Tony Cummings with OMEGA's Roger Hicks charts the history of the Nottingham grassroots rockers
The history of British Christian rock music is as much to do with semi-pro bands who battle through walls of adversity to get some good music put onto recording tape and see audiences touched by God as it is about the handful of bands who land big record deals and CCM success. In the early 1980s Omega were, for a season, the biggest Christian band in Nottingham with a sizeable following. As it turned out, Omega's talent and zeal never translated into Word Record contracts and Mainstage Greenbelt appearances but they did leave behind a handful of recordings and fond memories amongst today's long-in-the-tooth Christian rock devotees. Cross Rhythms recently made contact with Omega's Roger Hicks and through an interview with him now tell the story of the band of young Nottingham musicians who from 1983 to 1986 served God with their gifts.
Omega were formed in late 1983 by John Maddison and Mark Timson, who had worked together in a Nottingham-based Christian rock band Crossfire who broke up in mid 1982. Maddison and Timson had attended the same church in Bulwell, Nottingham for many years, but had moved to Sherwood United Reformed Church in Nottingham, bringing vitality and leadership to the youth group. After discussions one night about forming a new band they decided to audition good friend and former Crossfire crew chief Roger Hicks as vocalist, then set about the task of finding a drummer. A friend from the pub suggested his lodger, Darren Clay, and the basis of Omega was born. With the line up of Roger Hicks, lead vocals, Mark Timson, guitars, John Maddison, bass and backing vocals and Darren Clay, drums, initial rehearsals were held at Sherwood URC, until Darren persuaded the manager of the Owd Boots pub to let the band use his vacant upper room as a rehearsal studio. This was ideal, because all the band's equipment could be left permanently in place, the only problem being that the rehearsal studio had to be accessed through the manager's living room!
A number of local gigs were arranged and the band attracted the attention of Steve and Sandra Dalby of Vision Music, a locally based Christian promoter, who organised monthly gigs at St Helen's Church, Stapleford, Nottingham. Omega appeared regularly on this bill, sometimes heading the show, at others supporting acts such as nationally well known bands the Reps and The Predators.
In the summer of 1984 Omega decided to venture into the heady world of recording. Booked to headline a concert at St Helens Church the band decided to record a live album. Roger still has vivid memories of the concert which was to source Omega's 'God Loves To Rock 'n' Roll' cassette release. He recalled, "There was a great build up because this was the first proper multitrack recording we had done. We had a great following at St Helens, and Steve Dalby, our manager and sound engineer, was a member there. I guess there were 150-200 people there and the show went well. We always started backstage with a prayer circle which involved our crew, asking God to inspire us that night and to help us spread his message to the audience. The four of us (it was still four then) always had a few quiet seconds together before we hit the stage, then we were out there. After the show we went to the dressing room for a debrief. We then went out to the hall to sign autographs and talk with the audience members. We were obviously excited about the recording and Steve Dalby mixed the sound down to a cassette during the following week."
Always looking to enhance the Omega stage shows Roger Hicks experimented with pyrotechnic effects, smoke machines and built staging to create that "big band" feel to their concerts, all of which were used when the band filmed a live video in 1984 at Sherwood United Reformed Church, when videos were quite cutting edge. Unfortunately the resulting video was never released to the public. Explained Roger, "In those days video quality was average and the only way to make copies was from one video to another, which never came out well. The start was a bit comical: we were on stage with the curtains shut and a smoke machine going full tilt. Our intro tape started and we wanted to open the curtains at the last minute with two high powered spots 'blinding' the audience as the smoke 'fell' onto them during our first number. Unfortunately our curtains man mistook my signal and opened the curtains about a minute early. The video man was shooting straight at the stage, and the lights started to burn into his lens, so he had to pan left and right to avoid spots marking the lens. We were stood there, not quite ready. . ."
In early 1985 Maddison, Timson and Hicks were discussing the future of the band. It had never been an ideal situation with Darren Clay, as Darren was not a Christian and was not persuaded by God's message. The trio considered parting company with Clay, but had no obvious choice as a replacement drummer. . . until Hicks suggested that he could take over the drums, Maddison the lead vocals together with bass, with Hicks adding backing vocals. This was agreed upon as a temporary measure and they parted company with Clay, a temporary measure which existed for the rest of the life of the band. A number of existing songs had to be ditched as it was impossible for Maddison to play certain extremely complex bass lines and sing at the same time, but new songs were written and rehearsed. Within three months Omega were making their first visit to a recording studio to record a single, "Gambler". Remembered Roger, "The studio was actually a bungalow owned by the members of a club band (can't remember their name) for whom Ashley Stewart Cooke was the sound engineer. They had a 16 track recorder (I think) and we recorded the three tracks over a weekend. We also played a gig in Nottingham on the Saturday night. John and I went to set up the show leaving Mark to record his solos. On 'Gambler' Ash added a bit of crunchy guitar panning from left to right after the line 'Lady Luck is smiling, but the smiles don't go his way' and this became a key moment of our live set, where Mark and I would exchange a smile as he did the crunchy bit and I would go round my toms."
The cassette single of "Gambler", together with Omega's new crowd favourites "Closer To Heaven" and "Where Is Hope", was released in 1985. It was produced by Ashley Stewart Cooke, an old friend and guitar sparring partner of Timson from his days with Crossfire. Then in the summer came a festival appearance which almost launched Omega to the next level. Remembered Roger, "Omega were booked to appear on the Fringe at Greenbelt '85 through our contact with Simon Law and Sid Henderson. We played a fast and furious set on the Friday night to a very receptive audience and on the Saturday watched the action on the Mainstage. The announcement was made that a band had had to cancel at the last minute. John Maddison turned to us and announced that Omega should play Mainstage and promptly headed off to offer the band's services to a member of the Greenbelt sound crew. The initial response was positive and Maddison was told to await a further announcement. There followed 10 minutes of planning and no small amount of praying. This could be Omega's big break. If the call came, I would head to the Fringe to round up our equipment, Timson would return to Camp Omega, our tented mini village, to collect stage attire and Maddison would go straight to the stage to prepare Greenbelt for the arrival of Omega. Sadly, an announcement came over the PA to thank us for their offer but that our services would not be required."
Despite their Greenbelt disappointment the band pushed on. "We felt things were going well for us as a band, and the Greenbelt 'near miss' spurred us on to the next level. At that time the pinnacle of achievement was to release a record, and it is still a very proud moment when we opened the box of 1000 records all with Maddison, Timson, Hicks on the label. We researched a number of studios and settled for Sin City (unfortunate name for a Christian band, though) especially as Mick Vaughan of Paper Lace was the house producer. We rehearsed hard for weeks before the studio date, practising just the additional vocals, second guitar parts, etc, so we would not waste valuable studio time. Mick was highly professional and taught us the ways of the studio. He came up with the effect in the middle of 'Love Will Find A Way' with what seems to be a background fade-in behind the guitar solo. Mick set a count on the master tape then turned the tape over so it ran backwards. We counted in and John hit a piano chord and I hit two cymbals, allowing the sound to fade away naturally. Mick then turned the tape over again and you get a sound which fades in, then cuts abruptly. Mick also suggested the sound of the plane flying over at the beginning of 'Give Yourself To Jesus', which gave an atmospheric opening. I also remember having a sore throat and standing with John singing the outtro to 'Love Will Find A Way' where we repeat 'Love will find a way, love will find a way' for what seemed to be forever. I could only do it for a few seconds before coughing. We had to retake this bit about six or seven times."
With "Love Will Find A Way" released, Omega played gigs up and down the UK and even saw some sales of their single in the USA. The band were invited to close the Nottingham Festival, held on a stage in the city's famous Market Square. Discussions took place to make a full live album and video for this large, outdoor show. Then, three weeks before the show Timson dropped a bombshell, announcing that he was leaving the band. So that concert on 7th June 1986 turned out to be Omega's swansong. In Roger's words, "The band took to the stage to a rapturous crowd response. Maddison broke the 'A' string on his bass during the first number, and had no spare strings due to the impending disbandment, so played on with three strings for the next hour and a half. Omega finished with 'God Loves To Rock 'n' Roll' and left the stage forever."
In 1990 Maddison, Timson and Hicks attempted to reform Omega, adding long time
friend Ian Walker on keyboards, but new pressures of marriage and
John's young family meant that no one had sufficient time to devote to
a rock 'n' roll career.
John Maddison still works for Nottingham City Council, Mark Timson now lives in Plymouth and works for a signage company and Roger Hicks runs a construction project management consultancy in Nottingham.
Looking back, Hicks was asked what he felt Omega achieved in their stint on the rock 'n' roll stage. He responded, "We had a whole lot of fun playing God's music, meeting people and witnessing to them. We worked hard and were very 'in tune' (mentally) with each other, so could develop good songs quickly. We had a great fan base here in Nottingham and further afield and we enjoyed the 'star' status it gave us, but specifically as 'stars' witnessing for Jesus as Christians. We always believed that we should stand up as who we were, emphasising the part God played in our lives, and to spread the Word through our music. We wanted to be a serious rock band who were also Christians, to fight against the perceived perception that rock music was all the work of Satan."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.