Europeans & How We Live

Interview with Fergus Harper

Part One

 

"Lost in the South American Jungle for all these years, suddenly re-emerged a changed man."

 

Ferg Harper

 

In November 2000, I met up with Europeans bass guitarist and vocalist, Fergus Harper at his home in North London. As the only band member no longer involved in the music business, his memories of the euros are particularly vivid. I have condensed the interview to two webpages, and used other segments in the 'Gigography' and 'Songs' pages. Many thanks to Ferg for his time and hospitality.

 

 

 

How did you start playing music ?

Geoff and I were at school together. I remember one day in a biology class, he turned to me and said "Let's start a band." And I said "Yeah, great", although I don't think we had any idea about who was going to do what. On the way home that day, we went by a music shop in Glasgow called 'Cuthbertsons', and I saw a very cheap (16), imitation Fender bass guitar in the window. It glinted at me in the spotlights, and I thought 'that's the one for me!' So I went straight home and I told my Mum that I wanted a guitar for Christmas. So, she actually got it for me, and a little amp. By this time I had realised that it was a bass guitar, but I thought that four strings were probably easier that six! All I'd have to do was play one note at a time! So me and Geoff (on guitar) formed a band together. We found a drummer from our same class at school. Living across the road from the garage where we were playing, was Colin Woore, who one day manifested, dragging his amp across the road with another similarly cheap 16 guitar. And we went from there, making lots of wailing noises and upsetting the whole neighbourhood.

 

 

 

At what point did you start taking the lead vocals ?

I sang a lot of lead vocals from the beginning , because nobody else really wanted to! I suppose I could sing a bit at that point. I had done a lot of musical productions at school, and had been in the choir. Geoff sang a lot of the stuff when he was playing guitar. However it soon became very obvious that Geoff could play the drums a lot better than our drummer. So, somewhere along the line, the drummer disappeared out of the group, and me Colin and Geoff became a three-piece.

 

 

 

Ferg in the Studio

 

Were you playing original material ?

No. In the beginning it was all 'covers.' It was only when we got a keyboard player in several years later that we actually started playing gigs. The first one was at some Sunday School somewhere. It was an absolute disaster. I think we got boo-ed off !

 

 

 

At what point did you move down to London ?

We had been playing a lot of pub rock gigs around Scotland, and we'd been integrating our own original stuff into the set, which seemed to go down quite well. In those days, that was quite an acceptable thing to do. I don't think many bands in Scotland came on and played two 45 minute sets of their own material. You had to pepper the night out with proper chart 'hits', otherwise people would just go to the bar and forget about you! By 1979 or 1980 we had got lots of our own material, and we decided that we were off to the 'big smoke.'

 

 

 

How did the John Otway recording sessions come about ?

When we moved to London, we had quite a large PA system, which we had used up in Scotland. You required quite a comprehensive system if you wanted to pull these sort of gigs off. In those days, you turned up for a gig, and there was no 'in-house' PA system. So, when we came down to London, as well as doing gigs we used to rent out our rig. We used to do the sound for people like 'Blancmange.' One of the people we did the rental for was John Otway. He soon found out that we were a band, and asked us to support him. So we got a little extra money for being the support band and throwing in the price of the PA as well. I'm sure we probably got ripped off ! From hearing us play the support gigs, John Otway decided that we were actually quite good. So he thought he could work an angle, and we could actually play both sets. He came up with the concept of letting us do the support set, then a big curtain was dropped for the main act. Nobody really realised that it was the same band playing again! We were the John Otway orchestra behind the curtain.

 

 

 

Which venues did Europeans play in London ?

Well, we weren't called the Europeans then, we were 'The Pictures.' It started as 'Motion Pictures' and was then abbreviated to 'The Pictures'. We started playing 'pubby' gigs, then we met a friend of ours called Paul Goodman who worked for Keith Altham, the press agent. Paul had known us for years and was looking for a band to play at the 'Venue' in Victoria, which was a cool place, quite a big deal. He told us that the act for that Friday had dropped out, and did we fancy doing it ? So we said "Yeah, sure" and he phoned up and blagged like crazy to the guy who ran the place, selling us as a really popular, top Scottish band. I think guy must have been really pushed, so we were the Friday night headline at the 'Venue' which was quite a coup! That broke us in to a whole different league of gigs, because we actually went down rather well. They re-booked us, which put us on a higher rung.

 

Ferg Harper Promo Shot 1983

 

 

 

How did Steve join the group ?

Before, we had a keyboard player called Alan Dalgleish. We all shared an apartment at that time, and one night he just blew our minds by walking in to the living room at one o'clock in the morning and said "I'm leaving the band." We were all gobsmacked! I think he released a record after he left the band, called 'Marathon Man' or something, I heard it on the radio once, and recognised his voice a mile off. I subsequently haven't heard anything of him. A week later we decided that we had to replace him and put an advert in the Melody Maker. I can't remember how many replies we got, but one of them was Steve Hogarth. So we went to meet him in his flat in Surbiton. He played us some material from a band he'd been in before called 'The Newtrinos', and it sounded quite spunky. He was an extrovert sort of guy, and we immediately thought 'this is the one for us.' So he came along to rehearsals and we incorporated some of his songs straight away in to the set. It was very symbiotic from there on in. It all clicked straight away.

 

 

 

So you took a tape and some photos to Wally Brill at A&M Records ?

We had recorded some songs (including a demo of 'The Animal Song') with a producer called Trevor Vallis (a lovely bloke). Those tracks had come out really really well. The management we'd been using at that time (Lloyd Beanie and Mike Dolan who were the Eurythmics managers) had sent tapes around to all the heads of the record labels and had come up with nothing. So me and Geoff had a go, basically knocking on doors, and we got an appointment with Wally Brill at A&M. We bounced straight in there with a load of crazy pictures taken by a guy who was a very eccentric set designer at London Weekend Television! My hair was all over the place and we were wearing bizarre clothes : haiwain shirts and tight track pants. Wally Brill was an American, and had a particular penchant for crazy, off the wall, 'Devo' style groups. He was absolutely enthralled by our bizarre costumes and bizarre pictures and the rather strange nature of the wild songs we had on this tape, and he immediately went for it.

 

 

 

Ferg Harper - Bass Guitar

 

You went on to make the 'Vocabulary' album. Did you enjoy the final product ?

No ! It was terribly terribly laboured. Never having made an album before, and being terribly young and naive, we thought that getting Vic Coppersmith Heaven in was the best thing ever. He was the sort of producer who put all your stuff in to a big magic bag, juggled it all around, and something absolutely wonderful came out. And of course, Vic was a bit off the wall as well, wanting to record in 'bi-normal sound' and all kinds of crazy things. We thought it would be 'ground breaking' ! Most of our songs worked quite cohesively as a live set, as they were, but Vic felt he had to tear everything apart and put it back together a different way round. Songs that had been quite straight forward before ended up being really strange and complex, and even recorded at completely different speeds from which we were used to playing them live! So what came out the other end was not the 'Europeans' as people had seen them on stage and had liked them. What came out was a terribly strange, bizarre record.

 

 

 

Did you get to choose which singles were released from the album ?

Not really. The only obvious 'hit' single was 'The Animal Song'. The record company signed us because it was so 'out there', bizarre, crazy and wacky. People were gonna hear it on the radio and think "What the hell is this? Let's buy it!" As it turned out, there really weren't any other songs on that album that stood out as being commercial.

'American People' had a great chorus, but the verse was really quite complex and jaggedy. I think if we'd been sensible, we'd have rewritten the verse to be a little bit more flowing than it was. The choppy verses, stopping and starting didn't help the overall commercial appeal of that record. It was great song live.

'Recognition' was our attempt at being slightly more funky. I don't know if that was a terribly good idea. It was supposed to be a dancy record, but it didn't really turn out that way. I don't think Vic Coppersmith Heaven was the right producer for that sort of thing ! I remember we got the final white labels of 'Recognition', and we ran off to 'Club for Heroes' at Camden Palace. Rusty Egan was the DJ and we said, "Rusty, here's our new platter, stick it on!" So we stood by the bar and waited for the record to come on. And of course when it came on, it stood out like a sore thumb! It was at completely the wrong speed and it sounded like we were all in some echo chamber! We then thought maybe that wasn't such a great idea ! But I suppose on the record it sounded all right.

'AEIOU' was good! We always seemed to get eclipsed when we had singles out. When we came out with the chant for 'The Animal Song' (uh-yee-ar-yah) and the whole 'We Are Animal' thing, it was bizarre. Another group, called 'Toto Coelo' released a record four weeks before us called 'We are Animal.' ('I Eat Cannibals' Aug '82, No.8) It was strikingly similar in some way. It was like somebody had listened to The Europeans record, taken the commercial catchy bit of that, watered it down, and managed to shove it out a few weeks before us, and that was a hit ! When it came to 'AEIOU', someone came out with an 'AEIOU song' again, like four weeks before us. ('I.O.U' by Freeez, June '83, No.2) We were eclipsed again! That was shame, because 'AEIOU' was quite a good record.

 

 

 

The American Tour must have been a highpoint ?

That was probably one of our high points, and one of our low points. We got flown to Los Angeles in a great flurry of publicity. We were on heavy rotation on MTV, and we were big on a lot of the college radio stations. The biggest being KROQ in Los Angeles. We were championed by this guy called 'Jed the Fish,' who it later transpired was a raving heroin addict. Which probably explains a lot! The record company were really excited, because we hadn't sold a huge amount of records in England, and somehow by default we were becoming popular in America. It sounded like a goldmine. So we went to LA, and we were met with Limousines and the whole nine yards. None of us had been to America in our lives, so it was like stepping in to a complete fantasy world. Suddenly we were made to feel like we were all terribly important.

(See the 'Gigography' Page for more of Ferg's recollections of the Europeans in America)

 

Ferg in 1983

 

 

 

Was the 'Live' LP an attempt to re-prove the band's reputation as a live group ?

The live LP was our manager's idea. We'd recorded with John Otway using the 'aluminium caravan' thing, and managed to get a good sound. On 'Vocabulary', we'd taken all the good live set and hacked it up completely, sticking it in an echo chamber, slowing it down, speeding it up, and it wasn't very good. So basically our manager wanted a cheap way of getting the message across that Europeans' strength was playing live. An act to come and see, in the frame of U2 or something like that. It's very much a vibe you get when you come and see them. So we thought, well let's do a couple of nights at Dingwalls, where we're hysterically popular and we'll try and capture that on this live album. Obviously it wasn't a very polished album. There were no overdubs, so it really was as raw as it comes. I remember, the 'Live' album sold more copies than 'Vocabulary.'

 

 

 

You were rushed to hospital in 1984 with a very nasty illness

We were playing a gig at the 'Venue' in Victoria, where we were still playing, except this time we were getting pretty popular and could fill it on our own behest. I had raging flu and I didn't think I was gonna make it. I couldn't even speak, let alone get up on stage. Mark Thompson, the manager at the time, took me by the scruff of the neck and said "There's no f*cking way you're not gonna play this gig. You can't possibly walk away from a sold out gig at the 'Venue' I don't care what it takes, you've gotta get out of bed and get down there!" So I dosed myself up on aspirin, quaffed large quantities of ale and was using 'Jack Daniels' to lubricate my throat because I was very hoarse. There were also some other substances involved, to try and animate me slightly beyond the deathly creature that I was. And the gig went off like a dream. I sang like a song bird and I jumped around the stage like a jack-in-the-box. No wonder really!

Little did I know that the culmination of all these substances had not made a terribly good cocktail inside my stomach, and had basically ruptured the whole of the inside of it. This led to me collapsing in Baker Street station a day later. As I crawled home, little did I know I was actually bleeding to death inside. This didn't become apparent until a day or so later, by which time I was nearly dead ! The local doctor was called in, and I was rushed to Central Middlesex Hospital. I was extremely ill. I think my heart was ready to stop. They were hanging me upside down, because there wasn't enough blood floating round my veins to keep me alive. It was all a bit of a blur, but I remember I had a strange out-of-body experience.

 

 

 

Ferg, recording Recurring Dreams

 

Meanwhile, the other 3 had started the 'Recurring Dreams' album ?

Yeah. I had a convalescing period, and got myself back together. I was at Wally Brill's house. He was married to, or at least living with Annabel Lamb, who was a good friend of ours. She nursed me back to health. I think it was then that the album started, when I was nearly better. I only missed the first week of recording. I don't think they had done terribly much by that time. A bass player called Steve Greetham had laid down two or three of the tracks. He was a good friend of ours.

 

 

 

Click here for Part Two

(Recurring Dreams, the end of the Europeans and beyond)

 

 

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