Skip to content

The Royal Family And The Poor \ Biography

Perhaps the most misunderstood band to record for Factory, The Royal Family and the Poor remain for many an (oc)cult enigma, releasing only four albums in two decades, and rarely performing live after 1984. In fact the oblique band moniker masks the identity of just one man, Mike Keane, whose chequered history is a complicated tale of perseverance in the face of adversity.

The first version of The Royal Family and the Poor formed in Liverpool in 1978, after Keane moved into a shared house in Toxteth with Arthur McDonald, an art graduate with an enduring interest in the avant garde and Situationism. I was about 18 at the time,' recalled Mike, 'and Arthur was a bit older than me, about 28. I was already pretty aware but he sort of introduced me to a lot of ideas which stimulated me. I got this old synthesizer and put it through a record player, which produced an horrendous noise. Then Arthur just started reciting texts over the top of it.

Late in 1979 the pair recorded a crude tape of Mike's synth noise overlaid with Situationist raps, extracted by McDonald from The Revolution of Everyday Life. A copy sent to Factory Records in Manchester tickled Tony Wilson's fancy, and the band were invited to record for the label. Wilson also saddled the pair with their unwieldy name inspired by Fred and Judy Vermorel's Sex Pistols book The Inside Story, and which Keane has retained down the decades.

Joined by bassist Nathan McGough and drummer Phil Hurst, the nascent band played a couple of Factory package dates in early 1980, notably the Moonlight Club in London in April, where they shared a bill with Crawling Chaos, Section 25 and Joy Division. However the NME were scathing: The Royal Family know nothing about music, but probably read a lot of books. Their performance was apparently improvised. They were better than Crawling Chaos who came after them, because their set was shorter. The singer wore a long black overcoat and shaggy hair. He has adopted the mantle of Prince Brian. Brian's forte is declaiming 'provocative' sentences, usually with his back to a grateful audience... He vouchsafed that "All politics is fascism" and went well beyond his level of competence in claiming that "Every man and woman is a star."

Undaunted, the band recorded one side of A Factory Quartet album at Graveyard Studio. Originally intended as a double 10" package, by way of a sequel to the celebrated Factory Sample of 1978, the album appeared on 12" format at the end of the year as Fact 24, featuring a single side each by The Durutti Column, Blurt and Kevin Hewick. Produced by Martin Hannett and engineered by Chris Nagle, The Royal Family and the Poor contributed three proper tracks as well as three short dirges, none of which had much connection with rock and roll. Instead, Vaneigem Mix, Death Factory and Rackets offered freeform post-punk avant rock overlaid with Situationist oratory, all of it recorded as live. Indeed Death Factory was little more than a jam, with guitar from Ambrose Reynolds, yet still ended up on the album in place of a better track called Somewhere in Africa, now lost.

Again, critics were unforgiving. In NME Adrian Thrills dismissed their music as a joke, deriding pompous lyrics and Can-ish music "delivered with all the inaccessibility and conceit of the Pop Group at their worst." Dave McCullough of Sounds found even less to praise, describing the group as "stupendously redundant" pitched "somewhere between very bad Pop Group and even worse Cabaret Voltaire" and pronouncing them guilty of "esteemed Oxbridgeyness". In truth the material has not aged too well, but for several weeks in early 1981 Factory's patchy sampler topped the independent chart, and for better or worse put The Royal Family on the map.

By way of an aside, the polaroid of 'Andrew during the performance' reproduced on the inner sleeve of Fact 24 is in fact a snap of Arthur McDonald in a van outside Rafters in Manchester. While waiting to soundcheck Keane, McDonald and a friend were involved in a fracas with bouncers, which resulted in McDonald refusing to play. Keane and McGough struggled through the set with a drummer, before a plainly disgusted Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks, while McDonald posed for snaps outside...

In August 1981 a 12" single was recorded, with Donald Johnson of A Certain Ratio occupying the producer's chair, and also the drumming stool following the departure of Phil Hurst. Tony Wilson co-produced the track Art on 45 but went uncredited on the label. It is best described as Situationist P-funk, with a backing track reminiscent of I'd Like To See You Again-era ACR. Mike Keane recorded two solo tracks for the flipside, Dream and Dominion, both produced by Peter Hook of New Order and described by the label as 'poignant methadrine solace'. This combination made for a fairly schizophrenic EP, released in February 1982 as Fac 43, though Art on 45 is today regularly compiled. Keane also recorded a lengthy meditative piece called Midnight Symphony for inclusion on a Zoo Records compilation, although finally the label considered the end result too left-field.

Nathan McGough left soon afterwards, going on to play percussion in The Pale Fountains, and later managing Kalima and Happy Mondays. He and McDonald also set up a club in Liverpool, Plato's Ballroom, staging gigs by Cabaret Voltaire, Durutti Column, China Crisis, and the last live show by the original Royal Family and the Poor, at which Keane and McDonald performed with backing tapes. Soon after thepir parted amidst some acrimony, as Keane recalls: "We did some gigs and then he decided he wanted the Royal Family to be the most obscure band in the world. He just said he wasn't going to do anything else. He moved to Newcastle, I think. And I think he realised we were never going to make any money. I had really enjoyed what we had done, so I carried on with backing tapes, called myself the Legend Agency and did a tour of Britain with China Crisis."

The China Crisis tour, during May and June 1982, was in support of their first album, Difficult Shapes and Passive Rhythms. The generous headliners also financed the recording of Keane's backing tapes at Amazon Studios in May, while Gary Daley collaborated on full recordings of a couple of tracks, including Dawn Song and the excellent I Love You, aka Restrained in a Moment. Although Keane played some 20 dates with China Crisis, however, he was unable to showcase his material at the all-important London show, and failed to attract any reviews, save for one short notice in Breakout fanzine: "Mike's lyrics are personal and involving, the absence of live musicians laying emphasis on them, bringing them out to their full. The taped drumbox and guitar accompaniment is uncluttered, a bare musical framework to pad the sometimes harsh, sometimes sorrowful vocals. Hardly euphoric stuff - the armpit of reality, if you'll excuse the expression! If you want escapism, look elsewhere."

Armpit of reality? Hardly. By now Keane's musical style was fairly settled, typified by I Love You (Restrained in a Moment) - an affecting, accomplished ballad written under a tree in Princes Park. Unable to decide on a brand name, however, Keane ditched The Legend Agency following the China Crisis tour in favour of the project. In this new guise he played several hometown dates, and thanks to a tape passed on by Eddie Lundon of China Crisis was picked up by infamous management guru Stevo, then handling chart stars Soft Cell and Matt Johnson (aka The The) under the Some Bizzare umbrella. Things were looking up. A showcase at the Left Bank venue in Liverpool was even reviewed favourably by NME: "It's not your usual electronic deep deep buzz, but layer upon layer of textured expansive sound. He's got one outrageously beautiful song, I Love You, a barely noticeable acoustic strum over a sensual swirl of landscaping keyboards and a background of haunting female vocals... the project is an acutely sensitive romantic, and if there isn't a place left somewhere for people like him, then this old pop world of ours will be a greyer place."

Stevo was confident that the project could crack the mainstream chart with I Love You, already recorded with Gary Daley. In January 1983 Keane went into Trident Studio in London with Matt Johnson to cut two more songs, Moonfish is Here and the vocodered Motherland, both somewhat darker than The planned a-side. But after Keane submitted these to Some Bizzare Stevo reconsidered, and decided that the project might be better off licensed to a major. This made sense: the strategy had worked well enough for The The, and later reaped dividends for stablemates Psychic TV, Test Department and Cabaret Voltaire. But in a fit of self-destructive pique Keane rejected the idea, and walked away from Some Bizarre.

With hindsight, it is debateable whether a talent as wayward as Mike Keane would have lasted long on a major, Despite the quality of his better songs. Furthermore Keane had also developed a severe heroin habit, which no doubt put Stevo on his guard. Nevertheless, rejecting Some Bizzare was a rash move, and one which saw Keane's career slide back to square one. With no recording deal, a self produced cassette called Visions was sold only locally, and before long Keane was playing support dates with a string of now forgotten local bands. This Despite the fact that he was still writing material of the standard of Someone Somewhere, which survives only in live form from a date at Stafford Polytechnic in May 1983.

Shortly afterwards Keane suffered a spiritual crisis, quit Liverpool, and headed south to Winchester with the intention of walking all 100 miles of the pilgrims' Way to Canterbury. "It was a lot more complex than just a walk, and for me was an utterly transforming experience. It lasted from the end of June to the end of August. I lived in a tent, on nettle soup, fruit and a small amount of rice, and I decided that until I got the answers I was looking for I would not stop wandering. All the issues in my life either had to be resolved for once and for all, or I would kepon wandering until I died. During the pilgrimage I had a few big fights with the universe, and decided to make a clean break with the music scene."

But it was not to be. Soon after returning to his Liverpool base, Factory ran Keane to ground and proposed an album. The offer was made at the instigation of Rob Gretton, and was conditional on the album being produced in Manchester by Peter Hook. With some trepidation Keane decided to give music another chance, and put together a new version of The Royal Family and the Poor, which drew on the talents of violinist John Neesham (of Walking Seeds and Mel-o-Tones), and keyboard player Lita Hira from labelmates Stockholm Monsters.

Work on the album began at Strawberry Studios in Stockport in February 1984, with Hook assisted by engineers Mike Johnson and Chris 'CJ' Jones. At the time Keane grew frustrated that the production team spent no little effort and money testing out drum programmes, but their technological know-how adds a definite rhythmic punch to tracks such as Dark and Light, Radio Egypt and Discipline. Elsewhere I Love You, Dawn Song, Moonfish is Here and Motherland are the versions recorded earlier with Gary Daley and Matt Johnson respectively, although at Stevo's request Johnson' backing vocals were replaced.

Before the album appeared, the band undertook a short UK tour with Stockholm Monsters. Once again, a certain musical schizophrenia was in evidence, as Dave Roberts noted in a Sounds review from Manchester: "The set started promisingly enough, with some nicely uptempo ditties, a hippy/folk song complete with electro drums [Something Someone] and another called I Love You... That was, until a couple of mates joined in the fray. The ensuing experimental / progressive profusion sounded like Hawkwind on a bad trip. Lasting at least twenty minutes, it did as much for the Royal Family as a Vicki Hodge 'revelation', and as much for the poor as Margaret Thatcher's government."

Temple of the 13th Tribe appeared in November 1984 as Fact 95, with artwork by Keane and a free booklet of texts and images. Reviews were positive, Sounds drawing comparisons with Earth Opera, The Passage and Yello, while Melody Maker discerned 'something peculiarly sharp and honest about its intentions', though noting that its maker 'walks too close to anarchy to be a "nice" artist.' Sales were probably in the region of 3,000 copies, mostly in Europe and America. It should have sold more, but with the earlier Situationist slant now replaced by an overt occult direction, the core Factory audience was left somewhat confused, while more casual listeners were no doubt put off by theppular misconception that all with an interest in magick, Druidism and Qabbalah inhabit the lunatic fringe, and are no different from satanists, vampire slayers and legend trippers. Inevitably, this is a factor which will always colour perception of the music of The Royal Family and the Poor, as Keane himself recognises: "It has alienated me. Most people in Liverpool seem to think I'm some sort of black magician or fascist. And I've learned the hard way just how few genuine occultists there are out there. Most keep themselves to themselves and don't dare to 'come out', particularly in the music business. I've had my fair share of older occultists wag their fingers at me, frowning, and warn that I'll end up like Graham Bond. But I'm proud of what I've managed to achieve so far."

To promote the album the band performed several London dates, including Jackson's Lane Community Centre (Highgate) in October 1984 with Section 25, the Michael Sobell Centre (with New Order) in January 1985, and an ICA 'I Want Independents' week in March. They also supported New Order at two major dates in Edinburgh and Glasgow in February. By now the line-up had changed yet again, with Keane now joined by John Walsh, Jeff Turner, Karen Halewood and Kif Cole. Ambrose Reynolds of Pink Industry continued to assist Keane in the studio, but cried off playing live with the band.

A second Factory album, We Love the Moon (Fact 140), was recorded at Amazon in summer 1985, this time produced by Keane and Reynolds. A more consistent set than 13th Tribe both in terms of execution and arrangement, the album again offered a combination of electro/acoustic ballads (Visions, We Love the Moon), rhythmic tracks (Sex Goddess, Heartbeat) and ambient pieces (Living Room Alchemy). Although begun as a band recording, mercurial Keane ended up sacking most of the musicians midway, and would complete the album with Reynolds alone. Despite the fact that the album received little press attention, it still sold respectably on release in March 1986, and an alternative mix of the title track released as a picture disc single (Fac 139) in February.

By this time relations between artist and label were strained, not least because Factory were unable (or unwilling) to provide detailed sales figures, or finance new equipment. A mooted video release on Ikon never appeared, though British Empire was included on the Shorts collection (Fact 137). Today Keane is happy to acknowledge that he owes Factory a good deal, but back in May 1986 the FacFacts booklet Tony Wilson politely explained that band and label were through: "The records are wonderful. Our relationship with the artist isn't."

Following several demoralizing meetings with A&R men from major labels, Keane linked up with the Recloose Organisation, the label run by Bourbonese Qualk, and released the album Live 1983-85 (Loose 13) in October. Culled from gigs in Stafford, London, Edinburgh and Glasgow, the album was limited to just 1000 copies, but at least saw a belated release for the lost classic, Something Someone. Keane also collaborated with Qualk member Simon Crab on a number of tracks, and supported the band on a short tour of Holland in late 1986.

After a year with Recloose, Keane decided to bypass labels altogether and set up his own imprint. The result was Gaia Communications, supported by a pressing and distribution deal with Red Rhino, and the third full RFATP studio album, In the Sea of E. Recorded quickly at various studios in Liverpool in February and March 1987, all material was written and produced by Keane and Simon Crab, with contributions from Andy Frizell and Merlin Shepherd. Like the two Factory albums it was an intricate and diverse set, ranging from electro chatter pop (Living Light, The Supersensualists) to meditational chants and scales (Gaia, Creatura) and beyond. The album appeared on Gaia in July, and was well received, although Keane candidly admitted to Cut magazine that he was finding it hard to keep his head above water: "The hardest thing has been doing it with no money. The whole album has been done on a grand total of £1000. I've already sold most of my equipment to raise the money, but nevertheless things work in mysterious ways. If you look at all the reasons why you should give up, or why you shouldn't do anything because you haven't got any money, then you'll never get anywhere. I'm so much in debt now that it's ridiculous, but I don't care, because I know I can leave the country if I have to."

The album title, incidently, came about because at the time Keane felt himself to be adrift on an 'ocean of conflict'. It was almost called Prostitutes from the Isle of Glass...

Keane harboured grand designs for Gaia Communications, including an album by Robert Anton Wilson, and a 'chaos magic' compilation with like-minded outfits such as Coil, Sleep Chamber and Chris and Cosey, with artwork by Jamie Reid. However, this ambitious project fell through, and a 12" single release of Restrained in a Moment (backed with two new tracks) failed to make much commercial headway in February 1988. Undaunted, Keane borrowed £5,000 to finance a home studio of his own, and set about recording a fourth album, Songs for the Children of Baphomet, but this plan also stalled following the messy collapse of Red Rhino at the end of 1988. This lead to Keane being declared bankrupt, and most of his equipment being seized by bailiffs. Unsurprisingly Mike Keane gave up on music, and The Royal Family and the Poor again fell silent.

Over the years Keane has lost all his worldly possessions several times over. Fortunately, in 1995 he was able to invest in a PC and take advantage of the limitless opportunities afforded by the internet. The rest was an extensive Gaia Communications website, and the belated release of Songs for the Children of Baphomet in a limited edition in 1999. Billed as 'a celebration on the theme of magick and a tribute to the life and works of Aleister Crowley', the lavish package featured twelve new tracks and sold its numbered edition of 1000 copies thanks to excellent reviews in Melody Maker ('five stars'), Uncut ('fascinatingly bizarre') and The Wire ('stylish and poignant'). Baphomet was followed in 2001 by Anthology 1978-2001 (Gaia 005), and in 2003 by the reissue of the first three albums on remastered CDs by Boutique/LTM. A new album, North-West Soul, arrived 2004, since when Mike Keane has fallen silent, though Arthur McDonald would re-emerge in 2010 with a self-released album called The Pope's Daughter - also released as The Royal Family and the Poor, but without Keane's involvement. Proper anarchy indeed.

James Nice

Revised 2011

The Royal Family and the Poor