Almost Famous –An Appreciation Of Larry Wallis
ALMOST FAMOUS –AN APPRECIATION OF LARRY WALLIS
May 1949 – September 2019
I can still remember the first time I saw Larry in the flesh – it was Saturday 3rd June 1972 at the Clitheroe Pop Festival – mid-afternoon, some rain and the heavy presence of a bunch of drunk and noisy bikers who managed to ruin opening sets by Trees and Bridget St. John. The arrival of UFO onstage cheered them up no end – loud, obnoxious hard rock – I recall thinking what a prat front man Phil Mogg looked and sounded and I have to say Larry’s head-splitting metallic guitar onslaught didn’t impress me much either. But boy did he look the part, a towering presence, the shades, the leather and that impressive crown of wild hair – all hooked up to a white Fender Stratocaster and a battery of effects pedals.
Larry didn’t last long in UFO (never recording a full-length album with them). Thankfully years later somebody posted a marvellous clip of him on YouTube from French TV and there is no mistaking that even then he had the makings of an incredible lead guitar player. Real charisma too!
Six months later he was in the Pink Fairies and as a die-hard fan I was concerned. Could the guy who I’d witnessed back in the summer really replace the likes of Paul Rudolph or even Mick Wayne? I needn’t have worried. Had I remembered the small print in Hugh Nolan’s regular ‘Underground’ column in Disc and Music Echo I would have seen Larry already had the credentials. After a stint in mod-psyche quartet the Entire Sioux Nation, in the fall-out of what led to the first proper recording line-up of the Pink Fairies, Larry had teamed up with pal Steve Took to form the short-lived Shagrat.
“His mark on rock and roll should have been immeasurable – maybe one day it will be.”
And the proof that Mick Farren had made the right choice for him to join Russ and Sandy was all there in the grooves of the band’s third longer player, the magnificent Kings of Oblivion – a title he would spend the rest of his life living in the shadow of, in more ways than one! Kings came from a darker, less utopian place than the two previous Fairies long players. It roared off the stylus, a bastard Ezrin/Cooper-MC5 hybrid leavened by a funny kind of English sensibility that made it very accessible. Within days I was humming ‘City Kids’ and ‘I Wish I Was A Girl’, as they turned into the latest PF classics. And wow what a guitar player by turns truly molten and then upliftingly lyrical. Would it be heresy to say he more than filled Black George’s shoes?
What I didn’t know was the background to the LP – Larry was scared shitless to find out that once he was recruited, he was also now the main songwriter and pretty quickly had to come up with the goods for an imminent new record. Relentless studio jams on ‘Eight Miles High’ gave way to a batch of Fairy evergreens but as the band went out on tour, they discovered that Polydor had rushed the LP out with an incomplete version of ‘Raceway’ – the vocals were never added. Polydor didn’t recognise Larry as full band member, insisting he was just as a hired session man for the album and so he never saw any royalties for the record from the label.
This kind of fuck up would dog Larry for the rest of his life. By the of 1973 the Fairies had once again run out of steam, unable to match the breakout success of their Grove buddies, Hawkwind. Various line-ups came and went during the next two years and success once more seemed on the cards when Larry was invited to join an embryonic Motorhead with former Hawkwinder, Lemmy. Some weird disastrous career pattern began to take shape. The trio recorded an LP which was then shelved (later released as On Parole). It could have been Lazza’s ticket to the top. Bad decision, he decided to quit. He would later admit this was a wrong career move. A new version of the Pink Fairies was hastily reconvened, Russ, Sandy, Larry and this time Martin Stone. It looked like a marriage made in heaven. Although Martin was known for his lightning fast country runs in Chilli Willi, he also had the Hendrix touch. His inspired extended fretwork tour de force, ‘Netti Netti’ on the Southern Comfort LP suggested he was more than match for Larry’s abrasive licks – and the rest of the band adored having Mart in their ranks, quickly re-christening him ‘Mad Dog’.
They had the honour of releasing the second ever 45 on the brand-new Stiff label with a superb Edward Barker designed sleeve. Sadly ‘Between the Lines’ was a noisy rather throwaway little ditty that did not do the Fairies full justice. You could hardly pick out any of Stoney’s contributions either. As fate would have it, no sooner was it released than once again Larry was seduced away, this time by the promise of a solo deal and the release of a 45 in his own right for the anthemic ‘Police Car’. If ever a song should have been a hit, then this was the one! Great lyrics, great riff, great playing, pure class!
In 1977 Stiff Records was the byword in cool, the hippest label since Elektra and Larry was at its centre. Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson (the brains behind the company) hatched a plan to promote their acts in the style of the old 60s soul revues with a revolving headliner each night, and showcasing Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric and not least Larry! I caught the tour at Leeds University that October – what a night and I have to say Larry more than held his own against acts that would shortly shoot to super stardom. The ensuing memento of the tour, Live Stiffs Live included a stonking ‘Police Car’ and even got a second release through cheapo label Music for Pleasure. It seemed to an outsider like me it was only a matter of time before Larry’s name would be up there in lights like Costello’s and known to even the most casual of music fans.
So it went. Even as he entered the most productive decade of his musical career Larry seemed destined to fail – fame and fortune eluded him around every bend. There was his ongoing, very fruitful collaboration with the Deviants and Mick Farren, he took over as house producer at Stiff (Ernie Graham, the Adverts, and Wreckless Eric of course); there was a hook up with the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, and in the wake of Wilko’s severance from the Feelgoods, Larry was recruited to write songs for them, as they entered a new phase of popularity. He’d go down to Canvey Island to whip the new line up into shape but as head honcho Lee Brilleaux confided, ‘Laz, you’ve probably wondered why we haven’t asked you to join the band, well it’s because you’re a little bit too famous’.
Some time in late 80 I got wind of Stiff finally allowing Larry to make his long-awaited solo LP and sessions were started for the legendary Leather Forever – with Pete Thomas on drums, Big George Webley on bass and the secret ingredient of Deke Leonard on guitar – right up my street. Agonisingly the plug was pulled just as the recording entered its final stage, almost complete but with guide vocals only. Tragedy. Years later the title track would emerge as a French 45 and it was another killer Wallis number immortalising the magnificence of the leather jacket (Farren, Wallis & Co at one time had been nicknamed the Lewis Leather Brigade in honour of the motorbike clothing shop in Great Portland Street, central London).
To cut a long story short, despite thedead-ends and setbacks, Larry motored on in the early 80s with a new aggregation variously called the Donut Dunkers of Death and Love Pirates of Doom with floating personnel, that included Sandy, George Butler, Andy Colqhoun and Johnny Reber. They played regularly around town such as at the Greyhound in Fulham, and former PF wet nurse, Boss Goodman now the booker at Dingwalls in Camden regularly landed them support spots for the likes of the Beat Farmers and Here & Now.
It was around then that I was asked by Massachusetts-based underground mag Forced Exposure to track Larry down and interview the f*** out of him! Over two very drunken afternoons in autumn 85 the deed was done and duly published. It marked the beginning of an unlikely friendship between us that would span the next two decades. We discovered we had mutual interests that went beyond rock and roll – books, films, TV (on our first meeting he recommended the BBC conspiracy thriller, ‘Dead Head’), even cooking, as well our voracious appetite for the dreaded booze!
Larry could be a warm, witty and intelligent friend and we spent great times in each other’s company. It was through him that I finally met cartoonist Edward Barker (back from the dead, well actually hibernation in Cornwall) and the aforementioned Martin Stone – there were regular get-togethers in the Hole in the Wall in Waterloo where along with Edward or Martin we might be joined by Mr & Mrs Savage Pencil or Laz’s mate sound engineer Alec Hawkins. Back then Larry always seemed to be accompanied by his sweet-tempered pooch, Scarlet.
The hallmark mane of long, back-combed hair may have been shorn by this time but Larry was always sartorially elegant. Yes, he could be relied on to wear the uniform of leather jacket, white silk scarf, drain pipe jeans, black t-shirt, DMs and mirror shades but I recall seeing him on nights out at Dingwalls, a beautiful blond on his arm, in a stylish black jacket, silk shirt, and cowboy boots – as sharp as any fashionista walking the streets of Chelsea or Mayfair.
He remained something of an enigma. Beneath that confident exterior (perhaps the result of too muchregular drugs and drink consumption?) there lurked a troubled human being. He freely admitted he lacked confidence. His dad had once suggested he was good enough to audition for the Stones in the wake of Brian Jones departure but Wallis Jnr was having none of it. I recall the sense of achievement he felt when he passed his driving test, a feat he never thought he’d manage. During one of our many conversations he reached a book down from the shelf – and said ‘that’s what I am, one of tomorrow’s people’ – it was a tome of the same name from 1974 by Jeremy Sandford and Ron Reid (i), a picture postcard collection charting rise and fall of the alternative society in the UK from the mid-60s to the early 70s. There is a double-page photo p84-85 taken at the Trentishoe Whole Earth Fayre in 1973 of the Magic Pink Wind set – Nik Turner takes centre stage to his right you can see Russell and Larry. Larry certainly did look the part – the quintessential rock and roll hippie but in reality, he was far removed from that mindset. He might have been a groover but he most certainly wasn’t born out of the spirit of Ladbroke Grove. He was quick to point out in our first meeting that unlike his bandmates in the Pink Fairies, he hadn’t been schooled in the Underground.
Farren described him to me once as a good old boy from South London – it was an apt summation. Aside from a few years spent in Hampstead around the Summer of Love, Larry never strayed too far from his Walworth roots. In so many ways he had more in common with the working people of South London and their values than the longhair culture. He was very close to his mum and dad, and he even married a local gal from his manor, Janet. But somehow the rock and roll culture, and the changes wrought by the late 60s, had spirited him away. Like so many of our generation, he became a sort of eternal Peter Pan, he never quite grew up.
People would regularly tell me he was unreliable but it was a lesson I had to learn for myself. In 1991 he formed a trio called the Redbirds and persuaded me to release a 12” EP – the band would tour and they’d sell the records on the road. Ed Barker assembled one of the greatest sleeves of his career, a spoof on the then popular Three Amigos film with his beloved crows replacing the three cowboys. Wittily entitled Truth, Justice and A Wholesome Packed Lunch the 4-tracker was duly released on my label but after a handful of shows including one at the Marquee Club, the trio disbanded leaving me with hundreds of unsold platters. I put it down as one of life’s lessons, in retrospect I see it now as just another of Larry’s schemes that sadly ended in the dumper.
It wasn’t end of our friendship though. Soon after the Redbirds demise, I was cajoled into persuading a record label to front a new LP by Russell, Sandy and Larry and a big London show to promote it. Things got off to the usual flying start then as I remember it, Larry did a runner on account of a trapped nerve. Everybody looked at me and said I told you so.
Around the millennium I heard he was off the booze and was planning a new solo record. Death in the Guitarfternoon was self-released in 2001 sporting fabulous artwork by pal, Savage Pencil. The playing was as powerful as anything Larry had put on tape and the songs were a potent batch. Roundly well received especially by long-time fans and the press, it seemed to mark a new beginning. In early 2002 Larry asked me if I would work with him on his autobiography and we started doing interviews at his South London lair. Larry fuelled with constant toots on his bong, was a very forthcoming interviewee and with a professional mic set-up and tape recorder we covered a lot of ground – we certainly got as far as Motorhead. I recall how on one occasion at the end of a session, as I negotiated the steep staircase out on to the street, I’d inhaled so much smoke that my legs had literally turned to jelly!! Can’t remember how I even caught the bus home!!
Why we never completed the schedule of interviews is lost in the mists of time – with a new day job outside the capital, I know my availability became less. We did however continue to meet – he would cycle up to the Royal Festival Hall for a chat, imbibing an orange juice whilst I sipped on a beer. Catching up on news about Stoney (living in Paris), films and all of life’s good stuff. One day he appeared and told me his life was about to change forever – he was going to become hugely wealthy and have a detached house built for him in Kent with a security gate and a home cinema.
I don’t know what happened but I do know Larry spent the rest of his days in his Walworth eyrie and never got that luxury pad. He was subsequently plagued by various medical problems, one of which led to him being unable to play guitar. I moved back to London in 2005 and ended up living some 15 minutes-walk from his flat but though we would still occasionally mail and text each other, we never again saw each other in person. I think the last live shows he did were with the great Pink Fairies tribute band Pink FA. The last time I saw him perform live was at the launch of Mick Farren’s must-read autobiography, Give the Anarchist A Cigarette at Filthy McNasty’s. Larry drove up, unpacked his axe and amp, played amazing guitar behind Mick’s readings then promptly disappeared into the night whilst his former bandmates fell upon a jeroboam of champagne supplied by genial host, Felix Dennis. How times had changed!
When Russell passed on the news last Thursday night that Larry had finally left us following a heart attack in hospital, it came as no surprise, but the after-shock has lingered and over the days since I have not been able to empty my head of all thoughts Wallis and what might have been. He really was an incredibly talented musician and the kind of figure that comes along only once in a lifetime. He left an indelible mark on me and I already miss him. His mark on rock and roll should have been immeasurable – maybe one day it will be.
Back in Leeds in October 1977, the Stiff merch stall offered an array of cool stuff including some ace badges, the one I picked out that night I still wear to this day – it says ‘I’m Ligging with Larry Wallis’. I’m proud to say that for at least 20 years of my life, I did just that!
Nigel Cross, London September 2019
i. I was subsequently given this book by the great man himself, he inscribed it ‘Nigel, is that the fuckin’ time already? Ho-Ho-Ho, Yer Pal Larry, Xmas ‘91’