I shouldn’t normally be overly moved at the untimely death of a passing professional acquaintance, but in this case, Alan Wills had a persona and presence too effectual to be left unnoticed by the many people his greatness touched. Today has been a difficult day for me and my colleagues, unable to shrug-off the tragedy that has so suddenly hit the Liverpool musical community. Following a collision with a vehicle last week, knocking him from his bicycle and critically injuring him, Alan Wills lost his fight for survival. A painfully unfair stroke of irony for a man who knew how to succeed and win against the odds in the transient, fickle industry we inhabit.
My first knowledge of Alan Wills came via a guitarist friend of mine, Rob Boardman (ex ‘Personal Column’, Jass Babies’ amongst others), around 1990 when Alan was playing drums for Island records signing, ‘Top’. I’d been in a few bands with Rob and had watched his interest in cutting edge home recording techniques flourish rapidly, thanks to the circles he was mixing within. One name that kept cropping up was Alan’s – “you need to check out a guy called Alan Wills, plays for a band called ‘Top’, signed to Island they are!” Rob would tell me; and hear of him I did. As soon as Rob managed to get a computer setup advanced enough to load wave samples, Alan was giving him DAT’s of drum loops he’d made that Rob would cut up and use in his own recordings – for free. This was pretty state-of-the-art for the time – especially ‘oop north’ in Liverpool!
In due course, Rob’s involvement with Alan and the studio/management organisation he had set up with Steve Powell and Mark Cowley (both ex ‘The Balcony’) at Clarence Street Studios brought me the opportunity to increase my own musical network and find new bands to work with. By 1993 the company had two bands on their roster, one named ‘Space’, the other ‘Rise’. The latter group needed a drummer, I got the job. The demo recordings I was given to learn featured Alan’s (latterly forgotten) drumming skills, showing off a lovely feel I would be expected to try and reproduce when I took over the drum chair.
One of the more amusing memories remaining with me from that period at Clarence Street was a time we were having one of our band/management meetings in the offices there. As I entered the office and walked towards the chairs, my steps were abruptly stopped as I successfully managed to avoid tripping over a Snare drum that had somehow been left in the middle of the room on the floor! “Bloody hell! Who left that there?” I yelled, only to be told it was Alan’s! His beautifully rare Joe Montineri Snare lived to see another day, safe from the inadvertent kicking I avoided giving it.
Fast forward another 10 years and I was out of the music business as a serious player, working a normal day-job, but still remaining within the local music industry. From 2004 onwards, I saw Alan on a fairly regular basis as a customer, watching him flourish in the industry as manager and record label owner. With his sincere and honest passion, Alan managed to change the fortunes of so many musicians, bridging the gap between Liverpool and London, tailoring and fine tuning his prospective artists until they were ready for release to the big wide world. Like it or not, Liverpool is a goldfish bowl in terms of music, full of the usual big fish inhabiting a small pond. In order to elevate above this and find a way out onto the world’s stage, you need somebody who knows the ropes, embraces the challenges and completely understand what is necessary to change about an artist before they are ready to step outside of their insular environment. Alan Wills knew exactly how to be that catalyst between rookie band and gilt-edged record label.
Alan used to visit my place of work regularly and talk for ages about what this or that band were doing, where they were going wrong, what they needed to do and how he was going to re-educate them into becoming something he could sell to the big boys. We listened intently; this was a man with all his fingers on several buttons and most unusually in our business, a man you could trust. He was one of the good guys in a sea of sharks, a genuine, enthusiastic semi-Svengali character, extremely honest, extremely open and eager to share the knowledge with those who understood his hurdles.
Only 3 weeks ago he was visiting us again, telling us about a new bunch of hopefuls he was working on, re-educating until they were ready for debuting before whatever passes as A&R men these days. “I went into their room and the wall was just full of tits and arse! I asked them, what does this tell the guys from London about your culture? I told them to tear it all down, get rid of it and put up posters of your favourite bands and songwriters – then you’ll have something the guys from London can relate to!” It is this re-education desperately needed by so many young bands that will be sorely missed and probably never replaced. Who else thinks like this in Liverpool? Who else continues to think around the problems facing the industry on a worldwide level, weighs them up and still believes it’s worth a shot? Who else totally understands the gravity and size of task it is to undertake the breaking of a band nationally and internationally with the budgets involved and still wants to give it a shot? Who else will tell a band who want to take 3 years off after 2 years of success that they really need to keep up the momentum or face obscurity? That person was, until a few days ago, Alan Wills.
I and my colleagues will miss his visits with his long chats, jovial outlook and for me personally, his unnerving ability to seem to read my mind and reflect my exact thoughts about the industry; yet unlike me, continue to have a positive attitude, unaffected by the bitterness of disappointment. Indeed, we have lost a giant amongst Minnows, a man large enough to rub shoulders with the world’s biggest players in music, yet still down to earth enough to want to share his experiences with those of us further down the food chain. Irreplaceable on both a professional and lest we forget, a personal level, leaving a family in a state of devastation and total loss, the legacy Alan Wills leaves behind is a monument to a man who glowed with the energy of an inner-spirit resolute to finding the good in the creative arts world we struggle within.
Liverpool is yet to feel the true after-shock from the loss of a unique and exceptional man who shared his irrepressible and inspirational spirit with those he came into contact with.