Andrew Matheson is now turning failure into a great success. The English rock ‘n roller turned author (and former Canadian resident) happily acknowledges that the London-based band he fronted in the early ‘70s, the Hollywood Brats, was a commercial flop. More than four decades later, however, he has a genuine hit on his hands via his vivid memoir of that era, Sick On You- the disastrous story of the Hollywood Brats, the greatest band you've never heard of.
The book is being hailed as one of the best rock ‘n roll biographies in years. Highly respected UK music monthly Mojo named it Best Music Book of 2015, and it has just been published in North America, via the famed publishing house Penguin/Random House.
Being highly impressed by the advance excerpts we read, FYI tracked down Matheson for a chat from London, his first Canadian interview for the book. He has a close connection to Canada, though there are conflicting reports about the biographical details of his private life, with Matheson being secretive on the topic. Some sources suggest he was raised in Northern Ontario, and that he returned to live in Toronto for a spell in the '90s.
Our high hopes that he’d prove a charming and eloquent conversationalist were certainly confirmed when we chatted a couple of days after Matheson had done extensive radio interviews for US outlets and received a rave review of Sick On You in The Washington Post.
Matheson recounted his day of radio with typical colour. “It incorporated a full bottle of Jameson’s whiskey. There were calls from across the US -‘hey its Rusty Baxter here from KLA in Des Moines [laughs].’ Half were live and half taped. I’m a dangerous cannon when it comes to live, but we pressed on and created some trouble. Bring on the lawsuits!”
The fact that the book is travelling well is no surprise to the author. “It is not a parochial story. I don’t think the Hollywood Brats story can be compared to any other story. It is unique and insane. It was a tragic failure but a glamorous failure, which is good. I think it is being perceived exactly as intended on the printed page.”
Matheson adds that “whenever I read biographies, my favourite part is always the struggle. Once they’ve made it and they’re playing Madison Square Garden, it ceases to be of interest. I love the squalor, the struggle, and the heartache. The Hollywood Brats story was nothing but that!”
Not one to lack in self-confidence, Matheson admits he expected a positive response to Sick On You. “If I can be completely candid I did think the piece would be well-reviewed, but perhaps not quite this well! It has gone off the scale in terms of reviews. That is very heartening but I did think it was a worthwhile piece.
But getting Mojo’s Book of the Year? Things like that are unpredictable. I expected to get a trophy but I got six pints instead. That’ll do.”
Upon deciding to write the saga of the Brats, Matheson aimed high in terms of scoring a publisher. “I never considered self-publishing. That is where completely ridiculous books go to die a ridiculous death, as they bloody well should!
I googled ‘best publisher in the world.’ What came up was Random House UK. I approached them and 11 days later signed a contract. I’d like to mention the guy who signed me, Jake Lingwood. A really good man and a rock ‘n roll guy.”
Matheson is full of praise for his publisher. “They’ve been nothing but kind. Aggressive when they need to be, artistic when they need to be, and cracking open the champagne bottles when needed!”
The timing of the book’s appearance is fortuitous, as it coincides with the so-called 40th anniversary of punk rock, based on the rise of The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and other British punk pioneers.
As detailed in Sick On You, the ill-fated Hollywood Brats [they only lasted from 1971-75] actually had a real impact on English rockers who’d go on to form the seminal punk bands (the list includes Mick Jones of The Clash, Brian James of The Damned and Tony James of Generation X). This has led to the Brats being termed a “proto-punk” band, though to these ears they can best be viewed as glam rockers.
Matheson tells us that he was aware of the impact the Brats were having on their peers at the time. “I began to get messages from the frontlines, saying this person likes you and so does that person who is No. 3 on the charts. It was quite apparent and immediate actually.”
The legend of the Hollywood Brats grew over the years, he explains. “I went over a decade without mentioning the name of the band. It was a fun time for me, but I got on with other aspects of life, But then it [the legend] slowly started building into what would become the tsunami of this moment.”
“It was gratifying when second generation rock ‘n rollers like Hanoi Rocks would cite the band. I just met a band from China on Monday and they said they were honored to meet me. To hear that the Hollywood Brats have any kind of profile in Shanghai is very pleasing.”
The group the Brats have most been compared to is The New York Dolls, but Matheson recalls that his band was totally unaware of the Dolls when starting out. “It was completely a faceplant shock to us to learn there was anyone who looked remotely like us on the planet. There was no instant communication in those days. Things had to be mailed across the Atlantic. We first heard about them in the NME.
“We were operating in two completely separate microcosms. I have no problems with the New York Dolls, but if there was a shoot-out at the OK Corral, the Brats would win, sexually and sartorially too!”.
Matheson has mixed feelings about the punk conflagration that ignited a couple of years after the Brats imploded. “My initial reaction was that I loved the attack of the stance – the snot, the in your face. Music was completely missing that, and that was the point of the Brats. Our entire point was to annoy and disturb. The Hollywood Brats are the vegemite of rock 'n roll. You either love it or you hate it. What I want is to be loved or hated, nothing in between, not some sort of maudlin middle ground. Not for me then, not for me now or ever!
"When I saw this next wave of individuals doing it, I thought ‘go at it, stormtroopers, let’s go.' But the music itself utterly let me down. It just wasn’t musical enough for me. The competence wasn’t there. It’s alright to have anger and dance up and down, but you do need a solid musical foundation. The Brats had that. With a couple of exceptions, this new bunch didn’t. You have to play music, no matter how avant-garde or annoying or chainsaw panzer attack, it had to be backed by actual chaps who can play. That’s the bit that let me down, to tell the truth.”
Sick On You ends with the demise of the Hollywood Brats, and doesn’t explore the later periods of Matheson’s musical career. He released a couple of solo albums, 1979’s Monterey Shoes and 1994’s Night Of The Bastard Moon. The former was released in Europe and the UK on Ariola and came out in Canada via Quality Records, but didn’t exactly set the charts or airwaves ablaze.
Larry Macrae helped work that record, one he describes to FYI as “a great alt-pop album. Not only was Andrew the most handsome artist I had ever worked with at the time, he already had some interesting talking points. We got a bit of press when he came to Toronto on a junket but we never got any radio interest.”
Cam Carpenter also helped work that record, as he recalls to FYI. “I first met Andrew in 1979 shortly after the release of his solo album Monterey Shoes. His fashion sense, love of rock'n'roll and hockey knowledge soon made us fast friends. When he moved back to Canada in the early nineties I was in the position to help him out and as Director of A&R for MCA I signed Andrew and then proceeded to head to Oslo with former Hollywood Brat Casino Steele to record Night of The Bastard Moon. Although the album was not the success we both dreamed of it is one of those special records that I still listen to and am honoured to have my name attached to. Over 35 years later we are still friends. "
Another veteran Canadian music industry figure to have retained close ties with Matheson is Frank Davies, described by the singer as "a great gentleman and a friend."
Matheson notes that the renewed interest in those solo records doesn’t affect him much. “If not inundated, I have been pestered weekly by people asking when they’re going to come out on CD. That is a natural and flattering consequence, but it doesn’t really move me much, to tell the truth. I have a back catalogue. Have a gander or not. I’m fine with it. I’d rather have a pint!”
The success of Sick On You has definitely fuelled great interest in the music of the Hollywood Brats, and UK label Cherry Red released a two CD-compilation of the group’s material last month (the band only ever released one album back in the day). Look for a Brats reunion too, Matheson explains.
"It looks like we’ll get the Brats back together to cause trouble again. Sammy Yaffa, the bassist for Hanoi Rocks and sometimes the New York Dolls, has volunteered to play bass for us. I’ve been writing with my good buddy [Brats guitarist] Casino Steel and on my own and I’ve got killer songs in the can. There’s a record deal pending as well.”
Matheson does have more book projects on the go too. “I’ve got a couple of things in the tank and they’ll cause as much trouble as the last one, if not more. Sit tight. You’ll be the first to hear about them.”
He reflects that “Writing is a life sentence with no chance of parole. You just keep writing, you can’t help it. You come up with a good sentence, you write it down. Rhyming couplet, here I go. In the middle of the night, rolling out of bed and mumbling things into the tape machine, that is the curse of my life and I doubt it’ll stop soon. I’ll never have any trouble getting published. I’m a professional, I’m interesting and I’m lippy, and publishers like that."
The vibrant prose and colourful anecdotes in Sick On You makes it ripe for a screenplay, so we’re not surprised when Matheson points out that “there are multiple suitors from the film world” seeking the rights. Major players too, though we’re sworn to secrecy on that front.
The casting of a young Matheson might be tricky, he concedes. “Who could play me? Who has that combination of good looks and good lip!?”
Sick On You can be ordered here