Charlie Nothing (aka Charlie Taylor; guitar, vocals)
Bert Biscoe (vocals, guitar)
John ‘Woody’ Wood (bass, harmonica)
Steve Hudson (drums)
Thanks to Bert Biscoe and Matt Vinyl, who wrote this piece which originally featured in the book No More Heroes by Alex Ogg (available to purchase here)
Penzance band formed in 1975, the name taken from Brainiac 5, aka Querl Dox, a member of the DC Comics universe noted for his exceptional brainpower. Biscoe takes up the story: “Woody owned a house in Penzance to which I moved in about 1974/5. I’d met Charlie [Taylor] through a friend from Truro, Vanessa Johnson, when he travelled from North Wales to visit her at Oxford.” Johnson herself would later be a member of Biscoe’s Metro Glider band, and married American pianist and composer Pete Williams. Biscoe, for his part, had served an apprenticeship on the highly active Cornish folk scene at venues like the Folk Cottage in Mitchell and Piper’s in Buryan, while Taylor had been a member of the Oxford college group The Half Human Band. Woody, for his part, ran Jacey’s Blues Bar in Penzance.
Half Human Band, 1972
Thus was founded the elements behind the Brainiac 5. “Woody was a quiet, determined man who quickly mastered bass guitar in order to provide the foundations of the band. He ‘managed’ the band, although it was supposed to be a joint effort. Each took on some aspect of the complex machinery – Woody did the bookings and publicity; Charlie did ‘strategy’ and money; I did the roadying. Steve was the calm, steady influence which got the band through.” A session was convened in a garage at Pendeen, in which Taylor and Woody took one of Biscoe’s songs, ‘Marilyn Monroe’, and radically altered its folksy feel to that of “a driving boogie”. Thereafter the band line-up was cemented with the addition of Steve Hudson.
From the start the band’s repertoire included original material – much of it from Biscoe, whose folk background often produced quite startling results when pulled apart and reassembled by the band. Others also contributed to the songwriting, notably Taylor. There was also a smattering of covers including Elvis standards such as ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. However, these were later the subject of complaints from would-be rock ‘n’ roll purists, “who would complain so loudly to landlords that the band, which usually whipped up a storm, sold loads of beer, and sent everybody off happy, was banned from venues for not playing rock ‘n roll properly!”
Early in their career the band switched names frequently, alternating between Brainiac 5 with Roadmaster and Matt Vinyl & The Undercoats. “On one occasion it took the landlord of one venue three weeks to work out that the three bands he’d booked for three consecutive Fridays were the same people playing the same tunes! Roadmaster was abandoned quickly, whilst Matt Vinyl is still remembered by old diehards who tend to meet nowadays at funerals…”
Among the Brainiacs more successful engagements were the Polgooth Fairs, which ran for about four years, before becoming the Elephant Fair at Port Eliot. “Polgooth is a small village just outside St Austell. The first fair was organised to raise money to bail a popular musician out of jail in Turkey. It was held in a large field beside the pub, whose landlord was a most convivial man with a penchant for taking over the band’s drum kit during breaks between sets. He would regale his loyal clientele with a repertoire of bawdy and percussive sea shanties – this was, for many bands, a humiliating moment as their employer blew them off stage. Sitting in the pub garden with a pint was often interrupted by an alcoholic chicken taking advantage of a punter’s distraction to down a few fluid ounces and to fall legless off the picnic table. The chickens were good for business.”
By now the band was playing four or five nights a week, while practising at Taylor’s cottage in Newlyn. Biscoe describes his own frontmanship as ‘novel’. As for the others: “Woody liked to crouch at the back of the stage, right against the backline, and then rush forward, looking as mean as he could muster. Charlie tended to be self-contained until he came to play one of his lengthy, wah-wah solos; he was not an orthodox guitarist and preferred Velvet Underground to Muddy Waters.” The Brainiacs had a galvanising effect on the local music scene, especially as Biscoe and Woody ran the local Gulval Mead club, which helped groom “fine combos such as Body in the Library and Septic & the Sceptics”. Woody also set up Jacey’s Blues Bar, in a stilted back room of the London Inn at Causeway Head, Penzance.
With thanks to Colin Hill
Biscoe thinks that the hardest gig in Cornwall was the London Inn at Redruth. “It was populated by R&B-propelled bikers, miners and manic engineering apprentices - a hard school, tough to please. Things weren’t helped by the route to the mens’ toilet, which lay at the back of the stage – meaning that any male seeking relief had to walk through the band to find the porcelain!” But the Brainiacs were well received, and for subsequent rebookings added a touch of theatricality to their stage act. “At the end of our second set, we would move from ‘Marilyn Monroe’ into a wah-wah version of ‘God Save The Queen’. The pub would halt in its tracks. Charlie would hold a long note and then Steve, screaming 1-2-3-4, would kick off the crazed ‘Natty Punko’ gallop. The instrumental would be extended – this allowed me to slip out of the toilet door, run down the road beside the pub, come in through the front door and wait. Charlie would wind up the solo – the band would stop – Steve would cry 1-2-3-4, and then . . . silence. I would then run towards the band, screaming, barging and shoving my way through. Eye contact with Steve heralded the count and the last verse!”
One night, as Biscoe raced through the crowded, last-ordering bar, he ran straight into an extended arm which scooped him up. At the last gig he had knocked the pint out of the grip of the arm’s owner. This was his avenging moment. Biscoe felt the arm tighten its grip – the band was waiting for its cue – but Biscoe was growing ever more fearful. He was saved when Woody ran out from the stage, walked up to Biscoe’s assailant and screamed: ‘Oi! Put my singer down. He ain’t finished singing yet!’”
Thanks to Graham Hicks
Martin Griffin, who had been a member of the Half Human Band with Taylor at college in Oxford, eventually took over Roche Studios, originally set up by famed local musician/hippie Gerry Gill. It was inevitable, therefore, that the Brainiacs would berth at Roche. “Thus began a long, happy and fruitful association – never profitable – between band and studio. Somewhere is miles of tape filled with Brainiac experimentation and demos.” Eventually, the band produced ‘Mushy Doubt’ – an EP of “innovative white reggae” that John Peel approved of.
Roche would also produce the sessions that resulted in the Double Booked album, the artefact on which their inclusion in this book is based. “The pub music scene was exploding in Cornwall. One of the most sought-after gigs was William IV in Truro. An agent, one Barry Bethel, had suddenly arrived and set up office. He was from London and a showbiz man – he persuaded the William to put out an album featuring its best bands.” Double Booked’ was recorded at Roche with Martin Griffin engineering and Bethell producing. The Brainiacs contributed two tracks – ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and ‘Natty Punko’. “We even got the reserved Bethel pogo-ing before midnight!” Both tracks were recorded in a single day. ‘Natty Punko’ was their regular show finale. Its hook, a silence followed by the spoken question, ‘Why, Bert?’, he now describes as “a deeply metaphysical moment in an urban snapshot”. Sal Griffin, Martin’s wife, was responsible for posing the question.
There was interest in the Brainiacs from Virgin after the release of ‘Mushy Doubt’, who were lined up to finance a second pressing of the EP. There was talk of a move to London but Biscoe, to this day a stout-hearted, proud Cornishman, refused to leave. The band continued from its new London base with the addition of rhythm guitarist Richard Booth, originally recruited to allow Biscoe to concentrate on vocals. Biscoe subsequently formed Lipservice, soon to be renamed Metro Glider, with guitarist and sculptor Chris Price, working with a variety of collaborators, and Carol Mercer as principal vocalist. Meanwhile, the Brainiacs were encouraged to put an album together by Martin Griffin, as they played around the capital including several shows at Dingwalls. The World Inside album was recorded in 1979 but released posthumously in 1988. It additionally featured Duncan Kerr on keyboards, who alongside, Hudson served time as a member of Plummet Airlines.
The Brainiacs never managed to build on their initial promise and became lost to history thereafter. But Biscoe is convinced that, for a time, there was a magic to the band. “Too many people remember us fondly and enthusiastically for that to be just an old man’s fancy! They touched a nerve, they touched hearts, and they lifted audiences.” As for the participants, Biscoe is a member of Cornwall Council and an advocate of devolution to a Cornish assembly. He continues to write poetry, perform music, and has published several books. Woody is a conservation architect in London and occasionally plays harmonica in his son’s band. Taylor is a successful businessman thought to be in Prague.
There is continued interest in the band in Germany due to a single released there in the mid-90s, ‘Monkeys And Degenerates’, though probably their most popular number was another Taylor composition, ‘Working’, released as their second single. At one show at Davidstow Village Hall, its rejoinder of “I’ve been workin’, workin’, workin’” prompted an exasperated janitor to ask – “What does ‘ee want? A bloody medal?’ They didn’t, as it happened. Biscoe: “The Brainiacs were never number one, never earned anything other than petrol money, never won an award. But the band did play good music, sparked interest from a large number of small audiences, alerted younger musicians to new possibilities, and left its members with a human experience which has affected the ways in which each of their lives has subsequently evolved.”
The band have recently reformed and are playing gigs around the country.
Mushy Doubt EP (Roach RR-5001 1978)
Mushy Doubt (I Was A Vegetable)/Endless River/Move Up Trotsky/Waiting For The Woman
Working/Feel (Roach RR-5002 1979)
Time/Monkeys & Degenerates (Paisano 2. 1986)
Monkeys & Degenerates
World Inside LP (Reckless RECK-1 LP 1988; recorded in 1979)
Working/Power/Primal Screaming/Woman Inside/Vegetable/I Tried/Picture Of You/Addicted/Trotsky/New Dark Ages