British trio the Risk were amongst the first international touring bands to have an extended stay in San Diego, using the area circa 1986 as a home base to spread the word about their music. Today touring is commonplace, with routes, venues, and even tourist attractions along the way completely mapped out. However, not all that long ago it truly was the wild west, with performers carving out niches that are now well worn into paths, if not super highways. The Risk were in San Diego for six months—the length of their visas—arriving at the end of March and leaving at the end of September, ultimately playing 25 gigs around California and recording an album before heading home.
Based in Guernsey, the Channel Islands, the trio consisted of Mark Le Gallez (bass), Colin Leach (guitar), and Billy Finnerty (drums).
I first came across the Risk through the pages of Guernsey-based modzine, In the Crowd. I was a fan of their 1985 single “Forget the Girl” and later that year my band, Manual Scan, appeared on a split Flexi disc with them, included with copies of In the Crowd #18. Coincidentally, a few months after that, the Risk found themselves in San Diego.
“The details are hard to remember but the important thing was that we were friends of friends at that point so we kind of felt like we knew each other long before we met,” said Eric Chamberlin, a major part of the events that followed.
The seeds of the Risk’s visit were planted a year earlier with a short stay in the area from Derek and Jackie Shepard, editors of In the Crowd modzine. “That was a chain of events and personal connections,” Chamberlin recalled. “It starts with the late Scott Harper (editor of Voxed In modzine) who was a very dedicated international correspondent. No one, to my memory, wrote as many letters to British mod contacts as Scott. He’d also run up his dad’s phone bill a lot. International calls were expensive back then! He made a strong connection with Derek Shepard.” Chamberlin and his wife, Ingred, soon made contact with the Shepards as well, becoming fast friends and leading to a San Diego visit. When the Shepards returned to Guernsey, they had good things to say about the local burgeoning mod scene.
Meanwhile, U.S. fan Scott Honour was also a key part of the core group of people involved with the Risk’s trip. “I had bought their seven-inch single for “Forget the Girl,” which had an address, probably Mark’s, for The Risk Fan Club, he recalled. “I sent away for membership and started corresponding with Mark from that point. “As I recall, Mark had mentioned they were thinking about coming to the States. And had wanted to for some time. As it became a possibility, I volunteered to help out how I could, which eventually turned into me becoming their manager.
Once the ball started rolling on possibly touring Stateside, the move from idea to actuality was fairly quick. “I had been in contact with [Honour] and I had this mad and crazy idea of just selling up and trying our luck in the States,” Le Gallez recalled. “I mean we were not even from the UK, we were from Guernsey, a tiny island of 21 square miles in the English Channel and nearer to France. So, it was a mad idea, but the band was called the Risk after all. I quit my job and just thought let’s go.” Meanwhile Leach took a little convincing. “I remember being a bit reluctant about going at first, as I was serving an apprenticeship as a printer. Mark said he’d knock me on the head and drag me to San Diego if he had to. ‘Come on, it’ll be fun,’ were his words, if I recall.”
The band arrived with all their gear, including amps and drums, but immediately hit a speed bump: Customs. No bands had landed in San Diego this way before. With so much equipment, it looked to the authorities like this trio might be planning to stay longer than their allotted time. And that was for starters. I don’t recall how I got the call, but somehow I was enlisted to go down to customs on the Risk’s behalf and sort things out. It took a couple of stressful hours of talking and convincing, but the end result was that the local customs agent released the band’s equipment and I acquired skills in digging through red tape that would serve me well in future jobs. “My memories were thank f*ck for Bart. I don’t think it would have really ruined things, but it would have been a pain in the arse. You literally sprang the gear for us,” Le Gallez said.
Now reunited with their gear, the band hit the ground running. Their initial stay ended up being with Eric Chamberlin’s parents in South Park. “We rehearsed in the Chamberlins’ basement every day. I think of their poor neighbors. Eric’s mum and dad were saints, but we did get quite tight as a band and I loved it,” he continued. According to Leach, “Eric was living elsewhere but his parents had to put up with us, they were very generous but we outstayed our welcome after throwing a party when they were away and things got out of hand.”
“First off it wasn’t my basement and they didn’t stay with “me,” said Chamberlin. “It was my parents’ house.” The timing for the Risk’s visit was ideal. “Ingred and I had just found a place of our own to move into together,” Chamberlin explained. “That was a big deal for my parents because I was the youngest of five kids. They bought their house for a family of seven and now it was a big empty nest. They had met Derek and Jackie also and were impressed with them. I think that was kind of their final “these mod people are okay” moment. When the Risk were finalizing their travel plans, they volunteered to house them for the first few weeks. I think it made the empty nest shock easier to deal with and they certainly had the space.”
As for rehearsing in the basement? “It was amazing!” Chamberlin said. “I stopped by my parents’ house many times and heard them through the floor. Often, I’d head down and listen a bit. They wrote most of the songs for Invitation to the Blues down there so that album is really close to my heart. So much of it brings back intense memories of the songs taking shape. A bass line here, hook there, it’s visceral for me. There was so much growth in the songwriting too and seeing that happen is a treasured memory.”
The Chamberlin’s home was actually the second location for rehearsal. The first was short lived. “We did have one amusing incident because at first we rehearsed at Ingred’s family’s garage,” Le Gallez said. “That was until her dad came home and he went absolutely nuts.” Leach adds more detail “It was the first time we rehearsed there,” he said. “We set up and played our song ‘Jobs for the Boys,’ and her dad came home and said: ‘Who the hell is playing in my Goddam garage!’”
Post Chamberlin’s “Mark went to live with Scott Honour and his mum as he and Billy kept arguing,” Leach recalled. “Me and Billy then stayed in Poway for a few weeks with Matt Camione (keyboardist for the Tracers), then with Chris Griffin in Coronado until we left.” In addition to those already named Leach cites Anne Schultz and Scott Harper as important to their visit. “They all helped us out, and put up with us,” he said.
“Organizing the stay was a total ‘call in favors/enlist people to help when and where they could’ situation,” confirms Honour. “Scott Harper was there early on, as were the Chamberlins (Eric and Ingred). It was a total hodgepodge effort. But there was enough heart and soul among everyone to make it happen.” As for booking the band and other music biz-related functions for the majority of the shows, Honour made the contacts and got the band gigs.
The band’s first U.S. gig was on April 4, 1986 at downtown San Diego’s New Generation with Los Angeles trio, The Key.
It was a good opening show, though not without its problems. “I think we could have got deported, because I think Shane (Reis) and the Key boys had been a bit naughty and said they were us to the cops,” Le Gallez laughed. “I got on great with them later, as did Colin and we did gigs together. I got on especially well with Henry Chavez, the bass player.”
Le Gallez has a lot of fond memories of the trip. “I think the highlight was the New Sounds of the ’60s festival gig, it was a belter,” Le Gallez said. The show, produced by myself and Ron Friedman, took place on July 12, 1986 at the New Generation music venue in downtown San Diego, on a bill that included Anthony Meynell (of UK favorites, Squire), the Tell Tale Hearts, Manual Scan, the Nashville Ramblers, the Trebels, and more. “It was HOT man, and I mean real HOT, but you are young, you don’t care everyone is having fun. It was a really good gig and the bands were great,” Le Gallez said. “You Yanks are the best musicians in the world, us over here may have a creative thing going on, but you can go in to a bar in the States and the band is hot.” Leach agrees the New Sounds show topped their visit. “It was crazy. Really, really hot on stage, which put my strings well out of tune, an excuse I still use to this day.”
Le Gallez notes that “there were so many memorable moments. A drummer on LSD was not a highlight, but certainly interesting,” he said. “Playing a proto rap club in east L.A. with the Turnstiles was an experience. They wanted to listen to rap and not have some Limey band making a racket in the corner, fastest set I ever played! San Francisco was good, Bakersfield was weird, but weird good, and L.A. was just crazy. Always love San Diego though.” For Leach, high points included “playing the Cavern in Hollywood, Sacramento, going on tour with the Tracers, and later with the Key. Also playing the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco was pretty cool; we played it twice I think. We also appeared on KUSF radio and played live. Great times.”
Honour had a front row seat at pretty much every show. “Objectively ‘best show is a real tough call. The band always had an amazing relationship with the crowd,” he said. “They were (and are) just natural charmers; by the time the music started playing, they pretty much already owned the crowd. And their live set would just knock people over. The first Cavern show was amazing. On arrival there were already people waiting outside. And I just remember standing at the back of a packed Cavern Club and feeling the floor joists flexing from everyone dancing in unison. Greg Shaw was usually beaming every time the band played the Cavern. And he always was happy to see the band and always treated me with an amazing amount of respect that I’ll never forget.” He also considers the New Sounds show to be special. “I think everyone in the band and myself felt a huge degree of satisfaction at the size of the crowd, and their reactions.”
It was Chamberlin’s top gig as well. “Favorite show besides the basement gigs? I remember them playing Studio 517 a couple times,” he said. “That was always a blast because it was a classic, barely legal, party hole of a venue, very intimate and relaxed. I think of all the shows, though New Sounds of the Sixties was the best. It brought them a really large and really appreciative audience. They totally played their hearts out. I remember thinking that this was what they came here to do. I was very happy for them. Then my dad showed up in the middle of their set and they dedicated a song to him. That was magic!”
Honour notes that, initially, plans were for the Risk to play beyond California. “At one early point there was a series of gigs that could have turned into a Las Vegas show,” he recalled. “I was also trying to reach out to Chicago folks I knew. For a brief bit it looked like the scope of the stay would change. Sadly, those possibilities evaporated.”
As for recording, according to Le Gallez the band didn’t arrive with intentions to hit the studio. “No, not at all,” he said. “I think it was one of my daft ideas and Derek Shepherd from In the Crowd said he would lend us the money, which he did, and then (British label) Unicorn (Records) wanted to put it out.” He recalls some interest from Bomp Records. “I think probably the truth is we had heard Greg Shaw wanted to do something on (Bomp subsidiary) Voxx and he did not quite get around to it, as we used to play at the Hollywood Cavern for Greg, so I just got on with it.” Leach concurs. “It was just another mad scheme that came along while we were there. We were going to call the album Under the Influence, but thankfully Billy talked us out of it.”
The album, Loud Shirts and Stripes, was recorded at Mix Masters quickly during off hours “because it was all we could afford,” said Le Gallez. “It was the night shift, literally all night till the morning. It was fun though cos Terry (Cox), the engineer, was Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin apparently and kept us entertained and we liked him. It was a good studio.” Leach recalls it as “recording from midnight to six in the morning. Terry, the engineer, was also a guitarist for Disney; he played on the Herbie and The Love Bug films, apparently.”
While many of the songs were written before their visit, some were penned locally. “Always in the Back of My Mind” was, and I also wrote “Only Cry the Lonely” going over the Coronado Bridge,” Le Gallez said. He also cites “Picture of You” and “Last Train.” “The latter is very Long Ryders-esque, but we were so influenced by paisley underground and psych and rhythm and blues as well as what was happening in the UK.”
The album was produced by Matt Camione of the Tracers. “I think we met Matt at New Generation when the Tracers were playing,” Leach recalled. “I really liked Matt, he was a very cool guy. He plays keyboards on “Man Insane,” the first track on the album. We just clicked with Matt,” Le Gallez said. “He had a good sense of humor and played keyboard on a couple of songs.” That sense of humor was essential. “Matt was a good soul who we got very drunk one night and then when he passed out, we put shaving foam on his head. When he woke up in the morning he thought it was nair, the hair removal stuff. Poor fella,” Le Gallez said good naturedly.
The Risk’s final area show was September 27, 1985, at SDSU’s Backdoor with Manual Scan and the Nashville Ramblers.
Despite making some inroads stateside, the Risk never returned to the U.S. “We stayed six months, the longest we were allowed,” Leach said. “We arrived at the end of March and left at the end of September. Our drummer Billy kept trying to leave; he even packed up his drums a few times, taking everything apart. Mark didn’t want to leave.” Le Gallez confirms. “We stayed the maximum for six months. I did not want to go back and was determined to come back, even booked a plane ticket but changed my mind at the last minute,” he continued. “I don’t know why really. It was a crossroads moment. We were starting to get a bit of a following in Europe I suppose. Who knows what I was thinking in those days.”
The Risk would go on to record numerous albums and both Le Gallez and Leach have continued to make music. Le Gallez looks back fondly on his time in San Diego. “I think for me it is always about people and I met some great people,” he said. “It was a snapshot of a time and I enjoyed every bloody minute and often think about that trip. Oh, and not forgetting the music, cos it was f****** brilliant.”
Leach agrees. “For me the highpoint was the people,” he said. “I met some great folks, some of whom have remained friends and we still keep in touch. I was only 19 at the time when we were there and a little blase and lazy I have to admit.” He ponders his six-month adventure. “I wish I had embraced more of the culture of San Diego,” he said, “but I will always have great memories of that time, which, as I say, was made special by the people we met.”
Watch the Risk’s “Inside Straight” from Live at New Sounds / Blindspot Records.