My early biogs said, “Billy came from a musical family. His father was an opera singer and his mother a classically trained pianist.” Like all good PR releases, there was a vague ‘airbrush’ of truth involved. My dad, Hugh, did indeed sing solo tenor with the Glasgow Phoenix Choir at the Royal Festival Hall, London and gave a blistering performance of The Last Rose of Summer which we had on 78rpm acetate and played it often. It impressed me. What wasn’t common knowledge is that dad had to get time off from his day job to perform his ‘Woodstock’ moment. My mum, Jean, was so prolific on a keyboard she could’ve given Rick Wakeman a damn good thrashing (which as a typical mother of the time would’ve given my young arse some respite). I respected that.
However, my main influence was never mentioned in those early media propagandas. His name was Ian, my elder and sole brother. Ian taught me my 1st three chords on the guitar. I learned a 4th one but never showed him it. He wasn’t into The Beatles, only dug the Stones’ early, bluesy stuff and listened to John Peel’s The Perfumed Garden on his crystal radio set, under the covers of the bed we shared til one of us got an erection. That scared the shit out of me. Ian, not so much. I think he’d had them before. Ian played me everything from Lonnie Donegan, Small Faces, Kinks, Taj Mahal and every blues artist you could think of. Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, even Lead Belly’s early stuff got my pants twitching. His too, or so it seemed. But it was when he played me what he called The New Incredible String Band, an outfit he referred to as Tyrannosaurus Rex that we hit an impasse. By this time Marc Bolan had fallen out of favour with both my brotherly mentor and John Peel by relaunching his career as T.Rex. “Pish!” declared Ian. “No. You’re old.” “By 11 years,” I should’ve added but it was too late. Mother Jean got involved. “Mum!” I exclaimed. “I’m going to be the next Marc Bolan!” After delivering a particularly severe thrashing on my young arse, she asked,
“Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours.” (Tony Hatch & Jackie Trent, 1984)
By early 1970 I’d outgrown my brother’s 6 String Spanish guitar and nagged my parents into buying me my own 6 String Spanish guitar. I’d initially asked for a Les Paul but they’d never heard of him or indeed his wife, Mary Ford. They had however heard of flamenco legend Paco Pena thanks to my friend Mick McAuley who lived a few doors away in Kenilworth Road, Kirkintilloch, me at No. 34, he at No. 20. Not only did Mick have his own 6 String Spanish guitar, but he had also received lessons from a Spanish bloke who’d received lessons from El Paco himself, and Mick was actually proficient enough he could’ve changed his name to Miguel, but didn’t. Instead, we decided to form a hardcore acoustic metal duo with Spanish overtones which we named Phase.
I had been writing songs and the first decent one was, ironically entitled Farewell. We got our big break, Miguel and me, performing as Phase at Kirkintilloch Town Hall where we played Farewell to an audience who although didn’t get the irony, definitely seemed to agree with the sentiment. One of the conditions, okay, the only condition was that we had to (along with a local drummer) provide backing for up-and-coming local duo Anne Marie McLaughlan and her wee brother Gerry. I played electric guitar for the first time and Mick strapped on an alien appendage he’d only a week later discover was his punishment for that flamenco prowess, a bass guitar. Next day at school I was approached by mates Allan Hendry and John Burnett who when asked about last night’s show said they hadn’t laughed so much in ages, or words to that effect but thought Phase could be improved by augmenting this pair of tits to the band. Allan’s hero was Woody Woodmansey, and although he didn’t even own a drum kit he kinda looked like him, so he was in. (Allan became every bit as good as Woody, and one of my all-time favourite memories was when I played with The Spiders, I introduced them to each other.) John, on the other hand, couldn’t play anything but he had a guitar, an advantage which could not be underestimated, so wasn’t. (He was also the greatest goalkeeper for Kirkintilloch High School ever recorded, only letting in 46 goals in 3 appearances.)
Phase was born.
“You came to watch the band, to see us play our parts. We hoped you’d lend an ear, you hoped we’d dress like tarts.” (Be Bop Deluxe: Axe Victim, 1974)
Personally, I could write a book about my childhood band Phase, but few would read it excepting the other members and crew of this outfit, so here’s what you need to know. Formed as an acoustic duo by myself and neighbourhood friend Mick McAuley, Phase played its 1st and only gig as a duo at Kirkintilloch Town Hall back in 1974. We then recruited a school chum of mine, Allan Hendry, on drums and recorded some of my earliest songs including Everything’s Alright in Allan’s bedroom. No mean feat as two Spanish acoustic guitars are no match for a drum kit.
Excerpt of Everything’s Alright
We had to be louder. We had to go Electric. Me with a Les Paul copy and Mick opting for a Futurama bass, well someone had to play bass and I was too quick a learner for that. Also present that day in Allan’s bedroom was another school chum, John Burnett. He couldn’t play anything but after I’d given him a few guitar lessons, he could. So, Phase was:
- Billy Rankin – Lead Vox/Lead Guitar
- Mick McAuley – Bass/B Vox
- John Burnett – Rhythm Guitar/B Vox
- Allan Hendry – Drums/B Vox
(Kenny Cobain would replace John for a bit and a French bass player called Arg replaced Mick for a few gigs.)
Our big break (and our 1st gig as a band) came when we got to play a set at our school disco. Miraculously, a recording of this event survives, and I’m sorry if our choice of material doesn’t impress you (cos the performance itself won’t.) Here goes: T.Rex, Slade, Bowie, Chuck Berry (so far so good), Bay City Rollers, Gary Glitter and Mick Ronson. What Balls…we had!
Slade’s Get Down & Get With It at Kirkintilloch High School 1974
Over the next few years, we played everywhere to anyone who’d book us, including supporting Marmalade, Dead End Kids and even auditioned for Barry Blue’s production company. He was a dick. We got really good, in part due to our relentless gigging, but also cos we were playing material no one in Scotland was familiar with. After playing Jordanhill College, their student rag complimented us on our ‘original’ material such as Stranglehold (Ted Nugent), Maid In Heaven (Be Bop Deluxe) and even She Said, She Said (obviously The Beatles, but we’d based our version on a little-known UK rock band, Lone Star.)
Thanks mainly to agents Eddie Tobin and Andy Cummings of Music and Cabaret (MAC for short) Phase got to play all the hot spots in Glasgow, of which there were many. The Maggie, The Amphora, The Dial Inn, Doune Castle, The Charing Cross Hotel, Shuffles (once The Electric Gardens when Deep Purple sold it out, now The Garage) Satellite City (above The Apollo) and many others. The one venue MAC couldn’t get us into was the famous/infamous Burns Howff situated at 56 West Regent Street. To play The Howff, you had to be good. Maggie Bell’s Stone The Crows, The Average White Band, Frankie Miller, Jimmy Dewar, Nazareth, hell, Alex Harvey first met and recruited his Sensational Band at The Howff where they were playing as Tear Gas. To get in, you had to impress owner John Waterson who was a tight bastard.
First, you’d do a free gig at your own expense, and if you passed Waterson’s test, you’d be given a one-off chance to play The Howff for the princely sum of £12.50. Now to get this in perspective, all the other Glasgow venues listed already paid between £60-£100 per night so when we passed the test, we took a hit every time we played there. And they paid by cheque. Not good when you have the cost of van hire, fuel and drinks (non-alcoholic for Phase cos we were 15 at the time) to find. Regardless, we were ecstatic when John offered us a midweek residency which eventually became a Saturday afternoon/night double gig.
To quote from Wikipedia:
“All played for John, although his relationship with musicians could be fraught. When one was interviewed, he said he would never forget John for giving him his big break, but bemoaned the fact that he and his band were only paid £20 a night. John retorted that this was slander – he never paid any band more than £15!”
One downside to this Saturday Headline status occurred on June 5th 1976 when we had to give away our tickets for The Who’s Put The Boot In concert at Hampden Park. We played to no one that day cos every Rock fan was at Hampden, and we missed out on seeing not only The Who, but also Roger Chapman’s Streetwalkers, Lowell George’s Little Feat and Alex Harvey’s Sensational Band. But, before that day, Phase were only a few weeks into our Tuesday (or maybe Wednesday?) residency when a sudden hush fell over the room when we were about to kick off the night. Someone special was in our midst. Who? Who cared? We didn’t.
Phase – She Said She Said 1977
Launching into our Lone Star version of the Beatles’ She Said She Said I looked down into the audience and spotted a wee guy gesturing to me to give him my guitar. A huge minder shadowed him and it took me a few seconds to realise the minder wasn’t really huge, the wee guy was just, well, wee. A few seconds later I recognised the vertically challenged celebrity was none other than ex-Stone The Crows/Thunderclap Newman and current axeman of Paul McCartney & Wings, Jimmy McCulloch. He was clearly enthusiastic about our choice of opening number (though I think it was one of Lennon’s, not his boss’s) but was also clearly pished. What would you do? Exactly. I hurriedly announced Jimmy’s presence to an already expectant crowd and, after bending down a bit, strapped my beloved Gibson 335 over his tiny shoulders. It didn’t go well. Initially, he seemed to be determining the key we were playing in then it became apparent he was just trying to stay upright. As Jimmy lost the fight with gravity and careered backwards into my Marshall stack, I grabbed the neck of my guitar with one hand and aimed my other fist at his tiny head, but his minder prevented the blow saying, “If you do that, I’ll have to kill you.” Amid much booing from the Glasgow crowd, a brief conversation ensued and Jimmy was removed from The Howff by my potential assassin.
A week later we once again set up for our residency when in walked a sober Mr McCulloch, minder in tow. “Fuck guys, I’m so sorry.” And he really was. He couldn’t remember it, but we weren’t short of reminders. He bought us all an orange juice and I even let him admire my 335 again, from a distance. Eventually, we worked up the courage to ask him to jam with us and he graciously agreed. “Let’s do Maybe I’m Amazed,” I suggested and he played a blinder of a solo. The memory I hold most dearly is when I asked the audience to welcome back Jimmy McCulloch to the Burns Howff, they did. Jimmy left in tears. Within three years he would be dead. On a lighter note, at the end of the night, we asked John Waterson’s son Paul for a bonus cos we’d broken all midweek records for booze sales.
“Sorry guys,” said Paul. “Dad says no. He is a tight bastard.”
By 1977 we were the most popular band in Glasgow, even securing a record deal with Scottish ‘middle of the road’ band Middle of The Road’s Black Gold Records. The recordings are sadly no longer in my possession but trust me; we were happening. I mean ‘Happening!’
Then something happened.
Our agent, Eddie Tobin, called me with an offer. Rumours spread inside the band it was Thin Lizzy’s vacant guitarist job, but it wasn’t. Eddie showed up for Phase’s gig at The Maggie in Glasgow and sat with my parents who, according to my mum, said he was looking for ‘The Spark’ from me which would decide if I’d accompany him to London for this career move only I knew about. He sat through the early songs without even a twitch but, when we launched into our cover of Zeppelin’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, Eddie turned to my folks and exclaimed, “And there it is!” We continued for a few weeks to fulfil obligations but, in December 1977, at Hamilton Accies Football Club, Phase were no more. For Allan, John and Mick, it was the end of their musical careers.
I wasn’t so lucky.
Rock ‘n’ Roll at The Maggie, Glasgow December 1977
“When You Find The Girl Of Your Dreams In The Arms Of Some Scotsmen From Hull.” (The Rutles, 1978)
Or in my case, Wakefield. Infatuation with my guitar heroes knew no bounds in 1977. Alvin Lee, Mick Ronson and Bill Nelson were all legendary to me. I had met Bill once backstage at a Be Bop Deluxe gig (Glasgow QM Union) the previous year and fucked up big-time. A girl asked him for a kiss, he obliged and in front of my fellow Phase bandmates I’d exclaimed, “I wish I was a lassie!” As for Alvin Lee, this not being his real name (born Graham Anthony Barnes) and Michael Ronson, I had more chance of meeting their mothers than the guys themselves.
So it’s with this in mind I travelled with the actual ‘Girl of my Dreams’ aka fiancé and future wife Mary, to Wakefield from nearby Scarborough in the summer of ‘77. Finding Mrs Nelson’s abode was complicated but boring so, suffice to say, Mary and I found ourselves parked in my Mini 850 outside my hero’s childhood home. Mary refused to leave the car saying, “You’re stalking his mother?” Undeterred, I knocked on the door and was invited in by one of the Holy Trinity itself, Bill Nelson’s Maw! (and his brother Ian, a disciple of said Hero Bill.) Half an hour passed pleasantly with stories of Hero Bill, even photo albums of him before he had a penis, (or Gibson 335, I’m not sure), but peppered with tales of how wrecked her son’s life had been made by marriage, divorce and his ex-wife’s expertise at smashing his favourite guitar over his cranium when required, usually on his way out to a gig. “Don’t get into a relationship if you want to be a successful musician,” Mrs Nelson sagely advised, and I nodded, sage-like. My visit was brought to an end when mother and son announced they had to call a taxi to attend a jazz concert in Wakefield. I should’ve curtsied and left but instead offered them a lift, which they graciously accepted. Here’s where it got tricky. With my fiancé, Mary waiting in the Mini and, in light of Hero Bill’s Maw’s advice, I found myself introducing my future wife as, and I quote, “Mrs Nelson, Ian, this is Mary, my sister.”
Fast forward a few decades and I would find myself at Hero Bill’s last and ultimately most successful wedding to his Japanese fiancé, Emi at which I informed his mother I was now happily married to my ‘sister’ and had been since 1979.
But back to that day in Wakefield:
Finding a discarded engagement ring in a Mini 850 is just as hard as it sounds except I finally found it well and truly rammed up my arse. Thank goodness women don’t hold a grudge, eh?
Phase – Be Bop Deluxe’s Maid In Heaven, Glasgow 1977
“Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” (Arthur C Clarke)
Things were understandably frosty between me and my bandmates as Phase wound down, especially with Mick and I who, as you may remember, had formed Phase as a ‘hardcore acoustic metal duo with Spanish overtones’ way back then. On one of our last gigs I walked off stage and sat in the audience during Mick’s bass solo and, at some point in our final performance at Hamilton Accies Football Club, Mick forcefully pushed me off stage and into the audience, spilling someone’s pint. Obviously, he felt I hadn’t left the stage quickly enough before.
As a result, when I presented our record company, Black Gold Records with an idea I had about a concept of alien interbreeding based on the books by Erich Von Daniken, they suggested, as did my ex-bandmates, that I did it myself. This was in December 1977 when I was waiting to be taken to London by Eddie Tobin with the promise of becoming a professional musician.
Recording took place at Solsgirth Studios just outside Kirkintilloch and I played all the instruments. A folly in hindsight but, when the only musicians you know would’ve gladly pushed you off a cliff, needs must. The most important detail here is the studio was in an historical heritage centre. The control room itself was within a listed building, as were the recording facilities, and the entire complex formed part of one of The National Trust for Scotland’s officially protected sites. Oh, and it was fuckin’ haunted.
During a playback, we witnessed a telephone move across the table unaided and, in an incident caught on tape, a floor tom-tom in the corner of the drum booth I was drumming in at the time made a ‘doof’ sound on its own. It happened right after the slow intro to ‘Do It Our Way’ (at 11 min 20 sec) and sent me running, screaming like a girl on a very high podium, something I’m sure Mick & Co would’ve gleefully pushed me off in a clown-like manner.
Talking of Clowns, I was about to join the Circus.