We were first introduced to July after buying Mojo’s, Acid Drops, Spacedust & Flying Saucers.. After listening to disc 2, Gandalf’s Garden, July’s – The Way, we were hooked..
For us to be allowed to run an article on July with Peter Cook’s permission is an honour.
As usual, all links to the band can be found below!
Interview by Leasa Podloski
Peter Cook, during his youth in the UK in the sixties had dreams to be in a Rock ‘n’ Roll band. He made it, and then some. From his roots with British Rhythm and Blues outfit The Tomcats, to collaborating with UK psych legends July, whose 1968 album has achieved cult status amongst collectors, Peter penned what are regarded as some of the best psychedelic singles ever released. We chat with the principal songwriter and current lead guitarist of July, and legendary custom guitar builder, known the world over for his Ned Callan range of guitars and custom builds for The Who.
Take us back to the scene in Ealing, London in the early 1960’s. What groups were you involved with, what bands were coming through, what were the venues and atmosphere like?Peter Cook: The sixties was a magical time the likes of which I don’t think we will ever see again. It was a moment in history when all the rules changed, when everything seemed possible and us ‘kids’ grabbed it with both hands. In my early teens I was fairly disinterested in the popular music of the day until I was hit by the sledgehammer that was Apache by The Shadows and my balls dropped like cannonballs immediately. From then on all I wanted was to play guitar in a Rock ’n’ Roll band.
I bought my first guitar (a Hofner Colorama) in 1961 whilst still at school and started a band playing Shadows and other Instrumentals with Chris Jackson and Bob Douch a couple of my school mates. Soon after, Alan James joined us on bass. We needed a good singer and that’s where Tom Newman came in, he brought his repertoire of Everly Brothers and Eddie Cochran numbers with him and so the ‘Dreamers’ was born. Soon after this Bob left the band.
When Freddie & The Dreamers hit the scene in 1963 we changed our name to ‘The Tomcats’ and established ourselves as a Rhythm & Blues band, we became part of the Ealing scene at the Ealing Club, (which is considered to be the home of British R&B) along with up and coming bands like The Stones, The Who, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart & Jack Bruce to name just a few – It was an exciting crazy time, audiences went wild and so did we.
Alexis Korner took us under his wing and we became the resident band at Beat City in Oxford Street, where we played with some very influential musicians including John Lee Hooker & Eric Clapton, who was with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers at the time.
Legend has it that one of the demos we recorded at Regent Sound (a Chuck Berry number) impressed the ‘Stones’ and they stole our thunder by recording and releasing it before us.
One of the gigs we did when toured the UK as The Tomcats was ‘Ma’ Regans Ballroom circuit in Birmingham where we played at the Old Hill Plaza, The Ritz Kings Heath, The Brum Cavern and the Plaza Handsworth all on one night on the same bill with The Redcaps, The Brumbeats and The Searchers.
Tell us about the inception of July and your role with the group.
When I left the Tomcats in 1965 Tom and Chris joined up with Tony Duhig, John Field and Mickey Holmes from another local group ‘The Second Thoughts’ and went to Spain as ‘Los Tomcats’. Soon after Mickey left the band and Alan James flew out to join them. They spent two-years in Spain as ‘Los Tomcats’ playing British R&B and releasing 4 EPs on Phillips Records and made numerous appearances on Radio Madrid and Spanish TV.
When they returned I hooked up with Tom again and we started to write songs together, we used to meet up with John Fields and the seeds of ‘July’ were sown. John took it one step further and got all the guys from Los Tomcats together again and rebranded the band as ‘July’ and in 1968 their album was released by Major Minor followed by two singles, ‘My Clown’ and then ‘Hello Who’s There.
With so many bands on the scene, how did July manage to stand apart? At the time, did they consider themselves a psychedelic group?
The whole band had a different & unique feel to their peers; Tony ‘s ‘C’ tuning, Tom ‘s effected plumy voice, Alan’s zoom bass, Chris’s attack and John’s congas all came together with experimental recording techniques to produce a sound that was naive but compelling – Oh, and I mustn’t miss out the songs of course. All the band wanted was to do was produce great music, the psychedelic label came later.
Walk us through a song writing session. Did you write together with Tom Newman at his studio?
Tom and I have always written our songs independently of each other but we used to meet up at my house or his flat to record them and play around with production. Our styles are quite different, Tom favours the sweet things in life, I tend to explore the dark corners of my imagination and exercise the demons I find there. I live in a bubble most of the time and that’s where I find my songs; sounds or words go around and around in my head, many of them are gone before I can commit pen to paper but some survive.
I’ve read the July album was recorded on the same 4-track used for Sgt Pepper, and the band experimented with multi-track phasing, tape loops, overdubs, and left in a car door slam on You Missed It All. Were many peer bands using such techniques, and what was the attraction to these methods?
Sadly, I had nothing to do with the recording of the album; I wasn’t told anything about it at the time. John and I are both very focussed individuals and in Jon’s mind there was no room for two such individuals in his band, so I was excluded. ☹
The album was recorded over two weekends, and the band alluded to these sessions as a nightmare. Why the dissatisfaction?
In them days technicians wore brown coats and stayed in the control room and musicians were confined to the studio, which meant that Tom and John couldn’t be as involved in the production as they would have liked. On top of this Tom had a cold and had difficulty singing and due to time constraints the boys were rushed into doing most of the tracks in one take.
Though it is solidified as an iconic image, the band was initially not impressed with the cover art, is that true?
I don’t think it was what they had in mind but we’ve all grown to love it.
For many, the single Dandelion Seeds/My Clown released in 1968 is regarded as one of the best psychedelic singles ever recorded, and you wrote My Clown. What are your thoughts on this, and will you walk us through the tracks?
It is so cool to think that a song I wrote all those years ago is regarded so highly, particularly by the current generation.
My Clown comes from one of those dark corners I referred to and it’s about as near to a love song as I am ever likely to write; it’s a blend of teenage arrogance, emotional insecurity and love.
Jolly Mary: It’ lighter than most of my stuff and I guess I was in the midst of a nostalgic fantasy.
To be Free: The struggle of youthful aspirations trying to make sense of life.
I See: Ditto.
Friendly Man: On the face of it, it’s about a pedophile, but it’s really about the loneliness of being misunderstood.
A Bird Lived: Eternal optimism 0 – Lost opportunities 1
Hello Who’s There: Following a dream can keep you broke. It was written as a far more sensitive and reflective song than the ‘Wham, Bam, Thankyou Mam’ Tommy Scott production (he said he would eat his hat if it didn’t make number one in the charts – It didn’t and he didn’t): I hated what he had done to it then, but now I just laugh.
As a principal songwriter for the band, you received little or no credit for the songs you wrote for the album – why is that? When did you take on lead guitar? Did you own one of the first Jim Marshall amps?
Basically the same reason that I was excluded from the recording sessions. At the time I was bloody fuming but time and a recent chat with John has soothed my troubled brow.
I was the original lead guitar with the Tomcats and John has since told me that Tony Duhig always wanted to play like me and that he felt intimidated when I was around, so in Jon’s mind he was protecting his mate Tony. Ironically things have gone full circle.
Alan and I each had one of the first pre-production Marshall Amps – We should have kept ‘em.
What caused the group to disband in 1969?
Usual reason – Rock ‘n’ Roll doesn’t pay the bills especially when your management rips you off.
Recently, an original mono press of July on Major Minor Records was listed on ebay with a starting bid or £2,500. How do you feel about this? Do you or the other members own original pressings?
Good luck to ‘em, but it would have been nice if the band had got paid for the album – they never got a penny from the original or any of the re-issues.
I’ve got one mint copy and one defaced copy (I scrubbed out Tom’s credits against my tracks and wrote in my own – rather badly as it happens – angry actions don’t make neat work).
Is the internet is responsible for catapulting July to cult status?
Bless it – Yes
Describe how you got into custom building guitars and the Ned Callan brand. You owned and operated a repair shop?
After the Tomcats split Tom and I did many things to earn a buck including stage managing at the Lyceum Theatre London and guitar repairs. This was the genesis of my guitar repairing/making period, we made a number of prototype guitars from some old necks we bought from a junk shop in Kilburn, one of which the Beach Boys (I can’t remember which one of them) wanted, unfortunately he didn’t pay for it or return it. These were the first Ned Callans. When Tom sought fame and fortune with ‘July’ and later with Richard Branson (Tom produced Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells) I continued to develop the Ned Callan Range, the concept was to produce a quality guitar and bass within a budget price (this was before the Japanese started to produce good instruments). I got a distribution deal with Simms Watts but things came to a halt when Rose Morris took over Simms Watts and cancelled a large order which was just about to be delivered, after months of haggling the Cody range (Knobbly Neds) was re-branded for Rose Morris but I didn’t really see eye to eye with Rose Morris and my association with them ended soon after.
I then set up a guitar repair workshop and started to build custom guitars, including a limited edition custom range of Mighty Mite guitars. I also became Gibson’s man in the UK, and all Gibson guitars passed through my workshop before being certificated by ‘Peter Cook Guitars’ and released for distribution.
At this time I also developed and made the ‘Axis’ guitar and bass with an active onboard parametric tonal system.
Notably, you custom built for John Entwistle of The Who. How did this come about?
Part of the deal with Simms Watts was to tour the country with their road show and on one of these occasions John Entwistle made a guest appearance to promote Ned Callan, we did a short set with John on bass, Dave Simms on drums and me on guitar, afterwards I got a lift back to London with John in his Cadillac and we got talking.
How were the Fenderbird and ExplorerBird for John born? What about the Axe used in Tommy and the Lightning used on the album cover of The Who By Numbers, did you work on these designs together?
John started to bring bits of Thunderbirds to me to resurrect and it became apparent that he liked the sound and appearance of the Gibson Thunderbird but preferred the feel of Fender Precision necks. So, I made him a number of hybrids using Precision necks and custom made bodies, he called them his FenderBirds. As a natural progression I designed and built a number of ExplorerBirds for John along the same lines.
Then John started coming up with ‘off the wall’ concepts which I would flesh up and bring to life:
The Axe – used in Tommy
The Flame – used on Top of the Pops
The Lightning – used on the album cover of ‘Who by Numbers’
Tell us about some of the other projects you worked on, such as customizing some Les Pauls for Pete Townshend.
Pete is well known for smashing guitars so he needed a lot of them so he asked me customise a number of his Les Pauls to the same exacting specification by removing the neck volute and re-profiling the neck, fitting a third middle pickup with two extra controls and one extra switch.
Around this time you were also writing for British Music Press?
I used to cover the American music trade shows and write features on American products e.g. Seymour Duncan for the British Music Press (Sounds, Sounds International, Music World; Musik UK; Music Maker).
Do you still dabble in these professions?
I hung up my fret files, put down my pen and sold my shop in Hanwell in the eighties, to follow other interests.
On July 4th 2012, 4 new tracks from July were released online, a follow up to Linear Thinking which was the first new track to be released since 1968. Tell us about these songs, the inspirations… Why now, after all these years?
I never really lost the dream to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star – I could run from it but I couldn’t hide, so when Cherry Red contacted us about sleeve notes for their re-mastered CD the genie was out of the bottle, the urge to carry on from where we left off was irresistible and thankfully my dark corners were still fully functional.
In my mind there would have been no point in just trying to reproduce the ’68 sound, my songs aim to reference the past whilst being relevant to today. I don’t write ‘moon in June’ stuff, Linear Thinking, Heaven or Hell, A Day to Remember are references to the chaotic, self-indulgent, illogical, hedonistic, irrational, opportunist, materialistic, demanding and treacherous world that we inhabit, in one way or another.
How does the recording process differ from then to now? What recording techniques did you experiment with for the new tracks, any analog or mostly digital?
I’m a modern boy and love the new technology that is available. (Tom is an old git and hankers after tape). Unlike way back then, I can now produce a demo exactly how I want it to sound, all on my own, then I give it to Steve our producer who strips out the stuff he doesn’t want and adds Tom’s vocals etc.
Are you planning a full length album and tour?
Once I started to write again I couldn’t stop and currently we’ve got about two albums worth of material in the can. We hope to release one on vinyl later this year.
We played some one-off gigs last year and earlier this year (The Lexington 2011, Euro YeYe 2011, Le Beat Bespoke Easter 2012 with Arthur Brown & the Pretty Things) and are headlining at the Berlin Beat Explosion in September. We would love to put a full tour together but in these times of economic difficulty it ain’t easy to find promoters who are up for it.