Unless you’re of a certain age, the term ‘grebo’ may have passed you by. Before indie music was mainstream, when the NME not only existed but was a broadsheet, the subculture that was ‘grebo’ skulked around the Midlands.
With elements of rocker, biker, goth, punk, hippy, crusty and metaller, this was a mishmash collage of a look, which was reflected in the music. Although it’s difficult to appreciate within the diversity of today’s musical universe, at the time the use of samples and dance music alongside indie rock guitar was progressive and even daring, in the context of a world where you picked your tribe and stuck to it.
While the West Midlands side of grebo has been well documented, not least in The Eight Legged Atomic Dustbin Will Eat Itself, which told the story of the Stourbridge trio of bands – The Wonder Stuff, Pop Will Eat Itself and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – less has been written about the East Midlands scene.
Grebo! The Loud and Lousy Story of Gaye Bykers on Acid and Crazyhead very much places Leicester at the centre of the grebo world. The two bands, linked both spatially and temporally with many associates in common, experienced a similar rise and fall linked to the ‘build ‘em up, knock ‘em down’ of the music press, who constructed the grebo category and then used it as a stick with which to beat the bands.
Gaye Bykers on Acid had much more in common musically with the Stourbridge bands, sharing the sampling and mixing characteristic of PWEI after the latter moved on from their early guitar stage. Indeed, many years later, GBOA’s (male) singer Mary now co-fronts PWEI, replacing the now Hollywood soundtrack composer Clint Mansell. Looking back, chart toppers The Wonder Stuff must surely owe GBOA a pint for their replication of psychedelic guitar pedals with indie rock. The shared use of terms like groovy or groove, similar video imagery and haircuts (long bobs and dreadlocks) served to create a sense of a Midlands grebo scene.
Meanwhile, Crazyhead were far more straight up, kick ass, garage punk ‘n’ roll, with hints of The Cult, befitting of a band who supported The Ramones and Iggy Pop. Curiously, they played in post-Ceausescu Romania as ambassadors for the West.
The songs certainly stand the test of time and in hindsight, one can’t help feeling that both bands failed to achieve the mainstream recognition that they deserved, with their West Midlands compatriots ending up as the more enduring stadium fillers.
Rich Deakin’s extremely thorough and well researched account is sympathetic to both bands, and includes a plethora of quotes from those involved. As with most musical biographies, there are tales of substance abuse, betrayals, reunions, fallouts with record companies, dodgy managers and missed opportunities, notably when Crazyhead’s record company forced them to cancel their gigs at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles due to generally poor sales for the US tour, unaware that they had sold out two nights there.
The book could benefit from a more critical perspective rather than accepting some of the band members’ accounts at face value. A pertinent example of this is the video for GBOA’s Git Down, where the band adopt blackface. The band’s rationale that white men are unfairly criticised for singing about sex cries out to be critiqued – the sexualisation of racialised people needs to be seen as a discourse that is intrinsically linked with processes of dehumanisation and structural oppression rather than as to the detriment of white men.
This aside, the humour of both bands comes through, particularly in relation to GBOA’s film of Drill Your Own Hole which parodies the music industry, as well as their drag performances as Lesbian Dopeheads on Mopeds and their fake metal band, Rektum which initially fooled even John Peel. Furthermore, the book breaks through the media stereotypes of both bands as laddish and boorish, documenting their (sometime) intelligence, political commitments and cultural references.
The story ends with both bands playing reunion gigs and, Covid permitting, there appears to be the prospect of future activity, with GBOA having just finished their November 2021 tour.
At over 400 pages, this is a hefty but readable book; a labour of love which meticulously narrates the story of both bands. At times, the detail is almost too dense, and the account could benefit from more contextualisation. For the uninitiated, a list of dramatis personae at the outset might have been useful, particularly with a lengthy cast not only of band members, but also of roadies, managers and other associates, with around half of them called Ian.
That said, you don’t need to remember grebo to find this an enjoyable read (that’s what Youtube is for, kids). This tale of the ups, downs and roundabouts of two ragtag Leicester bands should not only reignite the flame in those who were there at the time, but may well bring them to the attention of a new audience and that can be no bad thing.