Paul Harvey, Steve Wallace, Pauline Murray, Robert Blamire, John Maher
Right from the start it was obvious that Penetration were something special. Formed in Ferryhill County Durham in late 1976 at the start of the punk explosion their songs were fiery and direct with Pauline Murray's passionate vocals and no-nonsense lyrics a cut above those of the thousands of other novice singers who felt empowered enough to front a new wave band.
Virgin Records issued Don't Dictate, Penetration's anthemic calling card as a one-off single in the autumn of 1977 and signed the band to an album deal shortly after. Produced by Mike Howlett and engineered by Mick Glossop Moving Targets was released in 1978 and showed the band, now a five piece with Neale Floyd sharing guitar duties with new boy Fred Purser, constantly evolving both as a performing unit and songwriters.
Returning from 1979's exhausting 34 date five week summer American tour Penetration were rushed into the studio by Virgin Records three weeks later to record album two. The Steve Lilywhite-produced Coming Up For Air is a remarkable piece of work completed under far from ideal circumstances. The band were worn out but booked onto a major UK tour to promote the new album. Lacking the necessary physical and emotional recovery time, the grueling schedule management and record label had mapped out was a step too far for a band who were either still teenagers or in their very early 20's. A tearful Pauline Murray announced from the stage of Newcastle City Hall on October 14 1979 that Penetration would split at the end of the tour.
Murray and Penetration bass player Robert Blamire went onto record and tour with Pauline Murray And The Invisible Girls. The duo formed Polestar Records, issuing several singles and the Storm Clouds album in the late 1980's and also set up Polestar Studios, a Newcastle-based. rehearsal and recording studio, in 1990.
Pauline and Robert reformed Penetration with original drummer Gary Smallman and new guitarists Steve Wallace and Paul Harvey in 2002 as primarily a live band. With original Buzzcocks drummer John Maher now behind the kit, Penetration returned to the recording studio for the first time in 36 years early in 2015 and the result, the Resolution album has just been released to universally positive reviews.
Ian Ravendale dropped into Polestar Studios for a chat.
Pauline, you did a short solo tour of Australia last year. How did that come about?
Pauline Murray: We were approached by an Australian promoter early last year and I thought it was a big joke. But he produced the goods and Robert and I were paid to go across in October. I did solo acoustic gigs and radio interviews. It was-hopefully-to pave the way for the band to go over but that's a much biggest operation.
Robert Blamire: It was before we'd started recording the new album. We'd planned to do it but there was no solid schedule at this point.
PM: I did two gigs in Sydney. One was this little club called The Camelot Lounge and there were pictures of camels everywhere! There was a horrible heckling woman who hassled me the whole of the gig! I got quite upset. The second gig was right in the centre of Sydney. It was a very cold atmosphere that I went on to and I made loads of cock-ups! Rob couldn't watch it! I'd not really done this sort of gig before. We then went to Melbourne and did two shows there. I did radio interviews where I got the guitar out and played! Edgy! The promoter was a Penetration fan and he came over here in February 2014. We initially ignored him! But eventually we had to say yes or no to doing it! To go to the other side of the world is a 27 hour flight!
RB: The promoter had originally worked out of Canberra, and set up a punk scene there putting gigs on.
PM: Then he left that, became a national journalist, worked for the Australian government, crashed out of that, re-found his mojo and decided he wanted Penetration to go to Australia and got Rob and I to go first. He rang yesterday, wanting Penetration to go out. He needs to get other people on board because it's a much bigger financial risk.
Would the rest of the band be up for an Australian tour?
Steve Wallace: The question marks have been there from the start. The logistics of the whole thing and the costs involved. The promoters are keen, though! They came here for the rehearsals and talked about the idea.
Paul Harvey: I wouldn't go to Australia for holiday but I'd go there and play!
There's a new boxed set of Penetration's Virgin albums due. How did that come about?
RB: It's Universal Music who are putting it out. Nothing to do with us! The first we knew about it was when the guy who's working for Universal as a freelancer compiling four or five boxed sets with us, The Skids, The Members and The Ruts rang us to let us know what they were putting on it. It was already planned before we got involved. He wanted some photos and sleeve notes.
You got Pauline's former husband Peter Lloyd, who writes as Cindy Stern, to do the sleeve notes.
PM: Rob thought of that. They'd got this other guy to do the sleeve notes and he sent me a load of questions which I answered. When I got the finished sleeve notes back it was more or less what I'd said. It didn't relate to the band, it didn't relate to the album and was all about me. I rang the guy who was putting the boxed set together and told him I thought they were really bad-I wasn't happy with them. He asked me if I had any ideas for somebody else to do them. Rob said to get Peter to do it. He's doing a bit of writing at the moment and was with the band from day one.
RB: He's got insight into the whole thing.
PM: I hadn't been in touch with Peter for many years. I got in touch via Facebook and asked him if he'd be willing to write the sleeve notes. Which he did and they're great. We stand to make not one penny from the boxed set! I've had ex-members of the band trying to find out about it. All they've got to do is ring Universal! There's no money going to come any of it!
PM: I got a bill this June from Universal saying Penetration still owe them £30,000! We will never make a penny from any of that stuff and will never own it. I'm not even willing to pursue trying to own it. Why should I do all the running about?
RB: There’s this whole thing going on in the USA at the moment where in the next two years if you register you'll get the rights back to your music for America. But there's no point in us doing it because the whole band is fractured.
PM: We're not willing to get involved. We'll just let it go. And put it down to many bands having being ripped off. We're not the only ones.
The £30,000, presumably, is for unrecouped advances that Virgin paid the band for touring, recording and living expenses? You'd think there'd be some sort of statute of limitations regarding re-repaying advances. It was more than 35 years ago!
RB: You'd have thought so! And that at some point the contract would run out and the rights automatically come back to the band.
PM: I checked that out. We signed to Quarry for management and Quarry signed a production deal with Virgin. I've looked at that contract and it doesn't have an 'end' date! It doesn't say 'after 25 years' or anything. We signed it.
RB: If you're Sting, and you stand to make a few million out of it, it'd probably be worth pursuing! But not from our point of view!
PM: We have no control over our back catalogue. At all. They can put it out whenever they want however they want. We have no say in the matter. The boxed set is a prime example! Getting Peter to do the sleeve notes was the only thing that we had a bit of control over and is the best thing about it!
You've just released Resolution, Penetration's first new album in 36 years. How has that come about?
RB: The last time we were out doing shows we were playing mainly old material. There was a few new numbers in there. But it's a great band we've got, so we thought, let's do a new album getting everyone's input.
PH: We're all creative people so you want to be creative! You can be creative within the context of the old material because they're such great songs. I personally never get bored with playing them. We all saw the potential of making new music. And being the punks we are we wouldn't have wanted to do it just because we thought we should! We had to do it for the right reasons which was that we were ready.
How did you go about choosing the material? Did you have ten or twenty unrecorded songs that you'd written over the years and could draw on?
PM: No. We put out a couple of singles on the Damaged Goods label a few years back. The Feeling, Guilty, Sea Song and Our World. For the new album we decided to redo them except for Our World. Otherwise those songs might have got lost. A few people had heard them but a lot of people hadn't. We had another song called Two Places that we'd never recorded. And that really was all we had! Four songs.
SW: We've got tapes with loads of bits and pieces on. Half-finished ideas. Work in progress. I don't think any of it went on the album in the end!
PM: We dumped a lot of it!
This version of Penetration has been gigging since 2002. Did that help with the preparation for the album?
PM: It's a totally different mindset to do an album! It's got to work on many levels.
John Maher: I thought I was coming down to play on fully-formed songs where I could pick up on what you lot had got together! But that was good. Because rather than me just playing my parts almost parrot-fashion I feel I'm more a part of those because I was playing along when the songs were being figured out!
How did you get involved with Penetration, John? Everyone else is local to each other but you live in the Outer Hebrides.
JM: Yes, the Isle Of Harris. The first time I had anything to do with Penetration was when Rob and I were asked to play on Patrick Fitzgerald's first album. And then I did the Invisible Girls album and tour in 1980. Then there was a long gap. Two years ago, right out of the blue, I got a phone call from Rob saying that somebody had approached them about putting on an Invisible Girls gig. I told him to keep me posted. That fizzled out and the next time I heard from Rob was when he rang to say they were doing a new Penetration album and did I fancy playing on it?
PM: It was a true act of faith on everyone's behalf because John didn't know what the songs were going to be like and nor did we!
JM: I came down in December and thought, 'If the songs are shit I'll give it a miss!'
PM: We didn't give him that opportunity! When John heard the completed album he hadn't actually heard the finished songs before! The third or fourth time he came down I thought we could get through three-quarters of it, we had enough ideas. But the next time, I didn't know what the hell we were going to do! We had nothing sorted! We had a Pledger came to spend the day with us. We were in the Polestar studio writing Calm Before The Storm, John was putting the drums on and I was directing where I wanted the verses to go. Then I went away to London for a week to write lyrics to all these backing tracks.
The live situation must be difficult, John, with you being so far away.
JM: The live thing was something Rob mentioned from the outset because there was already some gigs pencilled in.
PM: We had one gig pencilled in for September at the Undercover Festival in Woking. We'd done it last year and they asked us back. So we were tied to that date and had to put others in around it. Getting the album done was a massive thing and the gigs were a step too far. Gigs require concentration. It's a bit problematic with John living so far away. We've got three left to do then we won't do any more for quite a while.
The Resolution album has been financed via a Pledge Music campaign. Could you talk us through how that works?
RB: Some bands have already have their albums recorded and they just do a Pledge campaign as pre-sales. But what we did was worked out how much it was going to cost, roughly, and set that as our 100%. Which we reached in about two weeks! Then it went up to 160%, so we had the budget to record.
PM: You don't get all the money at once!
So they act as middle man? If I'm a fan who wants Penetration to make a new album I send my money in advance to Pledge Music...
PM: ...they take a cut and send the rest on to us. You get half when you hit 100% but you don't get the rest until you've fully delivered it. That can be quite problematic because if we didn't have a recording studio here at Polestar it could have got a little bit tricky as you don't get the money until the album is finished. You could run into problems. Pete Wylie has had a campaign going for a while now and I can see why it's takes so long if you've got to keep booking studios.....Originally we'd have had to get the manufacturing of the CD's out of it as well beforehand but we linked up with Proper Distribution who paid for that end.
What would you do if a record label comes to you and says they want to put the album out?
RB: It's always going to be on Polestar Records. We weren't looking for a label. We just needed distribution.
PM: The distributor approached us part of the way through...
RB: ...so we were able to negotiate a decent deal out of it.
PM: It meant that once the album came out we could get it into HMV etc and onto Amazon and Itunes
RB: They've been pretty proactive. We went through a company in Germany called Optimal to get it pressed. They pressed the vinyl as well.
Sounds like it's going to go pretty quickly!
RB: I think all of the vinyl's gone. Or there's none left in the warehouse, anyway.
Why did you decide to have vinyl copies pressed as well as CD's? Did it require thinking in a different way when it came to the mix?
RB: The way we look at it is: an LP is a record with two sides where you get 22 minutes on each side. We'd never made a record since it was records, in the early 80's.
PM: We wanted to make a proper album. I don't like the way people download stuff and go 'I'd like track 3 or track 2' or whatever. We wanted them to listen to it as an album so they'd listen to one side, turn it over and listen to the other. That's the way it was put together.
RB: The thing about vinyl cutting these days is that the cutting engineers are so used to it all being dance music and say 'Can you keep it down to 17 minutes a side so we can get the bottom end and bass drum happening'.
PM: We just ignored that and carried on!
RB: I knew how we wanted the overall sound and didn't want very much bottom end in there.
Are there different mixes for the vinyl and the CD?
RB: It's the same mix and the same masters. We mastered it exactly as we wanted it to sound! We mixed it for hi fi. We didn't mix it to be listened to on little PC speakers! But it does actually work on those.
SW: It not a compressed sound. It sounds better the more you turn it up!
PH: For me it's more of a philosophical approach. That medium-the LP-we all grew up with it. It's a fantastic medium and so is the 45. We were thinking of the album as, 'What would end Side 1? What would start Side 2? Where are the different moods?' Looking at it in terms of a classic album. Where there's no filler. The great albums don't have filler! The only problem we've had is that choosing one track off the album for radio play doesn't represent the album.
PM: We wanted it to be a full listening experience. Where you listen from start to finish. But because we got involved with Proper Distribution, we then had to start to compromise ourselves, taking tracks off piecemeal, lead tracks for radio and for online. We let the general consensus choose those tracks. We did radio edits of Just Drifting and Beat Goes On. People were hearing certain tracks at a time which didn't represent the album and were out of context. But that's just the way it works now.
Any thoughts at all about who is going to be buying the first Penetration album in 36 years? Did you think about where it fitted in today's music?
PM: We tried to be true to the essence of Penetration. Writing lyrics took me a little while to get into the zone. 2015-where do I stand? I'm not 18 or 20. What have I got to say today? Do I have anything to say? In the past the writing was done when the guitarists or Rob would come with ideas and then we'd mix and match them. Then I would write the words and the tune onto that framework. A couple of the songs on Resolution are all mine, including Just Drifting. I had a few others like that but I had to back right off because it wasn't Penetration. I said the way it had to be was that the band had to come with the guitar ideas and I'll work to them as on an original Penetration record.
PH: Steve did a lot of the writing and pushed it on.
SW: There was little bits and riffs and ideas that I had. A fair bit of it was done last minute! Some totally last minute! For Aguila we had a long weekend in here. John was down and we'd been recording drums. I had this idea for a song and I'd been playing it all weekend on acoustic guitar. We had a Pledger who'd paid to come to a recording session and then go out for a meal with us later on. So the clock is ticking. The Pledger had gone back to his hotel and we had 45 minutes left. Pauline's going; 'Is that it? Are we finished?' I said: 'I've got this idea...' Rob was on the phone to his mam, Paul was asleep. John said; 'Let's have a go at it!' We set up a click track. I sat in here with the guitar, John took some notes. We had two goes through.
JM: We just had to figure out, 'Where's the verse, where's the chorus?' He'd been playing it all bloody weekend! I thought; 'We've got to this thing down!' All it needed was a good solid drum track. The guitars were acting as a guide and were going to be redone anyway. There was the potential so when I went back up to Harris I'd left something behind that they could work with. And they did!
PM: We didn't change John's format. It's exactly the same drum track. I took it away, put lyrics and a tune to it and there was another song!
That song-and the album in general-sounds both simultaneously contemporary and 1978-79 Penetration to me.
PM: John is from that punk time and so are Rob and I so you're going to get things that are authentic. Both Paul and Steve grew up in that time and their influences come from then.
SW: I was a Penetration fan when I was at school!
PH: So was I! I saw them live and it runs deep!
PM: With Paul and Steve having been fans they know what fans want. They're a good guide!
PH: We talked about what the Penetration 'thing' is. But there was very little that was contrived. One thing we never talked about was 'target markets!' 'Who are we making it for?' That's not punk! Really, we made it for ourselves!
PM: It's a guitar album. Very much so! It's quite difficult to make a guitar album. It's such a limited format. We've managed to bring the light and shade. There's only one very simple one line keyboard on Sea Song. Otherwise there's no synthesises or keyboards anywhere near the album.
RB: From a production viewpoint, to develop the guitars after we'd done the drum tracks at Polestar we went over to Trinity Heights, Fred's studios, for five days and put down some bottom line guitars and talked a lot with Fred about how we were going to layer them. He remembers better than me how the guitars were recorded and the sound put together on the original records. We didn't do a lot of recording that week but we did a lot of talking. We came back to Polestar with five songs with bits of guitars on. We then had a benchmark of where the guitars were going to be.
Everybody involved in the Resolution project does seem to have been on the same page.
PM: Rob picked the whole team from day one. He choose Fred, John and Vaughan Oliver (who we went to school with!) to do the artwork.
PH: Everybody understood what was going on.
RB: It was well planned. You just put the people together and let them get on with it!
PM: We did look further afield and we did get in touch with Mick Glossop (who engineered Moving Targets) and asked him if he wanted to get involved.
RB: He said 'Have you heard The Foals?'! What are you on about?! Mick was great. But he wasn't on the same page!
PH: We're all on the same page but all bring something different. Rob allowed us to be who we are but not be too much of an authoritarian figure. But when he had to say something he would.
JM: The best example of how we all worked together was Outromistra at the end. It came out of nothing. That was very much a case of everybody listening to what everybody else was doing. I've been in circumstances where a guitarist will get the ego thing going and want to do everything on top of everybody else.
Surprisingly, the opening track of the album, Instrumantra, is an instrumental. Even though the main thing most fans would want to hear and recognise about Penetration is Pauline's voice.
PM: That's why I wanted to do that! After 36 years they can wait a bit longer!
Fred Purser mixed the whole album and recorded some of it. He also plays the guitar solo on Beat Goes On and sings backing vocals on Guilty.
RB: That's because because we couldn't reach the notes! We decided to do the vocals with Fred because of his musicality and his ear for harmony. Because Pauline and I are partners it doesn't always work me directing her and saying she's got to do something again!
No supper for you, Rob! Was there there any thoughts of having former Penetration members Gary Chaplin, Gary Smallman or Neale Floyd on as well?
RB: I did speak to Gary Smallman about doing the drums, when our last drummer decided he didn't want to do the album. I got the sense that Gary wasn't very enthusiastic.
PM: So we asked John, which is a better choice for this album, I think. Gary Chaplin left the band a long, long time ago and we haven't really worked with him since. Neale is just off the map! He's been constantly abusing me on Facebook. I've had to suffer that throughout the recording of the album. Psychologically it's been quite a difficult thing for me to do this album. I didn't want to do it because I didn't know how we were going to make a better album than the ones we made which are so iconic. But I managed to move forward and come out of it with a result. We had to leave those albums behind and surpass them. I had great faith that we could do it. All the time I had to tell myself that I could do it! Pledge Music have had faith that we could do it. All of us had faith. John has had faith coming all the way down from the Hebrides.
RB: We were very focused.
Vive Le Rock no 19 with Coming Up For Air, Ian Ravendale's in-depth article on the history of Penetration with contributions from all the band's original members, is available from: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Resolution LP can be bought right here on vinylguru.co.uk