Small Wonder Records: Pete Stennett interview Part.2
Between December 1975 and May 1983 Walthamstow was at the very heart of a new musical movement, as Pete Stennett’s Small Wonder Records opened up a world of music to kids from across not just the capital but the whole of the UK.
Forty odd years may have passed but for those who shopped at Small Wonder, whether over the counter from Pete and Mari or remotely by scouring the mail order ads in the musical press, Small Wonder still matters. The warmth of the response to part one of my talk with Pete was incredible and I have to thank everyone who emailed explaining with such passion what Small Wonder meant to them.
‘SMALL WONDER – THE EXHIBITION’
This September I’m curating an exhibition about Small Wonder (with the help of the folks at Beatroots, Waltham Forest council and countless other people). We’ve also had some incredible donations and loans of Small Wonder ‘artifacts’ and treasures which we’ll be displaying to tell the story of the label and shop and what it meant to people.
Aside from the physical items we’d like to document the oral history of what it was like with the help of those that were there (but also to introduce the sounds and story to those born post punk or even post post-punk). There will be volunteers who’d like nothing more than to hear recollections of Small Wonder and its importance to you so we can save these things for posterity.
Anyway enough of my waffle, back to Pete…
As Small Wonder Records grew how would people get music to you, would the doormat at 162 Hoe Street be deluged with demos?
We’d get hundreds of tapes, all the time. Maybe not the quantity John Peel got but…in truth you didn’t always have time to listen to them all but usually you did.
Sometimes you’d get these odd crank phone calls from blokes saying ‘why haven’t been back in touch‘… its crap thats why I haven’t been back in touch!
And of course one of the acts most associated with Small Wonder, Patrik Fitzgerald was signed on the strength of a cassette he left at your door.
He pushed it through the letterbox and ran away! It was absolutely packed with stuff, all the music he’d recorded. Patrik lived in a squat where he’d record all this material, just him and an acoustic guitar.
I thought I know this bloke! He was a customer and used to wear second-hand clothes and charity shop stuff and he looked good you know. He looked cool and punk, before it became fashionable and became you know “Come and get your punk in Woolworths” (that was one of Patrik’s songs).
So I listened to his tape and thought this is extraordinary because there’s all this heavy stuff going on, heavy music and here’s this little guy with enough bollocks, a kind of modern Bob Dylan you know. He’d be all on his own with a little acoustic guitar playing to these fucking pogoing kids and supporting bands like The Clash.
I’m glad he’s so associated with us because I thought he had bollocks and his music and lyrics were fucking superb. The first two EPs we put out by him in particular were fantastic!
With Small Wonder, the label, how involved were you in the recording studio?
I went to nearly all the recordings. You’d be in the shop all day and it would be a release to be able to go to the studio in the evening and just watch these guys doing what they were doing.
It could be very tense because that’s how the music was, but it got me away from the shop for a bit. I produced a couple of the records too, Patrick Fitzgerald and The Cravats for example.
We actually recorded Patrick’s 2nd EP ‘Backstreet Boys‘ at the BBC, surreptitiously. If you look on the label it says recorded in a very technical studio or something like that, because the Beeb didn’t know. It was a very corrupt place in those days the old BBC. Cos (Colin Faver) used to go to their canteen everyday for cheap meals because you’d get these doorman and he’d just walk in and say “John Peel session” and they’d go alright then, in you go.
You’ve mentioned Cos or Colin Faver as anyone else might know him quite a few times now. He obviously went on to become a seminal DJ and broadcaster but tell me a bit about how you knew him?
He was originally a customer and we just got on so I asked him if he’d come in and be our Saturday boy if you like. He’d be a disc jockey in London during the week but then on Saturdays he come in to help us.
Being out in the city at night he was coming across people in bands, they’d approach him sometimes. That’s how we got in touch with Bauhaus, he introduced us to them and also to Puncture who became the very first Small Wonder single.
He may only have been with us a couple of years but Cos was a very important part of Small Wonder, he got us going and then of course the bands would start coming to us rather than the other way around. So we no longer needed to go to gigs and say do you wanna make a record, instead they’d come to us and say we need you to make a record for us! And we’d go ‘yeah alright’.
Back then he was heavily in to the naughty stuff and I remember one time after we’d moved out to the county he came to stay while he was trying get off the heroin. We went out for a ride on the motorbike and he was just blown away by the stars – being a city boy he’d never seen the sky full of stars. He wouldn’t stop going on about them so we always used to call them ‘Cos’s stars’ after that.
I don’t know what to say, he was a gentle sort of guy, there was no side to him… he was a nice bloke. It makes me laugh that both he and Vi Subversa had obituaries in The Times and The Telegraph. They were both so anti-establishment, they’d probably have hated that.
At the end of 1978 Small Wonder released ‘Killing an Arab’, the first single by The Cure, how did that come about?
That was Colin too, he knew their manager Chris Parry who was eager to get them some kind of street cred. Chris thought it would be a really good idea for them to have a release on an independent label. They were signed to Polydor or rather to Fiction which was basically their manager who had a deal with Polydor.
He wanted us to put their first single out so that everyone would think ‘oh look at them they’re doing well they’ve come from that to that‘.
And of course the minute the record came out the journalists were phoning us up saying ‘how can we get in touch with this band’!?
They were doing intellectual stuff…Albert Camus and all that and of course journalists in those days loved all that… all these grammar school boys hahaha.
Anyway we just put out 10,000 which sold out within a fortnight and then it reverted back to the manager Chris’s label, Fiction. They’re quite a rarity these days, the Small Wonder release.
How many copies would you sell back then and did you ever do anything promotion wise along the lines of Billy Bragg famously delivering a chicken biryani to John Peel?
In the early days we’d only ever press 2000 of anything, simply because we couldn’t afford it and we weren’t sure if anyone was going to buy it, but gradually we might go to 5000 then 10000. It depended on the band, Bauhaus sold hundred’s of thousands in the end over a period because it’s such a classic track. They performed it on the telly.
I remember one time Patrik recorded something for TV (Peter Cook fronted music show Revolver) and he was out doing a gig so he actually went down the road to one of those hi-fi shops where you had the TV in the window and he stood and watched himself. Couldn’t hear a thing but he could see himself.
We did try and do a silly promotion once with John Peel and it totally back fired.
The Cravats had a track called ‘Off The Beach’ and I foolishly put the record in a plastic bag and then put sea shells and sand and all sorts of crap…rubber squids… and of course Peelie opened it and it all fell out.
On that nights programme he said ‘I hate it when people use gimmicks like that’… and I thought ‘ohh whoops, better not do that again!’
Patrik Fitzgerald’s “Backstreet Boys” is about being beaten up in the street. The late 70’s/early 80’s were a tense time in many ways, particularly in terms of race relations with Brixton and the rise of the National Front and skinheads who identified with the ‘British movement’. What was it like in Walthamstow at the time?
We had a lot of race riots and that was one of the reasons we left, it was just getting to much. We had threats, and a bloke came in with a gun at one point, trying to rob us, I told him to fuck off and he did..thank god! We’d see mugging and stuff outside the windows and it was all getting very heavy and then some bastards put some petrol through an Asian families house and they died. (Yunus Khan Close off Queens Road in Walthamstow is named in honour of the Khan family, four of whom died in the arson attack on their home in July 1981)
A big funeral was planned in Hoe Street and of course the police were all behind the advertising hoardings – dozens of ‘em – hiding and then the funeral came one way and the National Front march came another way… you know… on purpose. Then there was this appalling fracas and some bastard threw a petrol bomb at the shop. Next morning I woke up and there was a Nazi swastika on the shutters, and we thought oh fuck this, we’ve had enough!
So we thought we’ll go to Suffolk because a guy who worked for us lived in Essex, near Suffolk and he said there were some nice places there. We thought well we can do mail-order from anywhere so we found this poncy thatched cottage with a posh shed come studio in the garden.
I thought people like me dont live in places like this, but we bought it, put all the stuff in the shed and tried to do it from there.
You talk about the National Front in Walthamstow, was that the atmosphere of the time there?
Walthamstow was a very electric place as far as politics, right-wing politics in particular was concerned at that time. I remember on one occasion there were two black girls in our shop, they used to come in a lot and these two National Front kids came in. They were trying to chat them up at first and got nowhere so they started slagging them off and calling them ni**ers and you know…
So I told them to get out and it was like that all the time, there was this underlying tension… racial tension.
From when you opened?
No, this was in the middle of the whole punk thing. We’d done what we wanted to do and I thought I’m getting bored with all this and to be honest the music was going a little bit iffy at times.
Punk wasn’t the bee all and end all it was just what it produced and the bands that came after it. They were the musicians, not just kids having a laugh, good musicians.
How did you come into contact with Crass?
That was through a window dresser and sign writer who used to come in and try and give us some kind of window display. He’d offer you things like a fucking great Demis Roussos thing!
Anyway we got talking and he said he knew this band in Epping and gave me a tape of theirs and I listened to it and I thought it was the dogs bollocks. So I got in touch with them and we arranged to do a 12” single.
Which was really an LP for gods sake and it was all done totally live. I just went there one evening and they went through the whole thing in one go. And I thought these people are important!
You’re meeting new people for a start that you’ve got something in common with, a political view and stuff. We were nearly done for blasphemy by the Director of public prosecutions because of Crass.
There’s a lovely story when we had two policemen come from Scotland Yard and they were going to do us for blasphemy because of an anti-christ song Crass recorded called ‘Asylum’. I phoned Penny Rimbaud and said ‘the Vice Squad have just been in and they’re coming to see you’! And Penny thought they were a band, as you would, you know the vice squad. They actually went out to Epping and Penny recording them secretly. He offered them a cup of tea and while he was out of the room making it you could hear them saying “what are we doing here, these are nice people, what are we supposed to do”. I thought that was really funny.
We got a letter from the Director of public prosecutions a few weeks later saying “we are not taking any action in the foreseeable future” so they sort of left you hanging a bit but you thought fuck ’em and Crass weren’t bothered because they thought well, brilliant publicity. It was ludicrous.
After the Irish pressing company refused to press the EP with ‘Asylum’ on it, we decided to take it off. (Leaving two minutes of silence entitled ‘The Sound of Free Speech’ in its place).
Crass released a re-recorded extended version on their own little label in the end for 45p (about half the normal retail price and anyone who bought the original EP could write to Crass and receive the track on cassette along with a lyrics sheet).
They were an extraordinarily talented group of people. Their lyrics were shit hot, they were interesting but because they were a commune and some of them were dead posh they’d get a bit of stick.
I’ve still got a letter from Sounds journalist Garry Bushell about Crass. When I first sent him the demo tape he raved about it because he probably thought they were a bunch of East End lads and he was a sort of an inverted snob. When the actual record came out he went to see them at their commune in Essex and basically thought these are a lot of middle class arseholes and he slagged them off. So I wrote to him saying what a cunt he was.
(After this interview was published Garry Bushell got in touch to say he never visited the Crass commune and that not only did he not rave about the first Crass release but his “slightly piss-taking review actually sparked a feud that lasted decades”).
You wouldn’t consider yourself a punk though?
Oh no I was too old for that, I was 27, christ, I was an old man, to them. Party it was because Crass were of my generation, partly because intellectually they stimulated me and partly because they were fascinating people, living in a commune..making this music, this strange music. The whole art side of them, everything about them I just found basically exciting and dangerous!
They did all their own artwork, Gee (Vaucher) was one of the singers but also a graphic designer in New York but she came back home got involved with them and she did all her artwork. Crass just moved me.
And they also introduced you to The Poison Girls?
Yes, they were friends with Crass, and again they just gave us a tape, we liked it and put it out. We did a couple of singles with them.
There was also a girl called Honey Bane who was in a band called The Fatal Microbes that we put out and she was the ward of the Poison Girls lead singer Vie Subversa, a middle aged lady who looked liked everyones aunt so it was all a very strange mixture of commune type relationships.
I was sort of in the middle of it recording, I didn’t really know them personally or anything. The two other people in The Fatal Microbes were her son and daughter, she was 13 or something the drummer I think, or 11. I think Penny just brought me a tape of that and The Poison Girls were on the B-side.
It was quite militant on the feminist side, that was Vie basically and of course Poison Girls… boys and girls.
Was Vie a dynamic, larger than life character then?
No not at all, she was very ordinary really. She was just like your mum or your auntie. She was that age, that build, the way she dressed was a little bit radical but if you bumped into her in Sainburys you wouldn’t think twice. And yet she was fronting this band, it was all weird. Everything we did was a bit weird though. There was just an energy of the time, it was really infectious, it was fabulous, but then all good things…you know.
1980. Walthamstow Youth Club. The Cravats around the time of 'Precinct' maybe,or just before 1st LP,not quite sure. 'The Demons' were the former Demon Preacher. Saw The Demons at the Music Machine probably the same week as this. Both bands were on Small Wonder label. This is the same venue that Joy Division played 2 'secret'-ish gigs. I went to none of these three gigs,weirdly. I was doing other stuff all three nights. Rehearsing or at a different gig. #thecravats #theshend #demonpreacher #aliensexfiend #smallwonderrecords #1980 #postpunk #punkrock #walthamstow
The Cravats were also a big band for the label, tell me a bit about them?
Oh The Cravats!? The glorious Cravats. At first I was attracted to them because they had just a fucking stupid name. I though what kind of band is going to call themselves The Cravats for christ’s sake.
I heard them on John Peel, they released their own single called ‘Gordon’ and I thought this is bloody good and I wanna release it so I phoned Peelie up and said where can I get in touch with these guys. I knew they weren’t selling that many and I thought well we might give it a little bit of kudos.
I remember we got one of those little John Bull printing sets and stamped Small Wonder Records on the remaining copies. We just got involved with them because I liked their music and I liked them as characters. Plus they were from Redditch so they had that weird Birmingham accent you know.
I remember doing ‘Precinct’, one of their singles that was again at the BBC, it was a John Peel session. When Dave Bennett started drumming – it was a very frantic piece of music – and people were actually coming out into the corridor looking in to see what the hell’s going on, this is brilliant. I just thought they had something…they were… I hate labels but it was this kind of jazz punk thing, partly because of the saxophone. When I was a kid walking into a record shop if I saw a saxophone featured on the record I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole…a fucking saxophone..leave it out…and yet he did things with a saxophone that were quite extraordinary.
I was always attracted to uniqueness, if someones got something different to say or do.
What about Waltham Forest’s own Leyton Buzzards?
Well they were just jumping on the punk bandwagon, they came from Walthamstow as you say, well Leyton. I met them through a bloke called André Jaquemin who did the sound for all the Monty Python albums and gigs. They brought a tape in and it was a laugh. I knew what they were up to but you know who cares, it was all anarchy in a way.
So we just went to André’s studio recorded the thing and put it out. Then next thing you know they’ve all got silly names like Dave Deprave and that daft stuff. They went on to become Modern Romance! It was extraordinary. ‘Everybody salsa’!
You also released a fine example of new-wave electro synth-pop in Camera Obscura’s 7″.
They nearly had a hit record! We only did one with them and John Peel played it quite a lot and then one of the daytime DJs took a shine to it. Then the BBC phoned me up one evening and said it’s going to be on one of those review shows (I cant remember what it was called) and they said it sounded like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark or something’ and thats has-beens music… they shot it down in flames which is a shame because it could have charted. I think they ended up doing a soundtrack for something like one of the Ester Rantzen programmes. (In 2005 they reformed to release an album of tracks from 1983 on German label Minimal wave).
What happened when you closed the shop on Hoe Street?
We sold it to one of the customers who was a young kid who wanted to get involved so we sold it to him. It was only a lease, it wasn’t the actual premises and errr he had it for a while as ‘Ugly Child Records’ but unfortunately it just dive bombed.
Are you still passionate about music or do you think it’s inevitable people slowly fall into thinking maybe ‘music was better in my day’?
It’s just what gets into the charts thats total crap, but that was nearly always the case. In the 60’s that wasn’t necessarily true because you’d have fledgling bands like The Stones and The Pretty Things, and The Yardbirds, and The Who. That was the thing I think in the 60’s there was this sudden explosion of youth and fashion and design and all the rest of it and it happened again in ‘76. In a different way, almost an anti hippy thing. I was lucky to be part of both.
It all kind of stopped for me I think a lot to do with when Peel died. Even after everything he was still playing music I was interested in.
When he was on Radio London with his ‘Perfumed Garden’, you could imagine him on this boat with sort of joss sticks going. He was constantly playing The Yardbirds and stuff from America, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane.
Then when he got into the punk thing, genuinely like me we kind of went through it together in a way. When you went to his house and saw the collection of music… I mean he had this huge bathroom converted into this fucking great library of records. He was an icon.
Any bands you’re gutted you missed out on?
One band! Mark E. Smith and The Fall. He was so unique, his voice and his style even though I couldn’t understand a fucking word he said. He had this thick northern accent for a start and he spoke so fast but I wanted to know what he was singing about. I got bits of it you know… but not only did I want to record them but to get them a better deal than they were getting. I could see that they were worth investing time and energy into. And I would have put their fucking lyrics on the sleeves so we could all understand what he was on about hahaha. But he went to Rough Trade didn’t he and I never did anything about it because I thought they’re more Rough Trade than Small Wonder somehow. But that’s my big regret. They’re the sort of artists you like, dangerous, not safe!
Pete Stennett… this is your life!
WE NEED YOUR HELP FOR ‘SMALL WONDER – THE EXHIBITION’
Plans are afoot to put on an exhibition later in the year celebrating Small Wonder. We’d love to hear your recollections of Small Wonder and its importance to you.
Also do you have or know anyone who might have, photos, records, flyers or anything related to Small Wonder that we might be able to borrow for the exhibition?
Thanks in advance for any help – email [email protected]