by Ivan Iossarian
Translated from Russian - the original published in July 2007 in the Russian Billboard magazine
John Peel's Tractor
The group's manager Chris Hewitt tells us why famous Radio DJ and producer John Peel had such love for these strange blokes from Rochdale.
John Robert Parker Ravenscroft, more well known as John Peel, always had a special place in his heart for the towns of Rochdale and Heywood - ever since the time when in 1959 he began working at Townhead Mill where he'd been sent to work at a cotton processing plant. This job had been given to John by his dad, a cotton broker by the name of Robert "Bob" Ravenscroft. However, all hopes that John Peel would acquire experience and continue in his father's footsteps had proven to be futile - John left Rochdale in the early 60s and went to the US to try his hand at a career in radio.
By 1970, John Peel had returned back to England. And one fine day, he and his Dandelion Studios partner Clive Selwood received a whole bunch of tapes in the post from a certain group with a nondescript name of Way We Live. Subsequently, at Peel's behest, the group was rechristened Tractor. The affinity that Peel had for Rochdale, coupled with the unique sound of the band, had predetermined and formed his special relationship with Tractor, which would continue all the way until John's untimely demise in 2004.
Since the early 70s and up 'til the present time, Tractor have been through five keyboard players. But the mainstays have always been guitarist, bassist and vocalist Jim Milne, drummer, bassist, sometime keyboardist Steve Clayton and sound engineer and producer John Brierley. The first two albums featured Peel and Selwood as the executive producers.
When the Dandelion Studios in Rochdale went out of business, Tractor moved operations to their own Tractor Studios in Heywood. Alan Burgess was recruited as the new sound engineer, while Chris Hewitt took on the role of a concert organizer and promoter; at that time Chris also became Jim and Steve's personal manager, which is still the case today.
Despite Tractor's frequent skirmishes with Clive Selwood over royalty payments and Dandelion's business practices, Peel was steadfast in his promotion of the band, consistently giving Tractor's new material a much needed (and frequent) airtime on his show and always announcing events that featured the band.
When Tractor's sound engineer John Brierley opened up his own Cargo Studios in 1977, not too far from the Tractor Record Shop in Kenyon Street, young punk and indie acts immediately began battling for his attention. For a good number of years from 1977 onwards, John Peel was actively promoting the recordings made at this Rochdale studio by bands such as The Fall and Joy Division.
Peel described Brierley as a "brilliant young sound engineer who managed to build a studio at his parents' house using parts from an old washing machine". Peel was also instrumental in helping Tractor develop their talents in all their veritable variety. In 1970-72, he would lend them money so they could equip their new studio at John's parents' place in Edenfield Road in Rochdale, and later, in 1973-74 - sponsored the creation of yet another studio, at Steve Clayton's parents' house in Dawson Market Street in Heywood - since 2006, it's been the headquarters of Heywood Arts.
The music shop at the "concert equipment centre" in Oldham Road in Rochdale have also been created in part with Peel footing the bill. In turn, a little bit later, they both formed the basis for the Deeply Vale Festivals and later evolved into the music store and studios in Kenyon Street and Drake Street.
The group's live stereo sound equipment system with its multi-threaded signal cables and mixing boards was one of the first of its kind and class in the whole of Northwest England. In the mid-70s in Manchester, Tractor were utilizing it non-stop for their live work as well as leasing it out to other acts. This system was used at such esteemed Manchester live venues as Stoneground and Electric Circus; it was rented by Motorhead for their live performance at Deeply Vale and open air concerts in the Alexandra Park. When Tractor were lacking equipment for a more complex setting, they would use the help of such companies as Mitrix and WigWam Acoustics. Most of the groups that were using Tractor's sound equipment were also recording at the Cargo Studios and their material would later be played on the air by John Peel during his radio show - among them were Durutti Column, Gang Of Four, Joy Division, Dead Or Alive, Teardrop Explodes and many others.
The latest Amazon.com review of Tractor's works quotes a Q magazine article from 1991: "Tractor - they're just mad!" Of course it is convenient to apply the "mad" epithet to all rebels of that era, however, they're no more "normal" than Syd Barrett and his (early) version of Pink Floyd - the first outfit that comes to mind when you listen to Tractor.
A reviewer from the BBC web site has remarked, "The term 'progressive' is too narrow and restrictive to describe the music of Tractor; the latter requires more space so it can soar and more freedom to be given the justice it deserves. This is the music for the entire world and its roots lie in Northwest England."
1. A Candle For Judith. During the recording of this album, Steve Clayton played Premier drums, bongos, a Selmer Futurama bass guitar, congos, piano and harmonica. Jim Milne was playing various electric guitars: 6- and 12-stringers, a Selmer Futurama bass amplified through a 50-Watt Selmer "Treble and Bass 50" and monitored through a 2x12 Marshall guitar cabinet and fuzz box plus a lamp-driven circular looped echo-processor Copycat WEM. The recording equipment consistent of a self-made mixing board, Ferrograph and Vortexion reel to reel recorders and also a Grampian springed reverberator (with Hammond springs).
2. The name "The Way We Live" was borrowed from a women's magazine column (it was the title of the column). It was John Peel who renamed the group "Tractor" - he'd once noticed a tractor working in the field as he was looking out his window and was sufficiently impressed to propose it as the band's new name.
3. Today, "A Candle For Judith" is included in the collectors' list of most sought-after vinyl records from the mad era of psychedelia and progressive folk music; it was recorded by John Peel's proteges, an English group then still known as "The Way We Live".
4. Tractor (originally The Way We Live). The group was founded in Rochdale, Great Britain in 1966 by Jim Milne, Steve Clayton and their friend John Brierley. In the very beginning they were rehearsing together with Michael Batsch and Alan Burgess, but they soon left the group. Milne and Clayton, aided by Brierley, began experimenting with various styles and musical forms. Eventually they recorded a demo with which they launched their systematic "assault" on all famous record labels. They were surprised to the extreme when one fine day they saw, right on their doorstep, none other than Clive Selwood - an A&R manager of the Dandelion label and John Peel's partner.
A contract was signed and soon after the group began recording their album at a London studio where not too long ago Cream were recording their debut! The album "A Candle For Judith" (Judith being Clayton's future wife) was released in January 1971 and greeted warmly by critics, although the sales left a lot to be desired. On the other hand, that is what drives today's high prices for the original LP - 200-250 GBP in near-mint condition.
However, John Peel was not fazed by the low sales figures and immediately proposed the recording of a second album as well as the band's name change to Tractor. So it was done and soon the newly christened Tractor were labouring on new material in their native Rochdale. The eponymous album entered circulation in 1972, garnered positive critical feedback from the press and, what is somewhat surprising, sold quite well! At one point in early 1973, it even entered the Virgin Records top sales charts at no. 30.
However, the departure of John Brierley (who was starting a new career as a sound engineer at one of the most famous recording studios in the country) and the subsequent demise of Dandelion Records left Tractor without a future, with a load of artistic disagreements and some unfinished material for what was meant to be their third album. Numerous attempts to revive the group would merely end up in some small-time club gigs. In 2006, the group released a new CD on Ozit-Morpheus Records, entitled, "John Peel Bought Us Studio Gear and a PA" - it consisted of demo recordings from the period when Milne and Clayton were visited by Clive Selwood.