I have very rarely spoken or written about the years I spent with Artwork, the band I co-founded with Mike Harrison (bass) and Fernand Grima (drums) in 1985. Mark Attard (keyboards) and Twanny "Iċ-Ċimbillaj" Mifsud (guitar) were also in the first line up of the band. We came together after Mike and I left Structure, which we felt had lost its musical direction after Michael Bukowski left for England in the winter of 1985. Ferry and I had known each other for several years, and he was often seen as roadie with Structure too. Mike and I had admired Twanny from afar for many years. Mark and I went to school together at St. Paul's Missionary College but he was a year behind me.
Our first rehearsal room was in Tigne. Through Twanny we managed to get one of the best rooms in the lower courtyard, right between Chi-2 and Access. We jammed like crazy in the spring of 1985 and wrote several songs together. Mark or Twanny would come up with a chord sequence or a particular riff and I'd write lyrics that were similar in spirit to the stuff I wrote during the previous couple of years that I had sung with Structure.
Our first gig was in the summer of 1985 supporting Nazarth at the Rokarja AST, which was probably part of Maltafest by that point. Other bands on that bill included Acid, Subverts, Prinz Eugene and possibly Structure, who had recruited former Upside Images bassist Joe Fenech, guitarist David Cassar Torreggiani and former Overdose singer Georgina Sammut. Soon after that we appeared at the Y.M.C.A.'s Maltasajf'85 at the Marsa Sports Grounds and Structure were certainly among the bands at that festival, along with Dream Valley, Tony Grimaud, Atlam and many others.
Mark Attard and I wrote the song Girls Will Be Girls that summer and played it for the first time at St. Angelo's in a strange contest organized by an Italian entrepreneur called Marzio. Matia Bazar was the top billing guest act at that event, which was won by Stratkast and Joe Mizzi's Too Much To Lose; Jenny Borg was also one of the winners with a song called It's a Heartache, featuring Edgar Micallef on acoustic guitar.
The first line-up split soon after that and I took to playing the guitar as well as singing. This four-piece formation was the one that recorded Girls Will Be Girls for the eventual 45 rpm single release in 1986, as well as the B-side It's All Over Now, which was the first song that Mark and I wrote at our new rehearsal space: my bedroom at my parent's house in Sliema.
Under the guidance of Vince Pisani and Albert Briffa the band went on to achieve national attention on several television shows such as Bonġu Malta and Arzella, two of the most popular light entertainment shows on TVM at that time. A tour of several girls secondary school followed towards the end of the 85/86 academic year but by the end of it Mark had decided to leave the band for reasons I never really understood. He went on to join X-Tend, Structure, Men and White, and I think he eventually even played in another band with Ferry in the early 1990s. Out of all of us who ever played in Artwork, he is the only one who remained active in rock bands into the second decade of the 21st century, achieving respect (and some notoriety) mainly with Fakawi.
From the perspective of recording and popularity, that was the beginning of the end of Artwork, as far as I'm concerned. However, that summer I managed to recruit Manoel Pirotta to replace Mark and the band entered what, 25 years later, I still think was the most creative period I've ever had with any rock band. Manoel and I met in Tigne when we were both brought in to work on a musical version of Oreste Calleja's Satira, adapted and directed by Peter Busuttil. I was involved in an acoustic version of this musical at Ateatru in the Spring of 1986 with Edgar Micallef and Jenny Borg, and Peter wanted to do an outdoor version with a full rock band that summer as part of Maltafest'86. Since Artwork had left Tigne by that point, there was no way we could be included in that summer's concert, which featured Gloria Gaynor as the foreign guest artist. So I put together what was essentially my first theatre band, featuring Pierre Portelli (or was it Mike Harrison?) on bass, Charlie "Chalkie" Cutajar (drums), as well as Edgar Micallef and I on guitars. Subverts were in the middle of a band meltdown at this point, so I took the opportunity and managed to recruit a number of them. Manoel Pirotta played clarinet and possibly even some keyboards.
Manoel and I hit it off quite well at first. He had what seemed like countless song ideas, as well as some song lyrics. Together we fashioned these into a good dozen songs and this became Artwork's new sound. Decisively more arty that the previous pop rock directions that the band had started to take, but still not too progressive to satisfy us 100%. That Autumn we became the resident band at Fantasy Park, which was the nightclub as Summerfields off the Madliena coast road, on the way to Baħar ic-Cagħaq. Vince Pisani would arrange for other bands to play there with us, to diversify our following. The most memorable gigs for me were ones featuring Chi-2 and The Joy Circuit. We also played several other gigs here and there, of course: Raffles in St. Andrew's, Vibes in Tal-Balal, and The Rook in Gozo. This formation recorded two versions of the song Rigi, which I wrote as a signature tune for an educational TV programme, directed by Żep Camilleri for TVM. Manoel played keyboards on the rock version and a simple wooden recorder on the unplugged version. Edgar Micallef played acoustic guitar on the unplugged version and Mike Harrison sang backing vocals. I don't think that there are any live recordings of the band from this period, but I could be wrong. Manoel and I had a strange falling out a few months later and it seemed like this was the end of the road for Artwork.
That summer I had bought a Korg 800 keyboard from Alex Cutajar and this meant that although Artwork had been reduced to a three-piece band, we still had a keyboard in our rehearsal room. My initial idea was to sing and play both keyboards and guitar, but either because I was not really that good, or perhaps because MIDI and sequencers were still in their infancy at this point it seemed like a better idea to recruit another musician to replace Manoel. This replacement came in the shape of an equally accomplished musician but who couldn't have had a more different character from his predecessor. Paul Borg is one of the craziest extroverts I've ever met. Musically we clicked instantly. He helped me write several new songs for Artwork, some of which I had been struggling with alone after Manoel's departure. Most excitingly, Paul replaced Manoel's clarinet with a trombone, and soon enough we were rehearsing with a 4-piece brass section, featuring at teenage Ivan Spiteri Lucas on saxophone. The sound was exhilarating. We started rehearsing for a major concert at the Catholic Institute in Floriana. It soon became evident to me that the band was going in a different direction from any I was particularly interested in being a part of. I also felt that with Paul as a front man the band wouldn't come to an end. He was much more than a simple keyboard player. He was, and still is, a great showman, as anyone who has ever seen him play tuba with Nafra and other ensembles can testify.
I left Artwork in 1987, just as we were preparing to go to Frankfurt, Germany to play at an EBU gig supporting Wet Wet Wet. The band went without me...and Toni Sant was born. From then on, I rarely looked back and seldom spoke about my years with Artwork.
Talking about Artwork
On Saturday 25 March 2006 I released the 16th podcast in the Mużika Mod Ieħor series. Someone calling himself cyberdigger  left a comment on my blog post associated with the podcast , asking the following:
How come Artwork are never featured in these podcasts? By the way, in percentage terms, what chances are there of Artwork doing a Rifffs and reforming?
- "I only ever recorded three songs in a studio with Artwork. Two of those made up the band's only single: Girls Will Be Girls and It's All Over Now. I only have those recordings on a 45rpm record...but nothing to play it on and/or dub for a podcast.
- The other recording is of a song I wrote in 1986 called Rigi. We played it live a couple of times, but it was mostly a promotional piece - I wouldn't call it a real song: it's not about anything in particular and has a guitar riff lifted almost note for note from a Cat Stevens tune but no one noticed. It played on TVM every week for several months because it was the closing tune for an educational programme. I can't find the cassette for that...but I may actually have it somewhere. Channel 22 probably has copies of the TV show on VHS in their archives. Each episode of the programme opened with a video of me singing an acoustic version of the song with a bunch of primary school children.
- Aside from these songs there's a very small number of live recordings by Artwork too. I have one on cassette, but it's not appropriate for public consumption because the technical quality of the recording is too poor. Artwork was mostly a gigging band. Lots of live gigs...but very few recordings.
- Does that answer your question?
- I doubt Artwork would ever do a reunion with me. I'm certainly not interested in such an event. This doesn't mean there may not be an Artwork reunion without me. The band went on for another year or so after I quit and they even produced a cassette EP, which consisted mostly of my reworked songs...along with a reproduction of the two sides of the 45rpm single. Still, I wouldn't mind playing in a band with a couple of people from Artwork...but not as Artwork, mostly because I'm not big on nostalgia. I was 19 when I quit Artwork. So I'll give the chance of a reunion 19% - how's that?"
cyberdigger wasn't convinced and retorted with the following comment:
Well, if Pink Floyd can overcome their differences and the Palestinians can sit down with the Israelis, then maybe there is hope for Artwork. 19 seems so young, although Johnny Rotten was not much older than that when the Sex Pistols broke up. I suppose it is a very small part of your life really, although for some people you will always be associated with it.
I was quite intrigued that someone I only knew through a blogger's pseudonym engage me in this conversation about Artwork, so I replied again.
- "There are no irreconcilable differences between me and any of the people who played in Artwork. At least none like the ones you mentioned as ones that no one expected would ever be reconciled...mostly because the stakes in our case are hardly as high as those in a multi-millionaire band or warring tribes.
- For me, getting back to playing with any group of musicians that calls itself Artwork is akin to getting together for a play-date with one of my childhood friends whom I haven't seen in decades. It scores very high on nostalgia but very low on any other meaning in my current life. (Have I mentioned I'm not big on nostalgia?) Besides, all the other guys in Artwork have moved on with their lives and although a couple of them are still professionally involved in music I seriously doubt they care much about the kind of pop rock embraced by Artwork.
- You're right about the unfortunate fact that some people will always associate me with Artwork, of course. Fortunately I'm sure that there are fewer than 19% who fall in this category. Artwork may have been the most popular band I ever played in, but it was one of the least I enjoyed being in, aside from the first year or so. Then again, I was only 16 or 17 years old at that time and there's hardly anything from that time in my life I'd really like to relive."