Who was it that said, you are what you eat? Some tribe of cannibals, probably. But for the Dirty Strangers, you are where you live. They are Shepherds Bush – cosmopolitan, a bit rough around the edges and beating with a heart of gold.
The West London suburb, postcode West 12, begins where the M40 rises up off its haunches and flies into the capital on an elevated stretch called the Westway. From there Shepherds Bush spreads south and east to its posher neighbours in Chiswick and Notting Hill. The borough is home to the BBC, HMP Wormwood Scrubs, Queens Park Rangers FC… and the greatest little rock’n’roll band in the world.
The Dirty Strangers were born in the mid ’80s – led by singer, prime motivator and chief songwriter Alan Clayton. The band were on a mission: carrying a torch for rootsy rock’n’roll as invented by Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry but laced with a little bit of Otis Redding soul and a side order of punk attitude.
The original line-up included sometime Chuck Berry sideman ‘Scotty’ Mulvey on keyboards and former Ruts guitarist Paul Fox (who sadly passed away in 2007). Their self-titled debut album came out in 1987 (featuring guest appearances from Rolling Stones Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood) and garnered rave reviews. In 1993 a fine second album ‘Burn The Bubble’ followed, before the band faded from view to those unlucky souls outside the W12 district – only to re-emerge in 2009 with a revamped line-up of Clayton – having taken on all the guitar duties – plus Mulvey backed by no-nonsense rhythm section of John Proctor (bass) drummer George Butler.
“Scott Mulvey originally joined the band after we’d started work on the first Dirty Strangers album – where some keyboards were played by Mickey Gallagher on loan from Ian Dury‘s band The Blockheads. George Butler was in a band from Ladbroke Grove called the Lightning Raiders who the Dirty Strangers supported many years ago, he even sat in with us when our drummer at the time couldn’t make it, so he was a perfect fit. Plus he has his own kit and really likes to look after it! John Proctor I’ve known for years, too. He’s just one of these really steady blues players you can always rely on and feed off his enthusiasm”.
“The thing that unites us is geography and music. Which is handy. We’re a very handy band, as everyone lives just around the corner from someone else. And we all love playing as the Dirty Strangers.”
That’s the line-up that made the critically acclaimed ‘West 12 To Wittering (Another West Side Story)’ album – featuring further guest appearances by Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, the Damned’s guitarist Brian James and English rock’n’roll legend Joe Brown – and now, in 2015, they’re back with a new album on xxxxxxx Records called ‘Crime And A Woman’.
Says Clayton: “This is the first album I’ve made where me and Scotty are the lead players and it’s all about us rather than who we could get in to help us or do a star turn. Okay, stable mate and friend of the band Jack Henderson, helped us out on Cold Night & One Good but from the outset the sound of the band was down to myself and Scotty. He’s an excellent piano player and he and I are both big Otis Redding fans, so we love that big soulful sound that he gets out of the Hammond organ.”
But what of that enigmatic name of the new album?
“My son said to me. ‘Dad, how come all your songs are about either crime or a woman?’ And I liked that so much I made it the title.
“The songs are all linked, there’s a bit of a story here, a bit of a film noir thing going on. I’m not sure I like the word, but I guess you could view it as a concept album – in the sense that Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra made concept albums – or it’s just a collection of songs. Whatever you want…
“But also, I’ve arranged the running order so you can follow the central character through a short period in his life. The opener, Danger First, is like his attitude to life. He’s not a safety first kind of bloke, more or a rogue, a bit of a villain… Running Slow is how he begins his day… Short & Sweet and Dream Come True are a couple of “woman” songs… In & Out is about him learning of what he plans to be his last big job, South Of The River is about the gang who’ll do it…
“I’m really proud of the lyrics to Stuff! – the first single. Also to the last song, Setting Son, which is about the son Barrie I lost but will probably touch a nerve with anyone who has lost someone they love. It’s the saddest song I’ve ever written – I’m not sure I could ever sing it live – but it’s a good way to end the album, a bit of reflection.”
So what inspires Clayton to write songs?
“Love and hate. Well, maybe not hate – that’s too strong a word – but annoyance, complaints. I write songs pretty much all the time. I have books full of lyrics to songs that I’ve not always finished but when an idea comes to me I don’t feel the need to reach for a notebook. I’m a firm believer in that if an idea is good enough you’ll remember it the next morning, or when the time comes.”
Most of the songs are credited to Clayton alone but Short & Sweet was co-written with Mulvey, two others resurrect parts of older songs written by the band’s original guitarist Alastair Symons and One Good Reason credits song writer Tam Nightingale.
“The album tracks were all begun at my home studio Westonetwo (in honour of that Shepherd’s Bush postcode) and we finished them at The Convent near Stroud. That’s a brilliant place – although all the nuns have gone. As well as the studio there’s a live venue – plus it’s a hotel, a restaurant and has four bars. It’s run by a guy called Matt Roberts who’s totally into music and helping bands. A fantastic man in a fantastic place. I’d recommend it to anyone.”
After three decades of gigging, the band continue to attract adoring crowds and high-profile admirers alike (at London’s Borderline in 2013 they were joined on stage by the late great Stones sax legend Bobby Keys – his final UK appearance – and Brian James) and deliver high-energy everyman rock’n’roll no audience ever fails to relate to.
Get a taste of their high-energy slices of life on the new album ‘Crime And A Woman’. Arresting and seductive. It’s dirty rock’n’roll – and you’ll like it.
Words by Neil Jefferies