The Delmontes \ Biography
Formed in Edinburgh in 1979, cult garage/indiepop band The Delmontes released just two singles on indie label Rational Records: Tous les Soirs (1980) and Don’t Cry Your Tears (1981). Boasting a poised avant-retro sound and vision (three of the five band members were female), the band anticipated several later indie trends, including C86, Creation, Sarah and TweeNet. Both DinDisc and Zoo Records competed to sign the group, who completed a full UK tour with the Teardrop Explodes, but sadly this potential went unfulfilled, and The Delmontes split at the beginning of 1983.
The roots of the band lie in an earlier outfit called Strange Daze, formed in Edinburgh in February 1979 by Mike Berry (guitar), Gordon Simpson (bass), Bernice Simpson (drums) and vocalist Julie Hepburn (nee Hogg). The name reflected a keen interest in The Doors, although Mike and Gordon’s burgeoning interest in garage and psychedelic music soon expanded to include the 13th Floor Elevators, Seeds, Electric Prunes, Red Crayola and Golden Dawn, along with the seminal Nuggets compilation album. Along with Ronnie Gurr and John McTernan, Mike Berry and Gordon Simpson were also responsible for punk fanzine Hanging Around, a cultural mix reflected in Strange Daze’s valiant atteps to fuse vintage psychedelia with contemporary post-punk.
The band’s progress was enhanced by the recruitment of accomplished keyboard player Gillian Miller, complete with vintage Farfisa organ and handy backing vocals, and by the end of the year Strange Daze had become The Delmontes. Much of 1980 was spent rehearsing, and playing live dates around Scotland with the likes of Orange Juice, Fire Engines, Revillos and The Associates, at venues including Teviot Row in Edinburgh and Paisley’s celebrated Bungalow Bar. The fact – purely accidental – that the band featured three girls and two boys was seen as a novelty, and lead to lazy comparisons with the B52s and Martha and the Muffins. Indeed gender was still an issue two years later, when the band was profiled in Melody Maker:
Bernice Simpson: “When we first started, it was all ‘Ha ha – ridiculous! How can you have a female drummer?’ I remember one time we were playing in a student place, and people were shouting ‘Show us your tits’. Now, there’s an awful lot more bands with females in, though most of them are all-female or just have a female singer. I still think we’re quite unique, but then we were treated as kind of cute and nobody thought we were actually serious about getting anywhere.”
Julie Hepburn: “Basically, we quickly learned that all the audience wants is to be titillated. To have someone attractive to look at, and have nice little dreams about at night and stare at in pictures. People look more than they listen.”
The emergence of the Delmontes coincided with a surge of press interest in the so-called Sound of Young Scotland, including the lauded Postcard Records stable (Josef K, Orange Juice, Aztec Camera) as well as Scars, Fire Engines and Restricted Code. Journalist Johnny Waller proved an enthusiastic champion of the band, and soon The Delmontes found themselves sharing a de facto manager with Josef K, Allan Campbell. Having recorded a first demo in the autumn of 1980, featuring a clutch of short and snappy songs including Rubber Plant, Higher & Higher and Tous les Soirs, The Delmontes became the first signing to Campbell’s new indie imprint, Rational Records.
Run from the back room of indie emporium Gutter Music on Henderson Row, Rational would go on to release a string of fascinating 7″ singles by The Delmontes, Article 58, The Visitors (who would sign to 4AD but split before releasing an album) and Paul Haig. Sandwiched between the end of Josef K and his first official solo singles on Crepuscule, Haig released two singles on Rational credited to Rhythm of Life, the second of which was a vanity record by notorious artist Sebastian Horsley. Haig also released a bizarre experimental cassette, Drama, while Rational also put together a cassette magazine called Irrationale, featuring music from Josef K, The Associates and others. Although less iconic than its Scots indie antecedents (Fast Product and Postcard), and lacking a strong visual identity, Rational was a cool little operation, and the label remains unjustly overlooked.
Rational’s first outing was the debut single by The Delmontes, released in September 1980, and featuring three tracks: Tous les Soirs, Ga Ga and Infectious Smile. An outstanding debut, it would win them several influential friends, and although Tous les Soirs itself may have owed a debt to Liar Liar by The Castaways, both flipsides revealed The Delmontes as a band with impressive writing and arranging skills that covered the waterfront from Barry-tinged spy twang (Ga Ga) to crepuscular balladry (Infectious Smile). GaGa and Tous les Soirs, incidently, featured lyrics by Peter Watson, a non-playing friend of the band. With Josef K, Orange Juice, Fire Engines and Scars all riding high on the indie chart, the single attracted some useful national publicity, including a half-page feature in the NME captioned (ho-hum) Canny Scots. The 1000 copies pressed quickly sold out.
The Delmontes played their first London show in October, debuting at the French Youth Centre, before opening for Buzzcocks and Orange Juice at The Lyceum on 2 November. Other notable London gigs followed over the next few months, including the Sundown with Comsat Angels and Minny Pops, The Venue (apparently marred by “too much dithering about”), and Cabaret Futura, the cultish Soho club hosted by Richard Strange. The group also played a short tour supporting The Passions. It’s probably fair to say that the band preferred gigging Northern venues, memorably Manchester University (with The Fall), Leeds Warehouse and the seminal Beach Club in Manchester, with boy wonders Aztec Camera supporting.
In February 1981 the band recorded a BBC radio session for Richard Skinner, broadcast the following month. Lemon Verbena Tea, B.G.J.M., Use It and Let’s Forgive marked their first visit to a large, professional recording studio, although in keeping with the spirit of age, not one of these songs would appear on record. The second single was instead Don’t Cry Your Tears, initially released by Rational in March 1981 and housed in a wraparound Paisley pattern sleeve. Another four-track recording, it was a dark, barbed pop song, and gained extra punch from the simple production values, although flipside So It’s Not To Be was remixed when the single was re-issued in May. Once again the critical reception was warm, with Smash Hits placing the band “at the top of the queue” and rightly praising the single as a gem. By June it had climbed as high as #11 on the NME indie chart, although for some obscure reason the paper persisted in listing the a-side as Don’t Dry Your Tears.
Tous les Soirs and The Delmontes’ psychedelic references had already attracted the attention of Bill Drummond at Zoo Records and Julien Cope of Teardrop Explodes, arch psych-heads both. As a result the band was invited to support the Teardrops on their 20 date Culture Bunker tour of the UK in June, with the newly poptastic headliners riding high on the UK success of the singles Reward and Treason. The tour kicked off in Bradford on 5 June and took in major cities including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, London, and ended with a rescheduled date at Dunstable on the 29th. Unusually for the time the tour was not a buy-on, and The Delmontes instead received the princely sum of £50 per night. While this barely covered petrol, it did afford the band an opportunity to play to large and appreciative audiences nationwide, and helped Don’t Cry Your Tears scale the indie chart.
The tour climaxed with a prestigious show at Hammersmith Odeon. In his memoir Head On Julian Cope recalls this as a duff performance by the Teardrops, but their support act faced problems of a different kind. Gillian Miller: “My keyboards set on fire, because the Teardrops had these huge banks of lights, and we were right next to them. A lot of their fans are so young, it was mainly little girls who’d come to see Julian and were fainting everywhere. We went down quite well, and in somepaces we went down really well.”
Thanks to the singles and the tour, The Delmontes were on top of their game during the summer of 1981, and found themselves courted by bigger labels, fielded by new manager Gordon Dair. Virgin-backed faux-indie DinDisc (Monochrome Set, OMD, Martha and the Muffins) travelled all the way from London to chilly Bo’ness to table a deal, although the terms were less than generous, and the offer was declined. Another Virgin affiliate, Cuba Libre, run by Ali Mackenzie of the Cuban Heels, also expressed interest. Intriguingly, The Delmontes were also offered a deal by Zoo, the celebrated Liverpool indie run by Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe, and earlier home to Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes. Again, however, the terms were average, and while it’s possible that Zoo might have been able to sign or licence The Delmontes to a major, as they had with the Bunnymen and Teardrops, there were no guarantees, and by itself Zoo was just as much an indie as Rational.
In passing, it’s worth noting that the Zoo/Food axis later signed (and charted) Strawberry Switchblade, another female-fronted indiepop band from north of the border, albeit Glasgow rather than Edinburgh. The Zoo connection also explains an unlikely rumour in circulation in Edinburgh at the time, to the effect that The Delmontes were due to sign with hip New York dance label Ze.
In December 1981 the band entered Palladium Studio to record a four song demo, comprising Moondrops and Roses, Love In a Guillotine, No No Billy No and Sacrifice My Heart. Rational Records also released a one-off 7″ ep (RATE 5) credited to Mark, James and Julie, whose five tracks included a cover of If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake. The trio behind this charming record included Julie Hepburn, and James Locke, of Paul Haig’s Rhythm of Life and later The Chimes. The Delmontes remained active, writing new material and playing college dates, as well as a short, snow-blown tour of Holland in January 1982, but failed to capitalise on the success of the singles and the Teardrops tour. A sense of boredom and inertia crept in, allied to a self-confessed lazy streak, and an uneasy realisation that the rocky road from indie hopefuls to mainstream contenders might be a rocky one.
Their quandary was best summed up by Steve Sutherland in Melody Maker, reporting on a prestigious Scots-only Rock Week at the ICA in London in March 1982. By then The Delmontes had been out of the public eye for nine months: “The rough deal is no deal. A hip name to drop north of Carlisle, The Delmontes were classic victims of the self-obsession of the southern music press. Discovered too soon, set up to fast, too much promised, too little delivered to date, the Delmontes were left for dead when funk and flash threads pre-eped regional ravings. The Blair Street gang who toured with the Teardrops, turned laziness into a work of art and damn near defined a new hip-hippyness with the classic Tous Les Soirs all but ran out of the will to go on.”
As Julie Hepburn admitted: “I hope the ICA will start interest off again because in the last year we lost it, and people lost interest in us. Our novelty’s worn off now. Having a female drummer, people used to make excuses for us. They don’t any more. When were started we were naïaut;ve but fun, then people started getting onto us about tightening up and getting good technically, so we did that and lost everything else that we had – lost our innocence and excitement.”
The band played well enough at the ICA, although NME chose to print a cropped shot of Julie’s Doc Marten boots alone, and reviewer Paul Morley was oblique in his praise. By May 1982, when Steve Sutherland awarded The Delmontes a full-page feature in Melody Maker, the band aspired to create “elegant pop music” and confessed candidly that “success is now our paramount concern.” This new sense of ambition bore fruit that summer when major label WEA expressed interest in the band. In fact the deal owed much to the band’s ongoing friendship with Alan Rankine of The Associates, whoseprtnership with Billy Mackenzie had recently stalled after a string of cancelled shows, and who the label were now keen to groom as a producer.
Ultimately the longed-for major deal proved a Faustian pact. The A&R department sought to impose a raft of crass ideas on the band, which included ousting the overtly ‘garage’ rhythm section of Gordon and Bernice Simpson, and subjecting Julie to a Sade-style makeover. This proved too much for the Simpsons, who elected to leave, fearing the band would lose its way. In the interim drummer Bernice was replaced by Neil Braidwood, formerly of cult post-punks The Freeze, while Gillian and Mike added bass where required. Undoubtedly the departure of Bernice and Gordon allowed the Delmontes to follow a more commercial musical direction, but equally their loss served to diminish the band’s unique visual impact onstage. Bernice subsequently joined The Pastels, remaining with them until 1989.
After recording a polished six song demo at Wilf’s Planet in Edinburgh in September, the new-look Delmontes played a one-off date supporting Roxy Music (then promoting Avalon) at Edinburgh Playhouse on 1 October. The band then travelled down to London to record three tracks with Alan Rankine. A final demo was recorded a few weeks later at Palladium, Edinburgh, comprising When Minds Begin to Click and Sweet Sweet Love, now with drummer Keith Burns (of Hey Elastica) and bassist Neil ‘Dunc’ Duncanson on board.
Any one of the three songs recorded with Rankine would have been strong enough to crack the charts, and Thursday ranks among their finest. However, at the beginning of the New Year their A&R contact failed to show for a scheduled meeting at Edinburgh hostelry Mr Mustard’s, and instead Mike Berry was called to the bar to take a telephone call, the gist of which was that the band were to be dropped. It was a blow from which The Delmontes did not recover. Profoundly disenchanted, the remaining members went their separate ways.
If ever there was a sense of unfinished business, the Carousel compilation CD proves what might have been, and indeed what was: a top-drawer indiepop band way ahead of their time, with songs, talent and integrity to burn.