Above, The Flatbackers from left Lucy Dray, Lynn Monk and Julie Usher in 1980
The Flatbackers were an all girl 3-piece from South London. From 1978 until 1982 they gigged all over the UK in clubs and colleges, they had lots of press, they had a record deal and released two crazy catchy singles. During this same period they also recorded four BBC Radio sessions for John Peel, as well as sessions for Kid Jensen, Peter Powell and even daytime Mike Read, they rocked on the TV and yet….somehow, somewhere… they seem to have fallen through the cracks of girl band history. Take it from me, as a teenage Punk girl I remember The Flatbackers only too well, in 1980-ish, they were among the first clutch of bands that I saw play live, and back then I was both impressed and inspired and possibly a little bit awestruck by these girls and their creatively crafted power pop. Three girls, three singles and over three decades later, punkgirldiaries finally caught up with guitarist and principal songwriter Julie Usher for her take on girls with guitars…by way of exploding drummers, David from Beckenham, Pilot, Depeche Mode and The Mo-dettes. We started off by asking her about our own favourite subject, to which she replied….
“The punk thing – to be honest I hated it ☺. I was desperate to be a really good musician. The idea that people got into bands before learning their instrument was an anathema to me. Looking back on it now I think the Sex Pistols wrote really great pop songs. And it was about real audience participation, rather than sitting cross legged on the floor head banging”.
PGD : Let’s start at the beginning then, tell us when you first started playing the guitar?
JU : I started learning the guitar at the age of 13. I loved music and wanted to do more than just dance to it. I just didn’t consider that to be anything extraordinary, although as a female, it was, back in 1964. At the time I was into Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and The Beatles.
PGD : Tell us about your first band.
JU : I joined my first band at the age of 15. The first band I gigged with were called Just Good Friends, when I was 18. I was the one who used to get the gigs, and so I approached the promoter of The Arts Lab in Beckenham, which was in the backroom of a pub called The Three Tuns. This happened to be one David Bowie and I spent the next year hanging out at Haddon Hall with him playing music. Haddon Hall was a sprawling Victorian villa that had been converted into different flats. David had the whole of the ground floor. If my memory serves me well there were three large rooms. One of which was used as a bedroom, there was a small kitchen, but the main feature was a sweeping staircase that led up to a stained glass window, and then swept both left and right to the first floor. This would have led off to various rooms but they were closed off. Presumably the other flats were behind them. The landing was around the outer walls of the space bit like a veranda and David would have a bed up there sometimes.
I played guitar and he played his acoustic or the piano. He (as I learnt later) had a penchant for discovering new musicians. I was feted a bit by him; taken to meet his producer Tony Visconti, invited backstage at his gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank. I met Lionel Bart and the Small Faces. He’d also taken his mother along. I met Angie too, she was pregnant at the time, but she wasn’t living with him then.
This was in 1969 and David was at number 5 in the charts with “Space Oddity”.
David wanted to put a band together, with me in it, but I was a very young, very shy 18 year old from the North Kent suburb of Bexley. I knew David for about a year, I remember him as being outgoing, a big ego, curly longish blonde hair, slightly crooked teeth and smoked a lot…..it was a long time ago. Quite often it would just be the two of us but I do recall other people around.
I had only recently left school and was enrolled at Downham College to take my GCE ‘A’ Levels. Well that didn’t happen! Downham is near Bromley a short distance from Beckenham and Haddon Hall. I used to stay on the bus and go visit David.
One day I turned up at Haddon Hall, and there were a group of musicians there from a band in Hull (yes that would have been Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey etc). David had decided on a different band that didn’t include me. He was in the process of forming Harry The Butcher which then became The Hype. It was an opportunity that I wasn’t ready for.
PGD : Could you tell us how The Flatbackers first got together?
JU : A singer called Steve Elgin was putting together a girl band, and I answered his advert in Melody Maker. There were four of us in the band Lucy Dray on bass, Lynn Monk on drums, Jeannie Hay on keyboards and myself on guitar.
We were based in South East London. I lived in New Cross, Lynn in East Dulwich and Lucy in Brockley. Some of the media articles described us as being part of the “Deptford Sound”.
PGD : Where did the name come from?
JU : Steve Elgin named the band The Flatbackers. We did a few gigs with him fronting the band, I remember we supported Chelsea at The Last Bastion in August 1978, but it soon became apparent that we would be better off without him. He didn’t go down well with audiences, came across as arrogant and wore a pink stage suit (society was much more conservative back then). Jeannie our keyboard player suggested we go it alone. Jeannie left the band shortly before we signed our record deal.
PGD : Rumour has it, that The Flatbackers once played at a Talent Contest at Deptford’s Albany Empire, with judges including Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook from Squeeze and Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits. Rumour also has it that a stage pyrotechnic went off, Spinal Tap style, during the soundcheck injuring your drummer Lynn Monk so badly that she had to be taken to A&E, is that a real story?
JU : That is the real story! Lynn was into the visuals and she set up the pyrotechnics for our gigs. Jeannie the keyboard player had the switchbox for firing it on her keyboard. That night it triggered whilst Lynn was still setting it up. We were just about to play our set when there was a huge flash and Lynn ran from the stage. Her hair was smoking and the flesh on her hand was hanging off. I went with her to the hospital. Her hand was burnt really badly, and also her upper arm and neck if I remember correctly.
PGD : You were on Red Shadow Records, did they hunt you down? Also who else was on Red Shadow?
JU : Yes they approached us. Reel To Reel was another of their signed acts. Alan Wilder was on keyboards, in fact he played keyboards on “Serenade Of Love” for us, just before he went on to join Depeche Mode. By the way, “Kid From Kidbrooke” and “In The Beginning” (single B-sides) also featured Billy Lyall on keyboards (Pilot, Bay City Rollers). Red Shadow Records were good for us, they were good at promoting us. We had good airplay, and along with the TV exposure our record company expected our record sales to soar. That never happened. The reason? The pressing plant stopped making our records to complete an order from an established artist – I still don’t know who that was, but back in those days a single was given a three week life span to get into the top forty. After that it was dumped. So we’d missed the boat. That didn’t happen to us once but twice. Both with “Pumping Iron” and “Buzzz Going Round”.
PGD : The Flatbackers were one of the first bands I ever saw, I think you were opening for Tom Robinson at The Marquee, and what struck me was how confident you all were, just very cool … It was unusual for a “New Wave” band to be female, let alone so musically proficient, and with such well crafted songs. Did you see yourself as a New Wave band? Did you know you were so good? What was the plan at this point?
JU : Oh, so you saw us play! ☺ I still remember playing with Tom Robinson. Did we know we were so good? – I don’t think we did! I’ve always wanted to be a good musician, and am still working on that. We just did what we did. I’ve never aimed my writing in any particular direction. We were lucky to be included in the New Wave scene as it gave us exposure. But plan? What plan?
PGD : Did The Flatbackers ever have a conversation about their “image”? I remember that Lucy used to wear a lot of catsuit type outfits, she was like an afro-haired, New Wave, bass playing, Emma Peel!
JU : We didn’t plan our image. Lynn would go for anything outrageous, Lucy wore her tailored catsuits, and me, t-shirt and jeans.
PGD : Why do you think you weren’t bigger? (You should have been huge)
JU : Thank you. Yes we gigged regularly in London. Dingwalls, Marquee, Electric Ballroom – we also gigged throughout the UK on the college scene. We did a total of four John Peel radio sessions. Plus Mike Read, Kid Jensen and Peter Powell sessions. TV shows were “Fun Factory” for Granada and “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” for the BBC. We also performed on “In Concert” for the BBC.
We took most things in our stride. It was exciting to do the radio sessions, they took place at the Beebs Maida Vale studios. Some of the studios were huge, they would record orchestras there. John Peel came to a gig of ours at the Moonlight in West Hampstead, North West London, his radio show was being broadcast at the same time, I remember saying to him what are you doing here – I hadn’t realised his show was prerecorded! When we performed on “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” our performance was recorded during the day, with only camera men and studio techs there, and then they played the video of our performance halfway through the evening TV show whilst they changed over their interview guests.
The other TV show we did was the “Fun Factory”, a Saturday morning kids show, for Granada TV. The location was a huge warehouse at their Manchester studios, and the sound was so bad that we were required to re-record our single “Pumping Iron” the day before and then mime to it on the live show.
As to why we weren’t bigger? A mixture of bad luck and politics, and we just ran out of steam.
PGD : Why did you leave Red Shadow?
Red Shadow decided we’d have a better chance with a larger company. We’d already recorded our third single “Serenade of Love” and we signed with Deram to release it, however they already had a girl band The Mo-dettes, so they just buried us and the record was never released”.
PGD : It seems ridiculous that there couldn’t be more than one “girl band” on the label, is this why we’ve never seen a Flatbackers album?
JU : There wasn’t a Flatbackers album, but we were included on a 101 Club compilation L.P. This enabled us to get “Pumping Iron” played on The Old Grey Whistle Test. The OGWT created one of their acclaimed animation videos to accompany it. We seem to still have some fans as our tracks have been put up on YouTube by them. I felt quite moved when I discovered that.
We’re also included on a Cherry Red compilation “Sharon Signs To Cherry Red”.
PGD : What happened to you all after that?
JU : I was involved in music for a couple of years after that before finally getting a ‘proper job’. I was pretty disillusioned with the music business. I’m a creative person and the business is all about product. In fact I didn’t play for twenty years. I’m back now. I have a new CD self release and working on a new band Julie Usher Twisted Blues Band. I’m playing a couple of guest spots (dates on my website) whilst my new band is at the rehearsal stage. www.julieusherguitar.co.uk
Lynn has continued to work in music and is still gigging and runs her own recording studio. No ones knows what happened to Lucy.
So there you have it. We’d like to thank Julie Usher for sharing her incredible story with us, for letting us in on life as a Flatbacker, and telling us about the twists and turns along the way, of the girl with the guitar. Looking back, it would be easy to cast the Flatbackers as an anomaly, the odd band out who never set out to be part of any scene but were accidentally caught up in the undertow of New Wave. What they did, by setting out their own stall, by sticking to their own style and not just playing just to be part of any scene does set them apart, but rather than seeing them as ill-fitting outcasts, or just another band missing a hit single, I’ve come to see them as one of the purest of the post-punk bands. Untouched by fad or fashion, and writing and playing purely because that’s what they did. Wasn’t that really what it was all about anyway? I’m glad I saw them strut their stuff at The Marquee, I can still clearly remember being blown away by both their musicianship and their quiet determination, and maybe I’d like to think that some of that might have rubbed off somewhere along the way. The Flatbackers, the world’s most accidental punk girls, Julie we salute you, and if anyone knows what happened to Lucy, please let us know.