Music interview: Dave Wolfenden on Red Lorry Yellow Lorry’s CD box set

Chris Reed of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry
Chris Reed of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry
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Red Lorry Yellow Lorry were one of the most significant bands to emerge from Leeds during the post-punk era.

The four-piece experienced several line-up changes during their initial ten years together and they have reformed periodically since 2004.

A new CD box set from Cherry Red Records gathers together their entire studio output from the 1980s for the first time, from debut album Talk About The Weather, which was championed by the BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, to their finale, Blow, after which guitarist Dave Wolfenden quit the group.

“What’s different to the other things that they’ve released is that it now includes the back catalogue from Beggars Banquet as well as the catalogue that they bought from Red Rhino in York, so it’s a fully inclusive box set of all four studio albums,” Wolfenden notes today. “Then they asked me to do an interview which is included in the package. I think it’s a good body of work and we’re just glad that it’s come out and it’s there for people to hear in all its glory.”

Thirty years on, the guitarist, who joined Red Lorry Yellow Lorry a year after the band’s formation, says he’s still fond of the songs. “I really like them. I think with hindsight a lot of the production sounds [of its time] but, like a lot of bands around that era, it was a learning process, it was kind of our apprenticeship, really.

“Most of it we got right. We were lucky to work with good people and most of it we got right. There will always be one or two that you think we could have done better but the beauty of it is it captures a moment in time, warts and all, and then that was gone, it was finished.”

Chris Reed of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry

Chris Reed of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry

Wolfenden first started playing in bands when punk hit the city in the 70s. His group Expelaires was inspired by the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Stooges and The MC5. “That kind of ran its course and I had a year off after that then Chris [Reed, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry’s front man] asked me if I’d be interested with the Lorries. I played quite hard to get because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be committed to another band but they did OK, they got a John Peel session and I met Chris in a pub in Leeds and he took me back for a drink and they’d just done [second single] Take It All and as soon as it blasted out of the speakers I thought ‘I’m your man, this is very much my cup of tea’.”

When it came to recording Talk About The Weather Reed passed up the chance of Colin Newman from Wire producing the record. “That’s still a bone of contention and I’ll never forgive him for it,” Wolfenden jokes today. “It’s like the curse of ‘Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it’. I still think that would have been the right decision but it wasn’t my band.

“It was a strange idea that we had. Some friends in Belgium were promoting a gig with Wire and we saw him and he said ‘You know your idea about Colin Newman’ and we said ‘Yeah?’ and he said ‘Well, he’ll do it’. My immediate reaction was ‘Brilliant’ and then Chris, because it was is band, I think he thought there would be a kind of power struggle. I wouldn’t have had that problem, I would have happily consented to it, and I think it would have made a better record.

“It’s still an OK record, it’s of its time, the enduring quality of these recordings is that the songs are great. The production might not be everything it could be but I think the ideas and the song writing takes a lot of beating.”

It was very much the rawness and spontaneity, a band playing a gig like its life depended on it and that it was the last gig they would ever do. That was the brief really for Lorries’ gigs and we really went for it.

Dave Wolfenden

There was also interest from the indie label 4AD, then home to the Cocteau Twins, The Birthday Party, Xmal Deutschland and Modern English. Wolfenden feels it was another missed opportunity. “These are two things that still keep me awake at night but I guess we’ve all got things like that,” he says. “It was what it was. Chris at that point in time wanted to keep a fairly tight rein on what happened to the band. I think had he thought slightly larger he’d probably be on a much better pension now.”

Instead the band signed to Beggars Banquet and, who had ambitions of pushing the band into the pop charts.

The biggest blow to those hopes perhaps came when drummer Mick Brown left to join Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams in The Mission. “We loved him like a brother, we still do,” says Wolfenden. “I’ve got lots of friends in Leeds and most of them are musicians and everyone that knows Browny they always ask how he is or if there’s any news. He was the funniest man you would ever meet. At first he wasn’t the best drummer, which is why we started using the drum machine, but he picked it up really quickly.

“After I left the Lorries I got a chance to play with him for a year in The Mission and anyone who’s played with Browny will tell you he’s the best drummer that they’ve ever played with. He really did put the graft in and he became a brilliant drummer.”

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry

One regret of Wolfenden’s is that the Lorries never quite captured the essence of their legendary live sound in the studio. “We didn’t reference the music directly but one album that I still like is the MC5 live album Kick Out The Jams which I think sounds like a horrible explosion but in a really good way and I think that’s what we took inspiration from, it wasn’t note perfect and it was slightly out of tune but the energy and the power and the rawness of it really affected us.

“I’d seen some really early Clash gigs as well – I saw The Clash and the Pistols at Leeds Poly and it was the same kind of rawness that we wanted to try to emulate, without referencing the song writing. It was very much the rawness and spontaneity, a band playing a gig like its life depended on it and that it was the last gig they would ever do. That was the brief really for Lorries’ gigs and we really went for it.”

Wolfenden’s time in the Lorries came to an end after Beggars Banquet “pulled the plug” on the band when their fourth album, Blow, failed to breach the mainstream charts in 1989. “Chris did another album effectively by himself, or with bit-part players, which is a good record, but it kind of felt like it was time to get out. It felt like the band had run its course. We’d spent a year making Blow and we thought it was a great record, and everyone told us it was a great record, and Beggars Banquet said ‘But you’re not selling enough’. So they didn’t really have an option, the numbers just did not add up. That was absolutely heart-breaking. It was difficult to walk away from it but I think had I stayed the pain would have been worse.”

In 2007 Wolfenden and Reed hooked up again. “I wasn’t too clever at the time, I’d just split up with a longtime partner, and actually having something to focus on again that I’ll always love really helped me. It was never about money, and it was even less about money then, but on a therapeutic level it was something that we needed.”

The Lorries did record another album, A Strange Kind of Paradise, that has never been released. Wolfenden still harbours hopes that it might one day see the light of day. “We finished it four years ago and we’d love to get it released but none of us have seen Chris for nine months. He has been looking after an elderly relative most of that time. We’re as much in the dark as anyone else.

“I think it’s a record that should be released and people that I’ve played it to really like it, we would love to let it see the light of day eventually. It’s too good a record to put in the cupboard.”

Dave Wolfenden of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry

Dave Wolfenden of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry

He feels it continues the band’s legacy. “I think it’s superior sonically compared to the things that we’re talking about in the box set, and we had enough time and effectively an unlimited budget because we had a free studio, so there were really no restrictions. It is the best album we could have come up with at the time. It’s deeply frustrating for it not to come out, but it is Chris’ band and we do have to respect his wishes. Maybe when he resolves his personal issues he may be in a position to say ‘Come on, guys, let’s get this out and let people hear it.’”

Wolfenden says he’d “love” to reactivate the Lorries for more shows. “It’s just very unclear at this point in time what’s going to happen with the band.”

In the meantime Wolfenden is focusing again on Expelaires. “We’ve just released an album and that’s good really good reviews,” he says. “It is something that we do as a hobby but I’m not going to suddenly take up fishing and I’ve never had a shed to go and potter around in. Playing music is kind of what we’ve done. It’s old men with guitars, we get them out at the weekend and make a horrible noise.”

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry Albums and Singles 1982-1989 is out now. www.red-lorry-yellow-lorry.com