Kris Needs - Interview - 21/01/04
Kris Needs has partied on the cutting edge of Rock’n’Roll culture for the best part of the last 30 years. He came of age with Punk Rock - fronted Aylesbury punks, The Vice Creems - edited the Godfather of music magazines, Ziz Zag - interviewed Beefheart, Richards, Marley, Rotten, Strummer, Jones (amongst many) - managed Basement 5 - DJ-ed his way around the world - released piles of dance floor wax - & has written books on Primal Scream, Keith Richards (under construction - currently), Joe Strummer (under construction - shortly) & himself!
A proper chat with Kris Needs could feasibly take weeks out of your life - he’s got the juice, the inclination & the delivery mechanism - but unfortunately we only had the afternoon (but the 4000 odd words that follow give you a fair idea of what Kris has been up to for the last 3 or 4 decades).
I arrived in Aylesbury early & seized the opportunity to take a trip down memory lane with a walk round the town centre. Fuck me - that never used to be there - nor that! Where the fuck did that come from? I hurried through the farmers market in the town square - surely Friars was still there? I ambled down the slope towards the Civic Hall - memories flooding back - this was the venue where I saw The Clash, Buzzcocks, The Banshees, The Ruts, Magazine, The Blockheads, Spizz Oil, The Human League (with Phil Oakey in a glass box!!) - & The Vice Creems! This was the venue where I’d met Stiff Little Fingers a matter of hours after they’d first arrived in England. This must be the place.
I scored a relaxing hot chocolate/pastry combination platter & sat down in what is now a convivial café to soak up the ghost of a 25-year-old atmosphere. It felt like a quarter of a century had slipped by just like that. I kept expecting to see a t-shirt stall still decked with pristine Clash t-shirts. In reality, not that much had changed - it somehow seemed smaller (but, as you get older, what doesn’t?), cleaner & - above all - quieter!
I arrived chez Needs only to find Kris’ partner, Michelle, had been rushed into hospital (hope everything worked out OK for you, Michelle) & Kris was in soul control of Abbey, Chloe, Jamie & Ellie. The following interview was therefore conducted in between playschool drop offs & collections, school runs, a raft of phone calls & a supper foraging trip to the corner shop. Kris Needs is a very busy person!
trakMARX - It all started with Hendrix & The Stones for you - what set them apart from the rest of the pack?
Kris - They were wilder than anyone else. From the minute I set eyes on Keith Richards at the age of 9 I knew there was something more to life than playing with Dinky toys. Rock’n’Roll came in via the Rolling Stones & opened up the door from ancient blues players (now playing: Jimmy Reed - Rockin’ With Reed - VJLP 1008) to the forward thrusting affects of LSD. The Stones made me grow my hair & appreciate music. Hendrix made me want to shag the nearest sofa.
trakMARX - Do you think you’d have turned out squarer without the influence of John Peel?
Kris - No, but John Peel was responsible for giving a housebound 13-year-old the chance to hear not only Hendrix & the Stones, but also (& for which I will eternally be grateful) Captain Beefheart & Can.
trakMARX - Strangely enough, your chemistry teacher also played a major roll in your musical upbringing. Was he an important factor?
Kris - Yes. Robin Pike, for it is he, took me to see the Rolling Stones on an Aylesbury Grammar School outing. I’ve never been the same since. Then he took me to see Jimi Hendrix @ the Royal Albert Hall in Feb 1969.
trakMARX - You met both Dave Stopps & Pete Frame in 1969 - had you any idea then that both would play such a significant part in your story?
Kris - No. David Stopps, after I’d snuck into Friars when I was 15 & eventually babysat for him, finally became my manager in 1993 - & still is!! Pete Frame, who now lives in Cornwall, remains my greatest writing influence for his ability to take the piss. I have lived by those principles journalistically ever since. He is one of the most noble of human beings.
trakMARX - Your 1st affair with a rock n roll group involved Mott The Hoople - how did that come about?
Kris - Going to see Mott The Hoople @ Friars - this was punk rock before it started! Instrument smashing, amps all the way up to 11, the highest platform boots & the longest hair.
trakMARX - Your debut stage appearance involved John Otway, some bongos & a few VU cover vershuns - how did that go down at the time?
Kris - Very well, actually. I first played with Otway around 1969 & we did a few gigs together. Trouble was, Otway had ideas above his particular station & didn’t see me in the long-term scheme of things. Right now he’d do well on Phoenix Nights (Comedian Peter Kay’s workingmen’s club parody). I loved the fucker back then - we were mad together - but he didn’t see that way.
trakMARX - How did you manage to keep up with developments on the Proto-Punk scene in the USA?
Kris - In those days the NME was the bible. You bought it to find out what was going on. The NME & John Peel was all we had. Everything was underground back then - you know, the jungle telegraph In 1972 I was doing David Bowie’s fan club & became aware of what was going on across the pond: The New York Dolls & the sewer-rat subterranean explosion that became New York Punk (via The Ramones, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, etc). The New York Dolls came to London in 1973 - I saw them live - that was it. Punk Rock had arrived then. A bit early - but it was there.
trakMARX - You were there at the ground floor for the birth of Ziggy Stardust - was Bowie a significant player in the story that would eventually become Punk Rock?
Kris - Yeah, if only that he got a bunch of kids from Bromley to cut their hair! It was the start of ‘fuck the music - check the hair’. It used to be ‘who had the longest hair’ & became ‘who had the coolest hair’. Bowie made it cool to look good again, as opposed to being a dirty, stinking hippy!
trakMARX - You met a few future legends during your time running the Mott The Hoople Fan Club (Mick Jones & Morrissey) - do you think the influence of Mott has been unfairly written out of the accepted revisionist history of Punk?
Kris - Yes. They had a far more reaching influence than anyone gave them credit for. They just went berserk on stage. They stood on their amps. They smashed them to bits. They’d play around one bass note for 20 minutes - the kind of grove that is the backbone of progressive beat music today - that kind of shit was built around 1970.
trakMARX - How important was Pete Frame’s record collection to your understanding of the gtr/garage interface?
Kris - I was very envious of Pete’s record collection - still am.
trakMARX - How did you discover Punk Magazine & what did you make of the exciting new NYC groups you read about inside?
Kris - I’d have to say it was Nick Kent’s fault - but Colin has to accept some of the blame! (Also present is Colin Keinch - Gtr - Vice Creems).
Colin - I went to NYC in 1976 to try & find Bob Dylan - but instead I found the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, The Dictators & got myself a girlfriend!
Kris - Colin brought copies of Punk back with him along with stories of the NYC scene. Colin was a leader in that respect - he had the vision. Colin was at the 101ers Nashville show the night the Pistols supported them & Strummer realised the 101ers were yesterday’s papers. Yesterday I was a cunt - today I’m a king!
Colin - It was seminal. Succinct & to the point - like the music. It shook Joe - & bugger me, it shook us too!
trakMARX - What was your 1st exposure to the UK Punk scene?
Kris - The Clash @ Leighton Buzzard Leisure Centre in Oct 1976. I thought: what the fuck? It was totally & utterly new - nothing before came close. Pure energy & purpose. Bottom line is: The Clash turned around the way I thought about everything.
Colin - I thought Gene Vincent was Punk, aged 5.
trakMARX - The 1st interview you ever conducted was with The Ramones - not a bad start - what were they like?
Kris - They were the most accommodating of young fellows. I loved Joey then & I always will. Respect. We were so pissed off when he died.
Colin - Joey was God! He liked a drop of Dixon’s (sic) Old Peculiar.
trakMARX - At this time you were Zig Zag’s token Punk - could you feel the tide turning by then?
Kris - Yeah - & they were swept away. The forces of West Coast rock were left castrated & silly by the world-shaking impact of Punk Rock, Reggae music, disco, funk & anything that involved getting off your arse & moving.
trakMARX - Where were you when the Pistol’s Bill Grundy show appearance went out live?
Kris - In Marseille - I was on tour with the Flammin’ Groovies! Hacks were turning up @ the show with a message from the front line: Bill Grundy, pissed up old cunt, had goaded our boys into total war & left his name to brand of y-fronts.
trakMARX - How exciting was it to get the Pistols on the front cover of Zig Zag?
Kris - Very. I got Johnny Rotten on the cover because Malcolm wanted to print a Pistols newspaper. We both had the same printers. Malcolm got his newspapers - I got my front cover. Bargain. The first time I met Mr Lydon was in a Wimpy Bar. He remains a great friend. I respect that man so much. I really loved him on Celebrity Jungle too! Keeping the spirit of Punk alive!
trakMARX - You spent plenty of time hanging with Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers in 1977 - how true is it to say that they were a major influence with regard to smack infiltrating the Punk scene?
Kris - Very. I’d been into smack myself from about 1972 - I was the bad relative. Smack came into UK Punk via NYC. Dee Dee Ramone was a junkie when he arrived in the UK - there was a lot of junk culture about back then. The Heartbreakers introduced smack onto to the Anarchy Tour. It was like a virus & it just kept spreading! Thank god I didn’t shag Nancy that nite in the Speakeasy - things could have turned out real messy.
trakMARX - You also spent a lot of time hanging out with Sid - particularly when he was learning to master his instrument. Much is often made of Sid’s inability around a fret board - but from where you were sitting - was he totally shit or just not very good really?
Kris - No, that’s not fair - he had aggression & passion! I remember leaving the ICA with Mick Jones after The Clash had played one Saturday night & returning to the Davies Rd squat where the Pistols were formed. We’d had to call in at Mick’s Gran’s to change my flares for a pair of tapered in Levis on the way. I felt like a ballet dancer but Mick said, You’ll be OK in those, Sid won’t beat you up now! It was the first night I’d ever whacked up speed & I was all over the place. Mick & Viv went to bed about 2 AM & Sid said to me: I’ve got to learn to play bass. I sat there while he played along to The Ramones for 6 hours solid until he could finally play Blitzkrieg Bop. When he’d finished he held the bass above his head & said, I can play the bass now. I can just imagine Sid arriving at rehearsals the next day for the rest of the Pistols to ask him if he’d learnt any of their songs yet & Sid saying, No, but I can play Blitzkrieg Bop!
trakMARX - What do you make of the industry surrounding the anniversary of Sid’s death & Alan Parker’s claims that he & Nancy were both murdered by Rockets Redglare?
Kris - I don’t know. I’m not in touch with the latest theories. All I can say is: with Nancy & his mum in his life - what chance did he stand? I liked Sid - everyone did. I don’t think anyone closely involved will ever come to terms with what happened to him. I know John will never get over it. They were mates.
trakMARX - The Aylesbury Bucks had evolved into The Vice Creems by this stage - how serious were you about a career behind the mic?
Kris - Basically, the best vocal I can do is my Paul Robeson impression. I’ve always done a blinding Old Man River (does Old Man River - blindingly!) - but I’ll never be Jim Morrison! I think I’ve always know that.
trakMARX - You describe The Clash as ‘family’ - have you read Marcus Gray’s Last Gang In Town - The Myth Of The Clash - & did you rate it?
Kris - It’s the Bill Wyman of Punk Rock books. Respect to Marcus - I’m nodding in his direction for my new Joe book. Keep it real!
trakMARX - Lester Bangs was a major influence on your writing - it must have been some tour being on the road with both him & The Clash?
Kris - My main memory is: 11am - outside a generic hotel in Bristol - Mick & Joe come & join me & Danny Baker (ex-Punk & wannabe Johnathon Ross) on the bus. Lester Bangs, probably my biggest writing influence, gets on the bus & Baker goes, Aah, the light of the East. Bang’s jeans then proceed to create one fuck of an uproar! Lester was a late convert to The Clash & it took a while for him to be accepted - but once he was - they loved him.
trakMARX - By 1978 The Vice Creems had released their debut 7 45 - Won’t You Be My Girl/01-01-212 (Tiger Records) - as well as supported The Lurkers, The Adverts & The Clash. Did success feel a distinct possibility at this time or was John Peel’s advice to ‘not give up the typewriter just yet’ more pertinent?
Kris - I was happy to be cavorting around fronting a punk band, Colin was the musical backbone.
Colin - I loved it all.
Kris - We simply conformed to the maxim that anyone can form a band!
trakMARX - Mick Jones, Topper & Tony James provided the backing band for the 2nd Vice Creems 45 - Danger Love/Like A Tiger (Zig Zag Records). How did you pull that one off?
Colin - Cocaine!
Kris - A guy came in with money via Zig Zag & we were gonna launch Zig Zag Records. Only problem - the band split up the week before - leaving just me & Colin. I phoned Mick Jones who’d already agreed to produce the record & told him I had Olympic Studios sorted but no band. Mick said he’d get a band & told me to be there. We showed up - 1st thing we see is Johnny Green & the Clash gear & flight cases. We realised our backing band was gonna be Topper, Mick & Tony James. We had a warm up jam. It was surreal.
Colin - I was using Mick’s black Les Paul.
Kris - One of the most bizarre & surreal experience of my life.
trakMARX - Your 1st marriage ended in divorce due to your friendship with Blondie’s Debbie Harry. What happened there?
Kris - She’s not named in any divorce papers, but I can’t deny that Debbie Harry was the fittest thing on 2 legs I’d ever seen. You’ve got to remember that for a 21-year-old raised on boilers like Elkie Brookes - Debbie Harry was something else! I used to look into her face for hours. No one is born that beautiful. I got to know Debbie & her supportive other half, Chris Stein, very well. Being a young sex maniac I couldn’t keep my eyes off Debbie. I loved the pants off her & we did get very close - but she was so aloof it never got anywhere - until up that ladder that night @ Friars!
trakMARX - The twilight years at Zig Zag threw up some memorable interview opportunities - Beefheart, Marley, Motorhead, Nico, Marrianne Faithful, Keith Richards - which meant the most & which one did you handle the best?
Kris - All of them - none of them. Just to get the chance to talk with those kind of people & get along with them is a privilege. People like Beefheart, what can I say? I sat with him for 2 hours - he gave me so much. One of my all time heroes - talking to me! Keith, again, a lifetime’s ambition. To be honest, I see them all in the same light. You plug into their basic motivations & you get on with them. It could be a bloke you’d met in the pub - it’s just the ability to converse.
trakMARX - The death of Zig Zag was a painful affair. What went down?
Kris - Julius Just took over Zig Zag & killed it. I was banned from the office. I’d taken the magazine a hell of a long way down the road from when I’d come on board & he just shot it down. Pete Frame’s vision was boiled down to King’s Road faeces in the space of a few short years. What once was glorious & groundbreaking was now a pair of underpants. I started out with the ideals of Mark Perry - & ended up shoddily wrapped in corporate red tape & bullshit.
trakMARX - How was your brief excursion into management after the demise of Zig Zag?
Kris - I was hanging around with Don Letts & The Slits - I got to manage Basement 5 via Leo, roadie for the Slits (barman at the Roxy & future BAD member). I loved Basement 5 so much that I said I’d manage them. In I went - feet 1st - straight into a pool I knew nothing about. I ended up sinking money in & got ripped off.
trakMARX - You began DJ-ing in earnest about this time - how did that come about?
Kris - I got into playing punk & dub from Daddy Kool’s records at local pubs. I remember looking out from behind the dex & seeing people filling the floor & that was when I made the connection. Next time I played tunes out it was at Georgio Gomelski’s loft dropping Washington Go-Go (Troublefunk). The next time was back in London when I realised I could do it over here & began DJ-ing @ the Batcave.
trakMARX - I’d almost forgotten, Flexipop - what was that all about?
Kris - For some reason, Flexi Pop was like Smash Hits dirty cousin. Boy George appeared in a cartoon strip with a sex-crazed pig threatening his arse with a salami. We got into trouble for that. It was all part of Flexi Pop - taking the piss out of 80s pop idols. My partner in crime, Mark Manning, would draw cartoons of me while I was out of the office! The final nail in the coffin was putting Alistair Crowley on the cover. Killed it. WH Smiths said, No way!
trakMARX - You moved Stateside around 1983 & ended up living next door to Alan Ginsberg. Was he a good neighbour
Kris - Ginsberg was living below entertaining a string of fit young male poets. Richard Hell lived the other side! He was a perfect neighbour!
trakMARX - Things got a bit messy with the opiates around this time. Any life skill tips you’d like to pass on?
Kris - I always do things to the extreme - & I was so in love with buzz of NYC at the time that my rampant drug inclinations took hold - especially on the corner of Avenue B & 2cnd! Today smack is cut to fuck. A loser’s game. I don’t recommend it - it nearly killed me - but I’ve not been there for 15 years. I’m trying to get to grips with alcohol in the same way as we speak.
trakMARX - You came through the death of Punk Rock & embraced Hip Hop - a genre path shared by many fellow ex-Punks - what was it about Hip Hop that seemed to replicate the excitement of Punk Rock?
Kris - Mick Jones (see next question). I’d always loved funk, I’d seen Womack in 1975. I’ve always loved black American rhythms & Danny Baker turned me onto the finer points of the glory of disco. Hip Hop is pure grove - groundbreaking sounds based on the beat - I loved it immediately.
trakMARX - How important was the vision of Mick Jones in building the bridge from Punk Rock to Hip Hop Sound Clash Collage City Rockers & everything that came next?
Kris - Immeasurably. Totally & utterly. The credit for everything connected to the marriage of dance music & rock & roll can be laid at the door of Mick Jones. Hip Hop was a whole new genre of music - & Mick captured that & made you think - as well as dance!
trakMARX - You followed the progression of Hip Hop & the bastardisation of the early Detroit house sound all the way back to Europe releasing records in the UK & DJ-ing at Manumission in Ibiza. What were the fundamental differences between the Hip Hop scenes & this new fangled Acid House thang?
Kris - Drugs. MDMA - a different perspective.
trakMARX - Apart from extensive DJ sets & recording & releasing records - the 90s also saw you hook up with the UK’s largest Dance/Rock interface practitioners, Primal Scream. How did you get involved with The Scream?
Kris - I shared a flat with Youth, who’s mate was Alex Patterson (the Orb), when I came back from NYC & acid house was happening & these guys were @ the forefront of it. Alex had worked on Higher Than The Sun & via that I got to know Primal Scream.
trakMARX - We bet you’ve had so much fun with The Scream you could fill a book about it (plug alert - The Music, Myths & Misbehaviour Of Primal Scream by Kris Needs is available now on Plexus - www.plexusbooks.com - £12.99).
Kris - I hitched up with The Scream because they’re kindred spirits. I’d not been so excited by a group since the Rolling Stones & The Clash - they had that same pedigree. They all come from the same mould. Primal Scream represented a perfect amalgamation of dance ethics with rock n roll, soul, dub & minor jazz tendencies. To me Primal Scream is the perfect group.
trakMARX - 1999 saw the publication of your autobiography - Needs Must - did this event mark the closure of your active service days & the dawning of a new age of restraint - or will you always operate in strict observance of the perennial fuck it factor?
Kris - Needs Must was me trying to work how I’d got to where I was. It was a great evaluation exercise for me. The happy ending wasn’t that happy - but I am happy again now, 5 years later. If wrote the book again now it would be far happier - & that’s all down to Michelle.
trakMARX - We understand you have further books underway on Keith Richards & Joe Strummer - what else have you got cooking away on the back boiler?
Kris - Me & Michelle have a group called Bunny Mad 69 (aka Jackuoff). We have a 12 out called A Tribute To Johnny Cash (Stay Up For Ever Records) out in Feb. Michelle is the female Jim Morrison!
trakMARX - Have you been paying much attention to the new groups (who may or may not be concerned) currently fronting the Great Garage Rock Scare (2001-2004)?
Kris - No. I’ve heard some of them - & fair play - but there are only so many times you can hear the same chords. I’ve heard nothing in a while that’s put me on the floor.
trakMARX - Do you still feel the need to make it to the rekkid shop on a new release day?
Kris - No, no, no. I get sent boatloads of stuff. I’ve been immersed in dance music for the last 10 years - so I don’t check much rock n roll.
trakMARX - To wrap it all up - how are things from where you’re sitting these days & what is your conclusion on the meaning of Punk Rock?
Kris - A lot of the heroes that I had & aspired to have now quite funnily settled into the same sort of life style as my own - so that helps. Primal Scream have all had babies - Keith Richards is the most contented family man I know - but none of us have lost our sense of Rock’n’Roll! Keith is a punk - same as us. Keith Richards was the 1st modern Punk. The blues was the true birth of punk rock. Protest music. People shouting.
Jean Encoule - tMx 13 - 01/04