Author’s Note: This was commissioned for Mojo but for reasons unclear to me never ran. It was during a period where a lot of writers were dealing with a lot of exasperation around delays in commissioned work running or, in some cases, not. There comes a point where one decides it’s too much hassle, as I did. A lot of this material was eventually used in my notes for Universal’s Vincent Crane 2CD anthology Close Your Eyes, but a fair amount – include Roger Glover’s recollections – is unseen. Hanging the feature on an anniversary was the editor’s idea, I think – and a fair enough one. But only if the feature actually ran on the relevant date!
Commissioned by Mojo in early 2004 but unpublished
‘There was always the sense that it could slip out of control,’ says Roger Glover, engine room of Deep Purple, ‘a lot of heart, a lot of attack, a lot of flailing of hair. That’s probably my over-riding image of Vincent Crane: the flailing hair! Organists at that time – Jon Lord and Keith Emerson, they were the ‘twin towers’, and Vincent was right there with them. Even though Emerson threw knives at his thing, it was all very controlled. Vincent was more of a wild man. He looked great on stage – and there was a chance that this machine might run amok.’
Thirty-five years ago, on Friday August 29 1969, the world – or that part thereof which had wandered up The Strand at midnight, paid their 20 shillings and remained conscious till sunrise – beheld the official debut of Vincent Crane’s Atomic Rooster: a new kind of power trio, a talked-of successor to the Cream and a keyboard-led rival to Keith Emerson’s The Nice. The latest in a series of multi-band extravaganzas, The Lyceum’s ‘Midnight Court’ that night saw Rooster – chart-topping, road-hardened Crazy World Of Arthur Brown veterans Crane and Carl Palmer plus new boy Nick Graham on bass, vocals and flute – headline over Cream lyricist Pete Brown’s Piblokto and, playing only their ninth gig (fee: £75), the Mk 2 Deep Purple.
A month later Purple debuted their Concerto For Group & Orchestra and their star highway was revealed; but for Rooster, on paper at least, they never rose any higher than that first night. Hugely talented, obsessively focused and tragically doomed by depressive illness from day one, Vincent Crane – who was to take his own life in 1989, largely forgotten by the music world – remains the lost soul of British rock. Striving, through endless line-ups and the false promise of brief chart success, to create a chimerical fusion of British progressive rock and Afro-American soul/funk, Crane ran Rooster like a military operation: hiring and firing at will until, at some vague point in the middle seventies, press and public, baffled, just lost interest.
Back in that summer of ‘69, managed by the star-making Robert Stigwood Organisation and launching off the back of Arthur Brown’s phenomenal success the previous year with ’Fire’ (co-written and arranged by Crane), a rosy future seemed guaranteed:
‘To be honest,’ says Carl Palmer, ‘at a prestige place like the Lyceum it didn’t actually matter who was on last – and you could argue that going on early is better than going on later when everyone‘s drunk!’
‘Actually, the only thing about that show I remember,’ says Roger Glover, ‘was first hearing ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ – it was being played over the loudspeakers, Richie and I standing there, open-mouthed going “Wow! What a great song!”’
And Pete Brown? ‘The main thing I remember about it,’ he says, ‘was firing my drummer, ‘cos he’d been to a wedding in the afternoon, got very drunk and couldn’t play. And we’d been rehearsing for weeks! It was a good gig to do – of course I never did it again. But I actually knew Vincent quite well, from Arthur Brown days and before. At one point [circa 1965] Vincent was actually rehearsing with me in a band doing ‘Jazz’n’Poetry’ things. The connection was a poet called Paul Green…’
Vincent was more than a mere sideman in Paul Green’s combo, The Word Engine. He and Green were best pals from early childhood, and Green was to be there for his friend almost to the bitter end, long after dreams of fame and the energy of youth had gone.
Named after Van Gogh, Vincent Cheesman (becoming Crane was a mid-sixties career move) was born in Reading in 1943, with the family soon moving to Battersea. Vincent’s father had worked with Paul Green’s father in local government during the war and the families retained a long friendship. Vincent’s parents, Tom and Renee – both teachers – shared a curious mix of liberal and conservative values and were both erudite, well-read and interested in esoteric subjects like the teachings of Gurdjieff, Ouspenski and ‘cosmic consciousness’. They associated with artists and left-field intellectuals like Anthony Bates, who ran his own anti-vivisection / re-incarnationist mystical group, The Order of Great Companions, and sculptor Mary Crampton whose various West London addresses of the period were effectively bohemian communes. (Around 1963/64, Vincent lived at one with Mary’s daughter Bridget.) At the end of the sixties Renee would happily show up at underground dives like UFO to support her son’s wild antics with Arthur Brown.
‘I met Vince’s parents once,’ says Carl Palmer, ‘they were very strange people. Both of them looked weird but they were super, super bright – but to meet them in the street you’d actually think they were backward. Vincent took after them. If Vincent didn’t like you, he’d say, ‘I don’t like you’. Simple as that.’
Manic-depressive illness and eccentric behaviour apparently ran in Tom Cheesman’s side of the family, but the noonday demon that was to blight Vince’s adult life never manifested itself in his childhood: ‘He was the great extrovert, the charmer,’ says Green, ‘the guy who at the age of 14/15 learned boogie-woogie, playing at intervals in school dances and blowing people’s minds.’
Vincent was always creative, a showman – and to an obsessive degree: ‘His great passions,’ remembers Green, ‘were stage magic, illusion, conjuring, making short films with a 9.5 mm camera. Vince decided that his first movie was going to be King Kong – with a plasticine ape. After months of stop-motion animation he’d got 30 seconds of shaky footage. He was very ambitious! Then he went on to do The Lord Of The Rings as a cartoon, in biro – and, once again, he drew hundreds and hundreds of scratchy pictures, starting at the most dramatic moment of the whole thing, when the balrog falls off the cliff!’
Having taught himself how to play piano from his parents’ Hotlips Page and Louis Jordan 78s, Vince somehow blagged his way into Trinity College, London, achieving, between 1961-64, LTCL and GTCL degrees in music. As a late starter, Vince ‘realised all I’d be was a fiftieth rate concert artist.’ But he had discovered an ability to write and arrange music ‘so I thought I might as well concentrate on that…’ Nevertheless, Vince would always yearn for some kind of acceptance as a trained musician and, in terms of musicianship, aspired to the highest levels of effort and quality – from himself as much as his sidemen.
‘He was quite a traditionalist,’ says Green. ‘He liked Stravinsky, but after that – like John Cage – he wasn’t interested. He liked musicians who were obviously craftsmen, be it classical or jazz. He definitely didn’t like Ornette Coleman, but he didn’t mind Ray Charles. We’d go and see some legendary bluesman together – I’d be in ecstasy and Vince would be mumbling, ‘Hmm, he played 13 bars there instead of 12…’!’
During his Trinity years, Vince had been moonlighting with various jazz based groups, ultimately forming the Vincent Cheesman Trio, whose first professional booking was supporting Humphrey Lyttleton at the Marquee in 1964. In a presage of what was to be his experience and, arguably, his downfall with Atomic Rooster, Crane recalled that ‘for quite a long period I kept trying with different line-ups and wasn’t really getting anywhere’.
Around the time he created the Word Engine with Paul Green, circa 1964/65, as (in Green’s words) ‘a surrealist soul revue’, Vince bought a Hammond organ from Graham Bond – a huge influence and, like Vince, a man known for explosive relations with his sidemen (Green recalls Vince sporting a black eye after one exchange of views too many with a sax player). Contributing to the brief rise of London’s ‘Jazz’n’Poetry’ movement – which peaked in 1966 with Allen Ginsberg fronting a mad night at the Albert Hall – the Word Engine played several gigs, generally at the Witches Cauldron in Belsize Park, with legendary jazz drummer and heroin casualty Red Reece and wordsmith Pete Brown occasionally guesting.
During that same period Vince landed his first serious gig, as pianist on a French tour with trombonist Lou Herb’s Australian Jazz Band. ‘Something happened on that tour,’ says Paul Green, ‘and Vincent returned in a very strange state of mind. The story was that Vincent had gone berserk and deliberately flooded the band’s hotel. You could interpret this as rock’n’roll hi-jinks, but I wonder, now, if he was actually out of control…’
By the end of 1966, still ‘staggering on’, as he put it, with his own soul/jazz based Vincent Crane Combo and with his musical reputation spreading, Crane had a number of options on the table: he had an offer to join the Foundations (who would launch in January 1967 and enjoy a string of pop/soul hits); he was already gigging with a touring version of Hedgehoppers Anonymous (who’d enjoyed a novelty hit in 1965 and were now trying to find a way into cabaret); and he had just met, at Mary Crampton’s place in West Kensington, a bizarre Northern soul man and failed school teacher called Arthur Brown.
Brown subsequently talked his way onto one of Crane’s gigs at Brighton. Drachen Theaker – the first drummer in what became the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown – was in the audience that night and recalled it as ‘basically Vincent doing his set with Arthur squawking over it, coming on in a variety of different costumes and behaving like a maniac.’
Crane didn’t think Arthur had much to offer on a musical level, but recognised that ‘he had a rapport with and control of the audience that was quite remarkable. I knew he was going to be big.’
The rise and fall of the Crazy World, and its sole album (apparently recorded three times, with various producers, before a version finally escaped into the public domain) is a complicated tale. The short version is that during 1967 Crane, Brown and Theaker became a psychedelic soul sensation around the clubs. ‘What made it psychedelic,’ said Theaker, ‘was Arthur’s acting ability and the fact that Vince and I just overplayed to death at gigs. We made a hell of a noise for two people.’
Managed by Who svengali Kit Lambert, signed to The Who‘s label Track, the group’s eponymous album and its attendant single ‘Fire’ – co-written and arranged by Crane – took the UK and US charts by storm during the summer of 1968. By autumn ’68 Crane was Arthur’s ring-master on the first of three US tours in quick succession: ‘We were in the position where you’d think nothing could go wrong,’ reflected Crane, ‘but by the time we got over there it was all mistimed and for a lot of it the management was at fault.’
The pressure affected Vince in a worrying manner: suffering a nervous breakdown midway through the first US tour he spent ‘three or four months’ at Banstead mental institution in England before returning to the same fray that had clearly contributed to the problem. Manic depression, reflected in almost all his lyrics by a particular neurosis about mortality, often anthropomorphised into demonic figures (like the ‘hellhound’ on Robert Johnson’s trail), would remain with Crane for the rest of his life. By the time he returned to Arthur’s group its original drummer, Drachen Theaker had been replaced by wonder-kid Carl Palmer.
Both men would remain in America until June 1969, by which time they’d resolved to abandon Arthur’s quite literally crazy world and return to England to get their own group together.
‘Arthur had gone off with his wife to live in some commune in New Jersey,’ says Palmer. ‘We did manage to locate him but he just wouldn’t pick up the phone. So the two of us were stuck in New York, waiting and waiting. I think Arthur at that stage had really lost the plot. But we had enough money to pay the hotel bills and get back to England.’
Palmer already had a name for the new venture: Atomic Rooster. ‘One evening in New York,’ he explains, ‘we went out together, with Vincent’s girlfriend at the time, to this girl’s apartment. We took Vincent to see this girl because she was going to explain how bad acid was and that he should stop taking it, basically. The person she chose to talk about was the bass player in this group called Rhinoceros [who had] taken a lot of chemical substances and started calling himself ‘the atomic rooster’. I couldn’t help but laugh – it’s a great name. When we got back to England I said to Vincent, ‘Why don’t we call our band the Atomic Rooster? You’re never going to become it, but we could all be part of it.’’
Back in England, Crane’s illness reared its head again and he went back into Banstead. By the time he came out Palmer had confirmed Robert Masters of the Robert Stigwood Organisation (RSO) as management. Having failed to secure Brian Jones, Jack Bruce, Ric Grech or John Paul Jones, and seeing final choice Greg Ridley throw in his lot with Humble Pie in April ’69, the pair resorted to ads in the music papers. Consequently, they conducted weeks of auditions with, as Crane later recalled, ‘some of the worst people I’d heard in my life’.
‘It was really bad,’ says Palmer. ‘Steve Howe came along and we thought he was shit.’ When Nick Graham, a civil engineering student from Southampton, turned up, sang one song and played some flute the duo were sold. Atomic Rooster took flight.
‘We did incredibly well that first year,’ says Palmer. ‘It was like falling out of bed. We could play in London, at places like the Roundhouse, every weekend. We went everywhere except America. In Gothenberg and places like that we were playing to 1500 people at a time. It was a word of mouth thing. Vincent was always right on it – always at rehearsals, always on time, always creative, businesslike, understanding. I couldn’t fault him at all [though] unless you’re an ‘up’ person like I am you could get quite down with Vincent. So he could be hard work, but because he was such a nice guy and so talented it was always worthwhile.’
With a warm-up at the Fishmonger’s Arms, the band debuted officially at the Lyceum. Material for a first album had come together very quickly. Largely written by Crane, Atomic Ro-o-oster was released on B&C in February 1970. A mixture of prog workouts, brass arrangements revamped from the Crazy World album and deceptively pastoral passages, Crane’s doomy approach to life was already embedded in his lyrics. But there would always be gems, like the disarmingly powerful ‘Banstead’, harnessing the creative energy of depression into a compelling artistic form.
Shortly after debut single ‘Friday The 13th’ was released in March 1970, Nick Graham – not up to the relentless work ethic of Crane and Palmer – left. Within weeks Palmer himself had decided to move on, accepting an offer to form Emerson, Lake & Palmer – a trio superficially similar to Rooster but for whom the outworkings of individual virtuosity had a greater prominence to ‘the groove’, which was increasingly becoming Crane‘s musical focus.
For a while Palmer regretted his decision: ‘I did the demo for ‘Tomorrow Night’ [the next Rooster single] and then of course it was a big hit – and there I was sitting in a rehearsal room with Greg and Keith! I thought I’d shot myself in the foot!’
Regrouping with guitarist/vocalist John Cann and drummer Paul Hammond, this would be the Rooster line-up to score two hit singles and bring them to the verge of a premier division career in the UK. A combination of bad advice (a perceived credibility danger in having a third hit) and foreign touring commitments would blow the opportunity, but for a while Crane reckoned he had the ultimate band, and a very healthy bookings sheet of ‘about five gigs a week’. ‘It’s great to play,’ he admitted. ‘I don’t think I could survive if I came off the road.’
‘Everything was very intense,’ says Rooster roadie Donal Gallagher. ‘After a gig if Vince wasn’t happy with the way it had gone there’d be an aura of depression. You’d go in and say, ‘Brilliant gig guys!’ and be met with this sullen, ‘Yeah? Did you think so…?’ from Vince. It was his way of inspiring them, getting them to raise their game. And it probably worked.’
With Vince using bass pedals and theatrical flair, the live show could be great: ‘Vince was the proverbial mad wizard,’ says Donal, ‘like a character from The Lord Of The Rings, and the improvisations he could go into had you at the edge of your seat.’
In September 1970, Crane’s toe-tapping ‘Tomorrow Night’ was released as a single, becoming a slow-burning (after six months on release) smash hit – on the back of incongruous support from sensational soul man Tony Blackburn. Then again, perhaps he, before anyone else, heard the ‘soul’ in Crane’s music. The new album, the almost entirely doom-laden, hard-rocking Death Walks Behind You – sleeved in William Blake’s depiction of the paranoic Nebuchadnezzar – continued the chart success.
‘He was obviously channeling a lot of negativity,’ says Donal. ‘There was always the feeling that he wasn’t properly appreciated by the media as the capable musician he was but rather as some kind of weirdo. It became very heavy going to listen to a lot of the music on recordings and even at gigs people could get a little restless. [But] there was also a spiritual side to Vince. He and Pat must have had about 20 or 30 cats living with them. I found it quite spooky, this witchcraft vibe it seemed to represent. He also carried Tarot cards around with him and had this party trick where, half way through a conversation, he would produce a card and show it to someone and say, ‘That is the answer!’ To me, they all looked quite frightening!’
‘It was like going into Dracula’s castle!’ says vocalist Chris Farlowe, who would up Rooster’s soul ante in 1972. ‘I walked in the front door and the first thing I saw was 50 cases of cat food piled up against the wall. I mean, I like cats, but…’
While Vince’s wife Pat (generally considered a negative influence on his lifestyle) had an active interest in Wicca, Paul Green maintains that Vince was more pragmatically ‘Fascinated by the paranormal’: ‘He’d read widely in western and eastern mysticism, but at the same time he was incredibly sceptical. If you talked to him about people like Madame Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley he would say, “They’re a bunch of charlatans, frauds.” For him the Tarot was a scientific experiment. But in his darker moods, though, I think he would make connections. Some of the pessimism in the music is possibly because some of the [hoped for] avenues to higher consciousness didn’t materialise.’
‘Devil’s Answer’, written by John Cann and sweetened for mass consumption by a Crane brass arrangement, swiftly became their second (and last) UK hit. The B-side, however, demonstrated more clearly where Crane was heading. A languorous, groove-based instrumental with clipped, funky horn-section stabs, ‘The Rock’ reflected several comments Crane had been making in print of late: ‘You know, you really can learn a lot from James Brown,’ he’d mused on one occasion. Clearly, this was news to the rest of the band.
In July 1971, within days of ‘Devil’s Answer’ entering the charts, Crane asked Cann to leave. He did so, taking Paul Hammond with him. ‘I knew there was a danger [of that],’ Crane later recalled. ‘I thought it was necessary to take the risk because if John stayed I couldn’t do what I wanted with the group and it would just have been a waste of time.’
While Crane’s decision would yield the two albums that remain his most singular legacy – In Hearing Of (1971) and Made In England (1972), each one brimming with soulful grooves, hook-laden piano and powerful songs – imploding the line-up that had delivered two British hit singles, and on the eve of a long-planned US tour, would prove the undoing of Atomic Rooster as a commercial force.
With the backing tracks to third album In Hearing Of already laid down, Crane had his management call Pete French, stunning (and still under-appreciated) vocalist with the recently defunct Leafhound: ‘I went down the studio, met the boys – Paul Hammond and John Cann – and no sooner had I seen them than they disappeared and I was left with some headphones yelling over the tracks! Vincent was taking out John Cann’s vocals and a lot of the guitar. It was a most bizarre situation to walk into.’
Crane recruited guitarist Steve Bolton (who would play lead guitar with the Who in 1989) and drummer Ric Parnell, son of Jack Parnell and subsequently Spinal Tap’s ‘exploding drummer‘. A month later, with their back catalogue now debuting in the US on Elektra, the all-new Rooster undertook their one and only coast-to-coast US tour. The personnel for a move into a truly unique blend of prog/funk was at last in place, but while the shows went down a storm, not all was well in the camp:
‘Vincent had a mad act on the stage,’ says French, ‘doing the whole showbiz trip, like Emerson. But [offstage] his attitude didn’t let a lot of sunshine in. I liked the guy, but I couldn’t see us down the pub, having a laugh. And without a team, you’re not a player.’
French’s team-work concerns were vindicated when, on returning to England mid-tour for what would be Rooster’s biggest ever show – third on the bill to The Who and The Faces, with a crowd of 31,000 at the Oval – ‘I was left to get the bloody bus to the gig!’
By early ‘72, French quit (accepting an offer to join US stadium-fillers Cactus) to be replaced by veteran soul man Chris Farlowe. ‘Some people hated what Chris did to the band,’ Crane admitted, years later. ‘But it was me who wrote the music specifically for his voice. You can’t change the personnel and not the music.’ At the time, he was telling the press that, ‘I think we’ve been labelled as something we’re definitely not, and that’s a heavy rock band. Rooster is a soul band, what a soul band becomes when it’s progressing – something like what has happened to Stevie Wonder.’
Yet, in a business where image is everything, no soul boy in his right mind was going to be seen buying a record – however funky it might be (as Made In England was and is) – by Atomic Rooster. In truth, Vince was out of touch with current British tastes: the boozy singalong vibe of The Faces he failed to understand, while Marc Bolan, he felt, was ‘totally mediocre in every respect.’ Made In England failed to sell. By February 1973 he had ditched manager Robert Masters, telling the Melody Maker, in a feature ominously header ‘Vincent Crane does his sums’, that ’a manager is a salesman a group who’ve made it don’t need’ – a questionable view, even allowing for its premise that Rooster had indeed ’made it’.
In fact, it was downhill from there. A wonderful, neglected single, coupling the exquisite ‘Can’t Find A Reason’ – Crane, Farlowe and a string quartet – with the equally beautiful Crane solo piano piece ‘Moods’ would be the only evidence of a promised Crane solo album. A final, rag-bag Rooster album Nice’n’Greasy appeared in late ‘73, again with Farlowe, while a final Rooster single – with Crane as barely adequate vocalist – crept out on Decca in 1974. By 1975 the band had fizzled out, and Crane‘s marriage had collapsed.
Fending off the bailiffs (at one point applying the crazed logic of bricking up his front door to avoid writs being served), and soon meeting his second wife Jean – a poet and theatre acolyte – Vince spent the second half of the seventies working in theatre productions, scoring a couple of radio dramas for his friend Paul Green, planning a new album with Arthur Brown (the intriguing Taro Rota, of which a wonderful Crane piano/vocal demo has since been released), even teaching recorder at a school in Battersea. ‘He was quite proud of his teaching,’ says Green, ‘and very professional, though he wasn‘t in the best mental health. They were desperately getting money together because he and Jean had taken a very short lease on this enormous block of flats in Maida Vale and they had to refurbish it or they’d lose the lease, lose everything.’
Vince and Jean finally achieved their purchase of the property and, as Paul Green – their lodger for a period in the early eighties – testifies, they had many moments of great happiness. But the winter of 1977/78 was touch and go. Vincent decided to sort out a national fire service strike by releasing, as Green Goddess, a single called ’Fire Fighter’: ’When it failed to make an impression he thought it was a plot by the Callaghan government!’ says Paul Green. ‘It was a real crisis for Jean. Vincent had had 5000 copies pressed and I remember on Christmas Eve he said, ’Right, we’re going on a publicity tour of Devon’. His mania could be infectious! Later that weekend I remember Vincent sitting on a bed saying, with a bit of defiance, ’There’s the Beatles, there’s the Stones, there’s me!’ That was the weekend that he decided he had to have a tour in Northern Ireland to sort out the troubles – as if he could suddenly bring Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley to the table with a blast of ’Tomorrow Night’. In his more manic moments he did have a great sense of humour and if you could connect with that you could get through to him. It was rather like riding a very large, dangerous motorcycle without any brakes – but it could be steered.’
Inevitably, Atomic Rooster – the hard rockin’ Death Walks Rooster – reformed in 1980 on the back of the ‘New Wave of British Heavy Metal’; also inevitably, Cann and Crane fell out within months, though not before releasing a series of mostly dire cartoon-metal records for EMI and Polydor. ’Vincent Crane looks and performs exactly as he did all those years ago,’ wrote one concert reviewer in 1981. ’And I’d swear he was wearing the same headband.’
These were, though, generally happy times for Vince and Jean. They would often host entertaining soirees and jam sessions for their lodgers, where Vince’s party tricks would include elaborately staged demonstrations of ‘telepathy’ (wherein he had, in fact, memorised complete paragraphs from scores of different books scattered around the flat). ‘When the children from my first marriage would come to visit,’ says Paul Green, ‘Vincent would entertain them for hours with bizarre conjuring tricks and juggling and impressions.’
Meanwhile, a curious side project had come along in between Vince’s Rooster revivals: a ramshackle but delightful old-style R&B record (as Katmandu), with lost legend Peter Green and Mungo Jerry mainman Ray Dorset. ‘What is insane to some people is can seem pretty normal to me,’ says Dorset. ‘So Vincent and me got on like a house on fire, ‘cos we shared the same humour, had such a great laugh together. He was a one-off, a person I’ll never forget. Though for someone who smoked a lot of grass he was very ‘speedy’. I guess the grass slowed down the manic side of him – but then it probably added to his paranoia.’
Old friend Pete Brown met Vince around this time: ‘He said, ’I’ve got this great set up, man’,’ says Pete, ‘and I said ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘Well I’ve got this house and downstairs from my flat there’s this great rehearsal room, and upstairs my dealer lives’. And I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s really great Vincent – a recipe for success…’’
Over the winter of 1982/83, Vince willingly roped in near neighbours Tom ‘Tubular Bells’ Newman (trailing wires from his mobile studio, on the street, into Vince’s front room) and Pink Floyd man Dave Gilmour into creating what would be the last ‘Atomic Rooster’ album Headline News – released on the pitifully obscure Towerbell label, but revealing exciting new possibilities in Vince’s music.
With Jean as his ‘manager, road manager and accountant’, and Bernie Torme on guitar, there was a memorable concert at a heavy metal festival in Yugoslavia. Were Rooster a metal band or not? Time to find out: ‘When the band came on stage,’ Jean recalls, ’it was to the chanting of ’Motorhead! Motorhead!’ and a barrage of stones, cans and small change – the ultimate insult! The rest of the band fled, leaving Vincent alone. I dimmed the lights, leaving just one spot on him and began to play this riff over and over again, slowly getting louder and louder. Gradually the crowd went quiet… The rest of the band crept back onstage – he’d got them! – and by the end of the number the kids were joining in. They took five encores that night and Motorhead didn’t get one.’
That European tour of 1983 would be the Rooster’s last gasp. Vincent became dejected about his musicianship and stayed at home for months practising at his grand piano. By autumn ‘83, Jean spotted an ad in the Melody Maker for a ‘name band’ wanting ‘soulful players. Somehow she knew it would be Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and encouraged Vince to make the call. He did.
‘I was completely disillusioned with what we’d achieved,’ says Kevin Rowland, ‘and just so much wanted to make a really good album. Half the band had left and I just thought, ‘Let’s get some great players in’. Helen [O’Hara] was conducting the auditions. We’d seen a lot of people – and they all had a little bit of soul, a little spark but just couldn’t go to that extra level. But Helen phoned me and said, ‘I think you should see this guy.’ And I was just taken by him, struck by his gentleness from the off.
‘When I first saw him he was wearing a denim waistcoat, cheesecloth shirt, tight jeans flared from the knee, thick belt. After about six months I said to him, ‘Vince, how the fucking hell do you find cheesecloth shirts and flared trousers in 1983?’ And I know about clothes! And he said, ‘I have to go to Balham – there’s one shop that still sells ‘em’. Now, I respected him for that: ‘This is me’.’
With Vince hired, Dexy’s began working towards their commercially suicidal masterpiece, Don’t Stand Me Down – an ensemble piece, to be recorded as live and with no singles planned. ‘It was so big, so hard to do,’ says Kevin. ‘You’d have eight players – seven would play well and one would be out of sync. Usually it was the drums. [But] Vince completely got the vision, from the off. He just knew how to play it – a genius. Once we got Tim Dancy, Al Green’s drummer, the whole thing took off.’ Recording would take place in the summer of ‘84 in Montreux.
‘The day before we started recording,’ says Kevin, ‘Vince said, ‘This has got to be right hasn’t it, Kevin?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, Vince.’ And he said, ‘This could be another Dark Side Of The Moon, couldn’t it?’ And I knew that it could. He really, really understood it. He felt as responsible for the album as I did – he just got it, he really got it. You didn’t have to tell him anything about what to play – he heard the song and just got inside it. Some of his behaviour was somewhat erratic. I do remember him getting into these obsessive arguments with people. [But] to be honest we were all going a bit crazy out there – the pressure was really on.’
Unfortunately, it was pressure Vince couldn’t quite handle. He began an affair with a Swiss stripper called Katisha – and, incredibly, brought her home to meet the parents. ‘I felt quite sorry for her,’ says Paul Green. ‘I think she’d gone along with Vincent’s manic euphoria and believed that she’d met this man who’d been in a No.1 band and lived the life of a millionaire. And then she came back and found out that, for a start, he had a wife…’
Once again Vincent was sectioned, to a mental institution in Epsom: ‘He was sectioned quite a few times [after that],’ says Paul Green, ‘and, of course, he escaped. I remember him saying, ‘You know Paul, it’s great being mad – you really ought to try it – you walk into restaurants and don’t pay for meals and you wake up in bed with strange women… It’s very exciting!’’
On one occasion, to his great pride, he played piano for Prince Charles, there to open a new wing. More alarmingly, Vincent’s father Tom had endured the first of a series of depressive breakdowns of his own and was hospitalised: ‘At one point,’ says Paul Green, ‘he wandered out of the ward and went missing. Vincent, not long out of hospital himself, went looking for him and found him asleep in a ditch. It was like something out of King Lear.’
Vincent got himself together enough in 1985 to tour with Dexy‘s, but their fortunes were also in trouble. His marriage to Jean was, of course, in shreds – though there were on-off attempts to repair the damage. Eventually, by 1988, they had split, sold the flats with Vincent buying a smaller property in nearby Elgin Avenue.
‘He was living in complete chaos, from minute to minute, really,’ says Paul Green. ‘He’d go busking in Covent Garden as a juggler. He’d get into conversations with winos, tramps, junkies and wander off on little adventures… He was living from one moment of delusion to another – and in the middle of all this Jean was trying to sort out the financial issues. I was saying, ‘Look, you’ve got to do something about this, accept that you need lithium, try and get help…’ Vincent was highly intelligent: he could see through the psychobabble, the platitudes – and some of the psychiatric treatment he’d had, like ECT, had not helped.’
Though there was recurring talk of reforming Rooster yet again, the idea was a non-starter on every level. Yet, amazingly, Vince allowed himself to be tracked down for an interview – surely his last – in an Ealing pub garden with Record Collector (and future Mojo) writer Mark Paytress: ‘It was a classic encounter with a 100% classic rock’n’roll eccentric,’ remembers Paytress, with fondness, ‘a lovely, warm, damaged man who just couldn’t sit still, waving his arms and jumping around excitedly to demonstrate the things he was saying. He came back to the offices afterwards, and I was encouraged to usher him off the premises because he was frightening the admin staff.’
By the end of 1988 Vince had severed contact with his best, and oldest, friend Paul Green. His publisher, Andy Heath, was among the few still hanging in there. Onetime Rooster roadie Donal Gallagher, by now a significant player in the industry, was alarmed when he heard of Vince’s condition: ‘I’d suggested to Andy Heath that I’d like to help Vince,’ he says, ‘but Andy was saying, ‘You don’t want to bring that on yourself…’’
Kevin Rowland, having navigated his own band’s demise, was still largely unaware of Vince’s long-term problems: ‘I don’t know who phoned who,’ says Kevin, but one night we decided we’d go out for a drink together, to the Zanzibar in Covent Garden. I dropped him off on the way home and as he was getting out of the car he says to me, ‘Oh, thanks a lot for that drink, Kev – that really cheered me up no end…’ And I thought, ‘Oh – I hadn’t realised you were fed up.’ ‘Cos the whole evening he hadn’t seemed like he was.’
A few weeks later, on a stormy St Valentine’s Day 1989, Vincent Crane – momentarily convinced that he’d let everyone down, that his music had somehow failed and that his wife, Jean, would be better off without him – took 400 Anadin tablets and died.
Genius, visionary, innovator: all words uniting Vincent’s fellow travellers in describing him. But there‘s something else they always say: ‘He was the most charming guy,’ says Kevin Rowland, ‘absolutely charming, absolutely lovely to be around. Such a sweet guy. I just consider myself so lucky to have met him.’