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Bands That Time Forgot: Monterrez.

Monterrez photo

If I asked whether you could name the two bands who opened for Guns N’ Roses at their three Marquee shows in London back in June 1987, then Little Angels might well correctly fall from your lips as being one of them. The other is a little trickier and that's a shame because the combo in question are one of those great unsigned bands that time forgot. Y’see, Monterrez were the other support band, having not long changed their moniker from their previous incarnation of Empyre.

Primarily based in Horsham, Sussex, but with a line-up and loyal fan following that crossed the county borders into Surrey and the Guildford area, Monterrez had begun to climb an upwards path and had their eyes focussed further afield. They had some decent songs too, even when they ultimately became a bluesier quartet, having originally started life as a melodically inclined five-piece. For a time the group were like a Home Counties version of Bon Jovi. They attracted a pretty impressive female following and introduced a terrific rendition of Autograph's 'Turn Up The Radio' (extended guitar intro version) to the live set for a pyro laden encore.

The roots of the band lay in an early 80s outfit called Mandrake, vocalist Steve Arnold and rhythm guitarist Mark ‘Bomber’ Randon key figures within the ranks.

“After a line-up change, we felt we needed a new name,” notes Steve today. “We had ambitions, but I'm not sure we can remember what they were! Certainly they would have been pretty modest! The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was a huge influence, as were the heavyweights at the time: AC/DC, Motörhead, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy. But how we actually sounded was dictated by our own limitations!”

Empyre’s membership (completed by lead guitarist Dean Balchin, bassist Des Northcott and drummer Andy Sincox) all had day jobs, but gigging wasn’t quite as sporadic as you’d think! “We just took everything we could get. Anything!” laughs Steve. “For midweek gigs we'd jump in cars and vans straight after work and arrive at venues in the nick of time. Weekends were obviously easier!”

Empyre first came onto my radar when someone in the office I worked in at the time tipped me off about the group. A tape fell into my possession and a review of that demo made Issue 9 of Metal Forces in late 1984. Steve has since amusingly recalled seeing that review in his local newsagents and taking the copy of the magazine to the till as if he’d just won and received the FA Cup… he then added that if he’d actually read the review there and then he would’ve left it on the racks! The review was supportive rather than critical though, the three track tape (collectively titled ‘Foundation’) featuring a mixed selection of songs style-wise, with 'Revolution' being the best of the three.

“We'd never seen the inside of a recording studio before, even a modest one, so it was quite an experience for us,” the singer recalls. “Our main aim was just to record a decent demo that might get us some gigs – and not to mess it up! ‘Revolution' originally had an extra verse! It was cut from the tape by the studio engineer with a steady hand and a razor blade. It was a nervy watch!”

Not long after the demo appeared, Empyre underwent the first of a number of line-up changes when the rhythm section walked out. “It was a little bit of fallout after a rotten midweek gig in Guildford. I think we all needed a bit of a break!” How did bassist Ian ‘Wez’ Westley and drummer Paul ‘Dibber’ Stevens come into the picture? “It was very old school! Classified ads in the ‘Melody Maker’! ‘Wez’ responded first. We auditioned him without a drummer! ‘Dib’ was poached a little later, after we saw him playing with a band at The Royal in Guildford. We worked hard to get him”. This is another tale entirely and could fill a very amusing article all in itself! The new rhythm team really changed things for the better. More drive, more energy? “Absolutely,” responds Steve. “They say every band is only as good as its drummer. It's probably true. ‘Dibber’ and ‘Wez ‘definitely worked very well together. Their arrival was like a fuel injection. It changed our expectations and ambitions. We threw out all the old songs and started again.” By 1986 Empyre had not only recorded a much improved demo ('Hidden Power') but had started making inroads into London, with gigs at the Marquee supporting Dumpy's Rusty Nuts. Musically they were really beginning to find their feet and going for a very melodic, twin guitar approach relevant to the time. “I’m not sure there was ever a plan,” Steve laughs. “As we improved musically, we became more melodic in our approach. The more melodic sound was just where the learning curve took us.” It was at this point Empyre also began to acquire that fanatical female teen following too. Was that a surprise? “Definitely! None of our contemporaries pulled that kind of crowd. It was phenomenal! We must have been extraordinarily good looking!” Now ready to unleash their music on a wider scale, the band pressed up ‘Worlds Apart' and 'Swordplay' as a single, just prior to the change of name to Monterrez. However, shortly after its release Dean Balchin decided to quit the band. “It was purely Dean's decision, “observes Steve on the subject of the guitarist’s sudden departure. “He'd simply had enough. We were mystified at the time. We still are!”

The name change, by the way, came as a result of the far better known NWOBHM guitar hero Paul Samson announcing his new band’s name was Empire. The ‘y’ in the Mexican city of Monterrey was changed to a ‘z’ to gain something a little more exotic, though ultimately making things harder for people to know how to pronounce it. There’s a fine line between clever and stupid after all.

With the Monterrez handle now adorning remaining stock of the ‘Worlds Apart’ single via hastily applied stickers, the band sought out a new guitarist to replace Balchin. They didn’t have to look too far when they found ex Ragamuffin member Matt Pearce, the amiable guitarist having just moved to the South East of England from Scotland.

“It was a chance meeting in a Horsham pub. Even though we knew that Matt wasn't interested in joining a band in the provinces – he'd already told us he was planning a move to London – we invited him for a jam. The promise of a gig at the Marquee helped change his mind. Matt's arrival was another game changer. He was and still is a special talent.”

The name and line-up changes were followed by some pretty high profile support slots with Tesla and, of course, Guns N’ Roses. “We got the Tesla gig through the sheer persistence of Karen and Del, our husband and wife management team,” reveals Steve. “Having got our foot in the Marquee door with our support dates with Dumpy, Del and Karen never let up. They were phoning the Marquee office every week, chasing for dates. After a successful night with Tesla, the Guns N’ Roses gigs came to us. The Marquee phoned US! ‘Two gigs in a week, you say? Lovely! Guns N’ Roses? Who are they, then?’” This was pretty impressive stuff from an unsigned band. It’s worth noting they were very well received and even gained an encore at those two GN’R gigs by an audience of whom 99% were really only there to see the headliners. In receipt of positive press from Kerrang! as well as Metal Forces, what kind of interest was there from the labels?

“We had interest and a few meetings. I seem to remember we perhaps came closest with Polydor (who would, of course, sign Little Angels), but I'm not sure it was that close!” The dynamic began to change though, with Paul Stevens and Ian Westley leaving (the latter, wishing to pursue his academic studies, would make a successful career for himself in the music business away from playing bass). A new rhythm team came in (Jim Houghton, later to join Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts, Sarang and Proteus, and then Simon Larkin on bass, while Mick Neaves replaced Stevens on drums), but band co-founder ‘Bomber’ Randon also chose to depart. What was going on during this period in the late 80s?

“Matt's arrival coincided with ‘Wez’'s departure and really shook things up. His guitar style didn't suit the old songs, though, and – after Mark's departure – we found ourselves playing these old songs as a four-piece, which was pretty ugly at times. It was frustrating seeing the band treading water after the momentum of those wonderful Marquee nights. Something had to be done, so Matt and I took the decision to write a complete set of new songs and re-locate to London.”

“When ‘Wez’ left for University and the band wanted to move to London, I felt a growing gap and stepped aside so they could chase the dream,” offers Mark Randon on his departure. “I switched to bass – after seeing Matt play I realised what a limited guitarist I was – and joined Waterbratz. Through the early 90s we played hundreds of gigs and had an amount of success. An Astoria gig supporting Mike Monroe was one highlight. It became immense fun again. We were a band of brothers. We did our best to swim against the Britpop and Grunge tide, although I do like both those genres by the way. Later we morphed into Drugdealer Cheerleader. We released a debut album that I have absolutely no recollection of recording! Is that total Rock ‘n’ Roll or total madness?”

Still, both with and without Mark, Monterrez were a great live band with just as much potential as Little Angels had when they were picked up. I could never figure out why a label didn’t make a move to sign Monterrez too. “In the early days, not long prior to Dean's departure, we were offered a small, one-album deal by an independent,” reveals Steve. “We unanimously turned it down. Not for any other reason than we all felt it was too early. We knew we had much better songs in us. An album would have been a bad idea at that point in time. I still don't regret it!” Monterrez recorded a number of other demos between ‘87 and ‘89 that were, at one point, available in various places on the internet in the past couple of decades. Was there ever any discussion about releasing a belated compilation? “Nope… that never crossed our minds!”

With a little bit of cosmetic surgery to the name, losing the seemingly troublesome ‘z’ and replacing it with the ‘y’ to become Monterrey, further line-up changes ensued (including Steve being replaced after several record company knockbacks). When did things finally grind to a halt? “About 1990,” offers Mr Arnold. “Not sure the band lasted much longer after I left. That's probably a question for Matt Pearce.”

While Matt initially put Superstitious together with Simon Larkin, he has gone on to enjoy a rather successful career with the Tracie Hunter Band, Metalworks, Voodoo Six and now Matt Pearce & The Mutiny. After leaving Monterrey, Steve (like Mark Randon before him) still had the old Rock ’n’ Roll coursing through his veins. He’s still doing it to this day – or at least his alter ego of Johnny Barracuda is – alongside ‘Bomber’ Randon in the fabulous Soho Dukes, who released their excellent debut album (‘Bar Fights & Tuppenny Uprights’) in December 2021.

“In the early 90s, I had joined a Rock/Blues band in South London for a couple of years. Coincidentally called Mandrake, we played the South London pubs and clubs. They'd been going for a decade before I joined. I finished 'em in two!,” he laughs. “I first saw them supporting Dr. Feelgood at the Guildford Civic Hall, and joined them a few months later. Kim, Mandrake's bass player, recorded and mastered the first Dukes album at his studio in Woking by the way. Anyway, a few years later, I joined up with guitarist Col Foster to form a band called Sawbones. Age Blackwell, now of the Dukes, of course, was the drummer. ‘Bomber’ joined later for a few gigs. We played almost exclusively at the Grey Horse in Kingston. Sawbones was definitely the beginnings of the Dukes. No question! It was the first time I ever put on a top hat... Johnny Barracuda was born!” “By the early noughties I ended up in cover bands, then the past ten years I’ve become very creative again with Soho Dukes and Voodoo Lake,” adds ‘Bomber’. “I’m very much enjoying the ride. I’ve given up the day job and I’m throwing all my time into music, which includes managing a band called Blue Stragglers.”

Formed in 2017 and self-described as ‘a bunch of elegantly wasted, weekend millionaires’, the magnificent Soho Dukes (like a steam punk cross between the Faces and the Heavy Metal Kids) were very much raised, phoenix like, from the dust of Sawbones. See, after a few years of inactivity, the guys had met up again at a John Mellencamp gig at Hammersmith. The idea of everyone deciding to have ‘one last go’ at getting a band together for, perhaps, a one-off pub gig became (with lead guitarist Si Leach rounding out the quintet) something far more of a fixture on the Rock scene in the South East of England and beyond. “The gigs keep coming and – after some brilliant reviews of the first album – the second album's written already,” enthuses Mark. “It's happening all over again! Crikey!”

Listening to the ‘Bar Fights & Tuppenny Uprights’ album, I just think this is the band Monterrez could've become. Am I right or wrong on that one?! “It's very possible,” opines Steve. “The feeling is the same. There are still no rules. Let's have fun and make sure everyone else does too. It's all about the night out...” What are your thoughts now on Monterrez all these years later? “Not a moment of regret. What a grin. We made great friends, played some wonderful gigs. And there would be no Soho Dukes without it, which would be a great shame.”

This article appeared in Fireworks Rock & Metal Magazine Issue #98

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