In the '80s AFTER THE FIRE were THE favourite band in British Christendom and even after they called it a day in 1982, still managed to clock up a Top Ten US hit. Founder member Pete 'Memory' Banks reminisced at length about the ATF heydays to Mike Rimmer.
1979 was a bit of a watershed for Christian music. Bryn Haworth released his excellent 'Keep The Ball Rolling' on A&M. Bob Dylan shocked his fans with 'Slow Train Coming' on CBS with songs that reflected his new found faith. Garth Hewitt signed to Cliff Richard's new EMI distributed gospel label. On TV you could watch the new Pop Gospel show featuring many of Britain's rising practitioners of CCM. Greenbelt that year gave a platform to the ever-increasing number of grassroots Christian bands like Giantkiller, Ishmael United and Kainos. Meanwhile at the chart topping end of the scale, Cliff was thrilling the crowd with songs from his new album 'Rock 'n' Roll Juvenile' which was a real return to form and "We Don't Talk Any More" was at No 1 that very weekend. At the forefront of this explosion of popularity in music made by Christians were After The Fire on the Greenbelt Saturday night bill and fresh from the chart success of their debut single "One Rule For You" and full of expectation for their soon-to-be-released 'Laser Love' album on CBS.
In total, After The Fire released five albums before splitting up at the end of 1982, the last of them a compilation 'Der Kommissar' having recently been re-released by Sony making it possible for the first time to hear a selection of ATF's finest tunes in CD splendour! The band occupies an important place in the development of UK Christian music and with Pete Banks, the one time keyboard player and founder member of ATF. I asked the rock veteran, who now runs a company specialising in business software, to run through the band's history.
After The Fire are often perceived as being one of the first bands to cross over from the Christian subculture into the mainstream market but Banks firmly rules out that suggestion by saying, "I don't really feel After The Fire were ever in the Christian scene. The whole vision of the band as a bunch of Christians was to set out to go after a commercial record deal and to play pub and club gigs and eventually moving on as we came up the live scene ladder into colleges and universities and then onto theatres and so on. In between all of that we were invited to play some shows that were promoted by Christians and we did those shows but we never really were in that scene. We certainly played Greenbelt and I think there is a perception that we made a crossover. We didn't. We almost came back the other way to a certain extent to celebrate with Christians the fact that we'd achieved something commercially."
The band's original line up was formed in 1972 as a three piece with Banks joined by Ian Adamson and John Leech but it only lasted a year before drifting apart. Banks spent 1973 as a member of the Christian band Narnia before reforming ATF with Adamson and the newly recruited Andy Piercy. Before joining After The Fire, Piercy had been working with Ian Smale as the folk rock duo Ishmael & Andy, much loved in the Christian counter culture for their album 'Ready Salted', released on Word Records.
Initially ATF played progressive rock in the style of Genesis or Yes. Their first album, 'Signs Of Change', was recorded on their own label and released in 1977. The band's line up at the time was Piercy on guitar, Banks on keyboards, Nick Battle on bass and Iva Twydell on drums. About their debut album Banks says, "It was very fashionable to do your own single in those days and we achieved some notoriety because we went ahead and did an album. We were into the progressive rock thing where a song would definitely take a lot more than three minutes and 10 seconds which was the ideal single length. So there wasn't really a way we could get the material out unless it was on an album."
However by the time the album was released ATF found themselves in the middle of the British punk explosion with an album of extremely unfashionable music. Although they had gained credibility by selling around 4,000 copies of the album, they were perceived as being a little out of touch with the music scene. But After The Fire were changing. "We had not planned this in advance," says Banks. "But once the album had come out, we seemed to have a release from that style of music and began to write songs that were much more hip and current and energetic and shorter as well! At one stage we wrote four or five songs in one day. We suddenly found ourselves with a complete new repertoire."
The band's change of style temporarily confused some ATF fans who were sometimes disappointed that ATF weren't playing material from the 'Signs Of Change' album. Even at the band's final concert in 1982, some diehards were shouting for "Pilgrim", the classic song that closes the album based on John Bunyan's book Pilgrim's Progress. However the majority enjoyed the switch in style and it also allowed the band to grab a whole new generation of fans and their fan base grew substantially.
Again line up changes happened. Nick Battle left ATF to join Writz (the aggregation fronted by Steve and Bev Fairnie) and Andy Piercy switched to playing bass as the band experimented as a three piece, playing energetic synth-based rock. John Russell then joined the band, playing guitar (Banks had played in Russell's old band Narnia in 1973) and this was the line up that signed to CBS at the end of 1978. After The Fire's debut single didn't appear until the summer of 1979 when it suffered the honour of being DJ Tony Blackburn's record of the week! "One Rule For You" scraped into the top 40 and may have gone higher had their pre-recorded slot on Top Of The Pops been broadcast. At the time there were myths that arose that ATF did not appear on TOTP because of Wimbledon but the truth is that a young upstart called Gary Numan charted higher with "Are 'Friends' Electric?" and the cloth-eared producers of the programme decided that the two songs were too similar! Exit After The Fire!
ATF's legendary appearance at Greenbelt in 1979 was a taste of things to come with the debut album 'Laser Love' scheduled for release in the September. Pete Banks remembers the Greenbelt performance with fond memories, "I know that the Greenbelt crowd was so behind After The Fire. Everything we did, we were real stars there. It was a very nice feeling." ATF's performance ended with a spectacular but controversial fireworks display as Banks recalls: "We were hauled across the coals for doing that. We had invested something like £10 per second of our own money for those fireworks because we wanted to put a show on for the crowd. Why not? That production cost us! The fee from Greenbelt in no way covered what our expenditure was to put on that show. We had additional lights; we had additional equipment, the whole thing. We really wanted it to be entertaining and we wanted it to be special and that's what we did. We checked out beforehand what we were doing and let them know that we needed a special enclosure built so the fireworks could be set off. When we arrived at Greenbelt the enclosure was nearly finished. They then changed their minds and there were all sorts of 'Heavy Scenes' backstage. We just said we were going to have the fireworks and stamped our tiny feet."
After Greenbelt, the band hot-footed it 'round Britain on a 40 date tour and the title track of the album was released as a single. But "Laser Love" only managed to get to number 62 in the charts even though the tour was a great success, playing to packed halls at universities and colleges. The autumn 1979 tour proved to be the final set of gigs for the larger than life drummer Iva Twydell. Banks explains why Iva left the band: "Iva was suffering from a condition at the time which culminated with his collapse on stage in Edinburgh. That was obviously a great concern to him. He also had some family situations. He'd had a recent bereavement and he felt he couldn't see the thing through beyond the end of 1979. He told us this before the tour started. His final gig with ATF was at London's Rainbow Theatre." In total, Twydell recorded three solo albums before leaving the music business. These days he is the Chief Constable of Bedfordshire police force and a practising Buddhist.
Twydell's replacement was originally Nick Brotherwood who had played in a number of Christian bands and had deputised for Twydell for some of the dates in Ireland after Twydell's collapse on the 1979 tour. Nick played live with the band on a short tour in the spring of 1980 and had played on early recordings of ATF's third album '80F'. CBS rejected the album and the band re-recorded part of it with a session drummer but the album was not released. A permanent replacement for Twydell was eventually found in Pete King. King had played with the band The Flys and had met ATF backstage in 1979. As Banks remembers, "We were aware of Peter because he'd been to one of our shows and we did actively try to track him down with complete lack of success so we were delighted when he came through the audition circuit and he was completely outstanding."
The band was forced to re-record a lot of the '80F' album and it was not an easy time as Banks describes: "That was a depressing time having lost the momentum of the 1979 tour. However, in that time we linked up with Mack (a record producer) who we went back into the studio with re-recording all the songs, either overdubbing Peter King onto existing tracks or recording tracks from scratch." The result was an excellent album but none of the songs released as singles troubled Mr Gallop's statistics in the UK. There was however, chart success elsewhere as Banks points out. "We did have hit singles in Europe. We were under enormous pressure to have hit singles. You are always trying to write a hit single."
Fans of ATF have often noted that there was a shift in lyrical content between the second and subsequent releases but Banks points out, "I don't think it was deliberate. CBS and the band's management wanted us to be more overtly Christian in our lyrics. There always seemed to be a bit of a fine line. It seemed to be such of a nonsense that many artists that were involved in the Christian subculture were saying they couldn't get a record deal on a commercial label because they weren't allowed to sing their Christian lyrics whereas all the pressure we were getting put under was to be more overtly Christian which is an extraordinary twist. It just goes to show that if you have good product then you can get it out."
During this stage in the band's career, there was a remarkable Radio One live concert recording of After The Fire supporting the up and coming U2. Like a lot of the most inspired incidents in life, it was completely unplanned. Banks describes what happened: "We didn't actually know that U2 were going to be there when we turned up. Because they were known as Christians and we were known as Christians, we'd met up a number of times and said that we shouldn't really appear on the same stage together. We had decided to spread ourselves around a bit and be salt in the world. There was a cancellation of an artist and we were asked to go and fill in. We turned up and the other band on the bill was U2."
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