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Interview With Jo Callis
One of Scotland’s earliest punk groups, the Rezillos formed at the Edinburgh College of Art in March 1976 and were born out of the remnants of another college band, the Knutsford Dominators.
The group, which began life as a sprawling seven piece, featured in its initial line-up Eugene Reynolds (born Alan Forbes, vocals), Fay Fife (born Sheilagh Hynde, vocals), Jo Callis (guitar), Hi Fi Harris (born Mark Harris, guitar), DK Smythe (bass), Angel Paterson (born Alan Paterson, drums) and Gayle Warning (backing vocals). They have been described by rock critic Ira Robbins as mixing “an amused appreciation for all things B-movie wonderful and junky with a dose of comic book sci-fi imagination and a pop art fashion sense straight out of a bad trip on Carnaby Street. ”
The band’s early shows consisted entirely of cover songs. From the outset, the Rezillos tended to veer towards the unconventional in their choice of song matter. Standard covers such as the Dave Clark Five’s ‘Glad All Over’ and Gerry and the Pacemakers’ I Like It’ were mingled with more obscure choices such as Earl Vince and the Valiant’s ‘Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonight.’
Callis and to a lesser degree Harris began to pepper sets with their own compositions, and in the summer of 1977 the Rezillos put out their first single, the Callis-penned ‘I Can’t Stand My Baby’. Released on local label, Sensible Records, it was Scotland’s first punk single. With Callis’ songs now dominating their sets, the Rezillos shortly afterwards signed to Sire Records, becoming the first UK band to sign directly to the American label.
Harris, Smythe and Warning all left towards the end of that year. With William Mysterious (born William Donaldson) taking over Smythe’s place on bass, the new stripped-down five piece the Rezillos released their second single, ‘(My Baby Does) Good Sculptures)’ in early 1978.
A third single, the satirical ‘Top of the Pops’, went into the Top 20 on its release in July of that year, and ironically earned the band its first ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance. The group’s debut album, ‘Can’t Stand the Rezillos’, followed later that month. A liberal reinterpratation of an imaginary 60’s as much as a statement of 70’s punk ethos, it won good reviews and showcased Callis’ gleefully raucous and rough-edged guitarwork ; Fife’s brazen, hiccupy singing and Reynolds’ sneering vocals ; fiery drumming from Paterson and Mysterious’ rubbery basswork.
It was, however, already almost over for the Rezillos.They released a final single,‘Destination Venus’ in November of that year, upon which Mysterious was replaced by new bassist, Simon Templar (born Simon Bloomfield), but decided to split later that month part the way through a British tour with the Undertones, as a result of creative differences. They bowed out after playing a final show at the Glasgow Apollo on December 23rd 1978. This last show was recorded and released as a live album, ‘Mission Accomplished...But the Beat Goes On’, in April of 1979.
Fife and Reynolds went on to form the Revillos with Hi-FI Harris. They released two albums before finally splitting in 1985. In the time since then Reynolds has become the main European exporter for the American antique motorcycle chain, the Indian Motorcycle Company. Fife meanwhile has become a mother and, turning to acting, has made appearances in both ‘Taggart’ and ‘The Bill’. Callis briefly formed Shake with Paterson and Templar with whom he recorded a single and an EP. After they split, he joined the Human League with whom he co-wrote the bestselling ‘Dare’ album and several singles, including the million-selling ‘Don’t You Want Me’. Paterson, after leaving Shake, got married and moved to Germany where he now runs his own architectural firm.
The Rezillos reformed in 2001 with Callis, Fife, Reynolds and Paterson all back on board and new recruit Johnny Teminator taking over the once again vacant bass spot. They played their first reunion gig at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Party and have since then toured both internationally and also across Britain several times.
Pennyblackmusic spoke to Jo Callis at a show shortly before Christmas at the Edinburgh Liquid Room on the final date of their first British tour in a year and a half.
PB : The Rezillos were formed out of the ashes of another group, the Knutsford Dominators. Who were they ?
JC : That was a band we had when we were at art college, myself and Eugene and a couple of the other guys who we were there with. We played locally around Edinburgh in our last year there. It was very much a fun thing, but also a kind of prototype for the Rezillos. We played lots of 60’s and rock ‘n’ roll covers.
PB : And the Rezillos grew out of that.
JC : The Rezillos were the next stage.
PB : Where does that name the Rezillos come from ?
JC : There was an early 70’s DC comic called ‘The Shadow’ . The Shadow was a real pulp fiction character. The very first issue of that comic has in one of its pictures the Shadow standing there with his two guns and his mask. There is a street scene in the background and what was meant to be either a club or a bar. It was actually called “Revilos”with one “L” and we took that and changed the letter to a “Z”. I think we probably had the name before we had the band.
PB : You spent most of your first year together rehearsing. It has been said that you were a very, very tight unit from your debut.
JC : We weren’t initially, but we did rehearse a lot before we played our first show. We played again at first all 50’s and 60’s covers and we had a fairly long set from the outset.
PB : When did you first start adding your own material ?
JC : Pretty soon. I can’t remember the actual time scale, but it would have been within a couple of months.
PB : And it was you who was doing most of the writing ?
JC : Yeah ! The other guitar player at the time, Mark “Hi-Fi” Harris, wrote a couple of songs as well, and so that was the start. We were trying to do things which were like in the vein of old R & B. It gradually started to develop from there.
PB : Where did the Rezillos’ sci fi and 60’s pop art fashion influences come from ? Was that from art college ?
JC : Yeah, it was a common reference. We wanted to dress up and to be a bit showy. Most of us were either at art college, or doing architecture, which was in the same building, so nearly everyone came from the same background.
PB : Fay has said in a previous interview that it was never very serious, yet you seemed to work to incredibly professional standards from the outset.
JC : When we started off we weren’t very serious at all. We started it off really for a laugh. The idea at the beginning was just to provoke a bit of a reaction. We wanted to wind people up as much as anything else. Most of the bands of that time that were progressive rock acts and bollocks like that. We were just trying to wind these folk up. We didn’t think that we would go down particulary well, and then after the first couple of gigs we realised we were going down better than a lot of the more serious bands. We gradually started getting a lot of offers to do local gigs. That built up fairly quickly until in 1977 we did about 200 gigs in that year alone. We began to take it more seriously as it went on. We started to introduce more and more new original songs as time went on as well.
PB : Some of your choices of covers were pretty unconventional. ‘Somebody’s Gonna Get their Head Kicked In’, for example, was a cover of a fairly obscure 1969 B-side by Earl Vince and the Valiants (Fleetwood Mac working under a pseudonym-Ed). Did you go out of your way looking for fairly obscure stuff ?
JC : It was a combination of both. We did Eddie Cochran songs, 60’s girl group things, Shangri La songs, and things like that right from the word go, just whatever felt right really.
PB : There were all these other punk and new wave bands coming out at the same time in Scotland like the Skids and the Valves
JC : Yeah, they were a bit later. When we started up in 1976, there for a good while wasn’t really anybody else.
PB : The whole punk thing had kicked off down South in ‘76 though.
JC : I think that it was inevitable that something like that was going to happen. The mentality of it was quite similar in a lot of respects to what we were doing. That became another major influence. I was into it all. Mark was into it as well. He used to write articles for blues magazines and remained a real roots and blues affecionado, but he was into all the new stuff that was happening as well. It pulled us back from being in some kind of void and gave us a little bit of direction. We wouldn’t have been able to carry on doing cover versions of old 60’s bands. That would have been it after about a year. If we hadn’t moved on from there, everyone would have been saying “Oh, been there. Seen that !”.
PB : You first record was ‘I Can’t Stand My Baby’. it came out on Sensible Records. Who were they ?
JC : It was run by a guy called Lenny Love. He managed us for a while and he set up his own independent label, effectively to put us out. He was a friend of Bruce Findlay, who had his own chain of record shops and who went on to manage Simple Minds. They used to work together a lot and Bruce was always geeing Lenny up and nagging at Lenny to set up a record label and eventually he did.
PB : You were very hard working. You’ve mentioned already that you played 200 gigs alone in 1977. Do you think that was a major contributing factor in the group’s success ?
JC : It certainly didn’t do us any harm. At that stage of your career that’s really all you’ve got for making a name for yourself. We didn’t really think about records or anything like that at the start. It was just a fun thing. We started to get more and more popular in Edinburgh first and then we began playing all over Scotland, and also doing occasional dates in the North of England. We built ourselves up territory by territory and ended up doing a fortnight of dates in London around about the time ‘(My Baby Does) Good Sculptures) ’ came out.
That really helped us to get reviews and to become known outside Edinburgh. We would play just about anywhere. In those two weeks in London we played places like Roxy’s and the Vortex, the punk clubs, but also places like the Fulham Greyhound, and the Nashville and all the rock ‘n’ roll R & B clubs. It was a really good thing to do and really helped us to broaden our horizons. Once we had done we really felt that we were starting to move on.
PB : ‘(My Baby Does) Good Sculptures’ was your first release on Sire Records. How did you become involved with them ?
JC : We started to get interest from a couple of companies in late ‘77. There was a record label which Todd Rundgren was on called Bearville Records which was keen. The Sire thing came about though by bizarre coincidence. There was a journalist called Ian Cranmer. He started off by hating us, but then he really warmed to us and began helping us out a lot. He had a friend, someone who was a pen pal, who worked in the Sire offices. It happened from that.
PB : You signed to Sire as an eight piece band, but almost immediately three of your members, bassist DK Smythe, guitarist “Hi Fi” Harris and backing vocalist Gail Warning left. Why was that ?
JC : DK Smythe had always said from day one that he wasn’t going to quit his day job. He had a really good job as a a marine geologist and a really good career there. He didn’t want to do it full time.
It just came to the point when we signed to Sire where everyone in the band had to decide if they wanted to do it full time and to go for it. There were folk, like DK , who didn’t want to take the chance,who had a good job or whatever, and just left. There was no acrimony. Nobody was chucked out or left with any bad feeling. It was a case of people deciding that they wanted to go back to college and study, or to concentrate instead on their careers, which was fair enough really. It was the kind of hardcore of us that were left. William Mysterious took over from DK on bass. He used to stand in occasionally.
PB : He was the saxophonist originally, wasn’t he ?
JC : Yeah, he would come on and play the saxophone on stage with us occasionally. He was good friends with Ali the drummer, and there were odd gigs in which maybe DK Smythe couldn’t come and play the bass and he would maybe take over. He fitted straight in as a bass player. He and Ali probably had the most professional experience. They had played in bands together before, folk rock acts and things like that..
PB : The album ‘Can’t Stand the Rezillos’ was recorded at the Power Station in New York. There are stories on the internet that you didn’t eat for two or three days at at time during the recording of that album. Is there any truth in that ?
JC : No (Laughs). I hadn’t heard that before. There certainly wasn’t a great deal of money. New York was really good though with lots of cheap food, and we would get a fee of so much a day off the record company. We definitely didn’t starve (Laughs).
Afterwards though was more of a problem. Money was very, very tight after we got back to Britain. I think that is probably where those stories came from. Sire had dealings with Phonogram and they decided to get out of that and to try to negotiate a deal with Warner Brothers. The record was held up for three months because there wasn’t a distribution company to put it out and we went through a pretty rough patch then in which there was bugger all. Once they got their distribution sorted out with Warner Brothers that really benefitted us though because they gave us and the Talking Heads a lot of priority. All the waiting,therefore, eventually paid off.
PB : You burnt out fairly quickly after the album came out. What went wrong ?
JC : We were young, hot-headed. We started getting different ideas about the direction that we should go. It was all the usual sort of stuff.
PB : You broke up after playing a farewell gig at the Glasgow Apollo, which was recorded and made up the ‘Mission Accomplished’ album. Do you remember much about that final show ?
JC : Yes, it was good, but it was also very sad. It was a bit like a wake, a jolly wake. We were committed to doing a last couple of dates, and we had to record the live album to help to fulfill our contractual obligations to Sire Records. I think that we made the best of it.
PB : You finally got back together to play the Hogmanay Festival in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh at the end of 2001, but from the outset since you reformed you have never been a nostalgia act. You’ve been writing new material, some of which you performed that night.
JC : That was the first live show, but Eugene, Fay and I actually had a little bit of a get together a couple of years prior to that. We got together and wrote four new songs.All those songs are actually in the set now. Ali the drummer lived in Germany, while we were all based in Edinburgh. We didn’t have a bass player or anything, and while we were thinking of taking it onto the next step and using a couple of local guys and going into the live arena, we ended up not doing so. It wasn’t that the timing wasn’t right. It just didn’t happen for one reason or another.
PB : Since you’ve got back together you’ve played far more countries than you did in your original lifetime.
JC : We only played outside Britain one gig in CBGB’s in New York in the old days, and one date in France. Now we have played all over. This is the third time that we have done this venue. There are some other places in Britain we have done a couple of times, and we have also played Spain, Norway and America.
PB : Have you been surprised at the band’s success abroad ?
JC : I wouldn’t call it success, but I am really delighted by the turn out and the interest that there has been. We did the Hogmanay gig as a one off gig, and to see how that went. Everything pulled together from that very quickly. On the strength of that we got offered the chance to tour America. There has been quite a lot of interest from the start really from the live front. That reformed band thing had just started to happen. They’ve got a big live circuit abroad for all that and we got all these offers which we still get regularly.
PB : It’s been about 18 months since you last toured. Why has there been such a long absence, and what have you been doing in the meantime ?
JC : I am the only one who has remained full time in the music business. Other folk have had jobs and other stuff going on. We got our website www.rezillos.com developed. We have spent quite a bit of time developing it. We had a lot of bad luck just getting involved with the wrong people, people who went off with the money, and who weren’t really on our case properly. We ended up in a financial situation in which we had no record company, no management, no anything really, so it was down to us whether we wanted to grab the bull by the horns, which is what we have done over the last few weeks with this tour.
PB : Where do you from here ?
JC : We have got a lot of things shaping up for next year. We’re going to tour America, and I think do a little tour of Italy and a few more gigs in Britain and hopefully a couple of those newer festivals which have older bands. We have got a CD coming out of John Peel sessions, and we are doing a Radio Clyde session CD as well.
PB : Do you hope to record some of the new songs that you have been playing ?
JC : Definitely ! Some of them will appear on that Radio Clyde CD. We would also like to put a single out. and then maybe to do an album. We’re hoping that someone will offer us a deal to do it. There’s no point in doing it if it is just going to be a vanity publishing thing really. I don’t think anyone is into that idea of “we’ll put a record out, because it’s nice to have a record out, and hopefully we'll sell a couple of copies.” It would be nice to have a little bit of infrastructure behind it and to have someone really getting behind it. It would definitely be an indie thing. We don’t expect to do ‘Top of the Pops’ or anything like that, although that means fuck all these days. I’d rather see stuff get downloaded onto i-tunes, or sell a respectable amount of albums all over the world.
PB : As the only full time musician are you working on other projects as well ?
JC : I haven’t been doing a great deal because I have spent a lot of time getting my house done up and have also been involved in various other things. My Mum died a couple of years ago, so I have been spending quite a bit of time with my Dad in Lincolnshire. He’s an old military man, so he kind of looks after himself, but he likes a bit of company now and then as well. The house has been an absolute nightmare, and I have only recently got my home studio up and running and working again.
I am, therefore, looking into that and I also might be doing a bit of co-writing with Sophie Ellis-Bextor if it all works out. I suppose that will have more of an 80’s vibe. I don’t suppose she will be doing any punk, but it’s a nice thought though. “Come on Sophie. How about a bit of rock ‘n’ roll punk ?” (Laughs).
PB (Laughs) : Thank you very much for your time.
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