As is sadly the case with many bands, talent doesn’t necessarily equate to success and this was no more starkly evident than with neo-prog rockers Ark who formed in 1985 following the breakup of local band Damascus. Hailing from the West Midlands, and walking the dangerous line between prog-rock and commercial rock, Ark produced a succession of musically adroit and lyrically meaningful tracks at a time when the music world was by and large turning ‘hair metal’.
My first encounter with the band was when they entered the Edwards Number 8 ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition in 1987 which saw three nights a week, a succession of the great – and not so great – local bands vying for the prize of a studio session at Rob Bruce’s Rich Bitch studios in Selly Oak. On their first appearance in the competition I was a judge and was feeling increasingly jaded by the whole affair as an endless stream of third-rate Bon Jovi clones and thrash bands made-up the majority of entrants, such was the era. When Ark hit the stage, however, I was totally captivated and blown away – as were the other judges (‘Crazy’ Al King the sound engineer at Edwards and Aaron Whan the lighting tech); we were all caught by surprise!
Ark wore makeup (in the case of frontman Tony Short, a lot of face paint akin to early Gabriel), they had two guitarists in Pete Wheatley and Steve Harris (who played a synth guitar from which came an array keyboard and piano touches), they had a drummer – Dave ‘Cocky’ Robbins – who could actually play more than a straight 4/4 beat, Andy Harris on bass and produced a complex and well crafted, but accessible, brand of commercial-edged prog rock: imagine Marillion with balls. Furthermore, frontman Tony Short was just that; he was a frontman in every sense of the word, captivating in performance, possessing a strong and powerful voice and engaged with the audience with good humoured banter as appropriate. We were all convinced that we’d seen a band destined for great things and, as those who remember the competition will recall, Ark went on to win the final on 18th December 1987 (I still have a mixing desk recording of the gig!). I was so impressed with the band, and believe me that wasn’t often the case, I went to see them at the College of Food and Art a few days later and got to chat to them and discovered that they were the nicest bunch of chaps you could ever wish to meet which, again, wasn’t always the case with bands both major and minor.
With the studio time won in the Battle of the Bands competition Ark recorded their debut album The Dreams of Mr Jones, a 5-track opus that is nigh-on impossible to come by these days but well worth the effort if a copy can be secured. The album also featured a new bass player, Jon Jowitt. My abiding memory of the band with Mr Jowitt was a rather odd gig at the salubrious Coldstream pub on the Frankley estate in South Birmingham where, mid-way through a track, a group of bikers drinking at the bar picked Tony Short up and carried him out into the car park whilst still singing, fortunately in jest!
The band built a strong local following and began to construct a fan base around the country, playing the likes of the Marquee club in London and things seemed to be heading in the right direction for the band. Further recording and tweaks in line-up followed with ‘Cocky’ Robbins being replaced on drums by Gary Davies, and later Paul Rogers, and Jon Jowitt leaving to join prog behemoths IQ – with whom he still plays – being replaced by Nigel ‘Gel’ Newey.
However, whilst building a cult following around the country, and indeed around Europe, true success eluded the band and after 10 years they called it a day in 1995. Rumours have circulated from time to time about a reunion but one has failed to materialise and I can’t help but look back to Ark with a tinge of sadness as they were one of only a handful of bands to understand how to put on a performance and were musically very skilled and yet failed to make a breakthrough into the big league. Fortunately, they did leave behind four albums – and a plethora of cassette EPs and singles – that, whilst extremely hard to find, attest to their legacy as one of the regions finest musical products.
Since I published the above article, it’s been confirmed that Ark have reformed with the calssic Short-Harris-Wheatley-Jowitt lineup with gigs to come later in 2010 and a new album! Get your tickets for their album launch gig on 5th September 2010 at the Robin 2 HERE!