I WALKED INTO the room and there he stood: Mark de Lane Lea, with the same face of a Renaissance angel but now with the grey hair I hadn’t seen appear slowly over twenty years, so that it was as if a sudden shock had aged him overnight.
Mark, whose surname was also that of a Soho studio where Jimi Hendrix had recorded, played guitar in a late ’80s group called Cry America, a name that still makes me wince because I thought of it and foisted it upon him and the group’s other members. In fact, Mark and I had formed the group – hatched the idea of it on a holiday in the Dordogne when he’d brought a guitar and we’d sat around a swimming pool “jamming” as our friends and girlfriends lounged in the sun.
Mark was young and intense and pretty and rather good on the guitar. I was older and less pretty and harboured a secret fantasy of singing like Van Morrison and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Time was running out: I was nearing 30 and needed to act fast if I was to emulate earlier music journalists who’d made the leap from observer to observed: the poachers-turned-gamekeepers whose ranks included Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Neil Tennant. I knew there were huge risks to this, knew I’d be pilloried before I’d so much as opened my mouth and let out the first notes.
Back in London, Mark and I started playing with assorted drummers and bass guitarists, usually in fetid rehearsal rooms in areas like Rotherhithe, and almost always under railways, so that between numbers you’d hear the dull rumble of trains overheard. This was my introduction to the reality of rock aspiration. We were effete, weedy, well-spoken types heaving cheap amps past proper bands, heavy metalheads with tattoos and massive Marshall stacks. There was nothing friendly about any of it, just snootiness and low-grade dread. I would stab at a flimsy keyboard while Mark flailed away on his Fender Telecaster and a succession of friends worked out parts for our poor excuses for songs. Through the usual routes (Melody Maker ads, etc.), we sourced the rhythm section that would endure the longest.
Why do I feel so mortified when I think back to Cry America’s brief lifespan? Is it because the music was, in essence, shit? In our defence it wasn’t an auspicious time: the tail-end of the worst decade in the short history of pop culture, when music had become so mechanical and synthetic that most of its lifeblood had drained away. I actually liked some of this layered, MIDI’d, overproduced bilge, perhaps because there was so little else on offer, perhaps because of the “ironic” festishisation of slickness I’d absorbed from Steely Dan albums. I wanted us to make records like Luther Vandross or Jam & Lewis or Scritti Politti’s Cupid and Psyche 85 – or like Ted Templeman’s production of Michael McDonald. I tried to find artful, heart-melting chord sequences on my new Ensoniq keyboard and cared very little about the words I sang over them. But then nor did anyone else care very much about the words I sang over them.
The worst part was translating these inane and formulaic compositions to the stage. The exhibitionist in me had always imagined I’d enjoy being the front man of a pop group (or a rock band), but it took just ten minutes at Zeeta’s in Putney to make me realize that I didn’t want to be there at all. Or rather: to deny it to myself for at least another 18 months of pay-to-play shows in miserable upstairs rooms with belligerent bookers and disdainful engineers.
The occasional night brought surprising cohesion, and even elation, plus smatterings of family and friends whose painfully smiling praise I never quite trusted, and the odd rehearsal produced what felt like a breakthrough moment: a new riff or chorus that might have propelled us into a glorious future. But I don’t even know what we were trying to be, or what we hoped to prove.
The happier memories are of laddish laughter at my parents’ Suffolk home, to which the band repaired to “polish the set” and “work on new material”. This was our own Big Pink, complete with teasing of our adorable but rather earnest drummer Paul Abberley, and scatological jokes aplenty from Mark and bassist Jamie Hirons. Maybe we did actually write a couple of decent tunes. (Somewhere in my attic there’s a rattly box of tapes of demos and, er, “ideas”, but I can’t bear to expose them to the light of the present day.)
Did we enjoy even a sniff of success? For a period we were “managed” by a splendid rogue named Rayner Jesson, who’d roadied for Graham Parker and was fresh out of drug treatment. Thanks to his endeavours we wound up with a “development deal” at Advision Studios, where lots of very big acts had made hit records. We got “down time” when the place wasn’t being used by very big acts, and came out of the experience with some layered, MIDI’d, overproduced recordings that I never want to hear again. It was time of frantic pop ambition and we wanted a big record deal.
Somehow tapes found their way to the desks of bigshot A&R men at big record labels: Dave Bates at Polygram, Chris Briggs at A&M, Tracy Bennett at London. None of them bit, and I can’t fault them for not doing so. The most excruciating memory is of Griff Rhys-Jones introducing us to a hall-full of London University students, almost all of whom flooded out of the place the instant we began to play. By the end of that set I was almost enjoying myself.
I was thirty-one when I became the father of my first son. It was wakeup time for Papa Barney, who sat his bandmates down and broke the bad – or relieving? – news that he was leaving Cry America. I knew I had to start making a credible living as a journalist and author. Wednesday night rehearsals in Rotherhithe were a luxury I could no longer afford. I lost touch with Mark and Paul and Jamie but have reconnected with all of them over the subsequent decades.
Mark de Lane Lea actually ended up in a band that toured America with Marilyn Manson. “The funny thing is, everyone else on the tour was complaining all the time,” he said to me recently. “But because I’d suffered all those shitty little gigs with Cry America, nothing really bothered me.”
In that moment I felt almost proud.