Robbie France, British drummer (Skunk Anansie, Diamond Head, UFO), died from ruptured aorta he was 52
(5 December 1959 – 14 January 2012)
Early life and career: Australia
France was born in Sheffield, and emigrated to Australia around 1970. He studied at the National Academy of Rudimentary Drummers of Australia until 1974, under tutor Harry Lebler. At the age of fifteen, he began to teach at the Australian Academy of Music (1974–1975).
While living and travelling in Australia, France formed the jazz-fusion group, Carnival, performed at the Oz Jazz Festival, and supported John McLaughlin. He worked with Stevie Wright of the Easybeats, Marty Rhone, Ray Burgess, Tim Gaze,
and most major Australian artists. He amassed over 1,000 television,
radio, and advertising credits, including eight documentaries and four film scores, including Band on the Run, one of the most successful surfing films ever made.
While acting in commercials, for which he often co-wrote the music,
he met David Bentley, who would become his mentor and idol. ‘It was a
gas! Got a call from David’s wife, Lena, be at the Journalists’ Club at
the Twelfth Night Theatre
on Saturday night. That was that. So I rocked up not knowing what to
expect, having heard David was a bit of a geezer, set up… he arrives,
so cool man, and we just hit it off.’
Robbie had a new outlook on life following meeting David. ‘He taught me
how to look at jazz in particular under a new light. I adored playing
drums with him. He encouraged me to step out of myself and actually play
the darn things!’, he stated. ‘Every night… magic. Simple as that’. Bentley affected France in other ways. ‘ He was and is a fabulous journalist, a loving father and sublime composer.’ France recorded and performed live with Bentley. In addition, he often spent time at the Bentley’s second home on Moreton Island. Bentley wrote ‘In A Broken Dream’ as member of Australian popstars Python Lee Jackson
with Rod Stewart on vocals, which was a hit song all over the world.
Twenty years later Stewart recorded a song co-written by France for the
album When We Were the New Boys.
Back to England
France left Australia in 1982 to return to England, where he joined Diamond Head the following year. Part of the NWOBHM movement, they performed at Castle Donington Monsters of Rock, then went on to record their third album, Canterbury. He played on the hit single
“Making Music”. Despite the bitter end of Diamond Head, France had
nothing but good memories of band members Sean Harris and Brian Tatler.
France stated, “I was a green, rather naive kid from Brisbane who was
suddenly on stage in front of 90,000 people baying for metal… they got
us’, referring to the new sound of DH reflected in the recordings of Canterbury. Poorly managed and seemingly drifting between genres of the music of the time, Diamond Head imploded and split.”
It was at this point where France was noticed as an extraordinary
player. He performed at the first triple headliner drum clinic with Simon Phillips & Steve White, worked with Motown U.K.’s C.E.O., ‘Ivan Chandler’s All Star Quintet’ alongside Andy Hamilton (Duran Duran, Wham!, Elton John, Pet Shop Boys, Tina Turner, and more.) Also in the quintet were Spike Edney, an all round brilliant musician who was famous for being the fifth member of Queen, and Mike Ashley the Portuguese percussionist. Playing at various venues around London, including Nick Rhodes‘ wedding party, they were highly rated as one of the bands to see at the time.
In 1985 France toured and recorded with UFO, replacing Andy Parker.
To this day Robbie has never stated his reasons for leaving the band
and despite the various enquiries of gossip loving journalists, has no
intention of doing so. Although Paul Gray has alluded to this, in albeit
an incorrect report on his website as to why he left, France maintained
his respect for the vocal ability of Phil Mogg
stating, ‘Phil was a monster! He could sing all day non stop, giving
120% of his considerable talent, go home, write more lyrics, sleep for a
couple of hours and do the same the next day…and the day after. He’s a
Leaving UFO in 1986, he formed One Nation with Kipper (now Sting‘s producer). France stated, ‘Kipper is a true genius [sic?].
That’s such an overused cliche in our business, but with Kip it’s clear
he knew he was special and eventually he proved to everybody he was
right. I loved him then… and I still do.’ They worked together at Tony Visconti‘s studio in Soho,
London on a fabulous array of recordings. One Nation were being managed
by Bill Lawrie, a well-known figure in the music trade. But the crunch
came when France’s wife, Annette, (a well-known session singer, who was
part of the band’s set up and who now is back in Australia), was asked
to leave One Nation and he felt compelled to leave with her.
By now France was also teaching in drum clinics all over the world, from Australia to Scotland, usually on behalf of the Avedis Zildjian cymbal company.
He set up a teaching studio in Kingston upon Thames, where he worked with Gary O’Toole, Hugo Degenhardt, Gary Wallis, Mike + The Mechanics, Power Station, 10cc, Jean Michel Jarre, The Style Council, Gary Ferguson, Mark Price, Tim Burgess, even touring through Europe & the U.K. with Tim, as support act with Ellis, Beggs & Howard. Mark Brzezicki,
who had an informal student/teacher relationship with Robbie,
consisting of friendly chats over the phone(as many other leading
drummers did), Chris Halford and a host of other top drummers, helping
them with their technique. He would quite often lay down the touring bag
one night and start work teaching the very next day. France had started
writing for magazines in Australia, at the age of fifteen. During 1987,
he began his acclaimed monthly column for the popular British drummer’s
In 1987 France joined Ellis, Beggs, & Howard
(E.B.H.), whose first single, “Big Bubbles No Troubles”, won the
Diamond Award for best new group. This was France’s favourite band. It
consisted of Simon Ellis, Nick Beggs, formerly with 1980s pop group Kajagoogoo, Austin Howard, who is currently writing for Joss Stone, and Paul Harvey of Prefab Sprout. They were described by one Scandinavian journalist as the world’s best live band, and Austin Howard was constantly referred to as the black Mick Jagger. Although Robbie had difficulties with Simon Ellis at first, ‘ He used to make me play exactly
what he’d recorded on the demo tapes for the album, vis a vis 16ths on
hi hats here, crash cymbal there, it was an incredibly steep learning
curve as far as understanding music programming went’. He recently told a
Spanish newspaper, ‘ Working with Simon was a unique experience. Look at his gear in those days on YouTube
and you can see where he was at.’ He continued, ‘ Simon built a massive
recording studio spec unit to tour with us. So much so, we were often
accused of miming.’ A point which still annoys Robbie greatly. He
continues, ‘The fact is that EBH could take the stage, first song, play
for an entire intro and verse and time came for the sampled backing
vocals to be introduced? They were all there. Together. Not one BPM
(Beats per minute) out. Every night. It was like being in a very special
session band every night. No mistakes. Like being in a studio with the
finest musos and doing first takes, perfect…every night. Ridiculous
band!’ But following success in mainland Europe, it didn’t translate in their native U.K..
Frustrated, unhappy and despite having recorded some masterpieces for
the ‘difficult second album’, sadly they broke up. To this day, Robbie’s
biggest regret is the demise of EBH. ‘We were masters of all we
surveyed… and then the sun went down!’ he recently told a Spanish journalist.
‘ Look at the videos on YouTube now, you’ll see an incredible band,
with an indominatable spirit, doing what they do best…playing kick ass
music. Shame it didn’t last’.
It was around this time that Robbie was asked to fill in for drummer Frank Tontoh with jazz saxophonist Jean Toussaint. Meeting up to open a venue called The Soho Jazz Shack, Jean asked Robbie to play with him on a more permanent basis, as he (Toussaint) had a regular slot at the fabled Dingwalls club in Camden Town
on Sunday afternoons. ‘ Great, great band,’ he told Oz Music magazine. ‘
Jean was blowing really good, Tony Remy on guitar, Julian Crampton on
bass, what a band! It was this project that planted the seeds for the
idea of his later band ‘The Gab’
After E.B.H., in 1990 France joined Wishbone Ash, with whom he toured and recorded the album Strange Affair. Unfortunately, not getting along with Martin Turner,
the band’s bass player, he was unceremoniously dropped from
Wishbone…to be replaced by one of his students, Ray Weston, leaving a
very sour taste. He then joined Anxious Records‘ band, ‘Pleasure’, touring as support act to the Eurythmics. By this time, however, France felt too drained to commit to any more touring or recording work.
In 1991, after working with Simon Ellis, (East 17, D:Ream, S Club 7), and others, on the set pieces for his popular drum clinics, France returned to Australia to form a solo jazz project, ‘The Gab’. Based loosely as a tribute to the jazz greats, Elvin Jones& John Coltrane,
their first album was recorded at EMI Studio 301 on 28 July 1993. Also
playing with Nancy Kiel, a hugely popular artiste in the gay community
in Australia, forming a friendship with legendary stickman Chad Wackerman, (who often turned up to watch Robbie play at the Annandale Hotel), whom France had admired for years for his work with Frank Zappa.
He could also be seen playing at The Basement, Sydney’s premier jazz
venue working with Feet First, a jazz funk band featuring master
guitarist and writer Phil Beazley. He also returned to his youth,
playing with arguably Australia’s first pioneer of guitar…. Tim Gaze.
In 1994 he returned to London, ostensibly to promote the solo project where he became a founder member of Skunk Anansie and recorded and co-produced their debut album Paranoid & Sunburnt. He co-wrote the hit track “Weak”, which has since been covered by Rod Stewart. He also recorded the B-side, “Army of Me”, with Björk. This has since been featured (in a remix version) for the blockbuster movie, Sucker Punch directed by Zack Snyder.
France left Skunk Anansie in 1995, joining the German group Alphaville the next day. He toured and recorded with Alphaville until an accident in which he severed his Achilles tendon. He lived in Poland for over two years, hosting his own radio programme, and appearing on numerous television shows. In 1998 he moved to Puerto de Mazarron, Spain, in order to concentrate on writing his first novel.
He was successfully running Pulpo Negro Records, Pulpo Negro
Publishing, Pulpo Negro Studios, GCBC Productions, with his partner, Tim
Oldfield up until 2004.
He produced the award-winning Spanish bands Second, Renochild, and
Blue Aliens Temple, as well as Screw Coco. He also produced, wrote, and
arranged for London based artist Keke.
He produced the ‘Album Of The Decade’ (as voted for by the readers of
influential newspaper ‘La Verdad’) with Oldfield. The album, ‘Pose’ by
Robbie broadcasted for a number of different radio stations in Spain
over the last decade including Costa Calida International and TKO Gold.
His most resent preoccupation was a return to Radio broadcasting for
both Real Radio 95.6 FM in Torrevieja on the Costa Blanca and One Radio
Spain on the Costa Calida, providing simulcasts between the two Costas.
Robbie wrote about his passion for sailing in a syndicated series for
several newspapers and magazines. Entitled ‘Cast Off’, it was a very
popular weekly piece throughout the expat community in Spain.
Robbie’s first novel ‘Six Degrees South’ was published on 7 December 2011.
Robbie died 14 January 2012 in Spain. He was 52.
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