The Balham Alligators

A Law Unto Themselves

Back in 1983, only those with an accurately tuned crystal ball could have forecast all-out war against the Unions, the Miner’s Strikes, the mass privatisations of state assets and public utilities, and the ‘Loads of Money’ culture of haves and have-nots.  But that was all still to come.

 

The biggest selling British singles of the year were ‘Karma Chameleon’ by Culture Club and Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’.  At the grass roots level, Cajun was becoming a staple in London’s live music venues.

 

If it now seems odd that traditional Folk music played by descendants of French Canadian settlers in the bayous of Louisiana would became so popular in London’s pubs and clubs, at the time it wasn’t anything unusual.  The musical tastes of gig-goers in 1980’s London were wide and varied, encompassing Blues, Reggae, Ska, Swing, Hot Club Jazz, Salsa, Rockabilly, Psychobilly, and plenty more.  The Cajun boom of the early 1980s was part of a broader New Folk movement. Bands like The Pogues and The Men They Couldn’t Hang were adding new energy to traditional Celtic Folk songs, and a simultaneous Skiffle boom was being spearheaded by The Skiff Skats and The Boothill Foot-Tappers.  Cajun was another strand to the same bow.

 

The Alligators came together in a north London pub called the Hare & Hounds at 181 Upper Street, Islington.  Victorian built, with a small music hall at the rear, it was later to be transformed into a trendy Islington hang-out and renamed the Medicine Bar.  Then the Albert & Pearl, more recently the House of Wolf.

 

The small music room that used to host Pub Rock has been made over as ‘The Music Hall." Much of the rough charm of the old Hare & Hounds days, when the landlord used to wear buffalo horns as he pulled pints, has been smoothed over, replaced by a trendy faux Victoriana.  Even so, if you sip your Guinness quietly and close your eyes, they do say that you can still hear ghosts playing a Cajun two-step behind the dark wood paneling.

 

The founding members of the Alligators were Geraint Watkins (piano, accordion and vocals), Robin McKidd (fiddle and vocals),  Gary Rickard (guitar and vocals), Arthur Kitchener (bass and vocals), and Kieran O'Connor (drums).

 

Geraint Meurig Vaughan Watkins was born in Abertridwr, near Caerphilly.  He first met Gary Rickard at Portsmouth Art College, before coming to London to make his name with the band Red Beans and Rice. Gary was a founder member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia—where membership was reliant on not being able to play your chosen instrument—and spent time with the acclaimed, but short-lived, Highway Shoes.  At the time, he was playing in a Bluegrass-cum-Country outfit called Alive and Picking with Scots-born Robin McKidd.

 

The original Alligator’s line-up was completed by the rhythm section of South Londoner Arthur Kitchener—formerly of Bluegrass outfit Panama Red with Ron Kavana—on bass, and Irishman Kieran O’Conner (best known for drumming in Psychedelic Rock bands Seventh Wave, Chillum and Second Hand) on the most slimmed-down drum-kit in town.  It seldom amounted to more than a kick, snare and hi-hat.

 

Robin McKidd can be given the credit for bringing the band together through his day job as band-booker for the Hare & Hounds, where Diz and the Doormen, one of the most popular acts on the circuit, played a weekly residency. One hot night in June, pianist and front man Diz Watson wasn't going to make it, so they asked Geraint Watkins to stand in. Although McKidd was better known as a guitarist, he was ‘depping’ on bass.

 

The hastily put-together band improvised a set, which included couple of Cajun songs. Afterwards, McKidd and Watkins—who’d never before set eyes on each other—were having a drink at the bar. Watkins suggested they start a Cajun band together.  “All we need,” he said, “is a fiddle-player.” McKidd, who had secretly been practicing the violin at home quickly said, “I play the fiddle!”  And The Balham Alligators was born.

 

As someone remarked at the time, the Alligators didn’t look so much like a band as a “bunch of disreputable uncles.”  They were all mavericks, even in the context of Pub Rock, and it showed.  Arthur, Gary and Geraint invariably dressed in the darkest clothing available, and projected the aura of undertakers or gunslingers.  With his wild, curly locks and scarf, Robin was a Doctor Who Doctor before his time.  And Kieran?

 

Kieran O’Connor, his long, unkempt beard flowing down his chest, invariably wearing his trademark beret and dark glasses, could be mistaken for the bastard son of Fidel Castro.  On stage he was manic: off-stage he was sometimes even more manic.

 

Whenever The Balham Alligators came together, a row could never be ruled out. If they worked from a set-list, it didn’t show.  They’d often argue onstage about which number to play next. Sometimes the discussions lasted longer than the songs.

 

As Geraint says today: “We were a bit like cats and dogs.  We could live together but it wasn’t always easy.”  The tensions onstage, fueled by copious amounts of Guinness, Young’s Special, and Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, made for a band whose collective chemistry created musical gunpowder.

 

When they were in full flow, nothing could stop them. They were a legendary live band, and, on a scale of one-to-ten, the strengths of the individual members would often add up to eleven.  Sometimes, on a very good night, twelve.

 

Their greatest strength was a wild, dangerous energy, coupled with fine musicianship.  No matter how wild things got (and they often got pretty wild), behind it all were guys who could play their instruments.  Another major advantage was that they had three great singers.  Individually, this made for a richer variety of songs and styles, and when they came together it produced great harmonies that swirled in and out of the exotic rhythms.

 

From the outset, the Alligators made a huge impression on the London pub scene.  Rock historians have usually said that London’s pubs ceased to be of any significance after Punk came along, when everybody half decent signed to Stiff or Chiswick Records, but this just isn’t true.

 

Music played in London’s pubs was the dominant live force right up to 1989 when the government brought in the infamous but little-known Beers Orders.  This swinging new set of regulations meant ‘last orders’ for most music boozers.  It took pubs away from the brewers who needed them to sell beer, and put it in the hands of property speculating ‘pub companies’ who soon found that converting licensed premises into flats was more profitable than selling pints of Guinness.

 

In the days before personal computers and the Internet, music was live-led, and anyone who went on to become anyone would have started out by playing live and building up a following.  This meant playing in pubs, as there were only a handful of other venues they could play.

 

At weekends, even the biggest music rooms would be packed to the rafters.  The most popular bands were the ones who played music that went down well accompanied by a pint or two.  The Alligators were top of the Pub Premier League, alongside Diz and the Doormen, Juice on the Loose, Micky Jupp Band, the Electric Bluebirds, and the Hank Wangford Band. When visiting American artists came over, they invariably showcased in the same pub venues.

 

There was never shortage of pubs that wanted The Balham Alligators, but the band had their favourites.  As well as the Hare & Hounds, the best pub venues included the Half Moon, Putney; Bridge House, Canning Town; The (Sir George) Robey, Finsbury Park; The Pegasus, Green Lanes; The Torrington, North Finchley; The Greyhound, Fulham Palace Road; Dublin Castle, Camden Town; and the Cricketers at Kennington Oval.

 

If you were going to an Alligators gig, it paid to arrive early.  You’d exchange your £1.50-£2.50 for a raffle ticket, and squeeze yourself in.  Typically the band would be getting 70% to 80% of the door takings.  It wasn’t unusual to find yourself standing next to a famous face. There were reported sightings of Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Dr John, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, as well as the Davids, Byrne and Bowie.  Plus actors, TV hosts and comedians.  Everyone, in fact, except members of the British music press.

 

The Alligators recorded early in their career, thanks to an unwitting Margaret Thatcher. After gaining £400 from the government’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme, Arthur Kitchener started a small record company which organised the band’s first recordings.  ‘Oh, Marie’/‘Sacre Bleu’, recorded at Pathway Studios, appeared on a seven-inch single on the Streetheart label (c/o Cringe Music).  Arthur had 500 copies pressed and sold them at gigs.

 

The first album, "Live Alligators," was recorded at the Half Moon, Putney, in 1984 on Vic Keary’s mobile.  It begins with an introduction by fan and promoter Joe Pearson.  The false starts at the beginning of ‘Sacre Bleu (testament de la Jean Jacques)’ gives an indication of the stops and starts of most of their gigs at the time.  During this song, dedicated to a legendary French airman, Pete the Roadie would set light to paper aeroplanes and send them flitting across the stage.  Ah, the heady days before Health & Safety regulations were enforced!

 

But barely a year after their first gig, a sad set of family circumstances forced Arthur Kitchener to have to make the decision to leave London and also “…the best band I was ever in”.  His decision to call it a day was communicated in typically blunt style.  The unsuspecting band was travelling back from a gig in Wales when he made the announcement.  As was often the case with the Alligators, tragedy and comedy were close travelling companions and Arthur, unburdened by the delivery of his message and free to notice something amiss, was quickly forced to dispense more unwelcome news: they'd have to turn back - he’d left his bass at the gig.

 

Kitchener's place was taken by former Peddlers' bassist, Pete Dennis, and work resumed, but it would take three more years before being signed to a record deal and the release of their first studio album.The self-titled "Balham Alligators" was produced in early 1987, by Juice on the Loose frontman, Ron Kavana, at the Topic Records’ studio, Ideal Sound Recorders, in Finsbury Park.  It features guest performances from Kavana on guitar, mandolin and percussion, as well as guest vocals from Reg Meuross and Richard Morton, aka The Panic Brothers.  It was engineered by David Kenny and released on Topic’s Special Delivery label later the same year.

 

"Life in the Bus Lane" appeared on Special Delivery a year later, but this time was produced by the band together with engineer David Kenny. For many, this studio album was more representative of the Alligator’s live sound—even down to the barking dog on the insanely foot-tapping first track, ‘Cajun Walk’.

 

The next big personnel change took place around the time the 1980s turned into the 1990s.  Other interests and minor rivalries saw The Alligators simply stop gigging and cease to exist. In 1990, Robin McKidd was leading a version called the New Alligators, which included bassist Paul Riley and a very ill Kieran O’Connor. In 1991, when Kieran finally departed for the great Saloon Bar in the Sky, that put a lid on it.

 

A few weeks after Kieran’s death, drummer Bobby Irwin returned from the USA and he and Paul Riley teamed up with Geraint Watkins and guitarist Steve Donnelly to form The Wobblers.  Their sound wasn’t a million miles away from the Alligators and indeed a track they recorded in 1991, ‘Hot Rod,’ appeared on the final official Alligators album, "Gateway To The South."

 

It was perhaps inevitable that a band as popular as the Balham Alligators should reform.  Robin McKidd was getting calls from people wanting to book them and so, in 1992, Paul managed to persuade a reluctant Geraint to give the Alligators another spin.

 

With its new rhythm section, the band was almost the same, just different.  The combination of Irwin’s solid drumming and Riley’s insistent bass-style added depth to the Alligators sound.  As a Time Out listing said at the time: “The Alligators’ train still rattles down the same Louisiana tracks, only the engine’s got more power and the lines have become better polished…”

 

"Gateway To The South" was released in 1996.  Paul was now in the producer’s chair, and he brought in guest musicians like American Rockabilly hero Bill Kirchen, former Wobbler Steve Donnelly, sax-player Nick Pentelow, guitarist Martin Belmont, and Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ drummer, Pete Thomas.  The album’s title is a reference to a Peter Seller’s comedy sketch written by Frank Muir and Dennis Norden, entitled "Balham, Gateway to the South."

 

During their time together, the Alligators made some truly wonderful records and played some great gigs.  They backed Odetta and others in a tribute show to Woody Guthrie, they performed at Ralph McTell’s 50th Birthday Party, Anti-Racism concerts for the Greater London Council, and at the Hammersmith Palais with Nick Lowe and the Beat Farmers.  They were on top form at Glastonbury, as well the other influential music festivals, including Cambridge Folk, Cropredy and Denmark’s Tønder.

 

Aside from dominating the London pub scene, the Alligators played all over the UK, toured Europe, especially France and Scandinavia, and generally went down a storm.  They were very nearly “big” in Scandinavia but, as luck had it, they played what Geraint Watkins describes now as the band’s worst gig ever on the first night of a big tour.  The press crucified them.  Neither did it help that Kieran had thrown up over his kit, live-to-air, during their appearance on Danish TV’s counterpart of Top of the Pops.

 

“That was always our problem,” says Watkins. “On a good night we were unbeatable, we’d pull the house down, on a bad night we’d be utterly terrible. There didn't seem to be anything in-between. Great or awful.”

 

Most of the time they were beyond great. One thing is for sure, we’ll never see their like again.

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Geraint Watkins, Bobby Irwin, and Nick Lowe, 2008.

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