Steve Allen was the driving force behind Bristol 80s punk legends DISORDER, a band he played guitar in for a little over a decade, culminating in a relocation to Scandinavia with fellow bandmate and eternal punk rocker Phil ‘Taf’ Lovering. Steve talks about the early days and his search for that obnoxious guitar tone – something that BBC DJ John Peel would compare to the sound of a Triumph Bonneville motorbike – takes us through some of those recordings and the equipment he used, muses on how being in one of the scruffiest, noisiest and drunkest punk bands on the planet did his career prospects no harm whatsoever, unearths a bunch of exclusive photos he’s been sent, and most importantly, releases the lineup for his new old school punk band FEAR OF THE KNOWN. And forgive me an indulgence before we begin, but as a schoolboy who had a week of lunchtime detentions in 1984 sandpapering desks as punishment for gouging Disorder lyrics into every one I sat at, this has been a long time coming…
Hi Steve, I guess it all started with a guitar? How did you learn to play?
For as long as I can remember I always wanted to play guitar. When I was around 12 I took some acoustic guitar lessons with Bill Craddy and became pretty proficient but gave up as I wasn’t getting the sounds I wanted.
Around 1974 I began skateboarding on home built decks rolling on vandalised roller skates. By 1976 skateboarding was getting serious and I think it was the Skateboard Centre opened in Clifton Bristol. Apart from all the new gear, that’s where I first became aware of punk music. Punk and skateboarding seemed to be a natural fit and there was the sound I had been looking for. I still had the acoustic and after learning bar chords I was all set to find some other band members. First band was around 1978 and was called the Acid Children, formed together with Alex Cleeves.
Can you remember your early equipment – guitars and effects and so on? Listening to even the earliest Disorder recordings, you must have had a distortion pedal ( and they weren’t as common then as people these days realise….)
Me and Alex found 2 brothers that were selling a guitar and bass. Alex bought the guitar and I bought the bass. After listening to Alex trying to play the guitar I gave him the bass and told him to learn that and I took his guitar – a black Hondo Les Paul. One of the brothers was into electronics so he built me a shoebox transistor amp and I found a second hand speaker that sort of worked. The thing kept burning out so, me and Alex ended buying a few combo amps from ageing local Teds. None of them lasted very long and had a tendency to burn out.
At some point I read about a Marshall clone that was made in Northampton, so went there to try and find one. The music shop I found didn’t have them but did have a Maine twin speaker combo. I was looking for a valve amp and ended up buying a transistor amp. It was actually pretty decent and loud enough to gig with.
As I didn’t have much money, I used to hunt around in second hand music shops and there was one in Old Market Bristol I bought some pretty bad pedals from.
The first real Disorder pedal was an MXR Distortion + rip off made by Maxon I think. I had an ancient Big Muff for about a week but got drunk and lost it on a pub crawl.
The early demos with Steve singing were clearly Lydon-influenced….I guess everyone was influenced by the Pistols and PIL at that point? Are you still a fan?
I still play both PIL and the Sex Pistols every now and then. Both bands shaped my view of the world and who I am and Steve Jones’ guitar playing had a really big influence on me. PIL really got me to expand my musical horizons and First Issue was a great record followed up by the incredible Metal Box.
Disorder on record sounded different to most other punk bands I think, definitely down and dirty, but the level of distortion and unusual structures put the band outside everything else. Did you ever struggle to be taken seriously as a band?
As we came from a small town outside of Bristol and didn’t conform to the clean tidy version of punk that Bristol had grown used to and we were not made to exactly feel welcome. As for being taken seriously, I don’t think any of us cared in the slightest. We were just doing our thing and people could take it or leave it. Forming Disorder to recording took about 3 months.Neil (Virus) learnt drums in our band the Acid Children in about a week because our then drummer Jelly, decided it was easier to sing and carry a microphone to gigs.We hired a church hall in Backwell and I made some riffs, Neil hit the drums and Steve Curtis sang his lyrics in-between screaming faster, faster faster at us. We didn’t have a bass player before we went to the studio to record.
Riot City Records, once described as the ‘dustbin of punk’, turned Disorder down – I guess some slight on your musical abilities – and you went your own way. Have you forgiven Vice Squad for the veto?
We were outsiders and it was there sub label on Heart Beat Records. I think Becky wouldn’t have minded us being on the label but we were threatening the Bristol punk scene status quo so weren’t seen as deserving of getting a break. The 3rd Steve (Bas) was dating Becky for a while and she was always great fun but the rest of the band and their crew seemed to despise us.
Disorder used to get into the Indie charts – was it something that provided anything in the way of income in those days?
Enough to buy a van and some bits of equipment. As gigs didn’t really pay much back then, royalties also covered petrol, cider and a few crisp sandwiches.
If you had to put Disorder’s output into musical periods, how would you do it?
Early days: Steve Curtis, Neil Worthington and me. Madness really. We started squatting in Bristol and spent more time partying than gigging.
Perdition to Pots: Steve Curtis had reached a point of no return and Boobs joined us on vocals. Neil was on his way to only playing for the Amebix. Pots from Chaos UK and Taf joined after a very heavy drinking session at the Highbury vaults. I can’t even remember the details but remember agreeing to something while crawling around drunk under a table. That was the classic line up I think. It’s the sound that’s on Gi Faen I Nasjonaliteten Din Live (Live in Oslo).
From Allsop to the transition to Scandinavia: Carl Allsop was an amazing drummer and I can’t remember how we lost Pots along the way. It was just me Carl and Taf and it felt like we were on the verge of creating a something good. The songs from Kafka process split, One Day Son, All This Will Be Yours, were really fun to write but didn’t seem to be that popular with the old Disorder fans.
Falling apart in Scandinavia: From a personal perspective, I think I lost interest in everything apart from partying. I could have done so much more but took the easy way out. I was pretty good at playing even after drinking a bottle of whiskey and didn’t even practise that much.
What did the guys at Cave studios think of you when you first turned up to record? And when you started screaming on tracks like ‘You’ve Got To Be Someone’.
At the time I think they just took it as another piece of work. They were very professional and Andy (engineer/owner) even gave me some free recording time to improve the guitar tracks. Under the Scalpel Blade was a bit different as I had some pretty wild ideas about what I wanted to do with the guitars. Bill who was engineering couldn’t really hear if there were any verses or courses in the songs. It all sound like noise to him.
Funny to think of all that analogue equipment…
That is the Disorder sound on the first recording. My guitar sounded pretty tame so I asked Andy at Cave Studio if I could come in a dub the guitars.He had a real MXR Distortion + pedal that we just plugged straight into the a valve mixing desk that used to belong to the Who. That’s the sound that made the recording stand out.
Taf told me that Virus ( RIP) used a double kick? Come to think of it, can I hear it on Daily Life? Very Jethro Tull, if true…
He did but relied more on beating the toms that trying to double kick everything.
What were the highs and lows of being in Disorder in those early years? Any good band fights?
Disorder was just one of those unpredictable things that happened at the right time. It was a minor miracle that we made it to some of our gigs. Everything that could go wrong did but somehow we always managed make things work. Taf is a great organiser and was really good at chaotically pulling things together. We never had any fights really. Some frustration leading to band members quitting but otherwise not too much friction of any kind.
On Suicide Children from Perdition EP, the guitar and bass deviate slightly, the result is quite enchanting…
Cider + lack of practise introduce many interesting elements during a recording session. Recording can be a magical process especially when you aren’t really prepared. Each of the takes ends up being different and the structure changed through the collective struggle to make it to the end of the song.
Listening to the Mental Disorder EP, the third or second string was really loud on your guitar, so there was often a major third whistling away in your barre chords. It’s sonically quite striking – on Provocated Wars especially, when that second guitar comes in…you would never hear that sound now.
I think I had graduated from the Hondo LP to a Westone by then. It had a very sharp feed-through bridge that caused strings to break. What you are probably hearing is the song of strings being retied back onto the guitar, make some dull and others more prominent.
I was still at school when ‘Under the Scalp(le) Blade’ came out – it was a great release with some fantastic songs, very steady drumming, and great lyrics, but the thin guitar sound might have dissuaded some listeners, do you think? It helped me train my musical ear though – can you tell us about the recording for that?
I had around 5 guitar tracks on each song all with different frequency ranges.The engineer at the time had a hard time wrapping his head around the wall of noise and ended up phase canceling out a lot of the power. The mastering on that record was a disaster as well.It would have been fun to remix that as I put in a lot of work and had some solid ideas that just got lost in the process.
I was buying it in Rockers Record Shop in Birmingham and was warned by a lanky teenage musician with beeswax dreads that you all got wasted in the mix room ( hence the disproportionate amount of treble? ).
We were a nightmare to be around. Honestly, anything that could be consumed was consumed and for some reason the studio was seen as the next party location. 4 drunk people battling to get there instruments heard and some very confused engineers wasn’t the recipe for a good mix.
Taf’s bass approach was making things interesting at that point, songs like Security Guard for instance. Did you generally write things together?
I had some riffs and Taf would glue them together.It was less writing and more haphazard things happening in the practice room or even the studio. There is a lot of Roland Dimension D on that recording which makes the bass really stand out in the mix.
Being a youngster, the first time I went to see Disorder was at the Mermaid in Birmingham ’86, with my mate Jacko. I was gutted to discover you weren’t playing – apparently the ‘drummer had fallen off a skateboard’, but someone else said you were just all too drunk to play? Was it becoming a party at that point? There were certainly lots of people with Bristol accents staggering about – haha! ( The three piece Napalm Death headlined anyway, and it was jaw dropping, to be fair… ).
We weren’t the most well behaved band in the world and didn’t make a few gigs due to being incapacitated. I do remember one gig where the audience actually sang the songs because we were a total mess. I think boobs did manage to sing a few lyrics.I don’t think I could even hold the neck of my guitar.
How many places did you play in the UK? How far away from home did you ever get on a Disorder tour?
I would say max 50 gigs in the UK. Tons in Europe and Scandinavia. Japan was the furthest we travelled.
I think the ‘One Day Son All This Will be Yourz’ release is a peak moment in the Disorder catalogue. What do you remember about recording it? It has a great live sound, and tons of energy.
That’s the influence of Allsop. It was so much fun to make and I’m glad that you liked it. To me it really felt like an under rated recording. I think we recorded it at Streets Ahead Studio in Bristol. Sooty who played in Chaotic Discord engineered it. The whole process was really good. It was probably the first time we had ever been really prepared to record.
Can you advise who Marriage Story is about?
Someone that Taf knew. It wasn’t about Boobs as he had bought a truck and became a new age traveller around that time.
Carl has a real rock and roll groove. That opening drum part is amazing. You can imagine him on the backline for an amphetamine fuelled Elvis tribute band.
Carl can play any instrument. He was naturally talented.
You moved to Norway, of all places, and were on Norwegian TV, playing live with Chaos UK. How was that period?
We played an Interrail tour with Svart Framtid In Europe and ended up it in their home city Oslo.We played in Trondheim and Taf fell in love with Gabby and decided to move there.Britain was a bit of a mess at the time and we ended up travelling between the UK and Norway quite a bit.I of course decided to complicate things and move to Sweden to live with a girl I had met.To be honest, I love Scandinavia and feel deeply connected to Norway, Denmark and Sweden. My kids are Danish and I speak a mix of Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. Oslo in the 80s was so much fun, so many great people and such a good music scene.
Do you think any of those filthy Black Metal bands like Mayhem were aware of you? It can’t be a complete coincidence, surely….
They played the same places and knew of us of course. Billy who sings for Cockroach Clan was Mayhem’s singer in the early days.
Everyone was playing so fast by the later 80s…do you think it ever got too fast?
Not really. It might sound fast but it feels pretty slow to play on stage.
Is the artist ( Tim? ) who did the cover art for those last two releases and Live in Oslo still drawing?
Motorhead Tim Medlock did the artwork. I really liked his stuff and I lived with him in Clifton for a few years.
Violent World 1988 – ‘Your beauty is beyond compare with bloodshot eyes and facial hair and I cannot compete with you Jolene‘. Do you think Taf will ever get to take Dolly Parton out?
Taf is a big Dolly Parton fan but I don’t think she’ll be inviting him out for anything anytime soon. 🙂
What about Master of the Glueniverse? You’re credited as playing, but it sounds like a different band to me?
It was recorded at the old Endless Studio In Oslo with Rudy Hoykens (BE) on vocals & Tor Degerstrøm (NO) on drums, TK Jensen (NO) on guitar. We had a non existent budget and I was preoccupied with partying.
Are you still in touch with the band – the two Steves and Boobs etc?
Steve Curtis I haven’t spoken to for years, Steve Robinson might be dead. No one seems to be able to confirm if he is alive or not. Boobs is living in Madrid and we talk every now and then. Taf I haven’t spoken to for a while.
The new lineup seems pretty solid – they finally got to Canada! That gig in Vancouver looked great…I’ve never seen Taf look so happy!
Disorder are doing great. I saw the Subhumans play in Seattle a couple of years back and bumped in to Dick who told me that they had played with Disorder a while back and that the band was more popular than ever.
I put out a few feelers for questions:
‘Nicholas from Birmingham’ asked ‘has he still got a copy of the first Disorder info sheet (with the first EP lyrics)? And if so, can we get a copy!’.
You’ll have to ask Rainy. I gave all my records to Naja Brooks in Denmark who was together with Rainy but unfortunately died a few years back. If the records are all still in the same box, it might be there. Otherwise Taf should have a copy.
‘Nasher’ from the South West asked, ‘Is 80s punk still relevant in 2020?’
I think it is more relevant now than it has ever been. We are reliving the same conditions as the 80s and it’s an excellent time for some real protest punk.
My daughter asked, ‘Who is Dean, and did he really become a toilet cleaner in Taunton?’ ( Or, can you actually trust Wikipedia? ).
Dean is Steve Curtis. He decided to rename himself one day and after freaking out, he did go and get himself a normal job. I never called Neil by the name Virus. He was always Worthy to me.
‘Colin from Guernsey’ asked, ‘Do you have a top ten punk album list?’.
1. Dead Boys – Young Loud and Snotty 2. Damned Damned Damned 3. Dickies – The incredible shrinking 4. Ramones – It’s Alive 5. 999 – Separates 6. Raw Power – Screams from the Gutter 7. Accused – Martha Splatterhead 8. Reagan Youth – Vol 1 9. Angry Samoans – Back from Samoa 10. Cromags – Age of Quarrel
There are a million more, but this includes some of my earlier influences.
‘Malek from Paris’ asked, ‘How did it feel playing Complete Disorder onstage for Taf’s birthday in London?’
Like I had never stopped playing. I never actually left the band.
They say the only thing to be sure of about your band, is that your band will eventually split up. You eventually left Disorder…what things were happening in your life at the time?
I had kids and my partner at the time wanted to move back home to Denmark. It was good to do something else for a change.
Did you manage to fit in with ‘normal’ society ok?
I never will. I try to live life on my terms.
I wonder if being in a band when you are young – even a noisy one – gives you more life skills than you realise? Would you recommend it?
Definitely. Just know that you won’t get rich but money isn’t everything. Playing in a band made me fearless of trying out anything and knowing that any problem can be resolved if you put your mind to it. If I was to do it again, I would probably drink less, put more effort into making music and spend more time building lasting friendships.
You have been / are a guitar tech? I’m curious as to how being in one the world’s noisiest ever bands looks on your CV? 😉
It works well. Remember that a lot of people have had really boring lives and that’s mainly because they didn’t dare to take a chance and do something that had no guaranteed outcome. I’m a bit of a curiosity as I have plenty of interesting stories to tell.
After DISORDER you made some big strides in software development and worked for the BBC for a while…networks and coding for their online video services – did that carry on?
If you do what you love and do it well, then at some point someone will want you to work for them. I shift jobs all the time and usually that is because I’m personally interested in and have become an expert in a new field which someone else needs help with.
How is Denmark as a place to live? Don’t you miss the rolling hills of England?
Denmark, Sweden and Norway are all fantastic places to live. Recently I did live in Seattle for a couple of years but now live in Luxembourg of all places and I really like it here. The UK is a beautiful place but needs a few years to pull itself back together. It does seem the current government was on track to make it a mini version of the United States before Corona Virus hit.
How do Danes see the world? Watching the UK from the outside, do you have a theory as to why so many people here voted Brexit?
Danes are level headed and probably just think that this is a blip that will be forgotten in 10 years from now.
Would you describe yourself as some kind of anarchist, libertarian sort?
If I have to label myself then Humanist might fit better than Anarchist.I would like to live in a world where everyone is decent to each other and give a helping hand to those who are struggling.I sound like a right fucking hippy.
Have you kept your musical skills up over the years?
I have always had a guitar around and kept playing over the years. I’m technically minded so I’ve always been making music and mixing stuff.
If so, any new punk stuff on the horizon?
FEAR OF THE KNOWN (F.O.T.K) is the latest band. with Kaos – Chaos UK, Andy Lefton – War//Plague, Tom Radio – Frustration and Yuji Rerure Kawaguchi – RoseRose / Stdrums. We are a lock down band, making all of our songs remotely and I’m engineering them. It’s fun and working out really well at the moment. We have around an albums worth of songs which we will try to release somehow.
Do you drive? Can you do a handbrake turn or a ‘donut’?
Send me a Tesla and I’ll give it a go 🙂
How is getting older treating you? Any close shaves?
Getting old is really great especially since I didn’t think I would make it past 30. None of the old crew did and that’s why we lived such crazy, non-stop partying lives. I haven’t managed to die yet which is a bonus.
Anything you would say to the younger Steve?
Drink slightly less and always do everything 100%.
What would you say to the youth of today? Don’t worry too much about the future and be prepared to take a few risks.Find something you love doing and do that really well. Other people will find you and want to work together with you.Learn something new everyday and don’t be frightened to drop what you are doing and go try something else.
What are your plans and when are we next likely to hear about you again?
Probably when I start touring with F.O.T.K. Looks like it won’t be before 2021 that we hit the road.
Cheers Steve, thanks for the music, and good luck with everything from here on. For those of you interested, Taf has kept Disorder going since the 90s with various lineups and the current one is very enthusiastic so support them if you can.
Steve also talked about life after Disorder in this very good 2016 interview here.
Thanks to those of you who helped with questions and to Simon Edwards of Heartbeat Records, Jenny Plaits, Digby Pearson and anyone else who took photos!
FEAR OF THE KNOWN: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1509349322574860/