After decades of touring with acts from The Members to The Vibrators, Bennett is reviving his performance career from a new home base in Haddonfield.
By Matt Skoufalos | July 3, 2023
Coming of age in the economic and political chaos of postwar London, Nigel Bennett wasn’t optimistic about his prospects in a British economy that struggled to sustain a three-day work week.
At home, Bennett chopped away at his guitar, inspired by the imaginative playing of Jimi Hendrix, and dreaming of opportunities in music.
By age 21, he’d given up on school, and began dedicatedly answering advertisements for guitar players in the music weekly Melody Maker.
Bennett auditioned for acts of every stripe, from Iron Maiden to the Sex Pistols. He finally found his niche with one band seeking a lead guitarist for its “rock-reggae” sound.
“I’d never seen the word ‘reggae’ before, and didn’t know how to pronounce it,” he said. “But we clicked.”
Bennett’s prize for nailing the audition on a Friday was to learn enough of their material from a shoddy cassette tape that he’d be prepared to join the band onstage by Monday.
“It was a real test of memory, and I pulled it off,” he said. “Very shortly after, I had a hit record in the charts.
“Then I toured the world when I was just 22.”
That group, The Members, signed with Virgin Records for its debut, At the Chelsea Nightclub. That album yielded the single “Sound of the Suburbs,” which peaked at 12 in the UK in 1979.
Produced by none other than Steve Lillywhite, whose brother Adrian drummed for the group, At the Chelsea Nightclub coalesced the punk aesthetic for suburban British kids farther-flung from the urban epicenters of the cultural movement.
It also launched The Members as a hard-working group that connected with a disaffected youth audience — and which, like many early punk acts, was cheap to maintain domestically.
Bennett and his bandmates survived on 40-pounds-per-week wages from their management company. They supplemented that meager income by snagging records from the promotions department and hawking them at their local shops.
“When you were on the road, you were looked after,” Bennett said. “When you weren’t on tour, you still had rent to pay.”
In 1980, The Members were sent out to flog At the Chelsea Nightclub in America, where their song, “Working Girl,” had found traction in the early days of MTV.
On separate U.S. tours, the group supported fellow New Wave performers Joe Jackson and The Thompson Twins. But Bennett realized The Members were on to something all their own when he was recognized by a gas station customer in the deep South.
“Haven’t I seen you on MTV?” the man asked.
“You get in heavy rotation on MTV, you’re going to get people coming [to see you play]wherever you are,” Bennett said. “Everyone was fighting for their video to be noticed.”
The band may have booked those tours on the strength of its video rotation, but on the road, The Members earned their following with high-energy stage performances.
In turn, the label worked them harder. They enjoyed the rock-star treatment in New York: big, black limos zipped them from JFK to The Palladium, where the likes of model-actress Anita Pallenberg were hanging out backstage. An aggressive schedule of commitments always followed.
“We’d play a gig, we’d be drenched with sweat, and think we were going to bed — and then be told we’re going on at The Mudd Club at 3 a.m.,” Bennett said.
“It was advantageous to them to have us working.”
Despite the sweat equity, Virgin dropped The Members after their initial contract, and its players scattered to other things. Bennett pushed through his disappointment, and then found work as a session musician.
Lillywhite brought him in to play with singers like Hugh Cornwell and Joan Armatrading. He found live gigs backing Julian Lennon on bass, touring the Valotte album. But in 1989, Bennett answered another trades ad for a guitarist, and found himself in with a second, seminal punk act: The Vibrators.
If The Members had schooled him on the rigors of touring, The Vibrators taught Bennett how to sustain a career on the road — one spanning more than three decades and several albums.
“Every year we did the whole of America — six weeks, 14,000 miles — with hardly any time off,” he said.
“We started in L.A., up to Seattle, across the Midwest at the top, hit the East Coast, then down to Florida, New Orleans, Texas, Vegas, and finished up in LA at the end of the year,” Bennett said. “Every year, for at least a decade.”
When The Vibrators finally called it quits during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Bennett got their permission to revive the name in America, where he’s settled in Haddonfield with his wife, Cheryl.
He recruited a South Jersey rhythm section comprising bassist Dave Janney (of Creem Circus) and drummer Rick Eddy (of Blue Wave Theory). On Thursday, July 6, The Vibrators V2 debuts in its power-trio form at Kung Fu Necktie in Philadelphia.
Bennett promises a high-energy punk rock show to include “the cream of Vibrators songs” and “the very best of The Members.”
“We are pulling all the stops out to make it memorable, and it’s a taste of what’s to come,” he said.
The raw, disaffected anger in which the British punk scene was founded hasn’t been marshaled in the same way since, but Bennett believes in the “anachronism and nostalgia” of its spirit. For him, playing with The Vibrators V2 presents an opportunity to rekindle that spark with a new audience, and at a new stage in his life.
“When I turned 21, the thing that was happening was punk, and that’s when I got my break,” he said. “Music is never revolution; it’s evolution.”
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