Interview / Rolo McGinty on The Woodentops` Why Why Why

If you were to poll for THE Top Ten Balearic Beats, without a doubt The Woodentops Why Why Why would be in there. When Nicky Holloway, Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling, and Johnny Walker returned from their life-changing holiday in Ibiza, Why Why Why was one of the tunes they came back with. Oakenfold subsequently including it on Balearic Beats Volume One AKA Alfredo`s Greatest Hits.

I knew The Woodentops. Prompted by Morrissey`s endorsement of the band, I`d bought the early 12s. The LP, Giant, upon its release in 1986. I saw them live. On one occasion, supporting The Smiths. The band`s lyrics climbed trees. Climbed mountains. Espoused Hippy anti-consumerism, back to nature, ideals. Set to a frantic Folk, Skiffle. With Funky Prince Alphabet Street licks. Like the best bits of James (I never warmed to Tim Booth). Everything they played and sang sounded political. At odds with the government line, Thatcherism, and Yuppie bullshit. Protest songs, without having to spell it out a la Billy Bragg. There were race riots on Everyday Living. Rising unemployment. Yet the mood was sunny. Full of positivity and euphoria. Love Train preached unity. Way before the E gripped us all. Travelling Man`s destination was “Joy”.

The first time I heard The Woodentops in a “Balearic” context was at a mid-week party, in a nightclub in Croydon. Opposite Surrey Street Market. The place had once been called Scamps. Now it was Easy Street. I was still at Uni in Leeds, but home for the Summer. Working in the warehouse of the Habitat on Purley Way. A girl I fancied there, a friend of my sister`s, was a regular at Oakenfold`s nights at Ziggy`s in Streatham. She told me about the party at Easy Street. So I dragged Dave along. The club was pretty much empty. Bar the organisers, a dealer I knew from school, and a few skinny, long-haired initiates. One of whom, Jeremy, the girl I fancied, fancied. Oakenfold was there. Supporting, offering advice, and keeping an eye on his “scene”. The tune that I remember most from the night was The Woodentops` Everyday Living. Me and Dave had the floor to ourselves. To be honest, the soundtrack wasn`t too dissimilar to the one you could catch every weekend, a few hundred yards away, at The Underground. Croydon`s Indie club. The Clash and The Cult. I`ve always thought that part of Balearic`s appeal, and success, was down to its “guilty pleasures”. Allowing the Soul Boys & Girls and Rare Groovers to come out of the musical closet, and to sing and dance to Pop favourites it was previously uncool to like. None of this, of course, would have been possible without the drug.

The first time I heard Why Why Why in a club, was at The Downham Tavern. At an all-day Rave held in the stadium-sized venue at the back of the pub. Pitch black in the afternoon. Laser-ed, with moments of fireworks (timed to coincide with A Split Second`s Flesh), and packed with white, working-class kids. Dressed to their nines, in Stone Island and Blanc Bleu, Ralph Lauren and Paul Smith. Gorged on chemicals. Tony Wilson was the DJ. Another Ibiza veteran. The music he played was predominantly 80s Pop and Rock. The Trashing Doves, yes. But also The Pretenders and Then Jericho.

Everything about Why Why Why was hypnotic. From the introductory percussion, to the circular riffing of the electric guitar. The urgency of the acoustic strum, and the vocal. Irresistible. The anticipation and building intensity. A rush. Why Why Why more than any other track, was a rallying call. Articulate anger against apathy. An antiauthority, antiestablishment, battle cry, for a disparate youth forced together. Cahoots in a covert culture. Unwanted by The System, united by ecstasy, and a shared knowledge that the system was (is) wrong. The drug, the crowd, and the music made the powerless feel powerful.

“Are you ready now?” shouted Rolo.

Yes we were.

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Can you tell me more about the Why Why Why`s lyrics? They concern the arms race, but can you give readers a bit more background to the environment that gave rise to them? Were there specific events that prompted you to write them?

I had the basics of the music – the guitar bass drums and keyboards – and the song was temporarily titled Africa Satellite. It sounded like technological Afrobeat, with a touch of Reggae to it. It was going round, developing, in the flat for a couple of weeks as I would get other ideas, little details. When I put my guitar over it, it became something else. More, perhaps, Flamenco too. So I took it to the rehearsal room and everybody learnt the parts. Immediately, we loved it, and it quickly became the favourite to play. I got a little obsessed with it, trying to think of ideas about what to sing. One day we rehearsed and when we played it again, it had more of an urgency, and the the title Why Why Why came to mind. It just came out of my mouth in one of the jams.

At the time the first Iraq War was kicking off, and that sparked the whole lyrical thing. I bought a roll of paper, and verses came quickly to me, as the roll became used up. Many verses had to be cut out. I had way too much. There was a whole anxiety to it, more the world in general, as technology was looking expensive and precarious, the nuclear crisis, peak oil, conflict and starvation. A disastrous future ahead. So the song had its meaning.

It was Christmas and the band had worked super hard all that year – 1985 – so I suggested that if anybody wanted to contribute a verse and perhaps sing it too, I would include them in the writers royalty. Benny (Staples) and Simon (Mawby) came up with something, so thats why three names appear on song`s the credits. The song was demo’ed, and the master tape of this recording became the version remixed by Adrian Sherwood. That`s pretty much how it sounded in its early phase. However, we played the song every time we were played live, and it began to change. The tempo sped up, the beat and percussion became more prominent. We began recording for the album, Giant, but unfortunately Why Why Why was the track left unfinished as studio time ran out. We were three quarters finished. We did however include it on the Live Hypnobeat Live album.

Woodentops Benny

Adrian Sherwood produced the original 12”. How did you come to work with Sherwood? Was there a particular production of his that made you want to work with him? What was he like to work with?

At the time we had ON-U Sound records, CDs and tapes playing pretty constantly at home, and on the tourbus. We were touring to promote the early singles pre-Giant and I remember one of the gentlemen who crewed, drove and sound mixed, John Botting, saying he hated it when we played that stuff, because he couldn’t always tell what was actual road sounds and what was noise in the Sherwood Dubs. It made him paranoid.

We asked Adrian if we could send him some music, and it was arranged for me to go and meet him. I was a bit nervous, I remember, but as soon as I arrived Adrian asked ‘“Do you play bass?” I said that I did. He then asked me if I could do a bass part on a keyboard? It was another yes, and we got stuck in right away on a Reggae piece with football commentary and a crowd singing anthems and roaring at the goals. Adrian hummed the idea into my ear for a bit to get me started and I recorded it live from a Fairlight system belonging to Al (Jourgensen) from Ministry. The bass sound was from that machine. It was the first time I saw one. That track was later named Sharp As A Needle. On the day I met Adrian I became part of the Barmy Army. So he agreed to mix the Why Why Why master. He did a few mixes of it. There was one specifically for Record Mirror, who put out a 45 with the magazine. Another for the Everyday Living single B-side. I couldn’t say a particular production of Adrian’s interested us. It was all of it!

The version of the song that became a hit in Ibiza was taken from the concert recording Live Hypnobeat Live. Recorded at The Palace Theatre, Los Angeles in 1986. Do you have any particular memories of that gig? I heard a story that the band had taken Ecstasy during the performance. Is this true? Or a Balearic myth?

No, it`s not Balearic myth. It was our first time, so it was a stand out night for us and we pretty much forgot we were recording live – for the KROQ radio station – and really went for it. At the time we had no reason to think we were recording a live album. I remember much about the show. The bizarre sight of Donny Osmond and a camera crew wading through the crowd. Donny was having a 60 Minutes documentary filmed about him. Being on the same label as us, he could get free tickets to any hot show in town, and bring a film crew, which he did. Large silver lighting umbrellas cameras and lights followed him. So his entrance at the back there was pretty high profile. They made their way through the middle of the crowd. I could just make out a large white blur. In the song Move Me you can hear me saying “What is that?” I found out later it was him and he came down to meet us.

Immediately after the gig I had a live phone call to make with the radio show and I couldn’t hear the voice on the other end – Jed the Fish – plus I could hardly throw a sentence together. The concert was fierce, and it took ages to adjust to off-stage. I think that was my most nuts interview ever. I felt like a boxer being publicly questioned after a near knockout match. Why Why Why was pretty much the same as every night, but I remember it feeling really good about half way through it. It was hard to get the words out too. I really enjoyed the show. The night before was incredible. Two shows in two different venues. It`s a long story, but it was a perfect warm up for the Los Angeles performance. I also remember the after-show shenanigans. It began with a visit from all the US record company guys, and we tried to be polite, but we were altered. Then Donny Osmond came in and I got to talk some with him. That was OK actually. He was OK, into talking about electronic music. He was calm and it was utterly surreal to be chatting to somebody who had been on TV all through my teens.  We all had red eyes and had begun hitting the backstage bar, and there was a photo taken of Donny, us, and the record company guys. We look trashed. Hardly surprising. The day before had begun early travelling and we hadn’t got to bed till 5 or 6 after the extra late night show at the DNA San Fransisco. There was a flight to Los Angeles then a mighty long sound check for the radio station in the afternoon, as well as interviews. So we really let go after the show. It was around the end-point of us all getting on really well, and there being an easy going relationship between us. It was a whole year of touring. Wonderful though that is, tiredness adds up. The stress of entertaining all those people who have paid so much to get a ticket, the responsibility of having a good few people now on the payroll, wanting to be better and better, all of that. After that tour the first musician changes in years happened, so for me the Live album is the final document of that classic line up at a peak happy time.

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There`s also a BBC recording of Why Why Why from Glastonbury that same year. I`ve never heard it. How does this take compare to the one from Los Angeles?

It begins with Benny going out alone onto the main stage and playing a drum intro alongside his Roland 909, with percussion running as a sequence. He used that a lot in rehearsal. It was our click track to practice with. So we`d been used to it for a few years. There were two keyboard players, Sonja, and Anne (Stephenson) who played violin on it. Simon, the guitarist, mixed the concert with the BBC team back in London. It was raining there but when we got onstage and played Why Why Why, the sun came out.

When did you first find out that Why Why Why was a big hit in London`s Balearic and Acid House clubs? Were you surprised? When did you first hear it in a club? What was your reaction?

I was in New York with a friend, Claudia Cuseta, who was a record promoter to the New York DJs. She also knew Paul Oakenfold, who asked her to introduce him to me on the phone.  A time was arranged and I went round to Claudia’s and Paul rang. He asked me if I knew that clubs as big as stadiums in Ibiza, and now in UK and Europe, had Why Why Why as their record of the night, the closing tune. And that thousands of people knew all the words and sang the chorus and that it was a big hit? I had no idea. I went back to London, and straight round to the record label, who just didn’t get it at all. That`s what being ahead of your time feels like. It took the Manchester bands and that huge promotion of the Indie crossover bands like Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, and Primal Scream. Even Oasis listed Why Why Why as a favourite track. It was big in the Hacienda, and the whole club movement had exploded. We were of course working on the new album, or out of the country playing, so this was happening behind our backs.

Paul told me to visit his club at Ziggy`s in South London. I went along. I later bumped into him DJing at the Prestatyn Soul Weekender, and he had me stand next to him. It was the first time I really watched a DJ in action from the booth. Benny and his friends were going to a club called Shoom, and invited me along. That was the first time I heard Why Why Why on a big system. Oh my gosh! Firstly, it was bizarre because up until that came on, all the music was purely electronic. Suddenly it was like a live gig in the Disco. People went nuts. I did run to the loo and hide a bit, listening to how it sounded. Checking the mix from the latrine perspective, then came out for the last third. I was so shocked. These days I am used to it, that first time though was really odd. I felt I had anonymity in the clubs. Suddenly not. However, I still get in everywhere free! It was incredibly exciting too, but you can imagine, seeing the furore myself made it more frustrating that the record company would not understand what they had there. I digress. It sounded great I thought. All that bass, those big PA’s really brought out the undercurrent of the bass and and drums. Whooh!

Woodentops Rolo

Did Why Why Why becoming a club hit change the nature of the music you subsequently made? Were you influenced by “Balearic” or House?

I was. Not because of Why Why Why though. I was very much into Disco, and the equipment needed to make that kind of music became affordable. The Atari computer was a breakthrough, plus the Roland stuff was cheap. This meant that it was natural to investigate. I wanted to bump into the new sound and add something to it. I believe we did so. I certainly did through the 1990s.

In the `80s the remixes of our tracks got regular club play in different countries: The Motormix of Stop This Car, Everyday Living, Move Me, Well Well Well, Travelling Man, and Give It Time. Arthur Baker and Adrian Sherwood did mixes of that. Tainted World which we did as a collaboration with Bang The Party was a big one. Tony Humphries picked up on it and played it on his Kiss FM NYC radio show. I witnessed that myself at an extremely full Ministry of Sound. A later remix of ours, Conehead, found its way into the Northern Techno scene and was a hit there.

The first time I really heard House was in Chicago when we were taken to a club called the Warehouse. Frankie Knuckles was testing the sound system and we were listening going “Whats this? It`s like Kraftwerk and Disco. What the hell? Ooh!’ Frankie came down and said Hi to us. Telling us about the music. Great moment that. Lovely guy he was.

Is it true that the master tapes have been lost?

It is true, yes. Our catalogue got moved. The majority of it, from a warehouse to an office with a large number of other tapes, that were not ours, and somehow didn’t show up, the others did though. I`ve a few theories. I found this out when we were putting together a box set. I made an appointment to view the tapes and they weren’t with all the other acts` tapes as expected. I then went in one day and rolled up my sleeves and searched through the label`s entire tape collection and managed to only find a small amount. It killed me at the time. We did however manage to complete the album using alternative sources, CDs, cassettes, and vinyl to make up what was lost. For the Giant and Woodenfoot Cops On The Highway albums I did locate the regional stereo masters. Live Hypnobeat Live will be in the recesses of CBS/Sony, and its unlikely that I`ll ever be able to get my hands on it.


Why do you think the track has gone on to become such an anthem?

Because of the way it starts. The atmosphere it creates. The woodblocks through the reverb. The chink chink of the Mercedes Benz hubcap Benny had in his kit. Then the Flamenco-ish guitar. It begins really personal. Then the Afrobeat starts with the plucky guitar part. It`s a good build up. Whereupon the cool ass beat blasts off, bringing with it the bass-line, and all the rhythm mechanics lock in. It goes synchro bringing with it a knowledge of World Music and Rock passion. And the “Are you ready now? Are you ready now?” before the chorus. It`s a big multi-racial party tune. Truth be, it was our party tune. When it all began, we used it to take a break from the other songs and would dance our legs off in the rehearsal room with the door shut. Our own private party in Battersea! So it was incredible to think that what we liked about it, would be liked by so many people!

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