Low Life In High Places: On the road with Thunder & The Union
It started with a charity bike ride across Canada and the US and ended with tales of penis linking, poo buffets and anal love. That’s what happens when you hang out with Thunder and The Union
It’s been a long first day. We have spent 17 hours travelling 4500 miles across several time zones, are now eating in a hotel bar in Cranbrook, Canada, and the male bonding is in full swing. Ram Patten, former Royal Marine Commando, is explaining the practise of ‘docking’.
“It’s a thing we do in the marines,” he says to the whole table. “You need two guys with at least one foreskin between them. They stand facing each other, naked, and one gets his foreskin and pulls it over the other guy’s helmet. And then they have to look each other in the eye for five minutes. It’s a test. You do that with someone, you get a bond. You know if you can trust them. Cos, you know, some people get excited…”
No one speaks. The only noise you can hear is the sound of scrotums retracting.
“Cos in Arctic training, for example, the best way to keep warm is for you to get naked in one sleeping bag and spoon together. And you might want to move around to warm up, rub against each other. So if you’ve docked with someone beforehand, you know you can trust them.”
He looks at the faces around the table for a response. Luke Morley pushes his plate away.
“That’s put me right off my sausage,” he says.
It all began – way before we entered a world in which men link penises to prove their heterosexuality – with a pure and noble idea. We’ve flown across the Atlantic for Childline Rocks’ Hands Across The Water, a 1000-mile fund-raising motorcycle ride from Cranbrook to Ketchum, Idaho, that culminates in a gig by The Union and Thunder (a warm up for their High Voltage reunion gig). The 40-odd Harley riders include Thunder’s Danny Bowes and Ben Matthews, former SAS-man-turned-best-selling-novelist Andy McNab, Brigadier Richard Dennis OBE (the man responsible for organising the funeral of Princess Diana), and a handful of ex-army types representing military charities Force Select and March For Honour – not to mention a bunch of ‘civilian’ bikers there for the experience of a lifetime, the craic and to raise money.
Classic Rock is hitching a lift in a pick-up driven by Luke Morley and Pete Shoulder to witness the whole thing – because a) let’s face it, it sounds like a laugh and b) the second album by The Union is set to become one of the albums of 2011. An amazing collection of tracks, it sees them not only fulfilling the potential suggested by their debut but destroying any impression that Morley is just killing time until Thunder get back together. From the Zeppelin-esque riffing of title track Siren’s Song to Obsession’s throbbing John Lee Hooker-like pulse, the epic chorus of Make Up Your Mind to Cut The Line’s swelling blues (and a closing track which is unashamed jazz), Siren’s Song is an album full of the one thing most lacking in today’s rock scene: great songs.
The sound of the album, meanwhile, is down to good old-fashioned blagging. “In the studio next door to us was this band called the Maccabees,” explains Luke, “and they, somewhat foolishly, left all this gear lying around. So we borrowed it. They had a left-handed guitar player and he had all these great guitars that I don’t have, including a Gretsch Tennessee Rose which is a perfect jazz guitar.”
“They had everything there,” says Pete. “A twelve string Rickenbacker, a lap-steel… It was like a shop. We’d be like: ‘I’m just popping to Maccabees – does anybody want something?’”
The success or failure of The Union will probably decide the fate of Thunder. When Danny Bowes announced that he was retiring from performing back in 2009 to become an agent, Luke Morley threw himself into an already promising songwriting partnership with Pete Shoulder. Danny’s subsequent realisation that he may not be suited to a deskjob, could have meant that Thunder was back on. Certainly the others – drummer Harry James and bassist Chris Childs (flying into Ketchum for the final gig of the tour), Ben and Danny – seem up for it, available and as close as ever: wise-cracking and piss-taking their way across country.
Thunder, in fact, may be the funniest band we’ve ever met. Everyone talks like they’ve fallen out of a particularly filthy Ealing comedy – “dear boy” this, “old chap” that – a weird mix of Smashy and Nicey, Terry Thomas and Frankie Boyle-style outrageousness that infects the whole ride, ramped up by The Two Marks: two cameramen called Mark (or individually as ‘Mark’ and ‘Other Mark’), the Statler and Waldorf of the tour, desperate for someone to get arrested so they can catch it on camera. (To this end, Ram dons full Arab dress, a skeleton facemask, and drives through small-town Hicksville USA looking like a Zombie sheik. Mark later dresses up as Spider-Man and rides pillion on Ram’s Harley. The one patrol car we see doesn’t even give us a second glance.) Surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in the world, our response is to make dick jokes.
“With Thunder you have a couple of very natural comedians and mimics,” says Luke. “Danny and I have known each other since we were 11 years old and there’s always that spirit of South East London – a sort of trench humour. When things are going really shit, you’ve just got to laugh. It pervaded everything we did. Sometimes it became a little bit too important – ‘Hold on a minute: are we a cabaret act or a rock’n’roll band?’ – but when we kept it in check it was a very effective tool to have. Rock bands do tend to take themselves very seriously, especially American bands.
“To quote Phil Collins – which I don’t do very often – he said, ‘There’s no point in making someone think you’re an arsehole if you’re not’. And I think that’s exactly right. You’ve got to be who you are. You’d make yourself miserable if you were walking around pretending to be ultra-cool. We’ve always been freely available to punters after every show we ever did. It doesn’t turn you into a Led Zeppelin-type enigma, but it does breed a fantastic loyalty and understanding.”
Warning: there is one Led Zeppelin-type enigma in the story that follows.
From the get go, we are in the wilds. When we cross from Canada into the American Rocky Mountains, all our mobile phones lose their signal and we travel through the world’s richest and most sophisticated country without a phone signal for three days. (Try explaining that to your missus.)
The first day of traveling ‘in country’ takes us to a remote town called Waterton in Alberta. In the hotel bar, Luke, Pete, Danny and Ben form a Union/Thunder supergroup and knock out classics like Love The One You’re With and Squeeze Box. The locals lap it up. The season is just starting and it’s nice to have people around. In the winter, local man Frank tells me, Waterton gets completely snowed in. Only 50 people live up there then, sharing their living space with grizzly bears and cougars.
But the grizzlies don’t come into town, right?
“Oh yeah,” says Frank. “You leave some food out and they’re there.”
Ah. So what should I do if I meet a grizzly? Run?
“Can’t out-run ’em,” drawls Frank. “A grizzly’ll do 40 kilometres an hour, top speed.”
Climb up a tree?
“Can’t out-climb ’em,” says Frank, sipping on a bottle of Moose Drool. “The only thing you can do is play dead. Lie down on your stomach and lock your hands over the back of your neck, cos they try to pick you up by your scruff.”
Lie down, hands back of neck, right…
“And if they turn you over on to your back, you got to turn over again quick – never expose your belly to them. But keep playing dead.”
Turn over but, like, don’t move. Ok, uh, gotcha.
(We end up in a club called The Thirsty Bear. When we leave, the town is deserted and silent and we walk the dark streets, full of Moose Drool, totally shitting ourselves.)
“The thing that got me into playing guitar,” says Luke, “was Free and Hendrix, really. My defining moment was hearing Are You Experienced? ‘This is what I want to do’. My old man gave me a copy of the Best of Cream about the same time, and that was it.”
What was the first band you went to see? “T.Rex. 1971, Lewisham Odeon. Fantastic. I was only 11. Bolan was very charismatic and the thing that really did it for me was the audience. I managed to get right down the front and I remember looking over my shoulder and thinking, ‘Wow – it must be great to have that effect on people’.”
“My first gig was Paul Rodgers at Newcastle City Hall,” says Pete. “I was 13. Me mam and dad took me, cos I was a massive Free fan – still am.”
What was the first record you ever bought? “Dave Edmunds, ‘I Hear You Knocking’,” says Luke. “Then Frida Payne’s Band Of Gold. First album I bought was a T. Rex compilation.”
Pete laughs: “My first single was Slam Jam by the WWF Wrestlers! But I was only about 9 then. I think my first album was probably from one of them CD clubs you used to get. I remember ordering a Soundgarden album, a Manic Street Preachers album. Nirvana is what made me want to play music, really. My sister had Nevermind and I became completely obsessed with it. I began to learn guitar and then I started listening to all my dad’s records: Free, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young. He had this blues compilation called Heavy Blues. It had Eric Clapton with John Mayall and Peter Green with Fleetwood Mac, so I got into blues through the British invasion, and then I started reading about them all and went further back to Robert Johnson and all that.
“At school there wasn’t that many people into the kind of music I was into. I’d be coming to school with a Walkman on, listening to Tim Buckley and Howlin’ Wolf and stuff and me mates would be talking about the Spice Girls. The only other thing going on at that time was Britpop, which – apart from Oasis – I hated. I thought it was crap. Didn’t like Blur and all the rest of them: bands like Menswear and all that shit. I hated that whole fashion thing. Just like I hated the NME and that whole thing of who’s ‘cool’ to like. It’s not about fashion, it’s about – for me anyway – who’s genuinely from the heart and the soul. It needs to move me.”
Ironic that you got into music through grunge, and Thunder were derailed by it.
“Grunge fucked us in America, there’s no doubt about it,” says Luke. “But I love Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains.”
“They’re just classic rock bands to me,” says Pete. “I know there was a whole sort of fashion thing to it, but they’re classic rock – there’s a whole load of blues in there.”
Luke: “It was a reaction against all that hair metal stuff that had got fairly preposterous. In Thunder we didn’t see ourselves as that at all – we saw ourselves as a blues rock band – but in America we got lumped in with the hair metal stuff. There was nothing we could do about it. And they slammed the cheque book shut as soon as Nirvana kicked off.”
Pete: “Alice in Chains were just like Sabbath really.”
And that’s what made it great. After years of Poison and Motley Crue it was such a relief…
Pete pulls a face. “I think all of those bands,” he says, “should just be shot.”
At Lolo Pass, the route used by Lewis and Clark on the USA’s first expedition to the Pacific coast, we meet a white supremacist. His mobile home is covered in stickers. “Proud to be white!” says one. “Impeach Obama!” says another. His wife is wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a handgun on it, the words “Anti-Social Gun Girl” written underneath.
“I’m proud to be white,” says the shit-kicker to Ram, pretty confidently when you consider that he’s talking to a six-foot-something, 16 stone, muscle-bound, black-skinned trained killer, “it don’t mean I have anything against black people.”
“I get that,” says Ram. “I’m proud to be black – you can be proud to be white. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Like, I hate Obama,” says the good ol’ boy, “but it ain’t cos he’s black, it’s cos he aims to be the last president of the United States.”
“The last president?”
“Yuh. The things he’s doing? I don’t think there will be another election in this country if he has his way.”
“But people won’t stand for that…”
“You’re damn right we won’t,” he says. “There’s been one revolution in this country and there could easily be another one.”
Not for nothing does our Canadian guide Peter MacKinnon refer to the US as “the Excited States of Paranoia”.
Attached to the back of Ram’s bike is what can only be described as a pole: a foot-long, cylindrical piece of black metal, not unlike the object on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Presence album. Why he is carrying it with him is a mystery to everyone.
Brigadier Richard Dennis asks me to take his picture on his Harley in full uniform – including beret – as we cross from Montana into Idaho. “No problem,” I tell him. “I’ll wait until we get out of the town though.” “I’ll find you,” says the man the Marks have nicknamed Major Matt Mason (Ram is “Action Jackson – with Eagle Eyes and realistic gripping foreskin”). I jump in the back of the pickup, and we head off, leaving the town behind, disappearing into the hills and valleys. I'm leaning out the back like I’m on a Teach-Yourself-Photography course, shooting rivers and lakes and anything that moves while I wait for the Brigadier to show up. I wait. And wait.
He doesn’t show. He got lost. In fact he gets lost three times in one week, and earns several new nicknames, including Major Misunderstanding, and General Lack of Direction.
Bodes well for our retreat from Afghanistan, eh?
“Scott,” says Pete, over his shoulder, “you know how in the Awards issue of Classic Rock you wrote that someone was caught shagging in the toilets?”
“Who was it?”
“Er, I don’t know, Pete – who could it have been?”
Pete holds his head in his hands. “Nooooo!” he says.
“Ha-HA! I told you it was you!” says Luke, slapping the steering wheel.
(Turns out Pete was so drunk the night of the last Classic Rock awards, he woke up next to someone he didn’t recognise and has no memory of the night itself. And you thought he was the quiet muso type, right?)
We fly over mountain tops, careen through valleys, kicking up the dust of lands previously populated by the Salish, Kootenai, Blackfoot and Shoshone tribes. We hit the ‘Going To The Sun Road’ the first day it opens after the ice melt. Thawing ice water cascades down the mountainsides, snowdrifts the size of tidal waves lie on the slopes. We roar through the sun-bleached valleys of the Sawtooth Wilderness, past woods alive with elks and bears, where the smell of sun-burnt pine hangs heavy in the air like marijuana.
To those of us raised in the council estates of Great Britain it is overwhelming. Only Other Mark – raised somewhere posh and with the benefit of decent schooling – can truly articulate what we’re feeling:
“It’s fucking beautiful around here,” he says. “Total Brokeback Mountain country. You can see why they bummed each other…”
(After one such amazing ride through the Rocky’s Bitterroot range, the bikes pull over. We pull up behind the last Harley and through the dust see that Ram is crying. He hugs it up with Daryl Clark, the ride’s organiser, and two minutes later seems fine.
You seemed upset today, I say, later that night.
“It was nothing,” he says, “just something between me and Daryl…”)
“We toured with Meat Loaf once,” says Danny Bowes in some bar, somewhere or other, “and he was a total plonker. One night he came bursting in to our dressing room in Newcastle, and the bass guitar was behind the door, and he slams the door right into it. The bass is smashed, fucking ruined. So I thought, ‘I’m gonna get you back – I don’t care if it takes the whole tour.’ And sure enough, last date of the tour we’re backstage and, as part of his rider, Meat Loaf’s got this massive buffet. So I thought, ‘Right’. So I get this salver with salad on it and I take into our dressing room and do a massive shit right in the middle of it. And I’ve been drinking Guinness for days, right, so it’s huge and totally black – it’s a big black eel on the middle of this plate. So I put it back and arrange it with the salad and all that so that it looks lovely: a little bit of cucumber here, a sprig of parsley there. It looked delicious. So we go and do the gig, and when we come back the plate is empty – it’d all been eaten…”
In a bar in Missoula, we take over the back porch and Pete, Ben and Luke get the guitars out. At one point they start banging out the chords for Kashmir. Problem is, not only is it a bastard to sing, no-one can really remember the lyrics.
“Something about ‘sitting with Elvis’,” says Nik, an accountant from Derbyshire and massive rock fan.
“Elvis?” chuckles Pete. “I always thought it was ‘elders’.”
Talk turns to songs with misheard, or easily misunderstood, lyrics. Thunder had a song Empty City that featured the line ‘Empty city, it’s calling your name’ but sounded a bit like ‘Is Colin your name?’ and the new Union album has a song called Orion that sounds like it’s about housework (‘Show me your iron’).
“And of course there’s that Whitesnake song,” says Nik, “Anal Love In The Heart Of The City…”
Everyone falls about.
“The funny thing is,” says Pete when he recovers, “that probably was the original lyric. [Does an impersonation of Coverdale] ‘An-AL luuurve! In the heart of the ci-TAY! I’ll need to change the words – the record company guys’ll never understand…’”
I guarantee this: none of us will never listen to Ain’t No Love… the same way again.
“I think that as a singer Pete’s up there with the best British vocalists," says Luke. "I’ve worked with Danny, obviously, who’s a great singer. I was lucky enough to work with Robert Palmer for a couple of years, another great singer. Pete has lots in common with Robert Palmer, actually. It’s a northern English tradition – Paul Rodgers, Chris Rea, there’s loads of them all from the north of England with that rich baritone voice and he sounds as good as any of them. It’s a beautiful natural voice. I think it’s the kind of voice that moves people. He could sing like that when he was 17 and he was a real skinny youth then, it was like, ‘Bloody hell, where’s that coming from?’
“He’s a great guitar player and a great writer as well – he has it all. He’s a massive talent and what’s really scary is that when I’m retired and dribbling down my jumper he’ll probably still be going.”
I’m sure he’ll come visit and push you around the park.
“As long as he brings money that’ll be alright.”
We finally reach Sun Valley, Idaho, and prepare for the gig. That night, Ram brings his pole to the auditorium – the chunk of metal he has lugged halfway across the world and through the wilds of North America.
Awright, I say to him, enough’s enough. What is it with this pole?
“We call it ‘The Baton’,” he says. “It’s the handle off a stretcher. I carried my best mate on it in Iraq. He died on it. And now we carry it to remember him and the other people who lost their lives.”
Suddenly, I am all out of knob gags.
The gig is a triumph. The Union come out blazing – any songwriterly CSN&Y sensitivity ditched in favour of tomahawk-sharp riffs, armour-piercing solos and scalp-ripping choruses. It’s an explosive, deadly-serious statement of intent. This ain’t cabaret.
With everything to play for, Thunder deliver too, Danny manipulating the 200-strong crowd like it was 10-times as large, getting everyone on their feet (and rubbing his cock on the leg of the one poor cow who doesn’t get up). By the end, Benny is windmilling, Pete Shoulder and Union drummer Dave are joining in, and the audience are a fists-in-the-air, hand-clapping, dad-dancing mess. Thunder never toured America. Twenty years later, this is at least one corner of the US won over.
In Missoula – a town formerly known as Hell’s Gate because it was at the edge of ‘the civilised world’, the valley to its east literally covered with the human bones of white settlers murdered by local injuns – I leave Pete, Luke and Ben singing on the bar’s back deck and walk back to the hotel alone. The sun has set behind the mountains to the west, casting the hills in a burnt purple glow. The moon hangs low in the perfect eternal sky and all is still, aside from the chirp of crickets and a noise blown across the highway by the cool Chinook breeze.
It’s Pete Shoulder’s voice – a voice that carries the cry of the original bluesmen, a sound that’s travelled over a lifetime from the Mississippi delta to the Tyne estuary, echoing first in Paul Rodgers and David Coverdale and now in him, a bellow that sends a chill down the spine of all that hears it.
“An-AL LUUUUuurve!” he’s roaring, “in the heart of the cit-AY!”
And a roar of cackles drowns out the crickets.