It has been reported that “The Fire Dept was cursed by three things: drunkenness, ineptitude and a fatal lack of self-knowledge, all three qualities manifesting occasionally and sometimes simultaneously, but always mockingly, in one or all of three members of the group at once.” Whatever truth may lie in this blatant slur the virtue in The Fire Dept lay in their showing that playing rock ‘n’ roll music is not about finesse or soppy haircuts, but about personal truth imbedded within a good pop song.
In 1983, Neil Palmer started working in the same Cambridge bookshop as Neale Richardson. They shared a similar outlook: working for others was way beneath them and punk rock and booze were next to the angels. They also read voraciously, everything from the late, great Peter Tinniswood to Arthur Machen, from Charles Bukowski to Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Drunk most days by 2.30 pm, they’d adjourn from the public house to work and spend the afternoon inventing band names and song titles, all with words and tunes, based on their love of ancient and lost rock ‘n’ roll styles from the 1950s to the 1980s.
This is certain: the future Fire Dept boys did anything to be elsewhere. Like Sun Ra, they weren’t from Cambridge, and it felt very much to them that they hardly existed at all. In 1983, Neil and Neale briefly formed a band named The Del-Cretins, performing numbers on their plywood electric guitars that were basically reworked Dave “Baby” Cortez and surf tunes. The first gig at the long-gone Sound Cellar on Hill Road was cancelled due to the promoter going missing. No one got to hear their best tune, “Are You a Wally or are You a Smooth?”, based on The Barbarian’s song on the age-old theme of mistaken identity.
Various local misfits rallied round the ‘Fire’ over the next couple of years. Robin Taylor, formerly in post-punk combo Final Scream joined up, and The Kill-Dares formed in November 1984, rehearsing in a grotty, egg-box lined garage for several weeks. Their first gig at a local music boozer was packed out. The Kill-Dares kept at it, playing versions of garage rock and rock ‘n’ roll tunes, with a few originals sprinkled on top in.
One night in 1985 they played in Camden. During the gig the sound man and his assistant hurled insults and plastic glasses at the band. Wanting an honest appreciation of what they were doing, they’d invited Alec Palao of The Stingrays along. His opinion was that they had an oddball image. It was true. Not one of them had a quiff — and Palmer appeared to have inadvertently wandered on stage after getting lost on his way home his job as ass trainee cashier at some local bank — so how could they possibly be taken seriously as a garage rock band? At that point, they turned their backs on the Metropolitan sophisticates of the Trash scene and concentrated on being a proper local punk rock band, changing their name to the Fire Dept sometime in the late 80s and promoting their own shows in Cambridge.
In autumn 1987 the band recorded their first single, “Girl, Girl, Girl” b/w “Witch Girl” and a cover of Richie Deran and the New-Tone’s “Girl and a Hot Rod”. After this recording, the Fire Dept shed two faint-hearted shiverers and failing to find replacements reduced down to a three-piece outfit, with Neale Richardson on bass, Palmer on guitar/vocals and Robin Taylor at the drum-kit. Relocating to Brighton, they practised at Palmer’s flat, perched above an Indian takeaway and boasting no right angles, with a view out the toilet window of a tiny vertical yard, or flue, littered with sacks of rotting onions and ghee sludge.
It was hard getting gigs in Brighton because the local promoters didn’t like the idea of punk rock rooted in beat music. The Fire Dept were again compelled to promote their own shows, at which they spun their favourite records and played a couple of sets, one instrumental and one vocal. At this point, the Fire Dept was an instrumental machine, writing and playing a couple of new tunes for each show, all topical, many of them ‘message’ tunes. All unrecorded and sadly forgotten.
After seeing an ad for a show in a music paper — and thinking it sounded like a good match for the Fire Dept’s ethos of cheap, independent punk rock music — Palmer travelled up to London to see my group Thee Headcoats play at the Wild Western Rooms, a small ballroom round the back of The St John’s Tavern, Archway, where Slim, the last great underground rock ‘n’ roll promoter, made the music happen. Slim offered the Fire Dept support slots with all and sundry in the vast emptiness of that lost North London dive, full of wagon wheels and stuffed pheasants and members of the IRA. It’s now a gastropub.
For a couple of years the lads made the trek most weeks to the capital to see shows at the Wild Western Rooms and, every month or so, play themselves. Some nights were better than others — the norm being three rockabillys, no bar staff, a couple of sulky French students, a Japanese record collector, a fanzine seller with a (wooden?) leg and an angry Irishman who’d wandered in to the wrong bar by mistake. But hats off to Mr Chance for giving the boys, and many other rock ‘n’ rollin’ rag-a-muffins, a stab at the big time. Certainly, without Slim’s inspirational backing, Armitage Shanks, for instance, would hopefully be just another stain on a forgotten stage and we might not have had to suffer the garage rock debacle of 2000 and afterwards.
Heads in a whirl and dizzy from their successes on the London stage, The Fire Dept released another single, recorded at the legendary and sadly defunct Pathway Studio in Islington. “Where Do you Keep Your Heart?”, a Palmer original, was coupled with a cover of (Peter) Miller’s “Baby I got News for You”.
The first Fire Dept long-player, “L’Oeuf d’Or”, was recorded at Toe-Rag studios by Liam Watson and I was proud to push my way in and ‘produce’ a number of the tracks. Much of it was fairly spontaneous and the exuberance of the performances — separate recording sessions over an 18-month period — is captured nicely. It exists as an LP only because I liked them and was foolhardy enough to put out a single and an LP on my ‘art’ record label Hangman’s Daughter. The single was a double A-side of “She Saw Me” and “Last One There”. Having played on most of the recordings on the first album, Neale Richardson left the band just before it was released.
The story of the “Golden Egg”, the title track of the album, is one of Palmer’s search for the song of songs, for something that would encapsulate all the collected interest in forgotten discs and passions in a 3-minute tune. The timing, the pacing, the intro, the words, were all meant to be both eccentric and recognisable. It is impossible to assess whether he succeeded or failed, though to my mind its a toe tapper. A self-proclaimed underachieving obsessive, this was the first time Palmer had been obsessed with a clear objective in mind. It’s the story, in miniature, of the whole album, which is stuffed full of the band’s hard-driving original numbers and blistering versions of their favourite beat numbers of the moment. The cover photograph of “L’Oeuf d’Or” was taken at a fair in on The Level in Brighton, just before the fellow on the hoopla stall leapt over the jump and mouthed threatened to “smash the F-ing camera!” The resulting picture faithfully captures Palmer’s most painful hangover in a whole quarter century of drunkenness. Together, the cover and the title tune comprise a kind of expressionistic, mini-autobiography of both Palmer, and English Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Johnny Johnson of my combo, Thee Headcoats took over on bass in 1994-ish. The second Fire Dept LP, “Elpee for Another Time”, was recorded and released in 1996. Dreamt up over a couple of months with the help of the now-Australian self invented novelist, broadcaster, filmmaker and all-in auteur, Simon Strong, the band convinced a chap in Hove to start a record label to release it. The Fire Dept returned to Toe-Rag for two recording sessions, the tunes written on the way there and bashed out in a single take. It was an exercise in ingenuity. What would you do if you had the chance to make an LP, but you had no songs, and it needed to be finished by tea time? Palmer says it’s a concept album about the music of time travel. But that’s not entirely clear on listening to it.
Somewhere in the dreamtime of lost music — 2003 to be precise — Palmer released a third Fire Dept LP called “The History of Fen Punk, Vol. IV”, a compilation of rehearsal tapes and previously unissued Toe-Rag recordings. Self-pressed in a limited run of 100 compact discs, this long-deleted item is a hard to listen to, easy to love compendium of fun and games straight from the horse’s mouth.
From all these wondrous Lost Gems of Fen Punk we — me, Neil, Neale, Rob and Uncle Ian — have selected the very best of the best and named it A Flame From The Fens. And quite seriously, in my estimation The Fire Dept were the best British group of the 1990’s and Neil Palmer is a master songwriter. If only Brit-pop had been half this good. Never mind, now we can start to re-right history.
Billy Childish 2010