Although I wasn't credited, I wrote the liner notes and also conducted the interview with the Nashville Teens' Ray Phillips that accompany this live album, recorded at the Nag's Head in High Wycombe during 1983. It's a classic rock set featuring the hits Tobacco Road, Rock And Roll Hootchie Koo, Mona, Jailhouse Rock and Summertime Blues, among others.
There’s nothing truer to the spirit of rock and roll than a live album, recorded by a band giving it their all in some cramped venue where the atmosphere’s electrifying and the sweaty, matt black walls haven’t stopped shaking since the first notes rang out. The Nashville Teens played a gig like that on March 26th 1983 at the Nag’s Head in High Wycombe. We know this because of the film and audio recordings that have resurfaced thirty-five years later, after their former manager found the tapes in his attic.
The band was famous for their 1964 hit Tobacco Road, which charted on both sides of the Atlantic that year and still has people leaping to their feet today. The crowd was right with them at the Nag’s Head; bikers and punks alike sharing a thirst for those slashed guitar chords, the rebel attitude and driving rock beat.
Lead singer Ray Phillips has fronted the Nashville Teens ever since the original line-up disbanded in 1972. At the Nag’s Head he was backed by Peter Agate on guitar, Len Surtees (bass) and Adrian “Spud” Metcalfe, who was the band’s roadie before becoming their drummer. They’re tight as anything, and Ray says that knowing they were being filmed and recorded help to raise the energy levels on stage that night.
“We made a big announcement for the bikers and other people who used to come and see us at the Nag’s Head. We let them know we were going to record it and video it so they could make it into a party. It was our way of saying thank you to our supporters really so we did the gig and it turned out really well. I always felt that we gave our all that night, and I’ve always felt that the best recordings are live recordings anyway, because studio recordings are often too contrived, too clean... You get this lovely raw feel, and especially if you’ve got a responsive audience as well. You both bounce off each other and it gives you this unique sound I think. That’s what we got that night. Everybody there was really going for it. They wanted it to be a good gig and it was. It was great.”
Ronnie Watts booked nights at the Nag’s Head, which used to be called the Blues Loft. Lots of bands had played there, including the Sex Pistols. The Nashville Teens were regulars, despite the lack of facilities.
“We played there maybe every couple of months or so over a five year period but it was a roadies’ nightmare! We used to have to lug all the equipment up the fire escape, and we had these great big speaker cabinets that took about four people to carry... The room where we played was the size of a small village hall, with a stage at one end and it was dark and smelly - just what you want from a blues club really. You couldn’t damage the place, that’s for sure.”
The band’s set has everything you’d want from a great night out, dancing to music that’s honest and unvarnished but still lifts the spirits. It starts off at a sprint with Brought Down and Find My Way Back Home before heading full throttle into Johnny Winter’s Rock And Roll Hootchie Koo and a medley of Spencer Davis Group songs that captures all the excitement of the originals whilst paying tribute to a band - featuring a young Stevie Winwood - the Teens often toured with in the sixties. The pace then drops for Man In The Right Place, which is one of three self-penned songs on the album.
“Those songs were born out of necessity if you like because we had an offer to go to Denmark and make an original album so we all got together and wrote those songs. That’s with Peter Agate, Len and Spud, who played at the Nag’s Head. We were a very solid unit and when it worked, it worked really well, because we lived it. We were so into what we were doing at the time and that was one of my favourite periods, being with the Teens.”
The Nashville Teens don’t just cover songs; they absorb them until they become like a second skin. Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild, ablaze with guitar, is a case in point and so too Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower, which the Teens recorded before Jimi Hendrix put his stamp on it. Elsewhere the rip-roaring rock and roll tracks take us right back to their roots in the early sixties, whilst playing pubs and clubs in the Surrey area. That’s where the Nashville Teens formed, although Ray, who was a trad jazz fan in his early teens, started out playing skiffle.
“My dad used to play country and western, and that made me interested in music from the American south but I first got into black American music through this singer called Josh White. He and Robert Johnson were my introduction to blues but my first love was skiffle really. There was always a guitar at home but I never had the urge to pick it up until Lonnie Donegan came along, playing this really exciting music. From I heard Rock Island Line that was it and I said, ‘Dad, show me some chords!’ He showed me some; my mate Graham made a bass from a tea chest, a broom handle and some string, then we found two other guys who played washboard and guitar. That first band was called the Phoenix City Skiffle Group but I went into the army soon after that.”
Once he’d returned to Weybridge, Ray met another local singer named Arthur Sharpe who sang with the Plectones. The two became good friends and ended up singing together in another band led by crooner Troy Parrish, who soon tired of playing in dingy clubs and pubs. This band, with John Hawken on piano, became the Nashville Teens, who Ray describes as “one of the first boy bands really.
“Everybody was emulating either Elvis or Gene Vincent at the time so when a band came along with two lead singers, it was unique. John Hawken was a first-class pianist by the way because when Sharpie and I first joined them they were doing a lot of instrumentals like B. Bumble And The Stingers’ Nut Rocker and Johnny and the Hurricanes’ Red River Rock. Also Rocking Goose... We’d have maybe three or four Ray Charles’ songs in our set as well.”
By the time they played the Jazz Cellar in Kingston during 1963 John Allen and Barry Jenkins had replaced Michael Dunford and Roger Groom on guitar and drums, and Pete Sannon was on bass. That’s where legendary impresario Don Arden discovered them, and invited them to back Jerry Lee Lewis on a tour of England and Germany.
“Don Arden was a very scary individual. I got on with him okay but then I’d not long been out the army so I had attitude if you like. If it weren’t for Don Arden then we wouldn’t have got as far as we did, so we felt a certain amount of loyalty towards him. At times he was on our side and really looked after us. He made sure that we didn’t come to any harm and things like that, y ‘know? Although I suppose he was just protecting his own interests really.”
Arden booked their first professional gigs in Cologne and Frankfurt, then brought them home for some UK dates with Jerry Lee Lewis, beginning with an appearance on the Granada TV show Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. Jerry Lee, true to form, had a falling out with the drummer before they all headed back to Germany for a week’s residency at the Star Club in Hamburg, where the rock and roll firebrand recorded a historic live album backed by the Teens. That was in April 1964. Two months later and the band’s debut single Tobacco Road raced up the UK charts, sealing their place among other beat groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones...