The Gutter Brothers, from left: Tony Green (vocals), Steve Turner (bass), Chris Cawte (guitar) and Jeff Walker (drums)
Published: 20 September, 2012
by ROISIN GADELRAB
WHEN Tony Green came to London from New Orleans just under 30 years ago, he packed one item that was to shape the rest of his life. That cumbersome implement – a washboard – was the catalyst that ultimately led him to form cult rock ’n’ roll ’n’ skiffle outfit, The Gutter Brothers, familiar faces in Camden and Covent Garden in the 1980s and early 90s.
Now, the band, who once scored the soundtrack for Only Fools and Horses’ Christmas special, “Miami Twice”, will play The Dublin Castle on October 13, supported by Babeshadow, featuring the son of Gutter Brothers member Chris Cawte.
But don’t be fooled by the skiffle description, the Brothers are far from the traditional sounds of Lonnie Donegan, having turned their skills on household implement instruments to heavier original music, as well as rockabilly tunes.
Vocalist Tony took a break from his day job in construction in home city New Orleans to tell Grooves of the band’s history and ties to Camden Town.
Recalling his arrival in London, aged 21, in 1984, he said: “My girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife, got a job over there – so I came over and started busking.”
While an accomplished singer, Tony was less sure about his skills as a musician.
“I was an enthusiastic appreciator of music,” he says. “I brought the washboard with me and went to Covent Garden. It’s posher now but back then it had quite an inviting scuzzy element.
“I met a guy (late lyricist Dennis Johnson – known as ‘the Camden Crusher’) playing the tea-chest bass with a guitar player. The tea-chest bass has one string and a broomstick. You play the bass with that. To me, those two instruments (washboard and bass) went together. I was Ringo, he was Paul McCartney.
“I offered to buy them a drink for a conversation. He wasn’t anti-American, he was open to the idea. He offered me to come down the next day, it finally clicked, we made twice as much money and he said, ‘you’re in’.
“We began to be very good friends. [Dennis] was in a proper skiffle band that played Lonnie Donegan songs. I started playing their repertoire but I’d been in bands in the States where we’d taken that sort of skiffle and started playing different styles of music like reggae, ska, R’n’ B and rock ’n’ roll, so I started introducing some of those ideas and he thought it was fascinating. We were both huge music enthusiasts, we loved music – we could just talk for hours.”
Dennis lived in Carrington House, by Warren Street, where he and Tony would spend hours talking.
“That’s where it all started – most bands will tell you it didn’t really start from playing so much, it was long nights of talking,” says Tony. “We had many nights talking over whisky and tea.”
Of Dennis’s nickname, Tony says: “I think that was his alter-ego. In one of his fantasy lives, he was a wrestler who wore a mask, Hollywood-style. He thought he was quite rough and he was, real East End bombed-out London.
“We hit it off great and as a writer he was very sensitive, thoughtful.
“You wouldn’t have thought this person who looks all rough would come up with these lyrics, it surprised us all. That was part of our inspiration, too, singing songs to make the girls cry, or so we thought.”
Years later, after Dennis passed away, it was this admiration for his lyrics that inspired the band to record another album and tour again.
After a number of changes to their line-up, the band finally found its form as The Gutter Brothers in 1987.
Tony says: “That’s when we started playing new material, getting these pots and pans-type instruments and playing heavier music.”
Their music took a darker shape when they began rehearsing in the Regent’s Park squat Tony lived in, known as The Vicarage.
“I’ve been in a lot of situations but never quite been in one like that – no hot water, one bathtub way up on the 4th floor, everyone plugged into one big extension cord,” says Tony.
“We got to rehearse in the basement of the vicarage and that’s when we really started getting heavy. It was dark, and to me it was like down the dungeons of Tower Bridge, it was really London to me.
“We started playing this really spooky, heavy music. They were absolutely fantastic musicians, I was a singer and added as much soul to the music. It was a very creative time.”
The band spent many hours in draughty vans on tour.
Tony says: “Some of our crazier adventures were in Ireland. One time we played Limerick and were guaranteed a certain amount of money.”
And on one memorable night when a landlord refused to pay them, the band faced a decision
Tony says: “We thought we were going to stomp in there and tell him what it’s about. He said, ‘Get in your van and drive away or we’re going to set it on fire’.
“We thought we were tough and this Irish mobster guy sorted us out real quick. We always said we’d go back and get some sort of revenge but we never did. We got in our car and drove away.”
The Gutter Brothers also found themselves playing comical cat and mouse games with Camden police.
“Camden Lock was too hot,” says Tony. “We’d always get warned off by police, run from the cops, set up somewhere else and the same cop would come back around and set up some kind of barricade for us down one end.
“We’d outsmart him and come round the other way. They were trying to funnel us into certain areas but we were trying to get away.
“Covent Garden was really trying to promote that (buskers) but Camden Lock was very tight, cops are frightened of people congregating in big numbers.”
Following the death of Dennis in 2002, the band made use of his unused lyrics to record album, El Krusho, a nod to the lyricist’s nickname.
Tony says: “You usually have to work very hard to be relevant in London, to be in people’s minds, so we don’t really think we’re doing that, we’re trying to be relevant to ourselves and to carry on what we were doing in the same fashion, which was create music and never really work on what kind of music it was, what kind of tag.”