It does so long as these UK comedy rock legends still have something to say about it
I’ve long had a thing for humor-in-rock, partly because it’s so hard to pull off. Rock is, usually, serious business, or, at least, not consciously played for laughs. The Dictators, Flo & Eddie, Sparks, The Tubes and Devo are all on my A-list. As is Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias. And I’m guessing most of you have not a clue about them and if you’re just hearing the moniker now, you’re probably thinking they’re Spanish.
They are not. They are British. Started in 1973, Manchester.
Singer-songwriter CP Lee explains the name of the band: “Before the band started properly, we messed around with lots of different names. One of them was Hari Odin & The Thunderers – another was Willie And The Zip Guns. One day walking through town we saw a poster advertising a concert. It was for a quite popular South American band called Alberto Y Los Trios Paraguayos. We fell about laughing when somebody said ‘Wow, look – Lost Paranoias!’
“Later that night one of our friends had a divine revelation and said that there was a little bit of Alberto in us all. That’s good enough for us and that was our name from then on.”
I probably first heard about them in the Melody Maker or the NME. Through friends at Jem Records, the LP import company, I got a copy of their eponymous debut album, loved it – each and every warped track – on my college radio station in 1976, WMEB in Orono, Maine.
They spoofed the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” with “Anadin.”
They sent up two coinciding trends of the times, reggae and the Jaws movie with “Dread Jaws,” featuring a nasty “Rasta shark.”
Pink Floyd was obviously the target in “Mandrax Sunset Variations: I, II, III.” Thing was, these songs weren’t obvious jokes.
The Alberto music was good and could be mixed into a DJs set without anyone (or most anyone) being the wiser. I probably could have said “Mandrax” came from the Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets and gotten away with it.
Just as Zappa and the Mothers took on the hippies, Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias took on the punks when punk hit, with Lee mimicking Johnny Rotten’s snarling-rolling rs and creating the ultra-violent/ultra-self-scorning Snuff Rock.
So, pull up the proverbial chair at computer as we discuss the Alberto with Christopher Paul Lee, via email from England.
How did it all begin?
Since I started performing in 1965, I’d always put humor into the music. My first proper band was Greasy Bear (1968/70) and quite a few seeds of the Alberto were sown back then. Alas, the serious musicians in the band didn’t see it that way and I left after recording our first album in 1970. I mooched around for a while swearing that I’d never have anything more to do with music. Around 1973 me and two guys, Jimmy Hibbert and Bob Harding, began writing comedy scripts and we got hired to do a musical comedy gig. Gig went well and the ‘berts were born with Bruce Mitchell and Les Prior adding to the comedy dimension.
Were you aware of the “confusion factor”? That is, are these guys Spanish? How did you deal with it (if there was one)?
We figured there would be some confusion obviously, but we loved a challenge. In actuality it only happened twice in our career over the 10 years. Once we turned up to a booking and found it full of old people waiting expectantly for a band delivering the sound of the Andes. The promoter responsible for the venue said that he’d booked the band because he liked us. He told us not to worry and said the old people would be a bit bewildered but he’d told them that we recently changed our act to appeal to a wider audience. We played, they remained bewildered, but the promoter loved it. The second time it happened was at a major concert at the Roundhouse in London. We turned up to find two elderly Spanish ladies in tears. The promoter for that night gave them a refund and took them round the corner for a glass of wine. I think they were happy after that. Well, they never came back. And yes, they were all dressed up in mantillas and shawls.
How do you trace the groups roots?
We were as much influenced by the Fugs as by Zappa and the Bonzos. Zappa was an ultimate hero – the Bonzos were rooted in jazz, we were rooted in rock and also their comedy was music hall-based and ours had a more political counter-culture angle to our parody.
The Albertos had pretty amazing chops – I mean all those genres (and genre parodies). Is there any genre closest to your heart or do you like ’em all?
To be honest with you, it was more like we hated all those genres. Obviously, that’s not strictly true. Music changed all the way through our time together and we changed with it. We felt a great affinity to pub rock and then of course to punk rock. But we also had a great love of the American music. Of course, none of that great love stopped us from ripping the Mickey out of everything. That was our job. It was a filthy one but somebody had to do it. But in order to play badly we had to be able to play really well and we were all seasoned musicians but with a love of the absurd and the spontaneous.
Bruce [Mitchell] the drummer came from a jazz background, me from folk, Jimmy [Hibbert] from Drama School, Simon [White] and Tony [Bowers] came to us from bar bands playing the North West working men’s clubs where you had to know every lick. Later, John Scott joined us – he was Martin Hannett’s right-hand man in the studio and on record. Me and John produced a spoof electronica single in 1979 which became one of Frank Zappa’s favourite record ever. We called ourselves Gerry and The Holograms and the eponymous single we put out has recently been re-released on vinyl and in Manchester music cd compilations. The fact that it bears a striking resemblance to New Order’s “Blue Monday” which came out two years later is purely hysterical, whoops, historical. There are loads online and here’s one most recent, I haven’t a clue who’s put it up and messed with it (made it better!?!?!) with added drum box.
I noticed in looking over the songwriting credits, most everything is credited to “Norman Sleek.” I’m guessing that may a pseudonym for all the band members.
I decided in discussion with the group that royalties should be shared equally. Hence “Norman Sleek” getting all the credit and shared proceeds, so yes, he, Norman, is a pseudonym for the Alberto as a whole.
What made you decide to take on the punk world with Snuff Rock? And, of course, I’m hearing a love of punk in what you do. That true?
When punk rock came along, we got very excited. We felt that at last the seriousness that had built up around rock, the pomposity, was under attack from other people and not just us. It really felt that rock was going back to its roots. We also shared management offices in London with Stiff records so we were right there in the epicentre of the whole punk rock movement. It was impossible not to be affected by it and it was also logical that we would give it a kick up the ass along with all the other musical genres we were having a go at.
I consider Snuff Rock your masterpiece. How did take shape?
It took hold as a concept immediately punk hit. I wrote it in about three weeks and it opened in April 1977 after a good six months trying bits out at gigs. Punk bands like the Pistols, the Damned and the Clash loved us.
Did you ever play any punk gigs where the audience thought you were straight-up punks?
Punks pretty well knew who we were because we had been around for a long time. There was never any confusion when we turned up at gigs. Also, we never changed the act specifically for them, we carried on doing what we were doing and they loved it. Audiences knew where we were coming from. But over the years I’ve been told by people that they bought the Snuff Rock EP thinking it was a real punk band. One music writer Stewart Home in his book Cranked Up Really High spent some time going into the question of punk and authenticity and finally concluded that Snuff Rock was the ultimate punk record because it was an illusion, all to do with the Situationist theory of the society of the spectacle. Yeah.
Any regrets taking the path you took?
Personally, I never regretted the direction we went in and loved every minute minute of it. However, some of the other band members began to realise that they wanted to play in a proper, serious band. So original members Tony Bowers and Bob Harding eventually moved on and formed groups such as the Moth Men and got involved with Simply Red and The Durutti Column, while the rest of us carried on bringing happiness to the people.
What was the worst break you got?
The stage show was the height of our career really and we can only regret that John Lennon got shot just at the time we were about to open the show Sleak, the Snuff Rock show in New York City. I totally kaboshed what would have been our really big break when I opened a radio ad with “If I were alive today, I’d go and see the Alberto’ show Sleak at Privates.” And I’m still pretty good at mimicking Lennon’s voice. Back in Manchester, a TV Studio Granada saved the band by letting me write a comedy series for the channel – we wrote and performed one song for each half-hour show. It still works – the series is on YouTube. It would have done really well if it hadn’t gone out on the Children’s Teatime slot.
Do you see any groups today picking up the humor-rock torch?
I’ve been very amused by recent comedy acts like One Direction and Justin Bieber and a new up and coming act called Prettymuch. But in our book, nobody can beat Kanye West for the sheer comedic punch of his wacky satirical songs. Seriously, I don’t know a comedy band but I came across Thomas Benjamin Wild recently. I’ve been to see The Lovely Eggs a few times – here’s one of theirs featuring John Shuttleworth.
Anything at all you want to add about your life (in or out of Alberto) and the band in general we haven’t touched upon?
It’s nice to be remembered and when I get emails like yours, Jim, asking if I would like to talk about my days in The Moody Blues, I begin to wonder if I’m remembered correctly. Ha ha. I started out as a folk singer. I’ve always enjoyed history and analysis of song and somehow this fed into teaching film at university. All of my life’s been easy really and sequential. Now retired from University teaching, I spend my time singing in folk clubs – and also now do gigs as Just One Alberto (JOA) – it’s a one-hour hoot of rehashes of the songs – I’m being called CP ‘Ukulele’ Lee and I also enjoy playing a git box as well as quite an assortment of ukuleles (though not at the same time!). I get to sing harmony in a five-piece vocal group. Got a busy summer ahead – I’m playing support doing a JOA set with The Muffin Men, also with Barry Melton from Country Joe and the Fish.
Are your albums (singles, EPs, whatever) available on line and if so where?
I believe most of our catalogue is available online – e.g. Amazon UK and Amazon USA, and obviously eBay. Last year a label in the UK called Waxy Monkey began to reissue our material starting with the last album Skite and I think there’ll release [our second album] Italians From Outer Space later this year. If you ask me for disks not available online – I was recently told the value of a 12-inch Snuff Rock is the fifth most expensive in the UK!!!