With hits like ‘Digging Your Scene’ and ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way’, The Blow Monkeys epitomised the glamour of mid-80s pop at its most graceful and sophisticated. In the band’s frontman Robert Howard (aka Dr. Robert), they possessed a tall, charismatic singer who was both camera-friendly and clever, who appeared to be just as much at ease on the catwalk that is pop’s conveyer belt as he was penning witty, incisive songs. While quite clearly Robert’s band, though, the Blow Monkeys were also gifted three immensely talented musicians in bassist Mick Anker (he of the trademark bowler hat), saxophonist Neville Henry and drummer Tony Kiley.
Behind the band’s stylish veneer lay something else, which became increasingly apparent from Robert’s lyrics. While some of the Smash Hits generation avoided politics with a capital P, The Blow Monkeys openly criticised the policies of the Conservative government, railing against social injustices and adopting an openly left-of-centre stance on issues of the day. From openly endorsing the gay community “Digging Your Scene” to an outright attack on Margaret Thatcher ‘Celebrate (The Day After You)’ – a duet with the late, great Curtis Mayfield, The Blow Monkeys were always the thinking person’s pop group.
As the 1980s progressed, so too did the band’s musical style, from a sound once dubbed “jazz punk” by Robert to a more soulful, jazzy style and an ever-increasing adoption of dance music. The Blow Monkeys of their rare, indie debut single ‘Live Today Love Tomorrow’ (recorded on a shoestring in 1981) would be barely recognisable to those who bought the Balearic remix of ‘La Passionara’ from 1990. And yet a soulful, spiritually uplifting strain has continued to run through their music – and, indeed, that of Robert’s solo recordings – to this day.
If the Blow Monkeys initially seemed at odds with the music scene, that might be because their frontman/songwriter had lived halfway across the world. “Before moving to Sydney, I had been a T Rex fanatic and a soul fan living in Kings Lynn – “My first hero was Marc Bolan” explains Robert. “The idea of staying in Sydney and trying to make something from there wasn’t an option. I decided it was a toss-up between going to London or New York. Landed just in time for first riots in Brixton in ’81.” Having “Answered an ad in Melody Maker”, the Blow Monkeys were born and Robert Howard transmogrified into Dr. Robert (from the Beatles song). “It started off as a joke on the sleeve of our first single,” laughs Robert. “But it stuck!”
The band’s eccentric early performances stirred up enough interest to secure a deal. “Eventually, we managed to get the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead to give us a residency,” recalls Robert. “Jack Steven signed us for RCA and then promptly left. Luckily, a new junior in the office called Korda Marshall took us under his wing. He ended up as head of Warners.”
The Blow Monkeys’ debut album, 1984’s ‘Limping For A Generation’, was an edgy mix of sinister post-punk, sensual glam rock and dramatic late 60s pop, melding Robert’s teenage obsession with Marc Bolan and T Rex with a love of Australian band the Laughing Clowns, a legacy of his teenage years spent ‘down under’. Critically acclaimed, the album secured the band a cult following and spawned several singles. The ambitious ‘Atomic Lullaby’ took a leaf from Love’s Forever Changes album in its delicate mix of strings and arpeggio guitar and its dramatic build to a (literally) explosive climax. Equally potent was ‘Wildflower’, a brash and sexy ode to an ex-lover which just oozed class. “It was written about a girl I knew,” admits Robert. “It’s all in the lyric and it’s a true story.”