The Notting Hillbillies
Missing ... Presumed Having a Good Time (1990)
By Ralph Burnett
Calling this project a debut is like calling Spuds McKenzie a pig with a patch over his eye... but gratefully, it does qualify for EXPOSE'. Missing...Presumed Having A Good Time began as a Brendan Croker/Steve Phillips LP to be produced by Mark Knopfler with help from Guy Fletcher when it grew legs, sprouted jugs, and took on a life of its own as The Notting Hillbillies.
The Hillbillies are actually the germination of a concept that was seeded many years ago when Mark was majoring in English Literature and subsequently working as a cub reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post in the northern European town of Leeds. It was there that he met up with Steve Phillips and Brendan Croker who were both local musicians. Mark and Steve formed a country-blues duo called the Duolian String Pickers, taking their name from a brand of National guitar. After Mark had finished as a reporter he moved from Leeds to London to start the band that became Dire Straits. Brendan more or less took over Mark's roll in the String Pickers and they've kept up their personal relationship ever since.
Steve Phillips is one of the leading country-blues guitarists in Britain. He took a paper route at the age of thirteen to pay for his first guitar--now he manufactures them. Mark has been using N.S. Phillips acoustic guitars ever since.
Brendan leads his own band called Brendan Croker & The 5 O'Clock Shadows, whose eponymous Silvertone LP was an indie chart success last year. Mark contributed guitar tracks and even brought along Eric Clapton to sing one song. Brendan is also one of the featured vocalists on the Johnny Cash tribute LP, Till Things Are Brighter, and played guitar on all tracks. He was also featured on Tanita Tikaram's self-titled debut release.
Dire Straits, the group most people associate Mark Knopfler with, lived up to it's name during several phases of its career-- promoting subtle, blues-oriented rock against the single-minded popularity of punk wave that held the attention of the English music press in the 1970's. In spite of this friction, the band attained worldwide success in the late 1970's, which dipped briefly in the early 1980's only to revive sharply in the mid-1980's. although Brothers In Arms was the Straits' most successful record, selling over 20-million copies worldwide, none of their previous albums have sold less than 10-million copies each worldwide. A big part of Dire Straits' popularity can be attributed to their live performances and the Brothers in Arms tour was a multi-headed monster. Ed Bicknell, who manages the Straits as well as the Hillbillies, recounts, "we did 248 dates and played to about three and one-half million people worldwide (which is an average of 16 to 17-thousand people per night)--I don't think we particularly wanted to see much of each other for a long time after that."
After the Brothers In Arms tour, Mark went up to Leeds and played a pub gig with Brendan and Steve in May of 1986 which renewed their interest in their country-oriented rockabilly roots. Steve asked Mark to produce an album for him. When they got into it, they decided it would be a lot more fun and more interesting if Brendan came in along with Guy Fletcher, the Straits' keyboard-vocalist, to add more vocals, guitar, and Sinclavier parts. In between their various other commitments, the band members began working in earnest on what would become one of the truly classic recordings of recent years.
During this time, Mark also composed soundtracks for the films The Princess Bride and Last Exit to Brooklyn; produced Randy Newman's Land of Dreams as well as a Tina Turner project; added guitar to a couple of tracks on Joan Armatrading's Shouting Stage; toured as Eric Clapton's rhythm guitarist; and began a duet album with Chet Atkins which is scheduled for release in September by CBS. "It's good to get away from [your own project] and do the best you can for somebody else," says Knopfler. "There's something decent in it. Singing your little songs around the world and ordering people in the road crew about can be a pretty narrow way of life." But alluding to his film scoring experience, Mark suggests, "you have to distinguish between film themes and the nauseating, grief-inducing, brain-damaging agony of action sequences and incidental stuff. The themes are fun--melodic tunes that we can all hum along to. The other stuff is where it gets a bit complicated...you just lurch from on crisis to the next until it's done."
Once the Hillbillies' record sort of shaped up, they decided that it would be great fun to go out and do a club tour. "The idea was based on a desire to perform in venues where you can see the people in the back row," states Bicknell. "We decided to cut back the production and the crew to the absolute bare minimum that we could get away with. The focus of our show is the music...it's not the dry-ice." Incidently, the Hillbillies are charging only about twelve (American) dollars for tickets, have no catering, travel in mini busses and stay in tiny little hotels that accommodate everybody for about sixty dollars a night. Says Bicknell, "it's been fantastic fun and the crowds have absolutely loved it. It's one of those shows where everybody leaves the auditorium at the end of the evening with a smile on their faces and if they do that--that's fine...that's what we set out to accomplish." By the way, Ed not only manages the Hillbillies but is performing with them as well: "I was asked...I mean...I was told that I was going to be playing drums on the tour (which I haven't done for seventeen years)...and I was dispatched to a practice pad with a pair of sticks and here we are." (Ed has played drums since the age of twelve and was in an early incarnation of the Average White Band called Mogul Trash--Ed says, "I was kicked out of the band for not being Scottish)."
'Nothing that old should sound this good' was the idiom that kept flashing through my mind as I tracked through "Bewildered", "Blues Stay Away From Me", "Weapon Of Prayer" and "Feel Like Going Home" with their rural-American fusion of early rock 'n roll, blues, gospel, jazz, boogie-woogie and country and western. It's apparent that Knopfler, Croker, and Phillips have perfected a formula for breathing new life into some wonderful old tunes via modern technology and a fresh approach. "This is not a crusade," says Mark. "We've had a lot of fun and felt free to take a blues and stick an African or Western Swing influence all over it."
It's this kind of progressive creativity that affixed the walls of Mark's small home studio for eighteen months in West London's Notting Hill Gate, with which the name The Notting Hillbillies was derived. The Hillbillies' name was suggested one night by Brendan who recounts, "It just came up and it stuck." "The name's jokey but the musical intention isn't," says Knopfler. "I hope some people may come to understand the depth and beauty of these songs and realize this is not about picking up an electric guitar, doing a photo session, getting a mention in the papers and becoming a pop star."
Complementing the classic rerecordings by the group are new songs from Croker, Knopfler, and Phillips with classic flavorings of their own. Mark handles most of the guitar parts spiced with the haunting blues-oriented rock leads that have become a Dire Straits trademark. Guy Fletcher, a member of Dire Straits since the Brothers In Arms album, provides all the keyboards; Phillips and Croker furnish suitably authentic vocals plus some deft interlocking guitars, and everyone sings harmonies. As a bonus, there are pedal-steel guitar riffs from ace Nashville sessionman Paul Franklin.
The Hillbillies have been astonished by the success of this record which has climbed to 1.2 million in sales worldwide in the first five weeks. Says Bicknell, "we were definitely taken a back by the response of the public... and I don't mean Mark Knopfler's public, I mean generally." Even though Bicknell has built a solid relationship with Polygram in England and Warner Bros. in the U.S. through Dire Straits projects, he was also surprised at the initial reaction from the tapes. "Lenny Warniker went completely pothe for it... I got a better response than any Dire Straits project I've taken in there."
If the Hillbillies decide later on this year to take in a few venues here in the States, or if you're lucky enough to catch their current tour overseas, your bound to enjoy material that stretches way beyond Missing... Presumed Having a Good Time in their two and a half hour show. Some of their arsenal includes Elvis standards such as "Mystery Train" and "That's Alright Mamma" and material you would find even more surprising. Says Bicknell, "there is a virtually untapped resource of material from the 1930's onward which many members of the public and many performers don't know about. The only other artist I know who's even vaguely familiar with a lot of this stuff is a good friend of ours by the name of Robert Plant who's an absolute junkie for all this old blues, country-blues and rockabilly stuff...he's great in a pop-quiz if you're ever having one." They also play three Dire Straits songs in the show and two new songs that Mark's written...one of which should end up on the next Straits' album.
Other future surprises from Mark Knopfler include a network show with Eric Clapton and Elton John as a group together (which was done about two years ago in Japan) and a new Dire Straits album (which may be delayed a bit if they decide to Hillbillies overseas). And for the record, anyone who describes The Notting Hillbillies as Mark Knopfler's Traveling Wilburys obviously has amnesia--but Mark, in fact, has been asked to possibly appear on a Traveling Wilburies number two...if they do one. Also, The Hillbillies will be doing Saturday Night Live an May the 19th.
The title Missing...Presumed Having A Good Time was thought up by Mark. The basic idea was to go missing...sort of get out of the big rock n' roll circuit and go off and have a good time and not be carrying around 900 lights and a crew of 55 people. When the Straits go out on the road again, it's inevitable that they'll do just that, but it's bound to be different. Virtually everybody in the group has families now. Mark has children, Ed has children, John has children, Guy's wife is expecting a baby, Alan has children--needless to say, they won't be playing 248 gigs back to back. Ed says they'll do fewer shows and subsequently bigger ones. "So really, this is an attempt to do it just for fun and break all the rules and not do it for all the reasons that the biz says you should do it."
I think that after you let the Notting Hillbillies work their magic in you, you'll agree with me that there's a little bit of the spirit of Notting Hill in each of us.