Rapid Fire: The Rise and Fall of The Amazing Snakeheads
With songs about lust, vampires and coming alive at nighttime, Amphetamine Ballads is more than worthy of its place on the SAY Award shortlist. We look back at The Amazing Snakeheads' fast burning flame
A producer at a well-known Glasgow recording studio is credited with inventing the title for The Amazing Snakeheads’ only album after witnessing one of their typically intense live performances. Following a gig at the now-closed Captain’s Rest venue on Great Western Road, Stuart Evans, co-owner of Green Door, told the band he couldn’t believe they chose to play ballads after consuming amphetamine.
The words stuck in the mind of guitarist and vocalist Dale Barclay and would be put to use on their debut LP for Domino, the London-based label that launched the careers of Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys. Although never shy about their occasional use of speed, it would be wrong to presume the Snakeheads’ electrifying brand of rock n’ roll was drug-fuelled. The passion burning in Barclay’s eyes when performing was all his own. With his old pal and fellow southsider William Coombe on bass guitar, and the basic but powerful drumming of Jordan Hutchison behind them, the trio had a formidable stage presence.
They could be just as intimidating on record. Their first single, Testifying Time, was an attention-grabbing statement of intent less than one minute 20 seconds in length. Amphetamine Ballads was a more brooding affair in comparison but remains a gripping listen a year after its release. A mixture of howling blues-punk and raw emotion – with songs about lust, vampires and coming alive at nighttime – it's more than worthy of its place on the SAY Award shortlist.
“We didn’t have a fucking clue” – William Coombe
There were some who felt it didn’t quite capture the power band created on stage. Yet the LP is now the band’s final legacy. The Amazing Snakeheads split barely a year after most people had ever heard of them. There was no press release, no media conference, just a single tweet from Barclay posted on February 23. “The Amazing Snakeheads are over. Never, ever to return. To anyone who came to get down, I thank you with all my heart.” That, seemingly, was that.
It was an almost unthinkable turn of events when The Skinny met the trio in March last year ahead of the album’s release. Sitting in The Laurieston bar, close to their Gorbals rehearsal space, the band were relaxed and looking forward to a busy summer of touring. Their monthly residency at Sauchiehall Street’s Broadcast venue was coming to an end, having cemented their reputation as perhaps the most exciting live act in the city. It seemed an amazing time to be a Snakehead.
“Things keep coming into our world that are just right,” said Barclay, when contemplating the album they had taped the previous year at Green Door. “Without Green Door, there wouldn’t be an Amazing Snakeheads in the form that it is now. There wouldn’t be an Amphetamine Ballads in the form that it is now. They are the just the greatest people to work with. It’s a completely creative environment. For us being novices, it’s conducive to making great music. The album has exceeded even our high expectations.”
Barclay was the only Snakehead with a degree of musical proficiency in the beginning. Hutchison, a Kiwi who has lived in Scotland for the past decade, lived close by and decided he would give drums a try. Coombe resolved to master the bass. “We learned to be in a band together, just for us, just to have a bit of fun, first and foremost,” offered Barlcay. “We didn’t have a fucking clue,” laughed Coombe. “There was a year of practising and then we played our first in Jordie’s work, when we had the chops to do it. It was a year in the studio getting our shit together, to have the confidence to play in front of our friends and family.”
Things began to move fast following that tentative debut. Having first entered a rehearsal studio in 2010, within two years they were being scouted by Domino records’ chief Laurence Bell. “He heard our tunes somehow. He came up to Glasgow to check it out once, twice, three times? Then came up again and said he wanted to sign the band,” explained Barclay. I think there were others sniffing about. He came knocking, and as soon as we met him, we knew that was the way to go. Laurence wants to make good records, and so did we, and that’s the extent of it. He knows that the only way our band works is if we did it our way.”
That way would only involve Barclay out of the original trio. Coombe and Hutchison left the group in June to be replaced by Andrew Pattie and Scott Duff. Barclay, no fan of social media, took to Facebook to offer an explanation. “In the interest of transparency and fairness I will say this. William quit the band and Jordan knows why him and I are no longer friends. Fuck anyone who thinks otherwise. I have no intentions of pissing over something that meant so much to me so will never go into detail of the where, why and when of what has happened, especially on this barrel of bullshit.”
Following several months of touring – including an incendiary appearance at T in the Park – Coombe returned on bass duties after Pattie could not commit to the group long-term. Despite this turmoil, it looked like they would soldier on. A UK headline tour was critically acclaimed, high-profile gigs supporting the reformed Jesus and Mary Chain were secured and dates in America were in the offing. But just as the next chapter in the Snakeheads story began, the book was snapped shut in a single tweet. A SAY win this Wednesday could underline their legacy in the history books.