Portsmouth icons Emptifish are the catch of the day
It's the album that was never meant to happen.
Emptifish were to Portsmouth’s music scene in the ’80s what The Beatles were to Liverpool’s at the start of the ’60s.
Playing to packed crowds in small clubs across the city, the band captured the zeitgeist. Dressed in sharp suits and shades, the smart image of bandmates Georgie Wipeout, Ian Sonic, Ricky Sonic and Damian O’Delic belied the anarchic streak in their punk-infused music, which was the soundtrack for local teen culture and the infamous 6.57 crew.
But unlike their Liverpudlian counterparts, their commercial success was more modest; a few singles were released, but no album ever materialised.
Ultimately, the anarchic temperament which made them so popular was also their undoing. After four years of success, a string of bans from local venues following punch-ups between fans effectively called time on Emptifish in 1987.
But 30 years later, the band are finally releasing their first record thanks to the efforts of superfan Tony Rollinson, with a documentary and a slot at Victorious Festival in the pipeline.
Tony, 51, from Southsea, wrote a book on the musical history of Portsmouth called Twenty Missed Beats which featured Emptifish – and this kickstarted a hunt for the band’s original recordings.
He says: ‘They were the main reason the book existed. It was a love letter to them. They were so popular, I just couldn’t believe they hadn’t done an album.
‘Six months ago I bumped into some of the band and said “you really should’ve done an album, what material do you have?” and they said they weren’t sure, so I did some detective work and tracked down these records.’
After setting up an Emptifish Facebook page, which has more than 400 likes to date, Tony appealed for followers to search their lofts for Emptifish recordings.
He received several old cassettes which were painstakingly transferred to vinyl to form a ‘best of’ album, which will be released through Detour Records later in the year.
When Tony told lead singer Georgie, whose real name is George Hart, that he’d found the recordings and posed the idea of an album, the singer says he thought he’d be able to delegate the task.
‘I didn’t realise Tony was going to make me do so much!,’ says George, 51, from Southsea. ‘There are times when all I want is my tea and to watch some rubbish telly.
‘There’s a lot of me to go around but not at the moment. But we’re having great fun.’
The success of the Facebook page convinced executives at Detour to release the album.
Tony says: ‘We posted a link on Facebook to preorder the album, and we had a great response. The record company said that in 15 years they haven’t seen anything like it. It’s unprecedented on this scale.
‘It means it’s going to work, let alone when the national press get their review copies.’
Emptifish have been approached by national music magazines who want to feature their story, and documentary filmmakers are following the band as they reform for the first time since a brief spell in the noughties, when they performed at the Isle of Wight festival.
A lot has changed since then.
The band’s original bass player Ricky Hayes passed away in 2010, and guitar player Ian Parmiter, 53, now suffers from Parkinson’s Disease.
But George says that after a jamming session with Ian, he knew that gigging would be possible.
‘At first, I thought a lot of what we did would be out of bounds. No chance. There are lot of things Ian can’t do, but when I have been rehearsing with him he has been improving every time. It goes against everything I’ve read about Parkinson’s.
‘We’re proud because he’s taking on the fight big time. He’s making me play my guitar better each time we practice.’
Ian, who runs Parmiters Antiques on Albert Road, says he won’t let the disease stop him from playing.
‘I’m just going to keep on going. I don’t really talk about it; I just get on with things. I’ve had to relearn how to play chords, and every week we practise it gets better. And when I physically can’t walk down the street, I’ll find another way of doing things. I won’t give up.’
The task of replacing Ricky was a difficult task – but George, Ian and Damian decided that the only man who could fill their friend’s shoes was the man who kick-started this phase of Emptifish’s history.
Tony says: ‘It’s completely exhilarating to be asked to be to join them. I suggested some of brilliant bass players but they said “no, he’s too tall” or “he’s too fat”, until finally they said “don’t you get it? We want you.’
As a veteran of Portsmouth’s music scene himself, Tony is no newcomer to the stage – but he’s had to take up bass guitar lessons in preparation for Emptifish’s upcoming gig at Pie and Vinyl on Saturday, April 16 to mark National Record Day.
He’s even got his own Emptifish nickname – which he is keeping under wraps until the band perform.
‘We’ll just have to see if it’ll stick,’ he says coyly.
This will get the band warmed up for when they perform at Victorious Festival in the summer. But don’t expect to see them on the main stage, says George.
‘We’ll be in a muddy tent, somewhere dirty and garagey, that’s overcrowded with about 60 beautiful birds packed in. You can’t beat it.’
In their heyday, Emptifish packed out clubs throughout the city – but it was a nautical set which George remembers best. ‘It was my partner Helen’s 19th birthday and we hired the Gosport ferry and did an all-night gig on it, even though I get really seasick.
‘As we turned around, all we could see were chairs floating in the water behind us where people had chucked them overboard. People were hanging off the railings; some nutter actually jumped off the ferry and swam back to the Square Tower. It was like when the [Sex] Pistols went down the Thames.
‘When we got back to shore the old bill were there so we had to scarper pretty quickly.’
Despite their punk attitude, George says that if you listen to the lyrics, the message is pretty simple: ‘There’s no violence in the lyrics. All our songs were about how much we love girls and cars.’
The aggression came from the punk movement they were part of – mainly because of a surplus of left feet in the crowd, George reckons.
‘Girls could dance to soul music, but punk boys couldn’t dance at all. So instead you got in a circle and punched the c**p out of each other and shook hands afterwards. It was all good fun.
‘With gigs today you have a mosh pit but there never used to be anything like that.’
He adds: ‘We lived in our own bubble, playing music on dodgy ’60s guitars and wearing whatever we wanted. It was like Cliff Richard and The Shadows on acid.’
The future is looking bright for the second chapter of the Emptifish story – but George says he and his band members are just enjoying the ride.
‘I don’t look to the future. I’m a yes man. There’s no money factor that’s pushing me, just the love of being in the band and playing with the boys.
‘It’s in the hands of the gods; it’s in Elvis’s hands. If he says record this or play this gig, you’ve got to do it.’
To preorder the album, go to bit.ly/1R7wJuA.
n Obtaining the original recordings was only half the battle in making 6.57: The Best of Emptifish.
Many of the cassettes Tony obtained were in a poor condition, and needed to be treated and repaired before being transferred onto vinyl.
The process was frought with risk – but with the expertise of James Perrett from Portsmouth, a local expert in restoring cassettes, fans can now enjoy the band’s music from their living room.
Tony says: ‘These cassettes are like reel-to-reel tape recordings for old movie cameras; that’s what recordings were made on. But as they age the sound quality disappears and they eventually disintegrate.
‘The first thing James had to do was put these old recordings into a pottery kiln to bake them. The process of baking preserves all the sound on the film, and then you can take the music and put it into a modern format like MP3 files. From that you can make a modern vinyl.’
He adds: ‘It has to be at just the right temperature for the age and condition of the cassette. We only got one chance – if James had got it wrong these records we’re lucky enough to release would’ve been destroyed forever. It was a gamble which we thought hard over, but they were the only ones that we knew existed – we didn’t have any choice.’