“Tansads really was a crusade. We were trying to be all things to all men in many respects: musically we were trying to be a hard-edged pop-punk-folk band and trying to draw together the likes and loves of everyone involved. Although, in many respects the musical direction became about my likes and loves – I was the ideas man, the internal producer, if you like.”
John Kettle is talking about the early days of Tansads, the band from Wigan that grew, faded, evolved and finally arose reborn as Merry Hell. Bob Kettle’s recollection is more pragmatic.
“I can’t remember there being any other plan or purpose than simply playing together in a band. We had vague dreams of a making ‘hit records’ and touring the world – but finding enthusiastic, committed musicians along with decent equipment and places to play had to come first.”
“We were an eclectic bunch”, says John, “and I wanted to reflect that. But we were told that was a problem for us commercially. We were trying to be commercially successful but we certainly didn’t know how to do it. And I think we broke every rule in the book.”
Arguably, Merry Hell still break all those rules: too many people; two singers to split the focus and so many ideas but this time they are getting it right. Eventually, after some excellent records, notably Shandyland and Up The Shirkers, Tansads fell apart, at one time comprising just John and singer Janet Anderton who eventually recruited Merry Hell’s present drummer, Andy Jones, together with Robbie Ryan and Tim Howard. It didn’t last and their disintegration wasn’t always pleasant but these things never are. In 2010, Tansads reunited for three gigs. Bob Kettle:
“It had been twenty years since our first gigs as Tansads – that was a major motivating factor in our decision to organise the reunion shows. Plus, it’d been around fifteen years since the band broke up. We’d all missed the music – and the anniversary seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on our memories and reacquaint ourselves with the magical experience of playing live together.”
John denies any responsibility for the decision.
“It certainly wasn’t me. Over the years people had suggested reunion concerts and I’d always said a categorical ‘no’ because there were still fault-lines in terms of relationships between the old members, particularly Ed Jones who had written a quite acerbic book about the band. I’d made up with him and we were friends again so when a reunion was mooted I said that I’d do it if Ed could do it. Other people weren’t keen, for really good reasons, and that was the first serious approach but it took time to work through.
“2010 – our manager’s 50th birthday – we probably had a few light ales and did what friends do and said ‘shall we have a bit of a gig?’ and they persuaded me but I thought that a reunion should also be a reconciliation as well as just a party. It was quite hard to get together since the majority had not played music since they left the band. It was challenging but it was immense fun.”
So those gigs did not turn out to be a valediction but rather an impetus for the core of the band to start again. John continues the story.
“That was the spark for the future. Speaking personally, the minute I plugged in a Fender Telecaster…the song we rehearsed first was an old Tansads number, ‘Eye Of The Average’, and I remember thinking ‘Oh, my goodness, this sounds really crap but this is really me’. I remembered what it felt like to be a loud room with a loud band and I think that feeling coalesced with most of us.
“Rather than being insecure about it we realised that we’d not bitten off too much. We used to do this all the time and we were reasonably good at it so let’s make a good crack at it now.”
Bob recalls the feeling of the reunion gigs. “The sheer joy and exhilaration of playing live. I didn’t expect Tansads to be well-remembered; I’d worried that the gigs wouldn’t be well-attended. But when I walked out on stage on the first night of the reunion shows, I saw the venue packed with old friends and a lot of people I’d never seen before. We had such a whale of time that we thought we couldn’t just leave it there. We had to continue making music together.”
It always surprised me that the band didn’t revive the Tansads name, which was well known in their home area and to fans further afield. After all, the three Kettle brothers, John, Andrew and Bob, together with Lee Goulding were still at the heart of the project.
John delves into something of an emotional maelstrom.
“The first moment of that first gig was the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever felt as a musician. It was total electrification and connection to our artistic selves. We didn’t know that people liked us, we’d forgotten that but we got a lot of love from the crowd. It might have been a bit ropey musically but you’d expect that. In the nicest possible way I was sort of bored by the second gig – it was like a concert and was probably executed a bit better – and the third gig was really emotional because we thought we’d never do it again.
“What it taught me about myself was that I didn’t want to continue with Tansads and be a Tansads tribute band. We probably could have got some engagements and done the old songs, maybe made a new album and probably had a few years of good times with it but I knew I wouldn’t be interested in doing that material now. The people who wanted to carry on all wanted to do something different.”
Bob had a bit more time to compose his answer to that question. “It was out of respect for those former Tansads members who couldn’t be in the new band – and because we wanted to write and perform fresh, original, material. We’re very proud of Tansads and its legacy but we don’t want to be tied to the past, however glorious our memories of that past may be. We don’t want to become a tribute act to ourselves because we have new things we want to say in new songs now. To show that our writing and music is alive in the present, Merry Hell had to be raised.”
The core quartet rebuilt their band. Tim Howard came back with Andrew Dawson on bass, Phill Knight on drums and a new female lead singer to partner Andrew Kettle and who also happens to be a stunningly good songwriter, John’s wife Virginia.
Virginia Kettle had spent the preceding years playing her own songs on acoustic guitar around the folk clubs of the north-west and north Wales “rather quietly as you do round the folk clubs” and met John during that time.
“A few of those songs have carried forward into the Merry Hell repertoire mostly because John had a lot more foresight than I did. He said ‘we must do that song of yours, ‘Bury Me Naked’’, and I’d think to myself ‘you must be joking, this will never work with a band’ but, of course, it did. ‘The Butcher And The Vegan’, that’s another one of mine and ‘Rosanna’s Song’ as well. But most of the songs I’ve written in latter years have been specifically to sing with Merry Hell because I’ve really enjoyed writing for Andrew’s voice. The opportunity to write for a male vocalist has been a real joy to me.”
So did John persuade Virginia to join Merry Hell or was she keen to get involved?
“It was funny really because John was keen for me to submit some songs and I was quite happy to do that but I wasn’t sure about joining. I think I was slightly intimidated. I was hoping that I’d be good enough to join because I hadn’t seen the band back in the day but I was at one of the reunion gigs and I thought they were great.”
Alongside bassist Nick Davies, the newest member of Merry Hell and the man who has, arguably, had the biggest effect on their music is Neil McCartney.
“I’m an old friend of John and the Kettles. We were in school together and in bands together then I went off to travel the world. I lived in Ireland for many years and formed a band there [The Big Geraniums] and we made quite a famous album and had a big hit in the summer of 1991 called ‘Home Again’. From that we toured a lot and went to America and Australia and all over Europe. Then I moved to Asia for many years and then it came to a point when I gravitated back to my home town and called John.”
Neil was invited to join Merry Hell and readily accepted so would he agree that he and his fiddle has had a big impact on the band’s sound?
“I respect John, who produces the albums, and he respects my opinion so we work together well so I spent a lot of time in the studio with him on the last couple of albums. I moved to Ireland when I learned to play traditional music and I suppose my fiddle playing affected the sound of the albums because it can be quite prominent. The records got a little bit more folky and John says I’m good at creating riffs.”
Six years and four albums on there’s a positive feeling about Merry Hell and it seems that they are on the cusp of breaking out of the parochialism that affects many bands in their position with the problem of converting an enthusiastic, but mostly local, fan base into a nationwide following. They are achieving it by being damn good, of course, but their secret weapon might just be their acoustic line-up without Andy Jones and Lee Goulding.. Virginia elaborates:
“We did an acoustic tour at the end of last year and we noticed a real change. We went to Birmingham and it was sold out, we went to Suffolk and played a theatre that was sold out. The promotion was very good but people had heard us on Radio 2. We’ve taken a real gamble – we’ve played Birmingham about four times now; the first time to a really small audience but it’s just got bigger and bigger. It has worked but it’s taken time.”
Bob agrees. “The acoustic line-up is important in the sense that it allows us to play in more ‘intimate’ settings, but that’s just one version of what we have to offer. For the larger stages, the eight-piece ‘full fat’ line-up is more appropriate. As long as all the members of Merry Hell can continue to play together, we’ll be happy.”
John: “The big band is good for records and big gigs and the acoustic band can sit anywhere – it keeps us off the streets; or perhaps on the streets. The band is motivated because we believe in it. We hope we can turn it into a real business but bands are not until you start selling a lot of records.”
I asked John what the future holds for Merry Hell hoping for some final words of wisdom but somehow we wandered off the point again. There is no doubting the enthusiasm in the band, however, and I’ll leave the final word to Virginia.
“I’m never going to call it a meteoric rise but I hope we’ll continue. We’d all love to have another twenty years in this band and be veterans when we finish. Long ago we lost the dream of being billionaires and super-famous – it wouldn’t have suited me anyway. Bigger and better but not so massive that we can’t get a good cup of tea where we’re playing.”
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