The Chilli Willi and The Red Hot Peppers Story

A stumble down memory lane.

The Chilli Willi and The Red Hot Peppers Story

September 8, 2023
Malcolm Mills

The story of the emergence of Chilli Willi and the Red-Hot Peppers from Mighty Baby’s appearance at the first Glastonbury Fayre in 1971 and their subsequent impact on pub-rock for the remainder of that decade is an important one.

When we released the REAL SHARP anthology in 2021, I wrote a short blog about it which you can still find here:

At that time, neither of the two original Willis – Martin and Phil – had lived to tell the story themselves but there was no doubt about the ongoing interest in their musical legacy. As ever, history gets re-written and over a period of time it can be difficult separating truth from fiction. Therefore, I decided to put that right by interviewing those involved who could still stumble down memory lane to London in the early 1970s and tell the story in their own words…and it is now available as a podcast.

Over fifty years after the first Glastonbury Fayre, the podcast starts with a telephone interview I did with John Coleman who was the co-founder of Revelation Enterprises. This is a vital piece of oral history which finally dispels many of the legends on the subject because Revelation was the label that released the fantastic triple LP set of that festival. The reason the Coleman interview is included is because Revelation followed up the Glastonbury Fayre release with Kings of the Robot Rhythm - the debut album from Chilli Willi and the Red-Hot Peppers, which he also co-produced. He was also the original manager of the band before Jake Riviera donned the hat.

John’s is a genuinely marvellous tale of those times recalled here in great detail. His company defied all the laws of economic gravity to release a couple of records that are of museum-piece quality because of the “no-expense-spared” design of the packaging by Barney Bubbles. Coleman had taken over the responsibility stage manager for that first Fayre and was then at the heart of the event. So this is absolutely essential listening for Glastonbury historians and music fans…straight from the horse’s mouth!

Chilli Willi was formed when Phil Lithman hooked up again with Martin Stone after returning from San Francisco. Lithman had been in The Residents while he was out there, which is where he earned the nickname of “Snakefinger”. But the next telephone interview you’ll hear after John Coleman is with their former bandmate Colin Hansford recalling the dark ages of late sixties. Martin and Phil had originally known each other in various bands before that when they were close neighbours in the south London blues delta of the 1960s. That period before Phil went to America and Martin joined Savoy Brown Blues Band is recounted by their former bandmate Colin from when they were all in groups like Smiley, Junior’s Blues and Junko Partners.

Stay tuned after that and for the first and probably only time, you’ll cop the story of the group from three band members in the 2021 zoom interview I did with them.

Pete Thomas, Paul Riley and Paul Bailey spin a yarn or two about the cast of characters caught up in the vortex of their admirable enterprise and put the story straight (at great length) of how the group transitioned from acoustic duo to a five-piece touring band. They also explain how they had to make a couple of different attempts to produce the material that wound up on Bongos Over Balham.

If a band like the Willis existed today, they would almost certainly be a success, but back then things were different for these guys as will be revealed. The, in the space of a couple of years and despite playing over four hundred gigs, appearing on radio and TV and releasing two albums, it was all over by 1975.

Some of the sound quality of these interviews isn’t great because post-Covid, nobody was ever in the same room and there was a variety of microphones and telephones used. Nevertheless…it’s an illuminating trip.

The REAL SHARP 2 CD set anthology is still available from the usual retailers but if you just want to hear the music all the tracks are available digitally.