Book Review: SICK ON YOU by ANDREW MATHESON
“The disastrous story of Britain’s great lost punk band,” ran the hardback edition cover tag. “The greatest band you’ve never heard of,” qualified the paperback edition. We’re talking the Hollywood Brats, in case you were wondering.
Mojo Magazine’s Book of the Year. So there!
Despite the cover boasts, the Hollywood Brats were not necessarily a punk band, let alone the greatest anything. But their story, as told with frighteningly photographic recall by lead singer Andrew Matheson, makes for hilariously vivid reading nonetheless. The teenage Matheson arrives in London, from Canada, in 1971, determined to make it as a flamboyant, Jagger-esque rock star in what he believed to be the endlessly swinging center of the musical universe. Reality, of course, proves entirely different during the post-60s comedown, and after a multitude of disastrous auditions, Matheson eventually accepts occupancy in just about the one workmanlike contemporary rock band that will hire him. Unable to help himself, he quickly takes over, keeping only the equally youthful and flamboyant Norwegian keyboard player Stein Groven (later rechristened Casino Steele), as the pair of temporary immigrants seek out mutually deranged musicians who share their penchant for high-octane, high volume, purposefully outrageous rock ‘n’ roll.
After a brief dalliance with the name Queen (which leads, in one of the book’s more enjoyable scenes, to a violent confrontation with a certain other band of that name), Matheson and Stein become the Brats, then the Hollywood Brats, and with one dismissive eye on their overseas doppelgangers the New York Dolls, build a capital following. For that leg onto the ladder, credit the indulgence of the Speakeasy nightclub’s Laurie O’Leary, posited here as “business manager for the Krays while they were enjoying Her Majesty’s pleasure and accommodation.” O’Leary leads them in turn to a deal with Worldwide Artists, whose own front man, Wilf Pine, is introduced as “a collector for Don (Arden).” Both these descriptions hail not from Matheson’s own pen, sharp as it proves to be, but from the verbal recall of the Brats’ delightfully louche (and sadly deceased) personal manager Ken Mewis, one of the book’s many memorable characters.
After various fits (of all kinds) and starts (and stops), Mewis places the Hollywood Brats, at considerable expense, in Olympic Studios, where they record what they know to be a perfect debut album, full of pre-punk spunk, with the prescient bad-taste of “Sick On You” as its finale. Only then do they discover that their contract with Worldwide is for a production deal, not an actual record deal, and that the selling process must now begin in earnest. Despite Mewis’ best efforts, and several close bites, nobody proffers the actual dotted line, and members start peeling away as Matheson and Steele, dejected by their lack of acceptance, finally turn on each other – engaging in their first ever fist-fight in the midst of their first ever interview.
Very much as a consolation prize, Stein/Steele secures the LP a short-lived released back in his native Norway under the title Grown Up Wrong, several months after which Mick Jones and Tony James come knocking on their door (literally), holding a copy in their hands and proclaiming the Hollywood Brats the greatest thing since, presumably, the New York Dolls, if not quite Mott the Hoople. Jones, whose hero worship has apparently extended to co-opting the identity of the Brats guitarist Brady, takes Matheson and Steele to meet Malcolm McLaren, who offers to manage them even as he introduces them to his newest clients the Sex Pistols. But it’s too late: the Brats have broken up, and though Mathieson accepts an offer to jam with Jones and James in the nascent London SS, his heart is not in it. Jones and James go on to form, respectively, the Clash and Generation X, and Matheson disappears to the States for a career as a footballer (yes, indeed), his influential role in that dark period between glam and punk all but forgotten.
Sick On You – the book – finally affords Matheson his moment of glory. With gilded prose that is frequently as excessive as he and his band-mates’ intake of substances legal and otherwise, he spares neither prisoners nor details. And painful as his poverty-stricken Withnail and I-like existence may have been throughout those years, he makes the whole thing – an early dose of the crabs, the burning of furniture for firewood, the perpetual fruitless auditioning of bass players, the mouthing off at the Krays’ deputy and an Italian godfather alike, the selling off of the band’s gear before Worldwide/Krays Inc. can repossess it, the nightly shoplifting of dinner ingredients, and suffering random violence of Clockwise Orange proportions – sound positively hilarious, to the point that you almost wish you had been in his platform shoes.
Indeed, Sick On You is so colorful, so comical, so damn bitchy, that you need have no appreciation of the author’s music to enjoy his story. I didn’t go off to peruse the Brats’ sole LP on YouTube once throughout my nightly reading. Instead, I made do with my memory of the posthumous 1980 Cherry Red Records release of the single, “Sick On You”/”Then He Kissed Me,” which had landed on my doorstep back when such vinyl gifts were still a rarity, with the result that the homo-erotic nature of the latter song’s unaltered lyrics have remained permanently etched on my mind over the years, rendering Ringo Starr’s delivery of “Boys” positively plebian by comparison.
That said, the detail here is somewhat overpowering. In recalling each minor incident with such clarity that Matheson must either have filmed and recorded it at the time or taken a very large dose of artistic license with his memory, he allows the story to drag, the Brats’ predictable and long foreseen demise dragged out like a torturous mid-70s prog-rock solo. Eventually, surprisingly, he gives the last word to Peter Coyne of Record Mirror, who in 1980, says of the posthumous Cherry Red long-player that it “is the greatest album I’ve ever had the pleasure to review.” Matheson doesn’t editorialize, and in (not) doing so, he would appear to be reveling in his belated vindication and validation. In an alternate universe – i.e., the future – the Hollywood Brats were, indeed, legends.
“There are precisely no attractive women at this party. None. Not even sort of. Not even a halfway reasonable looker to whom one would, out of a sense of Christian charity, administer even the most perfunctory of porkings.” Matheson describing, with period political incorrectness, a party at the house of Freddie Mercury and Brian May, circa 1974.