It’s time to introduce you to the best band you’ve never heard of. I know you’ve never heard of them for two reasons. Firstly, although they recorded three albums in the mid to late seventies they were never signed up by a record company and never promoted in any way. Secondly, they never played any live gigs. Unless you knew them personally there was simply no way you could have heard of them.
I’m talking about Axis. They grew out of a collaboration between a couple of guys my brother knew from school: Andy Honeybone (keyboards, guitars, sax, flute, vocals) and Paul Colbert (guitars, vocals). They used to write music together and record it in a bedroom using a domestic tape recorder. The duo compiled an album called Exclusive Or in 1975 and shortly afterwards advertised in Melody Maker for a third musician. John Bishop (keyboards) got the nod and it was this trio that took the name Axis.
I didn’t know Andy and Paul that well and I moved away from the south London suburbs where we all grew up before John joined the band. Somehow, though, I acquired tapes of Exclusive Or and the first two Axis albums: The Spectacle Snatcher of Thornton Heath (1976) and A Little Night Muesli (1977). I think Paul gave me the tapes but I don’t remember the occasion.
The music on those tapes was astonishingly good. I suppose you’d call it a brand of progressive rock and many of the tracks fit quite neatly into that pigeonhole – plenty of synthesisers, guitars and unusual time signatures. These are songs that Genesis might have played in their early days. But there are also excursions into jazz, classical, electronica and cabaret tunes. These guys really can’t be shoe-horned into a single genre.
I had to borrow my dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder to play the Axis tapes. I could have listened to them for days but after a couple of runs through I had to pack them into my overnight bag and return to my digs in Reading, or Teeside, or wherever it was I was living at that time. Eventually those precious tapes found their way into a large cardboard box which sat among all the other items I had no room for but couldn’t bear to part with.
Wind on the clock 35 years…
Those tapes were still in that cardboard box in the ‘junk’ room which was now full to bursting with souvenirs, unwanted presents and documents that should have been shredded years ago. Mrs. Crotchety and I decided to have a clear out. The tapes I sent to Gary Ankin to be converted to audio CDs. They came back a couple of weeks later and, amazingly, there was the music, as fresh and exciting as ever.
By today’s standards the original analogue recordings were of a very poor quality. The instruments come across tolerably well but many of the words are indecipherable, which is a pity because the lyrics, when you can hear them, are an important part of the songs. I guess we have Paul’s experience as a journalist to thank for that. Certainly, the story of The Spectacle Snatcher of Thornton Heath is based on a series of bizarre incidents that Paul covered for the local paper and was subsequently picked up by the nationals.
The conversion to CD format faithfully reproduced the tape recordings, with all their imperfections. Nothing could be done to clean up the sound, adjust the balance or fix a fluffed note. But, while the tapes had been hibernating in my back room, the PC and the Internet had germinated, blossomed and invaded our homes like Japanese Knotweed. Now the Axis music could be shared with the rest of the world at the click of a mouse.
It was tempting to upload the files and tell every Tom, Dick and Harriet in my contacts list where to find them. But, actually, it wouldn’t have been as simple as that. If I was publishing photos I could have put them on flickr or added them to my blog but I didn’t know any music sharing sites and my free WordPress account doesn’t support MP3s. More importantly, it wasn’t my music to publish. I’d have to contact the band to get permission.
Unfortunately, I’d lost contact with Paul many years ago and although I was still sending Christmas cards to Andy I wasn’t getting any back. Perhaps he had lost my address. Or had he just quietly unfriended me? I didn’t have an email address for Andy but a quick search on Facebook turned up a likely electronic contact page and it wasn’t long before our stuttering friendship was renewed.
That was in May 2011 when Andy said he’d muse on the idea of disseminating the Axis material. He stopped musing at the beginning of December because John, the third member of the band, had published the three Axis albums on his website: the two I had plus The Nightly Parody. Of course, I was delighted. And I hope you will be, too.
All the tracks can be streamed and are free to download from the John W Bishop website. Their best songs are quite long but here are a few shorter pieces to whet your appetite:
N Things To Do With A Dead Snail
Millenhall – A Portugese Rhapsody
The Three R’s
N Things and The Three R’s are songs by the whole band; Millenhall is a guitar solo; and Haddock’s Eyes is a fretless bass solo. Have a listen and see if you agree that they deserve my band of the year award for 1975.
P.S. There’s another, completely unrelated band on Spotify called Axis and several others come up in Google searches; don’t confuse them.