Canadians Mike Harrison and Tony Nolasco came to England in December 1968 with their blues/rock band, McKenna Mendelson Mainline. They talk to Nick Warburton about the Toronto group’s record deal with Liberty Records, recording their landmark album, “Stink”, touring the UK and the band’s decision to return to Canada before its release.
I’ve read that McKenna Mendelson Mainline was formed around May 1968 after Mike McKenna placed an advert in the Toronto Star looking for ‘like-minded’ blues musicians and Joe Mendelson answered?
Tony: That’s how it started. Joe was a bit pessimistic about the idea as we learned later but not enough to not call.
Is it true Tony that you were barely 18 years old when you joined?
Tony: Barely? Is the glass half full? Yes…I was 18.
I understand Tony that you recommended Mike Harrison as a replacement for Denny Gerrard?
Tony: Yes…Mike and I met at the Devil’s Den a Yorkville club later to be renamed the In Crowd. I heard him play there with a popular local R & B band. Two green youngsters we were but we connected musically from the get go. He was a natural for the band. The moment Mike sat in with us the MMM sound became complete.
I read that you played quite a bit at the famous The Rock Pile in Toronto during this period?
How did you both feel about moving to England being the youngest musicians in the band?
Tony: For me, an adventure. I arrived Dec. 26th after the other members were there already. It was the first time I had ever spent Christmas away from my family and Christmas is a big deal in my family. Goes for a week. Quite a deal for a young Italian kid.
Mike H: McKenna was 22 at the time, and Mendelson 24. At 20 years old, I had the blind, arrogant confidence of the very young, so it wasn’t much of an issue for me.
Interestingly, your first gig in Europe was in the Netherlands at the Flights to Lowlands Paradise 2 concert in Utrecht. What do you remember about this gig?
Tony: We replaced Hendrix’ slot. It was said that he had sprained his ankle getting on a plane in N.Y. The gig was at a huge ‘cow palace’ type place with a dirt floor. Perfect for the ground grazing hippies of the time.
Mike H: Jimi Hendrix and the boys were supposed to be the headliners, and Mitch Mitchell had shown up at Gatwick to board the chartered DC3. Word came that Jimi was still in New York and would not be playing. As complete unknowns in the U.K., we were pretty much cold-shouldered by the other musicians, other than some hashish on the plane (but we, of course, didn’t inhale). We experienced great hospitality but incredibly awful food at someone’s home in Rotterdam. Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason came to the chartered bus door when we arrived at the concert site in Utrecht, but we had no idea who he was. Although our set was at 3:00 in the morning, it was to a packed house because we had somehow wound up with Hendrix’s time slot! The crowd’s silence when we were introduced as “MaKEEbah MENdelsin MEN-LEN!!!” morphed into deafening cheers after we played the first tune (McKenna has been known in the band as “McKeebah” to this day). On the opposite stage, the Pretty Things rudely made noise while we were trying to play; we and the audience ignored them. Later, part of the wing was knocked off the plane as we waited to board for the flight “home”. After an ad hoc repair, we flew over the Channel at what seemed to be no more than 25 feet above the water. The musician-passengers gave the pilot a round of the applause when we landed safely at Gatwick.
You gigged quite extensively across England during the first six months of 1969. What sort of response did you receive from audiences?
Tony: Most of the times they went nuts…in a good way of course. There were a few duds too.
Mike H: It depended on the gig. At some we were ignored; at others, the crowd went berserk. Some gigs were simply more suitable for what we had to offer than were others.
One of your biggest gigs in England was at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm on 27 April with White Trash, Third Ear and others.
Tony: It was a good one but not the biggest.
Mike H: I suppose that it was big in that it was a “name” gig. I was almost late for the gig, arriving no more than about a half hour before out set was to begin. Joe Mendelson was almost as furious at my lateness as he was at my nonchalance about it. We did go over well, perhaps in part because I rewarded a heckler by taking off my Fender® bass, laying it on the stage, then turning around, dropping my trousers, and mooning the fellow. The rest of the audience loved it.
You also played at the Marquee on 29 May with Howlin’ Wolf and The John Dummer Blues Band. That must have been quite a gig?
Tony: That was our biggest!!
Mike H: Great gig, a flower in our group lapel. The Stink album was in the can, with only a bit of final touch mixing left. With the Wolf as headliner, we were afforded the luxury of a ready-made full house. Canadian compatriot and labelmate Gordon Lightfoot dropped by our dressing room to say hello; he was in town for an appearance at the Royal Festival Hall the following week. We were in familiar territory, since months earlier we had recorded our demo session in the studio at the back of The Marquee.
How did the record deal with Liberty Records come about?
Tony: Our manager was previously involved in some capacity with The Yardbirds. He also knew Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin). I don’t remember if either of those connections were helpful in getting us a listen at Liberty/United Artists but that’s a possibility. At any rate the head of the label, Martin Davis came out to one of our more loyally attended venues, either Godalming or Southampton. The place was packed, the people went nuts and even though Mr. Davis was at the back of the room you could see the cash registers in his eyes. An uplifting moment for all I suppose.
Mike H: Negotiations culminated when Liberty executive Martin Davis saw us at Godalming, a repeat gig where we always blew the roof off. He was delighted.
What can you remember about the recording sessions for the album?
Tony: I always thought it a challenge to capture our “powerhouse live performance” in the studio…with all our albums. The producer (Noel Walker) was a pro but perhaps a bit stiff. We got the “play the blues boys” as he sat there dapper as ever with his blue blazer and ascot. Nice guy though…don’t get me wrong. I think we needed a little more ‘grit on grit’ thing between us and producer.
Mike H: Trident was state-of-the-art for the time. Ken Scott was at the board. Liberty had assigned high-profile producer Noel Walker, who was very accomplished and professional but didn’t get the gritty sound we wanted. We groused, and Liberty brought in wunderkind Mike Batt, later of Wombles fame, who, although a pop-oriented producer and artist, was much more in sync with our approach. Thus the “Liberty Staff” production credit in the liner notes. Most of the cuts were completed in no more than four takes, and we were generally pleased with the results.
I gather that you became good friends with The Keef Hartley Band? Were English musicians welcoming?
Tony: Some were terrific and some were…well…a bunch of Wankers!!
Mike H: It varied, but Keef and the boys were spot on. We did a gig with them where my bass amp was farting out, and Keef bassist Gary Thain (later of Uriah Heep) very graciously let me use his Image® bass amp. It sounded great. We were stiffed by the promoter on that gig and they gave us part of their earnings so we could get gas (petrol) to get our driver John Long’s van back to London. John Long of London drove a van for Mainline. (On a gig with Family in the same time frame, Ric Grech, later of Blind Faith, had told me through his roadie to piss off over the same bass amp request. So it goes.) Back in London, Gary and guitarist Spit James became friends and would come to hang out at our Edith Grove flat in Chelsea. Great guys.
You also hung out with fellow Canadians Marty Fisher and Stan Endersby who from April 1969 were also living in London playing with Peter Quaife’s post Kinks band, Mapleoak.
Tony: Stan was and still is a wonderful, honest and talented human being. We are still in touch. Marty unfortunately passed away a few years ago. Nice fellow too.
Mike H: Yeah. That was all around the same time as Gary and Spit. Marty has passed on. Stan was (and still is) a lovely man, an innocent. Pete was an exceedingly normal fellow and liked my Fender bass. Heady days, they were.
Before the album was released in the UK, you suddenly returned home to Toronto? How come?
Tony: McKenna was homesick. So the decision the other three of us had to make was…keep the sound of the band together and go back to Canada or let McKenna go and find another guitar player. Lord knows there were a lot of good players around. We’ll never know how it would have turned out if we stayed because we chose to go. Understandably the record label wasn’t pleased.
Mike H: McKenna returned to Toronto at the end of May 1969 because his wife was heavily pregnant with son Sean Wickett, now a man in his forties and the father of McKenna’s sweet little granddaughter Eden. The remaining three band members considered staying; but in the end, only Mendelson held to that thought. Tony and I succumbed to homesickness, and the rest is an historical abdication of what could have been.
What impact do you think McKenna Mendelson Mainline could have made had you stayed in the UK to promote the album?
Tony: With all due respect to Mike McKenna I think we were on the verge of something spectacular happening…for many reasons. Got a couple of hours???
Mike H: Liberty/United Artists would have had something concrete to pimp and put on the European concert circuit, and that may have had quite an impact on record sales and the band’s career. The album did reasonably well in spite of our absence, but ultimately, we are left with a whimsical “what if”.
Looking back, what are your memories of working in England?
Tony: It was tough for awhile and there was some starving. We did the jar of jam, loaf of bread and quart of milk into the one big bowl of slop. Ecchhh!! At times some of us passed out flyers on the street to promote the Bed and Breakfast that we were living at, in exchange for a lunch or dinner. Some of us just…passed out. Much better than the slop! But all in all, for me, it was a glorious experience in another world from where I came. I wouldn’t trade it for anything!!
Mike H: I have some English forebears and was quite enthralled with many things English extracurricular to the band’s activities. During the first few months we lived in Pimlico and I used to walk over to Westminster Abbey and environs to enjoy the sights. Having arrived just before Christmas, I can remember feeling proprietarily affronted when April came along with the inevitable hordes of tourists. As enjoyable as playing in the band was, I could have spent a lot longer that the short six months we were there sussing out the culture and drinking in the history. Forty-two years have passed, and much to my regret, I have never returned. Perhaps some day …
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