The Cuban Heels. Work Our Way To Heaven. Released – 1981.

DID Richard Branson have a death wish? I ask the question simply because the sight of the millionaire entrepreneur hanging on for dear life as he shinned up a flagpole, high above the streets of Glasgow, was a heart stopping moment.

But Branson has never been familiar with the term “camera shy”. And as his antics to launch a new Scottish record label made headline news he’d no doubt say, “Job done”.

Ali MacKenzie, drummer of The Cuban Heels, also recalls the incident in 1981.

“We signed the deal for Cuba Libre with a party at Virgin Megastore in Union Street,” he said.

“Branson and his right hand man, Simon Draper, travelled up from London for the event and we played a short set in the shop for a few hundred guests.

“My mother came to the gig. It was the one and only time she ever saw the band live. But my abiding memory is of Branson clinging to this pole trying to hoist the Virgin flag. It was scary stuff.”

Branson had good reason to be enthusiastic. MacKenzie had brokered a deal to release a series of records by Scottish artistes on his indie label, Cuba Libre, under the Virgin umbrella.

“The Cuban Heels had been trying to get a major label to bite for the previous 12 months,” he recalled.

“We’d got interest from Phonogram, United Artists and Chrysalis. But it was at the stage where the majors were saying: ‘What’s here is good, but not quite good enough. We need to hear more songs and a couple of hit single sounding things would be great too’.

“By the time I’d heard 10 different record companies all saying the same thing I thought … f*** it, wouldn’t it be just as easy to do this ourselves?

“In the post-punk era, many bands were releasing their own records.

“Previously, it had seemed very daunting. Not only was it time-consuming it was also financially risky.

“But once we’d been through the process it didn’t seem so terrifying after all. And, more importantly, we really believed in our music. We wanted to get it out there.”

The band had been formed by guitarist Laurie Cuffe – with bass player Paul Armour and drummer Davie Duncan – in Greenock in 1977. Their first gig was at a mate’s birthday party.

“It was all skinny ties, second hand suits and trying to look like The Jam,” said Laurie.

“It was very exciting. You kinda felt as if you were part of this new thing that was happening. I’d been brought up on The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and was lucky my brothers had old Chess singles by Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf.

“I was also into Dr. Feelgood, so Wilko Johnson was a huge influence. I had to have a Fender Telecaster like his. I’ve still got it.

“It was a pure lightbulb moment when John Peel played New Rose by The Damned. I was blown away.”

But Cuffe had no ambitions to be the focal point of the band.

“I wasn’t too keen on that. I never wanted to be a frontman. I liked more of a Keith Richards’ vibe,” he admitted.

Singer John Milarky was recruited to complete the line-up. He’d been a member of Johnny And The Self Abusers, a Glasgow punk band whose early gigs at The Doune Castle had fans queuing around the block.

But they split on the day their debut single Saints And Sinners was released on Chiswick Records in 1977.

The Abusers’ singer Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill formed Simple Minds.

“I was writing punk-y type songs inspired by The Damned, The Count Bishops, Hammersmith Gorillas and those Chiswick-style bands,” revealed Laurie.

“We used to rehearse in the basement of a place called The Mad Buyer in London Road, whose logo was a burglar with a sack on his back.

“But the whole Postcard Records thing that came along later – with Orange Juice and Josef K - seemed a bit too effete to us.

“And I think those people looked on us as being too rockist. But I wore that badge very proudly.”

In 1978, they released their debut single Downtown, a cover of the hit by Petula Clark, on the Edinburgh label, Housewives Choice.

Several months later, Duncan and Armour left to be replaced by MacKenzie and Nick Clark.

They gigged at The Marquee, The Hope And Anchor and Dingwalls in London, earning positive reviews in the music papers.

They also supported The Stranglers, The Jam and Graham Parker And The Rumour.

But with no major record deal on the immediate horizon it was time to take the plunge and go it alone.

Mackenzie secured a £1500 bank loan to help finance the first two releases on Cuba Libre.

The Heels recorded the single, Walk On The Water at CaVa Studios.

At the nearby Hellfire Club, he produced Reeferbilly Boogie, by The Shakin’ Pyramids, formed by Davie Duncan. It was voted Single of the Week in NME.

“I also recorded a full album called Skin ‘Em Up in just 50 hours,” revealed Ali.

“The Pyramids had more of an acoustic sound so we could knock the songs out pretty quickly. It was done dirt-cheap.”

In 1980, the band played the Loch Lomond Festival, alongside The Jam, Stiff Little Fingers and The Tourists, featuring Annie Lennox.

Now, with physical product in his hands, MacKenzie did the rounds of London majors yet again. Virgin was first to bite. Branson authorised the deal personally.

The Heels began recording their debut album at The Townhouse Studio in London and The Manor in Oxfordshire … first with producer John Leckie, and later Nick Launay.

“John was fantastic to work with. But the whole process seemed a bit unreal,” said Laurie.

“I’d been writing songs which I suppose were always a bit political … but with a very small p.

“They were very much of the time, written by a young guy. I’d do things differently now.”

Suddenly the band was in big demand.

“We never seemed to have any problem recruiting top producers. Todd Rundgren was one name suggested,” recalled Ali.

“Over the course of the next few months we recorded various songs using Mick Glossop and Steve Hillage, but the bulk of the album was done by the wonderful John Leckie.

“It was an exciting opportunity for us and a tremendous learning experience.”

But Cuffe, the main songwriting force, never felt completely relaxed in such an alien setting.

“It all seemed a bit unreal to me and totally devoid from what we’d come from in Greenock in the 70’s and 80’s,” he said.

“We’d previously done some John Peel sessions and I enjoyed them more than making the album. “They were so quick, almost like a cross between recording and playing live.”

“But it WAS a great experience to be making our first album. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I went through it.”

Work Our Way To Heaven was released in October 1981, flanked by the singles Sweet Charity – a non-album track - plus Walk On Water and My Colours Fly.

But growing problems with their London based management proved a draining experience.

“That didn’t help at all. They demoralised us,” recalled Ali.

Even so, Cuffe has fond memories of the period.

“Listening to the album now, I think you always want more. Something different or even better,” he said.

“We’d worked with different producers so I don’t know if the record had a totally uniformed sound.

“But I don’t want to come across as if I’m bitching about it. I’m not. I was totally proud of it at the time and still am.

“Until recently, I didn’t even have a copy of the album. My partner bought it – and all the old singles – online. I was glad to see them again.

“They sounded good. It took me all those years to realise we’d made a great record. When you’re young you’re a bit tortured and insecure. But it’s a good thing that you always want to do better.

“I’d love to have done a second album. We had songs that came later which were fantastic. But we never got the chance to do them as The Cuban Heels.”

* THE Billy Sloan Show is on BBC Radio Scotland every Saturday at 10pm.

ALI MacKenzie will never forget the night The Cuban Heels played the legendary Glasgow Apollo ... at just three hours’ notice.

In 1978, he and Cuban Heels’ singer John Milarky sneaked into the venue as The Stranglers were sound checking.

“We cornered bass player J.J. Burnel and asked if we could play with them. He said: ‘If you want a support you can have it’,” recalled Ali.

“We had to leg it down to The Hellfire Club, grab our gear and three hours later we were playing to more than 2000 people.

“I’d seen Roxy Music, The Who, The Moody Blues, Dr. Feelgood and The Clash there. I even went to see Barclay James Harvest and Wishbone Ash – bands I didn’t like – just to be part of a live gig. So it was a tremendous honour to play the Apollo. To be on that famous stage was just outrageous.”

MacKenzie put his heart and soul into Cuba Libre.

He released records by The Shakin’ Pyramids, James King and the Lone Wolves and former Zones’ frontman Willie Gardiner.

His no-nonsense approach was a rarity in the music industry.

“I was young, direct, blunt, stupid, rude and I’m sure I p***** people off,” he admitted.

“But I think my heart was – and still is – in the right place. I loved the music. It’s something I was passionate about. How could you not be?”

The band were dropped by Virgin in 1982 and split. But was it too soon?

“Listening to it now, I still think it’s a good album. There was almost an overabundance of good ideas there,” he said.

“We just didn’t yet have a sound that was ours. But we were exploring musically.

“The songs we made after the Virgin deal were great. We approached labels like Beggar’s Banquet, who might have been a better fit for us. “As opposed to a major who wanted immediate success.

“Maybe we should have persevered. One night, at a gig in Tiffany’s we had a little confab and agreed … this is not working, is it?

“I think each of us was in the same space. There were no real disagreements or arguments. We’d had our chance.”

Guitarist Laurie Cuffe agrees. He said:

“It was sad. But we’re all still great friends. It almost feels as if we went through some wartime experience together. And we did … the punk rock wars.”