(An account of Steve's career as a solo acoustic performer prior to his association with Tony Secunda)
Like many things which work well in life, the chief formula for Steve's career was chanced upon by accidental necessity rather than divine inspiration. Steve didn't wake up one morning and suddenly realise that the way forward for him was to be a solo acoustic performer, it was essentially forced upon him by gig commitments and his lack of backing band - a case of 'The Show Must Go On' in effect. Little did Steve realise that this formula of acoustic guitar, stool and microphone was not only to make him something of a cult figure on the '70s underground scene but was also to be the format of the overwhelming majority of his performances for the rest of his life. At his peak, Steve would achieve at least as much success as Tyrannosaurus Rex had scored prior to their vinyl debut. He became a fixture at many smaller clubs/pubs, a regular support act for several top underground acts, and even managed to do a session for BBC local radio. None of this of course adds up to proper fame, but it was very much the commercial peak of Steve's career and, it must be said, is considerably more than for which he is usually given credit.
The quote at the top of this article fairly well sums up the nature of Steve's performances.He would sit on a stool performing his songs acoustically, interspersing them with jokes and talk, displaying raconteur skills to rival even the likes of Jarvis Cocker of Pulp or Kenickie frontwoman (and later TV presenter) Lauren Laverne . Yet despite his acoustic set-up, he never thought of himself as a folk-singer, more as 'a rock 'n roll singer without a band' as he himself put it. Because of the odd way in which Steve's act fell between several stools (sometimes literally), many promoters, journalists etc, were never quite sure in which category to place Steve. "They didn't know whether to book me as folk or freak or rock or cabaret...they couldn't contend with the jokes.... I like rapping, you know. If I feel in a jocular mood I like to tell jokes" This sense of humour is well in evidence in interviews from the time, as is Steve's skill at comic voices (evidenced as far back as the third Tyrannosaurus Rex LP Unicorn - the "SQUAAACK-JUMPING IN THE SKY!!!" on 'Pon a Hill' was him, as was the "my great-grandfather...an alchemist, you know" on the Children's Story; one might even cite some of his vocals on 'Three Little Piggies' or the midsection of 'Steel Abortion').
Steve's humour was by no means limited to the verbal - he was a great physical comedian with something of a penchant for slapstick - the Iggy Pop influence creeping in again. "That's what's good about being solo. I can stop anywhere and have a rap with the audience, tell a few jokes and fall about a bit, which is enjoying yourself and they're enjoying it. You stumble into microphones and they say 'There he is dribbling and falling over again.' And the microphones rock back in perfect time with the music!" If perhaps Steve discovered this skill via sheer unintentional buffoonery, neither he nor gig promoters were slow on the uptake regarding its potential. "I'd go and do a gig, and they'd say, 'You will dribble won't you, you will fall over?' So I would say 'Sorry man, that's extra, a fiver for every dribble, and twenty five for falling over.' It quite amazes me, if I say I will dribble, they go 'Great, great! they'll love it, they'll love it.' I'm a bit like a footballer really."
The reason for this was, of course that much of Steve's audience as gigs "...can identify with that because they were all downered out of their minds anyway." There was a downside to this, however. Steve preferred a lively, even boisterous audience rather than a passive audience who simply sat reverently. This could be a problem with the rather stoned hippie audiences as Steve recalled of his first gig: "The first time I did (a solo gig), everyone was sort of bombed out, so I put my guitar in my case and said 'That's it, I'll sell my guitar and go to Morocco,' ya know. People say "Oooh he's off again," and then I say "That's it, I did it, I did it, man. I pulled it off, wonderful, wonderful, who needs Morocco anyway?" When audiences were too passive for Took, he would often delve into his 'impersonations' (covers) routine, doing Neil Young, Dylan and even Sinatra covers. "People don't fuckin' notice, man, ya know, they'd go "Oh yes" and clap a bit, the cunts. I never get a reaction out of these people." Far more satisfactory in Steve's mind was the example of the gig where his acoustic version of 'Steel Abortion' managed to trigger off a riot. "I started to explain what the song was about...all bits of metal started flying through the air. They were sort of pulling chairs to pieces and hurling them through the air, but I played through the number, quite content with the scene, the reaction I was causing."
Steve could get all sorts coming to his gigs, often including actual fans of his music, and he did have a small hardcore following going. "You'd go to a gig somewhere where there'd be a little pocket of people who'd be great fans of yours, for which reason you had never fathomed out, ya know. You'd walk on the stage and play a chord and they'd start applauding like mad, before the number, ya know." Many of these fans, of course were old Tyrannosaurus Rex ex-fans who felt that Marc and Mickey had 'sold out' due to the band's new 'Pop' direction and sought solace in the other half of the original line-up. Indeed, for much of his career, Steve was to find himself as something of a rallying point for people who were disenchanted with Marc or else had some sort of grudge against Bolan. Yet, ironically, whatever acrimony Steve may have felt towards Marc over his dismissal from Tyrannosaurus Rex, it would never be enough for him to be the figurehead for anti-Bolanism many wanted him to be and those who tried to use him in this context were often in for a dissapointment. The best example of this schism in practice would have to be a backfired stunt pulled by underground magazine Frendz in 1972 when they took Took to a T.Rex gig at the Gliderdome in Boston, Lincolnshire. intent on confronting Marc with the presence of his 'discarded' ex-bandmate. They managed to smuggle Steve backstage and into Marc's dressing room, but rather than the confrontation they had hoped for, the two men seemed absolutely overjoyed to see each other and immediately hugged. Still, they got some recompense - Steve was in the dressing room when Marc was being interviewed. When the journalist asked why T.Rex had become successful, Took butted in "Because I left!" (The only other notable incident that night was Steve nearly getting arrested for shouting abuse ("Pigs! Pigs!") at three policemen he found backstage getting fed whisky by the roadcrew!)
Steve's old Shagrat sidekicks, Larry Wallis and Dave Bidwell were still very much in social contact with him, often hanging out together when they went out for a night with their girlfriends. Larry Wallis recalled in 1987 "We used to go buy plastic cars from the toyshop on a Friday night and we'd go to my mother's house and take LSD after my mum and dad had gone to bed. We'd boil these cars in saucepans full of water and twist them out of shape and burn them. Took was getting up a collection of car wrecks. His flat used to have all these great plastic cars that were twisted and burnt and stuff." Although they were preoccupied with their full time bands, Larry and Dave did manage to get back with Steve for a project which was an extension of his acoustic live shows - the revival of Shagrat as a three-piece acoustic outfit. Steve continued to play the guitar as per live, while Wallis took up acoustic bass and drummer Bidwell became a percussionist, most commonly playing tambourine or occasionally handclaps, or as Larry recalled from rehearsals "pounding fuck out of a phone book." Although some of the old electric numbers made the jump to the new acoustic-orientated sound, a large number of new, more radio-friendly tunes were also incorporated into the trio's repertoire. "We decided that acoustics were where it was at, we put together a lot of love songs like 'Strange Sister'." recalled Wallis. Steve commented at the time, "I write love songs, really sweet ones; and I write about politics and drugs - I've made a point of trying nearly everything."
While it seems doubtful as to whether this particular line-up ever played in public, and they certainly never did any formal gigs as a full band, they did manage to get some excellent demos done on reel-to-reel tape. Larry's dad was something of a home-recording enthusiast and the threesome together taped a considerable number of tracks in the garage of the Wallis family home some time in Spring 1971. Although to date, Wallis has only managed to locate four tracks, Amanda, Strange Sister, Still Yawning Stillborn and Beautiful Deceiver from amongst his father's vast home tape collection, it seems fairly safe to conclude that more material does exist from this session, although Larry reportedly is quite vague as to what else was committed to tape - the only other suggested title being a version of 'Blind Owl Blues', a song Steve wrote as a tribute to the late Al Wilson of Canned Heat.
Nevertheless, it is a pity that only four tracks from this session are in circulation as they, more than any other recordings Steve made, demonstrate his talent as a singer, songwriter and musician. Unlike the malevolent cackling vocals of the electric Shagrat, here Steve sings quite melodically in a laid back Californian drawl, which Mark Paytress compared to Dino Valenti (of Quicksilver Messenger Service). Amanda is a gorgeous acoustic ballad, a bit Oasis-esque (it has a rather similar sort of feel to Wonderwall) and is ostensibly all about a fling with a girl working as a croupier in a casino (although this was probably a metaphor for the amphetamine mandrax, the street name of which, Mandy, is the informal form of Amanda.) It was widely seen by most of Steve's friends and associates as his best shot at a hit single. It featured an excellent hook line "When the lady smiles/ Then I roll the dice" And in sympathy with Steve's earlier talk of writing songs with words like "breast" and "drug" in them, he put in as blatant a drug lyric as "I never expected/Speed could get me that high"! Strange Sister is a nice haunting folky song which would have made a good electric track in a stompy Motown sort of a way. It was about being haunted by the vision of a woman and featured the chorus line "It's straaaaaaaaaaaange........sister!" Still Yawning Stillborn was probably originally written for the electric Shagrat of 1970 but was recorded here acoustically. A protest song in 3/4 rhythm and minor key, the chorus lyric demonstrated Steve at his most poetic: "I would give anyone a part of me I can see, I would give a part of you if what you tell me, Isn't true so move, that feels so sweet, you can feel the blossoms fall from the trees, now here we come to the swirls of those pretty shops, signs flashing by, somehow they find the time." Beautiful Deceiver was yet another lovely poppy tune very like Pulp's "Common People" in terms of pace and riff, a song of appreciation towards a woman with a rather vivid imagination, again perhaps written as a drug allegory. It also has some of the most complex and frenetic tambourine playing from Bidwell.
Steve was playing live on a fairly regular basis by now - in one interview from 1972, he reported that he was playing as many as four or five gigs a week. This total would have included some small turns done at hippy-frequented pubs in the Notting Hill area, as well as free performances at the weekly mini-festival which took place under the Westway flyover on Saturday afternoons, from which evolved the regular Meanwhile Gardens concerts which would run well into the 1980s. (On one such occasion under the Westway, Duncan Sanderson came along to help out on guitar.) At formal gigs, Steve would often be included on the bill as his Bolan connections were seen as a potential drawing card - vidé the CND Festival in Aldermaston where he was billed as "Steve Took (Ex T.Rex)", perhaps the first ever example of an attempt to sell Took's music to Bolan's fans! Other gigs included a benefits event for the underground magazine Nasty Tales, a three-day tour of the South Coast sponsored by Community Music just before Xmas 1971 and a performance as part of a Deviants package at the 1972 Notting Hill Carnival. The main source of these gigs was as regular support act for his old mates The Pink Fairies. Often, not without the help of a little string pulling on their part, Steve would be included on the bill with them, indeed, the first such support slot, at the Fairies' Christmas Party at the Roundhouse in December 1970, is generally regarded as Steve's finest gig - he is said to have been the surprise highlight of the evening!
Steve also played support slots for Hawkwind, such as Dagenham Village Roundhouse, Chiswick Town Hall alongside Open Road and a rather mandied-out performance in Margate (as well as jamming with them on bongos at various gigs) and this would lead to his first managerial contract since leaving Tyrannosaurus Rex. The shock of being landed with a £2000 bill had very much dissuaded Steve from having a manager, much to the perturbation of record companies with whom Took tried to negotiate. "I'd go to record companies and talk contracts and they'd go 'Who's your manager?' and I'd go 'Manager, I'm the manager, man,' and they'd go '(indescribable sound effect)![sic] We're not handling that freak!' So many grand, you know, because he's gonna blow it, he's not gonna spend it on what he's supposed to, he's gonna spend it on getting out of his head." Eventually, however, Steve learned to accept that he would need some management and so Hawkwind got their manager, Doug Smith, to take charge of Took's career. Smith was not particularly enthusiastic about Took, seemingly regarding him as a distraction to the more immediate task of promoting Hawkwind's own career. Nevertheless, he could be useful inasmuch as he provided a roadcrew (well, at least, one roadie) and transport to more remote gigs. This was not always an advantage, however, as en route to the same gig where the 'Steel Abortion' incident occurred, Steve contracted a migraine from the bumpiness of the ride, and prior to the gig, was desperately begging for an aspirin, while the roadie was busy making efficient preparations. As a result, the gig promoter actually initially believed the roadie to be Took!
So Steve had the formula, the songs, the gigs, the demos, the fans. What he really needed next was exposure to a bigger audience. Unfortunately, the most obvious source of exposure, John Peel, simply didn't seem interested. "John's a victim of what the press put out" commented Steve of the man who had once given vital exposure to Tyrannosaurus Rex and of whom he had once commented "John Peel not only speaks music, he eats and shits it too." According to some sources, the lack of airplay on Peel shows may have had something to do with acrimony felt by Peel after his falling out with Marc Bolan. Nevertheless, Steve did manage to get at least one radio session, albeit only on BBC Radio London, on future current affairs presenter Steve Bradshaw's "Breakthrough" programme. "He just said 'There's a microphone, you've got fifteen to twenty minutes, just do what you want ...I didn't get arrested. I asked 'em what I could say and what I couldn't say, and it was quite liberal, but how much exposure is that?" It would appear that rather than being a set of studio-pre recorded session tracks, Steve essentially did a live acoustic gig over the airwaves in much the same vein as Marc's appearances on US radio in 1971-2. Although it therefore seems unlikely (given the BBC's track record in such matters) that the station ever even made an official tape of the show, less still that they preserved it, Bradshaw himself has indicated that he may still have a tape somewhere of the show! No account exists even of what tracks Steve played, although it is not inconceivable that BBC Radio London, or else Bradshaw and his wife (who assisted with the show and who, Bradshaw reports, has clearer memories of the period than himself) might still have paperwork. This will hopefully become a possible avenue for future Took research.
By early 1972, Steve was very much a feature of the underground scene,
in search of a recording contract in order to make the next jump into the
world of releasing singles and LP's. Had he succeeded at this point, then
everything up until now would be seen by history as an apprenticeship,
perhaps even a meteoric rise to success. However, aside from the tracks on Think Pink, plus a briefly mooted single featuring 'the former bass player from Curved Air', at this point vinyl releases still seemed to be a medium-term future aspiration rather than an immediate prospect. The main outstanding catalyst
which was still required to bring this about was a manager who was willing
and able to sell Steve's music to A&R personel. By himself, Steve had
proved unable to do this, while Doug Smith showed insufficient interest
in Steve to really further his career. What Steve really needed was a manager
who was genuinely motivated to make him a success. When, in 1972, that
opportunity finally knocked, it came in the shape of the aggrieved ex-manager
of Marc Bolan, hell-bent on gaining revenge by any means necessary.