The Riot Squad were a London-based pop group who saw Mitch Mitchell of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, singer Graham Bonney and a young David Bowie come and go from their ranks during their 1964 to 1967 run. Some earlier Bowie biographies have no mention of this brief stage of his career.
In early March 1967, the band divided, with Gladstone, Crisp and Clifford going off to form soul band Pepper. Evans retained The Riot Squad name, along with Butch and Del. He was quick to recruit Rod Davies (guitar), Croak Prebble (bass) and a new lead singer.
Evans recalls: “I saw David Bowie with The Buzz at the Marquee and thought that he was fantastic. I approached him and he agreed to join.” Though Bowie had a growing reputation in London, like the Riot Squad he lacked a hit record.
Butch was underwhelmed when Evans informed him he’d offered the future Ziggy Stardust the job: “I thought, ‘Oh no, I don’t like him.’ We had supported Bowie months earlier. His presentation was superb, but his material was terrible.” Saying that, when Bowie turned up for their first rehearsal in a Tottenham pub, Butch admits he “fell in love with him because he had such charisma and he looked so cool when he walked in”.
The band had a few days to work up a set-list before their next gig and Bowie took charge in helping to knit together a running order. He even brought in a track from an unreleased LP by a US band called The Velvet Underground, “I’m Waiting For The Man.”
Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt returned from a trip to New York with an acetate of The Velvet Underground & Nico in late 1966 and his young client was immediately infatuated with the album. A song written by Bowie around that same time, “Little Toy Soldier,” quoted an entire chunk of “Venus and Furs.”
Butch recalls that, although The Riot Squad set had pop and soul roots, they were open to diverse material such as the Bowie-penned “Little Toy Soldier.” Bowie also pushed the band to be more theatrical. “He told me, ‘Why don’t you put paint on your face, Butch?’ We became more outrageous. Bob started throwing rags into the audience.
“Bob Evans loved it when Bowie came along,” recalls Butch, “because he was out front with the sax and flute and with tracks like “The Vicar’s Daughter” we got a bit more like The Bonzo Dog Band. When Bowie came in he had great ideas like “Toy Soldier,” where he’d whip Bob on stage. They got on like a house on fire because they were both great front men.”
Bowie led the band for around 20 gigs, between March and May 1967, before handing in his notice to go solo again.
“We were serious with David,” recalls Evans. “His material commanded respect, and while I wasn’t exactly hankering to loon about, “I’m Waiting For The Man” and “Toy Soldier” pointed that way. I can’t remember when we first chucked rags into the audience, that was post-David, but I enjoyed doing that stuff – all of which would develop at a pace soon after.”
Although David Bowie never officially recorded anything with The Riot Squad, rehearsal tapes have survived and were released as The Last Chapter: Mods & Sods in 2012.
Below, what is undoubtedly one of the very earliest Velvet Underground covers, a Bowie-led run-though of “I’m Waiting for the Man”: