This interview was conducted by e-mail in Oct/Nov 2003. Many thanks to Stephen for his help.
Jump to a section of the interview...
Stephen Nardelli: I started playing the guitar when I was about 12. The Beatles and the whole pop revolution had started and I was totally sold on it all and wanted to be part of it, just like millions of other kids. The Beatles were certainly my first major musical influence followed by The Who and The Animals.
When I was 14 I went to the Marquee Club for the first time. The Yardbirds were playing there with Eric Clapton on guitar. That night is remembered in Marquee history for Eric Clapton turning up with a crew cut when the group image was long hair. Apparently, he had a huge row with their manager Giorgio Gomelski and this precipitated him leaving the group.
The Marquee scene was a great inspiration to me forming my first group. I had been jamming around with school friends playing 12 bar blues and listening to people like Leadbelly and Sonny Boy Williamson and a few of us put together an R&B group called High Court which was a mix and match of musicians depending on who was available. I started out as a guitarist in the group and my school friend George Arzimanow was the singer. We had a Sunday night residency at the St Bernadette's school in Kingsbury and built up a good local following. Our big local rivals were a group called The Selfs who played the Kingsbury church hall every Friday. The Selfs had Chris Squire, Andrew Jackman and Martyn Adelman as members.
I first saw The Selfs when we came head-to-head in a talent competition held at the Country Club in Hampstead when I was still on guitar with High Court. We did a couple of R&B numbers but The Selfs did Tamla Motown numbers and I remember being very impressed with them and in particular their rendition of Martha and the Vandella's "Heatwave". I remember distinctly the bass riffs of Chris Squire, which were already fantastic, driving and original. The Selfs won the competition but I did meet there and start dating a beautiful German girl named Heidi as consolation.
HP: How did Syn come about?
SN: Shortly after the competition, High Court changed its name to Syn and I became the lead singer. The name Syn was thought of by John Painter, our lead guitarist. Some time in late 1965, The Selfs and The Syn amalgamated and kept the name Syn and picked up where The Selfs left off, playing Tamla Motown songs: John Painter (lead guitar) and I (lead vocalist) from the original Syn and Chris Squire (bass guitar + backing vocals) and Andrew Jackman (organ + backing vocals) and Martyn Adelman (drums) from The Selfs. The first gig we did was at Kingsbury County School, which was my school. We did the only 3 numbers we had rehearsed: "I'll Keep On Holding On" by the Marvelettes, "Heatwave" and one other I forget, but we were a big success and The Syn really started from there.
As I said, the band had taken up where the Selfs had left off, playing Tamla Motown covers. We were one of the first groups playing this kind of music, which was considered very leading edge at the time. We did one original which was the first song I ever wrote called "Grounded", later the B-side of our first single.
The advantage we had in doing Tamla Motown material was the excellent harmonies on the backing vocals from Andrew Jackman and Chris Squire, both former choir boys. Andrew was the real musical talent in the group, doing all our arrangements and musical structures. He came from a musical family and had studied at Trinity College of Music and was the musical leader and father figure of the group, keeping the rest of us focused. It was with great sadness that I heard Andrew had passed away recently. He was an incredibly genuine person and I am proud to have known him and to have shared so many musical experiences with him and to have been his friend.
We all got on very well, although there was a mix of personalities and backgrounds. Chris and I became particularly good friends and would often go out to clubs and meet girls together. One night I remember in particular was shortly after the new Syn format had come together, we went to see The Who at the Railway Hotel in Harrow. Unfortunately, Chris Slater who was the disgruntled singer I had replaced from the Selfs, was there with a gang of his friendly local hard-nuts. Chris and I somehow managed to watch a brilliant set from the Who, meet two very nice young ladies and get out in one piece, although to this day I don’t know how, as the gang was waiting for us outside to avenge Slater.
We also used to go to the trendy shops that were starting up in King's Road, Chelsea, like Hung On You in Cale Street and Granny Takes A Trip at the World's End. These shops are where The Beatles and Rolling Stones shopped and we just went to look, not having the money to buy. I ended up owning three fashion shops in the King's Road after the group had disbanded.
The group was really quite good and we knew it! We were lucky to get a Sunday night residency at the Casablanca Club in Swiss Cottage and this is where we really gelled musically. Our first manager was Paul Korda [recorded an album in 1971 with Rob Tait, later of Gong, on drums], who claimed to be related to Alexander Korda, the film producer. Whatever, he got us lots of gigs, promo photos and wrote our first acetate recording, "Merry-go-round".
We did all kinds of odd gigs in the early days, backing a hit record group called Truth and backing a group of dancers at the Lyceum in Covent Garden. The highlight of this gig was a jam session at the end of the evening between Syn and Fleetwood Mac, who were also appearing. This was Martyn Adelman and Mick Fleetwood on drums, Andrew Jackman and Peter Bardens on organ, Chris Squire and John McGuinness on bass, John Painter and Peter Green on guitar and me singing! [This was Fleetwood Mac before they actually became Fleetwood Mac, working under the name Peter B's Looners or the Peter B's (1965-6).]
As the group developed, so things changed continuously. John Painter was replaced by Peter Banks and Martyn Adelman left to be replaced by Gunnar Hakenarson from Iceland. I was very upset that John was dropped as he had been part of my original group and was an old friend. But I had to admit he did not fit in with the rest of the group, although he was a very good guitarist. On the other hand, Martyn fitted perfectly in the group personality wise and was a great drummer. I just could not believe he wanted to leave and was devastated. I am so pleased to have made contact with him again through this web site and may now work with him again on a new Syn project after so many years. As well as the personnel changes, we got a new manager named Peter Huggett, the former bass player with Lonnie Donegan, who now ran a management agency in Denmark Street.
New management, new line-up, forward we went.
HP: So, after Martyn's departure, you needed a new drummer. What happened next?
SN: We met Gunnar Hakenarson in Denmark Street, London around the same time Martyn decided to leave the group. He had come over from Iceland with a bass player friend hoping to find a British group to play with. They had previously been members of a well known pop group in Iceland [Tonar] and, like most musicians at the time, hung around Denmark Street in search of a gig.
Denmark Street was the centre of the music business in the sixties with many management and booking agencies, publishing companies and small studios based there. The Giaconda coffee bar was full of musicians all day. I remember the first time I went there, David Bowie, Ray Davies of the Kinks and Cat Stevens were there. The Syn were often there as our new manager Peter Huggett had his offices in Denmark Street.
We were all very impressed with Gunnar initially because he had a full Ludwig drum kit, but he also turned out to be a sensational drummer. He was also a very likeable person with a great sense of humour and fitted easily into the group. His friend went back to Iceland and Gunnar moved in with Chris Squire, who lived just round the corner from Andrew Jackman in Kingsbury. When we were not working, Gunnar would go to see the film "Sound of Music" at the Dominion Cinema in Tottenham Court Road, which he loved. I think he saw it over 50 times!
Our first big engagement with the new line-up was a summer residency at the Valbonne Club in Cannes. The arrangement was that we would do a couple of sets and then the band would back a well known French cabaret singer whose name I can't remember. Andrew, Peter and myself drove down with the equipment in a Chevrolet car I borrowed from my uncle, while Chris and Gunnar flew down. The Valbonne was a very glamorous night club in the hills above Cannes frequented by film stars.
It ended up that the singer didn't show and it was left to us. Unfortunately, they were expecting some kind of cabaret combo not a full on rock band and we were thrown out after about a three weeks for being too loud and blasting the customers away. However, we did get 3 weeks solid rehearsal with Gunnar and by the time we got back to London, we were in good musical shape.
Shortly after our return from Cannes, we changed managers again. We were getting 3/4 gigs a week from an agency next to our manager's office in Denmark Street run by Kenny Bell and Richard Cowley. As Peter Huggett was more a theatrical manager, we decided to sign with Kenny Bell as he was an out and out rock group manager and got us loads of gigs. Around the same time, we got an audition for the Marquee Club. We were very nervous as this was the Mecca of all venues for a group in those days. I remember we played "I'll Keep On Holding On" and "SOS" by Edwin Starr and we were auditioned by John Gee, who was the legendary manager and compère at the Marquee. He heard us and said, "You'll do" (it's funny how you remember little things like that) and we were booked to play our first gig at the Marquee!!
Syn were now an out and out Tamla Motown material based group. We would do many obscure numbers like "First I Look at the Purse" [first released by The Contours in 1965] and "Cool Jerk" [first released by The Capitols in 1966], mainly introduced to us by Peter Banks, as well as the classics like "Heatwave". We played regular gigs up and down the UK, but particularly liked the Golden Torch in Stoke and the Pavilion in Bournemouth. We were a bit like sailors, with different girl friends in every town we played. Our big gig was of course the Marquee and soon we were the Tuesday night resident group there, supporting the biggest groups around.
This was a great time for the group when we were all getting on very well, we had a good manager in Kenny Bell (Kenny still manages Jethro Tull today) and we were building a good following around the country and particularly in London through the Marquee. We even had our own fan club organised by two lovely young ladies, Jenny and Jackie. Life on the road was not always easy, five of us and all our equipment in the back of a Transit van driving to Manchester and back one day and Plymouth and back the next. We certainly did have lots of arguments and one night I actually punched Chris over a dispute about where he should be dropped off after a gig, something he always reminds me of whenever I see him! But all in all, these were great days for the Syn full of good memories, friendship and musical development and achievement.
HP: Syn now had a residency at the Marquee, you had your first single, everything seems to have been going well. What was it like fronting this up and coming band? And what was it like supporting names like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and, perhaps most famously, Hendrix?
SN: The Marquee period for Syn really was the pinnacle for the group. This was our best line-up with Andrew Jackman on keyboards and vocals, Peter Banks on guitar and vocals, Chris Squire on bass and vocals, Gunnar Hakenarson on drums and me singing.
During this time, we started to write more of our own material, this mainly coming from myself and Andrew. We started writing Tamla type songs like the "Kids Are All Dancing" and our first "Gangster Opera", but this developed with the growth of the Flower Power movement into songs like "14 Hour Technicolour Dream", "Mr White's White Flying Machine" and, eventually, the "Flowerman Opera". "Flowerman" is considered the first rock opera ever written and performed, well before "Tommy" by The Who, and we have been approached by a number of record companies over the years to record it, even today! It is something we are currently considering, but it would have to be re-written and re-structured around the original concept.
We started at the Marquee as a support group and eventually got the Tuesday night residency as support group to the big names of the day. Here we supported some of the legends of rock music, Pink Floyd, The Who, Cream and, most famous of all, Jimi Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix only played at the Marquee once and it is considered the greatest night in the history of the Club. There was a record attendance including everyone from the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and just about every other rock star you could think of in the audience. For the first and only time in Marquee history to my knowledge, Syn played two consecutive sets and Hendrix came on at the end to do one final set. I remember sharing the tiny, cramped Marquee dressing room with his group and none could leave because of the huge crowd in the Club. Hendrix was very friendly and laid back and, when he played, he was unbelievably good and there is no doubt for me that he is the greatest rock guitarist of all time.
Following the success of our support nights at the Marquee, Syn got the Saturday night residency. This was great because it meant we were in London with our girl friends every Saturday, rather than travelling up and down the country.
Around this time, our manager got us our first record deal with Deram records. Deram was a new label launched by Decca to sign the new wave of psychedelic musicians. I was very friendly with Cat Stevens at the time and I remember him playing me "I Love My Dog" on his guitar and telling me it was to be released on Deram. Strange that Cat Stevens and Syn were the first artistes to be signed to the label.
Our first single was not written by us and was called "Created by Clive", but the B-side was "Grounded". This was followed by two originals, "Flowerman" and "14 Hour Technicolour Dream", which was a small hit in England and a big hit in France and Germany. This meant we did a lot of travelling, particularly to France to do gigs and television shows. We played a 3 week residency at the Op Palladium in Toulon followed by a short residency at the Bilboquet in St Germain, Paris. I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago and the club is still going strong!
Around this time, Gunnar told us he was leaving the group and returning to Iceland. This was a huge shock for the group and, I feel in retrospect, probably the start of the break-up of the Syn. We replaced him with Ray Allen [Steele?] and finally Chris Allen, both competent drummers, but the Syn was never the same without Gunnar. We discovered later that Gunnar had some serious mental problems and had suffered from agoraphobia, which was why he was forced to leave the group. He still kept drumming when he was back in Iceland and played for Iceland's most popular progressive rock band [Trubot], but continued to have mental health problems all his life.
Very sadly, I was informed Gunnar had died about two years ago. I have such great memories of Gunnar and his Icelandic friend Willy, who became Syn road manager. At his farewell gig at the Marquee, Gunnar performed a magnificent drum solo that brought the house down. John Gee, the Marquee manager, said it was one of the greatest ovations he had ever heard at the Club!
One of Syn's final gigs was the Windsor rock festival organised by the Marquee. We were appearing with The Small Faces, The Animals, The Move, Tomorrow (featuring Steve Howe) and The Nite People. To an audience of 50,000, Syn played "Illusion" followed by the "Flowerman Opera".
HP: How did Syn end? Some reports talk about poor sales for singles and the lack of a record deal, but there is also an interview with Chris Squire were he talks about the band as having reached "a certain plateau" and things becoming boring. There is a quote in the Yes biography by Chris Welch from Squire in which he talks about you getting married and becoming more interested in opening clothes boutiques...?
SN: Syn did not really break up so much as drift apart. There are many reasons why this happened, but as much as anything else, I think the times and social climate had a lot to do with it. This was the era of the Swinging '60s which spawned a new youth culture of music and fashion that still impacts and influences the way people think and behave today, and we were in the centre of it and it was pulling us all in different directions. The fact that we took off in those various directions was greatly influenced by the fact that the group had, as Chris Squire has stated, reached a plateau in its development and a break-up was almost inevitable.
One day I woke up and just didn't want to sing anymore and wanted to follow my interests into the new fashion industry that was booming at the time. Andrew was always more interested in classical music and arranging and started developing his great musical talent in that direction. Chris Squire and Peter became part of the Flower Power generation and linked into all aspects of the culture. Our drummer Chris Allen set up home with his girlfriend and none heard from him again.
As I stated, it was just a drifting apart, although everyone around us could not understand it as the band continued to be popular and successful. I remember when I opened my first boutique in Kensington Church Street, my old school friend and Syn road manager Peter Flanagan saying to me incredulously at the opening party: "But you're a singer."
In fact, I did not give up music altogether, far from it. Andrew and I continued to write and produce music together for many years after the end of Syn, but I never wanted to sing. We actually made another Syn single that very few people know about, written by Andrew and myself called "Sunshine and Make Believe". I was the singer, we had a session drummer and bass player, Tony Kaye on keyboards (later to join Yes) and David O'List on guitar. Andrew also recorded an all-orchestral track we wrote during the Syn days called "The Last Performance of the Royal Regimental Very Victorious and Valiant Band", and "Mr White's White Flying Machine", but I would never sing on them. [A version of "Mr White's White Flying Machine" (Nardelli/Jackman) was eventually released in 1970 by Ayshea—produced by Jackman and with Squire on bass.]
HP: So, what happened next? Where did you go after Syn?
SN: Groups were often asking me to join them, most noticeably Free, and Chris Squire wanted me to sing and write for his newly formed Mabel Greer's Toyshop, but I was totally committed to my fashion shops and they were doing very well indeed! I had gone into partnership with Ian Ross, who was married to Lady Killearn, the Queen's cousin. Ian was also the co-founder with Ronan O'Rahilly of Radio Caroline and in the '80s opened the first Roller Disco, called Flipper's, in LA. His daughter is the stunning model, Liberty Ross.
Ian and I opened a chain of fashion stores in Chelsea and Kensington which were so successful, I was able to buy my first Rolls Royce for my 21st birthday! We also managed an acoustic group from Manchester called Sticky George, so I never lost my links to the music scene one way or another. Later, with my good friend Mike Goodall, I managed David Essex and the Godspell band that included Julie Covington ("Don't Cry for Me Argentina"), Jeff Wayne (War of the Worlds) and, believe it or not, the actor Jeremy Irons.
In 1974, Chris Squire had achieved phenomenal success with Yes, had moved to a beautiful home in Virginia Water and built a full blown studio in his house where Yes were recording Going for the One and he was also recording his solo album Fish Out of Water, with help from Andrew Jackman. As Andrew and I were still writing together, Chris invited me to his house and suggested we form a production company together to be called NarSquiJack productions after our names.
The first time I visited Chris's studio, I had my 6 month old son Jago with me and Chris played me the first mixes of "Going for the One". It remains the greatest piece of rock music I have ever heard and will always be my favourite Yes track and I remind my son even now he's 29, that he was one of the first people to hear it.
Again, Chris was very keen to work with me as a singer, but I always rejected the idea, although we did record some material together at the studio. Narsquijack signed a group I had found hanging around Chelsea, who were one of the first Funky Soul bands called D'Dancer. I met Chris on tour in New York and we met the head of Atlantic, Ahmet Ertegun, and signed the group to WEA via Made in Heaven records.
Chris produced the first single [double A-side "Dancer"/"Isabelle"], but nothing came of them. While I was in New York with Chris, I saw Yes at Madison Square Gardens. They were at their sublime best and it was the finest concert I've ever seen and heard. By contrast, I saw them again recently at Ahoy in Rotterdam and although the level of musicianship remains, sadly the magic I remembered so vividly in New York had gone.
I'm missing loads out. For example, I had a solo recording
contract with Decca and recorded with John Miles and Alan Parsons.
Yes, at 30, I finally started singing again! I also launched Fresh
Records through WEA with Tommy Roberts, famous for his fashion
store Mr Freedom. As I look back, there's so much, but I'm trying
to stick to Syn related stuff only here.