Dawn Of The Living Dead: Electric Wizard’s Dorset Roots

This June sees the publication of Come My Fanatics: A Journey Into The World Of Electric Wizard by White Rabbit. Here, author and tQ writer Dan Franklin explains the genesis of the book and gives us a glimpse into the crepuscular Wimborne, the town in Dorset where 'The Wizard' first coagulated into a rural world of biker gangs and drugs...

I first encountered Electric Wizard in the 10 January 1997 issue of Kerrang! In the review pages, editor Phil Alexander gave the band’s second album, Come My Fanatics…, a full 5K score. He described it as "one of the most punishingly heavy albums in recent memory". Fourteen-year-old me was intrigued, but nothing prepared me for the experience of listening to Come My Fanatics… It still has the power to shock today; it overflows with a billowing, juddering, mind-warping, suicidally overdriven otherworldliness.

That was it. I was in the Wizard’s grasp. Twenty years later I wrote my first book, Heavy: How Metal Changes The Way We See The World. In it, I attempted to map the territory of my encounters with heavy music. After its publication, during the merciless pandemic summer of 2020, I hatched a plan to approach Electric Wizard to tell a different kind of story. I wanted to go deeper and harder into their music than anyone had ventured before. After they tentatively agreed, I began my first forays into their rich, allusive, grimy – sometimes despicable – world.

The resulting book, Come My Fanatics: A Journey Into the World of Electric Wizard, is not a straightforward biography. Yes, it tells the band’s story (or at least a version of it) and has offered up many revelatory moments in the process. But really it is an exploration of a subculture the band has absorbed and, in turn, created. The band’s influences are labyrinthine. I needed the Wizard to guide me. The book also offers an alternative history of the evolution of English heavy music. Ultimately, I am still in thrall to the power the band unleashed on me 26 years ago.

What follows is an edited extract from the book’s first chapter, ‘In Wimborne’.
Dan Franklin

We met in the shadow of the Minster. It was my first time in the Dorset town of Wimborne. I was meeting Jus Oborn, founding guitarist and singer of Electric Wizard, and Liz Buckingham, guitarist since 2003. They hadn’t been in the town for a decade. We were here because this was where Jus (née Justin, but I’ll refer to him as Jus) grew up and where Electric Wizard began as a three-piece in 1993, with Tim Bagshaw on bass and Mark Greening on drums.

Looking at the quaint green in front of us in the bright, early June sunshine, it was hard to imagine that Electric Wizard used to drop acid here, then party and vomit into the night.

Wimborne is important because it is where Electric Wizard began. The experiences the band had in the town were formative. Electric Wizard might have sounded as colossal if they had grown up in another part of the British isles. But they didn’t. They grew up in Dorset. The landscape, the history (recent and ancient), the drugs, the gangs, the pubs, the strange encounters and practices, the hidden networks and secret social currents of this place all fed into the early incarnation of the band and have remained, a residue, ever since.

Wimborne is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 718, when the monastery was founded by Cuthburga, the sister of Ine, king of the West Saxons. The settlement is not mentioned again until 871 when it says that King Aethelred’s body ‘lies in the monastery of Wimborne’. For Jus, tripping on acid here next to the edifice containing Aethelred’s tomb, the minster was square and solid – it was something he clung to. Here, he communed with the bones of Aethelred, the king of Wessex (and older brother of Alfred the Great), who died in a battle against the Danes. His reign foreshadowed the unification of England in the late ninth and early tenth centuries.

When they formed Electric Wizard, the members shared stoned ideas about rising up to overthrow the Norman invasion of 1066 and the occupation they felt was still ongoing. Only by headlining a giant festival and unleashing seismic doom from hundreds of amps could they generate the necessary power for the English to finally throw off the Norman yoke.

Jus was born in 1971 and grew up in Wimborne. In the seventies and eighties, the town was rougher around the edges than the cleaned-up market town of today, in which a Waitrose now stands on the site of the old cricket pitch. Farrow & Ball, the upmarket paint manufacturer, has its head office nearby. Jus’s dad, Mike Oborn, used to work at the slaughterhouse at Uddens Cross – a huge factory of death just outside of town. He came home reeking of its strange, creamy smell. Jus and friends snuck out to explore the factory, glimpsing the stains on the walls and inhaling the unmistakable odour. Working there was a traumatic experience. Mike is a vegetarian now.

The abattoir employed bikers. They gathered in a pub called The Three Lions (now The Minster Arms on West Street). You could get a drink underage in there if you had enough of a rat ’tache. The bikers brought heroin into town to generate some more income. The Oddfellows Arms around the corner on Church Street was another intimidating establishment. It was fierce and local, and frequented by the bell ringers from the church.

Jus was in a gang at school when he was thirteen. The members modelled themselves on the New York gangs from Walter Hill’s 1979 film The Warriors. They drank, fought and were vicious little shits, terrorising their fellow pupils. Each member wore a denim jacket with a Hawkwind patch. Their peers mistook the hawk for an eagle, so they were known as the Eagle Gang.

We walked into the old Cornmarket plaza, past the dentist where Jus and his friends stole mercury. Mercury is a useful ingredient for black magic ceremonies. It is supposed to have supernatural powers and participants have been known to inhale its vapour from burning candles or even to drink it. (Do I need to tell you that this is a very bad idea?)

On the western side of the plaza, next to The White Hart pub, is Wimborne Masonic Hall – a former Methodist Church until 1883. Here the masons used to gather in their cloaks, sold by a jewellery shop in the town square. Where the upper windows are now bricked up, Jus’s friends reported seeing people being hung up and whipped. This was not the only part of town where children glimpsed the strange and depraved. It is rumoured that the building has an entrance to a sequence of tunnels beneath the town. Jus knew a girl whose grandparents lived in Gordon House, on Wimborne’s main thoroughfare of West Borough, which also had an entrance to this subterranean tunnel network. He went down there once, got about a hundred yards along and found it bricked off. There is a network of tunnels in the writer H.P. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth from his 1932 story ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, where the fictional town’s Masonic Hall came to be the headquarters of a cult called The Esoteric Order of Dagon. The tunnels beneath Wimborne give the town a Lovecraftian air.

In the 1980s and 1990s, after the town’s annual folk festival – four days of debauchery, music and Morris dancers – the Cornmarket more than once saw British Bulldog-type confrontations between drinkers at The White Hart pub and the police. The White Hart was a gathering place for the freaks of the town – drawn from different social (and musical) tribes but driven together by their outsider status. During one stand-off, the Wizard’s former drummer, Mark, was captured by the police. They forcibly shaved his head. The folk festival connected with Jus – particularly the pre-Christian rituals evidenced in the Morris dancing. When he began finding success with his music, he felt he was similarly documenting another kind of ritual for future generations.

West Borough, heading northwards towards the Tivoli cinema, was the location of the tuck shop. The owner traded video nasties under the counter and eventually went to prison for it. Jus’s mum used to rent legitimate videos but rental mistakes were made as illicit VHS tapes were mixed up with the legal ones. For all she knew, she had brought home Zombie Flesh-Eaters for her kids to watch.

A little further up the road, the Tivoli cinema conceals a Georgian facade – inside it looks like a mini-grand ballroom. It was designed and constructed as a cinema and theatre in 1936 by the architect Edward De-Wilde-Holding. The edifice was originally part of the rebuilding of the town in the eighteenth century that replaced the irregular, timber-framed buildings of wattle and daub with airy, spacious townhouses. ‘Society’ was established, with coaches transporting the wealthy families between their respective country piles: the Hanhams, Bankes, Fitches, Sturts and Glyns. Jus used to sneak in through the back door of the cinema to watch horror movies with his dad.

By the 1990s, the Tivoli was a rundown hellhole full of junkies – there was a hole in the roof, the place was full of rot and there was a pond in the orchestra pit. A collective of bands and other societies, groups, businesses and powerful individuals known as The Friends of the Tivoli, under the aegis of an ageing punk-rocker mayor, resolved to bring it back from the brink. At that time, there were between twenty and thirty active bands in the town, some of them signed to development contracts at major labels, though they didn’t do much with them. It was in the restored venue that Electric Wizard headlined the Wimborne Festival in 1998, their final gig in the town. Electric Wizard were the shit band who everyone hated – but they ended up touring the world.

Along the Crown Mead pedestrian route heading east away from the centre, we passed the library with its shallow sloping roof which often proved too tempting for the Friday-night drunks who frequently tumbled off it. We took the footbridge over the mill stream and came to the pedestrian shopping precinct which was built in the mid-seventies. When Jus was very young there was nothing here but an island bounded by the River Allen. It was good for catching pike – one kid had his finger bitten off by a pike next to The Rising Sun pub downstream.

In the middle of the island’s shopping precinct is a Co-op supermarket, which used to be a Safeway. There are entrances at both ends of the building. These gave the local kids the perfect opportunity to ‘do a Psychomania’. This involved cycling through one set of automatic doors, straight through the supermarket, and then out of the doors at the other end, causing as much mayhem as they could on the way.

Psychomania is a 1973 English film about a biker gang called The Living Dead. It was a regular late-night feature on television when Jus was growing up. In the film, the gang’s leader, Tom, gains immortality by killing himself riding his motorcycle off a bridge into a river, by way of a hard-to-fathom black magic ceremony involving a toad and an amulet. As they bury their assumed-dead leader, mounted on his bike in a too-shallow grave at a stone circle called The Seven Witches (erected by the film crew next to the M3 near the village of Littleton in Surrey), one of the gang serenades him on his acoustic guitar with a song called ‘Riding Free’:

And the world never knew his name

But the chosen few knew of his fame

Roaring like a bat out of hell from beyond the grave, and now the living dead, Tom encourages the other members of the gang to commit suicide too. But the spell only works if the subject really wants to kill themselves. Any hesitation and they die for good.

In one sequence, the gang tear through a town centre in the brutalist surroundings of the Hepworth Way shopping centre in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. They knock a workman off a ladder inexplicably erected in the middle of the pavement and joust on their motorbikes with umbrellas. They are ‘long-haired git[s]’ in the eyes of the police – a hippy nuisance that isn’t missed when they snuff themselves out.

It’s a peculiar vision of an English biker gang. The bikes, terrain, weather and the gang themselves were simply shitter than their larger-than-life American equivalents. There are no Harley Davidsons or desert sunsets in sight. But it conjures a strangely intense atmosphere – and the premise, though risible, has grown more disturbing over time. The glorification of suicide in the film teeters on the irresponsible.

Towards the end of the film, The Living Dead roar into a supermarket, get their bikes caught on the stacks of tins which they scatter across the floor and even send an occupied baby’s pram flying. This scene was the inspiration for the Wimborne bicycle jaunt through Safeway. Jus worked in the Safeway for a period. That didn’t stop him from pursuing the Psychomania antics. His boss was a pushover and tended to back away from confronting him about it. The absurdity of Psychomania appealed to the sense of humour of Wimborne’s young people. They loved the notion of living forever if they killed themselves. When asked at school what he wanted to do for a career, Jus replied that he wanted to get a chopper motorbike, ride to Afghanistan and score loads of heroin.

Then there was heavy music. In the eighties, bike and metal culture were intertwined. Bikers and metalheads were both regarded with suspicion, if not disdain, by wider society. The older brother of one of Jus’s school friends was in a biker gang and his bedroom was full of posters of arena-straddling rock freaks: Deep Purple, Rainbow and Status Quo. But as Jus got old enough to seriously consider getting involved in motorbikes, the bike gang in Wimborne quickly deteriorated and became a pitiful sight. The leaders were clearly twats, their bikes were shit, and the upcoming generation wore one-piece leather suits with Yamaha written on the back. Jus started to think he had missed the boat.

Mike Oborn was set against the idea in any case. He bought Jus a guitar to steer him away from the whole bike thing. Jus soon saw the upside as he transferred the notion of the true biker’s death-drive to heavy rock music. How about suicide by way of guitar? Or a premature end as a guarantee of rock immortality? Years later, Electric Wizard’s fascination with Psychomania became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We walked down to the bridge at East Street. The hump of the bridge was good for a Dukes of Hazzard-type jump if you could get the momentum up from the traffic lights. Jus once snuck out with a couple of his parents’ lodgers to attempt the jump in their souped-up Cortina.

Here on East Street, at the bottom end of the shopping precinct – opposite The Rising Sun pub and above what is now a beauty salon – was a nightclub and snooker hall called Cartoons. It was here Electric Wizard played their first gig in 1993. They crammed onto a small stage in the corner and played very loudly for about forty-five minutes, to a handful of old hippies. Long before they settled on playing actual songs in their sets, they jammed on a load of Cream and Sabbath-sounding riffs. The hippies loved it and the Wizard were convinced they were the best band ever.

Cartoons is now a venue called The Club, with a faux-neon logo. It looked very closed when we were there and it was hard to tell whether it was just a crap small-town nightclub, a strip club, or both. The place has not transmuted into anything of splendour since its time as Cartoons. Electric Wizard were popular with the long-hairs at their first gig, but as the nineties progressed and their reputation grew outside of Wimborne, they talked incessantly about their copious drug use and how fucked up the town was – to the dismay of the locals. But being in a band was never about being popular. It was the way to solidify their unpopularity.

Come My Fanatics by Dan Franklin is published on 22 June by White Rabbit and you can pre-order here

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