Abrasive Wheels Biography
from the book - Burning Britain: A Riotous Assembly
by Ian Glasper
The Abrasive Wheels were by far the biggest punk band from the Leeds area, who specialised in the sort of massive rowdy choruses that could put an ear-to-ear smile on the face of a dead man. Like so many of those intense bands of the time, their fire burnt brightly for just a relatively short time, but the shadows it cast, and the colourful musical legacy they bestowed the punk scene, were both important and influential. The band recently reformed and has been playing sporadic shows and even writing a new album.
"Me and Dave were at the same school together, in the same year," recalls vocalist Phil ‘Shonna’ Rzonca. "We met each other when we were eleven on a football pitch doing trials for the school team. We weren’t best friends then, but we knew each other to speak to. We got into punk in 1976, both at the same time… that Summer was really hot, if I reme mber rightly, and punk was just breaking whilst we were on our school holidays. I was about fifteen and starting to get into different music; I’d just been to see The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. But after Slade (who were my favourite band) lulled in ’73 or ’74, it was all just Disco crap, wasn’t it? And I wanted something louder and more aggressive… and along came punk! I read all about it in the tabloids, and saw the Pistols on TOTP, and then I started delving deeper, buying Sounds and stuff.
"When I was sixteen, I went to see The Vibrators at Leeds Poly, and I can remember being frightened to death, haha! But the atmosphere was so electric, you could cut it with a knife. At the Alex Harvey show, everyone had been sat down… and the punk show was just so wild by comparison. From then on, I thought, ‘right, I’m a punk rocker’!
"Then I met Dave on a bus on the way to a Stranglers gig, and we started going to the F Club in Leeds, checking out new bands together, and it went from there. We were only sixteen or seventeen, and we decided to start a band ourselves."
Shonna wanted to be the bassist, but ended up as singer by default – mainly because he didn’t have a bass guitar! The rest of that early line-up consisted of Dave on guitar, Dave’s cousin Robert Welch on bass, and Shonna’s brother Adam on drums. Thankfully it was Shonna and not Dave who had the last say when it came to choosing the band’s name…
"We were looking for a name, and Dave had come up with The Perambulators!" laughs Shonna. "I said ‘fuck off, that’s another name for a pushchair! Who’s ever heard of a punk band named after a pram?’ Anyway, I had an apprenticeship at a heavy engineering firm, and I kept seeing these signs saying ‘Danger! Abrasive Wheels!’ We had a lecture one day at work all about these abrasive wheels, and the guy pulls one out of his bag to show us, and it was about 7" across, and round, with a label in the middle – and I thought ‘it looks just like a fuckin’ record! What a great name for a band!"
The band made their first public appearance in late 1977, at a house party for one of their mates, Pog, and soon after they played a Rock Against Racism show at Leeds Polytechnic, where they were pleasantly surprised by the positive response they received.
"Mind you, back then, it seemed that as long as you got up and had a go, you would go down all right! We were just a blast, a non-stop wall of sound, to start with… we were just venting our anger the only way we knew how."
Inevitably it wasn’t long before the students grew weary of the band’s youthful thrashings, but thankfully a lucky break landed them on their first real punk rock bill.
"We did a few more RAR gigs, and then someone at the Poly suddenly thought ‘hang on a minute, this band aren’t really suited for these shows, they’re too aggressive’, and that was the end of that. Then we got a call, at really short notice – the afternoon of the gig, in fact – to go and support the UK Subs in Bradford. We’d never heard of them at that point, but they were brilliant, an awesome live band.
"That was Adam’s last gig with us; it was a shame really, ‘cos he was a fuckin’ brilliant drummer. I remember the UK Subs stood at the bar watching us soundcheck, and they were all staring at Adam – he was going fucking mental just in the soundcheck, never mind the actual gig!
"Anyway, the Subs had traveled up in just a transit van, and they had nowhere to stay, so they all came back and crashed over at our houses. It was great to see a band of that calibre and hang out with them; it gave us a new inspiration."
After the Subs show, Adam left the band to become a chef, and Rob went off to college, leaving Shonna and Dave to recruit two mates who lived nearby, Mark Holmes on drums and Dave Hawkridge on bass. This incarnation of the band recorded a demo and soon set their sights on releasing a single.
"We’d been looking through all the ads in Sounds and NME, and we sent a demo to a label who came back to us and said they’d release a single by us if we gave them £300 or whatever. So we did that, and nothing happened for several months," explains Shonna.
"We were doing a few gigs at the time for a local promoter, Ray Rossi, who was the brother of Mick Rossi from Slaughter And The Dogs, and he offered us a tour with Slaughter, and we obviously said ‘fucking hell, too right’! And we did thirty gigs with them, and one of the gigs was down South near this label that had ripped us off, so we turned up on their doorstep and threatened them! They gave us this sob story about their cash flow and everything, and ended up giving us a metal acetate of our single they were going to press. It looked like a record to us, so in our eagerness to hear ourselves on vinyl, we went and played it on a normal turntable and fucked it up! So that was £300 wasted; we just didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing half the time!
"The deal on the tour was that Slaughter would lend us a van to get to the gigs in, and we’d get a bit of food and petrol money. I drove us all over the country in this van – and I didn’t even have a license then! And it was a piece of shit, this van – it was knocking so badly, we thought it was a diesel, so we’d only had it for five minutes and we pulled into a garage to diesel it up… and then found out it was petrol! You can imagine what Ray Rossi said when he found out we’d fucked his van, haha! But we had the tank drained, and off we went, and we managed to crawl around the country in this van that went faster downhill in neutral than it did on the straight, and we went down really well.
"Slaughter were a great band to tour with," he recalls. "They were very polished, with all these lead breaks everywhere. Whereas we were just raw, ferocious… pure energy… we were riding the very cusp of the 2nd wave of punk that was about to break, and we made a lot of new fans on that tour."
Deciding they were better off putting out a record for themselves, Dave and Shonna started their own label, Abrasive Records, and scraped up the £600 they needed to release their own single.
"Dave had a motorbike which he sold, so he came up with his half of the money, but I had fuck all of any value and I had to find the same amount," says Shonna. "We’d already set up an account in the name of Abrasive Records in readiness of doing this label, so I went to the bank and said I was the managing director of Abrasive Records and managed to get a loan! I walked out of there with £300 in my hand – it was fuckin’ amazing! I felt like I’d robbed the bank, haha!"
The band went into Look Studios in Huddersfield and recorded the ‘Army Song’ EP (AKA ‘The ABW EP’), an impressive and incredibly raw debut that literally c rackled with pent-up energy. The title track was an adrenaline rush of pure aggro, and the two tracks on the flip side - ‘Juvenile’ and ‘So Slow’ – don’t hang about either, both pounding punk of the highest order.
Not only did they release it themselves, but Dave designed the cover, and they delivered copies to all the local shops themselves as well. They soon had themselves a distribution deal with Red Rhino in nearby York, and the single quickly sold out of its initial pressing of 3000 copies; it even raised enough money to buy them their own van to tour in. Cherry Red picked up the band’s publishing, and they put Simon Edwards from Riot City in touch, who quickly signed the band to his label.
Abrasive Wheels’ first release for Riot City was the fast ‘n’ furious three-track ‘Vicious Circle’ EP in early 1982, and, encouraged by its success (it spent three months in the Indie charts and reached No. 12), the label re-released ‘Army Song’, this time on red vinyl, two months later. The band also contributed the storming ‘Criminal Youth’ to Riot City’s showcase 1982 compilation album ‘Riotous Assembly’. Thanks to the vitriolic strength of these early releases, the band started to build a large and loyal following of punks and skins the length and breadth of the country.
"The press were calling us ‘hardcore’ or ‘Oi!’ or whatever, and we were thinking ‘what the fuck are they going on about?’ We didn’t like labels anyway, but as far as we were concerned, we were just a fuckin’ punk rock band. The press wanted to pigeonhole us with all the other bands that were emerging at the time.
"We were just writing what was coming out naturally, what we felt; there was nothing contrived about us at all. We were just angry young punks, all of us on the dole, all of us disillusioned with society. We had no respect for reputations or authority. As far as I’m concerned, real punk music comes from the streets – it doesn’t matter whether it’s fast or slow, it’s the sentiment behind the music that’s important. For us it was always a working class thing, and maybe that’s why we got called an ‘Oi’ band in the press."
About this time, Dave Hawkridge and Mark Holmes were replaced by ‘Harry’ Harrison on bass and ‘Nev’ Nevison on drums, both of them previously members of another Leeds band, the Urban Zones.
"Harry and Nev joined us right before the first album; that was the first ‘real’ lineup for me," reckons Shonna. "Before that it was basically just me and Dave against the world. The previous guys before Harry and Nev were just stand-ins really, and when they joined, that was the Wheels’ first proper lineup."
The new improved Wheels were soon in the studio recording their third (and, for many, their best) single, ‘Burn ‘Em Down’. Although it was still frantic, it was by far their most mature and memorable composition up to that point, and the irresistible chorus was something straight off the terraces, yet executed with more flair than most other bands could even dream of. The sound was also vastly improved thanks to the production skills of Mike Stone, whose work with GBH and Discharge the band had so admired. Backed by the more generic ‘Urban Rebel’ (classic chorus though), the single was another great success, and paved the way nicely for the band’s debut album…
After the ‘Riotous Assembly’ compilation, of course, ‘When The Punks Go Marching In’ was the first full length album to be released on Riot City Records… and what a debut for both band and label. Fourteen tracks of pumped-up street punk, it gripped the listener from start to finish, via the pounding ‘Voice Of Youth’ (complete with its infamous chant of ‘Put Maggie Thatcher on the dole’!), the boozy singalong ‘Just Another Punk Band’ and the insistent ‘Slaughterhouse’, which is the Abrasive Wheels at their raucous best. The album peaked at No. 3 in the Indies in late 1982, but was to be the last release for Riot City, because Abrasive Wheels then eloped to producer Mike Stone’s Clay Records, home to Discharge and GBH.
"We decided we needed help with that first album," explains Shonna, "And Mike Stone had done ‘Burn ‘Em Down’ for us, which we were really pleased with. He brought a lot of new ideas to the production and made us sound a lot more professional. And we got on with him like a house on fire – even though all he kept saying to me in the studio was ‘Diction! Diction! Diction!’ - ‘cos he couldn’t understand a word I was saying! And this is from the guy who did the Discharge album, haha!
"We kept in touch with him after the album, and he seemed genuinely interested in us. He was almost like a big brother to the band – he was 6’3", skinny as a beanpole, looked like fuckin’ Clint Eastwood with his little brown cigars… and he had a BMW! He was cool as fuck, haha! I mean, I don’t think I ever even spoke to Simon at Riot City on the phone, let alone met him, so we ended up going with Stoney and Clay Records.
"But we never had a penny off Clay for anything we did for them," he adds with a sigh. "It was a handshake deal, no contracts, and we were meant to get 50% of profits after costs, so that left a bitter taste in our mouths really. We were all on the dole, and it would’ve been nice to have been given what we were entitled to."
The first single for Clay was a surprising, and thoroughly enjoyable, cover of ‘Jailhouse Rock’ in the summer of 1983, which had many of their hardcore punk following scratching their heads in amazement. The B-side was ‘Sonic Omen’, a rabble-rousing call to arms for working class kids across the country that was more traditional Wheels in its approach.
"We just didn’t like being told what to do," says Shonna defiantly. "And we didn’t like people thinking they knew what we were about when they didn’t. My philosophy has always been I’ll do what I want how I want when I want if I want! I’ve always been like that, and still am today, a right stubborn fucker!"
It was followed by yet another strong single, the ‘Banner Of Hope’/ ‘Law Of The Jungle’ double A-side, which reached the giddy heights of No. 10 in the Indie charts just before Xmas ’83. After ‘Burn ‘Em Down’, ‘Banner Of Hope’ remains probably the best song the band ever put their name to, a perfectly arranged and relentlessly catchy pop-rock song that suggests, given the lucky break they never received, the Wheels could have enjoyed the sort of success afforded someone like The Alarm.
‘Law Of The Jungle’ however was a tongue-in-cheek rompalong that again saw the band indulging their sly humour and more diverse musical tastes.
"That had a big influence borrowed from The Cram ps, who I quite liked at the time," reveals Shonna. "At the end of the day, when you’re making music, you’re making it for yourself. You hope that others will like it, but that’s really of secondary importance. You can only write from experience and be true to your influences. I liked the simplicity of rock ‘n’ roll, and the stomping power of Slade, and the energy of skiffle… let’s face it, rock ‘n’ roll was the people’s music – and so was punk. Fuck all these fretboard wizards, we were about something much purer and to the point. Punk ROCK basically."
And so the way was paved for the second album, ‘Black Leather Girl’, which appeared in March 1984. Recorded over the course of two months in Strawberry Studios, Stockport, and produced by Mike Stone, it saw the emergence of a much slicker-sounding Abrasive Wheels, oozing confidence and well-realised vocal harmonies. It’s a great album, no doubt about it, but is just too glossy when compared to their vicious debut. Long gone were the frantic tempos and chainsaw guitars, replaced by something much more restrained. They sounded bigger and better than ever, but the Wheels had been polished until they shone, and had lost some of their early edge. The title track even featured a screaming sax underpinning the raunchy hip-jerking rhythms.
"The second album was a natural progression, but we wanted to do something a bit different too," says an unrepentant Shonna. "Music’s like food really, and once you’ve had a big Sunday dinner, you don’t feel like having another one exactly the fuckin’ same straight after, do you? We’d already done the first album, and we didn’t wanna go out and do another one exactly the same.
"I like the album ‘Black Leather Girl’, but I hate the title. Stoney picked it, and I don’t know what he was on at the time! The title track was just a bit of fun for us, really, and wasn’t ever meant to be taken as a serious Wheels song."
Soon after the album, another single, ‘The Prisoner’ (backed by ‘Christianne’… the 12" version also contained ‘Black Leather Girl’), was moderately successful, but didn’t do as well as previous releases. It was the beginning of the end for the band who split at the end of 1984 following a heavy bout of international touring.
"We did a tour of the West Coast of America, and then Europe, and when we got back home, the scene just seemed dead by comparison. And I was so tired. I lost loads of weight on the US tour… I remember when we got back, Stoney saying that either I’d lost weight or my nose had been growing whilst I was away – I was that fuckin’ skinny, haha!
"I’m not really into touring much anyway. Harry left after the American dates, and we got Jez in on bass for some European gigs, and it just wasn’t the same. It was starting to seem like work to me… we HAD to go and do this, we HAD to do a new demo, HAD to write some new stuff, do this gig or that gig… it was all work and no play.
"And when we did ‘Black Leather Girl’, Dave’s writing style started to change, and we all had our own, very different, ideas about direction. The new material, I didn’t like too much at all – it just wasn’t me, so I said I’d had enough."
The band all went their separate ways, and interestingly enough, Shonna actually had chance to meet Margaret Thatcher, the inspiration for more than one of his scathing lyrics, several years after the Wheels disbanded.
"I went on to be a taxi driver and then I opened a few pizza parlours in Leeds… until Maggie Thatcher upped the interest rates and put me out of business. So she had the last laugh in the end, didn’t she? Fuckin’ slag! Anyway, I was working as a barrow boy on Leeds market, and I turned up for work one day, and all the top brass are there, all tarted up, with carnations in their button holes and what not. And I’m told that Maggie Thatcher is doing one of her walkabouts at the market, and she’s down to visit my fuckin’ stall! I thought, ‘fuckin’ hell, I ain’t missing this!’ So I was hanging around the back of the shop when she turns up, and she saw me and asked who I was, and I got introduced to her. She shook my hand, and I felt like putting the fuckin’ nut on her [laughs], but I just kept it all in check and shook her hand, as you do if you wanna keep your job. She was actually very charming – if only she knew what I really thought of her and what I’d sang about her a few years earlier, haha!"
For many years after that, Abrasive Wheels were nothing more than a fond memory, and one of those bands that no one thought would ever consider reforming… but now they’re back, as loud and brash as ever, and even working on material for that aforementioned new studio album.
"These last ten years, I’ve wanted to do another album," explains Shonna. "Maybe even start another band. I began looking in shop windows at all these ads saying ‘wanted: singer for a punk rock band’, and eventually I went to an audition. I met this guitarist called Steve Popplewell there, and we got on pretty well.
"You’re right, I’d never thought about reforming the Wheels – in fact, I was probably dead against the idea for many years… until Nev said he wanted to drum in a band with me and ‘why not call it the Abrasive Wheels?’ My biggest problem is I’m too headstrong for my own good, and even though it was a logical idea, I said ‘fuck off!’ But the idea was ticking away in the back of my head and it seemed to make more and more sense.
"Then Harry, who’s now a lecturer up in Scotland, said he wanted in if we did it, and I thought ‘well, if Harry and Nev are on board, I gotta ask Dave’. And it turned out that he’d been thinking the same thing anyway ‘cos he’d been getting calls from Darren Russell asking us to play some festivals, so he agreed. Everything seemed to just fall into place at the right time. If I’d have been asked to reform the Wheels ten years ago, I would have said ‘fuck off, been there, done that’, and that would’ve been it, but the circumstances are different now.
"So I got Steve, whose band I auditioned for, in on second guitar, and he’s slotted in so well, it’s untrue. And me and Dave have written all the new songs. We know exactly what we want to achieve this time around. In the old days we just did it without thinking.
"Y’see, I’ve just turned forty, and I realise now that those were important years in my life. I want to make a good album, the album we always threatened to make but never quite delivered. I want to get it out of my system once and for all, and not be left wondering ‘what if…?’ for the rest of my life. Me and Dave are both doers, but we know that if we don’t do this now, we never will."
Select disc ography:
‘The ABW EP’ (Abrasive, 1981)
‘Vicious Circle’ (Riot City, 1982)
‘Army Song’ (Riot City, 1982)
‘Burn ‘Em Down’ (Riot City, 1982)
‘Jailhouse Rock’ (Clay, 1983)
‘Banner Of Hope’ (Clay, 1983)
‘The Prisoner’ (Clay, 1984)
‘The Prisoner’ (Clay, 1984)
‘When The Punks Go Marching In’ (Riot City, 1982)
‘Black Leather Girl’ (Clay, 1984)
At A Glance:
If you’re more interested in the Wheels at their Abrasive best, the 1994 Captain Oi CD reissue of their first album also includes all the tracks from their first four singles, and even the track contributed to the ‘Riotous Assembly’ compilation. If you’d prefer to check out their more melodic, rockier material, Captain Oi also reissued the second album in 1995, the bonus tracks on this CD comprising the band’s last three singles. Either CD comes highly recommended.
Please click here to submit the latest Abrasive Wheels biography
The following area is only for review,
Recommend the artist to your friends.