Three Covers One Band

Clue One. The three bands covered: The Paragons/The Nerves/Randy and the Rainbows.

Clue Two. My experiences of seeing them live: in 1982, when I was still at school, my mum—who I get my thing for music from—got us tickets to see this band, only for them to spilt up on the tour before playing the gig. They were my top band at the time; I was totally gutted.

In 1991, I was going to spend a weekend at the Hells Angels’ Kent Custom Bike Show. It turned out that on the same Saturday night, the lead singer of the band was appearing as a solo artist at Wembley, London, on a bill that included the likes of INXS, Jesus Jones and the Hothouse Flowers.

But there was no conflict of interest. The Hells Angels turned out to be big fans too, arranging for a helicopter to fly the singer to the event site in Kent after the London show. They came on stage on the back of an Angels’ chop at midnight, a spectacular sight to see.

Clue Three. The names of the songs covered: The Tide is High; Denis; Hanging on the Telephone.

Song One:

‘The Tide is High’. Covered by Blondie, 1980; originally by The Paragons, 1967.

Of course, that Blondie made these songs famous is subjective, given the first on the list belongs to the Paragons, a band featuring the ska/rock steady/reggae legend John Holt.

Numerous songs by The Paragons have been covered by other artists; take the incredible ‘Man Next Door’: covered not only by Massive Attack, there’s also the blistering dub version by King Tubby and the Aggrovators renamed ‘A Noisy Place’.

Formed 1964 in Kingston, Jamaica, The Paragons were Garth ‘Tyrone’ Evans, Bob Andy, Junior Menz, and Leroy Stamp. Holt joined later that year when he replaced Stamp and Howard Barrett did likewise to Menz (though this makes the band a four piece when images, such as that in the header image, show them as three; making this aspect harder to understand–I didn’t find an answer–two other bands of the same name existed at the same time).

When later claiming ownership of the majority of Paragons’ material, Holt was challenged in court by Evans. Evans claimed all Paragon material had been written collaboratively; the court ruled in his favour.

Holt left in 1970, to then rejoin later the same decade. The band replaced him with vocalist Roslyn Sweat, but couldn’t decide on how to deal with that name-wise, sometimes recording as Roslyn Sweat & The Paragons while others as The Paragons (featuring Roslyn Sweat).

Song Two:

‘Hanging on the Telephone’. Covered by Blondie, 1978; originally by The Nerves, 1976.

Things start to take a turn for the more obscure when it comes to ‘Hanging on the Telephone’. From Los Angeles, California, The Nerves were Jack Lee, Peter Case and Paul Collins. The band only recorded one four track EP, though before splitting did tour the US and Canada, which included some shows with the Ramones.

Jack Lee, who wrote the song, received the call telling him Blondie wanted to cover it at a time of such financial dire straits, he was expecting the vary same phone line to be cut off at 6 that evening along with the electricity. Hanging on the telephone, indeed!

Collins went on to form The Beat. No, not the ska Beat featuring Ranking Roger and co, that did a cracking cover of ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’, a song first made famous by Andy Williams in 1963 (when I lived at home, mum’s 45 of spent more time in my collection than hers), but a Beat big and famous enough that when touring in North America, the British band call themselves The English Beat to avoid confusion; and likewise, it’s The Paul Collins Beat that tour Europe when he goes there.

‘Hanging on the Telephone’ isn’t the only song of Lee’s Blondie recorded. Also on the Parallel Lines album, the cracking ‘Will Anything Happen’; though this one wasn’t recorded by The Nerves.

Song Three:

‘Denis’: Covered by Blondie, 1978. Originally by Randy and the Rainbows, 1963, and called ‘Denise’.

Randy and the Rainbows formed 1962 in Queens, New York. Members were: Dominick ‘Randy’ Safuto and Frank Safuto (brothers); Mike Zero and Sal Zero (brothers) and Ken Arcipowski.

The song is about a real person; writer, Neil Levenson—not a member of the band—taking inspiration from someone he knew called Denise Lefrak

‘Denise’ was the band’s fourth single and first to chart, doing well and remaining in the US and Canadian ones for some weeks. The follow up only managed to reach 97 and was their last single to chart despite releasing a further sixteen between 1963 and 67.

During this period no albums are listed as released. The band continued touring under various names, supporting some notable acts and having a couple of personnel changes in the process. Then, in 1982, the album C’mon Let’s Go! was released, plus two singles. Another single came in 1984, then an album, Play Ball, in 2001.

Of these later releases, it’s one of the singles that’s most notable. In recognition of Blondie’s cover, Randy and the Rainbows gave ‘Denise’ a bit of a tweak and turned it into ‘Debbie’.

As for the Denise:

It took a bit of searching before discovering Denise Lefrak’s father was Samuel Lefrak, a real estate tycoon worthy of a Wikipedia page. Her mother, Ethel Stone, hardly gets a mention, which sets the tone. Denise Lefrak was the first wife of Martin Bandier, an American music industry executive, who was CEO of Sony Music for eleven years. He also gets his own Wikipedia page. It wasn’t until searching her name with his that the internet finally revealed Getty has over a hundred-and-fifty images of her, which can be seen here as the cheapest license to use one starts at something like $400!

Back to Kent:

Despite best efforts, I can’t discover the taker of the following photos of Debbie at Dymchurch, except to know the people posting them the places found online aren’t the owners.

There’s little information attached to them apart from the date (13th July 1991) and location, not a mention of Hells Angels and helicopters to be found. And given sites purporting to list all of Blondie/Debbie Harry’s concerts omit the Kent one, while including the one in London on the same night, without being there (or reading this) one might be hard pushed to ever stumble on its having taken place (if you do know of anything, please let me know).

True, it was pre smart phone days, when, hard to believe now, people hardly ever walked around taking photos and filming things. But it was still Debbie Harry arriving by helicopter to play for bikers and Hells Angels!

Perhaps the worst aspect, I did take a camera . . . though didn’t take any pics of Debbie, so hardly have anyone to blame but me! And judging by a pic taken of me with it, no one would think I was a few hours from seeing an adored singer for the first time, having missed out a decade earlier with no prospect of the chance arising again (at least, that’s how it’d seemed at the time).

The week beforehand had incredible buoyant weather, then—bang!—the day it came for loading up the bikes and hitting the road, grim. There’d also been an undue number of mechanical issues amongst the bikes I’d rode up with, as the wonderful state of my jeans may be considered artistic testimony to.

We set up at an edge of the site, which really came into play the Friday night, when in one direction there was the complete pitch black emptiness of rolling fields and hedges, while the other, sights and sounds pricelessly reminiscent of Mad Max II.

Campfires lighting the night, while bikes roared up and down somewhere out in the mass of tents. And while there was rarely any trouble at these things, the crème de la crème: the sounds and lights of American police sirens (not the UK blues and twos—nee-na-nee-na!—of the time) as the Angels had them fitted on bikes and cars to get around their festival with ease.

I could’ve watched that scene all night, and spending so long doing so probably explains some part of the grumpy look on my face the next day.

The pic of me was taken just after everyone announced wanting to go take a butcher’s at the bikes on show. I decided to stay at the tents grumpy as sin, handing the camera to a mate, and asking him to take some pics; the first being the one of me (funny bastard!).

They were gone ages, not that I minded being left with all the booze, etc, but when they eventually got back some hours later, the camera was handed back to me with the comment not many hadn’t been taken. Apparently they’d spent most of the time wandering around the tents talking to people.

Weird, my mate was smiling, he never smiled . . .

Then I was given some of the ‘hash brownies’ they’d bought (and had already been eating) off a hippy bumped into early on their wanderings.

They were thoroughly delicious brownies in of themselves (though definitely not sans gluten), and by far some of the best ever damn had, not simply because of how strong, but because of how wonderfully caring and long lasting about it. Like a curry with that perfect slow heat, all the flavour at first, and then the heat comes rolling in wave after wave, getter bigger and bigger, until arriving comfortably at a never before reached intensity and then staying there warmly for hours . . . Mmm, they were some tasty brownies; changed my view of hippies forever.

They were sooo good, all gooey and chocolatey, that when someone found a hair in theirs, no one else cared. No one cared a bit, just carried on yamming and licking bike-oil covered fingers . . .

For the record, I did not go watch Debbie Harry in those filthy jeans, changing into some psychedelic shorts first. Handy, as I don’t like wearing jeans when standing in puddles as they have a habit of sucking moisture up, and somewhere along the way it had rained, pissed down, actually; the entertainment area of stage, funfair, food stalls, etc, had become the commonly encountered outdoor UK concert terrain.

I remember walking up there, but have no idea of time or who, if anyone, was on stage, except to know there was still daylight and Debbie wasn’t expected until midnight. Then it started to rain again and about five of us decided to go on the Waltzer in the optimistic hope it would stop in the time the ride took.

Wheee . . .    

The lights, the laughter . . .

When the ride finished, we got out the seats all shook up to find the person we’d left the booze with already standing under the Waltzer’s cover. They weren’t alone, the rain had got harder; people were taking shelter wherever they could. We stayed there.

The inside edge of the Waltzer became like a bar, no use asking people who ride bikes to get out just because it might be dangerous, just the occasional ‘can you make sure you stay right by the edge’ as the ride carried on with people coming in and out of the rain, hopeful they might find some space to stay with those at the party.

The whole vibe of it—lights flashing, music blaring, people shouting, things spinning—was utterly mesmerising . . .

If the night before had been Mad Max II, then this was Apocalypse Now; Lance at the bridge dropping acid mixed with the bunny girls arriving in a Huey to entertain the troops.

It stopped raining before Debbie came on stage. I was too zonked for any trying to get down the front. Instead, I reached a point in Debbie’s performance where, spurred on by the fact it’d likely be the only chance to ever do it (with hindsight, I can assuredly say, yes, it was/will be), I walked back to the tents alone and laid back on my bike to listen to the end of the set, ‘Heart of Glass’ in particular sticking in the mind.

I crept into the tent and sleeping bag still high as a kite on the buzz, new bout of rain drumming on the nylon. Through it came the crash of a bike falling over. Without getting dressed, I scrambled out the tent in boots and undies to find it was mine. Sure, it’d been on a good board of wood, otherwise there wouldn’t have been any laying on it, but the laying on it had done enough for the new rain to make a difference.

Picking up a dropped bike isn’t that hard, especially once working out there’s a knack. Not that any of it helps when half-naked and the ground’s fast turning to mud. Luckily others had heard the noise. Took about three of us. There was damage, hard to tell in the dark, but it still looked rideable (it was, though did need repairs costing a hundred-and-eighty quid, which of course was worth a lot more back then).

Still. Absolutely no regrets.

Even when considering the following day.

It rained all night. The place was a quagmire and only got worse the more people tried riding bikes on it to leave. There was a point when it felt like everyone was leaving at the same time, only for no one to be moving as no one could. Bikes were going down everywhere. At least there was a chance of walking two wheels; the few in four were just spinning and completely stuck. To use a term popular today, even for a bike rally/music festival in the UK things were unprecedented.

Eventually tons of hay—perhaps even straw given how dire circumstances—was brought in from neighbouring farms and the gradual process of getting enough of it down across the whole site began.

The amount of mud that wound up encased on tyres was incredible, looked like the wheels were made of it, bikes from The Flintstones. If anyone needed to stop quick, there was no chance until a good few miles ridden to fling it all off.

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

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