Mike Rimmer tells the tale of pioneering rock band of the '80s, THE PREDATORS
I remember very clearly that the first Christian rock band I ever witnessed in a live setting were called Thin Ice. It was the beginning of 1979 and I was still in school and had been a Christian a matter of months. Having been a heavy rock fan since I started buying music, it was a revelation to find a Christian band playing rock music. The gig was at Newcastle Poly and the band played in a venue without a stage. Afterwards, I bought their cassette (Yes! A cassette!)) which consisted of cover versions of popular rock tunes with the words adapted and changed to have a Christian message. So for example, "There's A Riot Going On" became "There's A Revival Going On". Sounds cheesy in these enlightened days and let's face it, it was but it was a starting point for the band that would change its name and become The Predators. Years later, I'm pleased to have tracked down some members of the band and invite them onto my Rimmerama programme to get a brief history of the band. Drummer Fran Johnson, singer Kev Smith and guitarists Paul Trusswell and Kelvin Allwood sit and for two hours chat about the history of the group.
For Thin Ice, Kelvin was looking to find other musicians and advertised, as one did in those days, in the press for other people. Kevin joined as singer and John McCann responded to become the band's manager. Towards the end of Thin Ice, Fran joined the group and subsequently became a Christian! With the addition of Chris Thompson on bass and a name change, the band eventually emerged as The Predators. Musically the world was changing too and the band created an edgy new wave sound and began creating original material. The key band member in all of this was Fran who became the chief songwriter. He remembers, "I actually became a Christian within about a year. I think the band took a step of faith and it made a big impact on me. When I met them and we went out together, it changed a lot of things and quite a few of my family became Christians. It was an amazing time for me in that first year."
Right from the beginning, the band wanted to get out beyond the walls of the Church into mainstream venues. This was something that was frowned upon by the Church at the time but things were beginning to take a change. Down south, Laurie Mellor, then a member of Ishmael's punk band Rev Counta And The Speedoze, had a vision for creating a compilation album called 'Shots In the Dark' to propel the best Christian bands into the wider world. At the time, all the band members had other jobs and were doing music on the side. They recorded two tracks "He Thinks He Knows Me" and "Plastic Surgeon" for the compilation in the studio that Fran owned. The album was released in 1981 but did it have any impact on the group? "I suppose it underlined the fact that God had a real purpose for us," says Kelvin, "and gave us more determination to get out there and just share Jesus with ordinary people in ordinary places. It gave us the confidence to go into some quite difficult places at times."
Kev Smith isn't so sure. "I was disappointed to be honest," he shares. "I felt that they missed the boat with it really. We were already starting to move out into that market, 'Shots In The Dark' came along and we thought, great! Secular gigs, Christian support and backing and stuff like that. It got its show at Greenbelt when we first went there and it just died because nobody would invest in it. It's still a problem today I think in UK Christian music; we don't invest in Christian acts that are radical or different. Some bands have got to be in people's faces where other bands will do nice soft music in praise and worship teams. I mean I have to say that modern music now is so really good, you go to church and you think, 'Wow, this used to be what was outside, now it's inside!' But it's too smooth. There's no cutting edge to it really. It's just too good, too nice, too smooth. You've got to have something that causes debate and causes argument, just like Jesus did when he was around."
These days it seems more likely that a group of Christians forming a band in a church will want to work in the mainstream market rather than doing Christian music. But Fran has a word of warning about that. "If you're gonna do something and go into the secular market, you've got to be anointed to do it. It's no good saying, 'We're going to go out into the pubs and the clubs,' because what goes with that is all the trouble that you get in the pubs and the clubs. I think that you can be the best musicians in the world but if you haven't got a servant's spirit, to go into a place like that, you're in trouble! Also you've got to get clearance from 'The Boss' before you do this kind of work."
Kev suddenly comes alive with a memory. "One of the most testing gigs we ever did was in Rochdale at The Spread Eagle. It was a biker's pub so you could hardly get to the front door for bikes and everybody in sight looked the part. We were absolutely scared stiff before we started playing!" he laughs and Fran corrects him, "You're not supposed to say you were scared stiff! We weren't scared stiff, we were settled in the Lord!" Fran laughs and Kevin picks up the story. "It needed plenty of prayer anyway! It went down an absolute storm, it really did. We had an excellent time, and that again confirmed that God was in that and that he was opening up the doors."
After 'Shots In the Dark' the band recorded an EP of three songs. There was another version of live favourite "Plastic Surgeon", the catchy "Don't Mess Around" and a cover version of the Bobbie Freeman oldie that Cliff Richard had a big hit with, "Do You Wanna Dance" which they used to also play live. During this era, the band were playing in clubs and pubs and also in churches. They visited an event in my church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne a couple of times. Kev Smith remembers, "We tried to break out completely from the Church scene because we wanted to reach unsaved people to see whether they would listen to us and whether they would respond to the Gospel. As we evolved over the years we went back into both the Christian and the secular scene with the idea of saying; right, you've seen us here, come see us at this little church event or youth club event. I held a Bible study at my house and that brought loads of people through. Not only did they get saved at the gig but they came to the house group, met young people their own age and got helped with their faith so they stayed with the church. The trouble with the pub thing was that too many Christians wouldn't go to the pub because they were afraid."
In the summer of 1981, I was working for a music management company called Musicreations in Leeds. The company managed the affairs of a number of British artists including Adrian Snell and John Pantry and soon they signed The Predators. The Predators landed a record contract with Pilgrim Records and were packed off to a studio with John Pantry producing. These days Pantry is best known as the cuddly breakfast presenter on Premier Radio but in the early '80s, he was a Christian recording artist and a record producer. But with his MOR pop leanings he was an odd choice to produce a punk/new wave band. A year earlier John had produced the Bill Mason Band and to my ears had managed to pull the guts out of the band. Kelvin remembers the John Pantry sessions, "One thing that sticks out to me when we were in the studio with John was that he came to my Marshall Amp and asked me to take the distortion out of it! Well, that's the whole part of the sound!" Kelvin laughs.
My own memory of the sessions is that Pantry made Fran play "Don't Mess Around" all day because he wasn't keeping time properly. That must have been a frustration for him. "I think the problem was when we played live there was a lot of attack in what we did and I think they wanted a very controlled kind of sound. You could always tell this by the mixes because the vocals would be quite high. Anything that went over 5Db was classed as Satanic! And the bass drum patterns, they wanted very simple structured bass drum patterns; well I don't play that way. I got this burning desire to want to do something and I'm having to restrain myself. I found it very, very difficult to do."
There was nothing restrained about The Predators in a live setting. Both musically and visually the band were all about making an impact. From Kevin's leopard print trousers to the props he used on stage, there were always memorable moments during gigs. Many will remember Gladys the mannequin and who could forget Kevin dressed as a manic surgeon spraying the audience with silly string during "Plastic Surgeon". He remembers, "When I was young, I liked bands that did things on stage. It wasn't enough for me for them to just sit there and play really meaty guitar, I wanted to see somebody do something, catch my eyes and attention. I hate the studio thing. I find the studio thing really hard. I find it too anaesthetized, too restricted; I don't feel like I can flow. But live, with people there, I just want to communicate, I want to get across what I believe, I want them to look at me not just from an ego point of view but so that they can hear what I'm saying to them. So we put on a really good show for them. Something in my mind, just these creations come out and 'Plastic Surgeon' was ideal for me because I felt that at the time we were all into this lovey dovey thing, 'Come to God, he looooves you!' sort of thing. We'd lost the bit about Hell and the cost that Jesus had paid for our sin. I think 'Plastic Surgeon' shows you the Devil tells you these lies saying, 'I'll offer you all this.' But it's just a plastic surgery job; you're going to go back to being old and haggard and whatever but it's Jesus who can really make the difference. So we tried to show the Heaven and Hell side of that because the usual song that used to follow that was called 'I'll Never Let You Down', which is all about God being there and saying, 'Trust in me. Don't trust in the things of the world.'
He continues, "'Plastic Surgeon' is the complete opposite end of the scale but 'Never Let You Down' was a simple love song sung at the mic. 'Plastic Surgeon' was an absolute raucous over-the-top type thing that was made to make people sit up and look and maybe be frightened. My daughter even today says, 'You're eyes looked red as though they were really evil and it used to really frighten me and send shivers up my spine, but it made me realise just how real the Devil is.'"
The real songwriting talent of the band was Fran who as well as writing the rocking tunes was also able to create songs with real depth and emotion including songs like "Maybe Tomorrow" and "Emotional Upset". I asked him whether the songs were based on real relationship experiences and struggles in his life. "I wrote quite a lot of stuff from personal experience. I think most songwriters do. And also events; things that were happening in the world, those are important. People say it's not like writing songs about 'Jesus is my girlfriend', this is about writing stuff about what's happening in the world and to be a voice and to say, 'This isn't on.' Some of it was done through songs like 'Emotional Upset' and 'Maybe Tomorrow' and things like this. Quite a lot of music was about events like political scandals and that kind of stuff. I think it was about really being direct and I think Kev projected what we felt about being direct. We didn't make any excuses about being Christians. It was like, 'We're Christian; do you want to make something of it?' Rather than, 'Excuse me, may I play in your place?' 'We are here and we ARE playing in your place and you WILL hear it!' I think basically that is where the band was at. Having said that we made mistakes! We certainly made some mistakes!"
He continues, "We did learn that when you're going into places and you're going with the Gospel, you need to make sure that the places you're going into have got local support. With hit-and-run evangelism - you would do more damage doing that than if you'd left them alone! And I think we learnt that and God grabbed us about that and I know it's something that Kevin got convicted of. We felt things had got to be done properly. I would say that about anything that we do as Christians; if you're going to go into somewhere and get alongside people you'd better make sure you do it with some support because you can be doing more harm than you are good."
One of my lasting memories of the band is in the period when they were working on their debut album. In a venue at Greenbelt, they packed a tent full of young people, turned everything up to 11 and the crowd went crazy. I have a lasting memory of Kev in jeans and T-shirt with an old school tie round his neck and a huge oversized foam cowboy hat kicking off the show with "Jack".
Kevin Smith was always very preachy on the stage and unafraid to pontificate. Often at length. There are some youtube clips that attest to this! Is he still like that even though he doesn't have a stage to stand on? "I still feel things," he responds, "and I still think things. When I was at the gigs I felt such intensities to share the Gospel and I was waiting for that moment when God said, 'Now.' I was talking to my daughter tonight about that actually and she said, 'How did you do it when you were at concerts?' I said, 'Well, I just sat in fear until that moment came and then I stepped out in faith and suddenly the worlds were there and the dynamic was there and people got touched. I never understood how they got touched because it seemed to me like a load of words but when I talked to people afterwards it touched their hearts. Many people stayed behind afterwards and they particularly wanted to talk further and they wouldn't go until they got saved or got their lives sorted out. I found that Christians were being affected as well with their lifestyle; they wanted to be more radical or more real. I couldn't believe that the words I was saying were having that affect but that's God for you, isn't it?"
The Predators were a hard working band with a busy gig schedule and yet the band did their music on the side of their main jobs. Kelvin remembers some of the pressures, "I lived in Cheadle, Stoke-on-Trent, so for rehearsals I had to travel to Stockport once or even twice a week, so that was hard going! When we had gigs, sometimes we had those in midweek. I remember clubs in the middle of Stockport which didn't finish till two o'clock in the morning; there we were, humping Fran's huge bass drum upstairs at two o'clock in the morning and then I had to drive home. I wouldn't get into bed till quite late and then I was very tired the next day! It was hard going and it put pressure on the family, there's no doubt about that when we had young kids. Particularly when the second one was born, we had a tour at that time so my wife in particular found that quite difficult to cope with. So there's been a cost to all this without doubt but we were fired very much by just a huge desire to talk to others about Jesus and to share our faith. But the decision not to go pro I think was the right one. That was made for the right reasons so it wasn't all wrong."
Kevin explains, "None of us wanted to be rock stars/pop stars, we just wanted to communicate the Gospel really with the music that we were writing. We were very fortunate to have such a long time doing that and seeing the movement from Thin Ice to The Predators and seeing that being so successful. I still can't believe it when people say, 'Oh, you were absolutely brilliant! You were amazing!' I just think; I don't see it like that. To me I was just doing something. I listened to some other bands and think, 'They're much better than us!' I remember we played in Germany with Larry Norman. It was a TV thing and Andy was the bass player at the time and he said, 'Oh, we're so untight! We're so untight! They're so much tighter then we are!' But we stole the show because we just went out there and went for it. We were there and it was TV and we wanted to share the Gospel and share the Good News and wake people up to the truth of God. Some of the other bands, they were much better musically than us and they were great to listen to but their stage show wasn't great and what they were saying was just a bit paltry to me. I've always liked action, you know. I'd rather have someone like Ozzy Osbourne biting the bat's head off than someone like Genesis who were playing nice music with nice lights - BORING! Give me some Alice Cooper or something like that because at least it's exciting. You come out and you think, 'Wow! I've seen something here!'"
One of the things that characterised The Predators was their willingness to attack difficult topics that few Christian artists would dare to tackle. Fran as main songwriter is very down to earth and so the songs that the band recorded were always straight down the line. Fran shares, "Life's got realities and we live in a world where there's challenges and difficulties and problems and as Christians we're no more immune from it than non-Christians. Obviously we have an answer through Jesus Christ and I think that the thing is to be able to believe in that; to actually rest in that. I think so many times when we have problems the fear grips us and God somehow evaporates from that situation."
He continues, "We wrote about things that were relevant. But I have to say, I don't want to be taking all the credit for this because we used to co-operate a lot. Some of the stuff that I used to bring down to the band wasn't playable really because it was just ideas and things. Kevin helped in structuring the words and things like this. It wasn't just Fran writing the music, it would be wrong for me to claim all that; it was a collaboration. Yeah, I had some ideas but we all contributed. We wanted to be relevant. We wanted to write things about what's happening in life and our solution through Jesus."
Kelvin adds, "The other thing that I think is important is that music is about communicating the emotion and feeling and heart, and there's one thing that is true of The Predators, and that is that we played with real heart and feeling and I believe people picked up on that and sensed what we were saying and the genuineness of what we were experiencing."
At times, seeing the band perform live, it was almost like they relished dealing with these hard subjects; that it gave them an edge and they enjoyed getting in people's faces and poking them a bit. As frontman, it often came down to Kevin and he admits, "There was a lot of apathy around when we were doing our thing and we wanted to wake people up to the real world issues that were around. But I think The Predators has two sides to it: It has its aggressive side where it says, 'WHAT ABOUT THAT?! WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO ABOUT THAT?!' But then it has its other side where it says, 'I see your failures, I see you're struggling and I see you're embarrassed that you're struggling and yet you're supposed to be a Christian and you're supposed to be on fire and alive. Well come on! Put your faith in God and trust in him! Give it back to him and get fired up again!'"
He remembers, "I had some conversations with Christians who felt they weren't good enough and it was great to talk to them and share my own life with them, my own failures and my own problems. And certain songs they would pick out, like 'Emotional Upset'. Fran used to write about relationships and stuff like that - everybody has relationships and everybody gets touched by relationships good and bad. I think Christians have to comment on that, it's real; we have a relationship with God. The good thing about God is he never lets you down! But we let him down so many times. We've got to know that he doesn't reject us in those things, that he says, 'I still love you. I care for you.' You hear it from the pulpit but I just think sometimes it is communicated better in song and you get the tears out and you get the upset out and say, 'God, I give myself back to you. I know you accept me as I am and you can put me back where you want me to be if I trust in you.' And that's important in writing as well."
Fran also remembers an encounter, "I'll never forget we played a place in Manchester once and there was a lad who'd not been a Christian very long, very young lad. He was in a right state. I said, 'Well, what's the matter with you?' 'Oh, I can't, I'm so ashamed! So ashamed!' I said, 'What's your problem?' 'I'll never be able to.' 'What's your problem for crying out.what's the matter with you?!' 'Oh, I've got this thing about masturbation.' I said, 'Oh give me a break! Is that important? It's not even mentioned in the Bible! What are you worrying about?! You think you're the only one that does it?!' He was so surprised that we would expose ourselves in that way but we all do things in this life. We ALL make mistakes sometimes! And he felt he was the only person in the world with that problem. We've got this freedom in Jesus Christ but it's like you're trying to put the chains back on! It's like: Oh give me a break! Where are we going here with this?! What was the cross for?! Anyway, it was great. We had a great time. Prayed about it. Up and on. Dust off. Get movin' on. That's what it's about."
Their second album on Pilgrim Records was 'Social Decay'. Released with a striking cover with a human hand reaching out in Michaelangelo fashion to a skeleton hand, the album was banned by some Christian book shops because it was deemed a bit spooky. Kev explains, "This is just a picture of something that we're trying to reflect in the album. You have to listen to the album to know what the picture's about. I went into Scripture Union as it was called then and they'd banned the album! I had a bit of a row with the lady and she said, 'It's not my fault! We've been told from above it's got to be banned!' But I just think it increased people's interest in the band and you need a bit of controversy, not in a nasty way but in a way that makes people have a second look at this and not just write things off. I think as Christians sometimes we're very quick to write things off without checking it out first and seeing what it's really about, getting behind the cover, not judging things just by what we see or hear at face value."
The album was recorded at Ears & Eyes studio in Leeds with John Pantry and Chris Norton looking after the production. Kev thinks back, "I remember that I felt freer. It didn't feel as anaesthetised. Chris Norton had the biggest say in things and he is an amazing guy and he got good things out of me. There was a song where I struggled and I couldn't get the tuning right and I felt the pressure building over and over again. Chris told everybody to go out of the studio and take a break and he said, 'You stay here. Right now, sing it like you're doing it live.' I got it just like that! That was Chris' way. You need people in the studio who are like that; who don't want to manipulate your sound the way they see it but want to bring the best out in you. So what you're bringing is the band's sound, the band's voice."
Somewhere in the mid '80s I lost touch with the The Predators. In fact the band recorded a third album, 'Offensive', in 1988. It came out as a cassette only release and they released it themselves after the label, as Kev remembers, "just ran out of steam, basically." There were line up changes in the band as Fran and Kelvin moved on. Paul Trusswell came in on guitar, Andy Raynor was still there on bass and with Brian Woodhead on keyboards, there are new influences coming through the music. 'Offensive' is very different. Brian and Andy wrote a lot of the songs on the album. Kev remembers, "Again this vein of talking about world issues and Christian issues is still there but the musical format has really changed, matured in some ways, but I listen to it sometimes and I think; we've sort of lost some edge there!" Surprisingly, Paul agrees, "I agree with that. It was the only one that I was actually involved in but to me, even as we were recording it I'm thinking, 'I'm enjoying this but I'm not sure that this is the genuine article!'"
Kev explains what happened next. "Things were changing really. I don't know whether it was an age thing or whether people just got fed up with it. I still had a desire to get out there but it was, where? And what was happening then was, we were starting to do more Christian gigs and there weren't as many openings in the secular area. Problem was as well that we wouldn't travel as far because we'd grown up then, we had families and that meant midweek gigs slowed up and we were just doing weekends. We were more considerate. I think rock music is a single man's thing. If you're going to establish yourself do it while you're single and so when you do get married you can choose what you do and don't do a bit more." So finally in 1989 The Predators called it a day. Today they are fondly remembered by ageing fans who'd caught them in their glory years and with none of their recordings reissued on CD their vinyl releases go for good money on eBay. They have a website, www.thepreds.eu, which offers music mp3s and a few links to youtube videos. And there's even talk that there aging radical rockers may yet play a reunion gig one day.
To wrap up our interview I ask Fran what today's new wave of young bands can learn from The Predators' experiences. "I think I would like to see Christian bands actually mixing it up with secular a lot more. I think that this idea where we have a divide between secular and Christian, I think it needs to be broken, I really do believe that. I think that we need to be in a global market area where everybody's there and yeah, this is a Christian band and it stands up and it's prepared to go into these places. I mean, there's a lot of things going on in the world today and we have a voice and we have an answer. I think we need to just go into these places. But I think if they're going to do it they need support from the church, they need pastoral care and they need to be able to realise that not everything that you do is a 'yes', and have people around you that'll put into your life and you listen to those people. That way you'll avoid some of the mistakes that we made. I think there's a lot of things happening and I would love to see bands going into the pubs and the clubs and not be worried about how they look. This is the thing; it's not about how we look it's about what we are - integrity and the whole thing about being Christians. My hat is off to Kelvin these days because he's involved in a band which promotes HIV awareness and he'll play anywhere. He'll go into a gay bar and God bless him for that! How many Christians would walk down into a gay bar and play? We've got to love people! The Commandment is to love one another! Not look at what they do and what they are but simply to love one another!"