The resume of Nick Reynolds has many fascinating facets—son of the mastermind of The Great Train Robbery, abstract artist, maker of death masks of Malcolm McLaren, Peter O’Toole, and his bandmate (from Alabama 3) Jake Black, maker of life masks of Mick Jones and Grace Jones, member of the legendary Pretty Things, technician for Pink Floyd, Falklands War veteran, hero of Sopranos fan conventions, maker of films (including docs on Brian Jones and Sid & Nancy)…What hasn’t he done? Gregory Daurer explores all of these facets in this roller coaster conversation with Nick Reynolds for PKM.
In the annals of popular culture it is likely that only one musician has created death masks as part of a parallel career in the arts. Furthermore, it’s likely that no other musician has performed onstage with one of his self-made death mask nearby. Nick Reynolds owns these two unique distinctions. The death mask with which he has performed is of his dearly-departed, Alabama 3 bandmate, Jake Black (aka, The Very Reverend D Wayne Love).
Alabama 3 – founded by vocalists Rob Spragg (aka, Larry Love) and Black – remains best known for “Woke Up This Morning,” which was chosen as the opening theme song for The Sopranos. Although Reynolds didn’t play harmonica on the original track, recorded before he was in the band, he’s performed it live with the band hundreds of times.
Still better known in the U.K., and a respected festival-circuit act (including appearances at Glastonbury), Alabama 3 are described within their artist profile on the Hostage Music web site – in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek, somewhat accurate way – as “a pop band, a punk rock, blues and country techno situationist crypto-Marxist-Leninist electro band.” In 2021, the band will release its latest recording Step 13.
In addition to Jake Black’s death mask, Reynolds has created death masks of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and his own father, Bruce Reynolds, the ringleader of 1963’s Great Train Robbery in England. In making his contemporary versions, Reynolds is keeping alive (so to speak) a several-hundred-year-old tradition. (Martin Luther, Beethoven, and Napoleon all had death masks made from their corpses.) Additional subjects for Reynolds’ contemporary death masks have included actor Peter O’Toole and film director Ken Russell.
Making death masks, oftentimes on commission, and playing harmonica professionally – that might be enough for some people. But Reynolds has also written, produced, and/or acted within British independent films like uk18 and Dragonfly, as well as co-helming the documentaries Sad Vacation (about Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen) and Rolling Stone: The Life and Death of Brian Jones.
Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid & Nancy-trailer:
Furthermore, he’s appeared as an interview subject in documentaries about the Great Train Robbery (including one about train robber Ronnie Biggs, who went on to record with the Sex Pistols), as well as others which profile his death mask work – including the haunting 402, which focuses on the case of John Joe Amador, who Reynolds believes was wrongly executed by the State of Texas. As an act of barbed political commentary, Reynolds created a sculpture of Amador’s death mask resting atop an armadillo – the state animal of Texas.
“I was very sad and angry about it,” Reynolds says of Amador’s execution. “His trial was a farce.”
Over the course of three conversations, Reynolds spoke by phone from England with PKM for this edited interview.
PKM: Tell me how you create a death mask.
Nick Reynolds: Okay, well, basically, I go to the morgue. I get the body out of the cooler, and I put a release agent over their face and hair – like Nivea. That’s so the molding material doesn’t stick to them or doesn’t stick to their hair. Once I’ve prepared them in that way and they’re moisturized, I mix up alginate: it’s a compound made out of seaweed that dentists use for taking impressions of teeth that has a consistency of, like, a floppy jelly. And I completely cover the head with that. And that dries in about two minutes. And because it’s very floppy and it has detail – but it’s not strong enough to support its own shape, because of the weight of it – that is then reinforced with plaster bandage, which I’ve dipped in water. Like when you break an arm or a leg: the stuff that they put on you for the cast. I then use that on top of the alginate, and that holds the alginate’s shape. Then that comes off the subject and I’m then left with a negative – the mold of the person. And then into that, I will pour molten wax. And then, once that is cooled down, I then take off the mold, which is thrown away and I’m left with a wax replica of the person.
And, once I’ve got that wax, I then basically have to re-sculpt that to give the impression that they haven’t been dead for a week, they’re not pumped full of formaldehyde. And all the bits and pieces that shifted that shouldn’t have, I change – it’s very subtle. And then when I’ve got it looking good, how I like it, then I make a rubber mold of that. And then from the rubber mold I can either make a fiberglass head or I can make wax again, and then take the wax to a foundry where they will create it in bronze for me. It literally is a lost art. You know what they say: nature abhors a vacuum. There’s a position there – if no one’s doing it, maybe I should do it.
PKM: How do death masks relate to your conception of animism? [Animism is the belief that objects, places, plants and animals all possess distinct spiritual essences.]
Nick Reynolds: Well, the thing about animism is the Greeks and the Romans believed when they made a statue of a god, and if they said his name and danced around it, jingled a few bells, that the spirit or the essence of the god would come and inhabit that structure – as ridiculous as that may seem in today’s modern world. I don’t believe in God or anything like that, but having said that, paradoxically, I do believe, somehow, that it’s very easy to imagine [that animism’s real] when you look at a death mask. Because I did my dad’s, and I often pat him on the head and talk to him like he’s in there.
Nick Reynolds:The Final Portrait – clip
PKM: As a child, you grew up on the lam with your father and your mother. Do you have any memories of living in Mexico or in Canada?
Nick Reynolds: Oh, very much so. I can easily put myself back there and remember how I felt at the time and what it was like, where I was at, being with my mum and dad at that time. I mean, it was a total shock to me when my dad was arrested, because at no point during the five years that we were on the run, I never saw my mum or dad stressing about it or freaking out about it or anything like that. As far as I was concerned, my dad was a successful businessman, and everything was kind of hunky-dory. It was only when we started moving around quite a bit, when we had to leave Mexico, that I then thought perhaps my dad might be a spy or something, because I had to keep changing my identity and had different passports and my dad would say, “Today, you’re called this.” And it was all a bit of a game, I guess. But I never picked up on any kind of fear that you might associate with two people having to look over their shoulder all of the time.
PKM: There’s going to be some people who haven’t heard about The Great Train Robbery.
Nick Reynolds: Essentially, the train robbery was the robbing of a money train from Glasgow to London, which was a regularly scheduled train, which was generally known to have carried anywhere between £2 and £6 million pounds, which people knew about, and it was just deemed too risky and too impossible to rob. Unfortunately, my dad, being a kind of crazy adventurer that he was at the time, that was just too much of an enticement for him. If someone said it’s too hot, it can’t be done, well, in that case, I’m going to do it. He’d always, as he said, wanted to make his mark. And he kind of saw this as a way forward to achieving that.
It was a total shock to me when my dad was arrested …… As far as I was concerned, my dad was a successful businessman
So, essentially, he got a gang together and they stopped the train at a certain point, decoupled it, because there’s 120 odd workers on that train and there were only 17 robbers, which obviously the people that were aware the train was getting robbed, they could have easily stopped them. There were no guns carried or anything like that. So, once the train was decoupled, they took it to another place, which my dad had found and they then unloaded the [£2.6 million pounds].
When the train robbery happened, it was referred to as the “Cheddington Mail Van Raid” – which really doesn’t grab you. Some bright spark at a newspaper suddenly thought, well, hold on, this is like Cowboys and Indians, the Great West, and he conjured up this romantic kind of Jesse James and the train robbers out in the Wild West, and referencing the [old silent] film, decided to call it “The Great Train Robbery.” And not only that, when they did it in the press – this is a newspaper called the Daily Sketch – they also used old Western font.
The Great Train Robbery (1963)
PKM: Didn’t your dad once describe the train robbery as his “Sistine Chapel”?
Nick Reynolds: Yeah, ever-romantic, my father. [Laughs.] He was a failed musician, a failed artist. When I say failed, these were dreams that he had, but he didn’t have the natural ability for these particular things. But he always wanted to be the best at whatever. He saw himself as Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief. He even had his suits made at Kilgour, French and Stanley, where Cary Grant got his suits made. He had his shirts made in Turnbull & Asser on Jermyn Street. He had his shoes handmade at Lobb’s, which does shoes for the Royal Family. He was quite a romantic, my father. I mean, that kind of says it all, really, doesn’t it? He thought of it as his Sistine Chapel. It gives you some kind of insight into how my dad perceived the world and his antics.
PKM: Given the nature of your dad’s activities and criminal background – and that you had what you might have called “uncles” who were in a similar trade, kind of anti-establishment – did you grow up being anti-establishment? And the reason I ask this is because I understand your father wanted to go into the navy at one time, but had bad eyesight. But you joined the British Royal Navy, which is kind of an establishment thing to do.
Nick Reynolds: It is. The thing is, my dad, just because he was a villain, he didn’t want me to be one. He thought it was a mug’s game. Eventually, you’re going to get caught, you’re going to do your time. He always said there’s always a price to pay, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And he had that firmly drilled in my head. So, if I wasn’t going to be a villain, there was no point being anti-establishment, as such. I was the product of boarding school, and I became institutionalized. And it’s ironic that as my dad came out of prison – as he came out of his institution and out of his steel box – I willingly put myself into one.
He saw himself as Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief. He even had his suits made at Kilgour, French and Stanley, where Cary Grant got his suits made.
PKM: But you also had the experience of great trauma as a result of joining the navy: I mean, you were in the Falklands War, weren’t you?
Nick Reynolds: Yeah, but when I joined the navy, believe me, I never thought in a million years [I’d be sent to the Falkland Islands]. The reason I didn’t join the army was because I thought there was a possibility you could get sent to Northern Ireland. Plus, I wouldn’t have gone for the army anyway, because the navy was always known as the “Senior Service.” For me, it was all of that travel and adventure. I never thought in a million years we’d be in a situation where I’d be sent off to war 8,000 miles away. That wasn’t something I’d actually factored in when I signed up. And, yeah, that was a bit of a shock to the system.
PKM: In the Falklands War, you were a diver and you needed to retrieve killed service people?
Nick Reynolds: Well, that wasn’t my major function: I had two jobs when I was in the Navy. I was actually an electrical weapons engineer, which means I was a radio mechanic dealing with electrical weapons, sonar, radio, radar – any systems that work on an electrical basis. Torpedoes, surface-to-air missiles, all that kind of thing. That was my job. Every ship has to have divers, as well, but only minesweepers have divers that are only purely divers. But, obviously, because we were in a war situation, people were dying and some of them ended up in the water. Yeah, it did become part of my job description to kind of fish some of them out. Which is probably why it wasn’t that difficult for me to get into the death mask side of things. I’m not squeamish in that respect.
PKM: What are your thoughts on the Falklands War today?
Nick Reynolds: Well, I knew at the time…I was very, very angry. Very angry. At the time, there was a certain element of national pride, that naturally the flames of that were fanned greatly. [Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher used the whole thing of the Falklands to get herself back into government. She would have been voted out. And, for a short amount of time, England thought it was great and fantastic again – sort of harking back to the golden years of Churchill and the Second World War. And it was all blown out of proportion.
I look back at it like it’s a movie that I watched. I’m such a different person to the person I was back there. I find it quite hard to believe that that was me and I was down there and what happened while I was down there. I mean, we all went through a change; you do when you’re faced with death every day. Something happens to you. It changes you. And you see things you could never forget. I had PTSD, obviously. I’ve had a fair bit of counseling. I was involved in a rescue mission for some SAS [Special Air Service, a special forces unit of the British Army] people and the rescue attempt failed, and it haunted me for many years. Given another chance, we might have been able to save them. And that used to give me nightmares for years and years and years. And, even now, I still feel a bit odd when I talk about it. So how do I feel about it now? Like I said, I’m so detached from it. But, yeah, kind of angry about it really. But most wars – political rubbish. I try not to dwell on it too much to be honest. [Laughs ruefully.]
PKM: When you were in the navy you also took up the harmonica, didn’t you?
Nick Reynolds: Well yeah, because as a weapons engineer you’re on a watch business at nighttime, there’s computers, lights, all these cabins got all this electronic equipment and it has to be constantly checked on, because they’re manned during the day. But in the wee hours of the night, everyone’s gone to sleep, except for the guy who’s on duty. And so you get to spend a lot of hours when it’s your turn just wandering around checking that everything’s working
Then, one day, this guy who could play guitar joined my ship, the Hermes, which was the one I went down to the Falklands on, and we formed a band called The Tight Vices, and we used to play. I used to run the ship’s television department at that particular time. And after the news (we used to get the vicar to do the news), me and Joe Sharpe would do a little musical skit. We got to the point where [when] we went into a foreign port, me and him would go find the bar and see if we’d get a series of gigs while we were in that port. And that’s how I got into bands, really. You know, I joined the Pretty Things. You’ve heard of them?
PKM: What version of the Pretty Things was that?
Nick Reynolds: Well, they reformed in 1982 and so the lineup was absolutely incredible. Phil May, the original singer was there, obviously. Dick Taylor, the original guitarist, was there (he had originally been the bass player of the Rolling Stones). On keyboards, we had Ian Stewart, who was in the Rolling Stones; he used to be a member of the Rolling Stones until he got sacked by Andrew Loog Oldham for not looking like a Rolling Stone – he was a heavy set guy, so they kept him on the road and made him the tour manager. He used to play with us. We had, guitar-wise, Huw Lloyd-Langton from Hawkwind, David Gilmour from Pink Floyd. On drums was Mike Giles from King Crimson. Raf Ravenscroft on saxophone, who did the saxophone part on Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” And who else…? Oh, me on harmonica. So, that was some kind of lineup.
PKM: And what was the highlight of performing with the Pretty Things?
Nick Reynolds: Well, for me, it was just the fact that I was hanging out with all of these people: These were Gods, in my eyes! The fact that I’d just suddenly gone from playing in a little fun band in the navy to kind of being in a band with people that were world famous was an incredible buzz, I’ve got to say.
I gave up music for a few years and started working for Pink Floyd, building all their equipment for them. And then I got a phone call one day, I was building a recording studio: “Somebody told me you play a little bit of harmonica.” And I said, “Yeah.” Cut a long story short, I ended up getting signed by EMI to a pop band called Octopus. And that was it: I was back in the music business. And then when Octopus folded after three years, I got invited to join Alabama 3.
PKM: And what drew you to working with Alabama 3?
Nick Reynolds: Well, I liked the music. Someone played their music for me, I thought, “This is great!” A real mad fusion of eclectic styles. But, on top of that, it was quite clear from the amount of samples and stuff that they were using, the harmonica was a big part of its identity. Plus, they’re a bunch of crazy guys. And they were doing really well for themselves, at the time. It was like stepping into a world that was set up for me. I loved it back then. And I still love it now.
PKM: People associate Alabama 3 with the theme song to The Sopranos, “Woke Up This Morning.” What’s been your experience running into fans and cast members of that show?
Nick Reynolds: Throughout the years, all the Sopranos fans, when we’ve done gigs, will come up and say, “Ah, we love that tune!” If I had a dollar for every time someone said “I love that series” or “I love that tune,” we’d all be millionaires. But, last year , we went out to the States; you know, like they do Comic-Con and events like that, they did SopranosCon in New Jersey. And we went out there and they had members of the cast in this great big hangar where they were selling everything – there were lots of stalls and vendors selling anything from posters to hot dogs. Anything that could be linked to The Sopranos, they had there. And a lot of the actors were there and they were doing signed photographs, lots of things. And they invited us over to do a gig at the end of each day. What really struck us is we went out there – as far as we were concerned, the actors were the stars. But they must have thought we were a lot more successful, as well, because the way they treated us they thought we were the stars: “Hey, these are the guys who did the music!” It was a bit of an eye-opener. It’s amazing what one song can do in the minds of other people. To be honest, I’ve never seen a whole episode of The Sopranos in my life. I’m not good with things like that: If I watch one, I have to watch them all. I don’t have the temperament to wait another week till the next one, so I skipped that one.
Three videos featuring the song “Woke Up This Morning.” The first, the edited version accompanying the opening of The Sopranos. Next, the original version from Exile on Coldharbour Lane, featuring Jake Black’s spoken-word intro. Finally, an acoustic version with Nick Reynolds playing harmonica.
The Sopranos Opening Theme
Woke Up This Morning – with spoken intro
The Alabama 3 – Woke Up This Morning – Cigar Box Sessions
I can’t imagine what Alabama 3 would be like if we weren’t attached to that song. It’s kept us going. We’re often asked, “Aren’t you sick of being asked questions about ‘Woke Up This Morning’?” – and, of course not. We’re very fond of that tune, because I don’t think we’d still be going without that tune. There are so many bands that have had far more hits than we have and they’ve fallen by the wayside, years ago. It’s a miracle that only one of us is dead and that the band is still going.
PKM: What are some of the Alabama 3 songs that you’re happiest with having participated on?
Nick Reynolds: Obviously, “Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds?” That’s not an Alabama 3 [original] song; it was written by a guy called Jim O’Connor and ended up on a Scottish rebellion album, where in the eyes of the guy on the album, he saw my dad as some kind of bloody freedom fighter! [Laughs.] Or someone who was anti-establishment. And, of course, this guy was a staunch Scottish person: Anyone who’d done anything to inflict any damage on the British establishment was a hero in his eyes. But that song was written while my dad was on the run. Subsequently, my dad told Larry Love [Rob Spragg] about it and then Jake got wind of it and said, “Right, that’s it, we’re doing it!” So that’s the Reverend’s [Jake’s] voice on that song. And he got my dad on it. For that reason, that’s one tune, I guess.
“Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds?” by Alabama 3. Featuring spoken-word, at the end, by the song’s namesake, Bruce Reynolds (as well as Please Kill Me-contributor Gary Lucas playing National steel guitar).
There’s a song called “Let the Caged Bird Sing,” which, once again, I guess, follows the theme of villainy and imprisonment – although that one’s dedicated to Maya Angelou.
But yeah, [the death of Jake Black]: Massive, massive hole. And he will never be replaced, because he was a true one-off. Highly-intelligent man. Not having him as our mad, glorious Reverend – I don’t know what the future holds for the band creatively.
PKM: Tell me more about Jake. How did he impress you when you first met him, and then over the years?
Nick Reynolds: The funny thing was, when I joined the band, I wasn’t aware of Jake, because I was doing lots of acoustic gigs with Larry Love, the singer, and Rock Freebase, the guitarist. And we started doing those acoustic gigs and it was only when we went to do a radio show that I met Jake. And I thought, “Who are you?!” And it became clear that he was the leader. I thought that Larry was, but it became clear that Jake was the leader when all the questions were forwarded to him. You might want to see it on YouTube; there’s about five or six of them: It’s “Alabama 3 Undrugged.” So, instead of “Unplugged,” it’s “Undrugged.”
And that was the first time that I met him. And I was completely blown away, because he’s so erudite, witty. And as I said in Jake’s obituary in The Guardian, he had more presence onstage just by standing there with his hand in his pocket than Larry did running, jumping up and down, doing his star jumps and whatever else he does in his kind of weird, ironic kind of dancing that he does; he does his Jagger stuff, hoping to kind of get the audience’s attention. And Jake could do it just by standing still with a hand in his pocket. He had tremendous presence. Films, literary books, politics, you name it: You could drop him in anywhere and he knew about the subject, the topic. And he was just a real freak, basically.
One example, I was working with the British film director Ken Russell and he called me up to say he was having an exhibition of some of his photos that he’d taken of Teddy Girls in the 1950s. And Jake called me up, he was at loose ends, and asked me what I was doing. I said, “Well, funny enough, I’m off to go see Ken Russell, he’s got a photo exhibition on.” And he asked if he could tail along. I said yes. So I took him to the exhibition and [then we sat outside] at a table with Ken. And I introduced him and straightaway he was in there saying, “Oh, Ken Russell! You’re one of my favorite directors. You’re the English Fellini!” And he just won [Ken Russell] over. And I was sort of cast aside for the rest of the evening, practically. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. And he could just do that, just sit down and get somebody, stroke their ego, and he was in.
He was a great guy. Bit of a rascal. Very sorely missed. I don’t know if you’re aware, but Alabama 3 originally was called the Presleytarian Church of Elvis the Divine. That was the original name, and the whole point of it was to kind of pretend Alabama 3 was this weird, cultish church and, of course, he was the First Minister. He was The Very Reverend D Wayne Love, head minister of the Presleytarian Church of Elvis the Divine. And I think, actually, some people in America really did believe he was a real reverend of sorts. But that was the band’s shtick, if you like. And that was his position. And he was a kind of a musical, semi-comic Jim Jones, if you like.
Alabama 3 song featuring Jake Black portraying his alter ego, The Very Reverend D Wayne Love.
PKM: When you appeared at the Brixton Academy after Jake died, that was the actual death mask of Jake Black onstage, wasn’t it?
Nick Reynolds: It was. I cast his hands and his head, made out of fiberglass and resin. I did a statue of him, which we had onstage on a big riser. And we had him in an armchair, sort of reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial. And all of the tracks he’s normally on, we managed to get [his voice from] all the master tapes from various albums and particularly Exile on Coldharbour Lane. We had the physical presence of him onstage, plus there was video running all the time, excerpts and clips and pictures of him. So, in a sense, even though he wasn’t there alive, he was very much with us onstage.
Alabama 3 at the Brixton Academy in 2019, with the death mask-adorned statue of Jake Black in the background, as well as an homage to him on the screen.
PKM: I realize you’ve done death masks of people who are close to you, such as your father, but had you ever discussed that beforehand with Jake, doing something like that in the event…?
Nick Reynolds: No, not at all! Because none of us expected it. We’d just done a gig. Funny enough, the last gig we did [with Jake], the name of the place was called Highpoint. And it seems quite apt that, basically, Jake died two days after the Highpoint. It’s almost like he decided that he was going to wink out of existence after that one. So no, we had no way of knowing. I mean he’d had pneumonia earlier in the year and he got quite sick and lost a bit of weight. But no, none of us thought it was going to happen. It was a complete, complete shocker. Out of the blue.
PKM: Was the casting of Jake’s death mask more difficult for you than others?
Nick Reynolds: I wouldn’t say it was more difficult, but definitely more poignant and probably sadder than any others. I had a friend of mine, Lisa Petticrew, who was a good friend of Jake’s – she was a violinist that used to play with us, occasionally. I went up to Glasgow to do it and she gave me a hand, which kind of made things a lot easier. Perhaps, it might have hit me harder and it might have been more difficult; I could have possibly been more choked up than normal had I been on my own. Her being there was kind of quite comforting and made a bit of a difference. But the other thing is, I knew, most death masks I do, people never see them – the general public doesn’t. They’re very personal and private things – unless, like Malcolm McLaren’s, they go on the headstone. So, to do one that was purely being made as not only a nod to him, it’s going to be a permanent statue outside… I don’t know if you know, we’ve got a club in Brixton called Jamm. It’s kind of known as one of South London’s best music venues, and it’s where our studio is and it’s where our management are, as well. And it’s going to be outside of Jamm – the statue of Jake.
PKM: You have at least three death masks within Highgate Cemetery in London?
Nick Reynolds: Yes, I do. Over the years I’ve been hoping to try and turn it into my own kind of outdoor gallery. I’ve got a long way to go yet. But I believe that Highgate is the only cemetery in all of England, actually, to have a death mask, let alone three.
PKM: And [Sex Pistols-manager] Malcolm McLaren’s: That came about through synchronicity and some coincidental circumstances.
Nick Reynolds: Oh, you read about that? That was very peculiar. I did a book on the train robbery and I’d made a collage – sort of as a nod to Peter Blake’s Sgt. Pepper’s. Because in England at the time, believe it or not, the train robbers were kind of seen as a kind of criminal version of the Beatles, if you like. Well, not version, but you had the Beatles there, sort of at the top of British charts, and, on the flip side of that, you had the train robbers, who were almost as famous as them for all the wrong reasons.
So, I did this big collage of people that were affected by the train robbery or were part of it. And obviously [train robber] Ronnie Biggs, at one point of his career, was the lead singer of the Sex Pistols. And the [Sex Pistols] film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle would never have been called “The Great” if it hadn’t been for the link to the so-called Great Train Robbery.
The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980)-trailer:
I just happened to be cleaning up before my children came ’round. As I lifted a drawer out, this little piece of paper flitted down. And how it got separated from the collage, how this little one piece escaped and ended up in a drawer, I have no idea. But, anyway, when I picked it up and turned it round. I saw it was Malcolm McLaren. And then I went to the shop next door to get some milk and the front page of all the newspapers: Malcolm McLaren is dead. And then I got home and the phone rang and that was them asking me if I would do his death mask. So there was a weird bit of synchronicity in that one.
PKM: What do you recall about casting Malcolm McLaren’s death mask?
Nick Reynolds: The only thing that particularly stood out about him when I got there – and I don’t know if that has something to do with the standard of embalming in Switzerland – but he looked in great shape. I was quite taken aback by how well he looked – and even happier that he had his trademark sneer on his face, even in death.
PKM: Did you get to speak with Malcolm’s son, Joe Corré, about that? I guess the reason I ask is he didn’t seem to be all that sentimental about the practically priceless Sex Pistols memorabilia that he destroyed on purpose.
Nick Reynolds: Oh, right! That’s a really long story here. I don’t know if you’re aware that he rang me up. I mean, I’m very good friends with Joe now. I wasn’t beforehand, but through the process of doing his dad’s death mask [we became friends]. And then he rang me up and said, “Would you like to help me turn £5 million worth of ashes into an art sculpture?” So, I don’t know if you’re aware of that, but I built a glass coffin with all of the burnt stuff inside and another copy of his dad’s death mask and it’s up for sale for £6 million. He’s made a film about the whole thing. Without giving too much away, you’ll find that things aren’t quite as they appear.
I was quite taken aback by how well he looked – and even happier that he had his trademark sneer on his face, even in death.
I mean, having said that, on the other hand, when you said [Joe] didn’t seem to be that emotional about it all, you have to remember he was absolutely furious when in England the government decided that it was “Punk London” and let’s celebrate, as if this is something England should be proud of, that we had punk – completely missing the point that the whole point of punk was completely against authority, the system, the establishment. And the fact that it just seemed absolutely ridiculous and an anathema and an insult to his dad’s memory, as far as Joe was concerned, and the government wanted to appropriate it. And he said, more or less, at the time, by doing this Punk London thing and celebrating it as something that England should be kind of proud of and trying to capitalize on it now, it basically tarnished the image and legacy of punk and it rendered his collection worthless.
PKM: Did [Great Train Robber] Ronnie Biggs tell you stories about the Sex Pistols?
Nick Reynolds: He told me about the Sex Pistols. But a million other things, as well. I was more intrigued about how [Otto] Skorzeny, Hitler’s poster boy, who rescued Mussolini by glider, how he’d got the plastic surgery for Ron through his network, the ODESSA, which was for repatriating Nazis with new identities and giving them new faces. That’s how Ronnie got his plastic surgery, him and [fellow train robber] Buster Edwards – and it was done through Otto Skorzeny’s surgeons. (Ronnie was just introduced to a surgeon and a couple of Germans; he didn’t really know [their backgrounds, at the time].) Things like that I found a million times more interesting than the Sex Pistols! I used to go out to Brazil [where Biggs lived as a fugitive], quite a lot. I loved Ronnie. He was great company.
I mean, the whole story of how Ron got in the Sex Pistols is another Malcolm McLaren masterpiece, really. [McLaren] just wanted to offend as many people as possible, which was part of his punk ethos. And he obviously realized that [goal] by having Ronnie [record songs with the band] – [Ronnie] who’s constantly making a living in Brazil by waving a Union Jack with a police helmet on and [flashing a] “V” sign. The press would just go over there, “Go on, Ronnie, be a naughty boy, say something cheeky! We’ll give you a few quid, take a picture.” It’d be in the [British] papers – Ronnie enjoying it at everyone’s expense, taking the piss out of the establishment.
PKM: Tell me how you got into film.
Nick Reynolds: It was kind of one of those bucket list things. I always wanted to do the music for a film and I’d always wanted to have a role – even if it’s just a cameo role. It was just kind of one of those things that I thought would be kind of nice on my resume before I shuffle off this mortal coil. And when my dad died, a friend of mine got in touch with me and asked me if I wanted to do the music for Dragonfly.
PKM: I must say, for not being a trained actor you pulled off a credible performance in that film, as well.
Nick Reynolds: Everyone said that to me. My girlfriend watched that last night for the first time, and I haven’t seen it for five, six years. I just think, “I can believe in the film” – and then when I suddenly see me it’s like, “What’s that idiot doing in there?!” And it breaks the spell. But she’s a real film buff and she said I did alright, so I kind of believe her.
PKM: You’re credited as a writer on a couple of films at least. The Bounty Killer: What was your input on the script for that? [The Bounty Killer is a Spaghetti Western-esque movie about a PTSD-haunted, opium-addicted, Civil War vet who’s a bounty hunter in the violent Old West.]
Nick Reynolds: Just dialogue. Dialogue mainly. But I have started writing scripts. I’ve written [one about] Sherlock Holmes in the Wild West. Because, obviously, the time Sherlock Holmes was written it would have been comparative with the end of the [19th] Century, it would have been comparative with the Wild West. And I like it. I’m writing a script at the moment for a horror film, which I’m hoping to direct actually [in 2021]. That will be my first directorial role.
My dad was a good writer. In the later years of his life, if asked what his job description was, he would have considered himself a writer.
the whole story of how Ron got in the Sex Pistols is another Malcolm McLaren masterpiece, really. [McLaren] just wanted to offend as many people as possible, which was part of his punk ethos.
PKM: In addition to the death masks, you’ve done life masks of Mick Jones [of The Clash] and Grace Jones, and a whole body cast of Pete Doherty [of The Libertines, Babyshambles].
Nick Reynolds: Yeah, I did that one of Pete. That was in a church for a while. But that was a pop at the press [given how Doherty was a media target due to his drug use and his relationship with Kate Moss]. A lot of my early art used to be Anti-Media, obviously, because as my dad’s often quoted, “If The Great Train Robbery was Frankenstein’s Monster, then Frankenstein was the media.” The media created the myth of the train robbery by giving it that ridiculous title, The Great Train Robbery. And I have grown up deeply affected by media, obviously. So, when I used to do art for art’s sake, that was my shtick if you like.
Nick Reynolds’ life cast of Pete Doherty hanging overhead within a church, as the two play music together.
I got into the life casts, first, because I was doing abstract art just for the sake of it and I was making one-offs, and I realized if I could find a way to mold my sculptures, I could make multiples. So, I bought a book on mold making, and, in the back of it, it had a few pages on how to make a life mask. And it just totally kind of captivated me. I’d seen the [death] mask of Oliver Cromwell when I was a kid at school. I think it resonated with me, for some reason. I was so fascinated by the idea that you could look at a face that was dead for three hundred years, pre-photography, and there they are. And in the case of Cromwell, as he once famously said to a portrait painter doing his portrait, “I want you to paint me as you see me, warts and all.” And that’s where the saying comes from. And there I was staring at Cromwell’s head, with the warts and everything.
When I saw this thing at the back of this book on how to do it, my dad and me were watching [British gangster] Ronnie Kray‘s funeral on the telly. And I said to my dad, “Look, this is how they do those masks and everything.” And he said, “Well, you should have done Ronnie Kray’s – it might have been worth a few quid to the people who collect Kray memorabilia.” And, at that time, there were a lot of villains writing books, coming out of prison, and becoming household names, which to me seemed like a bit of a paradox: How people that were vilified in the media on the one hand could then suddenly be fêted on the celebrity circuit the next.
But, at the moment, we’re probably 80% of the way through another Sid Vicious [documentary]. We’ve got footage of his last concert – which is like the Holy Grail of punk. Nobody thought any film footage existed.
And so I came up with this concept: Cons to Icons. And I did an exhibition comprised of nine of England’s most infamous living criminals [including life masks of Freddie Foreman, Howard “Mr. Nice” Marks, “Mad” Frankie Fraser, and Peter “Human Fly” Scott]. I said to my dad, “Who is the most famous criminal you can think of that should be in here?” And my dad said his mentor, who was a guy called George “Taters” Chatham. The Guardian described him as the Thief of the Century: He’s estimated to have stolen and gambled away more than a £100 million [pounds]. He was still active in his eighties. And he stole [the Duke of] Wellington’s swords from the Victoria and Albert Museum, among his robberies. He was a real character.
It took me a while to track him down. By the time I did track him down, he was dead. But the sister gave me permission to cast him. He was a curmudgeonly old bastard, actually, quite dour – but when she went and visited him, he had a smile on his face. And she called up: “I’ve just gone to visit my brother, George, and he’s got a smile on his face; I think he must have made his peace with God, so I’m more than happy for you to do a cast of his head.” I didn’t explain to her that was [due to] the fact that he was lying down and the weight from his cheeks, his jowls, as they went south through gravity, it produced this kind of death rictus, if you like. But it certainly wasn’t him smiling because he made his peace with the Lord! And that’s really how I got into doing the death masks.
PKM: What’s on the horizon for you?
Nick Reynolds: I’ve got another two documentaries in process. One of them’s nearly finished: It’s another one on Sid Vicious. Did you see Sad Vacation?
PKM: I did, yes.
Nick Reynolds: That’s not a bad documentary, is it? Did you like that one?
PKM: I did. I thought it presented the story at a decently-moving pace and brought in a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different angles. Same thing with the Brian Jones film [Rolling Stone: Life and Death of Brian Jones]. I was impressed with both of them, actually.
Nick Reynolds: They’re getting better and better. I was happy with Sad Vacation. But I think the Brian Jones thing is the project that I’m proudest of on film media. It’s quite hard to get a name for yourself if you haven’t gone through the regular channels.
But, at the moment, we’re probably 80% of the way through another Sid Vicious [documentary]. We’ve got footage of his last concert – which is like the Holy Grail of punk. Nobody thought any film footage existed. So, that is going into a doc, which we’ve nearly finished. We’ve been working on that, me and Danny – that’s the guy I’ve got a production company with, Danny Garcia, the director. We’ve been working on that throughout Covid, because that’s just a matter of collating. Plus, an awful lot of the stuff we didn’t use for Sad Vacation is going into that. And that’s called Final Curtain. And Danny at the moment is halfway through writing a documentary on Max’s Kansas City – and that’s a great story behind that place. So, I’m going to be pretty busy [in 2021].
I get bored of things very, very quickly, unfortunately. So, I have to constantly be doing things; I have to keep myself busy, so I don’t go into self-destruct mode. And so, it’s a form of self-medicating, I guess, really. I don’t give myself a chance to fall off into the deep end. And because I get bored very, very quickly doing the same thing, I have to constantly find new things to do – even though, I always wind up diving back into the other things I’m doing.
PKM: Referring back to your dad and his “Sistine Chapel” quote about the Great Train Robbery: What do you consider to be your “Sistine Chapel”?
Nick Reynolds: Oh, dear…My children! [Laughs.] I think they’re the best thing that I’ve made so far.
Alabama 3 song “(I’ll Never Be) Satisfied.”