Interview: Clouds, the greatest Scottish band you’ve never heard of

Clouds, left to right, Billy Ritchie, Harry Hughes, Ian Ellis. Picture: Sonja Horsman
Clouds, left to right, Billy Ritchie, Harry Hughes, Ian Ellis. Picture: Sonja Horsman
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Bowie lauded them and they entranced prog rock royalty. Now Clouds, the greatest Scottish band you’ve never heard of, reform for Aidan Smith and explain how they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory

SOHO, London, 45 years ago, and the Marquee must have been an overpowering mix of cigarette smoke, sweat and warm English beer, laced with something stronger and illegal. Mostly though, the famous rock’n’roll club smelled of the future.

On stage were three young men, two from West Lothian and the other from Lanarkshire, and the music they were playing was daring, challenging and exciting. Many in the crowd were hostile to the tricky time changes and absence of guitars, but future members of Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer and King Crimson were entranced.

And David Jones – the future David Bowie – was so moved by the experience that he wrote a letter to the Record Mirror to gush about “three thistle-and-haggis-voiced bairns who had the audacity to face a mob of self-opinioned hippies with a brand of unique pop music, which, because of its intolerance of mediocrity, floated as would a Hogarth cartoon in the Beano”.

So what became of the three bairns? Billy Ritchie, Ian Ellis and Harry Hughes haven’t been here in a while and in truth Hughes isn’t here yet. “He was our drummer, a brilliant timekeeper in the band, always late out of it,” says Ritchie before finally their old friend shows up. They can’t remember the last time they were together in the same place – somebody’s birthday, perhaps, a good few years ago – but Scotland on Sunday has reformed Clouds just for this Tuesday afternoon. Why? Because they were the greatest Scottish band you’ve never heard of; and maybe the most influential we’ve produced, ever.

Who’s been more influential? You could argue that the Sensational Alex Harvey Band were a big influence on the punks, that the Jesus and Mary Chain and Belle and Sebastian inspired many, and that ultimately everyone owes something to skiffle king Lonnie Donegan. But these guys were crucial to the development of progressive rock and all that came of it (concept albums, a juggernaut for each musician with your name on the roof, spectacular shows on ice). Whether they actually invented the genre is probably lost in the swirling mists of a Roger Dean dreamscape – the classic prog iconography – but I’m going to try to find out.

We walk up Wardour Street in search of a pub, passing an alleyway and disturbing some ghosts. “Remember that great little cafe?” says Ellis.

“Aye, we’d often meet Bowie there,” adds Hughes. Then Ritchie: “The funny thing was it had a coffin in the middle of the room. We should have seen that as a metaphor for what would happen to us.”

We find a corner of the Ship, another haunt from 1967, where I can get a better look at them. Ritchie and Ellis are 67, Hughes two years younger, and in his smart blue overcoat the latter looks least like a musician. “Harry has had the most success adjusting to normal life,” the others agree. Ellis, with his hair now grey but still long, looks most like one and still plays on the 60s revival circuit. Ritchie, somewhere in between, does most of the talking, cracks most of the gloomy jokes and still refers to women as “birds”.

“You might find this hard to credit because he became such a big star,” says Ritchie, “but David used to hang around trying to impress us. We’d just been signed by Brian Epstein and David thought we were the next big thing, as did we.”

“He used to help lug our gear into the Marquee, as did Ian Anderson [later to go global with Jethro Tull],” remembers Hughes.

Ritchie again: “And Jon Anderson, pre-Yes, was working behind the Marquee bar. The other Yes guys supported us when they were called Syn. Their bag was soul covers in orange frilly shirts. I went to one of the first Yes rehearsals and suddenly they were copying us.”

Are these Clouds laden with bitter tears? Do they curse all those inspired by them who became much more successful? They can’t quite agree on this.

“We just weren’t good enough,” says Hughes, who gave drums lessons to Carl Palmer and Bill Bruford.

“We were years ahead of our time,” says Ritchie, who most laments what might have been and admits: “I’ve never been able to find anything to replace music in my life.”

They became a trio by accident. “We were the only ones from an earlier line-up who wanted to quit Scotland and try London and we left behind wives and jobs,” says Ellis, who played bass and sang.

Holed up in a single room in Sussex Gardens they lived off Joe’s Cafe breakfasts (4s 6d). A fellow Scot called Archie Colquhoun – Ritchie: “He was a hustler, turning up much later in Rab C Nesbitt playing a magician” – got them an audition at the Marquee and the manager hired them on the strength of just one complex chord arrangement. This was John Gee, who would go on to surprise Gloria Hunniford on afternoon TV by nominating Clouds as the Marquee’s greatest acts.

Before Clouds they were 1-2-3 and the look was unfussy. “T-shirts, vinyl trousers and the obligatory long hair,” recalls Ellis. Misplacing guitarists as well as wives put greater emphasis on Hughes’ jazz-influenced drums and Ritchie’s Hammond organ, which he played standing up with classical flourishes. He remembers Keith Emerson being especially intrigued. “He asked me why I stood, didn’t think he could. In the Nice he was playing sideboard, but next I knew their guitarist had gone and he was standing up too. And performing Nut Rocker, which had been part of our set.”

Yes would go on to record Paul Simon’s America, another 1-2-3 staple. It was a highly competitive scene but what upset Ritchie, and in his darker moments still does, was the others’ reluctance to give his band due credit. “We were friends with a lot of these guys but while Jon Anderson would tell audiences we were his favourite group he was careful never to say it in print. King Crimson probably took their concept from us – quiet melodies broken up by frantic muso playing – but Robert Fripp, an odd fellow, wouldn’t admit it. And Rick Wakeman even had the cheek a few years ago to say he’d never heard of me. I can still see him down the front at the Marquee!”

In their more reflective moments, and these come as the beers flow, they almost reach consensus. “On our night as a live act we could kill anybody – we had a hex on the Nice,” says Ritchie. Hughes: “Yes, but we reckoned ‘live’ was all that mattered.” Ritchie again: “Well, we were pig-headed and naïve to think that music was all that mattered. We poured scorn on Keith Emerson and Ian Anderson for dressing up and jumping about but in image terms we failed.”

In not quite looking the part, Clouds’ story has echoes of that of Ian Stewart, the Pittenweem-born “sixth Rolling Stone”, sacked for not being as pretty as Mick Jagger.

The band also suffered bad luck. Although Epstein signed them, he was a distant figure in their lives, and then he died. Then they were managed by Robert Stigwood, but he was much more interested in another of his acts, the Bee Gees. Then Terry Ellis, but he was much more interested in Jethro Tull. It was Ellis who ordered the name change, and the three can’t agree about it, even now. “I like Clouds,” says Ellis. Ritchie: “But said in broad Scots it’s ‘Clowns’.”

“Stigwood didn’t know what to do with us,” continues the upstanding organ player. “He dressed us in suits and sent us up north on a clubland tour with comedians and jugglers. We were well set up in London but in Cleethorpes I was being asked why I was copying Keith Emerson. So we lost our momentum and missed our time.”

There would be a couple of albums, recently collected on the compilation Up Above Our Heads. There would be tours of America when Billboard magazine predicted the band would be “giants”. But these Clouds dispersed in 1971, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, football-style. “It seems like a very Scottish story,” agrees Ritchie, “because I think we suffered from a very Scottish self-consciousness. We simply weren’t showmen and distrusted those who were. But I’d have to concede that all those other bands took something clever and non-commercial – us – and made it more popular and successful.”

And that’s almost their story. Hughes works as an occupational hygienist now and a few years ago his secretary was astonished to receive a phone call from a “Mr Bowie”. “None of the staff know about my previous life. David wanted to invite us to an exhibition.” Around the same time in an interview, Bowie hailed Ritchie as an “unrecognised genius”. “Unrecognised’s better than nothing,” says Ellis, and they all laugh, thank me for my interest, and agree to meet up again soon, with or without prodding from their superstar sponsor.