As the 1970s drew to a close and prog rock fell by the wayside due to the advent of punk and New Wave, Phil’s musical priorities reflected the changing zeitgeist. Moving away from the lengthy running times and complex arrangements that had defined Next, his new group Afraid of Mice aimed for immediacy and accessibility.
A notable influence was a pre-fame gig Adam Ant and the Ants, ‘Wow, there’s the new guy” Phil recalls, impressed by the band’s marriage of theatricality and punk attitude.
Writing constantly since the demise of Next, a score of new songs were assembled for the as yet unnamed new outfit’s live set. Retaining bassist Geoff Kelly in the line-up, the fledgling AOM hit the Liverpool gig circuit.
The band’s first appearance on disc was two tracks included on 1980 compilation A Trip To the Dentist, that shone a spotlight on new groups in Liverpool. The fiery punked up energy of I’m Not A Fighter contrasting with the more ruminative Trans-Parents.
After Next had eschewed independent label Charisma in favour of CBS, Phil approached the company again to see if there was any interest in signing the group. Their interest piqued by the two tracks on the compilation album, following a show in front of a Charisma A&R (Artists and Repertoire) representative at the Masonic Pub on Berry St, the band swiftly inked a deal.
Whilst still appearing under the name Next, Afraid of Mice played a quartet of gigs at Liverpool’s leading live venue of the era, Eric’s in May 1979. In addition to finding their feet as a band, one of the dates served as a showcase for a prospective record producer.
Proof of how important their new signings were to the label, Charisma hoped to pair legendary T-Rex / David Bowie associate Tony Visconti up with the group. Before making a decision on whether to produce them Visconti made a trip up to Merseyside to see AOM for himself.
Given Visconti’s glittering CV Phil and company were understandably nervous about the visit. “It was on a weeknight and the place was half empty” Phil remembers of the gig. The legendary producer clearly liked what he heard however and agreed to helm the group’s debut album.
Tracked at Visconti’s own studio, Good Earth on Dean St in Soho, the sessions were engineered by future Lindsey Buckingham associate Gordon Fordyce. With the twelve-track debut and a dozen other songs in the can the sessions concluded with a riotous studio-based wrap party that coincided with Phil’s twenty-fifth birthday where Phil Lynott put in a appearance.
Preceded by the release of two excellent singles, I’m On Fire and Popstar, the eponymous album was released by Charisma in Autumn 1981. Sitting comfortably alongside power pop doyens The Jam and The Cars the disc’s powerful, punchy sound is an overlooked classic, marrying Phil’s innate gift for melody with the energy of New Wave.
Following a UK tour and a handful of European dates, the label’s press campaign was pressed into action. BBC Radio One’s In Concert series broadcast live from London’s Maida Vale Studios featured the Mice in March 1982. Distributed among fans on CD-Rs, the spiky energy of the set shines through despite the lo-fi bootleg recording quality.
Afraid of Mice reached an even greater audience a few months later when they appeared on David Essex’s Showcase, a programme designed to give a stage to new musicians. Going out on Saturday teatime on BBC1, the band essayed a frantic version of new single At the Club on the first episode of the series. Guests appearing on the following weeks’ editions included rising stars Talk Talk and Thomas Dolby.
A tradition future Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson did much to establish, Granada TV covered the North West’s musical activity in depth on their regional news show. Phil’s career throughout the 1980s and 90s was documented extensively by the broadcaster, beginning with an entire episode of culture show Exchange Flags dedicated to the group in 1983 combining interviews, recording studio footage and a live performance.
Following his split with Jeremy Lewis and a frustrating period attempting to handle the band’s affairs himself, Phil and the group were briefly managed by music industry legend Gail Coulson who went on to guide Peter Gabriel to global fame in the mid-1980s.
With the campaign for their debut LP concluded, sessions for the follow up began in 1982. The first production job assigned to Anne Dudley, the future Frankie Goes to Hollywood / ABC cohort and Oscar and Bafta winner was behind the recording console. The first fruits of the sessions, dramatic single This Mirror, engineered by bassist / producer for The Cure Phil Thornalley was released as a 7” and 12” in spring 1983.
Charisma were displeased with the direction the sessions were taking however and replaced Dudley with Nick Tauber who had produced Thin Lizzy’s early albums. Follow up What About Me? was issued ahead of the LP’s planned LP release in 1983, but behind the scenes things began to go awry.
In a changing music industry now dominated by pop, Charisma a company famed for its association with underground rock begun to struggle financially. With losses mounting founder Tony Stratton-Smith decided to sell the label to Virgin records in 1983. With the new AOM album yet to be finished the label decided not to proceed with the release and the LP was scrapped. Worse was to come as the label’s new owners decided not to keep Phil on their books and his contract was terminated.
Bookending their official career on record with a second compilation appearance, new track Don’t Take Your Love Away appeared on 1984 collection Jobs For the Boys.
Several hundred copies of the aborted second album later surfaced in 1985 as highly sought-after bootleg The White Album. As the sophisticated pop of Sugar Mommy and the sweeping drama of Faith Hope And Charity underlines, Charisma’s decision not to release the album was a crying shame.
Afraid of Mice’s brief, brilliant two-year run captured on record and their outstanding live work preserved on bootlegs provides a hugely intriguing glimpse into what might have lay ahead had events turned out differently.