Desmond Simmons Remembered By Colin Newman Of Wire
, February 12th, 2013 11:30
Every time the Quietus has interviewed Wire's Colin Newman he's talked with fondness about his friend Desmond Simmons, a teenage musical ally and inspiration. Sadly, Simmons passed away last month, and here Newman pays tribute to his late friend. Pictures courtesy Colin Newman, main shot was "Taken in a photo booth in London just after having bought Metallic KO by Iggy & The Stooges - must be 1976"
I've been asked to write a few words about my first best friend and early mentor Desmond Simmons, who sadly passed away a few days ago. To write those words sounds like I'm taking about some old person. I'm not, he was my age and he died of a sudden heart attack leaving those that knew him stunned and speechless.
I want to say two things upfront before I delve in to my memories of this remarkable guy. Firstly it would be a huge mistake to class him, as an artist "associated" with myself or Wire. He was very much an artist in his own right, much more comfortable with alt country than art rock, as his recent release Blue Country will attest. And secondly, although we were very much part of each other's youth, over the past few years fate took us in very different directions and there are others much more qualified to speak about his musical journey since the early 80s. I can't really write a proper biography but I can share with you some of my memories of a great soul.
In the "difficult" early teenage years at school I was a spotty, geeky kid who was often picked on. Des was a somewhat more gangly, less spotty kid who was far better than me at not getting noticed by the wrong people. We struck up a fast friendship based on absolute passion for music - to the extent of obsession. His family and home circumstances were very different to mine: his parents seemed to have a laissez-faire attitude to their kids and his father and uncle had both been in bands.
This meant that his house was a treasure trove of instruments and playing music loud on the stereo (at reasonable hours) was not only tolerated but endorsed! When Des' family moved house to within 10 minutes walk from my place all was set for musical exploration. Our original collaboration was in the mercifully short-lived Tyres who played a few times in Des' parents front room. We had all the instruments and rudimentary skills to play them (at least those that did, I was lead singer and on the kazoo) but were somewhat hampered by a lack of material and an inability to learn anyone else's songs.
Luckily, once the fad had passed for the others there was just Des and I. His new house had its own music room where we would listen to records for hours, always well-informed by having read the NME from cover to cover every week. We had complimentary record collections, and never duplicated anything the other had. We could cover more ground that way. Of course the listening sessions would develop into music-making sessions. I got short shrift from Des for not having my own guitar (or any ability to play one) and so I badgered my Dad to get me an acoustic guitar. I still have that guitar, and have used it to write every Wire song that began on an acoustic.
Our newly-formed duo was called CNDS (after our initials, nothing to do with anti-nuclear protest). Now let me make once thing very clear: my name might have come first in the initials (because it sounded better) and we did call it "our" band but in truth, and anyone who knew Des will be smiling here, it was Des' venture. I hit the box, played rubbish guitar, and sang the songs that Des didn't want to sing. Des meticulously recorded everything - this was so we were used to how our recorded voices sounded when the big break finally came. It may have seemed like pure fantasy at the time but this in fact prepared me very well for the life of a recording musician. Of course we never actually played in front of people, we were basically too shy although Des was always threatening to "show them all down the folk club how it was done."
"Des, Me - taken at Des' parents house in Reading 1973-4"
Of course being in a band with Des had its ups and downs, Des would regularly threaten to leave (just exactly how you leave a duo I'm still not entirely sure) and I would spend hours begging him not to. Student of the NME that he was he'd announce that we needed to "get our heads together in the country" like all the bands did. He would say it with such confidence, as if it was entirely obvious what needed to be done to improve our music. I was as usual fairly confused, especially when that actually translated to doing the same things we normally did. In spite of all that, while we were at school we spent a lot of time in each other's company. Des had a wicked sense of humour and could often reduce a captive audience to hysterics with little more than the occasional prop or a few well chosen words.
Wind forward a few years and Des was at Middlesex Poly and I was at Watford Art school. We had stayed in touch, and still played together on every occasion we can. As far as we were concerned CNDS was still extant. I was living in a student flat in Rickmansworth and he lived in similar style in Wembley. One night I went over to visit him, we probably went to the pub or listened to music or something. Whatever happened I ended up staying the night in the spare room and was brought a cup of tea the next morning by one of the girls he lived with. One thing led to another and suddenly she and I were an item. When they upped sticks and moved to a new apartment opposite the campus in Hendon I joined them.
Des and I were still assiduous readers of the music press and immediately picked up on the trend towards louder and faster music played by young bands (pre punk). We cut our hair (and were told we looked like convicts), ditched our flares and caused consternation at parties by yanking off the polite mid-Atlantic drivel that dominated the mid 70's and putting on Blue Oyster Cult or Status Quo. We were totally ready for punk when it came, saw the Sex Pistols in '76 at least three times together, attended the Punk Festival at the 100 Club (both nights), and saw Patti Smith at the Roundhouse supported by The Ramones. On our own musical front CNDS became heavier as we ditched the acoustics and went electric. We just needed a bass player and a drummer. Then it all fell apart, the girlfriend gave me the "I think it's best we just become friends" talk and I really had no option but to move out quick. I beat a retreat to North Watford with my tail between my legs. Although the distance between Hendon and Watford is not that great, I might as well have moved to the moon. It's still not that easy to get between the two places on public transport and neither of us even dreamed of owning a car. Then I got invited to join the art school band that developed into Wire. It all happened really quickly and in months I was in the band that Des and I had always dreamed about... but Des wasn't in it. He came round a few time but the then group leader George absolutely hated him. Des was everything George wasn't: smart, quick-witted, funny and very knowledgeable about contemporary music.
During the late 70s Wire Des and I were very much in touch. I got rehoused from a squat in Brixton to a housing association flat in West Norwood. Slim, a friend from Watford who also shared the same squat was offered to be rehoused into an other flat in West Norwood, but decided against it so Des moved in instead. We were back living within minutes of each other and when I had to put together a band to play on my first solo album A-Z it would have been simply unthinkable not to ask Des to join. I'm not sure Des felt 100% about the arrangement. After all CNDS had been his band and now he was playing in my band. That notwithstanding we did a short tour of North America (well, New York and Toronto) and made a second band album Not Too. Des insisted on moving from bass to guitar for that one and we drafted in Simon Gilham on bass. Meanwhile he had is own band Amorphons which featured Sarah Pirozek (then Rob from Wire's girlfriend) on vocals and even Rob on drums for a while. Rob was based in Brixton and had a rehearsal room in his basement so it was easy to put things together. After a while it became obvious that Des really needed to do his own thing and my own life was spinning off in a different direction. By that point Graham and Bruce from Wire had started their label Dome and asked Des to make a record with them. The resulting album Alone On Penguin Island was an odd collaboration. Here were Des' distinct compositions (most of which had been kicking around a while) wrapped in production method more of Dome's devising that Des'. I know at the time Des was not that convinced about it but over the years the album has garnered many admirers.
Over the early 80s our lives moved further apart. I went to India and Des moved into my old flat in West Norwood. When I came back, divorced and post-hepatitis I couldn't really kick him out so I lived in a squat in Vauxhall and soon took off again to Brussels. After a while Des moved back to Newbury and contact became more infrequent. In the years that followed through a succession of bands Des became pretty much the godfather of the local music scene. His eternal modesty stopped him from ever really pushing himself forward in the way his talent demanded but he still remained a prolific writer and - increasingly - performer. Penguin Island got re-released twice but there was still no follow-up. He would book studios to make demos but didn't have a label. At one point I suggested to him that he should just get on and make his own record and put it out himself. He could easily sell it at gigs. I though no more of it until just over a month ago a copy of Blue Country landed on my doormat. Here he finally has his band (the Poachers), his signature style and his latter-day modus operandi in songwriting brought together in a package he could truly call his own. A lifetime's obsession with Neil Young and his own unique take on music finally bore fruit. I don't know whether to weep for what he might have achieved or rejoice in the fact that he got to make a record that finally represented him.
You'll find a find a fair few tributes online to Des. He was well-liked, people were warmed by his engagingly boyish smile and gentle charm. As I said before he was my best mate in my most formative years when he was laugh-out-loud funny and exasperating in equal measure. He matured into a quietly confident gentleman, a bit of a legend. We weren't in great touch recently but the thought that we won't be able to go out for a drink and pour scorn on whatever is on the jukebox or generally have a bit of a laugh at the world has left me feeling kind of hollow.
Des' family have set up the e.mail adress desmondsimmonsmusic[-at-]gmail.com for all enquiries about Des' music including buying copies of Blue Country.