.. a brief history

'Push and Shove' at Nightfall Studio - Nottingham 1986

The Swinging Laurels – A Biography

Had things progressed differently, the SWINGING LAURELS’ story would have had all the dramatic hallmarks of any great music biography, with the requisite number of sublime and ridiculous anecdotes required of any pop star worth their leather trousers. And, in many ways, it still does. You just haven’t heard most of them. Yet.

Today, they are finally being recognised – with the help of the Internet and a generous dollop of hindsight – as pioneers of 80’s synth-pop. This resurgence in interest has, no doubt, much to do with the 1980’s taking their turn in the nostalgia spotlight. Lay your thumb heavily on your television remote’s channel button for a few minutes and see how many 80’s musical giants are now reappearing – in various forms – across the dial. However, for a band whose career highs and lows have been described by at least one journalist as a “last minute goal-line clearance”, much of the credit for the band’s renewed presence must be attributed to, more than anything else, the sheer bloody-mindedness of founder members Gary “Gaz” Birtles and John Barrow.

The short and simple version is that in 1980 John Barrow and Gaz Birtles founded the SWINGING LAURELS. This, of course, ignores the years spent by any musician either locked in a bedroom with a stack of records and a sudden, strange desire to emulate the sounds contained within, or moving from band to band in small and, often, sweaty venues, searching for others who hear the same sounds in their head.

This story, also, hinges around the saxophone, an instrument which is today much maligned, but up to and including the 1980’s had served as valiantly and forcefully in rock and roll as the now ubiquitous electric guitar.


Gaz Birtles had, following a stint in WENDY TUNES been fronting a Ska/Rock band in Leicester, NEWMATICS. His friend, John Barrow – who had been, for several years making his way around the country with various bands including BLACK GORILLA. Their hit “Gimme Dat Banana” – which saw Mr. Barrow make his Top of the Pops debut – was actually recorded by unknown session musicians. When it began to be played regularly in clubs around the UK, record companies realised the need to have a band to tour the “hit” and recruited the band in which John Barrow was currently playing, FASCINATION.

The group soon became disillusioned with playing other people’s songs live, and John Barrow was soon drafted into – on a guest basis – his friend Gaz Birtles’ band. It was during this period that Birtles and Barrow decided that they would like to produce more experimental music than previously; with the help of an old Elgam organ drum machine and a Roland SH1 Mono synth, they began to make their first recordings as a sax and synth duo. This relationship soon developed into a serious project and a band name became necessary. Whilst taking photos in a local cemetery Gaz passed a wind-blown Laurel bush and the Swinging Laurels were christened soon after.

Birtles and Barrow tried valiantly to seduce the other NEWMATICS  with their newfound direction and name but the rest of the band were not so easily convinced. So, with the help of NEWMATICS drummer and songwriter, Nick Murphy, they went into the 8 track WOODBINE STREET STUDIOS, in Leamington Spa, and recorded SWING THE CAT and PEACE OF MIND under the experienced guidance of producer JOHNNY RIVERS.

Johnny was/is (?) an eccentric, experimental producer who helped and encouraged the band to try out wild ideas. It was during this session that Johnny brought out his newly acquired gadget, THE CLAP TRAP and suggested it might enhance the tracks. Especially PEACE OF MIND. This was a sonic revelation to the band then. The odd combination of synthetic claps, added to a live drumbeat lent the songs an original edge.

The success of the demo convinced Birtles and Barrow that there was a future in the new band and sound. Recruiting trumpet player Dean Sargent (also of SISTER BIG STUFF and BLACK GORILLA) to play Bass Synth. Then they advertised for a synth/keyboard player. The flamboyant Mark O’Hara fitted the bill exactly.

After reworking some of Birtles’ and Barrow’s previous demos and writing a selection of new songs, they were ready for their first gig. For this they decided to hit all of Leicester in one night! Adverts were placed in the Leicester Mercury and five different venues were sourced. They would play four songs in each before proceeding to the next. From the first gig (THE WHITE HORSE in Oadby) to the last (THE HAUNCH OF VENISON – now the TREE on High Street) they went down a storm and people followed them from one venue to the next.

In 1981, on the strength of 3 or 4 instrumental tracks Birtles and Barrow were offered a publishing deal with ALBION MUSIC PUBLISHING. After pursuing outside record contracts, Albion decided to put out PEACE OF MIND on their own label, ALBION RECORDS. This went on to reach the Number 1 slot in the embryonic independent charts.


During 1982, THE SWINGING LAURELS began to gain national press attention and build a solid reputation as session brass players.

During this hectic year they:

Recorded a Radio One session for JOHN PEEL

Released a 4 track. EP A TASTE OF… on DINING OUT RECORDS

Signed to major label WEA RECORDS

Played session brass on the FUN BOY THREE hit THE TELEPHONE ALWAYS RINGS, making several TV appearances in support of the single, including TOP OF THE POPS,CHEGGARS PLAYS POP and SATURDAY SUPERSTORE.

They also recorded brass sessions for, amongst others: THE APOLLINAIRES, WORLDBACKWARDS, MUSICAL YOUTH, SPLASHDOWN, 24HRS and TEAM 23 (Later, chart-toppers KING). A FUN BOY THREE follow-up hit single SUMMERTIME also featured the LAURELS.

The first SWINGING LAURELS WEA release, RODEO, hit the streets in September, featuring the distinctive percussive influence of SCRITTI POLITTI drummer TOM MORLEY. Despite extensive Radio One airplay, however, the single was restricted to lower reaches of the national chart.
CULTURE CLUB producer STEVE LEVINE lent his expertise to the second single Lonely Boy which originally featured a fine vocal contribution by BOY GEORGE but due to contractual objections by his record label Virgin Records was eventually released minus his efforts.

1983 saw the SWINGING LAURELS, in their own right and as special guests of CULTURE CLUB (at the request of BOY GEORGE who was a self-proclaimed fan), tour the UK.  A JANICE LONG Radio One session was followed by a highly successful Dutch festival tour where they supported NICK LOWE and OSIBISA alongside headline dates of their own.

Due to the poor sales – and the promotional cock-up surrounding LONELY BOY the band parted company with WEA Records in the same year. Rather than signing to another label, however, they formed their own: HAPPY RECORDS based, at their Leicester studio HAPPY HOUSE.

The first HAPPY RECORDS 12″ single ZOOM (TAKE THE TEST) appeared in 1984 and achieved critical acclaim. This recording featured the guitar talents of Leicester friend, RICH BARTON who later went onto play with one of UK’s formidable guitar bands, DIESEL PARK WEST. The B side also featured the experimental track, RAMSI RAMSI RAMSI which used a backwards tape loop taken from SPIKE MILLIGAN’S GOON SHOW.

During 1985/86 the band briefly changed their name to HAPPY HOUSE and featured regular guest vocals by ex-BODYSNATCHERS and SPECIAL AKA vocalist RHODA DAKAR. HAPPY HOUSE also saw the band incorporating a live drummer in the shape of PHIL BIRTLES – Gaz’s younger brother.

1987 ushered in another SWINGING LAURELS 7″ single, PUSH AND SHOVE, again on HAPPY RECORDS.

In 1988, Birtles and Barrow, along with Coalville trumpeter, TONY ROBINSON, were the session brass section with FOOD/PARLOPHONE act CRAZYHEAD, most notably on an eleven-nation tour of Europe and Scandinavia as special guests of godfather of punk IGGY POP.

This was followed, in 1989, by a live T.V. appearance for the Thames Television series THE CONCERT and a slot at the prestigious READING FESTIVAL.

In 1989, one of those moments that changes the course of a musician’s life arrived. Due to the Laurels reputation as a brass unit, particularly – with the addition of Robinson – accompanying the well-received CRAZYHEAD, Birtles, Barrow and Robinson were invited to audition for the job of live brass section for a new band, formed from the ashes of the recently defunct HOUSEMARTINS.

Barrow was unable to attend the audition due to work commitments. Birtles and Robinson recruited a new sax player, KEV BROWN, in his stead and became the brass section for THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH.



In 1991 the Laurels supplied brass alongside SPECIALS Trumpeter and trombonist, ADAM ‘FLYMO’ BIRCH for a track by NORMAN BEATON, star of Channel 4 sitcom DESMONDS. In 1992, they took part on an album by top ska exponents SKA-BOOM for EXTREMELY NICE RECORDS.
The SWINGING LAURELS wound down throughout the 90’s – due to other commitments (a steady job and family for Barrow, THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH and his own band, YELLOWBELLY for Birtles) but the name never quite went away, with tracks from throughout their session career cropping up on a number of compilation albums and “Best Ofs”.

In 1997, a six track SWINGING LAURELS CD was released entitled BE SOMEONE, a return to the original duo of Birtles and Barrow, using an 8 track recorder and Atari computer.

BE SOMEONE was released in 2000 by the Internet-based label www.peoplesound.com and in the same year, Barrow completed a highly successful UK/Irish tour with BABY GENIUS as special guests of THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH. BABY GENIUS also scored a prime time TV appearance on BBC’s Children in Need with LOUISE and ATOMIC KITTEN.

In 2001, after 21 years, a 15-track SWINGING LAURELS compilation album GREATEST BITS was finally issued on Happy Records. Tracks were recorded for an album called LEARNING TO COPE WITH HAPPINESS by THE CHARMERS in 2002, and for NORMAL POSITION’s album RAVE KILLED THE ROMANCE, the following year.

New Beginnings?

Birtles continued to play session brass for THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH and tour with his country-pop outfit YELLOWBELLY, when they were both invited to return to the studio, as the Swinging Laurels, for Leicester-based band, ist.

Contributing three tracks to the album KING MARTHA, they also joined ist on live dates – including the SUMMER SUNDAE festival.

Birtles also contributed sax to the FUN LOVIN’ CRIMINALS album, IN THE CITY, joining them on several dates of their 2005/6 UK Tour. John took a back seat from music for a spell writing a critically acclaimed book ‘How Not to Make it in the Pop World’ about his experiences in the pop wonderland.

In June 2006, both ist’s album KING MARTHA and single HERE WE GO AGAIN reached number one on both Yanga and Audiofind, the first legal download stores in the Russian Federation – the Laurel’s first independent number one since PEACE OF MIND .The follow up ist album, TOOTHPICK BRIDGE was released in 2009 and was produced by JAY BURNETT (Beastie Boys/Africa Bambata/Rod Stewart/Jeff Beck) Gaz and John wrote and arranged the brass.

In 2012 a compilation album CHEAP TRICKS IN A BOXDINING OUT RECORDS 1979-1982 was released on CHERRY RED RECORDS featuring two of the very earliest Laurels experimental tracks.

Since then, both Birtles and Barrow have – together and separately – continued to make new music with astonishing collaborators. The break-up of THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH due to “musical similarities” in 2007 led eventually to the formation of THE SOUTH, a celebration of the band’s music, now fronted by Birtles and ex-TBS singer Alison Wheeler. They tour regularly to ecstatic crowds.

Barrow has continued to be much in demand as a session player, recording tracks and albums with such luminaries as UNCLE FRANK, RADIO RIDDLER (with featured guest vocalists BEVERLEY KNIGHT, SINEAD O’CONNOR, SUGGS (MADNESS) & ALI CAMPBELL (UB40), UBERTROLL, FUN LOVIN’ CRIMINALS and DIESEL PARK WEST.

In 2023, Birtles and Barrow – as THE SWINGING LAURELS – reconvened to record a cover of the song “GOING TOO FAR” for ex-ist singer KENTON HALL’s new project IDIOPATH/OMNIOPATH.

And now. The vinyl album we should all have had in our collections since the 80s, brought out at parties to impress those gathered with our exquisite taste in music.

The hits that should have been.

May we present, one more time, for all those at the back:


Kenton Hall