Buster Bloodvessel was in a fix. His 30 stone of pure energy was sailing far over the heads of the conservative Italian audience, who were already looking forward to the arrival of subsonic-voiced crooner Barry White. The gargantuan Bad Manners frontman reacted the only way he knew how. Making a beeline for the nearest video camera, he dropped his trousers to reveal possibly the most titanic behind ever broadcast live on prime time Italian television. “It was only later,” he chuckles ruefully, “that I found out the Pope was watching.” The nature of the papal response is sadly lost to history – but the country’s media went into overdrive, and the band’s place in Italian musical folklore was sealed.
As he made his unique mark on the 1983 San Remo festival, Buster—real name Douglas Trendle—might have reflected how far he had come since starting a ska band with schoolmates in east London, seven years before. Squatting in abandoned homes, his weekly food intake sometimes amounting to nothing more than a tin of mashed potato, superstardom must have seemed a long way off. “We played one club that couldn’t afford to pay us,” recalls Buster. “So we got this hat and started collecting money for the deprived children of Hackney. But it was in fact for us. We were very deprived at the time,” he adds earnestly. “Rough times, them times.”
But despite his financial constraints, Buster’s confidence and boundless on-stage exuberance remained undimmed: “The name Buster Bloodvessel came from me actually, y’know, about to bust a blood vessel,” he explains, helpfully. His arrival on the London music scene could not have been better timed. Nearly twenty years after the jaunty ska rhythms of Jamaican artists such as Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker first hit Britain, the stage was set for a revival – this time with an unmistakeably British twist.
Bad Manners were instrumental in the fledgling 2 Tone movement, which took the country by storm in 1979. “We started playing gigs all over London,” says Buster. “And bands like Madness and the Specials were looking at us and going away to become ska bands.” As ska fever spread throughout London and the rest of the country, the associated “skinhead” subculture became ever more prominent. The distinctive skinhead look, incomplete without Doc Marten boots, braces and a pork pie hat, had originally derived from the Jamaican “rude boy” culture. But amid the tempestuous race politics of the early 1980s, a small minority of skinheads tarnished the name for good by engaging in acts of senseless racial violence.
Buster sounds wounded and indignant as he defends the reputation of what began as an inclusive movement. “2 Tone meant black and white!” he says, pointing out that nearly all the major ska bands were conspicuous in their racial diversity. “None of us stood for racism. Some people latched on to [the skinhead culture] and made as much trouble as they could. But I’m glad to say it died out within the skinhead scene – booted out, so to speak.” It seems diplomatic not to ask how literally this last statement should be taken.
As the hits mounted—top ten singles included ‘Lorraine’, ‘My Girl Lollipop’ and, bizarrely, a cover of Offenbach’s ‘Can Can’—Buster became a household name, his legend growing with every tongue-wagging, tricycle-riding appearance on Top of the Pops. But with his days of dietary deprivation safely behind him, Buster’s waistline was growing just as quickly. “I didn’t see it as a problem at all,” he says, newly slender after an operation that reduced his weight by a colossal 20 stone. “I was still very fit on stage. But it was when I got a hernia that it all went wrong. And then I got meningitis and died for eleven seconds.” He relishes my shocked silence. “But I never let that put me off my stride. I still gigged through all those periods.”
Never one to shy away from the subject of his weight, one of Buster’s most joyfully eccentric plans was the opening of a hotel in Margate specifically for the larger customer. Fatty Towers opened in 1996, complete with extra large beds and baths, an annual Belly of the Year contest, and a restaurant whose specialities included the candidly-named Lard Arse Pudding. With a “cardiac cashback” guarantee in the event of gastronomic overload, members of Buster’s recently founded Club 18-30 Stone flocked to his seaside folly. “It was just the most perfect of places,” he says, like a dreamy schoolboy. “But I wouldn’t just leave them in my place; I’d take them around the whole of Margate, showing them all the sights.” It’s hard not to enjoy the image of this super-sized Pied Piper guiding his charges through a sleepy Victorian resort.
A bitter fall-out with his wife in 1998 saw the end of Fatty Towers, as Buster “just lost the plot completely,” lapsing into alcohol dependency. Having touched on the subject, he clearly wants to make light of it. “Being a musician you’ve always got an alcohol problem,” he says. “It’s something that goes with the job. You’re offered drinks everywhere you go, and people are offended if you don’t accept.” It’s a reminder of the personal troubles that can lurk behind the most infectiously merry exteriors.
Long renowned for their tireless touring, Bad Manners are still going strong – although Buster is the only founding member to have lasted the course. Midway through a gruelling 50-date UK tour, he has European and Christmas tours to follow before the year is out. With any spare time spent recording a forthcoming soul album, it’s an impressive schedule by any standards. Yet even with his apparently limitless vitality, Buster doubts he would succeed as a young hopeful in today’s musical climate. “I think it’s particularly hard at the moment,” he says. “There aren’t that many record companies left, to be honest. But one great thing young musicians have got is the internet. That can give you a worldwide audience, just like that.”
Recent months and years have seen apocalyptic warnings that the boom in illegal music downloads heralds the death of the record industry – but Buster is stoical. “It means musicians won’t get their money through record sales. But if you build your name up and go on tour, then you’re doing exactly what you should be doing anyway.” It’s certainly what this particular musician should be doing. One of the most extravagant stage performers of recent decades, Buster’s frequently lunatic antics will be forgotten by few who have witnessed them. All publicity is good publicity, I suggest. “So they say,” he muses. “But you wouldn’t say that to Gary Glitter, would ya?”