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Roger Ollie Spencer interview

 

 

 

Roger Ollie Spencer interview

Roger 'Ollie' Spencer today

Greg Masters, Roger 'Ollie' Spencer, 
Jeff Lynne and Dave Pritchard - The Idle Race

 

Roger 'Ollie' Spencer was the drummer with The Idle Race. This Birmingham-based band was a key link in the formation of The E.L.O. Jeff Lynne was in their line-up for several years and their main songwriter. Others, such as Roy Wood and The Move were in their inner circle of friends. Their material was eccentrically English and almost parochially Brummie in some ways, drawing on influences such as music hall, fairgrounds and showbiz. The band was very popular with influential DJs such as Kenny Everett and John Peel, and with musicians such as George Harrison. Nevertheless, despite this impressive 'patronage' the band failed to chart and so remained merely a cult band, albeit a hugely impressive one, with a big local Birmingham following and a wider following amongst 'those in the know'.

When Jeff formed the E.L.O, Ollie moved into stand-up comedy and was seen on Tiswas, Granada TV's The Comedians and, more recently, in the clubs and venues of the mid-shires and on cruises, strutting his stuff as a jobbing comedian. Still in touch with the other members of The Idle Race, and still very proud of his work with Jeff and the band, this is the interview Ollie gave to Digger at www.retrosellers.com

 


 


 

Digger: Hello Ollie, how are you?
 
Ollie: Hello Dave. Good, very good.
 

Digger: You seem to be busier than ever?
 
Ollie: Saturday’s always a heavy day for me, but I’m fine.
 
Digger: You’re doing very well for a man of your age, if you don’t mind me saying so! (Both laugh) Back to the questions!. when, how and why did you start drumming?
 
Ollie: My dad was a drummer in bands. After the war, he formed a dance band and was stationed at Cranwell, which is where Charlie (Prince Charles) went. During the war he worked there as a fitter on Spitfires and Hurricanes.
 

Digger: Terrific!
 
Ollie: There was an outfit there called The Squadronaires which he became a fan of. And when he left the mob – a  good singer was me dad with a nice clear voice -  he formed a band so there was always a kit in the house. So I took it upstairs in the bathroom and pushed the bass drum against the bath sideways so as it wouldn’t move and that’s how I started.
 

Digger: Did you get any formal training?
 
Ollie: Not really. I had a few lessons to get me going. There used to be a music shop in Birmingham called Yardley’s in the sixties...
 

Digger: Yeah, I’ve heard of Yardley’s.
 
Ollie: ... And the guy from there gave me some lessons. Quite formalised but, fair play, he got me started. I was left-handed, which was quite a drawback and I didn’t realise that I could set them up the other way. I always set them up like me dad and I always played on a right-handed kit left-handed. So when I play, I play with the high-hat with my left hand and the snare with my right hand. It was great because there wasn’t such a thing as a boom stand in those days so I could play with a straight stand between me legs and sing, which we all had to do.
 
Digger: Did you ever change over to the more natural style for you?
 
Ollie: I found it comfortable. I can play a left-handed kit just for fun. But I’ll stick with a right-handed set-up.
 
Digger: Like McCartney used to play a right-handed guitar upside down, didn’t he?
 
Ollie: Yeah. Some greats are left handers you know.
 
Digger: What were your musical influences?
 
Ollie: Well, rock and roll had started when I was a kid. When I heard Bill Haley and his Comets, and then I saw them live on stage when I was 15 at the Odeon, which was a great venue for rock. I still have a scrapbook here of all the stars as I was very into rock and roll. I can remember hearing Blue Moon by Elvis where he just bashes his guitar and gets an echo and I thought “God, what a sound.” (Does sound effects and sings “Blue Moon”)
 
Digger: Was that the Gershwin song? No, Rogers and Hart.
 
Ollie: Yes, I think it was the B-side. He just did it with the back of his guitar. (More sound effects)
 
Digger: That sound you’re making. On some of The Idle Race tracks I can hear that sound like you’re tapping your fingers against your cheek…
 
Ollie: (Laughs) No, that’s what they call a skull. (Sings) “There was peace and quiet for me”….. I’m, playing a skull. Every drummer in the twenties had a set of them. It’s like a bean with a slot cut in it and they come in different sizes for different tones.
 
Digger: Some of The Idle Race material was off-the-wall and very different from what anybody else was doing.
 
Ollie: That’s down to Jeff. (Laughs)

 

 

Roger Ollie Spencer in The Idle Race (second left)

 

 


 
Digger: You others must have had some input into the creative process?
 
Ollie: Well Jeff, as always, whenever he did anything he knew what he wanted from the start and had it all in his head. That’s why he’s good at it – he can construct a song in his brain and it comes out, you know?
 

Digger: Did he have an exact idea of how it should end up?
 
Ollie: I think so. He did demos and he had a little studio in his house in Shard End and he had a 'B and O'. This is all part of history. It was one of the first machines that you could double track on. It wasn’t really a double track, but you could drop a track from the top of the tape onto the bottom so you could record two sounds together in stereo – I don’t know how they did it but the machine was then able to mix the two together. You filled that, drop that down and so on so that slowly you built up the sound.
 
Digger: Just don’t make any mistakes on the way down.
 
Ollie: (Laughs) Those sorts of mistakes would end up being put into the record.
 

Digger: Yes, well with modern technology you hear all sorts of things on older recordings. Drum sticks falling on the floor, sheet music turning, sneezes, swearing, even the voices of people who weren’t supposed to be on the released recording.
 
Ollie: Oh yeah.
 
Digger: So how would you describe yourself as a drummer and how would you describe your drumming?
 
Ollie: Yeah, I was a good solid drummer with a good metronome. I was pretty steady because, you see, years ago, it all seems so strange to say this now. But when you recorded a song, the first thing you said when you went back into the room to listen to it was “Was it okay - the tempo?” Because everybody works to the click now with machines but that was our absolute priority, how was the tempo? If you listen to Idle Race material, then you’ll hear there’s a good tempo and I’ve always got a good metronome.
 

Digger: Did you have any session musicians in?
 
Ollie: Occasionally we did – I think you’ll find Mike Batt was on one of the Idle Race tracks.
 

Digger: Where were they recorded?
 
Ollie: There was a little studio in New Bond Street called Advision…
 

Digger: Oh yes, I’ve heard of them. I’ve seen the name on many sleeve notes.
 
Ollie: Gerald Chevin and Eddie Offord were engineers there. Of 'Yes' fame. On the Internet there is some Japanese guy who has obtained, like people do on eBay, a reel-to-reel with all the track listings written in felt tip. I’ve seen a picture that was sent to me on an email.
 

Digger: Does the name Idle Race come up every day?
 
Ollie: Pretty much all the time. And being in touch with everybody, it’s not a thing that lives with me 24/7. I’ll be in a club somewhere and I hear “Oooh, Rog-e-e-e-r-r!” Some mystical thing because I’m called 'Ollie' Spencer now so I’ll say “Yeah, that’s my name, not a problem” It must happen to Elton John too – “R-e-e-g!”
 

Digger: it was weird how many people in the 60s made it in the 70s, like Reg Dwight, David Jones, Marc Feld and Rod. And Jeff, of course.
 
Ollie: Yes.
 
Digger: How did Jeff get his guitar to sound like a child crying on Big Chief..?
 
Ollie: I think he had a Telecaster with a big knurled control knob to it and he’d switch the volume off and what you do is form your shape on the guitar and bash the guitar or play the string so that it resonates with no sound on and as soon as you’ve hit it you bring the volume up. So instead of being “Pdang” it’s “Mnyayh!”  It’s without the bang and you just get the ring of the note. Because you bring the volume of the note up you also get a violin effect. I think he used it when he did Cloud Nine with George Harrison. I think they did it in the studio with George doing the playing but Jeff activated the fader in the studio so the two of them were doing what Jeff did on his own, if you know what I mean?
 

Digger: You can hear a lot of the Idle Race stuff and think that it could have been on E.L.O’s album.
 
Ollie: Oh yeah, you can hear Jeff…
 

Digger: For example on Come With Me.
 
Ollie: That was George Harrison’s favourite. It’s a great track that is. I mean Morning Sunshine too, what a great song that is. It still stands up.
 
Digger: I still love Skeleton and Roundabout.
 
Ollie: (Laughs) It could never have been a hit record could it but what a record that was.
 

Digger: Is that a Brummie thing to call a skeleton a skelington?
 
Ollie: Well, yes, you’ve got the gag exactly. It’s a localism to get the words wrong.

 

 

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John Peel and Jeff Lynne

 

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  Roy Wood


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  George Harrison

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  Kenny Everett

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Ozzie Osborne

 

 

Digger: That’s another thing. You’ve still got it now. I don’t want to embarrass you, but you can actually hear that you sound like Jeff does on his vocals. There’s a definite Brummieness.
 
Ollie: (Laughs) Absolutely. I remember Ozzie Osborne doing a single four or five years ago and he’d just got that Brummie tone. He didn’t sing his rock voice, he just sang a gentle Beatley thing and it had that Brummie sound.
 

Digger: You used to get that with Harrison a lot on The Beatles stuff if he was doing the vocal. I thought it sounded so Scouse.
 
Ollie: What Jeff had, I’m not comparing it with The Beatles, but he had this humour and this tongue-in-cheek thing all the time. The Travelling Wilburys - so many funny things on there. Clever wit and gags.
 

Digger: All born out of Harrison’s great sense of humour as well. I imagine you guys must have had some laughs?
 
Ollie: Two of the funniest guys I’ve ever met were Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood.
 

 

 

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Birmingham in the 1960s

 

 


Digger: Can you describe the Birmingham scene in the sixties?
 
Ollie: It was just non-stop groups. I’ve known a week where we’ve done fourteen gigs. So you do seven pubs and seven nightclubs. You do your gig, get your stuff in the van and go across town and end up doing all these nightclubs that were going on all around. Perhaps a one-off but we did them all.
 

Digger: And you were big in Brum and the surrounding area.
 
Ollie: I mean, I was thick and I didn’t realise. We used to do this one place and I forget what it was called now and we’d get there and there was a queue around the block. And I thought that was the normal thing. We’d get inside and do the gig and then the next place would have a queue around the block and we just assumed that was the way it was. Not until years later, of course, did you realise that you’d got quite a following.
 

Digger: You had support from Kenny Everett, John Peel and yet you didn’t gain huge popularity nationally or internationally. Why do you think that was?
 
Ollie: I just think that magic pop single thing never quite happened. You can’t explain but we weren’t just quite on the ball. And also I think the management was bad.
 

Digger: Not promoting well enough?
 
Ollie: Well, they tried. One of the biggest mistakes was that we changed agents. We saw their acts on Top Of The Pops with The Tremeloes and Fleetwood Mac and all these sorts and we though we’d go with them. And they collapsed the week we went with them, totally fell apart.
 

Digger: The Move had problems at one stage because they had the bad publicity over their Harold Wilson parody but that turned into good publicity.
 
Ollie: Oh, that was stunning. That was amazing. We did make the front page of one of the daily papers. I got engaged to a girl off of The Avengers, Rhonda Parker.
 
Digger: I don’t know her.
 
Ollie: She pushed 'Mother' around.
 

Digger: Oh yes. Big girl.
 
Ollie: She was six feet tall and I was supposedly engaged to her although we were just very, very good friends, but it made the papers. She was wonderful Rhonda. She used to follow us around along with Susan George. They were in a gang.
 

Digger: Did you ever bump into Janice Nicholls?
 
Ollie: I didn’t but my wife did many years later. Her daughter went to the same dancing school as my daughter. My wife used to sit in the dressing room with her and she was exactly the same. “Alroight? O’Im okay”
 

Digger: What’s your favourite Idle Race material?
 
Ollie: Well all of it really. It’s just tremendous stuff.
 

Digger: I can’t understand why there weren’t some hits in there. It should have led to success and I can’t understand why lesser groups achieved success and you didn’t.
 
Ollie: Management has got a lot to do with it but there’s also that quirky thing that gets the public’s ear. Clever people like Kenny Everett who raved about the band and even the likes of The Beatles and Elton John. Elton met Jeff at the airport coming back from New York a few years ago and he said “Birthday Party, a classic.” They were great records but I think, for me, there was just that daft thing that didn’t make it into a hit record. I can’t explain it.
 

Digger: So what was the route from drummer to comedian?
 
Ollie: Well, The Idle Race was a short period, really, just a few years. When The Idle Race finished the members of the band slowly left one by one and sort of transformed into the Steve Gibbons band. He was amazing and still is. Carl Wayne once described him as a static Elvis. Steve wanted muso's in the band because there was a difference I think between quirky band members and muso’s. Muso’s play properly and we didn’t play properly. We were a quirky band.
 
Digger: Not in the sense like the Bonzos?
 
Ollie: No, quirky musically. I mean, the members of The Idle Race and the musicianship when you look back at them. The bass player Greg, unbelievable bass player. You talk about Jeff and his funny sounds, Greg had a Beatle bass with three strings and he had it made into a triangle and the top strings sat on the top side and he used to play this bass with a violin bow. That part of the stage show was just sensational. We were doing that before Jimmy Page and extended solos and we used to do the universities and we were a rock band for them. Born To Be Wild and Deborah and stuff. We were two bands.
 
Digger: You got into comedy and I remember seeing you in Tiswas but what happened in those intervening years? Because that was the late 70s wasn’t it?

 

 

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The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band - Viv Stanshall centre

 


 
Ollie: A quick resume. Idle Race finished, I didn’t feel comfortable or fit in with what Steve had in mind because he wanted a proper rock drummer whereas I was a feel and pastel shades/up downs feeling sort of a drummer. He got a great rock drummer. And then I left and had two offers, one to join Viv Stanshall in a band and I was offered a job with Matthew’s Southern Comfort almost a year to the day before (Laughs) they got a number one. Viv and I were great mates and I loved the man.
 
Digger: It’s funny how there are all these connections. You probably met Neil Innes?
 
Ollie: Not so much Neil, but Legs Larry Smith…
 
Digger: Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell?..
 
Ollie: They were at Liberty on the same label as us and we worked with them a couple of times.
 
Digger: Why didn’t you join them or Matthews then?

 

 

Mike Sheridan and The Nightriders 
(Roger Ollie Spencer far left)

 


 
Ollie: Well, I just didn’t fancy going out on the road with Ian Matthews' band and when Jeff left The Idle Race that was just it, you know. But I had a mortgage to pay and a family and I joined a club band a la Baron Knights sort of thing. And they did comedy and they asked me to do a bit as I’d done some years previously with a band called Mike Sheridan and The Nightriders.
 
Digger: A famous band.
 
Ollie: Right, with Roy Wood on guitar. And so I went into there and stayed with them for a bit doing the old comedy and got me confidence with that and then went out on my own.
 

Digger: And as you were in Brum anyway you probably were known when Tiswas started there?
 
Ollie: Well, yeah. I was recommended by Jasper Carrott. They asked him if he knew anybody and Jasper said Ollie Spencer will come and write for you, he’s got some good ideas.
 
Digger: Were you ever the Phantom Flan Flinger?
 
Ollie: Yeah, a couple of times although more often 'Mrs'. The Phantom was Benny Mills – he was the number one. The first Phantom Flan Flinger was Jim Davidson and quite a few people mutated through it. I was Mrs. Flan Flinger, Chinese Who Flung Flan and I was Das Flinger the German flan flinger.
 
Digger: Have you any photos of that time?
 
Ollie: Yeah, but not digital. I’ll have to dig them out.

 

 

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Roger Ollie Spencer on Tiswas (far left, smiling)

 


 
Digger: I found some photos of you online with John Gorman.
 
Ollie: Socially the funniest man I ever met in my life, John Gorman.
 
Digger: Tell us about Ollie’s life and act today.
 
Ollie: I’m just a jobbing comedian, an old style comedian. I did seven of 'The Comedians' for Granada TV.
 
Digger: I could have seen you on the Ocean Village cruises?
 
Ollie: You could have. I don’t work for them but I do a bit of cruising. I do all sorts. Holiday camps, dinners, after-dinners.
 
Digger: Do you still do any music?
 
Ollie: Yeah, I do a bit and I am still writing. I pal’ed up with Shirley Bassey’s old Musical Director Mike Alexander and he’s getting together an act to do on the cruises and we’re just doing a bit of material together.
 
Digger: Are you still drumming?
 
Ollie: Yeah, it never leaves you and at Christmas parties and birthdays. It comes back straight away. Physically there are things you can’t do because you’re not match fit. You know what you want to do but whether you can do it… I just knock a bit of rock and roll out. Little Richard – still my favourite.
 

Digger: What do you think is the legacy of the sixties?
 
Ollie: It was just a platform that everybody started from and for me it was the beginning of so many things. Especially recording. There was a lot of experimentation which we found difficult to do then and now they can just do it with the press of a button.
 
Digger: My mate Dan in Los Angeles is so keen on The Idle Race and it strikes me as funny that he is there in the heart of entertainment’s capital and to all appearances he seems typically American and yet he loves a cult Brummie band. Have you got people like that all over the world?

Ollie: Yeah, you meet people coming up to you brandishing an album. I had one about three weeks ago - I did a Rugby club in Kidderminster and a man came up and said "Hello Roger" and waved an Idle Race CD at me. It happens a few times a year.

Digger: Do you get nostalgic about it?

Ollie: Not really. I've sort of moved on and always have done. It's a great time which I remember with great fondness, you know.

Digger: I'm 52 but I couldn't do what you're doing now at my age, not wishing to make you sound like an old man.

Ollie: Well, I am an old man. I'm a very young old man. I still feel and think young. I mix with young people and I've got a young family and it's all about attitude isn't it? 

Digger: Where did the Roy Chubby Brown impersonations come in?

Ollie: (Laughs) Well, somebody said that I looked like him but he's a huge guy and I'm only 5' 8". If you look at my face I've got the same little teeth and nose as him so there is a physical resemblance. And, of course, I don't just act I interact and it's another string to my bow because I've got to make a living. My wife's never seen it but my daughter has and thought it was fabulous. I do it bloody good! It's a pastiche and my material is a tribute to him and it's Chubby-esque and I don't use his material  - I do my own stuff. Which is unusual because the guys usually rip his DVDs off, but I've got a comic's attitude because I've been a comic as long as he has. It's not right to lift someone else's stuff.

Digger: What do you think of the state of British comedy?

Ollie: Fantastic, unbelievable.

Digger: Some say that Tommy Cooper has gone, Morecambe and Wise have gone and so on...

Ollie: It was another age and it moves on. There's some fabulous comedians and, like with the Idle Race, some fabulous bands around now. I listen to the radio, not saying that I'm plugged into Radio One every day of my life, but I'm Classic FM and Radio Two but I do like the stuff and I often ask my daughter about bands.

Digger: I go into Youtube and iTunes and listen to stuff and it's the modern equivalent of going into the booths at record stores.

Ollie: Same here.

Digger: It sounds like you're eternally youthful.

Ollie: Peter Pan, that's me.

Digger: Well Ollie, have a good gig in Manchester tomorrow and I'll be in your home town at the Town Hall watching a Judy Collins gig. It's been great talking to you...

Ollie: Please also mention Dave Pritchard of The Idle Race because we were blessed actually. I couldn't describe to you the amazing talents we had in that band. Greg a great bass player, unusual. You had Dave Pritchard do every inversion of every chord in the world...

Digger: How often do you guys all meet up?

Ollie: I shall see Dave for a curry on Monday. He lives three miles away and Greg five miles away. And we're all three of us, very weirdly and very strangely for this business, still with our wives. I've been married 40 years, a child bride. All my kids are in the business, my older daughter sings in a band - she did musical theatre like Starlight Express and toured with Philip Schofield in Joseph. My son was the very first Gavroche in Les Miserables when it first came out at The Barbican. And Holly goes into Oliver in the west end in March.

Digger: It's all in the genes?

Ollie: Yes, my wife was a dancer, she was in chorus and danced and taught speech and drama, so the whole ethos of the family is showbusiness.

Digger: I wonder what would have happened if The Idle Race has been as big as The Stones or The Beatles?

Ollie: I'd have probably been dead by now. I'm sure it was meant to be. There's a longevity about not being famous. I think Jeff's come through it very well - he's been to hell and back  and I went to see him last year and his wonderful home he's got in Beverly Hills and I emphasise that word HOME. It's a lovely home and a wonderful lady Camilla, who is stunning. The amazing thing about Jeff is that he speaks exactly the same now as the day I met him. He came over a couple of years ago and he wanted a curry and we went down to Broad Street and went to a curry buffet cafe and he said "I don't like this, where's the flock wallpaper? " So we came out of this posh buffet cafe and went down the road and found this really old naff curry house with flock wallpaper. "Oohh, that's more like it!" he said.

Digger: Look Ollie, it's been good talking to you. Let me have some photos if you can...

Ollie: Good talking to you too. I can probably digitise some images for you.

Digger: I don't want to put you to any trouble.

Ollie: There's some black and white 8x10's which will digitise quite well. I'll have a go. Send me a text to remind me. Give me a nudge - "Ollie, where' my bloody pictures?"

Digger: (Laughs) I will. 

Ollie: It's no trouble. I've always got time to talk about the fabulous Idle Race. All I'll say to you is nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Watch This Space.

Digger: Hmm, Spandau Ballet, Take That, The Jam, Cream and The Police all spring to mind. They've all had successful reunions.

Ollie: I'm saying nothing.

 
 

Ollie

 


Many thanks to Julie Crane and Ollie Spencer for their help and kindness.  Roger Ollie Spencer interview February 2010.

More information can be found at:

A fan site for The Idle Race

Elcock Entertainments agency who represent Ollie

Tiswas Online

 

 

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