Through Bob’s contacts the band hooked up with songwriter Guy Fletcher and lyricist Doug Flett who were fresh from working with Wishful Thinking. After catching the band play live the pair were impressed by the sound of the band, in particular their harmonies and ability to play tight arrangements. Guy’s strength was harmony, so they hit it off well. Guy & Doug decided to work with The Onyx Set on what would become their first single.
The pair had contacts at Pye and using a rough demo with Guy laying down a vocal track the band would land their first record deal. For most of the Fletcher/Flett recordings Guy would begin by running through the song on piano, the band would then work up the song prior to recording, including the complex harmonies. Recording sessions would usually take place in Pye Studios (No.1) or Olympic and were quick professional affairs, with the band quickly and efficiently laying down the tracks in a day.
The Flett/Fletcher penned and produced “You’ve Gotta Be With Me/It’s All Put On” (Pye 7N17477) was released in February 1968, with the band now dropping the ‘Set’ off their name. They were very much a provincial band at this stage, still learning the ropes but thrilled at the exciting opportunities ahead of them, the innocence and excitement of which is perfectly captured in Guy Fletchers lyrics.
The single proved extremely popular amongst the bands local fans selling 250 copies in the first three days around their local stamping ground of Bodmin and Wadebridge. One shop owner even commented that demand was on par with Beatles records. They also had their own fan club run by local resident Ernie Scott, who was also very active in promoting the band locally.
On its release the single received some airplay on the BBC and the band hit the road. Plans to conquer Europe were halted when a planned trip to Holland in the Easter of 1968 was temporarily blocked by the Dutch Labour Exchange, due to problems with Tony’s visa. However the tour eventually went ahead, with the band afterwards returning to their home turf and playing for their loyal Cornish following. During this visit they auditioned for local television station Westward Television in Plymouth, however nothing materialised from this.
While the immensely catchy 45 was flying off the racks in Cornwall and despite a busy promotional schedule and an airing by Alan Freeman on the Top Of The Pops radio show, the single failed to fully take off. The single failed to dent the charts.
The single did however make it to the other side of the world, receiving an Australian release on Astor (AP-1467). Astor owned the Australian distribution rights to the Pye catalogue and a large number of Pye’s UK releases appeared on the label. Presumably the influx of ex-pats to the country in the 60s provided a reliable market. It also came out on in the US on the small Burdette label, which was released mostly local PNW bands. Quite how this came about remains a mystery.
While the single didn’t set the chats alight it did give them plenty of publicity, lining them up with a busy gigging schedule. It also brought them to the attention of the BBC and they recorded the first of what would become many sessions for the BBC in late 1968.
The band also made a disastrous trip to Ireland, playing a couple of shows in Dublin. Signs on the stage informed bands that they must not mention religion, politics or football. Clearly quite a different environment to the hip clubs of the UK. Punters were more used to dances and the local show bands. Needless to say the band died a death.
The end of the year saw two further Onyx related releases. Undeterred by the ‘almost hit’ of “You’ve Got To Be With Me” the Fletcher/Flett team set about writing the next potential hit. The result “My Son John/Step By Step” [Pye 7N17622] was released in November 1968.
“My Son John” was another great punchy harmony driven pop number, with some spiky guitar from Alan, that should have been a hit. The top side was backed by “Step By Step”, a number originally recorded and released by another Fletcher/Flett group, Wishful Thinking in 1966 and a minor hit in Europe.
“My Son John” proved to be a popular number, spawning covers by pre Wishbone Ash band The Empty Vessels and German band Winy (actually solo artist Erwin Klarner), who visited London and hooked up with Fletcher-Flett releasing “My Son John/Step by Step” on Major Minor (and Admiral in Germany) two years down the line in 1970. Fans in New Zealand took to the song where The Rebels (aka Larry’s Rebels) scored a number one hit with the record. The Rebels were in England prior to its recording and swung by Bob Potter’s studio briefly to pick up some tips on the songs arrangement directly from the band.
“My Son John” failed to break the charts, but not without considerable promotion. The single was picked up by Alan Freeman who used it as a link track between records on Radio One. The band were also lined up to play the song on Thank Your Lucky Stars, although unfortunately this never came to fruition. They also made their one and only TV appearance, where a film of the band performing My Son John (shot at Bob Potter’s) was played on Jersey television during a visit to the island.
December also saw the release of another, obscure, Onyx related release. During the period of the Bob Potter recordings Mike Raynor & The Condors were approached to record Louisa La Belle, but Mike was unable to get his mouth around such lyrics as "Her fragrance floated freely through the air.." and the song was abandoned. Mike Raynor & Sky did however record the Onyx penned track “"I'm Going Down", which showed up as the B-side of “Ob-la-di”, a Danish only release on Decca. Interestingly this recording appears for all intents and purposes an Onyx recording with Tony’s vocals removed and replaced by Mike’s, all the instrumentation is The Onyx.
Once again the Onyx single failed to chart, however the band continued to work the ballroom and club circuit throughout the UK building up a good following and reputation as a live band. They were also leading a dual life as cabaret band, kitted out in suits performing songs such as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” in clubs across the UK. Cabaret work brought in a steady income and gave the band more opportunity to perfect their craft. Thankfully the band dropped the suits during normal Onyx gigs, preferring slightly hipper attire.
The flexible approach of the band stood them in good stead one night when they bizarrely found themselves on the bill at Midland Reggae Festival, thanks to a mix up in bookings. Being the only white guys in the Birmingham’s Top Rank was slightly daunting. During afternoon rehearsals they quickly learnt how to play a reggae rhythm they found themselves backing up all Owen Grey, and went down a storm. So much so in fact they spent the rest of the night backing up all the performers on the bill and afterwards were treated to their first taste of goat curry at a local Jamaican club.
The bands extensive repertoire stood them in good stead with the BBC who had begun to book the band quite a bit through late ‘68/early ’69. The Beeb were looking for bands to perform three minute songs that were instantly popular and The Onyx fitted the bill perfectly. Why get the Stones to perform Paint It Black, it would cost an arm and a leg and they wouldn’t be available to do it anyway. Whereas The Onyx (and lots of similar bands like them), could knock out a couple of covers of hits of the day for a fraction of the cost and they would be more than happy for the publicity. Soon the band were commissioned for numerous sessions and were receiving regular broadcasts, albeit often on unhip daytime shows such as Jimmy Young and Terry Wogan which probably didn’t help them adhere them to the emerging underground scene.
By 1969 Guy & Doug wrote a song that would become their most coveted 45. “Tamaris Khan/So Sad Inside” [PYE 7N.17768] was released in June 1969. Guy and Doug wanted to try something different with the band and the single shows them moving in a more psychedelic direction. The single also included the first band composition on the B-Side. “Tamaris Khan” gave guitarist Alan Hodge Stratocaster’s and fuzz box their first opportunity to be let loose on record. “So Sad Inside” had previously been demo’d at Bob Potter’s with Alan providing backing vocals in a squeaky child’s voice, which were thankfully dropped from the re-recorded version.
The single received some very positive press. With its excellent production, tight harmonies, searing guitar and a title hinting at something slightly lysergic without being too suggestive it looks like it might be the hit they were looking for. Perhaps the song was too psychedelic for daytime radio and not psychedelic enough for the underground, but once again the band were almost rans. The song did have some success in Holland where the B-Side, ‘So Sad Inside’ entered the charts on pirate radio station Radio Veronica. Mary Whitehouse, the self proclaimed upholder of the UK’s morals and decency, took offence to the line "He'd lay with fairest of maids in the land". While it doesn’t appear that the record received a straight BBC ban, the old witch’s moaning couldn’t have helped secure much needed airplay.
Lack of single sales never seemed to have any detrimental impact on the bands live bookings and through the 1969 the band continued on the road. It wasn’t unusual to cover 1000 miles a week, with the band sharing the driving between themselves and road managers Andy Wood and Robbie Baldrock. While zig zagging across the UK they regularly shared the bill and became friends with the likes of the Bystanders, Eyes of Blue and The Moody Blues, often meeting up late at night at the Little Chef in Camberley. Despite less then stellar record sales the band were becoming increasingly popular, drummer Roger Dell would even become one of the “Faces of ‘69” in a popular teen magazine.
As 1969 progressed the band continued to move in a more progressive direction, while still retaining the tight harmonies and pop sensibilities. The end of the year saw the release of another Fletcher/Flett composition alongside a band written B-Side. However by this stage, after releasing 3 non-hits Pye decided enough was enough and the band were leased to CBS. “Time Off/Movin’ On” was released in November 1969 to another unappreciative audience.
While none of the Onyx singles sank without a trace, none sold in enough quantity to make any dent into the all important chart placing. This frustrating lack of success was not down to lack of talent or hard work. In some part it was down to the amount they were being played on BBC radio. They were fast becoming an overexposed BBC band. Why would people buy singles by The Onyx when they could be heard on the radio nearly everyday. While you could readily hear the band on the radio it was usually one of the covers they had recorded, such as Good Vibrations or Paint it Black, and the Beeb rarely played any of the singles (although they did get some airplay on Radio Luxemburg).
The band were on the radio so often that many assumed they were a ‘BBC band’, on the Beeb’s payroll. A representative from the station would later tell the band that they were played somewhere on the radio every day for three years. Sessions would take place at either Maida Vale or Regent St, with the band recording 3 or 4 numbers and it wasn’t unusual for sessions to take place at least once a month.
The band did get the opportunity to record a number of Radio One Club shows. These would take place in a live setting and would allow the band to perform their own singles, or more interesting material. Surviving tapes show the band performing songs by Love, Led Zeppelin, Yes, The Who, CSN, among others. While the BBC sessions would become something of a millstone it played an important part in their development as a unit.
While the band had a strong set of their own material they also had a reputation for performing top notch cover versions. During one residency at the Scotch of St James one of the engineers involved with the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations” was in the audience, resplendent with champagne and ladies. He would tell the band that they managed to recreate on stage in five minutes what took them months to create in the studio.