Think you're unlucky? You're lucky you weren't in Spider
Alienation, fierce independence, bravado and a large dollop of ill fortune: the story of Spider, the nearly-men of the NWOHBM
It's December 14, 1981, and Colin Harkness, rhythm guitarist and frontman of Merseyside boogie merchants Spider, is with Dave Hill in Slade’s dressing room at Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens. Like his bandmates, Harkness was weaned on Slade, Eddie & The Hot Rods and Status Quo. For the past fortnight, he’s lived the dream as Spider opened for their heroes on a British tour. In Nottingham, two nights later, Slade’s Jim Lea will grab a bass and join in with Spider’s version of Born To Be Wild.
But right now, Hill is dispensing some advice. Mimicking the super-yob guitarist’s Black Country accent, Harkness recounts it for Classic Rock: “You don’t want to be too much like Status Quo, y’know – focus on the melodies” (in best Cup-A-Soup tradition, that last word is pronounced ‘mel-o-dayyyyz’).
“That guidance stuck with me,” says Harkness 35 years later. “And as time went by we did try to write songs that were more… how can I put it… listenable?”
Regrettably, these efforts went largely unnoticed and Spider were forever tagged as a pauper’s Status Quo. Performing in every nook and cranny of the country, they racked up more than 2,000 shows during a 20-year lifespan. Spider were a peculiarly insular group, contextually speaking, a part of the NWOBHM, but with a style and wit that made them perennial outsiders. They also spurned at least one great rock’n’roll cliché. Staunchly teetotal, Spider consumed 8,000 tea bags while touring with Slade alone, something that later brought an endorsement from the British Tea Council. That said, they replaced alcohol with another vice: women.
Spider’s story is one of alienation, fierce independence and a large dollop of ill fortune. Reviled by the press yet embraced by thousands of loyal fans, they cockily flicked the Vs to any detractors.
Such bravado took Spider to the level of bill-toppers at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Typically, though, on the day they headlined there in March 1984, the attendance was decimated by a London Underground strike. And two years later, as lorries were due to deliver their third (and final) album to the shops, their record company went into liquidation.
“There’s no such thing as bad luck – you make your own,” shrugs bassist and co-frontman Brian Burrows now. “My belief is that we never really fitted in at all. Most heavy metal bands were riff-based. A thousand bands were copying Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. You can say that we sounded like Quo if you wish to, but there was them and us. We were a rock-a-boogie band, and it became trendy to knock us, especially to the press of that era.”