Before tackling a really great album, I’d like to set out some pre-history of this obscure Scottish new wave band. So let’s momentarily plunge back into the old wave of the early-to-mid seventies: flares, 8-track cartridges, prog rock and bubbleglam.
Formed in Glasgow in 1974, after changing their name from Salvation, Slik (Midge Ure guitar and vocals, Jim McGinlay bass, Kenny Hyslop drums and Billy McIsaac keyboards) got a contract with seventies glam rock label Bell records and became involved with expert songwriters Bill Martin and Phil Coulter, at the time churning out big hits for the Bay City Rollers. Somewhat embarrassedly decked out in 1950s-style baseball outfits, Slik’s first single flopped miserably but the second, Forever And Ever, shot to the top of the British charts in February 1976. Eagerly anticipating a long and prolific career, the band hastily put out a follow-up, Requiem, which although just as catchy and theatrical as its predecessor, only made the top twenty. In March 1977, Jim McGinlay left and was replaced by Russell Webb. Bell records became Arista and the next single, The Kid's A Punk, was not a hit. The song was doubtless intended as a response to the incendiary impact of the new energy explosion, but the public were unimpressed. In the midst of much spitting, ripped T-shirts and safety pins, well-groomed pop combos like Slik appeared decidedly bland. So they changed their name to PVC2 and cut a single for the local Zoom label in Glasgow, but this subterfuge failed and by late 1977 the group fell apart.
Midge Ure later turned up in the Rich Kids before establishing himself as front man for Ultravox. Meanwhile, his erstwhile bandmates reinvented themselves as the Zones, adding Alex Harvey’s cousin, Willie Gardner, (formerly of Hot Valves) on vocals and lead guitar. Still on the independent Zoom label they issued a single, Stuck With You, which John Peel played a lot, garnering the attention of – surprise surprise! – their old major label chums, Arista Records. The band signed on the dotted line and studio time was booked at the Manor, with producer Tim Friese-Greene in charge of the sound.
The first fruits of this was another 45, Sign Of TheTimes (1978), an underrated pop song with raging guitars and passionate vocals which failed to bother any charts. The Zones album, Under Influence, was finally issued in the summer of 1979 after two John Peel sessions and some high profile live appearances.
Which is where we come in. Do It All Again kicks off things in fine style with echoplex keyboards, a stop-start beat and bold guitars. I’ve got no message for the masses! Pleads the heroic voice of Willie Gardner, which is honest at least. The real meat begins with Vision On. Jangling guitars lead into damped, treated ones behind Gardner’s vocal with a lyric concerning confrontation and paranoia: 'Do you believe in yourself? Or would you rather be someone else? I’ve got to shake this nonsense from my skull, I’ve got to make things seem bright when they are dull.' Drums, bass, spiralling synthesizer and occasional piano enter the fray during the next verse, as the track builds in tension, exploding with these impassioned questions: 'Why are you so far away?Or are you so near that I can’t feel?' Fantastic stuff!
Deadly Dolls starts like powerpop but changes into a reggae lilt with unusual time signatures. Billy McIsaac does some wonderful things here with subtle keyboard overdubs and a variety of dexterous guitar effects dazzle the listener: tremolo, echo, flange, they’re all here – as Gardner regales us with a truculent harangue set to a catchy tune.
The next song is my favourite on the album, a composition of real worth which has, like the entire LP, gone unnoticed and unloved by an ignorant world. The End deals with that ghastly thing we all have to suffer at some point in our lives, the heartbreaking climax to a love affair. Formidable stabs of razor guitar introduce the track while Willie Gardner disparages the object of his former desire in a vituperative salvo of cruel statements: 'Your smiling eyes don’t penetrate my heart no more, your little fingers don’t thrill me like before. maybe I should fall down on my knees, a tearful scene just to try and please. remember all the things that we did before? well that just isn’t me no more' Sequenced keyboards now appear behind the verses and chorus, until Willie really lets the poor girl have it, right between the eyes: 'You only knew a part of me, was all you wanted me to be. You want a lover but you don’t want a friend, I don’t exist – so this is the end.' Spindly guitar heralds his low snarl: 'it’s all over'. A deeply moving song of enduring quality, brilliantly performed.
Isolated drums, subtly flanged and heavily gated, jerk the listener back to the real world as Willie’s open letter to David Bowie, Mainman, gets under way. Blimey, how this guy loved the Ziggy-era Bowie! It sounds as if his world fell apart when the Thin White Duke took to plastic soul for 1975’s Young Americans album. Cleverly recreating the classic Ziggy sound for this heavily ironic spoof, Gardner even throws in two guitar passages authentically cloning Mick Ronson’s All The Young Dudes solos! Passionate singing, clearly right from the heart, conveys the disappointment of his guru’s stylistic u-turn with verve and understands that at a tender age it’s not only about surface things: 'I cried, more for me than you. They wouldn’t understand that you were my main man, it’s true.' It ends with a Hey Jude-type mantra. Phew!
You’re Not Foolin’ Me is not particularly special, with some below-par lyrics and lame vocal histrionics. It is however rescued by a captivating group performance, with Kenny Hyslop’s powerhouse drumming rising to the occasion.
Doom-laden swirls of synthesizer and booming tom-toms announce the arrival of Anything Goes, a diatribe against the tedium of the daily grind. Perhaps Gardner worked in a factory or an office before breaking free with his music, because that’s the message here: don’t follow the herd! Do what the hell you like, there’s only one life!
'Should I begin to look somewhere, to end this awful hate affair?Never strayed, it always swerves, allowed it to get on my nerves...' These lines start the next song, a high energy powerpop confection called Strength To Strength. Intelligent use of separation on a sexy guitar creates an anticipatory atmosphere, culminating in a clarion call chorus.
Looking To The Future, an infectious futurist ditty, was one of two songs selected as singles from Under Influence and we can see why, because it cunningly forecasts the New Romantic period to come. Over a quasi-reggae skank, block harmonies, saxophone and provocative guitars, Willie Gardner croons shallow sci-fi nonsense but can’t resist planting another reference to despised authority into a superb middle-eight, as a flanged guitar glides across the stereo spectrum: 'It seems so strange; people trying to regulate your life. Another number, another factory, another ongoing situation comes to grief.'
The other track chosen as a single (they both bombed) was an edit of the final track on the album, and the most remarkable. Mourning Star was obviously placed in its premier position because the Zones loved it so much. That’s my theory anyway and I’m hanging on to it! Memories of the glitter sound from the group’s former Bell Records days spring to mind as stunning double-tracked twin guitars, slightly flanged and performed with immense care, charge out of the speakers like runaway stallions pounding across a barren plain. Gardner’s vocal, drenched in artificial double tracking (ADT), croons a perplexing lyric in a mock heroic, stylised manner – his Scottish accent rendering the lyric indecipherable! Thankfully this is the only such occasion on Under Influence. The splendid chorus crashes in, all crunching guitars and dodgy puns on the words ‘morning/mourning’. 'We speak with little knowledge – it’s our method of attack; heaven can help us, but there’s angels dressed in black ,'Gardner beseeches dramatically. The lead guitars that follow are so authentically in the Glitterband style that if you close your eyes you can hear Gerry Shepherd’s wonderful riffs on classics such as Goodbye My Love and The Tears I Cried. The chorus is repeated, the noise level rises, Kenny Hyslop thrashes the fuck out of his drum kit and Mourning Star ends on one monumental guitar chord.
So, if I liked them so much, why weren’t they successful? Most great music is routinely overlooked and under valued. Under Influence sold only moderately and after the Mourning Star 45, they split up. Willie Gardner went solo, releasing two rare singles, the amazing Golden Youthbeing one of them, on Cuba-Libre Records (via Virgin) in 1981 before joining endgame, with whom he issued a couple of albums and a slew of singles during the mid-eighties - and then apparently vanished. Willie! If you’re out there reading this, get intouch!
The rest of the Zones changed their name yet again, this time to Science, (although this seems to be largely the work of only Kenny Hyslop and Billy McIsaac) and issued two fine electro-pop singles, Look Don’t Touch and Tokyo, on Rialto Records. They certainly believed in trying, trying, trying again. However, neither of these ventures resulted in anything positive and that was that. They called it a day in 1979. Webb and Hyslop joined the Skids within a year, webb later teaming up with john mcgeoch in the armoury show whilst Hyslop completed his tour of Scottish bands by joining Simple Minds. Nothing by the Zones is available on CD, nothing has yet been reissued. I transferred all their stuff from pristine vinyl onto a metal tape, then digitally remastered it in Adobe Cool Edit before finally putting it onto CD. Sounds fab! if you wish to contact me then please do so.