Thursday, 26 November 2015

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We should have been as big as Ozzy

Dave Tangye mutters the words, as if they are too painful to give full voice. “Should have been a big band,” he says.

Frank Hall smiles. He’s heard it all before. In fact, he’s said it all before.

Necromandus should, according to many who heard them, have been a very big band.

Maybe every town has a similar hard luck story. But the Necromandus version is more painful than most.

In the early 1970s they were championed by Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi and friends with singer Ozzy Osbourne.

“Just a matter of time,” they were told. “You’re too good not to make it.”

And only now, nearly 40 years after their split, are Necromandus receiving the recognition which eluded them during their short life.

A new version of the band’s only album is about to be released, backed by favourable reviews in this month’s music magazines.

But it’s come too late for singer Bill Branch, bass player Dennis McCarten and guitarist Baz Dunnery.

Frank Hall, the drummer, is the only surviving member. He and roadie Dave Tangye, both 59, have come together to remember absent friends, happy times, and what might have been.

Frank and Dennis were from Whitehaven and played in a band called Heaven. Baz (older brother of It Bites star Francis Dunnery) and Bill were Egremont lads in a band called Jug.

When Heaven and Jug split up in the late 1960s, these four joined together and the rock world was rocked by... Urinal.

“My mother went mad,” is Frank’s recollection of how Mrs Hall regarded the name.

Urinal did not last long, coming in the midst of other names including Hot Spring Water, Taurus and Heavy Hand.

They eventually settled on Necromandus. It was Frank’s idea.

“I got mixed up with Nostradamus,” he explains. “But it sounded good so we kept it.”

Their heavy, bluesy rock was a welcome escape from days filled with manual labour. Dennis was a fabricator and Frank a builder. Baz and Bill’s numerous employers included a shoe factory and a laundry.

Necromandus – or whatever they may have been called at the time – became friends with Black Sabbath, who spent a sizeable chunk of their early years in Carlisle.

“We had a unique sense of humour,” says Frank. “Poor Ozzy – he didn’t have a sense of humour until he met us. We really brought him out. Dennis was a real character. He and Ozzy were like explosives and a detonator.”

Black Sabbath hit the big time in 1970 with number one album Paranoid.

Tony Iommi had long admired Necromandus and he used his new-found influence to help the band.

“Tony recognised in them what he saw in himself,” says Dave. “They were from the same working-class background and he saw their talent immediately.”

Necromandus began to play in London, where they felt more at home than in west Cumberland.

“My dad used to go mad about my long hair,” recalls Frank. “I used to wear a black feather in it and he wasn’t keen on that at all. You’d get stick just walking down the street. My cousin got married and her dad banned me from the wedding for looking like I did.

“We lived in London for about nine months. It was a big culture shock. We were green as grass. We stayed with an Irish lady. We thought her daughter had lots of uncles, then we realised she was running... a flourishing business.

“I once ended up doing an improv with Keith Moon. I was welting a bedpan and there’s Keith Moon playing my drums. I was thinking ‘This is totally surreal.’”

Frank insists that the band’s love of music meant there was only one winner when it came to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

“One night I’d pulled a Naomi Campbell lookalike. She was beautiful. While she was waiting for me I was talking to another drummer about drums, saying stuff like ‘Do you prefer Zildjian cymbals?’ Eventually she got fed up and said ‘I’ll see you.’”

Tony Iommi recorded some demo tracks with the band but neither party was satisfied with the results.

After a few more months of gigging, Necromandus were ready. Their trademark sound – heavy riffs taken to unexpected places by Baz’s jazz-influenced guitar – had been honed on the road.

“We played brilliantly together,” says Frank. “We had that sixth sense. We knew what we were going to do next.”

The album was recorded under Tony Iommi’s guidance during a week in March 1973.

Necromandus then toured the UK with Black Sabbath. Frank remembers playing to 3,000 people at Glasgow Apollo.

“Coming from Silloth Working Men’s Club to the Apollo, walking out on stage – oh God! The butterflies start going. I got those pains in my stomach, like when you don’t want to go to school. But it became fun to play. We were so tight as a band.”

Necromandus headlined their own tour and their support bands included Judas Priest.

But record label Vertigo seemed in no rush to release the album. Money was tight and Tony Iommi had little time to spend with his proteges.

“I don’t think Tony wanted it that way but the band were suffering from sheer lack of attention,” says Dave. “Everybody was saying ‘What about Necromandus?’ The lads were going up and down the motorway and there was no money coming in.”

Frank admits that the band were reduced to stealing sacks of potatoes from outside a restaurant.

“I lost two stone. I was having to rely on friends and family. We moved to Birmingham, and I remember Tony came round in his Rolls-Royce for a cup of tea. We gave him a cuppa, then he was asked for a shilling for the meter.

“We were getting disillusioned. Then Baz dropped the bombshell. He’d had enough.

“It wasn’t so much a shock, it was just a matter of when he was going to leave. He said to me one night ‘It’s just not happening.’

“The rest of the band wanted to carry on but when I phoned Tony he said: ‘Are you going to find another guitarist as good as Baz?’

“We both knew the answer was no.”

Following Baz’s departure, Vertigo shelved the album. By 1974 the dream was over.

“It was like a divorce,” says Frank. “It was like a bereavement.”

The band members came home to Cumbria, still playing music whenever they could but haunted by what might have been.

Dave Tangye became Ozzy Osbourne’s personal assistant and in 1976 he sparked a brief and partial Necromandus reunion.

During a break from Black Sabbath, Ozzy wanted to try some new ideas with a different band.

Baz, Frank and Dennis were happy to join Ozzy at his Staffordshire home. Bill was not invited; Ozzy would be doing the singing.

This foursome played together for several weeks before work dissolved into a haze of drinking.

And that really was the end of Necromandus. Baz remained in Cumbria, playing guitar for fun and working as a joiner.

Frank moved to London in 1985, playing in several bands before returning to Cumbria a few years ago.

Dennis became an interior designer in London. Says Frank: “When Dennis got up in the morning, as far as he was concerned he was on a film set, and he was starring in that film all day. Sometimes he’d allow you on set with him, which was great.”

Bill Branch died in the late 1980s, before he had a chance to see Necromandus’s album released.

It was finally freed from the archives in 1999, with the title Orexis of Death.

“My mother phoned me up and said ‘Your album’s out’” says Frank. “It sounded great. I was proud of it.”

Dennis died in 2004 and Baz died of cancer in 2008.

A few months before Baz’s death, Frank had resurrected the Necromandus name for use with a new band.

“I stopped using the name because it upset Baz. He thought it should be left in the past. I did apologise to him and there was no bad feeling. I gave Baz some rosary beads. He was buried with them.”

And now there’s only Frank and Dave left, although the torch they carry for Necromandus has been seized by generations of music fans, who often discover the band through its Black Sabbath connection.

Orexis of Death will be re-released next Monday, along with a live recording from a 1973 gig in Blackpool.

The release has prompted reviews in such publications as Metal Hammer and Burrn! magazine. The latter publication is written entirely in Japanese.

“I had this lad in Japan telling me there’s a big Necromandus thing out there,” says Frank. “I couldn’t believe it. It never goes away. I knew there was a love for the band and that’s been proved.”

The new release has been masterminded by Lee Dorrian, the former singer with renowned heavy metal band Napalm Death, and a big Necromandus fan.

Dave Tangye helped to write the sleeve notes. During his research he unearthed some publicity photographs taken by Whitehaven photographer David Swift at St Bees in 1971.

Like the band’s album, these gathered dust for decades and only now have come back to life, telling the story of four young men at the start of their journey, and nearer the end than they realised.

“All my life I’m frustrated,” says Frank. “What it could have been. Where it could have gone. Sometimes I feel cheated. I feel robbed.

“But I always think about them with fond memories. It was a great time. It was like Disneyland every day.”


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