A number of Holy Roman Empire songs appeared on 'Snakebite City' albums over the years; compilations of indie bands put out by Paul Talling and Bluefire Records. Our dealings and friendship with Paul got us regular trips to London to play The Red Eye in Islington and the occasional booking at the West End Centre in Aldershot with the help of Chris Shepherd.
From left to right: Mark, Paul Talling, Dunno, Chris Shepherd
It was one night after a headline slot at the West End Centre, we'd just played a show beset by technical difficulties to a packed house (isn't it always the way!), the lights had come up, everyone turned away from the stage to head for the exit and Martin did the most amazing thing I have ever seen anyone do on stage; in a fit of anger, he kicked his cymbal stand at the base, it flew into the air, flipped over and landed on it's feet again. I immediately looked to the crowd, but walking away meant nobody had seen it. It was a small but spectacular reminder that nobody really knew how cool we were apart from us.
But, that's not even the most Holy Roman Empire thing that ever happened....
We had played our first ever gig at the college battle of the bands in our final year, but the following year the organisers asked if we would come back and play again. We were keen to try out new computer programmed arrangements of the songs so immediately said yes.
I finished work and we piled round to Martin's to get ready. I was rummaging in a bag trying to find some leads as Martin was playing with the handcuffs that would become part of my outfit. I remember telling him to be careful with the cuffs as "there is one set that I've lost the keys for". Just then I heard a click, slowly turned round and found Martin handcuffed to a tambourine. He was stuck.
Martin drove us to college, socialised in the bar and then played the gig all while firmly attached to the tambourine. Once we came off stage we went and found a security guard who could open up the maintenance department and hopefully find a sharp or powerful solution to our problem. As we were both slightly the worse for wear, the helpful guard insisted on taking charge of the operation. I couldn't look, but I don't think Martin had much choice as the chosen tool buzzed into life and successfully released him right before his boggling eyes!
After that, the tambourine became firmly established as Emma's department and Martin was never left alone with one again.
There are stories of Radiohead members attending Holy Roman Empire gigs and while I can't account for every Tom, Dick or Colin that made up the crowd on those nights, this much I do know....
One night in 1999 I went to see a gig at The Point on Cowley Road and bumped into Mark there. Ever the manager, he excitedly told me that Colin from Radiohead was in the corner and I should go and speak to him. 'But, what would I say?' I fired back. Mark rummaged in his bag/office and pulled out a copy of the 'Holy Water Baby' CD single that featured a version of Radiohead's 'Street Spirit' as track 3. 'Give him that!' I hadn't even had a drink yet, but I swanned over and introduced myself. In case you don't know, the Oxford music scene is relatively small; if a band plays two gigs on Cowley Road, everybody knows who they are and has an opinion on them. He knew who Holy Roman Empire were even if he didn't immediately recognise me. Colin thanked me for the CD and I apologised for Martin's bizarrely aggressive take on Radiohead's classic song. That was that. Until about two years later...
I can't remember who was the first, but we had a number of calls in the days that followed the release of Radiohead's 'Amnesiac' album. There was a song on there that basically challenged us to a fight! 'You And Whose Army?' was a doom-laden piano ballad that threw out the lines:
Come on, come on
Holy Roman empire
Come on if you think
Come on if you think
You can take us on
You can take us on
I'm not being funny, but with there being five of them and three of us, Holy Roman Empire may have been outnumbered, but we were never outgunned and we'd deffo have had them easy! Radiohead were only lucky that we split up not long after that or the history of western popular music in the 21st Century could have been quite different.
For me, HRE being “one of the best nights out you could have” often meant that there was something that didn’t go quite to plan that made each gig memorable. Whether it being some tech that had a gremlin, an instrument that would play up, a vocal hiccup, or a venue issue, every gig was just a little bit special. And a lot of fun.
One of my favourite gigs was at the Jericho Tavern, and for some reason, there were few people there to watch. On this night, the soundtrack played perfectly, our vocals were great, Ste’s musical genius shone, and Martin’s showmanship was on fire. We were flying. During the last track of our ‘perfect gig’, Martin went and shook hands with every member of the audience before returning to stage for the final chorus. HRE went home on a high that night.
I met Tim Healey in summer 1998 when he called round to pick up a tape of 'Even in my Sleep' to put on the Truck 98 compilation album he was releasing on his Luscious Peach record label. He knew Robin and Joe and was helping out with making Truck something special.
I can't remember if we spoke on the day of the festival, so the next time I know for a fact that we met was when we bumped into each other outside HMV in Oxford one Saturday in October that year and he challenged me to write a Christmas song.
It always felt especially good to be a part of Tim's life - if only for a few years - as he did seem to know a lot of interesting people and maybe that meant we were interesting too. In the studio recording 'Holy Water Baby' he told us that he used to work in publishing with Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys and would love to send him a CD to show he had become involved with an electronic band. I don't know if he ever did, or if Pet Shop Boys ever knocked out a hi-energy disco diss-track about us the following year (I love the first few PSB albums, but lost track of them some time in the mid-90s). In the same session he also announced that he couldn't stay late as he was hosting a celebrity fancy dress swimmathon at 7.30. This prompted engineer Richard, who had been very quiet otherwise, to spin round on his chair and say to Tim, "You just live the most bizarre life, don't you?" To be fair, he only said what we were all thinking. And still do. And always will.
Tim would occasionally say things to me that I wished he hadn't. When Luscious Peach released 'Benazir Bhutto' on 7" single in the summer of '99 he was keen to secure a deal with the independent distributor Shellshock. He excitedly told me one day that he had received communication back from Shellshock stating that they don't normally handle novelty records, but they would make an exception for us!
Far more often, though, Tim said things I'm glad he did. "Bloody marvelous!" was how he greeted everything that pleased him and we heard it more than a few times. He was always very supportive of HRE, even when he had no more money to pour into it. In 2019 when I was getting things together for the release of the remastered HRE tracks he was good enough to go rummaging in his loft to find that video of 'Benazir Bhutto' and send it up to me....
I'm not sure who we thought would show or watch such a thing, but with the release of 'Benazir Bhutto' as a single in 1999 it was decided we should make a pop video. My brother had a friend called Simon who had a video camera and some editing software and who kindly offered to make a promo for us.
It was filmed one afternoon at Cassington Cricket Club pavilion. Martin had grown up in Cassington and was a bit of a cricketer, so that was how the cricket pavillion had become our regular practice room every Thursday night for 6 years.
We had a green screen behind us and just ran through the song a bunch of times in much the way that we did on stage. Simon did his magic with the the editing and effects and sent it back to us in the post. I think we may have watched it once before we handed it over to Tim at Luscious Peach for him to put on his website! Videos on the internet? Whatever next?
And that was that until twenty years later when I was putting together plans to release to the remastered 'The Illusion of Chaos' compilation album. I remembered there had been a video and wondered if Tim still had it somewhere. He did. Bloody marvelous!
I originally put all the recorded HRE tracks up on Bandcamp in 2013, but it bugged me for a while that they were not remastered or available on other digital platforms. There seemed little point in doing one without the other.
So, in 2019 I finally got almost everything together to do the compilation justice. I got all 12 tracks remastered, but I wasn't sure how to get clearance for the cover of 'Street Spirit'. From what I could find, it seemed that clearance needs to be agreed separately for each release of a song. Tim had cleared the release in 1998 for the CD, but I couldn't find any advice anywhere on how to do it again for this online compilation that goes through legal channels. Chatting with Martin and Emma we agreed it was okay to leave it off as the real gold and heart of the band was the original songs.
The artwork was created by Paul Carrera: a really good friend of ours' who had been to most of our Oxford gigs and was responsible for getting a copy of 'Holy Water Baby' to the NME for Steven Wells to review.
Doing something with or about Holy Roman Empire is always a good reason to get back in touch with old friends and that's probably why I'll never stop going on about it or playing those songs. So many bonds were forged or sustained by the band, but thinking about it now none of this would have happened if my old friend Damien back at college hadn't created that safe space for me to sing my little heart out for the first time ever.
It's all his fault.
(Thanks also to Damien for digging out the above long lost photo from the first ever Holy Roman Empire gig!)