Last month Pink Fairies bassist Duncan ‘Sandy’ Sanderson sadly passed away. Fairies biographer and Vive writer Rich Deakin pays his respects…
Duncan ‘Sandy’ Sanderson has died aged 70 at The Royal Free Hospital, London. Sandy was best known for being the bassist of late 1960s and early ‘70s counterculture bands The Deviants and Pink Fairies. His long-time friend and musical partner of over 50 years, Russell Hunter, had this to say in the days after Sandy’s passing: “I always enjoyed playing with him. At his best he carried us along, and when he was flying we were flying too. He was certainly not a ‘traditional’ root note bassist, and his originality often led to him being misunderstood and not fully appreciated. But he was always the Pink Fairies bass player, and never forget, the only person to appear on all our UK recordings… and most of the Deviants’ recordings too. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say the Pink Fairies just wouldn’t have sounded like the Pink Fairies with a different bass player.”
Born in Carlisle on 31 December 1948, his father, who was in the Royal Air Force, was transferred to Dayton Airbase in Ohio, USA, where Sandy spent the first five years of his life before the family returned to the UK and lived in Northwood. It was here that Sandy first met Nick Lowe, whose father was also in the RAF. Their paths would cross again years later when Lowe went on to work with a mid-1970s incarnation of the Pink Fairies. By the time the Sanderson family had moved again, this time to Andover in Hampshire, Sandy, like so many teenagers of his generation, had discovered The Beatles and Rolling Stones, as well as artists like Georgie Fame and Booker T & The MGs. It was while he was boarding at Brentwood School in Essex that he saw his first live band – the Graham Bond Organisation. He also became interested in the emerging folk scene and the likes of Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, but by the time he left school Bob Dylan was a firm favourite of his.
Moving to London in January 1967, he started work at an advertising agency, and soon reacquainted himself with an old school friend of his, Chris Rowley, who introduced him to the UFO club, one of the capital’s top psychedelic night spots. Sandy didn’t need to think twice about quitting his job when the advertising firm relocated out of the city. Immersing himself further in London’s nascent counterculture scene, he found work at UFO and became involved with other left field ventures, including Yoko Ono’s ‘Half A Wind’ exhibition at Lisson Gallery. After meeting Deviants front man Mick Farren at UFO the pair soon ended up sharing an apartment on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue. It was inevitable Sandy would be drawn closer into the Deviants’ sphere of activities before too long. Although he is attributed as providing backing vocals only, or “handclaps and noises”, as the sleeve of the Deviants’ debut album Ptooff!! has it, he is also said to have contributed some uncredited bass parts too. Ideally Sandy would have preferred to be a guitarist, but took up bass, as he thought this would be the easier option. He would later reason, “’Go on, gimme the one with four strings, it’s gotta be easier!’ Actually it isn’t, it’s a whole different ball game. I never studied the bass, never thought about the bass, but that’s how it came to be, really.”
He joined the Deviants officially in a twin-bass line-up that, according to Mick Farren, “… on full amplification could replicate an atonal B52 in a power dive and were far from pleasant.” It wasn’t for nothing, then, that the Deviants are now regarded as being proto-punks, and sometimes likened to being the UK’s equivalent of The Stooges. The Deviants would release two further albums, Disposable in 1968, and a self-titled third album in 1969, before imploding on a visit to Canada after Farren went into full neural meltdown caused by a combination of heavy psychedelics and amphetamine burnout. Farren returned to England, but without airfares home the rest of the band decided to strike out on their own playing their way down the West Coast to San Francisco. It was here that they began to hone some of the Deviants’ tunes and change their direction slightly. Having eventually earned their airfares home they returned to the UK where they hooked up with John ‘Twink’ Alder and changed their name to The Pink Fairies.
From the outset they laid out a manifesto which included playing as many free gigs as possible. Living up to that promise, they infamously played outside the main perimeter fence at the Bath and Isle of Wight Festivals in 1970. They also played at the second ever Glastonbury Festival in 1971.
They weren’t just a festival band though. Based in the counterculture enclave of Ladbroke Grove in West London, they quickly earned themselves the reputation of being a people’s band, and along with Hawkwind, they further cemented their community band credentials by jamming together, sometimes using the moniker Pinkwind, under the arches of the recently constructed Westway flyover.
During the summer of 1970, Sandy embarked on a relationship with the super groupie Pamela Miller, AKA Miss Pamela (later Pamela Des Barres) of the Frank Zappa endorsed band The GTOs. It was only a short-lived affair, but it was all good publicity whilst it lasted. Miss Pamela was usually known for seeking out major-league rock stars as trophies, but she was apparently genuinely smitten with Sandy. It probably wasn’t just his insouciant personality that swung it for Miss Pamela though. His good looks must surely have played some part too, and in his autobiography Mick Farren described Sandy as “devastatingly handsome and a magnet to women”. He was disarmingly louche with it too. One only has to look at any number of photos of him from the early ‘70s, particularly the Kings Of Oblivion album poster, to see this. Farren has also affectionately said, “Sandy seemed to exist in a world of his own, apparently content with the natural goals of women, intoxication and rock & roll, coupled with a quiet Monty Python humour and a psychedelic philosophy that frequently made sense only to him.”
Despite their relatively small recorded legacy, the Pink Fairies’ wider influence shouldn’t be understated. They recorded just two studio albums with original singer and guitarist Paul Rudolph, but both failed to live up to expectations – the Fairies were essentially a live entity – and the production on debut album Never Never Land didn’t do the band justice, although What A Bunch Of Sweeties had its moments. Although not always tacitly observed at the time, the Pink Fairies had a significant influence on not only the burgeoning UK punk scene but subsequently in America too. Over the years, musicians like John Lydon, Captain Sensible, Tony James, Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins have all cited the Pink Fairies as an influence.
After Rudolph’s departure, they were joined by Larry Wallis on guitar, and in 1973 released their third album, Kings Of Oblivion – a coruscating combination of blistering heavy metal, glam rock and proto-punk ferocity. Although never really a songwriter in his own right, Sandy did co-write with Wallis one of the album’s highlights. ‘City Kids’ was three-and-a-half minutes of searing heat and explosive thunder propelled throughout by Sandy’s unfaltering bass – it’s no coincidence that it became a staple of Motorhead’s set in their early years! By now, Sandy’s bass playing had really come into its own. Russell Hunter now says, “Listen to Kings of Oblivion to hear him at his best, some great driving bass complementing Larry’s lead. And he and I had some great times with Paul [Rudolph] jamming all over ‘Walk Don’t Run’ and ‘Uncle Harry’. When it really worked it was fantastic – equally, if you go that far out on a limb, there are occasional bumpy landings as well.”
Even a change of style and direction wasn’t enough to ensure Pink Fairies the mainstream recognition they deserved, and they split up in 1974… but not for long. A number of reunions followed throughout the mid-1970s before they called it a day again, and Sandy found occasional work at Dingwalls as a DJ, and at Better Badges in Camden. There were also other bands, such as the Psychedelic Rowdies, before he joined The Lightning Raiders, an ‘acid punk’ outfit who had associations with Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols. Despite being signed to Island records, the Lightning Raiders’ album was never released at the time, and the Raiders split up in 1982. For the next few years Sandy kept his hand in on bass by playing in Larry Wallis’s backing band, the name of which changed with virtually every gig. The Wallis gigs alone were not enough to live on, and Sanderson briefly took up work doing furniture removals. It was at this point he met Tone Sutterud, a freelance journalist from Norway. They became partners for over 30 years until splitting up four years ago. Sandy was an unlikely removals man though, and Tone says he didn’t make much money doing that. It was one of the only times Sandy came close to conventional employment until he took up “fitful” work as an exam invigilator in the early 2000s. Sandy’s friend and band mate in a later line-up of the Deviants, Tim Rundall, says, “He wasn’t made for the straight world, which was too unkind for the likes of him”.
Although already a professional journalist at the time (and she still is), Tone had a little experience of music journalism by the time she arrived in London, but Sandy had even less of photography. However, she reasoned, “You were only ever allowed to stand up front [at gigs] for three songs, and it’s really loud. If anybody could take that it would be Sandy.” With the prospect of being paid for going to gigs, he didn’t need too much encouragement to take up photography, and soon started working with Tone… sometimes with mixed results. On one of his first major photo shoots, Sandy accompanied Tone, who was interviewing the legendary Leonard Cohen. With the interview and photo shoot in the bag, Sandy adjourned to the darkroom only to discover, to his horror, that the entire film was black! Whether he had really forgotten to take the lens cap off, or whether it was a processing room malfunction is still open to conjecture. Although amusing in hindsight, mishaps like this were thankfully few and far between. And what is not debatable are Sandy’s photographic skills – Tone now says he did take some very good pictures.
Sandy’s fame as a Pink Fairy sometimes acted in their favour too, such as the time when he and Tone went to interview John Lydon, who had famously said when he was in the Sex Pistols that the Pink Fairies had been one of his favourite bands as a teenager. Journalists and photographers are frequently only granted a limited amount of time to interview their subjects or get the shots they need, but when the Public Image Ltd frontman heard that Sandy was the photographer he allegedly said, “Oh wow, is Sandy taking the pictures? I’ll give him as long as he wants”. Sandy then spent the next hour just taking photos of Lydon in the Virgin building. Between 1987 and the early 1990s, Sandy and Tone went on to undertake numerous assignments together. During this period, Sandy juggled his photography commitments with yet another Pink Fairies’ reunion, and they released an album, Kill ‘Em And Eat ‘Em, in 1987. After Wallis quit the Fairies, the remaining band members continued as Flying Colours until the early 1990s.
With the birth of their two children, Billy and Maya, in the ’90s, Sandy took to fatherhood with aplomb and settled comfortably into a life of domesticity, mainly staying at home to bring up the children while Tone continued to work as a professional journalist, albeit more frequently from home at that time too. As the kids grew older, Sandy was employed by his local school as an exam invigilator. But the new millennium also saw renewed interest in the Deviants and Pink Fairies, and by the end of the ‘00s band-related activities were in the air again. Sandy dusted his bass guitar down, and played his first gig in nearly twenty years, when he joined his long-time partner in rhythm Russell Hunter again, with Tim Rundall, as Mick Farren’s backing band The Fairy Friends. Further gigs followed with Hunter, and other musicians, such as Brian James and Dave Treganna, under pseudonyms such as The Portobello All-Stars, most notably at a testimonial for their former head roadie Boss Goodman. But when Farren and Sandy’s former Pink Fairies’ colleague Andy Colquhoun both moved back from Los Angeles, a Deviants reunion proper became an ongoing concern, and in the next couple of years the reformed Deviants released a brand new single and played a string of live dates, including Glastonbury 2011.
Tim Rundall recounts an amusing incident from this period. Referring to Sandy’s occasional employment as an exam invigilator in more recent years, he says it was, “a role he adopted with some amusement as his true identity became known to students who marvelled at the secret life of their ‘Mr Sanderson’ – I remember some of them coming to the Borderline to check him out in the born-again Deviants and being suitably wowed by his great stage presence and obvious popularity with the fans.” Sandy did have a great affection for the fans and showed a genuine interest in them, always taking time to talk before and after gigs. A natural raconteur, he would regale them with one of his many yarns about the Pink Fairies’ glory days or other tales about the days of the underground, his personality, and great sense of humour always shining through.
The Deviants’ reunion ended abruptly when Farren died on stage in London in July 2013, and the remaining members of the Deviants, whose ranks by then also included percussionist Jaki Miles-Windmill, reconvened the following year as the Pink Fairies. Having enlisted George Butler as a second drummer, they embarked on a series of live gigs entitled, perhaps not so ironically, ‘The Pension Credit Tour’. Almost 18 months later they were still gigging and Sandy’s son even stood in for George Butler on one occasion at the Hop Farm Festival in Kent. Towards the end though Russell Hunter was occasionally missing gigs due to ill-health. When it was announced in October 2015 at a show in Bilston that their next gig in London a few days later might very well be their last, it was somewhat ironic when Sandy collapsed on stage due to heat exhaustion caused by the venue’s lighting. It may have been coincidence it was the very same stage on which Mick Farren had died just over two years earlier. Unsurprisingly then, given Hunter’s health and Sandy’s own predicament that night, it ultimately proved to be the Pink Fairies’ last ever gig. They were not quite finished though, and the band eventually released a brand-new studio album called Naked Radio at the end of 2016. Although Sandy frequently sang the Pink Fairies’ cover version of Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ and ‘Uncle Harry’s Last Freakout’ live over the years, he also provided some of the lead vocals on Naked Radio. The album proved to be Sandy’s swansong.
Various health-related issues within the band curtailed any further notable Pink Fairies activity after this, and the last three years have seen not only the deaths of their former head roadie, Boss Goodman, but also drummer George Butler, as well as former guitarist and front man Larry Wallis, just barely two months before Sandy’s death. Tone says Sandy never lost his sense of humour, even right at the end, recounting an incident a couple of days before he died. Sandy was by now getting weaker, and drifting in and out of consciousness. Having apparently just fallen asleep again, his son Billy was present when a particularly garrulous nurse entered the room and engaged Billy in conversation, “She was only trying to help him” adds Billy, and having assumed Sandy to be unconscious or napping at the very least, Billy and the nurse were somewhat taken aback when Sandy suddenly piped up, “”Oh fuck off! I can’t stand the sound of your voice.” Laughing, Tone now says, “Typical Sandy!” Sadly though, having been admitted to the Royal Free Hospital several weeks before, Sandy eventually succumbed to bronchial pneumonia related complications in the early hours of 21 November 2019, with his son Billy keeping vigil by his bedside. Never Never Land has now lost another one of its fairies and will be a much sadder place without Sandy.