Sunday, June 21, 2015

Universe interview with Steve Finn, Part 1

This is the first part of a special on the Cardiff band, Universe. I downloaded their album some time ago (see vol40)  and was immediately impressed with it, which I have previously compared to the earthy, blue collar rock of other one-album British heavy bluesrock bands, Leaf Hound and Stonehouse (see Stonehouse interview). During the band's life they supported such TDATS heros as Pink Fairies, Raw Material, Patto, Man and Writing on the Wall. Their original album was first released privately in only 300 copies, in Norway in 1971, so it's one of those mythical rarities that you'll probably never find in a lifetime. Luckily the now-defunct Norwegian label Colours re-issued it in a nice package back in 1991, which has now become very collectible itself.

The story of how this transient Welsh band came to release their only album in Norway is an interesting one, about which I was unable uncover anything other than hearsay and scant online comments, until I recently got a copy of the 1991 Colours vinyl. I was extremely happy to see it includes a great little booklet with photos and an interview with Universe guitarist / singer / harmonica player Steve Finn. The original lineup of the band was Steve, Mike Lloyd Jones (lead guitar), John Healan (bass), Mike Blanche (organ) and Rob Reynolds (drums). Steve Keeley replaced Rob Reynolds in 1970. Steve Finn was later in Sassafras, and Steve Keeley had been in Kimla Taz, which ties in nicely with TDATS volume 54 (Wales) as both those bands appear on there.

What I have done here is transcribed the full Colours booklet, and scanned the photos. I think it's important that this information is up on the net for all to see. I have also recently contacted Steve Finn, and he has agreed to answer some new questions about Universe and his own career, bearing in mind that the following interview is now almost 25 years old. In part 2 I will show the results of that, along with some info on the second Universe release from Colours just before it dissolved in 1993, The Wheel. If anyone has specific questions they'd like me to ask Steve, send me an email.


First, some more about Colours

Colours was a record label based in Skien, Norway, which existed between 1989 and 1994 .The first release was the local band Utopian Fields with Bård Tufte Johansen on vocals. The releases were primarily prog rock, but the company also released records from folk rock band Shine Dion and the Deep Purple-inspired Disciples of Love, both being local bands.

Besides releasing new music from both Norway and Sweden, the label archived long-dead and forgotten bands like Universe. In these instances they went to special efforts to include posters, booklets and other historical tidbits. They were in very limited editions and today are coveted as collectibles.


The Colours booklet and interview, written by Jørn Andersen

Welcome on board, Ladies and Gentlemen, to the second journey of Colours Time Machine. My name is Jørn Andersen and I’m the Captain of this journey.  This time we will take you back to the very early, and oh so legendary seventies. Right back to the time when the Universe was founded.

When I finally in 1990, after years and years in search of the Universe, could lay my greedy hands on a rather scratched copy of Universe's sole album, I was no less than happy.  Come days later when I was down to earth again my mind was set up.  If any privately released obscure album from those days deserved a legal reissue, this was it.  The preparation for the journey started with getting in contact with Nils J. Øybakken who was the man behind Experience Records Ltd. (wiki).

In March 1971 he stumbled over Universe, one of the many times their van broke down during their freezy virgin-tour of the north of Norway.  The year before he had set up his own studio in the basement of his father’s shop, and the now extremely rare and legendary first single with Prudence (see Norwegian volume 81) had just been released on his newly founded label: Experience.  So what could suit better than a hungry English band to fill up the studio. 

The original idea was to cut a single but the session was obviously inspiring because a full album was in the can before the tapes stopped.

“A Woman’s Shape” / “Rolling”
The single “A woman’s shape” backed with “Rolling” was issued with a picture sleeve (EXP 3002) in a total edition of less than 1000 copies.  The A-side did not make it to the LP, nor the reissue, but will be included on a possible CD release on Colours later.  The album, simply called “UNIVERSE”, was released in a total amount of 300 copies.  The extremely few copies pressed, together with the fact that it was only on sale in the middle and north part of Norway, makes this one of the absolute rarest albums with any English group from the progressive area.

Colours are proud to present this album for the listeners all over the world, as it is now released for the first time outside of Norway.

To get some facts about the history of Universe I could not trust papers, magazines or books, as little or nothing is written or is saved in the archives.  So after some expensive phone calls to England, with no result, I was quite relieved when a polite voice answered: “Steve Finn talking”.  Even more relieved was I when he was positive to our idea of reissuing their album.  He was willing to supply all information so I sent over a kind of an interview.  He and the other members who are still alive came together and kindly took their time to help us to give Universe, from Cardiff in Wales, a place in the rock history which they highly deserve.  So this is the story of Universe in their own words:


Q:  When was Universe founded and who was in the band at various times?

A:  We formed in 1968 as a blues band called “SPOONFULL”.  The line-up was: Mike Lloyd Jones (lead guitar), John Healan (bass), Mike Blanche (organ), Steve Finn (vocals and harmonica) and Rob Reynolds (drums).  This original line-up changed its name in 1970 to Universe and began writing and performing original songs as a change of direction from American blues music.  Our musical influences at that time were Yes, Jethro Tull, Family, Eyes of Blue and Man (these last two being Welsh bands).  A change of drummer occurred in December 1970, when Steve Keeley replaced Rob Reynolds.


Q:  Apart from playing in Norway, did you play any other countries in Europe?

A:  We played lots of tours in Europe.  We played Copenhagen in Denmark and in Germany we played Kiel, Munich and Hamburg (at the Top Ten Club where the Beatles started out).  We also did a tour of Denmark with Johnny Winter and Iron Butterfly.


Q:  It seems like Universe is rather unknown in England.  Is it because you never played there or what?

A:  One reason might be that we spent most of our time gigging abroad.  In UK we played at the Marquee and other London clubs and did many collage gigs supporting Yes, Fleetwood Mac, Rory Gallagher, Jethro Tull, Chicken Shack, Man, Black Sabbath and many other early 70s bands.


Q:  About the tour in Norway, it seems like a lot of things went wrong.  On the 16th March the newspaper “Adresseavisa” in Trondheim had an article about this English “pop group” who got only 5 kroner (about 50 pence) to live for a day and had to sleep at the railway station where their baggage was stolen.  They wrote that the trouble started when you didn’t get the final message about the tour dates due to a post strike in England.  You left for Norway anyhow, meanwhile the agent had found another English band in Demark, called Strange Fox, engaging them for your gigs under your name.  But they regretted and the agent had to fabricate a story about a car accident as the reason for the delay.  They also wrote that when you arrived it was only to experience that no working permission was arranged for you in Norway, and the police got involved.  Finally they let you go further on after you had promised to report yourselves to the police at every new place you arrived!  Seems like quite a tour!  Did you play in the south as well, and did you play with any Norwegian bands?

A:  We started the tour of Norway in Feb/March of 1971, but only played gigs in the northern part of the country as half way through the tour our agent Ragnar Hagen left us in Mo-I-Rana with no money, no food and no gigs.  He returned to Oslo, and we have never seen or heard from him since.  Then we met some very kind people who helped us to stay alive at that time by giving us food and somewhere to sleep.  We will always be grateful to them even though we can no longer remember who they were.

We once spent 10 days at a club in Mo called Bleak House living and sleeping in the dressing room, but eventually got to Mosjøen and met Nils.  The track on the LP was our way of saying thank you to Anton Solberg and his Bleak House, it was the only way we could (listen to the lyrics).

Nils and his parents were very good to us and gave us food.  We stayed at a youth hostel and did some recordings with Nils for a single, which grew into an LP.  I cannot remember meeting any Norwegian bands or musicians but 20 years is a fair time to go back.  We eventually got enough money to get to Oslo, then Copenhagen where we played for 2 weeks at the Revolution Club and then returned to Hamburg for a month before getting home to Wales.  It was an amazing time when we had a lot of fun and some hard times, and met some wonderful people.


Q:  Nils told me some good stories about the session.  When you were loading the equipment down to his studios the organ player tried to get his heavy L-100 Hammond organ down the stairs.  Suddenly he cried “Look out!” and down the stairs went the organ.  The steps were not good looking afterwards!  You were also changing the speakers from the song-speaker to the guitar-speaker and back again all the time.  You did also lose some equipment, didn’t you?


A:  Mike Blanche remembers the van breaking down and us not having enough money to pay the garage.  They took an amplifier and a speaker cabinet as payment and the police let us leave.  Also recall breaking down late at night on a lonely road and Ragnar Hagen saying we only had 20 minutes to live as it was -20C!  Then a lorry came down the road and gave us a lift to the nearest town.  An old couple had a hotel that was closed for the winter and they gave us beds and food for free.  Another time we slept the night in the waiting room of a railway station and when we woke in the morning the place was full of people waiting for the trains and none of them could sit down because we were sleeping straight out on all the seats.

When we returned to the UK, Nils sent us copies of the single and the LP, but no covers, and we always hoped to go back and meet everyone again, but never did.


Q:  Did you do any other recordings as Universe ?

A:  We recorded some stuff at Rockfield studios in Monmouth, which was used at the time by Dave Edmunds (who is from Cardiff).  An acetate was pressed up with “Shadow of the sun” and “Waiting for summer” on it.  We hoped to bring the Norwegian LP out in the UK, Track and Island were interested but wanted it re-recorded.  Charisma too liked our songs.

Also possibly available may be some other recordings in 71/72 when we changed our style to be a bit more rock, and the songs were shorter and more commercial.  Record companies in the UK always want hit singles.


Q:  If those tapes can be unearthed and all parts can agree there is a possibility for a second Universe LP on Colours later on.  But when did Universe split?

A:  The group finally split in 72 when it was becoming difficult to carry on from a financial point – we were not making enough money to continue.


Q:  What have the members been up to musically after the split?

A:  Mike Lloyd Jones played with Shakin' Stevens from 74 to 78 and made several LP’s.  Since then he has played with local bands in Cardiff and has songwriting connections with publishers in London. He is currently setting up a music production company in Cardiff.

Mike Blanche (known in Universe as Sponge) has produced recording sessions for the Cadillacs (former members of Racing Cars and Lone Star) resulting in 2 singles, also the Boys and Cartoon (Welsh band who toured Scandinavia in the late 80’s).

John Healan moved to Cornwall in South West of England in the mid 70’s and now plays Country & Western music.  We are still great friends and see each other 2 to 3 times a year.

Steve Keeley did not play music after Universe.  He got married and had some kids and sadly died of leukemia (blood cancer) in 1981, aged 31.  It was very sad to lose a great friend.

Steve Finn continued song writing and solo performing in folk clubs and wine bars. Wrote songs for the first Sassafras LP “Expecting company” on Poloydor (2383 245).  Was asked to join the band as bass player in UJune 74 – not my favourite instrument to play.  Wrote most of the songs for the “Wheeling & dealing” LP on Chrysalis (CHR 1076), released April 75.  Did UK tours with Black Oak Arkansas and Stackridge, tour of Holland with Ace and played France, Belgium and Yugoslavia.  Month-long US tour supporting Ten Years After and Peter Frampton.  The band was also featured on Chrysalis LP “End of the Rainbow” where they had two live tracks.  Left at the end of 75 as I hated playing bass guitar.  The band made a third LP “Riding high” before being dropped by Chrysalis (CHR 1100).  I then made one LP with Southern Comfort (Country & Western, not to be confused with the ex-MSC band) in 76/77.  I am still a solo performer and have released two cassettes of my own songs for sale at gigs.  In Nov 89 supported Ralph McTell on UK tour and have a song-writing contract with Acuff-Rose Music Publishers in London and Nashville USA.  I currently have songs with Joe Cocker, Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr. and Bellamy Brothers.


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The Universe LP was also released by Swedish label Flawed Gems last year (2014) on CD, with a few extras that were not on the 1991 Colours vinyl, being the single "A Woman's Shape" recorded during the album session mentioned in the above interview, and the 1970 acetate, also mentioned. There's a short write-up on the back of the CD which gives nothing more away, and also omits to mention that the band was British, from Wales: "The music here is great guitar-driven hard-ish rock with some blues and progressive elements - similar to early Wishbone Ash, Thin Lizzy, Man and Hackensack". This is the description of Flawed Gems over at Discogs (link): "Deemed a bootleg / unofficial label by many, even though many of their releases have an address and barcode (but lack proper matrix or IFPI code). Most seem to be taken from vinyl. Flawed Gems releases should be marked Unofficial on Discogs". Last year saw another release of the album on a mysterious label called Nemo (NEM 1002) (link).

Thanks for reading and watch out for further questions to be answered by Steve. As I said before, if you have any specific questions please let me know by email, Rich.


Credits in the booklet

All songs EVER OPEN EYE MUSIC (except Cocaine)
All arrangements UNIVERSE
Produced by NILS J. ØYBAKKEN
Cover: BRAVE BIANCO – S.G.B. – TELSTAR
Recorded in a small Lydstudio in Mosjøen 1971.
Originally released in 1971 by EXPERIENCE RECORDS (EXPLP 2001)

Musical archaeologist: JØRN ANDERSEN
Captain of the Time Machine, 2nd journey: JØRN ANDERSEN
Reproduction of the cover: JOAN MENDEZ
Drawing of the Time Machine logo: ROALD FORSETH
Re-released by courtesy of EXPERIENCE / UNIVERSE
Thanks to Steve Finn, Nils J. Øybakken, Morten Jensen.
This release is a limited edition of 1000 copies on LP.

Ⓟ 1971 EXPERIENCE / 1991 COLOURS A/S
Ⓒ 1991 EVER OPEN EYE MUSIC / COLURS MUSIC PRODUCTIONS
COSLP 005

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