Photo: Jim Donnelly

Motorways, Bank Robbers, and Other Delights: A Conversation with Martin Bramah of Blue Orchids

John Peel and Nico loved his band and Mark E. Smith fired him. Martin Bramah marched through history with a band he can never seem to escape. After decades of trying not to, he's finally learned to embrace life in Blue Orchids.
Blue Orchids

“I can’t make music for other people,” says Martin Bramah, founding member of Blue Orchids, a band that is, at the moment, getting a new lease on life thanks to a brand-new crowd-funded record and an archival release that compiles the group’s early singles for the legendary Rough Trade imprint. If things go right the band might garner major attention in the U.S. for the first time in its 30-plus years.

Not that Bramah’s overly concerned about such things. “I make music for myself and hopefully other people will enjoy it. It seems more genuine to do it that way. It’s obviously not the most commercial decision but I’m not a commercial artist. My considerations are just to follow my muse.” He adds, “Sometimes I shoot myself in the foot because of that.”

When Bramah founded Blue Orchids in 1979 he’d only recently left The Fall. He co-wrote several tracks on the post-punk outfit’s seminal LP Live at the Witch Trials before all that went pear-shaped. Soon, Mark E. Smith was the last Fall standing. “It was becoming hard work with Mark and the management,” Bramah says. “It was getting a bit dictatorial and we were just 19-20 year-old kids. I wanted to be wild and free and do my own thing.”

He’d brought former Fall mate Una Baines with him and they quickly fell in with what would be the first of many Blue Orchids iterations. Because of the buzz surrounding Bramah and the fact/perception that he’d helped shape The Fall’s sound, labels were soon circling his block. “People were interested to see what I was going to do next,” he recalls.

Among those people were Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis and Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson. Although Wilson’s imprint would become instrumental in putting the Manchester music scene on the map, Bramah didn’t and couldn’t know that yet. And the name, he says, left a little to be desired. “I thought Factory was quite a boring name for a label,” he admits. “At school I was considered to be factory fodder because I was a working class secondary school kid. A factory was something to get away from.”

His intention to escape all things working class was aided by the first Rough Trade single, “The Flood” backed with “Disney Boys”. Released in 1980, the track continued the band’s forward momentum. The following year brought “Work”, which became a real calling card for the group. Its insistent, Seeds-like groove and driving organ not only recalled a bygone era of garage rock but it also stood apart enough from the herd to capture the attention of the always-influential John Peel who played the tune with remarkable frequency.

“It was quite an original sounding record at the time,” Bramah says now, recalling how he first heard it on the radio. “I think I was in a hotel in Banbury Cross,” he recalls. “I came back from the show, we were supporting Echo and The Bunnymen at the time, put the radio on in my hotel room and my work was blasting out. So that was a great moment.” All these years later the Blue Orchids founder remains fond of Peel: “He was a champion of intelligent music,” he says.

To have a successful single was another feather in Bramah’s cap. Although albums had generated mass appeal for the likes of The Beatles and Pink Floyd, singles remained something of an underground calling card and Blue Orchids remained masters of the art.

“Albums were something on the horizon to get into when you were older,” Bramah says. “That’s what the big kids were listening to. It was also a great chance for labels to try out a band without signing them to an album deal. They could sign you for one single or two singles because they weren’t taking as much of a risk. But it was more immediate. You gave it your best shot.”

Those best shots are collected on the new Blue Orchids release, Awefull which captures the non-LP Rough Trade material as well as several rarities. It provides listeners with a snapshot of the collective’s swift evolution. “Conscience” and “The Long Night Out” prove more tuneful than what many post-punk outfits were issuing at the time. There are also signs that Bramah was aware of the New Romantics and other hopefuls stepping into the ring.

“It wasn’t about, ‘Oh, we have this sound and we have to stay with that sound because that’s what people like and we have to meet their expectations,'” he says. “Music has to evolve, you have to keep following that intangible something. Because people like David Bowie and Brian Eno, every album they did was different again. They were our immediate predecessors. They were more successful but they set the bar. The thing of evolving and changing seemed to be the relevant thing to do.”

That evolution was also helped by the arrival of Nico. The onetime Velvet Underground cohort had landed, somewhat unexpectedly, in Manchester. “It was unbelievable,” he says, “this exotic creature staying at the hotel down the street.”

She was ensconced in less than glamorous conditions but that didn’t stop her from having star quality charisma. Bramah recalls being brought to her digs for a meeting along with the band’s then-manager. “She was holding court on this double bed, peeling oranges and eating Turkish Delight,” he says, his voice suggesting some amazement three decades on. He adds that although her arrival in the “grim, working class” city might have seemed incongruous at first, he and his friends would soon learn otherwise.

Blue Orchids were quickly tapped to support Nico and they took up roadwork by the end of 1981. Blue Orchids would open the show, then provide support for the German-born vocalist during her set, making room for her to have a solo spot in the middle of the gig. The awe of working with one of his idols quickly wore off for Bramah. Nico’s reputation as a junkie was well-earned and the drug quickly infiltrated the Blue Orchids camp.

“We were being given heroin for free,” he says. “It was quite ugly. After a while the romance wasn’t there. We had something going for us in our own right but we were becoming her backing band.” Blue Orchids had already released an LP, the well-received and now classic The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain). “We had our own identity, so it was important to step away from the Nico thing.” He moved forward with a new rhythm section, though Nico continued to perform with a band calling itself Blue Orchids.

There were no studio recordings of her with the Bramah-led band. “You can buy records released under the Nico and Blue Orchids name,” he says, “but we’re not on it.”

What should have been a victory lap for the band proved devastating. Heroin hadn’t just taken hold of several plays in the BO camp, it had sullied the reputation of all involved. “Labels didn’t want to deal with junkies and I had gotten a little bit of that reputation myself,” he recalls. “I tried it, didn’t inject it. I didn’t like it. Couldn’t see what the fuss was about and moved on quite quickly.”

But the damage had been done. “We folded a year later,” Bramah says. “That was the end of the Rough Trade period and the band went quiet for a while.”

Mostly quiet. There was a 1985 single titled “Sleepytown”, backed with “Thirst”. Bramah rejoined The Fall for the 1989 release Extricate and was sacked while on tour in Australia. He soon brought together a new Blue Orchids for “Diamond Age”, then the Secret City EP. An album was tracked and shelved and by 1995 the lights were out again.

Bramah left the music world for a time, finding pleasure in a variety of jobs including working in a warehouse and driving bus in London. He continued to write songs but mostly threw himself into a new passion, the Japanese martial art Aikido. “I needed to distance myself from music,” he says. “I needed to understand why I made it and if I wanted to continue to make it. It had just become a thing that I did.” He excelled in Aikido but his sensei, a fellow musician, encouraged Bramah to return to his first art. “After eight years away I realized that music is where I fit in. It’s where I belonged. I had a genuine buildup of songs that were worth sharing with people. So I decided to claw my way back.”

There was support for this clawing. In 2002 Cherry Red issued a two-CD set titled A Darker Bloom. With the Internet entering full swing music lovers had become increasingly vocal about acts that had slipped through the cracks. “I got a letter through the door, unsolicited,” Bramah recalls, “from Cherry Red to make a compilation.” In short order a second label, LTM, requested a collection. That led to From Severe to Serene, which compiled two Peel Session appearances, a live gig, and an EP. The previously shelved ’93 sessions arrived as The Sleeper in 2003 while the following year brought brand-new music in the form of Mystic Bud.

“I went online and saw that there was still interest in Blue Orchids and took it from there,” he says. Not that it was a straight line from “there” to here. Bramah recorded the excellent, quiet affair The Battle of Twisted Heel which gets a new lease on life now alongside Awefull and the brand new The Once and Future Thing back in 2008 and formed Factory Star, which held former Fall guys Steve and Paul Hanley in its ranks.

Then, in 2012, came an offer to perform at Peel-centered festival. There was no sense in trying to reunite the original Blue Orchids but by the time two more offers came in Bramah knew that he would be continuing under that name. There were new songs that fitted nicely with the classics and recording them seemed the next logical step.

Management suggested that this time out the band should use crowd funding to make the record. Bramah wasn’t initially convinced. “It seemed really uncool,” he says. “It was like begging.” But he quickly came around. “Look, things are changing,” he says. “If I want to continue making the music I want to make, then cutting out the middle man and having the money come straight to us from the people that want the music, gives me more control.”

The result is a record that sits nicely next to Greatest Hit and the Rough Trade singles while maintaining a contemporary sensibility. The opening track from The Once and Future Thing is “A Good Day to Live”, which has its origins in a walk the Manchester native took near his new home in the Pennines of Northern England. Bramah says he was reminded of the phrase “Today is a good day to die,” attributed to sources such as Crazy Horse and referenced in Native American-themed films. “I was out and thought, ‘Today is a good day to live, actually.'”

Talk has circulated for a while now that the tune might be used in a film about Atilla Ambrus, the so-called Whiskey Robber from Hungary who became a kind of folk hero in the 1990s as he robbed banks but did so with a twist. “Hungary was going from Communism to Capitalism but it was still like living a third world country,” Bramah says. “There was no security in the banks. Basically, Atilla would get really drunk and run into banks and start demanding money. But he didn’t have a gun or anything like that. There was a national crime watch program that aired on Wednesday nights. He’d always rob a bank of a Tuesday to get on TV on the Wednesday. So he became this national hero. The police didn’t get paid very well and he’d do things like a leave a loaf of bread for them in the safe because they were so poor. He’d leave roses for the cashiers. They caught up with him and he did 10 years in prison.”

Bramah turned toward more personal matters for “Motorway”. In his youth he lived on a lonely street on which most of the houses had been demolished in order to make way for the motorway. “It was like a big mud track, so we got the place quite cheap. Then they finished it and cars would zoom by night and day. I used to dream of jumping over the fence and hitching a ride to somewhere else.” The house stands to this day and can be seen from the M60 around Manchester. “If I’m passing through I always point out our house to friends.”

He says that he was also inspired by the traveling he’s done across England and Europe as a musician and that more touring seems in order. There are other activities afoot, including a proposed oral history of the band. Given the paucity of information circulating about Blue Orchids it seems appropriate that something of that nature would arrive. For those searching, Bramah oversees an official BO Facebook group and an official Facebook page for the band. You can go to either to catch the latest news on the records coming to light this year, including a limited edition two-disc live set that spotlights the Orchids in 1981 and 1985. Some of this activity, Bramah says, might help raise the band’s profile in territories outside the UK. North America is of particular interest.

“We have an American who’s a fan of the band but doesn’t want to be named in interviews yet,” he says, “and he’s in a position to help and very much wants to do so. I’ve never been there to play with Blue Orchids though I have been with the Fall. And I’ve always had an affinity with the American audience because that music has always been a big influence on me. This push,” he says, “is part of trying to reintroduce Blue Orchids to the American audience.”

He adds, “There’s a backstory. We’re not some wet behind the ear kids who are trying to make it. So, yeah, there are millions of people who have yet to discover us. Why not try?”