The first line-up of Gillan was hurriedly assembled in July 1978. Colin Towns' 'Fighting Man' demo had mapped out a hard rock direction for the band to follow, and it fell upon him to find the musicians to complete the new line-up.
Session drummer Liam Genocky, bass player John McCoy, and guitarist Richard Brampton were chosen from his list of contacts. At McCoy's suggestion his old ZZebra bandmate Steve Byrd was brought in to replace Brampton. Towns then set to work writing music for the band's first album, which was recorded just before their live debut at the Reading Festival on August 16th 1978. They were listed there as the Ian Gillan Band, but in line with the new no-frills policy the name was soon pared down to plain old Gillan.
Genocky was unable to continue in the band due to prior commitments with Gerry Rafferty, but a new drummer was quickly found in the shape of Pete Barnacle, who had previously played alongside Byrd in Sonja Kristina's band. (photo: John McCoy with Liam Genocky)
The 'Gillan' album appeared in September 1978; and was an impressive piece of work; fierce, heavy, well performed and exuberant. It was only released in Japan, Australia and New Zealand, but the album sold well in the UK as an import, aided by positive press reviews and the presence of the band gigging busily, performing the new music in all of its raw, ramshackle glory. Ritchie Blackmore was impressed enough to join them on stage at the London Marquee Club in December 1978, and shortly afterwards asked Gillan to join him in Rainbow, but with success on his own terms beckoning, Ian decided to enter the new year with his own band.
In March 1979 they returned to the studio to prepare an updated version of their album for the UK. Four months later they emerged with a new album and two new members. Barnacle and Byrd were out, replaced by Ian's old Episode Six bandmate Mick Underwood on drums, and Bernie Torme on guitar. The latter had supported Gillan with his own heavy flash-punk trio, and had impressed Ian with his wild guitar style.
The new Gillan line-up made a considerable impact, first on UK concert audiences and then the charts. Their debut show was at the London Marquee Club on July 10th 1979, preceding an appearance at the Reading Festival in August, and by October they had built up a strong enough head of steam to send their first UK album, 'Mr.Universe', up to #11 in the charts. The album continued in the energetic vein of its predecessor, despite being hampered by a muddy production sound, which was to become a recurring problem. That, allied with the band's rumbustuous, almost punky live shows, and their constant touring somehow meant they never achieved the rock god status of Deep Purple split group contemporaries Rainbow and Whitesnake, but that's not where Ian saw himself.
Recording wise, matters were still rather confusing for some fans. The UK 'Mr Universe' was made up of two tracks lifted unchanged from the Japanese 'Gillan' album, three which had been re-recorded with Torme and Underwood, and four new ones. In turn, to avoid repeating already released tracks on the Japanese edition of 'Mr.Universe', four new tracks were recorded for that version. Despite setbacks (including their UK label Acrobat going bust just as 'Mr.Universe' was climbing the charts), the band were on a roll, helped in part by the nascent New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement, which brought along legions of new rock fans eager to follow rock acts such as Gillan (and also to delve into the back catalogues of bands such as Deep Purple, who were now increasingly being labelled 'legendary' when mentioned in the music press). The excellent 'Glory Road' album was carried on a wave to #3 in August 1980, kept off the top by the latest Deep Purple compilation 'Deepest Purple'. In October 1980 a tongue-in-cheek and kicked about reworking of Elvis' 'Trouble' became Gillan's first hit single, and opened up a mainstream audience who now witnessed the band appearing regularly on BBC TV's 'Top Of The Pops'. Gillan avoided heavy metal stereotyping by hamming it up for the cameras, with John McCoy bouncing around like an enormous bald headed road drill, Bernie Torme, a punk Hendrix pirate complete with eyepatch, Colin Towns in wraparound shades and op-art fashions, and Mick Underwood, a tetchy uncle in mirror sunglasses.
1981 proved prolific, to say the least. A barrage of multi-format singles continued, some serious, others less so, with 'New Orleans' climbing highest, followed by a new album 'Future Shock' reaching #2 in the album charts in April, and a huge number of TV appearances and tour dates. In June, Bernie Torme had had enough, and jumped ship when the band were supposed to return home in the middle of a German tour to perform 'No Laughing In Heaven' on Top Of The Pops. In double quick time Janick Gers was drafted in from support act White Spirit, and with barely a pause for breath the touring and recording continued unabated.
The final incarnation of the band broke the spell of the band's artistic and commercial popularity. Despite a more controlled approach in the recording studio the spirit was beginning to ebb away, and Ian was ready to pull the plug by the end of 1982.
Gers contributed successfully and in understated fashion to the UK #12 album 'Double Trouble', a very commendable studio album spoilt by the addition of an execrably mixed 1981 live set from Gillan's new second home: the Reading Festival. On stage the band had certainly lost some of its highly individual charm, with Gers' sub-Blackmore stage antics being met with some derision. 'Sounds' magazine's review of his PA climbing exploits at Castle Donnington in 1982 concluded "what a showman, what a technician, what a wally...". The band's studio work also came back to earth with a bump, as they tried to polish their studio sound, resulting in the comparatively unsuccessful 'Magic' album in 1982, and a final, missfiring single in the shape of the AOR sounding 'Long Gone' (although the glorious b-side 'Fiji' showed they could still turn on the magic).
In December the band came to a sudden close, when Ian Gillan announced that he was having to take a break to rest his voice. The manner of the dissolution lead to ongoing bitterness from McCoy and Underwood (the former released a single shortly afterwards called 'Because You Lied'). Towns went on to huge success as a jazz, TV and film soundtrack composer, while Gers eventually ended up in Iron Maiden. At their best, the Gillan band's music is some of the very strongest and most imaginative of any of the Purple split bands, and a major reappraisal is long overdue.
..... 1978-82 UK Gillan Discography ....
.... Notable Post 1982 Gillan CD Releases ....
... Gillan Video....
.... Gillan, Further Reading ....