THE last place I expected to see Jimme O’Neill was on a vintage clip exhumed from the ITV’s vast film archive.
But the performance of Billy Bentley by Kilburn and The High Roads in 1975 was memorable.
The pub-rock band from London – fronted by Ian Dury – had split just days before making their TV debut, so the singer had to hastily assemble a scratch group to fulfil the date.
“It was only the second time I’d appeared on TV. I’d never played the song before, so I kept looking to Ian for the changes. No wonder I look so nervous,” recalled Jimme.
His cameo with the Kilburns was screened on From The Vaults with Guy Garvey on Sky Arts.
The Scots musician – like Dury, who then formed The Blockheads – would go on make his mark.
It’s 35 years since O’Neill formed The Silencers, whose success stretched to Europe and America.
Ask him to name their finest moment and he has no hesitation in choosing what he jokingly calls “my nervous breakdown album”.
It’s how O’Neill describes A Letter From St. Paul, the 1987 debut recorded with guitarist Cha Burns, bassist Joe Donnelly and drummer Martin Hanlin.
“I think it’s my favourite simply because that’s where The Silencers’ sound was invented,” he said.
“Every song was the creation of our own sound, and they still stand up.
“It was an international album in that it was aimed at America. And it worked. We had a lot of success there.
“If you were to ask many people to choose their favourite they’d probably say A Blues For Buddha, which we released 12 months later.
“But I’d go for A Letter From St. Paul, just because of all the difficulties we faced while making it. I think that’s what made it so good. It’s a great piece of work.”
O’Neill and Burns had previous. They were founder members of post-punk band, Fingerprintz, who released three albums – The Very Dab (1979), Distinguishing Marks (1980) and Beat Noir (1981) – on Virgin.
Fingerprintz supported The Skids on a British tour, but it proved a dispiriting experience.
“I was really quite manic and very driven and I knew how to put a good band together,” said Jimme.
“But when we opened for The Skids nobody saw us. In those days, audiences hardly ever bothered to watch the support act.
“We were also completely ignored by the UK music press and it was important to have them on board.”
The apathy at home was eclipsed in the US where The Very Dab went to No. 1 on the college radio circuit.
“We’d first gone to America as the backing band for Rachel Sweet, who was signed to Stiff Records,” revealed Jimme.
“When we returned as Fingerprintz, we did a fantastic tour with XTC and went down a storm.”
But after three albums, the band split.
“Miles Copeland – manager of The Police – wanted to sign us to his I.R.S. label,” he said.
“But Cha and our drummer Bob Wiczling got offered a gig with Adam Ant and couldn’t turn it down. So it was a disappointing end to Fingerprintz.”
In 1985, O’Neill met Martin Hanlin, former drummer of Glasgow band, Venigmas, who said: ‘Let’s get a real band together’.
“I really didn’t want to. I’d become jaded by the whole band scene in London,” Jimme told me.
“I only wanted to do something if it was going to be great.”
O’Neill reunited with Burns and they began rehearsing.
“We got a few ideas together but when I listened to them back I said: ‘Look Martin, there are no real songs here. I need to put my songwriting cap on again and spend time working out what this band is going to be’.
“It turned out to be a long slow process over nine months finding out what I really wanted.”
O’Neill wrote I See Red and I Can’t Cry in his flat in Battersea.
But the breakthrough came with Painted Moon, a song inspired by the Falklands conflict four years previously.
“I knew it was really special. I had this guitar shape … trying to get a real Celtic sound,” said Jimme.
“We were in that umbrella where U2 were the best band on the planet. I’d also been floored by Stuart Adamson’s sound with The Skids.
“So I was trying to get MY version of that for The Silencers.”
The band recorded a series of 16-track demos before taking them to Hansa Studios in Berlin with producer Adam Williams, who’d worked with Bronski Beat.
The studio – in the shadow of the Berlin Wall – was an inspiration in itself.
In 1977, David Bowie recorded Low and Heroes there, and also produced Iggy Pop’s albums The Idiot and Lust For Life the same year.
When The Silencers booked in, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were in an adjoining room working on Tender Prey.
But things didn’t run smoothly.
“We ended up scrapping everything we recorded,” revealed Jimme.
“It was a great studio – when you think of the Bowie and Iggy legacy – but it was a case of us being in the right place at the wrong time.
“When you discover that clubs in Berlin don’t open until 4am it’s hard not to get caught up in that whole scene.
“So it wasn’t exactly the best place to be especially when you’re trying to make a record. But we DID work hard. When I got back to Scotland and listened to what we had, I realised we’d made mistakes. It wasn’t a patch on the demos. We were never going to get a record out of this. It was time to go back to the start.”
The band relocated to the more familiar territory of Castlesound Studios in East Lothian, with producer Dave Bascombe – who’d recorded Tears For Fears and Danny Wilson – and Callum Malcolm, who’d engineered The Blue Nile.
“The first thing we did was take everything off the demos of Painted Moon, I See Red, Blue Desire, I Can’t Cry and Letter From St. Paul, and transfer them to 24-track,” he said.
“There was something very organic about those recordings. I knew we’d never capture that again.”
But disaster struck when guitarist Cha Burns suffered a brain haemorrhage and was in hospital for six weeks.
Then, with the album ready to hit record stores, they faced another setback.
“One of our best songs was Bullets And Blue Eyes, and I thought it would make a great title,” said Jimme.
“But U2 released The Joshua Tree and it had a track called Bullet The Blue Sky. We thought it was just too close so we couldn’t use it.”
The band launched the album on a European tour with The Pretenders. They also played a gig with U2 at Cardiff Arms Park.
“In the UK, reaction to the album was not that great. I remember Painted Moon struggling to get a single play on radio … and this was the record everybody said was a big hit,” he recalled.
“But when we played in Paris with The Pretenders, that started things off in France. It ended up being the biggest country of all for us.”
He added: “The US record company loved the album. The song became a hit in America – reaching No. 51 in the Billboard Hot 100 – that was quite an achievement for an unknown band from Scotland.
“We supported Squeeze on their tour which included a show at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was different there because US audiences actually watched support acts to see if they could spot the next big thing.
“They were really receptive but only if you were good. And we were. It was a fantastic experience.”
A Letter From St. Paul kick-started a run of 10 albums, with a new one – Silent Highway – scheduled for later this year.
But you never forget the first time.
“The album was a bit of a slow burner, but once you got into it you became addicted,” said Jimme.
“Some people got what was good about us. It was melodic rock – which had pop, blues, folk, country and traditional music – with guitars weaving in and out.
“There was something going on. And it was different.”
JIMME O’Neill couldn’t believe it when a song he’d written about the war between Britain and Argentina was a surprise hit in America.
RCA Records had tipped the single to crack the charts despite its controversial subject matter.
“I wrote it about the euphoria after The Falklands War. When reality started to set in,” revealed Jimme.
“It was the first war I’d ever lived through. I was writing a modern blues songs where the words were very dark and ironic.
“It dealt with the sadness of the country swinging in completely the wrong direction. Or at least, the opposite direction to most of the other left-leaning musicians I knew.
“Politically I was on the other side from Margaret Thatcher. The Thatcher years was why punk rock happened. I identified with that.”
Painted Moon climbed to No. 51 in the Billboard Hot 100.
Jimme said: “The song was very much of its time. If you listen to the 12-inch blues mix today – being played loud in a nightclub – it still sounds awesome.
“That was the version played on college radio because it sounded so different. It was a huge hit.”
O’Neill had previously tasted chart success, in a variety of different guises.
In 1975, aged 18, he released his debut single Achin’ In My Heart on Oval Records, an indie label launched by Radio London DJ Charlie Gillett.
The singer was credited as Jimme Shelter, a respectful nod to The Rolling Stones.
He also wrote Say When for Lene Lovich, which was a Top 20 hit in 1979. He’d earmarked the song for Suzi Quatro, but EMI Publishing turned it down.
O’Neill also provided lyrics for Oh Women on Paul Young’s No. 1 debut album, No Parlez, four years later.
“The song had lyrics they thought were too sexist and didn’t want Paul to sing them,” recalled Jimme.
“I was brought in to write new words for the track.”
He also wrote for Manfred Mann and Rachel Sweet.
The singer was influenced by the London club scene, pioneered by venues like Billy’s and The Blitz. He said:
* THE Billy Sloan Show is on BBC Radio Scotland every Saturday at 10pm.
“I basically spent three years going to those clubs. The whole scene – music, culture and fashion – was changing.
“In The Blitz you’d meet Midge Ure and Billy Currie of Ultravox, Steve Strange, Boy George and Spandau Ballet. It was a very creative period.”