County Durham band formed in 1977 from the remains of local attractions such as Hephalumps & Woozels and Eyes To The Sky. The latter featured both Addison and Jones. Addison was also a member of Scottish rock band Dragon, while Dunn and Jones played together in Whippet, which featured future Neon manager Paul Taylor on drums. When Addison returned from Scotland, after Dragon won a rock open but then ground to a halt, Neon came together early in 1976. They practised in the latter's bedroom, experimenting with different time signatures, learning to play their instruments as fast as humanly possible and writing original material which they would eventually describe as 'progressive punk'. Listening back now, it sounds like nothing so much as jazz on speed. They were essentially an experimental band, but soon found themselves tagged as punks, it being the nearest convenient shorthand genre. And they grew into it.
I asked Tim Jones if he thought that the band would have sounded the way it did without the advent of punk. "Definitely not! The arrival of punk had a huge impact on our approach to both writing and performing songs. It felt like you really had to go out there and prove yourself as the competition was fierce! There were so many fantastic new bands and there was such a vibrant scene going on in the North East of England. The pubs were packed out with punters eager to see new bands, the crazier the better and everything was so loud and brash. You would never get away with that kind of volume in your local pub these days. We might have had bottles thrown at us if the audience didn't like us but I can't honestly remember us being told to turn down. The idea was to be loud and full of energy. We pushed ourselves to the limit and sometimes you wondered if you were going to pass out before the next song. There was a kind of expectant air at some gigs where nobody was sure what to expect next. The emphasis was definitely on originality and we wanted to be unique, to express something new."
In truth, they had more in common with Devo, XTC or the Flying Lizards in terms of their approach ("We were also very much influenced by German bands of the time such as Kraan and Neu," says Jones), but they also knew how to mistreat a guitar. And to dress up. They regularly carried round a box of old clothes and fabrics from which they'd make random selections on the night of the gig. Even if this meant playing in net curtains or pyjamas.
Early shows included regular supports to Penetration (Jones worked in the same council office as Gary Chaplin) and Punishment Of Luxury. Later came shows with Siouxsie And The Banshees at Durham University, the Pretenders at the Nashville and Steel Pulse in Edinburgh. The only really bad times were due to the rivalry between Sunderland and Newcastle fans. "There is a lot of rivalry. It could sometimes be quite hairy playing in Sunderland and we encountered a disproportionate amount of violence there, to be honest." However, on the whole Neon grew up in a very supportive and vibrant music scene. "During the punk era, we were lucky to have excellent music journalists like Phil Sutcliffe, Ian Panman and Dick Godfrey living in Newcastle. They worked in local radio and wrote articles for newspapers like Sounds. They also helped promote a lot of gigs and ran local magazines about regional bands. We also had the likes of Rick Walton who were great photographers going to gigs taking photos of all of the bands. They helped enormously in getting people noticed by the major labels in London. It is true to say that you had to go to London if you were serious about getting signed to a major label. They would need to see you at places like The Hope & Anchor, Nashville, Music Machine, Marquee Club etc, to see how you went down with those crowds and where A&R people could just get on a tube to see you perform rather than travel hundreds of miles. The problem was getting the gigs in London. You needed an agent that understood the types of venues that would be suitable. In essence you needed to be signed in order to get a decent agent. You also, as an unknown new band had to play a lot of places for very little money. Often, London gigs were just showcases. Having said that, once we did get an agent, the itineries were knackering, especially travelling up and down the motorways in an old transit van, sleeping on top of the PA. We were nearly written off a few times when everyone in the van fell asleep, including the driver!"
The lyrics were mainly written by Jones. "It was left up to me, for some reason. We used the voice more as an instrument to complement the bass, drums and guitar. The words were used as much for the way the sound of them could be manipulated. A great influence on the vocals was Captain Beefheart too. There was also that idea of 'No Future', where the hell are we going, what's it all for? Why do I have to work in a horrible, boring job for very little money when all I want to do is play my guitar and express myself. The lyrics were written from the point of view of the little guy struggling to make sense of the world. We were young, idealistic, anti-war, anti-establishment and saw anarchy as a positive alternative to the pyramid structure of society where those at the top get more than their fair share of the benefits."
Their first single was released on Lenny Love's Sensible Records (original home of the Rezillos). 'Bottles' was inspired by the missiles commonly lobbed at them while playing on stage and featured some typically wigged out instrumental breaks and the band's customary race to the finish line pacing. 'Anytime Anyplace Anywhere', meanwhile, betrayed the aforementioned Teutonic influence of the Krautrock bands. It was followed by a John Peel session in March 1979 featuring 'Confuse The News', 'Eyeing Up Diddies', 'Plum Plum Crazy' and 'Exterminate'. Former colleague Martin Holder had returned to the North East after playing with bands in London and was thereafter installed as second guitarist.
There was interest from United Artists after the single's success, where their colleagues Punishment Of Luxury were ensconced. But producer Martin Rushent ushered them towards his new venture Genetics, which had a distribution deal with Jake Riviera's Radar Records instead and, with the exception of Jones, they moved down to London. A further single resulted, but it was the final release of the band's career. All they had to show for the years of solid gigging were mounting debts. Jones was invited to audition for the Vibrators but was "too knackered" after the band's demise. He hooked up with Punishment Of Luxury's singer Brian Bond in Punching Holes in 1979 before joining his former compatriots in Punilux.
Later he set up the label Stone Premonitions with partner Terri B, specialising in psychedelic music. Neon's one-time roadie Chris Wade Evans went on to work with the Rolling Stones. Addison became a sound technician with the likes of Pink Floyd. Mark Dunn joined the Poison Girls. Martin Holder would work with Jah Wobble and then join Dunn in Who Said Charge? The former members of Neon would regroup in 1985 and record a six-track mini-album as Somebody Famous and two CDs as Body Full Of Stars, released through Stone Premonitions. The latter also now houses the Neon canon, including two new CDs of unreleased/archive material that came out in 2005. Sign Of The Time features a bunch of tracks recorded live through 1977 and 1978. The interested should check out the self-titled Neon collection first, however, containing as it does all the band's previously recorded output plus the band's March 1979 John Peel session, which sounds especially fine, particularly on the Trumpton-inspired 'Eyeing Up The Diddies'.
"We still employ a totally DIY attitude in the music we produce," says Jones. "A real revolution has taken place as regards music technology and communication. Studio equipment has become so much cheaper and easier to use. It has put digital quality recording into the hands of musicians at home, in their own environment. The major record companies with their big studios and high rates do not have a monopoly anymore. You can produce CDs of your own music at home and create all of your artwork on a PC. Thanks to the arrival of the Internet, you can sell your releases through websites and become part of a truly international, alternative music scene. It is breathtaking in its possibilities and you are only limited by your own skills and imagination. We have met so many like-minded musicians and enthusiasts through the Internet in recent years, all working for a common cause, freedom of expression. It is truly liberating for people that are into it for the music rather than the money. Contrary to popular opinion, not all punk rockers sold out or sold their souls to mammon."
Bottles/I'm Only Little/Anytime Anyplace Anywhere 7-inch (Sensible FAB 3 1978)
Don't Eat Bricks/Hanging Off An O 7-inch (Radar ADA 27 1979)