When British beat group, The Troglodytes, shortened their name in 1966 to become The Troggs, they also shortened the odds on them becoming one of the most successful groups of their time.
By the end of the decade, with well over a dozen glorious stomp-worthy 45s having made a splash on the world’s charts, they had created a body of work, and a sound, that would go on to become highly influential on bands who were at the forefront of the punk movement of the seventies; and then ripple out further into the future whenever and wherever garage bands formed and needed to find songs to cover that bristled with energy, attitude and could give them ‘cred’.
Fifty years on from their first single release (‘Lost Girl’), the sole surviving original member, guitarist Chris Britton, is still cranking out those timeless riffs in songs like, ‘I Can’t Control Myself’, ‘With A Girl Like You’ and ‘Wild Thing’, and is bringing the latest incarnation of the band to Australia this year. It doesn’t seem to be so long since their last visit, but it has now been twenty years or so since The Troggs, then fronted by rock icon, Reg Presley, have been in town.
It is certainly about time, then, that they should come back to Adelaide, a city where fourteen of their songs have cracked the local Top 40 chart over the years.
So, shivering in the cold, crisp pre-dawn air of an Adelaide winter’s morning this week, I was excited to find myself on the phone speaking to a cheerful, comfortable – and very warm -Chris Britton at his home, enjoying the balmy (and predictably wet) English evening, obviously resting up and storing energy in readiness for the band’s Antipodean assault this November.
Upside: Hi Chris, thanks for giving us your time this morning. It’s about 5:30am over here!
Chris Britton: Well, thanks for getting up so early in the morning to talk to me! It’s quite comfortable here – it’s about half past nine on a warm summer’s evening.
Upside: Rub it in, why don’t you! It’s freezing cold here.
CB: It’s warm here, but it’s raining slightly, which is typical for England. A light drizzle, which we are, of course, quite happy to accept. It keeps the grass green.
Upside: Let’s get straight into talking about The Troggs and your impending Australian tour. That’s pretty exciting news.
Upside: It’s the band’s 50th anniversary, so how come you’re choosing to spend a pretty healthy percentage of your celebratory year here in Australia?
CB: Well, it was a bit of luck actually. There is a cruise that is going from Brisbane that we were offered a place on, to amuse the people on the boat, and it seemed like a good idea doing that. But it seemed like a bit of a shame just to travel all the way to Australia, get on the boat, play a couple of times, and then fly home. So we asked if they could put up some gigs for us, and then, lo and behold, we’ve got a pretty full month of November travelling all round Australia doing all down the East Coast and Sydney. Melbourne and Adelaide, and then, as a little added bonus at the end, they figured out a way of having us nip over to New Zealand and playing the first week of December over there, which is going to be brilliant! We’re going to see a lot of the Southern Hemisphere. We haven’t seen any of it for about twenty years, so it’ll be interesting to see if it has changed.
Upside: And the cruise that you’re going on – that’s with a bunch of other artists from back in the sixties and seventies, isn’t it?
CB: Yeah. A lot of artists from then, yeah. They’re all people we know and have worked with many times before, so it will be jolly good fun as far as we’re concerned.
Upside: Those sort of events, where you play with bands from that time of the first wave of your success, is it sort of like a 1966 World Cup winners’ reunion type of thing every time you get together?
CB: (hearty laugh) You could say that, yeah! It’s strange though, because back in the sixties, the only time we would meet up with these other bands was either in motorway cafes at three o’clock in the morning on our way home from a gig, or at lunchtime on the way to one; or in television studios at shows like Top Of The Pops or Ready, Steady, Go!, when you happened to have something in the charts and somebody else was there doing their version of their chart hit. In those days, very seldom did you play together. It was one main act, with various local support acts playing. So now, after fifty years, we all tend to be playing together in rather bigger, grander situations and it is nice to meet up with them all again.
Upside: You say it has been nearly twenty years since you have been to Australia. I remember, I think it must have been back in the eighties, you played where the Hoodoo Gurus supported you, who, of course, went on to be huge here…so this is obviously the first time you have toured without original front man, Reg Presley, but you have now got Chris Allen in the band. Can you tell us a little about his musical pedigree?
CB: Yeah, well, about six months before Reg died, he decided he couldn’t cope with the travelling anymore. It was obviously very difficult for him, so he decided to knock it on the head, but he wanted us to carry on if we wanted to. We had a few rehearsals and thought we might be able to do it with just the three of us, but we were so used to having a front man out there, and apart from that, we didn’t have strong enough voices to cope with it, quite frankly, in the way it needed to be done. We tried Chris out and he was just the job. He is not a Reg Presley double, or an imitation of Reg Presley, or anything like that, he is his own man. He’s got his own voice, but he fits what we do very, very well. Reg actually came to see a couple of our shows once we’d got it all sorted out, and gave us his seal of approval. He gave Chris Allen the ocarina he used to play ‘Wild Thing’ on, so we carry a little bit of Reg around every time we play now, anyway!
Upside: That’s a great story! So, fifty years! That’s a long time, isn’t it? So can you tell us just a little bit about how you, personally, made the leap from having your first Spanish guitar at nine years old to joining The Troggs and embarking on this lifelong rock and roll journey?
CB: (Laughs) Yeah, the transition would have been strange because when I was nine, there was no such thing as rock and roll, it hadn’t really been invented, it was still before skiffle or whatever. But I’d always had a liking of the guitar from listening to people like Segovia and Julian Bream, so I started off learning classical music and then rock and roll sort of came in and I pricked my ears up a bit. I think I was about twelve years old when I heard Chuck Berry playing ‘Johnny B. Goode’ on the radio, quickly followed by Buddy Holly with ‘Peggy Sue’ and ‘That’ll Be The Day’ – and that turned me away from doing all that clever stuff, and had me change my attitude considerably. I was also probably swayed by the fact that, by the time I got to fifteen or sixteen, the girls were more impressed by rock and roll music than by a bit of Bach or a bit of Beethoven, so I changed my style a bit and things just motored on from there.
Upside: Can you remember the first rock song that you played?
CB: First rock song I played? Oh, it was probably a Chuck Berry or a Jerry Lee Lewis one, or something like that. But it is quite difficult to transpose Jerry Lee Lewis from piano to guitar! (laughs) But you could make a lot of noise with it, and have a lot of fun! Those early rock and roll days were great fun.
Then what happened was, we eventually all formed various groups, in our little local country town [Andover, Hampshire], and the two main ones transpired to be groups called The Troggs and the Ten Feet Five…that was about ‘64…and, by various members getting married and deciding to leave and so on, we ended up with a situation where the drummer and the bass player of The Troggs left, and the guitarist and the bass player of the Ten Feet Five, which was me and Pete [Staples], thought we might as well come together and carry on playing together to pay off the hire purchase costs on the equipment.
At that time we were playing, like, four hours a night, doing weddings and birthdays and what have you, and we thought, ‘Why are we doing all this playing other people’s songs? We should do some of our own.’ And Reg had a few songs of his own up his sleeve that he’d written so we worked on getting them together. We had pestered this chap, Larry Page [manager of The Kinks], to see if he could get us a contract, and eventually we did one bit of recording for him, that didn’t really get anywhere, but it was a minor hit in Sweden, or somewhere.
Upside: That was ‘Lost Girl’?
CB: Then he gave us a pile of demos to listen to, and in amongst that was ‘Wild Thing’. We all thought, ‘Oh, that’s a fantastic sound’, and it was Chip Taylor’s original version. It was just him on acoustic guitar. And we thought, ‘Brilliant! We can do something with that!’
[Larry Page] actually wanted us to do a Lovin’ Spoonful thing, called ‘Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?’, but that was a little bit too clever and harmonic for us and we rather liked ‘Wild Thing’. And Reg had already written ‘With A Girl Like You’, so he said ‘Come on up on whatever day it was, because he might have ten minutes [studio time] spare on the end of a Larry Page Orchestra session. So we trundled up there with great difficulty in the battered old wagon that we were driving, got there, heaped all the gear in, and Keith Grant, the engineer, stuck some microphones around the amps that we stuck in and we virtually did a live recording of ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘With A Girl Like You’ in ten or fifteen minutes. And that transpired to be our first and second release which went to number one in England and America! So there was a good ten minutes’ investment in recording!
Upside: And that, sort of, frantic, live sound [you achieved] obviously came out of necessity, and yet it became the trademark sound of the band, didn’t it?
CB: Well, we are a live sound – I personally think we sound better on stage live than we do on recordings anyway. Because in those days, they didn’t quite have the ready recording edge to be able to get that much noise on a 45. They’ve improved the techniques a hell of a lot. So have live performances improved – when we started out you just stuck your bass amp and a guitar amp up on stage, a drum kit with no microphones on it, four microphones jammed up as far as you could get without feedback, and hoped for the best and played. Now, we’ve got a man at the back of the stage with a mixing desk and it is just like being in the studio. You’re in the lap of the gods with this bloke at the back, and hoping he can do the job right! Usually, they’re pretty good.
Upside: Yeah, it’s amazing the evolution [of sound technology] isn’t it? You were telling us about that early recording, with those two early hits – did you know you hit the top 40 here in Adelaide fourteen times?
Upside: Yeah, you really struck a chord here. And seven of those were top ten hits. That was a pretty impressive run, wasn’t it?
CB: (laughs) Well, we were very lucky, because a lot of the bands of our era just made it as far as the charts in England and a little bit around Europe, we were extremely lucky that it spread out to the rest of the world as well. That helped us keep going for fifty years!
Upside: Thinking back on one of those early singles, and I know it was a long time ago, but when the BBC banned ‘I Can’t Control Myself’ – in hindsight, did that cause problems for the band, or was it the opposite, you know that ‘any publicity is good publicity’ sort of thing?
CB: Well. It didn’t really cause problems. It happened in America as well. There were certain elements present at the time. ‘I Can’t Control Myself’, compared to what they get away with in lyrics and music, and attitude, today was like a fairytale.
The one line they didn’t like was, ‘Your slacks are low / And your hips are showing…’. They thought that meant something rude, but in those days, all the teenagers were wearing hipster jeans and these little low-cut tops, so they were showing their tummies around to everybody anyway – which was lovely to look at, because they looked really pretty – and they were showing off.
And the other thing with ‘I Can’t Control Myself’, as a way of finishing it, Reg ended up with a scream, and I think it was the Mothers Of The Revolution, or Daughters Of America, or somebody, who thought it sounded like he was having an orgasm – which was news to us but they must have had some pretty raunchy times themselves if they thought that’s what that was!
Upside: Surprised they could recognize that sound!
CB: Yeah, so it works both ways doesn’t it.
Upside: There’s one question that I really want to ask you, and I suppose you’re sick to death of people asking you about The Troggs Tapes – but you were recording a track called, ‘Tranquility’, I think, and has that track ever seen the light of day?
CB: (guffawing) Yes, indeed! What happened there was – they wanted another…after we had done ‘Love Is All Around’…they wanted another single and we hadn’t got a thing organised yet. Reg had this vague idea of this song called ‘Tranquility’ – ‘beyond the fields of gravity’ – one of his astrological things.
So had this vague idea, and we hadn’t had a chance to go into a garage, or an industrial unit, and plonk about and work out what we were going to do with it, so they just jammed us in the studio and said, ‘Right, sort it out.’
The engineer had a tape machine running, which we thought was the echo tape – that’s what we used in those days – and he was recording the whole thing! And of, course there was Reg and Ronnie [Bond, The Troggs’ drummer] having an argument about the drum rhythm and so on (laughing) and it turned into a classic! They had about forty-five minutes of this, and first we knew of it was about six months later because they’d shipped it out around all the recording studios in London, because, quite often, when new bands get in the studio they’re all a little bit nervous and tense and so on. So they’d play them this record and say, ‘This is what the big boys do – you relax, have fun!’
Upside: So it was a training record??
CB: Which was brilliant! And when we eventually heard it, because they were a little bit afraid to play it to us, we thought it was hilarious!
Now Reg and Ronnie, they loved each other to pieces, but they were bee’s knees at arguing – they could argue about anything – and they could really start screaming and shouting at each other. But the funny thing was, they both smoked in those days, and they would get a bit tired of arguing so Reg would offer Ronnie a fag and he’d take it and they’d both light up and stand there for a few minutes, stub their cigarettes out, and carry on arguing from where they left off! It was bizarre to watch, quite amusing!
Upside: Ronnie was adamant that ‘Tranquility’ was going to be a big hit – but it never eventuated, never got recorded, is that right?
CB: (laughing) Well, it never got finished. That was it. He wanted to ‘sprinkle the fairy dust on it’, if I remember rightly, but we abandoned that one, and left it to its fate. In fact, I don’t think Reg ever finished writing it.
Upside: That’s a shame…
CB: He had this rough idea for the first verse, and the first line and it never got any further than that. Probably just as well!
Upside: Now, The Troggs aligned themselves with a few acts over the years – paired up with R.E.M. for an album, and had Wet Wet Wet take one of your songs back to the top of the chart – those pairings must have been a boost for the band and given you a bit of a profile again after a few years out of the limelight?
CB: That was a brilliant boost actually, people actually reflected back and that gave us a lot of action too. I think [Wet Wet Wet’s] version [of ‘Love Is all Around’] was really, really good. They did a marvelous interpretation of it, far more melodic than ours – there you go! It just showed that it was a better song than we thought it was.
Upside: Before my time well and truly runs out, I have got one more question to ask you. On your website you have listed ‘Professor Brian May’ as an ‘Honorary Trogg’. How did that come about?
CB: (laughing) Well, a couple of years ago, Brian May was playing a bit of a festival up at Guilford Cathedral, called ‘Wildlife Rocks’, and he asked us up there to play a certain song. He wanted to play ‘Wild Thing’ with us. So, if you hunt on the web for ‘Brian May & The Troggs’ you’ll find him playing ‘Wild Thing‘ with us, and that’s why we made him an honorary Trogg, and he happily enjoyed the title. So anytime he feels like playing ‘Wild Thing’, we’ll play it with him. He did an excellent version.
Upside: That’s great. Well, Chris, thanks so much for giving us your time. We will do our best to get a few more people along to see your Adelaide show. It will be the last show of the Australian tour so feel free to play your entire back catalogue for us! Thanks for talking to me, I really appreciate it.
CB: I’m looking forward to being there. Hope to see you there. You take care.
The Troggs will be playing at The Gov on Sunday, November 27th. Grab your tickets HERE
Interview by Ken Grady