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Allan Kingdom of The Siddeleys: "Jangle Pop Cult Heroes"

The Siddeleys
2 August 2011

A pop music connoisseur is also an archeologist of sorts. There’s a great deal of digging involved in the pursuit, and when something old and precious is discovered, it only means you have a lot more digging left to do. Take the mighty dinosaur that is British indie-pop, for example. It might be easy enough to unearth a skull (The Smiths), a backbone (Jesus and Mary Chain), or even a tibia (Orange Juice). But to piece the whole beast together, you need those little connector bones—the lesser-known, short-lived bands that helped a certain style of music feel more like a movement. More specifically, you really need The Siddeleys.

Formed in London in 1986, the Siddeleys would eventually come to be associated with that year’s faux sub-genre du jour, “C-86”—named for the NME mixtape that featured the chiming, post-post-punk licks of bands like The Pastels, Shop Assistants, and Close Lobsters, as well as future stars like Primal Scream and The Wedding Present (pretty much all of whom are en vogue influences on the current fuzz-pop scene in the States). The Sids themselves weren’t on the C-86 tape—nor did they see themselves as part of any scene. But during their three years together, magnetic frontwoman Johnny Johnson, guitarist Allan Kingdom, bassist Andrew Brown, and drummer Phil Goodman (later replaced by Dean Leggett and David Clynch) produced a small but power-packed body of work that stands the test of time about as well as anything from its era.

The Big Takeover caught up with jangly axeman Allan Kingdom—now living in Los Angeles-- to discuss the Siddeleys’ predictably overlooked 25th anniversary, the excitement of the late ‘80s London pop scene, and the lasting appeal of a band that “never quite made it.”

ANDREW CLAYMAN: Since it’s been 25 years and all, I suppose the obvious place to start is 1986. What memories stick out about that year and the environment that led up to the forming of the Siddeleys?

ALLAN KINGDOM: Well, certainly a lot of people point to C-86 and its influence. But to me, at the time, C-86 really just meant another great night out in London. Shortly after the tape came out in the NME, they did a series of shows at a place called the ICA—the Institute of Contemporary Art-- in London. And I think I went to two of those shows. I saw bands like the Bodines and the Mighty Lemon Drops. But again, I didn’t think in terms of this defining some kind of new genre, or that it would resonate for the next 25 years. We never thought, “oh wow, isn’t it great to be part of this scene!” It was just kind of a lump of like-minded individuals who I was very lucky to have come across.

AC: How did your path wind up crossing with Johnny Johnson’s?

KINGDOM: In London at that time, there was a very active pop scene going on. Myself and my friends lived about 50 miles outside of London, near Oxford. But when we managed to make inroads through fanzines and fliers and meeting people, it became kind of a constant thing. “Oh, this week it’s the Pastels. Next week, it’s the Bodines. After that, it’s 1,000 Violins.” You know what I mean? There was always something going on, and we kind of took it for granted. Now, when you think about it, that was incredible! It really was the halcyon days of indie music, I suppose, and I was very lucky to be part of it. That’s basically how the Siddeleys formed, though—from Johnny going around to all the same shows and meeting people, talking to people. I’m fairly certain she and I met at a Mighty Lemon Drops show.

AC: When the Siddeleys first started playing gigs, what were your ambitions like? What kind of aspirations did you have as those first songs were coming together?

KINGDOM: Johnny certainly was very ambitious. She was kind of the driving force behind the band, both creatively and in terms of setting goals and things. I mean, I was still young—about 20. So my goals were pretty short sighted. I wanted to make a record. Just being able to produce a recording was the goal for me. We had no idea, for example, that we would make this record and people like John Peel would actually (a) bother to listen to it, and (b) like it enough to play it. But because of that, we were able to do two John Peel sessions. And certainly, at that time, doing a Peel session was beyond my scope of ambition. That was something that “real” rock stars did [laughs]. Not dopey kids from Oxfordshire.

AC: Did you see yourselves as underdogs even within that sort of indie subculture of the time?

KINGDOM: Well, I don’t know if you’ve read some of Johnny’s liner notes, but she definitely made a big point of being an outsider, and we always kind of felt like that. Just in terms of musicianship, for example. We supported bands like the House of Love on really early shows. They were a good five or six years older than us, and they were musoes—you know, they had all the great guitar equipment-- proper Fender amps-- whereas we didn’t have any of that stuff at all. So in that respect, too, we kind of felt like second-rate amateurs.

AC: You mentioned that Johnny was the main creative force behind the band. What was the working dynamic like? Was it a democracy or did she have final say on most things?

KINGDOM: She had final say on most things, to be honest. The Siddeleys were very much her vision. She would go write the songs, and then I would kind of take them and arrange them. So, a song like “Sunshine Thuggery” would start out like this [plays riff on his guitar]—kind of folky and simple, really. Then it was up to me to add something like this [adds chiming, secondary riff]. So essentially, it was taking the raw material and crafting it into something different. Usually, her demos were kind of acoustic guitar, almost singer-songwritery in nature, whereas I was trying to arrange it for a pop band. But yeah, overall, Johnny was very much always the leader.

AC: Johnny’s skills as a lyricist got a lot of positive attention, and rightfully so. But these songs are great guitar pop above all else, really. Who were some touchstones for you in terms of developing your playing style back then?

KINGDOM: For me, my guitar heroes were people like Edwyn Collins, Roddy Frame, Will Sergeant from Echo and the Bunnymen. Growing up, when I first started playing guitar, I was always drawn to the Velvet Underground—stuff like “What Goes On.” That strummy sort of rhythm guitar was very influential on a song like “Sunshine Thuggery.”

AC: Going back even before “Sunshine Thuggery,” your very first single “What Went Wrong This Time” still holds up remarkably well all these years later. What do you remember about cutting that record in ’87?

KINGDOM: We were really pleased. There was no money at that time for anyone, of course. So we had literally just an afternoon in the studio to just come in and bash it out and do something that we thought sounded nice. We had zero experience in the studio at all. It was literally about setting up and playing and if it sounded okay, that was pretty much the extent of it. Just actually being in a recording studio itself was, for us, tremendous. We’d done some bedroom demos, but you know, this was a chance to do something that was reflective of the way we sounded when we played live. And just being able to make a record at all was something we were grateful for.

Siddeleys - What Went Wrong This Time

AC: That record definitely has a really appealing sort of raw, live feel to it—something you see a lot of indie-pop bands trying to capture these days under probably much better circumstances.

KINGDOM: Yeah, it sounds like people just spending the afternoon making a record. There’s nothing labored about it. But I think that excitement still comes across quite nicely on the recording. It’s very much an energetic and instant kind of performance. Again, we weren’t musoes who’d been doing that for years, where it was "just another session, man." [laughs] We were old enough where we were maybe 12 or 13 years old in 1977 or ‘78, so we were the children of punk and post-punk. So that was part of it, as well. Just going in and bashing out this record—it was kind of perfect really.

AC: When you got the call to do the Peel Sessions a year or so later, what was your response to that news, and what do you recall about the experience?

KINGDOM: God it was terrifying. It absolutely was. I mean, I’d grown up listening to John Peel, hearing, well-- you name any band. Anyone who was anyone had recorded at this studio. So it was quite overwhelming going in there, and the studio was incredibly luxurious. I remember a guy telling us that it was a good idea to go and get something to eat because the BBC Royal Symphony Orchestra would go in and eat all the food in the canteen before we could [laughs]. And you know, this was the same canteen where the Beatles were pictured getting their tea and toast. And we were sort of big pop culture nerds, so we recognized that immediately.

But yeah, it’s incredibly pressurized doing a Peel session, because you get in there around lunch time, and you’ve got until 10 o’clock at night, and you must record three or four tracks that are world class quality. You know, it’s not like you’re making a demo where if it sounds crappy it’s okay. This is stuff that’s going to be played on the radio no matter what [laughs]. So yeah, considering it was probably only the third time we’d been in any recording studio, it was terrifying—but enjoyable, as well. I mean, we half expected Peel to come down and say, ‘hey, folks, how you doing?’ But of course, he never went anywhere near it. It was just BBC engineers.

AC: At that point, everything seemed to be on a real upswing. You’d done the “Sunshine Thuggery” single with John Parrish, the Peel Sessions, reviews were good, and then… it just came to an end. The band broke up by the end of '89. I know Johnny has said that there was still label interest, but that for reasons she couldn’t explain, nothing ever materialized. What’s your take on what happened? Was it bad luck? Naivety? Obviously, a lot of pop bands had similar fates around that time.

KINGDOM: Yeah, I don’t know. It was kind of a combination of naivety and a sort of arrogance, as well, unfortunately. We did two Peel sessions, and I remember Johnny saying to me, “well, I don’t want to just do another Peel session”—as if doing another Peel session would somehow be problematic, or indicate we were somehow being stagnant. Like I said, she was very ambitious. And while my goal was mainly to make a record, I think in the back of her mind, she wanted to become a major recording artist—and rightfully so. I mean, you have to be driven. We all kind of grew up in this indie world, but I think she had this drive to succeed and take it to the next level. Because yeah, we played with House of Love in some grotty little pub in North London, only to find out six months later in the NME that they’d been signed to Warner Brothers or whoever [actually Fontana] for like half a million pounds. And it was like, God, The House of Love were terrible! They were just like these fucking old hippies with Echo and the Bunnymen haircuts. So yeah, there was an arrogance with the naivety. We thought if fucking Guy Chadwick could get a half million dollar record deal, why couldn’t we?

The Siddeleys in London

AC: In retrospect, do you think there might have been some positives to burning out rather fading away, so to speak? Being frozen in time, essentially?

KINGDOM: Yeah, definitely, I think so. For one thing, we didn’t go house. The late ‘80s, there was that indie-dance kind of thing sprouting up, with people taking influences from house music—a lot of the Manchester scene at the time. A few bands we’d played with stuck around for a while and did some really excruciating tracks of watered down house beats, and I found that really embarrassing. So stopping when we did, it retained a certain amount of purity, I think. But we did have some other material that never saw the light of day that I liked and would have enjoyed getting out there.

How do you think the Siddeleys might have progressed into the ‘90s if you’d stayed together?

KINGDOM: It’s hard to tell really. The musical direction was very much driven by Johnny, and the stuff she did after the Siddeleys wasn’t terribly inspiring to me, anyway. So it’s hard to tell. But I think you’re right—because we stopped when we did, it left this sort of crisp and untarnished little collection of songs. It’s not such a bad thing.

AC: What have you been up to, professionally and musically, since the Siddeleys days?

KINGDOM: Professionally now, I work in internet marketing and search engine optimization in Los Angeles. After the Siddeleys, I had my own band in London called Snakebelt, which had more of a power-pop, Big Star kind of sound—not exactly flavor of the month during the Britpop era [laughs]. And in recent years, I’ve been in a couple bands in L.A. I’m kind of like an indie starter. I joined a band called the Tartans when they were doing nothing, and they’ve since gone on to release some records. But I left them because it was a bit too time consuming for me. I’ve played with a band called Sweater Girls, as well, who I kind of helped get up and running. But unfortunately, due to some differences in opinion, had to leave. So I guess I’m looking for yet another sort of fledgling indie band I can help start up and set on their way [laughs].

AC: Do you still keep in touch with Johnny or any of the other Sids?

KINGDOM: Yeah, I still speak to Johnny occasionally. She is a mother of two—twins—and lives in Brighton with her husband. I’ve been in contact with our last drummer, David, as well. I haven’t really heard from our bass player Andrew in a while. I mean, it’s silly, because it’s been 25 years since we formed. But that means it’s been 22 years since we split up, too. We were only really around for three years. So it’s been a very long time. And living where I do now, it makes it kind of difficult sometimes.

AC: When the subject comes up, how do you sum up your rock n’ roll past for people who are curious?

KINGDOM: Ha, "rock n' roll past." I don’t know. I usually just say I was in a crappy indie band [laughs]. I mean, people like the Tartans and Sweater Girls kind of knew me from the Siddeleys anyways. Otherwise, I don’t know. I don’t go out much these days.

AC: It’s actually been a full 10 years now since the comprehensive Siddeleys collection, Slum Clearance, came out on CD. Any possibility of future re-releases in the years ahead?

KINGDOM: I’ve had a lot of people ask me about a vinyl re-issue, and I think that’d be really nice. There was supposedly some interest from Cherry Red Records in doing a re-issue, but it didn’t work out because there was still unsold inventory of Slum Clearance. So, you know, hey, screwed by the record company again! [laughs] But Cherry Red Records has been a label I’ve loved since the early ‘80s, so to be on that label would be like a dream come true. So, who knows? It’d certainly be great to get something back out on vinyl.

AC: It seems like a lot of the band’s indie-pop fan base would probably favor a vinyl reissue, anyway.

KINGDOM: Yeah, I guess so. I hear there is still a demand for this stuff. In Japan, about 10 years ago, there was so much demand for Siddeleys singles that they actually did a bootleg release. Somebody released “Sunshine Thuggery” on 7-inch vinyl as a bootleg. I’ve never seen one, but apparently they do exist. I mean, I have no idea how many people would want a re-issue. I tend to think there’s only like 12 people who would actually buy it [laughs]. But I may be wrong.

AC: I'd like to think you're undershooting that a bit. But along those lines, as a sort of final assessment, 25 years later, how do you feel about the legacy of The Siddeleys and this little niche you managed to carve out?

KINGDOM: When Slum Clearance came out, some website described us as “jangle pop cult heroes.” And, you know, I’m quite happy to be a jangle pop cult hero. It sounds quite nice to me. …There’s a certain kind of music fan that loves the obscure. They’re fascinated by the “band that never quite made it.” There’s a kind of romance to that, I suppose. I mean, throughout the ‘90s, nobody gave a fuck about the Siddeleys, really. To my knowledge anyway, no one had even heard of us. And I didn’t even talk about it much, because I felt like we’d been kind of obliterated from memory. So the fact that even 17 people are out there and still care about us is more than we ever expected really.