Chapter 6: A strange hobby
I wanted a hobby or skill that would be an acceptable substitute with peers for being good at sport. At Christmas 1963 I was given my first guitar. Dad was manager of a music shop by this time and had managed to get hold of a stunning little sunburst number with a white scratch plate, made in Czechoslovakia. At that time they cost about £5 new (a £5 Czech?). I had a second hand one because Dad said the wood has had a chance to mature and this improves the tone.
I tried to tune the guitar to our piano. This was not a good move. The tension of the strings was too much for the glue holding the neck to the body. It pulled the neck away at the join, with the result that the action, or the distance between the strings and the neck, became very high and tore my fingers to ribbons. Because I couldn't tune the guitar to concert pitch, I was unable to play along with records. I looked at some sheet music but didn't know that the keys bore no relation to what was played on the record. For example, the music for Buddy Holly songs was written in F, although Philip Norman in his biography of Buddy describes playing along to a record in A - he had a posher guitar which could take the tuning. A friend and I pooled money and bought the music for Poison Ivy; it was in E flat. How we struggled to get our fingers round those chords. What a joke. The publishers were producing music for alto sax bands, not guitarists.
I wanted to learn quickly. I asked other kids with record collections to write down the words for me and began the guitar players at school to add the chords of Sweets for my Sweet etc. The trouble was that the guitarists were not my contemporaries. They were all older like Alan Cowderoy (who was later a boss at Stiff Records) or younger like Barry McCann (who was later a boss at EMI records), and dialogue across year groups was difficult. Another guitarist I cornered a couple of times was Robin Arzonni, who pursued his own path and played finger style. I saw him on TV years later playing fiddle with The New Deal String Band and later still met him at The Stanford Arms folk club in Brighton. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
I used to visit Dad in his shop on a Saturday afternoon. The record counter was run by Jed Kearse, who professed to despise most of what he was selling (nothing changes. He played jazz constantly which, like classical music, I considered to be parents' music. If I mentioned Manfred Mann, he said they were better playing jazz as the Mann-Hugg Blues Brothers. If I raised Lord Sutch, Jed said that Sutch's band were better than he was and that they had been Cyril Davies All Stars before he had died. I didn't mind that. Cyril had a great EP called Country line special (was it Nicky Hopkins or Johnny Parker from Bad Penny Blues on piano?). This had featured on a neat TV programme of old films accompanying current records, which went out just before 9 o'clock on Wednesdays and was called Take Four. Jed said that Georgie Fame (I preferred Zoot Money) was all right, because he despised his audiences. Once I asked Jed to play me Can't buy me love. He asked if I wanted the Ella version. 'Nuff said.
Ready, Steady, Go had begun on TV by this time. It was compulsory viewing for us all each Friday. Over the period of its existence, all the major acts of the time were featured. Unlike its later copy, Top of the Pops, acts were not exclusively pop. Donovan began there, and Jimmy Reed mimed and Sonny Boy Williamson played 'live'. Later the whole show went 'live' with some great performances by The Everly Brothers (a superb medley of old hits which, with their hit The price of love, showed it was too soon to write them off), Jerry Lee Lewis, The Animals and The Rolling Stones. Performances by the more studio produced groups like The Byrds and The Beach Boys were disappointing, but this may have been due to the technical limitations of television.
There was a youth club in Aldershot. They frequently had 'live' groups. The best were The Condors. The first time we were to hear them, a friend said anxiously that he hoped they were a vocal group - most were still instrumental at that time. The Condors weren't and they played a range of material from The Undertakers' Mashed Potato and Just a little bit through Peter Gunn and The Stones Walkin' the dog and Route 66 which they played the day after that first LP came out, to The Wedding which was later to be a hit for Julie Rogers. As well as being very visual, with lots of jumping up in unison, they had a sax player, and interspersed their act with Alan Freeman's Pick of the Pops theme The sign of the swinging cymbal. They were an inspiration, playing our youth club with no concessions on stage clothes - we got the lot.
The R&B craze was really sweeping the country by this time. The group which I might have joined (if the parents had said 'yes'), was called the R&B Sect which was just one of the many names based on this musical categorisation. At parties we didn't dance much to the singles so beloved nowadays by DJs on '60s radio programmes and school PTA nights. Then we danced to the whole side of an LP. After initial dabblings with With the Beatles and the first Stones LP, our favourites were the Pye Golden Guinea LP This is R&B which was the first exposure for most of us to the magnificent 50s Chess recordings of Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf etc. Pye launched their distinctive yellow and red International R&B label, especially to release this material. Listening to these tracks even now is a thrill, especially when you consider that they were made at about the same time as the horrendously over-exposed Rock around the clock. If discos are asked to play rock 'n' roll today, that's the record they always have. Why, when there was so much which was meatier? Little Richard's Good golly Miss Molly should be compulsory for all such DJs. I reserve special dislike for the tone of the Comets' electric guitar (sadly many of Elvis Presley's songs were saddled with the same sound) and the fiddly solo, which Geoff Whitehorn was able to parody for me so well when I came to record my flop Side by side years later. Other ok LPs were those of The Animals, The Yardbirds and John Mayall Live at Klooks Kleek.
One of the primary constituents of R&B is a wailing harmonica and this fact triggered off a massive craze for harmonicas. I had had certain previous experience of the instrument, but this did not seem to have benefited me when it came to R&B. I bought a `G' harmonica and for days attempted without any success to produce a noise sounding even remotely like Little Walter. By this time there were even clusters of lads in the locker room at school all wailing away during 'breaks'. I was itching to get in on this musicians' collective, but knew that Catch a Falling Star would not go very far towards securing entry. I could manage Love me do but did not like to ask what I was doing wrong with blues.
An opportunity to learn presented itself when I travelled home on the train with one of the wailers. The secret, he told me was ... "you do not blow, you suck and 'bend' the notes". I immediately tried this with my G Harmonica. There it was - not very good, but definitely there. He said I needed an Echo Super Vamper in `C' and the one I had was no good for blues. I obtained an Echo De Luxe which was cheaper than a Super Vamper, and suddenly I was there riffing with the chaps at break. It must have driven the supervising masters mad for the couple of months the craze lasted, to hear six or seven groups of boys playing the harmonica part to Hoochie coochie man, or I should have known better all out of time.
I saw a photograph of Bob Dylan playing guitar and harmonica at the same time and determined that a harmonica harness was the next item on my agenda. When I asked Dad in his shop for what I wanted he asked to see the photograph then did not stop making enquiries until he got one from the sole UK manufacturer (whose main business was making vacuum cleaners). It cost 28/6d which was a small fortune at a time when Super Vampers cost only 11/3d. It was not long before I heard my first Dylan record and I was saved from despair when I realised that I could return my limited harmonica technique to blowing. On two successive Saturdays, BBC transmitted a Bob Dylan concert which he recorded in Edinburgh. A friend taped the broadcast (few of us had tape recorders) and kindly transcribed for me some lyrics. No one else had a harmonica harness although some tried unsuccessfully to make them from wire coat hangers, especially when Donovan subsequently appeared on the scene. It therefore seemed an ideal opportunity to begin gigging. I began playing between the two groups who played at dances in those days, to give them a chance to clear the stage and set up the new equipment.
With a friend for support, I busked while hitch-hiking around Europe for a few weeks. The harmonica harness was a huge success.
Thus were the foundations laid for a varied musical career. As a friend said to me recently, most of us were followers in those days. Our originality came in our choice of source material, rather than from original song writing. I wrote and performed a couple of protest-type numbers at the time, but they were similarly derivative …
It was now that I began to hear 'name' bands at local venues. It was now that I began to attend 'real' band dates. At Aldershot's Central Ballroom I saw The Druids, who were a very good Wiltshire R&B band and The Wild Angels (not the later Rock 'n' Roll revival band of the same name). A friend used to help promote events in a former cinema in Weybridge. Through him I got to see Jeff Beck's old band The Tridents - a terrific band who played a great version of Willy Dixon's I wants to be loved and made clever use of feedback particularly on Bo Diddley's Nursery Rhyme.
I joined the Ricky Tick Club in Guildford and at last was able to see The Who. My musical tastes had been somewhat mercurial. I'd tired of The Beatles by about the time of A hard day's night. My liking for R&B had not disappeared, but The Stones seemed to have mellowed with their second album and I still craved excitement in the music I listened to. The Who offered this and by the time I saw them, had just released My generation. It was a little disappointing to see Viv Prince from The Pretty Things on drums, as Keith Moon was said to be unwell. Viv still managed to thrash over a cymbal stand, which Roger Daltrey picked up and restored while he was singing. That was about all that was destructive in the act, I was pleased to note, although one of Pete Townshend's twin Marshall amplifiers had a Union Jack which failed totally to obscure a tear underneath in the speaker cloth. I stood in front of Pete and was aware of hearing only indistinctly as my ears were singing; they did so for some time afterwards. It was a great performance which surprised me by opening with Dancing in the street. I needn't have worried. When the instrumental break came, Pete Townshend turned to the twin Marshall stacks behind him, with the twin lead going from his guitar, cranked up the volume and produced amazing feedback sounds by rubbing his torso artistically against the speakers. The set also included Man with money, Daddy rolling stone and the afore-mentioned My generation. The support band The (just got to be) Herd also played a good set, of which I recall only I like it like that. I returned next week on Boxing Day to see Zoot Money's Big Roll Band who were quite a contrast. They seemed older and more musical, but I already had a liking for their repertoire of Jimmy Smith, Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett numbers; Zoot was a good showman and had a great voice too (I'm sorry I don't remember any support act).
By 1967, I was playing in a dance band. Television was a pre-gig ritual on a Saturday night. One good show was that of Simon Dee. For all that he appeared like a twit, he was responsible for introducing some great acts of the time. I'm thinking of Tim Rose, Tom Rush, Billy Stewart, J J Jackson, Jose Feliciano, Roy Harper, Nina Simone and others. Once they had Spike Milligan on piano teamed with the front line from The Bull's Head at Barnes, including Ronnie Ross on baritone sax. The show also included the only television appearance that I saw, by a group singing The Beatles' Oh bla di. They were called Spectrum and the bass player was one Tony Atkins, who I was to meet a number of times in the 1970s in his capacity of record producer.
I had a teeth job in hospital (they used to look even worse). The school boy in the next bed was certain from his reading of music papers, that a band called Pink Floyd were going to be big. Soon after, in March 1967, I went to see Pink Floyd play at The Agincourt, Camberley.
Pink Floyd were supported by Sky, the re-named Condors from way back, who were still playing good covers (Otis Redding by now) but, in the middle of their set, they blew it for me by playing Cliff and the Shadows' In the country. I don't know what Pink Floyd must have made of it all if it penetrated their between sets recreation. It was a strange evening. There was a disparate crowd of less than forty of us, of whom perhaps a dozen were from Sandhurst, the training school for army officers, which was over the road. They were very jolly with their blazers and ties and well-dressed lady friends, and danced holding hands in a big circle to some of Sky's numbers. Pink Floyd seemed to go down less well with them, and the crowd was reduced in size by their absence in the second set.
Pink Floyd were incredibly loud. Their drummer had a double bass drum kit which he played with timpani beaters. He was still inaudible. I'd thought The Who were loud, but this took the biscuit. The excitement was augmented by their novel light show. One extended number would feature flashing coloured lights, placed around the stage. The next would feature blobs of colour exploding over the almost static, fur-coated, bespectacled Syd Barrett, shaking his bowed, fuzzy-haired head from side to side over his guitar. The lighting effect was created by two people at the back of the hall. I watched them insert slides containing what looked like splodges of oil paint into a projector, and then heat them with a Bunsen burner. They had two such projectors, which enabled them to rotate them with the stage lighting. An amazing evening which seemed in some way historic. I asked the cloakroom staff for the poster - they seemed glad it was all over. I remember only Candy and a currant bun from the evening, but, when it was released, I bought Arnold Layne (now he had a strange hobby).
I went with a friend to Paris and lived on red wine, gruyère and our guitars for a couple of weeks. We stayed in Rue Moufetard, with American, Hungarian and other students. We witnessed that year's initiation ceremonies for new university students in the Jardins de Luxembourg. It was all very good-humoured, with the police watching amused as the "freshers" (bizoux?) were made to walk in squat position with hands joined backwards, between their legs, to the next in line. Those who broke the chain had to do press-ups and eat raw carrots. The seniors wore white lab. coats with a red, winged phallic symbol on the back. At the finish, all the 'bizoux' stood facing outwards on the rim of the main fountain. At a whistled signal, the seniors ran with the speed of light around the rim, pushing them in. One swam to the centre and, with great tenacity, blocked the fountain with carrots. They erupted with a might 'phut' in due course. I later wondered how many of those we saw that day were hurling torn-up cobbles only seven months later the following May as Europe teetered on the brink of student revolution.
Copyright © John Scott Cree 2001
Click here for Chapter 7: "Summer of love"
Back to Homepage