He wrote his first song at the age of eight, had recorded 5 albums of original material whilst still a pre-teen – anticipating The Ramones in the process – founded one of the biggest crowd-pulling bands in Leeds before it imploded in a mire of drink and drugs, then gave it all up to spend a year in a room going slowly mad, recording an album of Hoover noises.
Now he’s back, with new band Shatner, an album that’s had critics dribbling and has sparked the interest of generation not born until some 15 years after he started writing songs. It’s been an interesting life so far for Jim Bower.
It’s the year 1998, and somewhere near Collingham a middle-aged man is engaged in what must look like some kind of bizarre sacrificial offering to Gods. In actual fact, what he is doing is possibly even more bizarre: He is mic-ing up a variety of vacuum cleaners for a solo part on his new album.
The man is Jim Bower, the former prodigious and prolific singer/songwriter and veteran of Leeds bands Act Natural and Freud Squad.
He is in, what he will later refer to, as his “Wilderness Years”.
‘Wilderness Years’ play an interesting role in the development of rock ‘n’ roll. Some artists emerge triumphantly – John Frusciante, Dave Gahan, Al Green. Others succumb to become either tragic fallen idols – Syd Barrett, Elvis; or worse fade away to become minor footnotes – Adam Ant, Bix Beiderbecke.
Sentimentalists among you will be pleased to hear that our story has a happy ending. However, back in ‘98, Bower is attempting to create what he refers to as his Sergeant Pepper, although in truth, his Pet Sounds would be more accurate.
“I didn’t want any limitations” he muses thinking back “so I had things like eight-part harmonies and string arrangements. On one track, I decided I wanted a Hoover solo, so I lined up all these different Hoovers and mic-ed them up, I decided that a Henry was best, but we also had backing Hoovers.”
If this sounds like the talk of a mad genius, then that’s probably not far from the truth. Bower had just emerged, Brian Wilson-like from a year in a room doing “Nothing, I sat on my computer and just did nothing” and in conjunction with former Little Chief keyboardist Sam Whitehead, decided to record his masterpiece.
As it happens it was a false start, because whilst his Pet Sounds sits “lost somewhere in a PC in Hebden Bridge” his genuine masterpiece was to arrive some years later.
But more on that later, for now, some history:
Bower started playing a £5 piano whilst he was still a toddler, by the time he was eight he had written his first song. By the age of 11 he had pre-empted punk by recording an album of “Ramones songs before the Ramones” as he puts it.
“I wasn’t very good with left hand” he explains “so I’d play a melody with the right hand and root note basslines on every beat with the left.”
“I’d set a tape going on top the piano and record whole albums in one go.” He continues, “Then I discovered multi-tracking. You’d get two tape recorders, record one part then play that back whilst playing along to it recording both parts onto the 2nd recorder.”
The discovery of rudimentary multi-tracking proved to be the first of two major catalysts in the life of the developing musician. The second occurred a bit later.
“In the mid-seventies you had to be a virtuoso musician to get anywhere. But with the arrival of punk you could just get on stage, play three chords and make a noise at the youth club. That changed everything.”
But it wasn’t the “spitting shouty punk” as he puts hit that made the biggest impression, “When I first saw The Sex Pistols I was quite scared of them. It just seemed so weird and nasty” he chuckles.
It was the other end of punk, particularly his early hero Pete Shelly whose Buzzcocks were quietly re-writing the rules of pop music.
“‘Love You More’ changed my life” he says “1 minute 45 seconds; it gets in, hits you in the face with the best tune you’ve ever heard and then just buggers off, it’s over!”
“That whole side of the punk movement was inspirational, it taught me that punk could be something other than just this negative ‘Destroy’ message, it was positive, basically love songs with a real joy to them.”
Aged 16, just about clinging onto the dying embers of punk, Bower formed Act Natural with singer Rufus Thom, Drummer Steve Potter and Bassist Mark Hubbard (now proprietor of Old Chapel Studios).
“Being in a band is just a way of attracting women when you’re 16” he says “As a teenager you wear all manner of ridiculous clothing to get noticed and making a loud noise is just another way of doing it.” But his first obsession was music.
The band soon grew into a pretty reasonable force, regularly selling out venues such s the Duchess, until inevitably they were signed.
Or at least so they thought.
In fact they hadn’t been signed at all.
Despite being told by the record company that everything was official, it turned out that they hadn’t and with various members slipping further off the rails and band relations already stretched to breaking point, the last nail was hammered into the creaking, narcotic-riddled coffin of Act Natural.
“There was a lot of recreational drug use and that’s what killed the band,” recalls Bower. Rather than take stock of the situation Bower and Hubbard, along with new drummer Kev Tipper, ploughed head on into their next project, the criminally overlooked Freud Squad.
“Act Natural had been pretty big around Leeds and I made the classic Roger Waters mistake of splitting the band up and thinking that people were there to see me, but in fact they were not,” he muses.
Bower pressed on from the bottom up once more and recruited the eccentric, yet brilliant Chris Minz to add keyboards to the standard rock format, a combination that brother Rick predicted would be “like mixing ketchup and gravy”. However, following his instincts and a love for the keyboard-heavy art-punk of Howard Devoto’s magazine - a man who Bower describes as “pretentious as fuck, but inspirational for demonstrating that punk could have intellect” – Bower & co persisted and set about creating the bite-sized pop masterpieces that have become his signature sound.
Emily Alexander on Violin and Vocals further augmented the line-up with the band hitting its stride with the essential In A Previous Life. Packed with sumptuous pop writing at its best, things seemed to be building towards a 2nd shot at the big time.
With the arrival of Radio One Sound City in 1996 this seemed imminent as the band were booked for a headline showcase at Joseph’s Well. As well as the assorted industry A&R, Yorkshire TV phoned ahead to request filming rights. However, once again defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory.
“The whole thing was a bit of a stitch up” he recalls “They were there because they had to be there. They didn’t give a fuck about the actual music. It was all just a jolly for the industry, but it was presented to the bands as ‘this is your big chance’. Of all the A&R that asked for tickets none showed up and even the TV Company buggered off before they’d actually filmed anything. But I guess that’s fairly typical of the kind of disappointments you face being in a band”.
Looking back he’s philosophical “In order to succeed you’ve got to be a) good, b) hard working and c) lucky. Now I manage point a) quite well, but points b) and c) have not been my strong points. I made the mistake of thinking that if we’re good success will come to us, but to be serious about it, I should have done more.”
After seven years of Act Natural and seven years of Freud Squad, all of a sudden Bower was without a real direction. A further seven years of Hermitude, Hoovers and attempted retirement later (“I move in seven year cycles” he says), Bower decided that he was not done yet and set about creating his latest ensemble.
Shatner, featuring Bower, Minz, Bower’s younger brother Rick, and former Spring drummer Dick Sharp first registered on the public consciousness with the release of the exceptional debut album Energise which was launched at a sold-out Brudenell Social cub gig on 13th November.
Proving to be something of a sleeper, the band gathered momentum from being one of Leeds’ best-kept secrets to unlikely cult heroes. Like all resolutely uncool bands - they are as Jim puts it “the literal embodiment of Dad rock!” - there is something distinctly honest and universally likeable about them.
“You can say that bands are a democracy” he explains “but as a songwriter my challenge is to steer the rest of the band into exactly what I want. That was always the case with my first bands, because we couldn’t play! But Shatner is different because if I bring a song to them, they know instinctively what to do. It’s my ideal band”.
Musically it is the closest thing he’s realised to his life-long obsession with writing the perfect three-minute pop song, but whilst enjoying the renewed attention, he has a realistic grasp on the logistical limitations of being a middle-aged musician.
“When you’re eighteen, you can go off and do anything, but when you’re older you’ve got commitments.” He reflects “You can’t just give up your job that’s supporting your family to go on tour and earn three quid a month! So you’ve got to find creative ways round it”.
He’s also self-depreciating about the bands’ prospects.
“If I put myself in the position of a record company, I’m going to be more risk adverse” he reasons, “You have to be the full package on day one. Bands are investments to big companies, and the companies are obviously looking for a return on that investment. Therefore I can understand their position when they’ve got to choose between a bunch of pop-idol look-alikes with an instant teen appeal, or a bunch of ugly forty-year-olds! Gary Kemp said, ‘When you buy a record you’re not just buying the music, you’re buying a slice of lifestyle’. Our lifestyles consist of mowing lawns and re-grouting bathrooms! Let’s face it, we’re a bunch of mingers really! Very much an audio experience now!”
You can argue that this is either cynicism or realism, but either way it’s a shame. Bower is a genuine talent who has assembled a creative and highly adept band. If the music was being made by 20-year-olds, whilst it would still be against the grain of current trends, it wouldn’t take a marketing genius to realise the immense mainstream cross-over appeal.
However he remains as motivated and inspired about his work as any teenage band. Not jaded in the slightest, constantly plugging and pitching and enthusing at every opportunity with an infectious passion and gusto.
“I would do this if no one was listening to it, and I have done, and I’d still get as much out of it” he argues, and rarely for a musician wheeling out an old cliché, you know that he has the track-record to back it up “It’s a need thing.”
However, on this evidence, it seems highly unlikely that there will come a time when no one is listening.
words: Rob Paul Chapman
Pics: Tony Woolgar