In 1976 the world of popular music was ready to burst into the destructive but life-giving flames of punk.
Oblivious to the rebellion brewing abroad, a bunch of like-minded individuals studying at Edinburgh College of Art were getting hacked off with the music they were hearing around them. Disgruntled by the conservative atmosphere within the college as well, Alan Forbes and John Callis turned all their energies into running a small live venue in the Grassmarket and dreaming of a band into which they could channel their considerable energies.
"The Edinburgh music scene never had that supportive atmosphere you get in Glasgow," says Callis, aka Luke Warm - founder and lead guitarist of the Rezillos. "It’s always been very small and full of petty little rivalries. God forbid if an Edinburgh band should dare to become successful - the bitching is unbelievable. Back in the mid-1970s it was probably even worse. Everyone worried about what other people thought of them. ‘Are we cool?’ ‘Do our friends like us?’ It was pathetic."
Giving themselves stage names (Forbes called himself Eugene Reynolds after someone he met on his summer job ), the duo imagined a band that would play tight and fast rock’n’roll with harmonies ripped from the work of 1960s girl groups. Typically for a mob of art students, they had strong ideas on how their music would be reflected in their look. Dayglo was in, as were Doctor Who and Marvel Comics. (The name Rezillos comes from the name of a nightclub in the first edition of the Shadow comic.)
The Rezillos were one of the first bands to take words like "pulp" and "trash" and turn them into superlatives. Things didn’t completely fall into place, though, until they met first-year fashion student Sheila Hynde, who with her mate Gayle bolstered the "girl group" orientation of the band and added some classy mid-1960s Mary Quant stage costumes to the all-important, provocative image.
"An infamous conversation occurred between Eugene and myself when we first met, when we trying impress each other with our music taste," Hynde remembers. "He asked me who my favourite band was and I said Roxy Music and [1960s girl group] the Shangri-La’s. I asked Eugene who his were and he said: ‘Oh, the Rezillos’ and I pretended I’d heard of them."
Reynolds takes up the story: "I told her, ‘Oh that’s rather interesting, since they only exist in my head. But if you want to improve on them, then come and sing a song with us.’ " Hynde took the name Fay Fife when she joined because, yes, she was fae Fife. (Dunfermline to be exact.) This short-lived but incredibly influential creative partnership was augmented by Dave "Dr D K" Smythe on bass, Ali "Angel" Patterson on drums, Ali "Mysterious" Donaldson on drums and Mark "Hi Fi" Harris on rhythm guitar. Despite all the effort involved in renaming each other, the group would only make one studio album. In hindsight, the band’s short life seems almost inevitable.
"Even in the beginning we were on our own planet," says Hynde. "We never used to hang out with anyone else. We’d spend all our time in each other’s flats, chasing each other with water pistols. We all had a ... particular sense of humour that only we would understand - we were just like kids."
The attitude worked perfectly at the time. The us-against-them stance was an excellent foil to the narrowness of the Edinburgh scene. In November 1976 the band played their first gig - a set of early beat classics, Chuck Berry numbers and their own tunes - at the Edinburgh Teviot Row Student Union. "When we walked on stage for the first time everyone there just went, ‘Eeugh!’ " remembers Callis. "They hated us and it made us feel perfectly natural. We thrived on the response we got. The more people hated us, the more we wound them up. Our attitude was, ‘Let’s get a reaction from them one way or another,’ so we just went for it." And went for it they did, performing more than 200 gigs across Scotland in their first year.
Although they played so often, Reynolds, the only member of the band still to wear his stage moniker as a badge of pride, insists that they weren’t in it for the big time. "The Rezillos were never meant to be successful, they were meant to be fun. We actually did a lot of things deliberately not to be successful. We stayed in Edinburgh at a time when the music scene was even more centred on London. That was virtually suicide for the band."
In 1977 they went south long enough to secure an album deal with independent label, Sire. This gave them the opportunity to record in New York where they met kindred spirits such as the Cramps, with whom they had, for a long while, unwittingly shared a vision. ("It was like stepping into a parallel universe," says Reynolds.) There they recorded Can’t Stand the Rezillos, a classic piece of artfully awkward rebellion. When it was released in 1978 it went in at 16 in the album charts and the second single from it, Top of the Pops, made number 17, an excellent showing. It distilled everything that was good about the band: their attitude, their mischief and their old-fashioned rock’n’roll lust for life. It was a great debut, which promised much. A few months, later, though, with the world at their feet, the Rezillos made the characteristically contrary decision to chuck it in.
"We just had a big argument and decided to pack it in," says Reynolds. "A lot of what we did was created by winding each other up. We were playing with fire to get our ideas anyway. You’ve heard of relationships that are driven by two people winding each other up? Well, in this case, we just got sick of winding each other up. I think we also thought: ‘OK, we’re about to be famous. Well f*** that. Let’s split up! How punk rock is that?’ Then we looked back a few months later and thought, ‘Why the hell did we do that?’ There were also people around us in the industry who, for various reasons, were wanting us to break up. I would almost say there was some of that attitude in the management." Everyone in the band went their own way. Dr D K went back to his promising career as a research geophysicist. For three years, Callis didn’t speak to Hynde and Reynolds, who had become a couple early on in the band’s brief history. They went on to form the Revillos, a less crude, more ironic version of the earlier band. Callis, meanwhile, formed a couple of unsuccessful groups in Edinburgh before meeting a band called the Human League through Bob Last, who managed both them and the Rezillos.
By 1981 he had joined and was helping pen their Dare album, including the classic, Don’t You Want Me Baby. By the time the League had split up in 1985, he and Reynolds were talking to each other again and they even tried to get a new band together.
"Unfortunately it looked and sounded a bit too much like Sigue Sigue Sputnik [mid-1980s punk glam schlockers] and the music industry wouldn’t touch us," says Callis. Reynolds fell back on his other passion, antique motorcycles; he still runs a company that specialises in Indian motorcycles. In the mid-1980s Hynde split up with him, dropped the Fay Fife and became an actress, starring in a variety of productions, including the ubiquitous Taggart.
It seems almost a shame that these three songwriters and conceptualists, who created such a perfect distillation of the punk ideal, should reform, even for a one-off gig at this year’s Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh. Typically, though, they don’t appear to give a toss what people think. "We can come back and do something like this because we weren’t the stereotypical spiky-haired, leather-jacketed, Doc Martens and pink hair kind of band," says Reynolds.
"I did actually have pink hair sometimes," admits Hynde. "There’s some bands from that era who reform and it makes you think, ‘What the hell are you doing?’," says Reynolds. "Maybe that’s what they think about us … but they’re wrong."
Most people won’t begrudge them a short set together after 23 years. It’s hardly the Clash selling Levi jeans and even if they did, it wouldn’t stop the Rezillos. They’ve always thrived on going against the grain, so why would they change now?
The Rezillos play the Concert in the Gardens, Edinburgh (with the Proclaimers and Mull Historical Society) on 31 December. As The Scotsman went to press, a small number of tickets were still available from 0131-473 2000 (Hogmanay box office) or 0870-333 1123 (Ticket Web 24-hour credit card line)