By Brad Dison
Mark Ellen dreamed of being a rich and famous rock star, and fantasized about all of the perks that come with it. He realized that success would come from performing original material and not as a cover band. How hard could it be to write an album’s worth of material? Mark struggled to write a catalog of songs and after two weeks, he had a total of three songs. Mark recalled that he “thought they were classics and saw [himself] performing them in a halo of soft lighting.” The few people who heard the songs at Chilswell Road commune thought differently. Some members of the unimpressed crowd later told Mark to stick to the bass.
Adam Sharples, a rhythm guitar player and old friend of Mark’s, contacted Mark and told him that he was forming a cover band. He wanted Mark to play bass guitar. Adam told Mark that the name of the band was Ugly Rumours. “Why?” Mark asked. Adam explained that if you hold the Grateful Dead’s album From the Mars Hotel upside-down and look at it in a mirror, it spells the words “Ugly Rumors.” Since they were English, they adopted the English spelling, rumours. Still struggling to write original material, Mark relented and joined the cover band.
The Ugly Rumours quickly added band members. They had a lead guitarist, rhythm guitarist, bass guitarist, drummer, harmonica player, but none of them were comfortable singing. They had heard about a guy named Charles Linton who had managed a band and sang in a few shows. They asked him to audition. Charles had just the look they were hoping to find. He had long hair, wore fringe, had a folk-rock look, was funny, well-organized, and started most sentences with the word ‘guys.’ Charles was the last member added to the Ugly Rumours.
Without so much as a proper rehearsal, the Ugly Rumours began performing in front of crowds. “Guys, guys,” Charles told the other band members following one show, “We’re okay and everything but we could be so much better if we rehearsed!” They played a few college balls and got paid very little money. This would not do. Charles suggested they headline a small tour that they, themselves, would organize. One evening in June, the Ugly Rumours readied for their top-billing performance at the Corpus Christi Alternative College Ball. They hired two bands to go on before them. To get attention, Charles and his bandmates hired a traditional jazz band comprised of musicians in their 40s, who wore striped blazers and straw hats, to open the show. To the surprise of the Ugly Rumours, the jazz band was a hit with the crowd. Mark recalled the shocking sight of long-haired hippie-type guys and girls who “hurled themselves about in riotous abandon.” The second act to play the show was a string quartet. They were well-received by the crowd as well. Would the crowd do the same for Ugly Rumours?
Finally, the Ugly Rumours took to the stage. The silence was broken by a familiar cowbell intro. The rest of the musicians joined in on the Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women. Decades before Maroon 5 released the song Moves Like Jagger, Charles burst onto the stage doing his best Mick Jagger impersonation with “low-slung flares, bare midriff, one hand on a hip, the other wagging a cautionary finger, elbows flapping like a chicken.” The crowd, exhausted from dancing to the jazz band, was not impressed.
No matter how Charles and the rest of the band tried to stimulate the crowd, they were unmoved. Charles realized he would have to think quickly to gain the crowd’s attention. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” In a moment of inspiration or desperation, Charles invited the string quartet to join them onstage. The other members of Ugly Rumours were just as shocked as the string quartet was. Everyone onstage was stunned when the crowd roared with delight. They cheered, not for the Ugly Rumours, but for the string quartet.
The Ugly Rumours never recorded an album, never sold out arenas, never played on any television shows, and never went much further than the Corpus Christi Alternative College Ball. Few people have ever seen the original lineup of the Ugly Rumours perform live because they played less than a dozen shows before disbanding.
A life of relative obscurity seemed to be their destiny. Well, not really. From 1982 to 1985, Mark Ellen was a presenter on BBC TV’s Whistle Test, and he became the founding editor of a British music magazine called Q. Adam Sharples spent forty years working in various directorial roles in British civil service. Charles also went into public service and kept his early foray into rock and roll somewhat quiet. In 2017, Charles Linton, the vocalist of the Ugly Rumours who had moves like Jagger declared, “When I was in the band, if we had had social media at that time, I would certainly not have been prime minister.” Charles and Linton were the middle names of Anthony “Tony” Blair.
Mark Ellen, “If Blair Made You Cringe as the Pm, Read What He Was Like in My Student Rock Band: A Bare Midriff and Cuban-Heeled Cowboy Boots Are Just the Start,” Daily Mail, May 3, 2014, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4384328/Tony-Blair-says-social-media-killed-career.html.
Chris Pleasance, “Tony Blair Says He Would Never Have Been Pm If Social Media Had Been Around When He Was Younger to Expose His ‘highly embarrassing’ Behaviour,” Daily Mail, April 5, 2017, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4384328/Tony-Blair-says-social-media-killed-career.html.