Interview with Miki Pannell about his days as guitarist for Demented Are Go

Questions by Nick Kemp

Demented Are Go ('Demon Ted') Day the Earth Spat Blood photo session 1989. Miki Pannell
Demented Are Go 1989. (L-R Mark 'Sparky' Philips (below), Billy Favata (above), Miki Pannell, Chris Bond, Simon Cohen, Ant Thomas)
Demented Are Go ('Demon Ted') Day the Earth Spat Blood photo session 1989
Demented Are Go 1989. (L-R Mark 'Sparky' Philips, Billy Favata, Ant Thomas, Simon Cohen, Chris Bond, Miki Pannell)

Where and when were you born? Where did you grow up?

The Quay, Oreston. Plymstock, Plymouth, 1965. I’ve got the sea in my blood!

What was the first music that you listened to?

I grew up listening to boover boy glam rock. My heroes were Gary Glitter and the glam rock stars of 1973. All the music in the seventies was amazing. My four sisters and I were all disco freaks too until they invented punk rock.

Do you come from a musical family? When did you first pick up the guitar?

No. There were no musicians in the family but we all loved it. I was lucky that I passed the entrance to quite a good school where they had a great music department and everyone was obliged to play in a symphony orchestra from age eleven. I had to study violin, than the clarinet. I was useless. At break-time we would go to the music room and play punk on the Spanish guitars….

Who were your influences? 1930s swing. Louis Prima. Django. Motown, 50s Rock’n’roll. Western Swing. Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed. Sun Records, Scotty Moore. Abba, 1970s Glam, John Barry, Flamenco or anything with guitars.

When did you first form a band? With whom? Did the Court Jesters play many gigs? What was life like in the squat? When I was sixteen I started playing with a hep-cat band called Rhythm Bound. The singer Jeff Thomas was a great songwriter and singer and I learnt a lot from him. The other guys in the band were Mark ‘Billy Boy’ Favata on double bass and Darren ‘Strut’ Ward on drums. We played our first gig supporting the Meteors. Talk about baptism of fire. Paul Fenech was really good to us in that group. When did you go to London? Me and the lads were all about 19-20 years old. It was 1985 I think. When I arrived the Brixton riots were in full swing. Bad times! Jeff didn’t want to move from Plymouth, so we went and found a crazy Welsh singer called George Scott Davis and changed the band name to Court Jesters. It was a wild adventure. We all lived in dodgy squats, played in the streets for a living and went out constantly to tons of gigs and parties. We constantly played practical jokes on each other. The group was always busking, rehearsing and learning the trade, but we weren’t really psychobilly, so we had trouble getting gigs with the Klub Foot crowd. We once played a gig and no one showed up, so we hopped in the van and Darren suggested ‘gatecrashing’ someone else’s show. We turned up at the 100 Club on Oxford St an hour later and they let us support some other group. Fenech continued to look after us and let us support them on numerous occasions. They were always winding us up. Once we played with the Meteors and Long Tall Texans in Cardiff. After we’d loaded tons of our equipment on the stage for the sound-check, Fenech told us the gig was going to be cancelled and we had to take it all down and load up the van. Once we’d stripped it all down, they told us the gig was back on, so we had to set it all up again. We were humping gear around for three hours.

The Court Jesters were playing at the time that Demented were starting to get popular. The psychobilly scene was still buzzing. This was around 1986-87. We were hounded by the police for busking all the time. We ended up getting thrown into jail for playing in the tube trains. I’ve got a criminal record for ‘Playing musical instrument for reward’. There were other bands who busked a lot too. The Klingonz were mates; they had their spot in Covent Garden but we were more itinerant musicians.

The Court Jesters. Psychobilly. Rockabilly. Plymouth. Demented Are Go. Skizo. Guanabatz. Meteors, Miki Pannell.
The Court Jesters on tour in Wales. 1987?Accomodation the night before was a tent in a service station! (L-R. Darren Ward, Scott Davies, Miki Pannell.)
The Court Jesters. Psychobilly. Rockabilly. Plymouth. Demented Are Go. Skizo. Guanabatz. Meteors, Miki Pannell.
The Court Jesters loading up outside their squat in Aberfeldy House in South London. Nice collection of vintage Fender amps... (L-R. Darren Ward, Scott Davis, friend Steven Temlett, Billy Favata. Photo by Miki Pannell. Girlfriend Sharon on the first floor
The Court Jesters. Psychobilly. Rockabilly. Plymouth. Demented Are Go. Skizo. Guanabatz. Meteors, Miki Pannell.
The Court Jesters on tour in Wales. 1987? Tour of dodgy working men's clubs. (L-R. Scott Davies, Miki Pannell, Billy Favata, Darren Ward).)
The Court Jesters. Psychobilly. Rockabilly. Plymouth. Demented Are Go. Skizo. Guanabatz. Meteors, Miki Pannell.
The Court Jesters hanging about before a gig. ! (L-R. Scott Davies, Darren Ward, Miki Pannell, Billy Favata.)

When did you first meet Mark? What your initial impressions?

We had met him first at the Klub Foot. Everyone, or the musicians at least, knew each other. A few times the Court Jesters supported them, so we were mates. That was the classic Demented line-up with Dick on guitar. That was the best Demented line-up by far. The group still didn’t have any punk or metal or horror rock influences. That’s what made it happen. Mark’s voice sounded so wild because it was in such contrast to the 50s style group.  Plus Mark didn’t have the crazy reputation so much back then and everyone else was fairly nutty too. He was a nice guy. The drummer, on the other hand, was a total dickhead.

How long after meeting him did you join Demented?

About three or four years I think. Darren left the Court Jesters to play with Skizo which was disappointing for us. Nothing was happening for us as we weren’t psychobilly enough for the scene, but Skitzo were part of it. A few weeks later Sparky turned up at our squat, sprayed some paint on the walls and asked Billy and I to join.

How long was it before you went to the studio? The next time we saw Sparky and Ant, which was about a week or two later, if I remember rightly. We never rehearsed. They weren’t interested in it and weren’t organised. We just started playing the old Demented set straight away and gigging. It sucked. I got into rock’n’roll to have fun and do something original. In Demented there was no rapport. By then, they were like a group of mercenaries. People were joining and leaving all the time. The group never really hung out together and consequently never had much of a laugh. It was like being a babysitter for Sparky who was constantly getting arrested and off doing his own thing. Sparky was becoming well-know and he enjoyed being absent. He was like a company chairman who’s always off on the golf course. The drummer marched around saying things like ‘Business is business.’ We could never find Sparky. All I remember is hanging about all the time smoking and drinking and doing nothing. I really wanted to do something – anything!  

How much input did you have in the writing of †he songs?

When we got into the studio to record the ‘tunes’ we actually had no songs written and had never rehearsed. In four days we improvised a bunch of songs, recorded and mixed them - all under the influence of the free booze from the restaurant bar tab next door. My input was to try and put some music to Sparky’s ideas. He is actually quite skilled at coming up with original tunes without playing any instrument. He just has this natural talent for rockabilly, country and blues phraseology. He’d literally sing the melody and we’d put a basic track to it. Which isn’t my way of working at. But as I said in Demented no-one worked at anything.  

Demon Teds. Demented Are Go. Psychobilly. Punk
Cover of Demented Are Go's 'The Day the Earth Spat Blood'
Miki Pannell. Docs. Doctor Marten
Demented Are Go. Dr. Marten boots

'The Day the Earth Spat Blood' is more metal than any other Demented record, was that a refection of what the band was listening to? Can you tell me about the recording session?

It was more that the equipment I had was so bad and everything was distorted! The other guitarists had good equipment, but I was too skint. That said, I had been listening to Van Halen just to learn the guitar technique, but no, none of us were big metal-heads. It was just easy to crank up the volume and make a noise on the spot because we had no songs. The album was pretty lousy, mainly because it was on Link Records, which was a cowboy outfit run by wideboy football hooligans and there was practically no budget like there had been for the first two LPs. But really it was Sparky’s fault because he wouldn’t practice or write together. The recording itself was hilarious. We ran up a bar tab that cost more than the price of the studio. We thought that was funny until we realized we had to pay for it out of royalties. We spent three days in the studio and slept on the floor. They locked an Alsatian in the control room to protect all the equipment because I think they thought we’d steal it. How we managed to make a record in that drunken state is beyond me. By the end we ran out of studio time and only had half an album’s worth of stuff. Hence that messy collage of noise at the end that the engineer spliced together out of a couple of jams. The best thing to come out of it was twenty-seven years later Dr. Marten's made a boot based on the design from the album cover.

How long were you in Demented for?

I honestly can’t remember - probably about a year, maybe less.

How many gigs did you play?

I can’t remember that either. It must have been quite a few, mostly around the U.K. but also in Holland and Germany. Some of them were pretty funny. I remember a festival in Manchester or Liverpool with all the usual psychos. The stage diving was so wild that an ambulance seemed to be shuttling back and forward from the local hospital to take the victims away.

Have you any anecdotes that you can share?

Loads. We went to play a couple of gigs in Europe with the Guanabatz and the Highliners. You’ve probably heard a lot of the tales from that legendary trip already. On the overnight ferry trip a fight broke out between a group of Dutch sailors and the psychobilly bands and their crews. It ended in a pitched battle with bottles flying through the air in the ferry’s ‘nightclub’. The next morning in customs, all the Dutch sailors were waved through, but we were held until the damage was paid. A German promoter called Klaus had to pay out a fortune to get the bands into the country. The following night our hotel got trashed. Again Klaus had to foot the bill. The next night after the show in Germany, we finally got to meet this very irate Klaus when he showed up backstage. He was enormous. He walked in the door and even before he introduced himself Sparky yelled out ‘You’re fucking fired!’. We were rolling about laughing.

On the way back into Britain a customs official opened the sliding door of the van. There was carnage and bodies strewn everywhere. ‘Where have you been?’ ‘Amsterdam!!’ we responded. ‘Have you taken any drugs?’ ‘YEEESSSSS!’ we all yelled. We knew we were going to get searched anyway. Miraculously, they waved us through.