The Unstable Boys are the name on every music insider's lips and tipped to follow in the footsteps of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. This is their chance to hit the bigtime. They don't know they're about to be obliterated by a series of tragedies and a chaotic breakup that puts paid to the band's starry-eyed dreams of stratospheric success. One day you're the dog's bollocks; the next day you're a nobody - fame is a fickle friend.
Bestselling crime writer Michael Martindale has reached breaking point. Estranged from his wife and children following the very public fallout of his disastrous affair, he is alone, with only his self-pity to keep him warm at night. Until he makes the mistake of publicly declaring his admiration for his teenage musical obsession, the Unstable Boys. When the band's twisted and feral frontman, the Boy, turns up on his doorstep, Martindale quickly learns that sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.
Razor-sharp and laced with a caustic wit, The Unstable Boys is a dark comic caper with an unmistakeable musicality from legendary music journalist Nick Kent.
Release date: January 28, 2021
Print pages: 320
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The Unstable Boys
A selection of press clippings through the ages pertaining to the subject matter, rock combo the Unstable Boys.
‘Scoops from the Scoot’, Tigerbeat (May 1966)
Pop-a-doodle-doo, pussycats and all you smitten kittens. It’s Scooter McLain, roving reporter and dude-in-the-know-deejay for Radio KSOQ checking in again to fill you all in on the beat on the street, and there’s no shortage of sizzling scoops every night on the swinging Sunset Strip where the stars come out to play.
The hot poop this week? The Stones have been in town recording. Mick, Keith and Charlie broke from their busy schedule to take in a smokin’ hot performance by the Ike and Tina Turner Revue at the Whisky a Go Go. Whilst Tina was getting the dudes and dudettes all worked up, I slid into the booth next to Mick and asked him ‘Hey man, what’s shakin’?’ He shot me a hinky look and turned his head away. Goddamn limey fop. Hey get over yourself, Mr Big Shot.
Little Lord Jagger could learn some lessons in good manners from his fellow countrymen, the Yardbirds. That crazy quintet were driving the young set wild at the Whisky after Ike and Tina had finished their run. Between sets I got talking to one of the guys – his name was either Chris or Jim – and over a few drinkiepoos he filled me in on what was really going on back there in old London town and gave me the skinny I was after. Said the hot new act busting out of Blighty right this minute is a quintet of rebellious young roustabouts called – get this – the Unstable Boys.
So I did some digging and – yikes – that bird boy was right. They’ve got a single ‘Dark Waters’ that really rings my chimes. And my spies tell me that when they play live the audience pack together so tight you couldn’t even swing a cat in the joint – not that I’d ever consider doing such a thing of course. I’m a feline fancier at heart.
The point I’m making – and would have made earlier had the Benzedrine not just started energising my old ever-lovin’ noggin – is this. The limeys can’t get enough of these moody hunks. And anything the limeys like the yanks are going to adopt. Am I right? Of course I am. Hell I’ve already signed the adoption papers. I’m so cock-a-hoop for this crew, I’m ready to get rash with my predictions. These Unstable Boys are nothing short of musical game-changers and they’ve got just the kind of under-nourished look the young cutie pies love to gaze longingly at. How can they fail? Answer: no way, Doris Day.
Mr Jagger, consider yourself forewarned.
‘Unstables ousted from package tour drama’, New Musical Express (3 February 1967)
Current chart successes the Unstable Boys ran into a spot of hot water last week that ended up causing the quintet to be sacked from the ongoing package tour of the British Isles headlined by middle-of-the-road recent chart-topper Bobby Grit and his backing band the Wandering Hands. The bill also featured Australian folk-pop up-and-comers the Gentle People, best known for their recent smash recasting of ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’. Cliff Dogsberry, their bassist, harmony singer and unofficial leader, took immediate exception to the Unstable Boys’ backstage behaviour. ‘They swore like pommy troopers. We’ve got a sheila in our combo – young Nathalie – and I had to go and remonstrate with them. I told them – “Listen, mates, there’s a lady present. No call to adopt the language of the gutter snipe.” And one of them – the singer – responded by spewing up a stream of four-letter-strewn insults which he concluded with what I can only call a noisy eruption of rectal gas. I was left speechless.’
Nathalie Peters, the Gentle People’s auburn-haired singer, went even further in defaming her former tour mates.
‘Every venue we played they left the backstage toilet in an unspeakable state of disrepair. They criticise us Aussies for being coarse and ill-mannered but I’ve seen nothing in the outback to match the kind of grubby tomfoolery those fellows routinely get up to. As a good Christian woman, I was appalled. Vulgarians – that’s the only word that fits their kind. And vulgarians have no place in today’s entertainment industry.’
The group was pulled from the tour after the Aussie hit-makers and other participants complained to the promoter. Contacted by the NME, the Unstable Boys’ manager brushed the expulsion off by saying that his group had been ‘going over far better than any of the other acts’ and had been axed ‘out of envy’. He also pointed out that the group’s third single was still in the Top 10 despite the controversy and that their debut album had just charted over in the States.
The group’s unpredictable singer was later sighted in London nightclub the Bag O’Nails. Asked about the tour sacking, he launched into an unprintable stream of insults directed at all who’d shared the bill and organised the jaunt. Then he retired to a dimly lit corner of the venue to throw up over a large potted plant.
The Unstable Boys meanwhile are set to begin their first tour of America a month from now.
‘Unstable Boys prove true to their name’ by Stu Ginsberg, Rolling Stone (October 1969)
There’s something about touring America that has the effect of ripping to shreds certain bands who fly over from the UK to ply their trade up and down our highways. The latest casualties would appear to be the Unstable Boys. Only last year the quintet were a name on every music-biz-insider’s lips. Some even dared to call them the new Rolling Stones, others England’s answer to the Doors. Their albums and singles have all garnered healthy chart placings throughout Europe and here in the States.
But the group has also weathered its share of tragedy and controversy. Their lead guitarist Mick Winthrop was recently killed in a road accident while several drummers have passed through their ranks, some disappearing altogether soon after their departures.
‘I don’t know what it’s all about,’ sighed lead singer ‘the Boy’ when we spoke briefly in a San Francisco bar. ‘People talk about us being cursed. Someone asked me the other day – do you think you suffer from bad karma? I said “I wouldn’t know, man. I don’t eat Indian food.” ’
Guitarist Ral Coombes is more circumspect about the group’s recent trials and tribulations. Interviewed in a candlelit hotel room, he admits that Winthrop’s death is ‘something we’re still working through’ and that the ‘many changes on the drum stool’ have had a draining impact on their potential. Currently the group’s three original members are touring the States with two new players. ‘Mick died two weeks before this tour was set to start. We tried postponing the dates but the management here wouldn’t hear of it. They found these two guys we’re playing with now and stuck them in the line-up as a kind of fait accompli. They’re doing the best they can but obviously it’s not the same. I’ve played twelve shows with the new guitarist but I’ve yet to have a significant conversation with the guy. I only found out the other day he might be half-Mexican.’
The fifty-two-date tour which began last month in Sacramento has so far been ‘a bit of a topsy-turvy type of experience’ according to ‘the Boy’. Coombes elaborates: ‘The venues this time around aren’t always suited to what we’re trying to achieve live. One night we played on a bill with Albert King and his band. That was challenging. But the next night we had to go on after a juggler and a ventriloquist act. That sort of thing can really do your head in.’
According to their third original member, bassist Mark McCabe, the group’s two principals have been ‘fighting like cats and dogs’ for some time now. The guitarist readily confesses that he and ‘the Boy’ are ‘not kindred spirits . . . our sensibilities and musical agendas are very different. For a while those different sensibilities have flourished when fertilised by a strong musical chemistry. But that chemistry may well be over. In which case there would be nothing to tie us together. We can go our separate ways. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t something I was looking forward to doing.’
The singer’s outrageous behaviour both on stage and off has fuelled much of the current antagonism. His recent arrest for allegedly defecating on the forecourt of a used-car dealership in Oakland made the local news there. ‘I was looking for a new motor,’ claims ‘the Boy’ who had to pony up a 250-dollar fine in a subsequent court hearing. ‘And the geezer kept asking me to leave a deposit. So I dropped my slacks right there on the lot and obliged the man.’
Some may find this hilarious. But the Unstable Boys guitar player and bassist are not so easily amused. For them it’s the last in a long list of last straws. The guitarist talks longingly about returning to his home in London and recording a solo album – ‘something more serene’. The bassist claims to be ‘thoroughly fed up with the music industry’ and is thinking of going into some unspecified sort of ‘retail business’ with his brother.
This leaves the singer to carry on the group’s name, a task he claims to be pondering the wisdom of pursuing. His views on his co-workers are bluntly expressed. ‘Wankers’ he calls them repeatedly. Apparently it’s limey-speak for guys who masturbate a lot. No love lost there then. And no big deal in the larger scheme of things. Just another hot little combo biting the dust while the world still turns.
‘Unstable Boys’, The Encyclopaedia of Rock (2017)
One of many noteworthy UK beat group ensembles that formed in the mid-1960s, the Unstable Boys are now rightly being feted as one of the better second division acts from an extremely fertile era for pop and rock. Initially influenced in equal measure by the songcraft of Lennon and McCartney, the intricate folk guitar stylings of Bert Jansch and Davy Graham and the less sophisticated groove-based rhythm and blues of the Rolling Stones and the Pretty Things, the group scored a Top 5 hit with their second single ‘Dark Waters’, a minor chord-dominated lament to a drowned paramour. Critics and record buyers alike found the song haunting in an out-of-the-ordinary way further highlighted by the vocalist who, known simply as ‘the Boy’, managed to convey the lyrics by adopting a tone that was both chilling and mellifluous. The single even scraped into the US Top 50.
Between 1966 and mid-1969 – three tumultuous years – the group recorded and toured incessantly. In 1967 they released four singles and two albums to great acclaim. The psychedelic era was in full bloom and their recordings during this year reflected this state of affairs with phasing, flanging and backwards guitars liberally garnishing the tracks they made. One album in particular, Capture the Rapture, was hailed as one of the year’s most radical releases and rose to no. 8 in the UK hit parade and an encouraging no. 22 in US Billboard charts that year. A live album – released posthumously but recorded at Los Angeles’ Whisky a Go Go during the fabled summer of love – demonstrates the band could be a fiery-sounding live act spicing up the well-constructed melodic thrust of their self-composed songs with an anarchic jolt of menace that came from the unpredictable singer who increasingly seemed to be operating from a different perspective to his fellow group members.
By 1968, though, the divisions in the line-up were starting to make themselves increasingly manifest. Guitarist and main songwriter Ral Coombes wanted to further develop the eclectic experimental approach already hinted at in previous group waxings, but ‘the Boy’ was gung-ho to strip the music down to a simpler, rhythm-centric essence. The bass player apparently wanted the other members to transform themselves into a country and western band like the Byrds and the lead guitarist caused even more inner-group dissent by dying in an automobile accident just as the ensemble were finding their bearings in a Connecticut recording studio, there to record a projected double album.
A number of tracks were completed despite the grim reaper’s inconvenient cameo but the record company, spooked by the death and weary of the group’s in-fighting, chose to just release a single album, which they then systematically under-promoted. The result was a flop, their first record not to graze the Top 100 on either side of the Atlantic (a second album from the sessions was released posthumously).
The group broke up almost immediately afterwards. Songwriter Coombes was the first to jump ship. He released a solo album in 1971 that sold dismally at the time but has since become something of a cult ‘cause célèbre’; a second solo album was also rumoured to have been recorded but the tracks – if they exist – have never officially been made available. Bassist McCabe went on to play briefly with a number of bands, most notably the Gladstones, the Irish vocal quartet who enjoyed chart success throughout Europe during the 1970s. Various drummers came and went during the group’s duration. According to a reliable source, most of them are probably dead now.
‘The Boy’ meanwhile continues to live on, though oftentimes in reduced circumstances to those he enjoyed in his heyday. After the Unstable Boys he formed his own blues band. It lasted all of three gigs. In the early 1970s he tried out as the lead vocalist for several reputable hard rock acts (both Jeff Beck and Deep Purple gave him auditions) but to no avail. Yet he persisted in trying to re-establish himself in the forefront of public scrutiny even if it meant jettisoning his dignity in the process. An ill-starred attempt at leap-frogging onto the glam-rock bandwagon is best consigned to the waste basket of history. On his 1978 ‘punk’ cash-in, he’s featured on the sleeve waving a machete, his face smeared in a brown substance that he claimed in interviews to be the contents of his rectum. Neither time nor shame would appear to have withered his resolve to continue as a force in music though of late he’s been uncharacteristically elusive.
This is a genuine mystery because his old group have recently enjoyed a renaissance via three old tracks resurfacing as soundtracks for high-profile ad campaigns. As a consequence, were they to reunite and tour again while this second wave of mainstream acceptance is still cresting, the group’s members would be virtually guaranteed sold out crowds throughout the British Isles. They’d also get prestigious bookings at various summer festivals in Europe and America.
‘1960s cult act brought back from obscurity by high-profile ad blitz’ by Duncan Pertwee, Financial Times (23 February 2015)
Ancient ‘freak-beat’ quintet the Unstable Boys are the latest unlikely candidates for a new millennium makeover. It has come in the form of Technokratix’s latest multi-million ad campaign which features the group’s music as its soundtrack and even namechecks the long-defunct band in its slogan – ‘If you’re feeling unstable, we will enable you.’
With most vintage pop and rock acts from previous decades reuniting these days, it would make sense that the Unstable Boys’ three surviving members would do likewise in order to further capitalise on this unexpected up-turn of good fortune. But – according to bassist Mark ‘Clint’ McCabe, the only ex-member available for comment – that is extremely unlikely. ‘Too much water has passed under the bridge. We’re all different people these days. We’ve grown so far apart that I can’t imagine us having anything in common – not even the music. People like to imagine young rock bands as gangs – four or five guys bonded around the same sensibility. But it’s never as simple as that. There were always conflicts: you get caught up in an endeavour with a bunch of egomaniacs and head cases and it’s like walking around with a sack of wild cats on your shoulder. It does bad things to the central nervous system.’
Asked if he’d learned anything from his four-year stay in the often trouble-prone combo, McCabe replied without hesitation: ‘Yeah, not to do it again under any circumstances. Not a tour anyway. I’ve just had an operation that I’d rather not go into detail about. I’m not about to run the risk of haemorrhaging internally in front of a paying audience.’
His two former bandmates – singer Dale ‘the Boy’ Royston and guitarist/main composer Redmond ‘Ral’ Coombes – meanwhile have yet to express themselves publicly on the subject of their old group’s sudden phoenix-like rise from the boondocks of cult-within-a-cult obscurity to the high streets of mainstream visibility. Their former manager Brian Hartnell claims to be unsurprised by the turn of events. ‘The Unstables were a funny bunch. Not funny ha ha – funny, as in fuck me, a couple of these lads are in urgent need of heavy sedation or a spot of institutionalisation. Shepherding them around was no piece of cake, I can tell you that. But even when I wanted to throttle them – which was often the case, let’s be frank – I was still won over by the talent those boys could pull out of the hat. I knew they’d get their second day in the sun. Those songs of theirs – and that Ral had mad skills in that area – they’ve got legs.’
Hartnell, like McCabe, is doubtful the ad campaign windfall will prompt a re-formation of any sort. ‘But then why do they need to? The Unstable Boys were an enigma. They came, they cast a long fleeting shadow over the late 1960s rock landscape. Then they left. Like thieves in the night. Men of mystery. That’s what this industry was once based on. Creative ground-breakers who knew when to say their thing and then knew when to shut the fuck up, lie low and watch their legend expand.
‘If they did attempt some form of reunification – it would probably end in a bloodbath. Paramedics lurking at the side of the stage every night in case one of them keeled over. Cruel snipes in the press, I can see the headline now: “From Unstable Boys to incontinent old men”.’
It was well past the midnight hour when Trevor Bourne relented and let his fingers do the walk of shame. He’d intended to watch a YouTube documentary on the political upheavals felt throughout Great Britain during the 1980s – call it a spot of background research for a future journalistic endeavour – but finally couldn’t stomach the idea of seeing Margaret Thatcher strutting around in the starring role and had opted on a whim to ogle more erotic female flesh instead. It hadn’t taken more than three mouse clicks to find Pornhub. Bollocks to the Iron Lady. More shapely bodies were the order of the hour.
He’d sat there glaring at the screen. Porn clips came and went. Nothing to truly engage the libido though. He was waiting for that tingle in the loins but couldn’t locate it. Too much wine in the belly probably. Trevor knew the syndrome all too well: the drunker you get, the randier your thoughts become, the softer your dick gets.
But that’s what sites like Pornhub were good for. Why go through the humiliation and expense of chasing down potential sex partners that you’d almost certainly disappoint when you can simply sit back alone at home and watch others performing sex acts you don’t have the stamina to enact yourself?
And it wasn’t just about craving an orgasm. Watching porn could have cultural implications. You could learn a lot about different countries from simply studying their pornographic output, Trevor had lately come to believe. Take the French and the Italians, for example. Their porn films were too pretentious. They liked to weave in actual plot lines. The men and women being filmed often attempted to display themselves as credible actors and not just fuck puppets. By contrast, the Germans cut to the chase. Why waste time on superficial dialogue when a close up of an erect penis penetrating an orifice is what the customer is really paying to see? And why waste money on glamorous-looking sex performers when you could simply get a couple of local debauchees drunk and then film the consequences?
He sat there staring intently at the screen, watching people engage in various hardcore sex acts. But the images stirred nothing within him below the waist.
It was at that moment his train of thought entered a tunnel of self-reflection, the one marked ‘shame’. What he’d just witnessed left him struggling to justify what he’d sat through unblinkingly. The thing had been sick and sordid to behold. And those poor women! How much were they getting paid to be treated so brutally? Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.
A deeper question was forming a frown on his still relatively youthful brow. Why was he exposing his brain cells to this filth? What did it say about his current lot in life that he was reduced to finding some kind of sick solace from the sight of people behaving like human toilets?
Trevor suddenly felt unclean, his senses soiled by toxic smut. And that’s when the self-disgust started to seep in. Why was he – a grown man, a thinker, an aesthete – reduced to this pitiful predicament where he felt compelled to stare zombie-like at other human beings behaving like beasts of the darkest jungle? Yes, the writer/journalist – and he was both – was something of a voyeur by the very nature of his and her chosen profession but like everything else, voyeurism had its limits.
The answer came to him at once like a piercing scream: Jessica. Once the love of his life, now the humongous thorn impaled inside his haunted heart. Less than six months ago, she’d spoken the unspeakable. Something about ‘a trial separation’ and ‘maybe seeing other people’. So now he was alone in a flat – their old love nest – that he could no longer afford to pay the rent on while she was living the high life in the luxurious apartment of her new boyfriend, a thirty-something merchant banker with perfect teeth and all the depth of a speck of drizzle rolling down the surface of a windowpane.
Don’t mention his name. Don’t even go there. Because – as Trevor reluctantly concluded – his current loveless existence was inextricably bound up in his recent problems in securing any kind of lucrative work. In his mind, Jessica had fallen out of love not with the man himself but with his circumstances. Love’s raw flame could still be rekindled but it would not be easy to find the matches. Doing so would have to involve radically changing his ways, which leaned mostly towards sloth.
The night before, he’d been on YouTube smirking at the late comedian Peter Cook impersonating a gruff-voiced northern football manager. Cook had been in tip-top comedic fettle as his character solemnly shared the secrets of his soccer coaching skills with a balding talk-show host. ‘In this world, it’s all about the three Ms: [pause] Motivation, [longer pause] Motivation, [even longer pause] and Motivation!’ That’s what Trevor needed at this harrowing juncture of his life: motivation – in triplicate jumbo-sized, steroid-like doses. The advent of a stout-hearted stoicism. The compulsion to claim bold accomplishments. To be reborn as a phoenix arising from the ashes of heartache.
But then his old sour mood would boomerang back on him. Who am I kidding here? he’d think and the sudden gust of doubt would derail his lofty pipedreams about standing tall.
The bigger picture was this: Trevor was trapped in a world that currently held no significant context for him and his kind. His backstory was not untypical of the generation who’d spent their formative teenage years grappling under Thatcher’s boot heel through the 1980s. There was a broken home, the deeply eccentric mother and the rich but rarely present daddy. By the time puberty beckoned, he’d spent his short life in a state of bookish timidity. Music began casting a spell over him at age twelve; he tried to learn to play a Smiths song on a guitar a friend owned but the fretboard was too big for his hands and the chords too complicated for his fingers.
But then just as his genitalia were becoming framed by an anarchic moustache of pubic hair and his voice had suddenly descended a full octave, the acid house rave scene broke loose. Trevor spent his late teens necking back Es and inhaling reefer at many suc. . .
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