Arrows: Golden Arrows

NEVER IN THE history of rock ‘n’ roll has it been more difficult for bands to get the exposure they need to break big and grab the attention of a large audience. The trusty club circuit has virtually closed down and anyway, touring, getting out on the road, is more expensive now than it ever was.

More than ever before T.V. is playing a crucial role in lifting a band out of obscurity into the big time. Managers are falling over themselves to get their bands on TOTPSupersonicThe Old Grey Whistle Test etc. Just one appearance on the box can stimulate enough interest in a single to propel it chartwards and start the ball rolling.

So, when a band is given a coveted 14 episode series – the only networked T.V. pop show in Britain to feature one band regularly – then naturally enough, others, less fortunate, gnash their teeth and turn a paler shade of green.

Arrows are the lucky lads. At 4pm on Tuesdays, School-children all over the country belt home from school in time to flop down in front of the T.V., at 4.25, for the Arrows’ show.

Over the next two months Arrows have a 22 minute showcase to promote their first album First Hit (RAK) and their current Martin and Coulter produced single ‘Once Upon A Time’. If ever there was a golden opportunity, this is it.

But what was it about this particular band which made Muriel Young, Senior Producer in charge of children’s programmes at Granada T.V., choose them, from all the other eager contenders, to fill the vacuum left by the Bay City Rollers’ Shang A Lang?

They must have something extra-special. A something which I, and a few others I suspect, have failed to notice before. Although I have been Arrow watching for the last three years – no band in whom Mickie Most has an active interest goes completely unnoticed – they’ve never struck me as really outstanding or electrifying.

Just another, rather pretty vehicle for the songs Chinn and Chapman (who until recently produced Arrows) couldn’t use on Sweet, Mud or Smokie. (In fact, some of the best tracks the boys have recorded have been their own songs).

Changes, however, are the life blood of pop, and this year Arrows have sharpened up. They’ve found a new lease of life. Which is why an investigative trip to Manchester (where, on two consecutive days every two weeks the boys record their T.V. show) is in order.

By mid-day, Jake Hooker, 25 (guitar and vocals), Alan Merril, 24 (bass and lead vocals) – both American – and Preston-born Paul Varley, 26 (drums and vocals), are in the studio. The cameras are rolling.

The atmosphere in the cavernous space seems unusually relaxed, friendly and warm. The set is unfussy, like a stretched-out ice cream-coloured Stella painting. Two large glittering orbs hang from the lighting rig, shedding a flashing, snowflake effect over everything. The floor manager, a scarecrow of patched denim, electronic hangings and button badges, smokes a pipe and calmly prepares his crew for each take.

Jake is strumming a guitar. He’s much taller than his pictures suggest but just as good looking. Exceptionally so, in fact. When the band aren’t working they hang out together and he’s the one you invariably notice first.

Meet him in a club and he’s likely to throw his arms around you in a very American, surf-wave of familiarity. He presents a smooth, sophisticated, ultra-cool image. Been places, has our Jake. He was at the Electric Ladyland Studio in New York recording with a band called Ben Gunn, when Noel Redding, who was producing them, heard that Jimi Hendrix was dead.

On stage, none of the band wear anything more dressy than a cleaner version of what they dress in normally. And, as usual, Jake is zipped-up in tight, white satin pants (he’s not called ‘snaky hips’ for nothing) and a black leather jacket. He’s the one I expect to dominate the show.

Alan, in a fancy, black trimmed, red velvet suit, is studying his script. He’s a little less aggressively cool than Jake. A little mellower. He’s been Jake’s close mate since their childhood days together at school in the Bronx, in New York.

His mother is the renowned jazz singer Helen Merril, his cousin is Laura Nyro and he’s written songs and sung in bands since the first time his cupid bow of a mouth curled around his perfect teeth into a smile. And what a smile.

Paul, too, has his head buried in a sheaf of notes. A Northern lad, he’s got the edge and grit to balance the almost too-sugary charms of the other two. His is a more spiky, angular, character altogether. And the bands he has been a member of were musically meatier.

He played in The Modern Blues Quartet, Purple Haze and, before he finally joined Jake in Streak (the band which eventually became Arrows) he played with Peter Green in Little Free Rock.

At a glance, he’s the one I expect to be least forward and friendly and it’s a surprise when he’s the first to introduce himself.

“Hi,” he calls across the studio, as Keith Altham, Arrows’ publicist, and I settle down to watch the recording. “I’m learning my lines.”

Which is just as well since, what follows, shatters my initial impression of the easy time the band are having.

It’s Competition Time. The three Arrows have to take it in turns to front the camera and explain to their fans the rules of the quiz. Unfortunately there’s been a mix-up in the shooting schedule.

If anyone of them makes the slightest slip in their link-lines, instead of just repeating the faulty section, the whole of a flamenco dance routine which precedes their bit, has to be redone too.

Take one. The dancers swoop and swirl and as the castanets stop clicking the boys wade in with their lines. The inevitable fluff occurs. Alan goes blank.

Take two. The dancers start again. The boys pick it up. And fluff it again.

Take three. The dancers are bearing up. But then Jake realises his script is wrong. There’s a hushed discussion to remedy the error. And the tension in the studio has rocketed. I can sense the terror in the air and I know that the boys must be feeling as though a boa-constrictor is about to coil its body around their tender necks.

Not only is it squirmingly embarrassing to keep getting it wrong. There’s the time and money to consider.

Take four. And it still isn’t right. “From the top again,” says the Floor Manager with studied patience. And we’re into take five. The Arrows, a little shaken, struggle through it this time without a hitch. The studio is deathly silent. Nobody moves. Everybody is waiting to be let off the hook. There’s a sigh of relief as, from the control booth above the studio, Peter Walker, the director, signals the O.K.

Unless you’ve actually had to speak, on cue, to a huge, anonymous stock of machinery like a T.V. camera, then it’s difficult to realise quite what an ordeal it is. For a start, your voice has a tendency to shoot out the back of your head like a high pitched scream.

Your face starts to take off and twitch in unprecedented directions. Everything you’ve ever learned about poise and self-control, every iota of cool you ever thought you possessed, is likely to shatter into pieces. That Jake, Paul and Alan can get it together at all is an achievement.

As Paul sits beside me after the debacle, I congratulate him. “Oh well,” he grins, dabbing a slight drop of sweat off his forehead, “you have to have more front than ‘arrods!”

Pretty nerve wracking? “It’s getting a little easier now,” he says.

“At first we were like puppets. We got our scripts and learnt all our lines. And what happened was that we became like actors trying to play the parts of ourselves. It’s really hard to develop your natural personalities.

“It’s very difficult, on camera, to be yourself and not LIKE anybody else. You either freeze up and nothing comes out or you ‘switch on’ in a way that turns out not to be you at all. We had to forget about the acting bit and just relax and do it.”

Relax is the operative word. With more than half the pre-recorded section to do, plus the “live” show after tea, and every possibility of repeated, gruelling attempts to get it right, the process of recording a TV show seems a tactless subject to discuss at this point in proceedings. I’m so conscious of the effort and fraught tension which must be boiling beneath Paul’s apparently bouyant facade that I know a few wise cracks are needed to lighten the air.

But my next question wasn’t meant as a joke (I tried), more a change of subject. How does working in the studio with Phil Coulter differ the same process with someone like Mickie Most, I ask? “Oh, that’s really hard to say,” Paul replies, tension visibly draining out of his face.

“They are both so different. Mickie has this definite thing. He has the finished sound of a track in his head and he goes about finding it and pulling it out of you. Whereas with Phil, his initial ideas aren’t so final and he develops an arrangement as he goes along.”

Time for another take. Paul stands, neatly lined-up along side Jake and Alan, for a run through of ‘Thanks For The Lord’, a track from their album.

“Standing by on the clock,” says the Floor Manager as the seconds start ticking by. The backing track fills the studio. Three cameras work hard getting nicely complex angles. But, before the end of the song, everything comes to a grinding stop. A re-start.

Standing by on the clock – seconds tick by again – 30-20-10 “here we go” says the F.M. confidently. But there’s silence. No backing track. Another try. The Arrows, half frozen, half ready for immediate animation, shoot brief, reasuring glances at each other. The seconds are counted out again. And this time they get it.

Striding out of the brightly lit stage area into the shadows, Jake says “I’m sick of smiling ’cause it hurts.” Then he turns to the make-up girl. “Do I still look sultry?” he asks.

Of the three he’s turned out to be the most nervous. As soon as he steps anywhere near a camera, the slightly sardonic, man-of-the-world stance he normally adopts, falls away from him like cordless pyjama bottoms.

A small solace, perhaps, is the intimate way Ms Make-up is taking the opportunity to scrutinise every inch of his face.

Arrows’ guests this week are a punchy little band called Flintlock, Sheer Elegance – whose single ‘Life Is Too Short Girl’ (PYE) is in the chart – and Louisa Jane White.

Now Muriel Young has emerged out of the control room.

What exactly was it about Arrows which made you pick them out for this show? “A two-fold reason, really,” she says. “One, I’d done the series with the Rollers and I ADORE them and I couldn’t possibly have another band like them because I’m too loyal to them. And two, it wouldn’t have been right to do a series which looked as if I was trying to have another success by imitating my own show.

“So I looked for a group utterly different, but with something I thought was as powerful as the Rollers. Basically I wanted a group, unlike anything I’d used before, who were good musicians and who’d had a couple of hits.

“The Rollers were absolute pet lambs. They were the most darling people. The easiest people to work with. We are POTTY about them.”

Was there any difference in the way she’s recording the Arrows show and theirs? “With the Rollers, because there was so much screaming, I had to prerecord all the links. After the first two programmes you could really hear the difference. Although people say there was screaming all the way through those shows, in fact we toned it down a lot.

“They started screaming for Arrows the other week and the director went down and wiped the floor with them for doing it. He threatened to clear the studio if there was so much as a peep!”

It’s time for “a little drink-up” before the “live” show. In their dressing-room Arrows are elegantly quaffing champagne. At the appointed moment they troop into the studio. And, such is their reception that I imagine the place, after all, to be empty and audienceless.

Rather than stimulating a tumultuous scream, the appearance of the lads induces an eerie hush. The reason for this unpop-like phenomena is soon apparent. I turn to look at what is facing the Arrows, and do the double take of the century.

For a moment I think we’ve made a mistake and, walking into the wrong studio, we’ve run into Manchester’s Annual Girl Guide rally. I’m confronted by a dimpled sea of podgy little knees. The place is filled with Brownies.

They are so tiny that, as they sit in rows, their white-socked feet hardly touch the ground. Scream nothing! So soft are their minute hands that even when 300 of them meet, all you can hear is a patter like pink blancmange hitting a paper plate.

They enjoy the show though. And they’re no trouble at all.

After the show is finally in the can, I ask Alan whether the recording of the series has matched up to his idea of what it would be like. “The only thing which is different, is the audience. It’s too young. I mean,” he continues, always the diplomat, not wanting to offend anyone, “it’s great playing to kids and all. But our fan mail comes from girls between the ages of 14 and 19!”

The most striking impression one gets from Arrows is their solid pragmatic approach to their situation. Their music is sensitive, romantic, undemanding and direct. They are a band ideally suited to leading people not yet familiar with sound into the arena where, once turned on, they can use their imaginations to explore the universe of music.

Their old-fashioned style – although Arrows might imagine otherwise, they are not the slightest bit trendy – is reassuring. They wear their fantasies up-front and no one could possibly imagine they desire anything more than a future of conservative security and Happy Families. Which is their strength. It would be a transparent pose for them to compete with bands breaking through music and moral sci-fi barriers.

As it is they are neither whimsical or childish in the teenybopper world – they appeal to soft-rock fans too – nor do they underplay their intelligence and talk down to their audience.

Or do they? Is this swim in the teen-scene genuine or are they all secretly hankering to be accepted in the ranks of “progressive” rockers and, as soon as they can will they dispense with the after-shave and dirty-up?

“I don’t think the music we’re doing now is at all condescending,” says Alan.

They’ve been banging on the big-time door long enough already. How do they keep up the enthusiasm and optimism to stay at it? “We all have that magic dream,” says Jake. “The only thing which keeps you going through all the hassles in this business is the dream. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But the music is there before the dream. Although in the beginning it was very abstract”

“Yes,” adds Alan. “The dream, or the ambition, is very important. But as you get older the reasons why you’re in music change. From being a teenager to now, there’s a whole reversal of what you want. The realities hit more. The immediate thing becomes business. It’s like you’ve grown into this work situation, which is music, and then it becomes your life.”

Have they had to make many compromises with their ambition? “Perhaps to reach a wider audience you have to,” says Alan.

Says Paul: “We’re the Arrows and that’s it. We want to take it as far as we can.”

Is this, perhaps the most testing time of their careers? “Yes,” says Jake. “There’s a lot of pressure.”

Alan – “Not from the audience, though. It’s from our peers, people in the business.”

Jake – “There’s a lot of people looking at us – people who’d LOVE to see us flop. Especially since we got this T.V. show. There’s a lot of understandable jealousy from other groups. And the people in the press are watching!

How does that effect their guts? There’s a unison chorus of “Nothing!” “Not At All!” “We don’t care!” Then a slight pause.

“Well,” says Paul. “You do feel it. There’s a definite tension there.”

The long day’s over. Arrows are happy lads. As happy, that is, as ambitious people can ever be. Tomorrow is a repeat of the same nerve-frazzling procedure. It’s time to forget business and indulge in a little liquid oblivion.

© Caroline CoonMelody Maker, 8 May 1976

Leave a Comment