A Witness Biography
Working on the fringe of mid-80s UK independent music, based in Manchester and known for their intense, individual style, A Witness were formed by Rick Aitken (guitar) and Vince Hunt (bass, lyrics) in Stockport, near Manchester, England in 1982, expanding to include Keith Curtis (vocals) and Noel Kilbride (guitar) a year later. Initially a drum machine band, they continued as a three-piece when Noel Kilbride (later of AC Temple) left to study in France. In late 1984 they signed to the upcoming independent label Ron Johnson, and their first release, the 12" single 'Loudhailer Songs' went straight into the New Musical Express chart and stayed for several months.
John Peel offered the first of four sessions for his Radio One show and 1985 was spent touring in the UK and Belgium, recording a second Peel session and writing their first LP 'I Am John's Pancreas.'
Recorded over six months in Leeds in 1986 the album was designed to cover the group's wide range of tastes - from the directness and drive of 'The Loudhailer Song' 'Red Snake' and 'Smelt like a pedestrian' to the crazy slide-based 'O'Grady's Dream' and the more gentle 'Car Skidding'. There was also an experimental side: from the soundscape '4.49 Stool' to the other-worldly stomp of 'Dipping Bird'. 'Sharpened Sticks' with its snappy bass, walking guitar line and insistent, unwavering backbeat, was included on the NME's acclaimed release, the C-86 showcase of the best bands of that year.
In September 1986 A Witness toured Germany and Holland with label-mates Big Flame and on return released 'I Am John's Pancreas'. That went straight into the NME album charts as the highest new entry of that week, and dates followed across the UK with contemporaries Sonic Youth and Swans. 'Pancreas' was licensed to Greece, but the independent record market was in recession, Ron Johnson was going slowly bust and money was short. BBC DJ John Peel offered more sessions so former Big Flame bassist Alan Brown was drafted in on drums to replace the drum machine. The eight songs written with Alan Brown span the third and fourth A Witness sessions for John Peel, and appear on the Double Sessions CD released by Strange Fruit in 1990. The sound is lighter, poppier and more melodic but still pacy and determined: for example on 'Nodding Dog Moustache' and 'Zip Up'. Studio versions of some of the tracks made up the 4-track 12" 'One Foot in the Groove' which was the band's final recording for Ron Johnson Records. The record was released in May 1988 and sold out of its initial 1,000 pressing within days of release, but the label could not afford a re-press. A compilation LP for the USA, 'Sacred Cow Heart' was released on the Communion label to good reviews, but a planned American tour collapsed when Ron Johnson folded.
After another European tour, Alan Brown left to pursue his solo project The Great Leap Forward and was replaced by Triss King, formerly of Bogshed. The next studio session, at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, produced some of the band's finest musical moments: the quirky 'I love you Mr Disposable Razors' and covers of the Lennon/McCartney song 'Tomorrow Never Knows' and The Doors' 'Break on Through'.
The session was notable for the smooth full sound achieved by producer Chris Nagle, an engineer on Joy Division's 'Unknown Pleasures'. With Chris behind the desk the band captured the easy optimistic feel of the song many people consider their best: 'I Love You Mr Disposable Razors' as well as two fine cover versions, re-worked in the studio with atmospheric introductions, acoustic sections and, for 'Break on Through' extensive re-arrangement. 'Disposable Razors' was sent off to be cut as the A-side of their next single, due for release the following month to coincide with their first significant tour dates for some time, supporting the Wedding Present. But tragedy struck just two weeks later. Rick Aitken was killed in an accident in bad weather while climbing in the Scottish Highlands two weeks before the tour. The tour was cancelled and production of the single halted. 'Disposable Razors' was finally released in late November with a discreet tribute to Rick, who was thirty-three when he died.
Band members subsequently moved onto other projects. Keith Curtis continued his involvement as guitarist with The Membranes, and is currently playing bass with Goldblade. Alan Brown toured The Great Leap Forward but with the group's demise moved to Nottingham. Vince Hunt made experimental soundscapes before forming Marshall Smith in 1997 with Alan Brown (this time on vocals and guitar) and drummer Daren Garatt, formerly of Pram.
Rick Aitken: guitar, slide guitar. (died 11.10.89)
Alan Brown: Drums, keyboards, backing vocals.
Keith Curtis: Vocals, guitar, harmonica.
Vince Hunt: Bass.
Christine Hunt: Clarinet, violin.
Triss King: Drums.
Andy Tillison: piano.
More information from EUPHONIUM, PO Box 156, Manchester M20 6FZ United Kingdom or firstname.lastname@example.org. website: www.awitness.co.uk