The Songbirds 1984-1986
For a moment in the mid-80s, The Songbirds flourished, an explosion of punk-inflected
rhythm’n’blues. The man behind them was Raymond Hickman, and the Time Machine takes
a trip with him and fellow members to the era when the Carioca Club on Eriswell Road was
home every Thursday to Worthing’s amped and disaffected alternative sorts.
“Our music could make something happen, that’s what I liked,” says Songbirds bassist
Louise Purbrick. “It was short-lived, but had that energy.”
Raymond Hickman was born in Brighton in 1962, his father an electrical engineer and his
mother a secretary. They settled in Worthing when he was seven. While he enjoyed primary
school, his time at West Tarring Secondary Modern [now Thomas A Becket Junior School]
was less happy. Then punk exploded.
“The Sex Pistols! The Stranglers!” he recalls. “I thought ‘Wow! Bloody hell!’ I was a
newspaper boy and ‘The Filth and the Fury’ headline looked interesting. John Peel at night,
radio under the pillow. It was a revelation. Suddenly you were in a gang. One day we were
wearing flared trousers, the next we’d taken them in.”
Seeing The Stranglers supported by The Dictators at Brighton’s Top Rank in October 1977
sealed the deal. Raymond took up bass and started the first of many bands, playing Pistols
covers, but it was no easy thing to be a Worthing punk.
“I remember going to Caroline’s [now JB’s, New Street] and a guy I was at school with, Kevin
Hook, played records there,” says Raymond. “He played something by The Ramones and
we jumped about but, walking back, I heard someone shout ‘Oi!’ I turned around and this
guy threw a brick at me. It missed, but then he punched me in the face.”
Raymond was, however, impressing others. Phil Hayes was four years younger.
“Raymond was a face around town,” remembers Phil. “I remember going to some CND thing
in Brixton. The Damned played in a park. Raymond was there. He looked like Mick Jones [of
Raymond was in a band called The Tenfoots between 1981 and 1983, who were briefly big
news and who the Time Machine will visit some other time.
“They ended up as a seven-piece soul band,” he says, “Although I liked Dexys, my first love
was always The Stooges, Pere Ubu, American guitar music.”
He and then-girlfriend Louise would incessantly listen to the classic 60s garage punk
compilation Nuggets. They wanted to do something in that vein. Raymond moved to guitar,
Louise was on bass and The Tenfoots’ sound man Martin Smith added another guitar, but
they needed a drummer.
“I drummed in a band called Toy Factory, part of a scene of very young bands based around
the Montague [Montague Street, closed 2011],” recalls Phil Hayes. “There was an open air
gig in Steyne Gardens and I was headhunted by Raymond. I think it was more about my
clothes – 60s ankle boots from my dad and an anorak. Then I got chicken pox; Louise came
round with that Nuggets record and said I had to listen to it if I wanted to join, so I started in
The Songbirds covered in calamine lotion.”
They would rehearse in the shed at the end of Louise’s mum’s garden, soundproofed with
egg boxes. Before long, The Songbirds had gigs via promoter Johnny Clark. Their sound
was rough’n’ready – think Cramps/Sonics/Seeds – and featured a cover of Mack Self’s 1958
rockabilly gem Vibrate. They played the Carioca all the time, and topped Littlehampton’s own
alternative Live Aid bill at the Windmill Theatre.
“We played several times at The Escape in Brighton [now Patterns]”, says Raymond, “and
upstairs at The Richmond [closed January this year]. We supported [raging politico-punks]
Newtown Neurotics there, which was scary. A load of skinheads came and were not
impressed with us. Phil was at sixth form college and he came straight from a performance
of Hamlet to be confronted by this bald guy shouting at us about Adolf Hitler.
“We also supported [goth-glam outfit] Gene Loves Jezebel at The Escape. Beforehand, their
singer did the vocal soundcheck reading some dark poetry out of a book, so when it was my
turn I just jumped up and sang Be-Bop-A-Lula a capella at the top of my voice. I could see
this poetry guy having his hair crimped, looking up at me like, ‘What the f**k is this?’ We did
a great set that night.”
“We did a weird gig at a Hotham Park Zoo in Bognor Regis [closed circa 84-85],” remembers
Phil, “There was this bar there, this goth scene. There were these little birds in cages –
super strange – but it was really good.”
The Songbirds supported artists ranging from John Otway to A Certain Ratio (the latter not a
good match) and recorded a feisty four-track demo in Brighton which they sent to record
companies (songs on it were The Sea, Sweet Little Mary, That’s Her Name and Southern
Home), but in 1986 Phil went off to study creative arts and, although the band tried to go on
with another drummer for one gig, it was over.
“I was in two minds about what to do,” sighs Phil. “I’d spent a year retaking exams and had a
place at Newcastle Poly, but I felt terrible about it at the time.”
Based in Switzerland, he now works in theatre and still has an active band, Phil Hayes and
the Trees. Louise Purbrick is a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton. Martin Smith, as
far as his old bandmates know, works for the Inland Revenue. Raymond Hickman went on to
complete a PhD on madness and citizenship and spent 25 years university teaching before
deciding on a complete change. He is now a postman.
“At our best, The Songbirds were the band I’m most proud of being in,” says Raymond,
when pushed, “At our worst, God, no! But the moments when it really worked were lovely.”
“I’m constantly in contact with Raymond,” says Phil. “He’s started playing guitar again and
wants to record some songs. I’ll keep you posted.”
Whether they do or don’t, judging from the 1985 Songbirds demo, those that caught them in
their prime were lucky indeed.
Louise Purbrick is also the subject of the Oct 2018 Time Machine about Crass playing
Worthing, a gig she put on aged 17.
Read it again at hereandnowmag.co.uk/thomas-greens-music-time-machine-crass-play-worthing.
BY THOMAS H GREEN
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