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Cameron Hawkins vividly remembers the first time he laid eyes on Nash the Slash. “He was performing at Toronto’s Ontario Place in this punk, prog rock band called Breathless. At one point he spits a flame into the audience and sets six people on fire. I looked at that as absolute garbage and I said to myself, I could never play in a band with a person who did such outrageous things.”
As fates would decree, keyboardist/vocalist Hawkins did hook up with the mandolin-playing Nash the Slash and drummer Martin Deller, to form a creative union called FM who recorded a progressive, spacey 1977 debut release titled Black Noise.
Despite being distributed by three separate record companies (GRT, Passport and Quality) which all went bankrupt, the legacy of Black Noise, propelled by a classic rock single, the Star Trek inspired “Phasors On Stun” has survived to this day and that record, along with two further FM releases; the 1979 `Surveillance’ and 1980 `City Of Fear’ recordings have now been re-mastered and re-released on Peter Piasecki’s, Conveyor Records.
Sadly, Nash The Slash, a.k.a Jeff Plewman, passed away May 12th this year, but according to Hawkins, Nash was thankful that Black Noise would finally be re-released on both vinyl and CD, no mean feat considering the original mastered tapes had been lost or destroyed meaning a new master had to be created from a virgin vinyl recording.
“Unfortunately, it seemed that almost every record company we’ve ever been on went bankrupt“, explained Hawkins. “I don’t know whether we were the cause of it but we were certainly the beneficiaries of a lot of confusion. The reality is that Black Noise was never distributed properly. “Phasors on Stun” was a hugely popular single, and Black Noise did receive a gold album (for selling more than 50,000 units) but every time our record label went bankrupt, the sales momentum got lost.”
Interestingly enough, “Black Noise” was produced by the CBC, which pressed only 500 copies in a mail-order promotion, following a performance by FM on the network’s `Who’s New’ variety show.
Hawkins and Nash the Slash initially met while jamming with a band called “Clear ” and despite, Hawkins initial misgivings about the guy who set alight his audience, they formed a creative bond which sparked the creation of the eight compositions featured on their album debut Black Noise.
“Our original vision was to be a two-man band without a drummer because there were lots of ways of generating rhythmic elements,” explained Hawkins. “But when the CBC wanted to record us live performing on their Who’s New show, they insisted we incorporate a drummer.”
Martin Deller, who had performed with Nash the Slash on `Nocturnal Earthworm Stew” a 1976 experimental recording by CHUM-FM deejay, David Pritchard, was drafted in as a third member and the trio went into Toronto’s Sound Interchange Studios with producer Keith Whiting to record “Black Noise”.
“The CRTC had just initiated their Can-Con regulations which meant radio had to play at least 30% Canadian content,” noted Hawkins. “This meant that aside from all the commercial hits generated by the likes of April Wine, Triumph, Max Webster etc, there was also a market for progressive rock and that’s what appealed to us.”
Strangely enough, although Nash The Slash’s unique mandolin arrangements are a centre point of “Black Noise”, he left the band before the album enjoyed its mainstream release. “Yes, he left rather abruptly when he saw it turning into something that he wasn’t particularly interested in,” acknowledged Hawkins. “We were in the studio at the time and the producer says, `Right I need you to record your synthesizer solo.’ And I said, `No, that’s Nash’s solo’. And he said, `Not anymore, Nash just left the band.”
‘”There was a complexity about Nash,” continued Hawkins. “He had co-written most of the album but he just didn’t like the idea of us having a drummer. He thought the project had become too commercial so he just left.”
Hawkins and Deller found an instant replacement in Ben Mink and the trio instantly embarked on a direct-to-disc project in 1978 which would later be retitled “Head Room”. Shortly after, U.S distributors, Visa Records, leased “Black Noise” from the CBC and released the album nationally on Passport Canada, distributed by GRT Records, culminating with the trio receiving a gold record after a live concert at Toronto’s Ontario Place.
“It was during that time that we realized calling the band FM might not have been the wisest decision”
“It was during that time that we realized calling the band FM might not have been the wisest decision,” explained Hawkins. “Phasors On Stun was getting lots of airplay on AM radio stations but they were so paranoid about FM radio that when they played the single on air, they refused to mention the name of the band who recorded the track.”
The wheels started falling off the project when GRT declared bankruptcy a week before FM released their second album, the 1979 `Surveillance’ release which featured their cover of The Yardbirds’ “Shapes Of Things”. Capitol Records picked up both albums, but they weren’t exactly a priority. And then when the band’s third record; `City Of Fear’, produced by Larry Fast, came out, Passport went out of business, leaving the record to be picked up by A&M. This was too much for Ben Mink to handle and he left to enjoy a productive hook-up with k.d Lang and the Reclines.
Nash The Slash, who had enjoyed a productive spell, recording movie soundtrack music and releasing records on his own Cut-throat label, rejoined FM in 1983 and helped Hawkins and Deller record their 1985 Con-Test release which was released by Quality Records, the same label that distributed Nash’s own label. Yet, even though the record spawned a legitimate hit with “Just Like You”, the fates delivered another blow when Quality also went out of business.
Deller pulled the plug, leaving Hawkins and Nash the Slash to abandon the band’s `no guitar policy’ by employing guitarist Simon Brierley and new drummer Greg Critchley for a rather pop sounding `Tonight’ record which was released in 1986 on indie Duke Street Records.
When that lineup disbanded, Hawkins drifted off to perform in a couple of side projects; The Hot Knives and Catfish Blues Band and in 1997 started his own web design company, New Media Architects. Yet “Phasors on Stun” continued to receive airplay on classic rock radio prompting Hawkins to launch his own independent label, `Now See Hear’ Records and retrieve those lost masters. It was on this label that he was able to convince the classic lineup of Deller and Mink to briefly reform in 1994 to make a live recording RetroActive which featured the band’s standard hits plus some new previously unrecorded material.
Hawkins won a bidding battle to buy back the masters to Black Noise from the CBC only to realize that the only semblance of a master recording was an inferior cassette copy found in a reel box. When a search of a master from Passport Records in the States proved fruitless, Hawkins turned to Peter Moore “an eccentric, audio genius” who was able to fashion a re-mastered version from an existing virgin vinyl recording.
At a time when social media reigns, record companies, whose bankruptcies disrupted past FM distribution, are no longer a powerful force and Marvel Comic heroes dominate the big screens, the timing seems right for a re-launch of the space-oriented Black Noise.
“There is a timeless quality about that record,” acknowledged Hawkins. “At the time we recorded it, I was influenced by Procol Harem’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ single. No one knew what those lyrics were about either but that song had a feeling, it connected with people and that’s how I feel about “Phasors on Stun”, after almost 40 years, that song still makes a connection.”
Although it’s been more than nine years since Hawkins, Deller and mandolin player Claudio Vena last performed as FM at the 2006 NEARFest festival in Pennsylvania, Hawkins has announced that he is in the process of recording a new FM recording titled `FM Transformation’ due out in March 2015 that will also feature long-time drummer Paul DeLong and two violin players; Aaron Solomon and Edward Bernard.
“Call it FM Mark 3 if you will but I feel I owe it to the FM legacy to release at least one more record,” noted Hawkins. “I feel a sense of responsibility to keep the band’s spirit alive. To be able to revive Black Noise (available now on CD with two bonus extended live recordings of “Black Noise” and ‘Phasors On Stun” recorded with Nash and Deller at Toronto club Larry’s Hideaway) and walk back on stage and perform these songs in concert one more time is an opportunity I can’t pass up.”
So in conclusion, what are Hawkins’ reflections on Nash the Slash, the on-stage mystery guy, his face covered in bandages versus the individual off stage? “Instead of a guitar, Nash played a mandolin and with that instrument, he took it places no one else could even attempt,” observed Hawkins. “The mandolin is a beautiful instrument but in the hands of Nash it became a diabolical instrument.”
“Nash was a true artist in that he really didn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on something, he just did it,” Hawkins continued. “He was a tremendous performer on stage but that bore no resemblance to the person off stage, he was quite a reclusive fellow. In many ways, he was way ahead of his time. It’s a tribute to him a song like “Phasors on Stun” that was recorded almost 40 years ago is still relevant today.”
“My musical career would have been very different had I not met Nash The Slash” concluded Hawkins. “I am a direct benefit of that man’s brilliance.”