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.
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Whilst playing live to promote '80F', ATF began to write the 'Batteries Not Included' album and rehearsed the new material a lot. All prepared the actual recording of the 'Batteries' album only took five weeks in Munich at the beginning of 1982. Although the '80F' album sank without trace in Britain this wasn't true elsewhere. The band had enjoyed a number of club hits in Germany so going there to record was an enjoyable experience. 'Batteries' was again produced by Mack in his own studio where ELO and Queen had both recently recorded. The band also found themselves treated as celebrities which confused Pete Banks. "We suddenly found we were being treated like stars," Pete remembers. "Everybody had great respect for us and we had no idea why this was. We were being taken out and taken to clubs and then we realised that clubs were playing tracks like '1980F'. In Europe after that, there were great roars of recognition, it was quite extraordinary. Having had a bit of a doldrums with the recording of '80F' and the tours that didn't go so well, we were lifted up to do the 'Batteries' album. It was very exciting and the sounds on the album were very good and the tracks shone through in terms of quality and energy."
For years the German music scene had been dominated by bands singing in English and trying to sound American or British. Suddenly German bands were singing in German and creating their own style of music. The German New Wave was born. Whilst on tour ATF heard 'Der Kommissar' by Austrian singer Falco. It was Banks who thought it would be an interesting song to cover. "We did a record shop signing session," Pete says, "and I bought the record and played it to Andy and he thought it was interesting. We got the lyrics translated and Andy jigged them around a bit." It was destined to be the band's swansong and most successful single.
In 1982, ATF toured America with Van Halen. Playing to Van Halen's huge crowds, they were successful but the experience proved to be frustrating as well. The record company did not put any of ATF's albums in the shops so they could not take full advantage of the tour. CBS had sanctioned the tour but after two weeks of dates they changed their minds and told ATF to return to Europe to record a new album. Banks recalls the frustration and says, "Really we fell out with the record company. There were a chapter of disasters." The band attempted to negotiate a new deal with Atlantic Records and were on the verge of signing when the success of the "Der Kommissar" single in Canada meant that CBS wouldn't release them from their contract.
The band was heavily in debt but didn't know how to proceed. They had a record company who didn't want to put their records out when they were touring, they were in debt everywhere. They had been working for years and hadn't had key success and so decided that they couldn't go on any more. Ironically, they didn't know that a few months down the line they would have a monster hit. "Der Kommissar" made No 5 in the USA Billboard charts but by then the band had folded. Christmas 1982 saw ATF's final gig at London's Dominion Theatre where their Christmas party marked the end of an era when the band announced to fans it was splitting up.
The obvious question is why didn't the band get back together again to capitalise on the American success of the "Der Kommissar"? Behind the scenes there were other issues. The band never earned any money, even at the height of their career each member was only earning £60 a week gross even though they were playing to crowds in their thousands. The collapse of the Atlantic deal meant the band ran out of money and had no income. Pete Banks remembers the complete exhaustion, "We'd spent seven months outside the country touring and we were absolutely and utterly burnt out. If you've lived together with people that you've known for a long time, there are other things that happen. The pressure of trying to write songs. People were saying we should become like Bruce Springsteen and Andy was keen to pursue that direction. Others were saying that we should be like M or Buggies and I was thinking that was the sort of stuff I'd like to do. In the songwriting team we were pulled in different directions so as a result the material we were producing wasn't very strong.
"So that's why I felt we had to do a cover song but at the end of 1982 it hadn't worked in Britain and people were saying, 'Your ideas are no good Banksy!' It was enormous pressure. There was an internal and external breakdown so that puts it into perspective as to why the band literally ground to a halt. We were hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt to the record company and management. Something like half a million pounds of total debt which we were all paying off. Some debts we had to pay back ourselves, like VAT, bank overdrafts and family loans, all had to be paid back ourselves. Other debts will still be recouped now that 'Der Kommissar' has been re-released. CBS will be recovering their part of the debt. It's not so glamorous as it seems."
All the band members continued with music after the split. Andy Piercy tried to follow up the success of "Der Kommissar" with some re-recordings of ATF songs before signing with CBS for a solo album. His solo single "8 Ball In The Top Pocket" was unsuccessful and CBS never did release his solo album. After working for some time as a record producer, Piercy is now based in Holy Trinity, Brompton. The album which he made with Dave Clifton called 'Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow' was released a couple of years ago and he's produced projects for artists like Eden Burning. Guitarist John Russell formed Press Any Key and recorded one album for Marshalls. Pete Banks and Pete King formed Zip Codes and began building their own studios. While that was progressing, they recorded some material at another studio which was eventually released on Plankton as the album 'Sold Sight Unseen' and it's still available! The album became a tribute to Pete King who very sadly died of cancer in 1987. He never saw the finished studio.
As for the future, the re-release by Sony of the band's compilation album 'Der Kommissar' will undoubtedly stimulate renewed interest in the After The Fire, perhaps even winning them new admirers. Even 13 years after the split there is still a large cult interest in their music. After The Fire were always a phenomenal live act and with the album in the shops, I wonder whether they would consider performing live. Intriguingly, Banks does not rule out the possibility that the band could play live again. Now wouldn't that be something? Watch this space!The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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