but it wasn’t exactly love at first sight in either direction. That came a little later.
We did a single with Quill called ‘Say it ain't so’, an old Murray Head song. The single never had general release, but sold very well in the Midlands. Jo and I wrote the b-side, ‘Don't Stop Me Now ’. Another one for the trainspotters.
In 1983 Jo and I decided to cement our relationship further by moving in together, and forming Don't Panic. We worked initially as a duo, a la Eurythmics, and then as a 4 piece band. We did actually secure a publishing contract with RCA/Arista and an American management deal, and things looked promising for a while. But after a lot of work, and a few disapointments, we finally got fed up of being broke and in 1987 accepted an offer to go and work in the Middle East, Dubai, to be exact.
So the quest for fame, riches and stardom gave way to a life of sun, booze, good food and very hard work. The pickings can be rich in this part of the world, although not necessarily for working musicans like us, but in some way it is a pretty good life. The work was hard, though, We worked 6 nights a week, sometimes 7, and some lunchtimes. In the evenings we would usually play 4 x 45 minute sets, 5 at the weekend, and if we did a lunch session, it would be 2 or 3 - 45 minute sets.
Jo and I also managed a restaurant/pub/night club for the best part of a year, and ended up totally exhausted. This place, The Carousel in Le Meridien hotel in Adu Dhabi, was open something like 18 hours every day, and one of us had to be there every minute it was open. We also played some nights as well. We also had a weekly radio programme on Capital Radio in Abu Dhabi at this time.
The social mix in that part of the world, i.e. Arabs, Africans, Asians, Philipinos, Thai, Americans, English etc, can be marvelous, but inevitably problems can and do occur. Even at this time, before the Gulf War, we encountered hostility from Iraqis because of our nationality. It was this that we found most wearing in the long run, and we retired bent, but not broken.
We stayed out in that part of the world for around three and a half years, on and off, but when Saddam Hussein started making threatening noises towards Dubia as well as Kuwait, we betrayed our name. Don't Panic panicked, and came home. We had been looking for an excuse to come home and start a family for a while, and now we had it.
In April 1990, during a trip home because of Ramadan, Jo and I finally tied the knot. It was a wonderful day. She looked very beautiful.
So, back home in August 1990 we set about getting pregnant. We expected months of thermometers, ovulation charts and scrotal ice packs, but Rosie (we knew we were having a Rosie right from the beginning) decided she was going to be conceived at almost the first attempt. She was born under a full moon on May 14th 1991.
On the musical side, Jo continued playing gigs until she couldn’t reach the keyboard anymore because of her lump. After that I carried on playing a copious number of gigs for the next few years.
I have to say that I was still pretty disillusioned with the music biz, which tends to be a bit of a problem when you are just a musician with no particular aptitude for anything else. Part of the reason we moved to Malvern in 1990 was that we felt pretty certain that down there, almost in the middle of nowhere, we wouldn’t be tempted back into the ‘rat race’. Wrong again.
But anyway in the meantime we spent a few years raising Rosie, teaching, singing.writing/producing radio jingles and doing loads of gigs, and then getting pregnant again. This time by accident. Sarah is the happiest accident we’ve ever had.
1992 saw a lot of activity on the musical front. I got involved in an A.O.R. project that turned into the ‘Power’ album from Atlantic, it’s a pretty good album, and was released all over Europe and Japan, but AOR is a pretty worn out idea, and I doubt that I will ever do anything like it again.
Simultaneously, we were getting involved in something completely different. In fact, totally different to anything we had ever done before. A friend of ours, Martyn Baylay, had taken up ballroom dancing (for myself, I can never understand why anybody would take this up) and he came to Jo and I and said we should make a pop album for this market. This we did, and then another, and then we parted company. The two albums Jo and I had a part in are still available, and their titles are, ‘Le Cafe L’Armour’ and ‘Look At Me, Look At You’ (both available from the Don’t Panic Shop c/o P.O. Box 2, Kington, HR5 3YR). There are some good songs on them, but they are very middle-of-the-road.
Another point of slight interest to ELO fans is that the company that Jo, myself, Martyn Baylay and Terry Hughes formed to release this material was called Face The Music. After I joined ELO Part 2, we changed it to Chase The Music to avoid accusations of trading on the name.
1992 was an important year in another way. I met young Mr Kelly Groucutt again after a period of 14 years.
1993 was a good year in many ways. Sarah came along on February 12th, and in March I renewed my acquaintance with ELO. I did an audition/rehearsal with Part 2 after Pete Haycock and Neil........ decided to leave the band. And I have to say that it has been a great pleasure to meet again with Bev, Mik and Kelly, and to go on to work with them. I didn’t really know Lou very well before Pt 2, and Eric was a total starnger to me. But I love working and being with all of them. They are all ‘bloody nice blokes’, which is just as well, given the amount of time that we spend it each other’s company.
1994 saw the recording and release of ‘Moment of Truth’, which I played a fairly large part in. During the recording of the album in Connetticut, USA, I put on rather a lot weight and assumed the nicknames, BateLoaf and/or Batarotti for a while.
That year, Jo and I went to Italy for the first time and revelled in all the Michaelangelo stuff. Actually, just a note for art buffs, we were amongst the first people there on the day that Michaelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel was unveiled after 8 years under wraps while being cleaned. 1995 began as 1994 had ended, badly. My dad had had surgery just before Christmas, while we were in Germany actually, and I came home to the news that he was in Intensive Care, fighting for his life. He spent around a week unconscious with his vital signs fluctuating, but his will to live finally won over. The hospital chapel took a severe battering from the ferocity of my prayers that week.
Things started to improve for my dad, but just into the New Year, on January 2nd my first wife, Karen, finally succumber to cancer. Her funeral was second only to David’s as the worst experience of my life. She was 40.
Things started to look up in March when ELO Pt 2 did a wonderful tour of Australia. We played with a 42-piece orchestra in large venues, with the full works as far as production was concerned, i.e. lasers, pyrotechnics etc, etc.
I have to say that this tour was the high point of my time with ELO Part 2. I also fell in love with that part of the world, a love affair which was further enhanced when we visited New Zealand early in ‘97.
In May ‘95, I spent three weeks in Trinidad working on the audio material from one of the Sydney concerts which was to become our ‘live’ album, ‘One Night’. Along with ace engineer Chris Tsangerides, I co-produced, edited and complied the album. Of course, everyone thought that we were spending everyday on the beach and just cramming the work into the last couple of days. Wrong!!! The state of the material on tape when we first put up the faders was, to put it mildly, Appalling! It took all of Chris’s considerable expertise to make a silk purse out of what definitely threatened to be a sow’s ear. With a little help from me. of course.
1996 turned out to be an important year for me. I decided to actually do a few of the things that had been rattling around my mind for a while. Firstly, I decided what sort of album I wanted to make. I started in January, and because of the clarity of my purpose, was finished pretty much by the beginning of March, which was just as well because ELO Part 2 toured the UK in that month.
I also did my first solo gig at The Palace Media Centre, Tamworth during the ice-laden month of January.
During December ‘95 I had played as a guest of friends The Raconteurs at their Christmas Bash at Tamworth Castle. This lit a fire under a long cheristed ambition to do a concert there myself. I’d been going to the castle since I was a youngster, and I really wanted to play there.
In May ‘96 I finally got my wish. Don't Panic Productions, the company Jo I and I had with Mike Flanders, promoted a gig there and invited Bev Bevan, Mik Kaminski, Kelly Groucutt from ELO Part II, Gordon Giltrap and Mark Knight to come along and play. They all said yes, and we went ahead with plans to record it and video it for later release. I have to say a special thanks to Den & Jude York and Mr Simon Hodge for their participation. They are all extremely fine people. Unfortunately, there were technical problems, but we eventually managed a limited release of the ‘A Little Light on an Electric Night’ CD and video.
In the same month, May, we promoted a concert by Gordon Giltrap which we also recorded and videoed with the Cliff Richard musical, Heathcliffe, we have not been able to release these yet, but there are plans underfoot to release the video.
Naked finally appeared early summer, and so far has sold well in the UK. As of September ‘97 it has been released in Germany, Austria and Switzerland on the Hypertension label, and a release in the USA and Canada is imminent through Renaissance Records.
I undertook, with the help of Mik Kaminski, Jo and Mark Knight, tours in October ‘96 and April ‘97 featuring material from Naked. This was a bit of a risk in some ways, but on balance they were both successful, and I certainly had the time of my life on stage.
At the moment I am working on a book based on careers and opportunities that exist in the music business, this is called ‘The Iceberg Effect’. The book should be finished in ‘98, and work is underfoot to turn this idea into a series of workshops and a CD-ROM. There has also been interest from a video production company.
My next album is in the planning stage, but I know enough to tell you that it will probably be called Millennium Blues, although the title is a misnomer because it is not a blues album. I have several songs already finished. I’m just waiting for some time off to get started on it.
Reproduced with kind permission of Phil Bates. Since this article was completed Phil has left ELO Part 2 to pursue his solo career.