In the grey days of late 1970s post-punk Manchester, youth culture was a serious affair: every musical performance was measured mostly by the conviction of its delivery. The term 'New Wave' opened up free vistas where acquired skills could once again be exercised after punk's monochrome blur. It could be applied to anything from a James 'Blood' Ulmer record to the latest Throbbing Gristle release, Magazine to Swell Maps. Move outside that terrain into Sun Ra, Parliament, Frank Sinatra and Martin Denny, and your options were suddenly without limit…
Then came Tony Wilson's Factory Club (at the Russell Club in Hulme) offering an open invitation to experiment that was taken up when Ken Hollings, Howard Walmsley, Eddie Sherwood and a few others decided to make some noise to accompany their 16mm silent epic Biting Tongues. A further performance followed a few weeks later, when Colin Seddon and Graham Massey disbanded their Post Natals project and joined up. The film itself, a flashing series of negative images, became a memory; the name remained.
Graham Massey: Colin was a bit of a bass prodigy when I met him at school (star tank top and Black Sabbath cross). I noticed this when he played Green Sleeves in the school play but in the style of Stanley Clarke. I was not so technically proficient on my Kay guitar, but with enough fuzz and wah I was equally as good (in my mind) as John McLaughlin. I also had an electric violin which was my prog passport into Colin's garage band: we did Gong, Magma and Sex Pistols covers in community centres, smoked a lot of joss sticks in funny time signatures. So we join this New Wave band of slightly older people. The drummer plays a hybrid of northern soul and dub, which of course Colin insists should be in 7/8. The singer, well, he's like a CNN anchorman on amphetamines, and the sax player is busy fiddling with his Pentax…
Ken Hollings: When Biting Tongues first started I was in London working with John Cage on one of his books, completing the final edit on For the Birds for the publisher Marion Boyars. So I spent a lot of time talking about how texts could be processed, scrambled, cut up and rearranged. Sometimes it was great to slice right into the words themselves, breaking them down into smaller and smaller fragments. Or to tune through short wave and FM radio stations at night, transcribing any recognisable phrases or lines… Each text developed according to its own principles, usually around a specific rhythm or a set of images, which were then worked on from there. Sources for texts included overheard or taped conversations, news reports, lines from old movies, the enthused writings of criminals, occultists and political theorists… There was an openness, an acceptance of experimentation, in the way Biting Tongues approached things that allowed you to try out new procedures, new ideas… Cage was intrigued by what we were getting up to, asking for tapes and things.
GM: I was given a brief: all
noise is good - fill in all the gaps. It's the New Wave: we've
got spiky haircuts and probably look like Ultravox. For each show
we did during that first year (1979/80) we wrote a new, entirely
different set. Preparations for this consisted of, in this order:
KH: Right from the start Biting Tongues was always hard work. A rough assemblage of different talents and personalities, fragments of other groups, conflicting interests and absurd gestures, it was naïve, furiously committed and conceptually nightmarish all at the same time. The guiding spirit behind those early shows was: 'Never do what's easy: never make it look difficult.' There would be engraving tools and typewriters set up on stage, sheet metal, animal bones and plastic ray guns scattered everywhere: anything that made a noise and might look good. One performance actually began with a tape loop of the audience heckling us at the end of the previous show. Energy levels and commitment for each performance were insanely high. At one event I read aloud passages from an old handbook on the psychology of advertising then tore out the pages, ripping larger and larger fistfuls of paper from the binding and throwing them into the audience. I remember watching smoke pouring out of the PA system, Graham, Howard and I all hammering in unison on discarded oil cans… We never played encores because we'd have used everything up by the end of each show. It always had to be new. It always had to be different from what we'd done before. Even in the recording studio.
The first album Don't Heal was recorded in two short sessions, played straight through without a break between tracks. Random tapes were left running throughout both sessions, their accidental intrusions incorporated into the final mix. The 'Dark Room Skin Transfers' took place at Drone Studios in Chorlton in August 1980 and suffers from a very dry sound, thanks to a 1970s studio vogue for dead rooms. The walls were completely clad in denim. It was recorded and mixed in a single afternoon, with very few overdubs. 'The White Valise' side from January 1981 benefited from the more upmarket sounds of Pennine studios in Rochdale, even down to the noises made by the coffee machine in the hall, which can be heard at the start of Heart Disease. Don't Heal was the first release on Situation 2 but sales were fairly modest.
Later in 1981 came Live It, a six-track cassette for New Hormones, home of Ludus, Buzzcocks and Eric Random, amongst others. This collection was derived from various sessions at different northwest studios, often performed live and mixed straight onto the master. It was far more representative of the band's sound than Don't Heal: raw, energetic and uncompromising. A couple of leftover tracks, including Iyahbhoone, were used on Northern Lights, a New Hormones audio-magazine available on cassette only. Other Biting Tongues recordings from this period remain unheard and unreleased.
Soon afterwards, Belgian producer Roland Beelans became involved with the band, producing a radical reworking of Evening State from Live It as one side of a 12" maxi single on his label, Antler. The result was very different from previous Tongues recordings in that it could be broken down into four or five separate tunes, sounding more like a suite than a single piece. Roland continued working on the Tongues' major album, Libreville, recorded again in two extended sessions between August and December 1982 at Bootleg Studio. The band was now performing frequently around Manchester and London, meaning that the material on Libreville was more focused and less reliant on chance occurrence. Aaircare proved a particular favourite with live audiences. Although recorded for New Hormones as ORG 26, the album was eventually released on Paragon after NH ran out of money.
Meanwhile Tongues activity grew increasingly diverse. By the time Libreville appeared in 1983, the band were putting out a newsletter, Weatherman, which supplied updates on Feverhouse, a feature film project that Howard and Ken had managed to secure funding for in early 1983. Written by Ken and featuring an onscreen performance by Graham among others, filming for Feverhouse continued throughout that year, thanks to additional funding from an altruistic Tony (now Anthony H.) Wilson. Factory later released the finished 55 minute film through their Ikon video arm.
GM: Naturally, the Tongues set about doing the soundtrack… A conscious effort to keep the guitar/drums/bass convention out of the proceedings led to a fairly loop-driven, ambient affair using the AMS digital delay capture device. The results were very percussion-orientated (sticks and stones), highlighting the then fashionable limited trumpet playing technique employed by ACR, Gristle and 23 Skidoo. We were at Bootleg studios in Stockport once again: a converted sweetshop and sweatshop where the band had to play knee-deep in the empty skins of unfinished E.T. dolls.
The Feverhouse soundtrack was later released on vinyl as Fact 105. Returning to 1983, the Tongues continued in a very experimental vein with frequent use of two drum kits, Colin laying down his bass to sit behind the second set. The introduction of more prepared tapes and choreographed vocal texts meant that live shows were growing increasingly ambitious in scope, as this rare live recording of Everywhere But Here from April 1983 demonstrates. Unfortunately, none of this material ever made it into the studio, not lease because the wilful, wayward Tongues found it hard to locate a sympathetic record label.
KH: Biting Tongues was an audiovisual laboratory that could be taken onto the stage or into a recording studio. Music and image, text and sound, action and gesture were all brought together in such a way that the barriers separating each element were never completely erased. And it worked… I learned a lot about writing and delivering texts while working with the Tongues. It was an invaluable education. However, by 1984 the project had developed a life of its own. Keeping up with all the new ideas each member was suggesting made it increasingly difficult for the group to function collectively. For some of the live shows during this period it was agreed that if you didn't have anything specific to do onstage during a certain number, you'd just leave and come back when you were needed. It didn't seem to matter whether there were five of us out there or only two, the intensity and energy levels of the performance hardly varied at all. But this also meant I was free to concentrate on projects outside the Tongues, such as writing for magazines like ZG, Performance and Impulse, or collaborating with other artists and composers. Chance favours the prepared mind.
By 1984 Ken Hollings felt that it was time to move on. Soon after he left the band, Eddie Sherwood was lured away by the offer of a job with Simply Red. Enter Phil Kirby on drums, who provided high octane jazz influenced workouts which took few prisoners. The Tongues ethic of pushing boundaries now found a new direction, as the musical content increased in density, and the delivery became even more frenetic. The band began collaborating with wizard sound engineer John Hurst, who had previously worked with A Certain Ratio and Section 25, and who now became a fifth member of Biting Tongues, processing their sound from the mixing desk via boxes such as the powertran digital delay/looper and the harmonizer.
GM: The result was a polyrhythmic wall of death, often incorporating Colin on second drum kit. We pushed ourselves far beyond our ability, while John Hurst pushed the pre-recorded material to new extremes. In this form we completed our first European tour, then commenced a series of residencies in Manchester. These regular performances became workshops and bench tests for new collaborations and ideas. Tom Barnish joined fulltime as trombonist, fattening the sound further still, and various voices were pushed through the blender, one being Basil Clarke from Yargo. All the material at this point was new but little was recorded. Then Colin departed to pursue his new obsession with African and Brazilian percussion, going on to form the long running Manchester institution Inner Sense Percussion Ensemble, again with Eddie Sherwood.
In 1985 Factory gave Feverhouse a belated commercial release on album and video, which led to the band joining the label for some long overdue new recordings. Mark Derbey took over on bass, and in May the band went into Square One studios in Bury to record the thunderous Trouble Hand ep. Side two was recorded at Out of the Blue studios in Ancoats, where the band also had a rehearsal space. Factory spent serious money on Trouble Hand, not least on the artwork, and although the single sold modestly, the label became the first to stick by the band beyond one lone release. In 1986 Yargo bass player Patrick Steer took over from Mark Derbey, and the band recorded an excellent second ep for Factory, Compressor. Sadly the band never cut a full album during this fertile Factory period, although a 50 minute video titled Wall of Surf was released by Ikon. However, in 1987 the band suffered a hard knock after the rhythm section (Phil Kirby and Paddy Steer) left to concentrate on Yargo full time, after that band signed a lucrative deal with London Records.
Graham Massey, Howard Walmsley and Tom Barnish carried on, with Massey steering the band in a more overtly midi/electronic direction after completing a recording course at Spirit Studios. Live, various brass players and percussionists were added as the band explored far-flung sonic landscapes and textures - Suicide meets Fela via pre-cool Bollywood. In the studio, however, the music continued to evolve in a different direction. Although the band had always utilised found and treated sounds as an integral component of their music, the possibilities afforded by sampling and software brought about a marked shift in emphasis. At the same time Massey formed 808 State with Martin Price, Darren Partington, Andy Barker and A Guy Called Gerald, and in November 1988 gamely began work on two albums: Recharge for Biting Tongues, and Quadrastate for 808. Where 808 State are concerned the rest is (chart) history, although for the Tongues the outcome was less happy. Although new label Cut Deep survived long enough to release the club-friendly single Love Out early in 1989, featuring guest vocalist Denise Johnstone, and the remodelled band began to pick up some excellent press, the label folded before Recharge reached the stores.
GM: A few test pressings of Recharge have circulated for years as the holy grail for fans of early 808, due to the fact it was recorded in the same sessions as Quadrastate. If it wasn't for the fact of Howard leaving his soprano sax in the studio overnight, Pacific State might have been another story…
Fast forward fourteen years, and events have turned full circle. Not only is the Biting Tongues back catalogue remastered for CD release, Recharge included, but the original line-up of Massey, Hollings, Walmsley, Seddon and Sherwood are reunited for a one-off show at the ICA in London, on 29 May 2003. Whoever said Biting Tongues don't heal?
Ken Hollings/Graham Massey