His song reached Top 5 despite the BBC ban. His bands were produced by Ian Hunter and Mutt Lange. One of his groups toured with QUEEN and the other played Reading Festival. He was first Brit to have his ensemble signed by Arista in the USA and be personally attended to by the label’s head Clive Davis. Where did it all go?
Dicken’s answer may lie in the title of an album that’s just been reissued: "Bitter Streets" by MR. BIG. Not an American one which snatched the name, as Mr. Dicken learnt back in the day from Lemmy, but the original UK collective who effectively found themselves in the shadows of fame. Not that the veteran is jealous – he’s long past it and prefers to live in the present rather than dwell on the past. Still, looking back is inevitable when talking to Dicken – that’s how bitter streets transform into memory lane.
– Your name is Jeff, but it’s “Dicken” or “Mr. Dicken” on the records sleeves. So how do you prefer to be called?
(Laughs.) Dicken. Actually, it was a nickname for my brother when we were in school: I was called Picken and he was called Dicken. I didn’t like the name “Picken” and I didn’t like the name “Jeff Pain” – although when I started in BURNT OAK, I was called Jeff Pain – so I changed it to “Dicken” very quickly when I was about nineteen. But my people in my family call me Jeff.
– So, giving the name change – your name, bands’ names – can you say today, to quote a line from a MR. BIG song, that you’ve been almost anything a big boy could ever be?
Well, I’ve done almost everything that I wanted to do but, obviously, I’m not a millionaire and I’m not famous, and it’s not something that I strive for anymore. I still love music, and I love making music: in my heart, I’m a minstrel, but if I don’t get the opportunity to do it, then I can’t do it. A few years ago, we were asked to play this festival in Norway, and suddenly we found that we were rock/pop stars there, as BROKEN HOME, and it was a wonderful experience, but nothing followed, so I just came back and got to work. That’s what I do.
– You’re working on a new BROKEN HOME record, right?
Yes, to cut a long story short, I am working with Paul Gibbon on about 12 demo tracks at the moment. It’s taken a long time, and we shall see how it goes. It is very difficult to record a whole band these days, as it’s very expensive and drummers are busy people and hard to come by. I am a going to make a very amateur video with one of the songs that we have demoed for the album and put it on Facebook soon.
– “Bitter Streets,” released in 2011, was the last MR. BIG record.
That album was recorded at my house in Oxford and produced by Jake Carter, the son of Eddie Carter who was in MR. BIG. My brother, who’d paid for the album, thought that it would be a good idea to have some young input. So Jack would just call me into the studio when he needed me to sing or play the guitar, so I didn’t have as much control over that album as I’d have liked. It’s a quality album but it doesn’t have a little bit of the edge that is me. (Laughs.) We had a lot of songs for “Bitter Streets” written by myself and Paul Gibbon: we just put together some of the best songs that we’d done together over the years. The other MR. BIG, the one that stole the name, were defunct, so we thought we might as well put it out as MR BIG, with a new version of “Romeo.” Trouble is, back in 2009 we had put it out there on Myspace that we were active again as MR BIG. We did not realize those guys had got back together again – they had a new album by 2010 called “What If”! That put the kibosh on ours and confused it all again for us… All a bit cynical I think.
– So what does drive you now?
I pick up my guitar and I still write music. But I’m a Christian: I go with my children to Oxford Baptist Church. Funny thing is, I have probably spent more time playing old people’s homes over the years (laughs) and in church, than I’d ever played on stage doing gigs. I’d love to play with a band, but if that doesn’t happen, that’s tough.
– Where did your style come from? Listening to MR. BIG, it’s hard to escape comparisons to your contemporaries QUEEN; and I’m pretty sure you listened to THE BEACH BOYS, although I doubt you were a SPARKS fan.
No, no, I’m not a SPARKS fan. When we started off, we were a bunch of country lads. (Laughs.) We were a poor family; my dad left when we were kids, and when I was in school, I thought to myself, “Listen, I gotta get out of here and get famous” I said to Vince Chaulk, one of my friends in school, “You can be the drummer”; to another guy, “You can be the bass player”… That’s how we started. But we never were going to be on the same level as QUEEN – they’re all lovely guys, and Freddie [Mercury] was great and generous in his praise of our first album “Sweet Silence” – I just made do with the best I could when opportunity offered itself, as it did on tour with QUEEN. We learnt a lot from them. I’m left-handed, but my mum bought me a right handed guitar when I was a kid, so I had to learn to play it right-handed: that was a hard task, made it a bit difficult for me. When on-stage, I used to improvise a lot, using my voice harmonizing with the guitar to make it all a little bit more interesting, as it were just to try and be a different kind of band. That’s how songs like “Zambia” came about. I put the capo on to the third fret and experimented with different chords to make a different sound. When we recorded that song, I wanted it to sound Japanese, Chinese-y.
– Strange, given that Zambia is an African country. But then, “Photographic Smile” from the same album also uses pentatonic scale.
I like listening to Chinese music and I also like to use peculiar phrases or words just to make something happen, like on the song “China In Your Heart” from “Broken Home” album. I even had a song idea called “The Flight Of A Phenomenal Bumblebee”; I didn’t finish it. I pick a line or word, or something, and I write around that. By the way, Dan McCafferty from NAZARETH came and sang on the chorus of “Zambia” with me. We lost touch then, and last time I saw him was in Los Angeles in 1977.
– Was “Phenomenal Bumblebee” based on Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece?
No, I didn’t know that one but it might have come into my brain, because I like Russian history and I did read Dostoyevsky years ago, and I do like classical music and also loved “Spartacus” by Aram Khachaturian. Funny anecdote… I wrote “Solid Gold” because I needed some money; at the time. Years later I was listening to classical music, on Classical FM and I heard this tune, and I thought, “Blimey, that sound like ‘Solid Gold” melody! Hey, they ripped off my song!” But at the end of it they said, “That was Mozart, blah-blah-blah…” (Laughs.)
– Back to “Zambia”: was “Goodbye World” a part of this piece that somebody cut out and re-mixed?
We were in the studio recording “Romeo” with Simon Phillips on drums and, after he played that song; we had a little jam with him with another idea I had, called “Goodbye World.” We just fitted the “Zambia” theme in that because it seemed appropriate and we could link it to the previous album. By the way, Simon’s drumming was not on the final “Romeo.”
– “Can We Live” sounds like a Russian romance.
That song is made up of two songs… I went into East Germany in 1976, through Checkpoint Charlie [in Berlin Wall], and what I saw shocked me. The heavy bit in “Can We Live” is all about what I saw. That was another song recorded live in the studio – there was no other way of recording to get the feel. The piano player on that song was Jai Winding. Then, Val Garay cut that heavy rock part into the tape. But the “love” part of the song was something I had written years before.
– It’s interesting how being left-handed and not playing it this way remaps your brain. Could it be the reason of your peculiar creativity?
Oh, it’s possible. I used to play football and I used to kick with my left foot but now I kick with both right and left. But then, I think growing up with a grandmother who could not speak English and mother who was very religious Greek Orthodox… growing up in those days painted pictures in my mind. There were lots of ideas to inspire me, so I did not need drugs to boost my imagination, although I did take drugs for a while when the band went to Los Angeles to do the “Mr. Big” album, the one with “Romeo.” Back in the UK, it was the whisky bottle every day that kept me going. What surprised me, though, a year or two later Ian Hunter, who produced the album “Seppuku,” would have none of it. He said, “Anybody takes drugs and I’m out of here!”
– I hear the MOTT THE HOOPLE influence in “Here It Comes Again” and “Lucy.” So was the move into rock direction, as you said, deliberate?
I always liked MOTT and wanted to write that kind of music. It was exciting to think Ian would do the album, because I wanted us to be more of a rock band. Still, what Val Garay did with us was the best thing that could have happened at that time, because he got us the hit record which, amazingly, still gets played 40 years on on radio stations all over the world including Radio 2 in the UK.
– Was this rock inclination of yours the reason why Hunter called you the “England’s Bruce Springsteen”?
I don’t know why Ian said that. I think it was because he thought I had it in me, but I didn’t get the opportunity to play many gigs and get the experience of Mr. Springsteen, so I didn’t really grow into that category.
– And those peculiar grooves, forays into world music and disco beat… Would you summarize this approach in the title of BROKEN HOME’s song “The Beat Speaks”?
What I do is I try to make the beat like all the noises that I hear. But when I was writing that song, I imagined I was in a forest. And in a forest, there are lots of rhythms – because of all the little interactions: the birds whistling and tunes like that – and you just feel it in your bones. That’s how I got it. The thing is, I’ve always been a fan of drums – that’s why [MR. BIG] had two drummers when we played with QUEEN, and it was thunderous; one drummer would have been boring to me – and I used to experiment with grooves all the time. We jammed for hour after hours: that’s what I love, and I kind of spoiled myself, really. Sometimes, unless it’s a really good drummer like Nicko McBrain or someone like that – I jammed with him once; he’s phenomenal – I get bored. That’s why I loved OSIBISA: I used to go and watch them all the time – great band! I do love all that kind of thing, I have to pick from different styles of music – I can’t just stick to heavy rock or pop.
– How do you remember that tour with QUEEN?
That was a fantastic time in my life. Everything went right then. Freddie was nice to me, as was Brian [May]; the one that was quiet was John Deacon. But funnily enough, many years later after that tour, I was standing in a pub in London and John was there with his raincoat on, and he came over to me and asked me what I was doing. I said, “Nothing!” – it was after BROKEN HOME – and he said, “Oh, you should! You should definitely not be doing nothing!” (Laughs.) But just talking to him then was as if he didn’t really want to do music anymore. It was odd.
– You’re also a great guitarist, and on “Vampire” you did what is now called “shredding”: how did you arrive at this method?
I am not sure what shredding is, but we grew up musically just by ad libbing on stage. We were very progressive in the early days as we never had many songs, so just jammed at gigs… it was dangerous to do, especially when supporting big bands like STATUS QUO or WISHBONE ASH. I used my guitar to vent my frustration hence a lot of angry punky chords, it was almost part of my body; rather than punch someone, I took it out on the guitar. Being left-handed did not help, and I had to practice five hours a day. It was mad; the guitar was always on my lap – practice, practice, practice… Pete Crowther was a great partner to have on stage as we seemed to click spontaneously, he is such a great bass player and a cellist as well, a bit of a genius, in fact. And we were both a bit mad in those days, sometimes very punky mad. I’d walk on the stage and cut myself on my guitar and walk into the crowd or walk right through the drums with my hand bleeding. There was an element of violence in both mine and Pete Crowther’s nature on stage that I think frightened people.
I used to go to school and run into a fight with somebody and, generally, get roughed up: I just enjoyed the danger of it as I know Pete did. I did some stupid things just to get noticed. I remember one gig we did in America, where this band, led by Rick Smith, was supporting us and they were going down a storm, so after they had done about three encores I was thinking to myself as I was watching them from the side, “Listen, we’re supposed to be the main band here!” So when they finally came off the stage, and the curtains closed, the lights came on, I just walked out to the front of the stage, that caused a bit of a fuss straight away, and the bouncers tried to pull me off the stage. We had a bit of a wrestle, and the audience loved it. All that time my band were upstairs wondering where I was. But some big guy in the audience heard my accent and realized I was English, so he told the bouncers who then let me go. Maybe they were thinking I was something to do with the band crew! Anyway, as I walked up the side steps back center stage in front of the curtain I could hear the guys getting ready behind me. Then the lights went down and the curtains opened… Wow! I walked straight to my amp in silence. There was a gasp from the audience as I picked up my guitar, walked to the front, tapped on the mic and said, “Hello, Philadelphia!” That was enough to see us through. What a gig!
– How would you describe the genre of your music?
This is where I get into trouble because I don’t have a genre: I can write all kinds of music while people say to me, “You should stay in this one,” or “You should stay in that one,” or “Do this,” or “Go acoustic,” or “Go heavy rock.” I can’t! I don’t know why. It’s not in my heart. I can’t work with a small palette. I’ve got country songs. (Sings.) “You hit the time… You don’t know where you’re going…” I just put myself in that mode. (Laughs.) If I wanted to put together a bunch of country songs tomorrow, I could probably fake it, but what would be the point? I’m not a country artist.
– Sure, but if “Hold Me” was regular reggae, with “Goosestep” you tapped into ska. Did you listen to the Two Tone artists?
I didn’t, and don’t, listen to a lot of pop and rock music, because sometimes if you listen too much, you can’t get on with your own new ideas. There’s so many good people, so many talented people doing all kinds of music, so I should be listening to more but I don’t. We started the third MR. BIG album in America, and Clive Davis [of Arista Records] came in, listened to some songs and said we’d need to re-think it and maybe write more, but on the plane back to England Bob Hirschman, who managed us, freaked out and wanted to change the plan completely, sack Val and have Ian Hunter produce the record instead. That’s when I decided I needed to write some rock songs. I wrote a bunch of them very quickly: “Here It Comes Again,” “You Won’t See Me,” stuff like that. “Goosestep” was something I had ideas of a long time before… It’s a bit mad lyrically, you know. I was thinking about the Holocaust and about what was going to happen in the future, “yellow man” meaning China. I thought at the time that China would take over the world.
– Who did all those arrangements? You?
Yeah. I had to, with the willingness of the other guys to chip in ideas from time to time. Again, I was a little bit mad that way, and that’s the way I write. I sat there for hours trying to get the drummers to do things I wanted to hear, things I was hearing in my head. Sometimes arrangements just happened, though, because of circumstance as in the case of “Feel Like Calling Home” which was recorded first take live in a studio, so Chaulky [Vince Chaulk. – DME] did not have time to rehearse it ans just stopped drumming in the middle of the song, while I carried on singing. So what we had to do was bring in the orchestra, a quartet, to fill the gap, and that was it an arrangement – from a mistake.
– But “Romeo” is a relatively light tune. Was it a blessing or a curse in creative terms?
Well, funny that you said that! Someone wrote on the “Romeo” video: “This song is crap!” or something like that. So I wrote back to him and said, “Hey, I wish I could’ve written a few more ‘crap’ songs like this! I’d probably have made more money!” It has been a blessing to me in many ways because it paid a lot of bills every year; if it wasn’t for that, I’d have been broke many times.
– You tried to record it with Roy Thomas Baker, QUEEN’s producer. Why didn’t it work and what could’ve been if he worked on that? Could we have another “Bohemian Rhapsody”?
Oh no. What happened was, we did “Romeo” with Roy Thomas Baker, and I liked that version, but we went to Los Angeles where Val Garay did his version, and Clive Davis chose his version over Roy Thomas Baker’s. Davis said, “One of them’s a hit and the other one’s a miss” – as simple as that.
– You had Jim Keltner and other great players on it.
It was half and half on “Romeo” with Jim: at first, he played the snare and the bass drum and then he put some tom on, and it was brilliant.
– But why was “Romeo” banned by BBC? What was wrong with it?
Mary Whitehouse was involved with it; it was banned because of the explicit lyrics. “‘Step back inside me, Romeo,’ she said” and “Fall on me, make me grow”: they said it implied innuendo. Sex! I didn’t write it with that in mind! I just thought it was a love song about the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. So BBC banned it for a while, it went down to Number 5, and then they reinstated it, and it went back up to Number 4. They probably did help it that way.
– If you released “Death Boy” during Northern Ireland unrest, would it have also been banned?
Had it been banned, there might have been a bit of controversy but, since we sold a hundred records or something like that, no one would have heard it anyway. But there’s only the first verse that’s about Northern Ireland; the second one is about AIDS, gay sex and stuff like that. Again, it was an old song that I put together and re-did it – several times. The version I like was live in the studio, with MR. BIG / BROKEN HOME band, the one that was on the “Rainbow Bridge” album.
– Was “Rainbow Bridge” your solo album released as a MR. BIG record?
It was my brother’s idea to put together some songs as a MR. BIG UK album because of this American band who, by that time, got huge. The rest is history. We tried to get back into the scene and do something, but it was really difficult: we couldn’t get gigs because of the confusion with them.
– But why didn’t “Seppuku” get issued?
Because we made an album that EMI didn’t want; they wanted another “Romeo.” They liked “Senora” but they thought it was too much “rock” while they saw us as a pop band. Therefore, we got dropped.
– And you split up. Why couldn’t you just go to some other label?
What happened was, Bob Hirschman decided that if EMI didn’t want the album, the band would split up. But then Pete Crowther disappeared for a while, and we just went our own ways. I stayed in London and John Burnip took some demo of mine to Gail Colson at “Hit And Run [Music publishing]” who went on to manage Peter Gabriel. She liked it and she gave the demo to Tony Smith, and he liked it too, and signed us up [as BROKEN HOME]. Things moved quickly and we got signed by [A&R] Dave Dee, and Mutt Lange was brought in to produce the first album which was well received, though I know Tony was a little disappointed with the production. Anyway, we toured until Reading festival in 1980; after that gig [guitarist] Rory [Wilson] was asked to leave the band, and not long after that [drummer] Pete Barnacle got another gig. Tony was very busy managing Phil Collins, but he managed to secure a deal for us to do another album for Universal Mercury. That album was recorded by myself and Pete Crowther and produced by Greg Walsh. It did well. After that, because Phil Collins’ “Face Value” became pretty big, Tony got a certain John Glover to manage me and told me he had secured a promise of some money to record another record for Mercury. At that time, I was still working with Mutt Lange at his house in London; he helped me a great deal as did Clive Calder. Mutt would say to me, “I don’t think you should be with Glover; you should be with Zomba!” As a result, the whole thing became very, very confusing for me, and I made a big mistake morally by not going with Mutt. I should’ve stayed with him.
– Don’t you think titles like “Seppuku” and “Broken Home” were a kind of bad omen?
“Seppuku,” yes, because it was the death of MR. BIG, it was committing suicide. Of course, I didn’t think that would happen, but it was a “What you say is what you get” kind of thing. (Laughs.) As for “Broken Home,” we sat around and thought, “What do we all have in common – two young guys and two old guys?” But none of us grew up with fathers, we all came from broken home, so that was an appropriate name for us.
– Did you deliberately try to be less adventurous with BROKEN HOME than you were with MR. BIG? Did the ’80 demand simplicity?
No, no, no! You see, Mutt is a very hands-on producer, and it was a bit of a fight with him to try and get some of the things I wanted on the “Broken Home” album. But you have to give it to him: he went on to become huge and I went on to become nothing (laughs), so he was right and I was wrong. I should have really let him go all the way on that record, because a lot of people like it, and Mutt liked my songs, but he molded them into the way he wanted to hear them; things like “No Chance” were very much different when I wrote them to the way they ended up on the album.
– Would you agree that BROKEN HOME were stronger as instrumentalists?
Yes. Rory is an excellent player and Pete Barnacle is a really good drummer
– But still Reading Festival signaled the end?
Yeah, that was a nice experience: We were never given the chance to develop into a full-blooded band. As said, Me and Pete Crowther did another album after that, called “Life,” with Greg Walsh and a drum machine, because we didn’t have a drummer. I played some drums along with Pete, as we had to do the best we could at the time, they wanted another BROKEN HOME album quickly, and that was all we could do.
– Do you have any live recordings of your bands?
I have, but they’re all on cassettes in different places: about three hundred cassettes with live recordings, rehearsals, all kinds of things.
– All those bands – PECULIAR PEOPLE, TANDORI CASSETTE, RUSTIC COWBOYS, BURNT OAK: what can you say about each one of them?
PECULIAR PEOPLE, were a Christian band that never got off the ground, though wee recorded a few tracks. TANDORI CASSETTE was Barriemore Barlow, Zal Cleminson, the late Charlie Tomahi, myself and Paul Gibbon. We played Barrie’s music, bizarre rock, as you could imagine with Zal and such technical guy as Barrie, very political kind of stuff. RUSTIC COWBOYS was just an idea. As for BURNT OAK, we were very progressive for 1969: we would go on stage and we didn’t know what we were going to play – it was just psychedelic ad lib, a lot of jamming around. It was weird. We had about five songs that would last 20 minutes each and they went in different areas, so no two shows were the same.
– You also had something called “The Dark Chestnut”: what was that? Not a band I assume?
No, it’s a classical piece I wrote years ago, 17-18-minute long, about a horse called Emily Cane; a beautiful stallion which was taken to be used in the first World war and died in battle. It’s a strange piece that goes in lots of different directions which was in my mind and came together; it took me a year to do it, but I’ve no idea if I’ll ever release it. George Martin liked it but he said, without a single it would be hard to see it get a release anywhere. (Laughs.)
– But with all the stuff that you did release, and given there are MR. BIG covers such as “Sweet Silence” by DIAMOND HEAD, is there such a thing as a Dicken legacy?
No, because basically I don’t see myself as anything more than another person who plays music. At the end of the day, it’s all disposable; and once it’s gone, it’s gone for me, and then I’ll move on and do something different till I die. And when I die, I’ll go to heaven. (Laughs.) I just have a wish to do God’s will in my life – whatever it means, whatever it takes. If I have to die for it, I will, because I don’t have a cause right now other than to give my heart to Jesus Christ; I don’t get up in the morning and think, “Right, I’m going to take on the world.” I have Christian songs. There is one called “Flame Of Love” – there’s a video on YouTube, with my paintings – where I imagined I was Abraham, and I have this dialogue with God, and it takes me on a journey from Abraham to Christ. I suppose I could make a Christian album one day, God willing… Anyway, I love music, I love writing, and if it happens it’s great. I live one day at a time: yesterday’s gone, tomorrow doesn’t exist, today I’m here with my five kids. That’s another journey, and one I have to make.