You may have read in the first part of this article that I was part of a band called the Atom Seed that was caught up in the hype of the music industry of the early 1990s.
Atom Seed and the Music Industry in the Early 1990s
Words: Chris Dale
At the end of the last article, we were sipping champagne with bigwigs, and from there, we went on tour all around the UK and Europe, greeted by fans and press everywhere. Vocalist Paul Cunningham and guitarist Simon James even did a quick US promo tour too.
London Records had big worldwide plans for us, which they laid out in several meetings over drinks. We were going to be massive, they told us.
In one of those early meetings, I asked how No Sweat, their rock band signing from the earlier, was going. The answer was a dismissive “Oh, they were non-starters”. That should have been a big warning sign to us, but we had two more immediate problems of our own to worry about as a band.
Firstly we didn’t have a drummer at that point, having fallen out with Amir during a multitude of pointless arguments over trivial issues. We later replaced him with a hard-hitting drummer friend of ours, Jerry Hawkins from the band Metal Monkey Machine.
The second problem was more significant. Of course, the first thing London Records asked us to do after receiving a massive advance for the next album was to show them the songs for that album in recorded demo format. Our problem was that we didn’t have an album’s worth of new songs. We had maybe two or three.
Indeed, thanks to our live reputation, glowing press reviews and managers’ (Dave Roberts and Clare Britt) negotiating skills, we had secured a six-figure worldwide major record deal without a demo tape or a stable line up. We were that awesome!
Paul and Simon worked hard to come up with new material at the last minute. Then London Records sent us to a residential studio near Hastings for a week with session drummer Tony Chapman, full catering and the most popular producer on the scene, Owen Jones. He had just finished work on the recent chart-topping Manic Street Preachers album.
We later found out that this week with fine cheeses had cost us over £10,000 of our upfront advance – to make a demo!
We had already made a promo video in a scrapyard near Kings Cross Station with an experienced director, an entire film and lighting crew and more luxury catering. That day out had cost another £10K. Rocket and brie are not cheap, you know.
We were haemorrhaging cash (albeit not from our own pockets but our advances) on costs for recordings, videos, cheeses, drinks tabs, wages, management fees, accountancy fees, legal fees, and other sundries that now suddenly cost money. Keeping the band on the road with friends volunteering to help as crew while sleeping on fans’ floors had rightly been replaced with wages for the crew and either hotels or sleeper buses. All needed, but it shows you how our massive advance dwindled.
Worse news came when London Records heard our new demos. They said they weren’t good enough for an album. Maybe a couple of songs were OK. Up until that point, pretty much anything we’d come up with had seemed good enough for most people to like. We weren’t used to rejection.
They advised us to stop gigging for a year to concentrate on the album. Touring had been our lifeblood, our connection with our audience, and now it was severed. Our loyal backline crew Andy and Slim, were suddenly out of work but were soon picked up for their skills by L7 and Rage Against the Machine. Same with the rest of our crew, lost to more active bands.
Nevertheless, we went into a slightly cheaper residential studio (the lovely House in the Woods studio) with the producer of our first album, Mark Flannery, to try to demo another ten songs. Paul and Simon were again under pressure to write on demand.
London didn’t like any of these ten songs either. So, we went back to House in the Woods with Mark six weeks later to demo ten more. By now, our dried up songwriting contributions included a bass solo. London still was not impressed. I thought it was a pretty good bass solo but admittedly not hit single material.
It seemed that London had heard our earlier funky tunes like ‘Rebel’ but not noticed our darker ones like ‘Get In Line’ or ‘What?’. They somehow imagined (of course without hearing a demo tape) that we’d be going in a funky, poppy direction, maybe like EMF. But what they got was a darker, more brooding vibe in the manner of Killing Joke.
They made increasingly at-odds suggestions to us. One was that we try using “the guy who re-mixed Lisa Stansfield’s last record”. What in their minds connected our sound to that of Lisa Stansfield? Another idea was that Paul should shave his manly chest to sell more records. We didn’t see that as our root problem. Possibly the least helpful suggestion we got from them was that we should sit things out until the economy got better.
Around this time, I heard a comment from one of our A&R men saying that he didn’t like the new Faith No More album that London had just released. In their opinion, it wasn’t worth releasing. I should mention here for reference that ‘Angel Dust’ went on to sell 2.5 million copies worldwide. In our opinion, London Records didn’t know their arses from their elbows when it came to selling current rock bands.
We spent a couple of weeks away on writing sessions in the countryside, once in a residential studio in Surrey and another time at a cottage in Cornwall. We were under massive pressure to produce, and we passed that pressure back and forth between us. By now, we spent more time critiquing our failures and arguing amongst ourselves than writing much creative new music. We also drank the local pub dry in Cornwall.
Around that time, London Records did at least allow us to record a couple of trial album tracks with Mark Flannery. We went to the cavernous Advision studio in an old church in Brighton, owned by Geoff Downes from Asia.
We were given ten days to record two songs that we’d previously demoed. It seemed a bit overkill. Jerry and I mostly played on the waterslides at Hove and worked on an Airfix 1/24 Me109 after recording our parts on days one and two of the session. London didn’t like any of the results, neither the recordings nor the Messerschmitt.
Each time we failed to impress with a new set of demos, we were demoted to dealing with a more and more junior A&R man at London, it seemed. Sometimes, there would be nobody to answer the phone. And of course, every week in a studio or cottage here and there was depleting our advance.
We demoed four more new songs at Vatican rehearsal studios, with Oscar Sinclair mixing.
Finally, out of exasperation, London Records approved a release. We had demoed thirty-six songs for them at this point, and they said we could release four of them as an EP. It seemed crazy to us. The fans were hungry for a new album, the press was awaiting a new album, and we had a new album’s worth of songs; why give them a cut-price EP instead?
The other problem was that by using four good songs, we now had a weaker album to follow. Nevertheless, we went ahead with their plan.
Atom Seed- Happy Video
The Dead Happy EP expressed how we felt in its title.
Paul Q Kolderie and Sean Slade recorded it at Jacob’s studio in Surrey, with Little Angels recording Jam in the next room. The press again gave us good reviews and coverage. We toured the UK, and the shows were great, but even then, we had a feeling this might be our last time around.
As London had contractually agreed to pay for us to record an album, we could force them to fund the recording.
With Simon Efemey now producing, we went back to Loco studio, where we had recorded our debut. The recording went well, but we weren’t optimistic about what London Records would say about it.
Predictably they hated it and refused to fund its mixing or give it a release. You may think (and I did at the time), why didn’t London fund the mixing, release it and at least sell some copies to existing fans to recoup a small portion of the massive debts we had incurred?
But record companies value themselves against others on the percentage of successes they have per annual releases, so for them to release an album that they were sure would fail would be to devalue their brand. Plus, releasing the album even with limited promotion would cost them more and trigger another advance payment.
At this point, they cut their losses and called it a day. They even paid us another few grand to stop bothering them and go away.
But now we were stuck. We had no record deal, limited funds and an unfinished album on our hands. It was two years since our promising debut album.
We tried going out and gigging again, but there was no radio or TV airplay to support the shows with no new release.
There were no big adverts in the press or luxurious tour buses this time around with no record company funding. Our audience was dwindling as fast as our cash. We had been away from the scene so long, and new bands who had previously opened for us, such as The Wildhearts and Terrorvision, were now grabbing the headlines and the crowds.
Whereas record companies were queueing up to sign us when we were up-and-coming, they were no longer keen.
We were yesterday’s news. There were no options left.
In one of our final meetings, our manager Dave Roberts asked us, “Are you a band because you are four guys who enjoy playing music together, or are you only a band and because you receive wages?”
It was a fair question. Whereas the former might have been true at one point, by now, the latter certainly was.
Then the wages ran out. So that was that.
You know, this might sound like a bitter story about how the evil music industry shafted us, or it might be a story about how we received an opportunity that most bands today could only dream about.
We got to make and record music that we were proud of, and we played hundreds of shows to packed out crowds. We made many friends and had some crazy adventures along the way. Even though we never had the hit single that our investors had hoped for, we sure did have a blast while trying to do so.
As I mentioned in the first article, this again is just what I understood and saw. Others may have seen differing views.
And here is that unreleased album in its unmixed rough format for you:
Atom Seed- The Enemy Song
Atom Seed- Mother Junk
Atom Seed- Illusions
Atom Seed- Hard Sell Paranoia
Atom Seed- Shadows
Atom Seed- Idiots
Atom Seed- Changing Years
Atom Seed- Love, Money & Hate
Atom Seed- Light Years Away
Chris, what a fascinating two-part article. LOVED it. LOVED your bass playing and the tunes that Atom Seed put out.
Saw you often in Newcastle and Manchester and it’s been one of the great unsolved mysteries of what actually happened?
I remember chatting to you in Rock City/ Club in Manchester one evening – reminiscing about the Electric Boys Special Secret Song encore at the Riverside, Newcastle a year or so prior.
I emigrated in 1994 and by then it was all over bar the shouting. I brought my copy of Dead Happy with me to South Africa as one of the 40 or so cds I couldn’t live without. The first three songs on that EP were INTENSE, superb pieces of work that showed the growth from the funk into the harder, more angular edge sound you allude to. I was always gutted that the album never followed…
All the best to you Chris and I was genuinely upset to learn of Paul’s passing. He was the best of the UK scene’s frontmen – and there were some proper contenders for the “crown”. RIP the Seed and Paul.