Extensive rehearsals (mainly at either the Brighton Boys’ Club, a Portslade pub called The Clarence or in the ruins of Goring Castle) ensued. The local press memorably dubbed them “the band behind closed doors”, but in the spring of 1966 the Span emerged to claim their share of the local spotlight at the dingy Chatsfield Hotel in Brighton. However, any sense of euphoria was quickly and cruelly shattered: tripping on LSD, guitarist Langham fell to his death after leaping through an upstairs window. The band were left in a profound state of shock; despite the blandishments of the encroaching psychedelic era, the Mike Stuart Span subsequently became a resolutely drug-free zone.
Langham's death left the Span without a guitarist, and for a while they elected not to replace him. Despite this self-imposed handicap, the band cut an audition acetate for EMI Columbia that coupled Stuart Hobday's 'Workout' with a version of the Drifters 'Follow Me'. Stuart Hobday: “I wrote ‘Workout’ because there were a number of R&B-type dance songs around, all of which originated in America. I thought that we ought to be able to have one of our own. By now we’d come down to a six-piece with brass (Gary Parsley on trumpet and Dave Plumb on saxophone), and manager Mike Clayton was trying to secure a recording contract for the group with Columbia. He introduced us to the Drifters song ‘Follow Me’, and we recorded this as a demo along with ‘Workout’. I can’t be certain, but I believe that it was recorded at a CBS-owned demo studio in Regent Street. I can remember thinking at the time that it was strange that we should be recording something for one record company in a studio owned by another! The acetate was heard by EMI staff producer Bob Barratt, who promptly turned it down. The contract with Columbia came from another EMI producer, Dave Paramor (nephew of Norrie Paramor).”
However, it was another Drifters number, 'Come On Over To Our Place', that was selected as the A-side of the band's November 1966 debut single for Columbia, with the arguably superior Hobday composition 'Still Nights' – a groovy slice of mod-soul pop - on the flip. Despite the band plugging the single at their live performances (including a January 1967 gig at the prestigious Marquee), the release failed to attract too much attention at the time, although ‘Still Nights’ did subsequently acquire something of a reputation on the Northern Soul circuit.
Back in Brighton, the Span set up their own Blues Club at the Hare & Hounds
pub, where they played host to the likes of the Artwoods and Champion Jack
Dupree, with the latter backed by Roger McCabe and Gary Murphy. They also
cut a second single for EMI. Released in June 1967, the group’s rendition of
an otherwise unissued Cat Stevens song, Dear’ (supported by a strong version
of Mike D'Abo's 'Invitation'), fared no better than their debut single, and EMI
decided to drop the band.
Losing the support of EMI forced the Span to take artistic stock, and their immediate response was to dismiss the increasingly anachronistic horns section, with keyboardist Poulter also departing shortly afterwards. An advertisement in Melody Maker brought
forward guitarist Brian Bennett, who had previously been a member of Tony's Defenders (as had drummer Roger Siggery, by this stage wielding the sticks for Jason Crest - an outfit whose career would subsequently progress with uncanny similarities to the Span's). The new guitarist’s fierce but fluid style accelerated the transition from soul to rock, with American soul chestnuts giving way to Cream and Hendrix covers that were bolstered by a quantum leap in the quality of the band's self-penned material, which both lyrically and instrumentally reflected the new cultural backdrop provided by the burgeoning Summer of Love.
With a line-up of Stuart Hobday (vocals), Brian Bennett (guitar), Roger McCabe (bass) and Gary Murphy (drums), the revised, revitalised Mike Stuart Span played their first gig on the final day of September 1967 to a rapturous reception. The new combination rapidly became a popular live attraction, no doubt aided by manager Clayton's links with a London booking agency. However, the previous incarnation of the Span had also boasted a hectic live schedule, and healthy attendances hadn't translated into sales figures for the accompanying vinyl product. With this in mind, the band paid more attention than before to the importance of studio work, starting with an October 1967 session at Decca with Dave Paramor, who had produced their EMI singles (Paramor had also worked extensively with Simon Dupree & the Big Sound, who had been one of the Span's main rivals on the South Coast soul scene). Three tracks were laid down: a slowed-down, Fudged-up version of the Fontella Bass hit 'Rescue Me', the magnificent Murphy/Bennett original 'Second Production' and, perhaps most intriguingly of all, a mysterious instrumental (long since lost, sadly) that was christened 'As Close As We Can Get It' due to Paramor's insistence that the track should last exactly two and a half minutes! Inexplicably, Decca decided that the recordings were insufficiently commercial and declined to pursue their interest in the band..