In which our Double Diamond drinking man-in-black dude discovers musical equipment removals, the hard way… drools over some early bass heroes as well as a young acoustic guitar wielding Kirsty MacColl, and finally makes his career choice by swapping guitar for bass…
mid-1973 I had started to become a more serious student of rock music to try to bridge the knowledge gap between myself, Jon Easton - the clued-up bassist of Nuclear Hurricane - and a small but distinctive posse of school attendees I’d increasingly begun to hang around with at Monk’s Hill High who also championed rock music and sneered at such purveyors of saccharine pop as Gilbert O’Sullivan and the Rubettes. I purchased as many books and magazines on my preferred subject as I was able to discover in the high-street bookstores, upped my collection of vinyl and, money allowing, attended as many gigs as possible. My diary for that year reveals that I managed to attend a fair amount of shows but doesn’t record how many paraffin soakings or disturbing hours spent in the company of psychotic Barry each event cost me.
Directly across the road from the Fairfield Halls, situated on Park Lane in central Croydon, was a pub called the Greyhound. This was where the long-haired, alternative-lifestyle contingent of the town congregated to drink beer and listen to records on the pub’s jukebox. As public house jukeboxes went it was a pretty good one. Uninterested in chart hits from the likes of Peters and Lee (remember them? A pair of middle-of-the-road crooners: a good looking blonde sort with a blind side-kick who someone had unkindly dressed up in a polyester tuxedo and velvet bow tie like an organ grinder’s monkey) or the latest table scraps from David Cassidy, the Greyhound’s landlord proudly stocked his jukebox with lots of Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Bowie, Stevie Wonder and an unfeasible Top Ten hit that was a real crowd-pleaser with the Greyhound’s clientele that year - the Edgar Winter Group’s weird and wonderful instrumental, Frankenstein.
Despite being obviously under age, Jon and I would slip in there for a sneaky pint of Double Diamond bitter after school (it was the only beer we could think to order having recalled the jingle from the TV adverts) and always managed to get served without being challenged to reveal our birth dates. As you can see yourselves from the Nuclear Hurricane photo to the right, we looked a lot younger than the mere fifteen years we’d spent on the planet by that stage, so I guess the owner and staff must have had a pretty permissive attitude to underage drinking, or simply just didn’t give a damn.
As well as being a hospitable bar for nascent rockers and juvenile drinkers the Greyhound also put on shows on Sunday evenings in a venue that resided on the top floor of its premises. It had become a kind of bridging gig for bands on the way up who had not yet become big enough to play the more prestigious Fairfield Halls across the road. I became a fairly regular visitor to these ‘musical happenings’, as one of my newly acquired hip acquaintances characterised these events, from ’73 onwards up until the venue’s demise in the early 1980s.
That inaugural year of attendance saw me catch performances from Welsh Prog rockers Man (lacklustre), Nazareth (OK), Amon Düül II (too weird!), Lindisfarne (OK), The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (brilliant!) and two shows from a hard rock band who quickly became a personal favourite of mine, Stray. I used to turn up early on Sunday afternoons to secure myself a front row position and queued-up in the side alley where a set of metallic fire-escape stairs provided the means of reaching the top floor entrance to the venue once it had opened up for the public around 7 pm. On one occasion another friend and I got there daft-early, around 4 pm, just as the Stray crew arrived to unload the equipment from their beautifully road-worn tour truck. We watched as the backline and drum roadies started to haul out the gear, then were swiftly approached by another member of the crew who, in keeping with his compatriots, also had a penchant for greasy long hair and Viva Zapata moustaches, and had enhanced this 1970s universal roadie look with the obligatory beer belly and a pair of hyper-flared jeans that obviously hadn’t been anywhere near a launderette for several months.
“Listen lads, if you give us a hand getting all this gear in and help load out after the show you can stay in the gig for free.”
Despite a strange whiny element to his voice he seemed sincere enough and this money saving proposal was gratefully accepted. My mate and I immediately started to cart the guitar cabinets, instrument cases, PA items and whatever else the crew directed us to remove from the truck up the three flights of stairs while the Stray crew took full advantage of this unanticipated help to lean against their truck, roll and smoke cigarettes and shout out such encouraging words as “Oi! If you bang another guitar case against those steps son I will be forced to shove this mic-stand up your arse!”
The only thing we didn’t get to lift was the sound-desk, as whiny voice, who turned to be the soundman, didn’t trust us enough to handle this extremely expensive, very large, weighty and somewhat unstable piece of equipment. The three official crew members huffed and cursed that particular object up to the venue together while my school friend and I laid down on the stage in a state of near exhaustion, sweating and gasping, having transferred pretty much every other necessary item up there.
But the soundman kept his word and we had the privilege of watching the band’s sound check and then their loud, riff-laden show from a pair of front row seats we hadn’t paid for. So far so good.
We were then obliged to help load out. Stray’s crew once again took advantage of this arrangement to drink some beers and try to pull whatever women happened across the threshold of their eye-lines at the venue’s back bar while we were left to shift the entire lot back down to the truck in the side alley. Having transported everything down there apart from the sound-desk, and noting that the indolent bastards had just ordered up another round of pints, we thought we would have a go at that too.
The desk was the size of a large dining table and the equivalent weight of ten Venessa Feltzes. Most of this burden was located where the level dials and internal electronics were situated to the rear of the desk, which made it difficult to maintain a good balance when in transit. Things were going fairly smoothly up until we started to negotiate the stairs. My friend’s foot slipped on one of the smooth metal rungs, we lost our grip, and it pitched over sideways, then slid face-side-down to the bottom of the stairwell.
“Fuck!” I shrieked.
“Fuck!” my friend echoed back.
“Quickly! Get it right sided before one of Stray crew find out what we’ve done” I insisted, in a voice that must have conveyed every nuance of my extreme panic and shock.
“Fuck!” he reiterated.
We bolted down the steps and lifted the desk on to its side to inspect the damage.
“Fuck!” I shrieked again.
All the fader switches had fallen out and were scattered about the floor like so many pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle that had come without the all important picture guide to indicate where they should fit. We set about re-attaching switches to where we thought they ought to reside, only to discover they mostly wouldn’t fasten to the metal pegs we’d selected. It was during this terrifying attempt to put right the damage we’d caused that we detected the sound of somebody bounding down the stairs.
“Fuck!” we screamed in unison.
It was certain to be one of the crew. Having already had a mic-stand up the anus threatened for the minor misdemeanor of scraping a guitar case against a step we knew that the retribution for this catastrophe would not be pretty. In a blind panic we started forcing fader switches into places they didn’t belong while glancing up the stairs to see which of the three roadies would be the first to kick our young, skinny arses.
It was a moment of profound relief then to see the familiar face of the affable promoter who collected the entrance money off the punters at the door of the venue appear.
“What’s happened here?” he inanely asked as he approached the scene of the crime. I went into a hyperventilated account of how the desk got to be in its evident sorry state. He took pity on us though, signalling me to stop my superfluous explanation.
“I’ve seen enough of these to know roughly where it all goes, so let’s get on with it before they get down here and ritually disembowel you two.”
With his crucial help we managed to get the desk looking reasonable again and heaved it into the truck. With a mere couple of minutes to spare the crew came down and deployed their well practised “Oh lads, you didn’t have to do all that on your own! You silly sods, you should have got us from the bar”, routine. The soundman ominously gave his desk a once over and said, “One of the faders is missing, wonder how that happened?” but then mercifully shrugged his shoulders and asked me what my name was. I answered his question and he advanced the information that his was Dave Flockton. Thankfully, oblivious to the fact we had nearly destroyed one of the fundamental tools of his trade, he then went on to praise our efforts as junior roadies and gave us a can of beer each (no doubt swiped from Stray’s backstage rider) as a reward. Remember that name - Dave Flockton. As these stories develop you will encounter it again.
As well as the Greyhound gigs already listed I caught a bunch more shows at the Fairfield Halls in ’73, and one notable Sunday afternoon took the 68 bus from Croydon to Chalk Farm in North London to see Space Rock purveyors Hawkwind play at a venue that had become popular with the capital’s connoisseurs of underground rock music, The Roundhouse. On Rickenbacker bass was a certain Lemmy Kilmister, who’s growling, highly individual sound I liked a lot. I was also very impressed with their light show and the semi-naked woman with very large breasts called Stacia who wafted about the stage covered in body paint. And the fact that just about everybody else there, apart from me, was stoned out of their melons on some illegal substance.
I had also by this time played my first ever gig with my embryonic school band Nuclear Hurricane. As pledged by the headmaster we were allowed to play a set that consisted of five numbers while the DJ took his break from spinning vinyl at the annual school disco. This occurred in the drama hall where there was a good stage to perform upon, along with some professional theatre lights. We instructed school associate Alan, who also acted as our roadie, to flicker these illuminations on and off in faint imitation of what I’d seen at the Hawkwind show via the puzzling array of buttons on the lighting desk. We’d even managed to borrow a decent bass and guitar amp for the occasion from one of our art teachers who’d played in a fairly popular band called The Zombies in the 1960s. The difference in quality of sound and power between his equipment and our small practice amps was acute.
No one in the band felt confident enough to sing in public so we kept it instrumental. We kicked off with a vocal-free version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’, and, quite magically, and to the sheer glee of each of us up on that stage, the three hundred or so pupils who’d turned up for the event started to dance and jump about to the music we were making.
It was an important moment. If there hadn’t been such a positive reaction, if we’d received their apathy or mockery instead, then I’m pretty sure I would have abandoned my ambition to be a rock musician, returned to football, and perhaps retired from lower division soccer around the year 1994 with knackered knees and scarred shins, having spent the entirety of my career playing in teams with the equivalent modest stature of Leyton Orient. Or, more likely, would have failed to make it to professional level football and ended up making a living in ways that make me tremble just to think about.
Anyway, having finished the Zeppelin cover song we dived into a track that was actually a genuine instrumental piece, the 1960s surfing classic ‘Wipeout’, which was originally recorded by Californian garage band Safaris. Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B.Goode’ followed, then ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones, and we finished off with what seemed like a ridiculously long version of Hawkwind’s improbable hit, ‘Silver Machine’.
We had been a minor success. No bottles or expletives had been hurled our way, no calls to replace us with the DJ’s chart records, no fist fights or threats. Some even came up to offer that they thought we were ‘not bad’, and asked when we were due to play again. I’m positive we were musically fucking awful, but something - our enthusiasm, our audacity, our goofiness? - seemed to connect and it personally gave me a very large confidence boost.
Big enough in fact to start trying to push the band to do more Glam Rock when we reconvened that week to rehearse in the music room at Monk’s Hill High. We’d started playing there after school hours with our very straight but kind and indulgent music teacher Mr. Thomas’ blessing and attracted a few musically inclined students who would hang around and watch us attempt to collectively learn new material. Among them was the immensely talented Kirsty MacColl, who tragically died after being hit by a speedboat while swimming off the coast of Mexico in December 2000. She would bring along her acoustic guitar and offer whatever new song she was working on to try to get us to add it to our repertoire. She was a very attractive, vivacious girl and we were all somewhat in love with her, but her compositions at that time were just too folksy for us. Instead we all individually tried our best to get a date with her, but have to sadly report that none of us managed to succeed in that particular endeavour.
Rehearsing in the school music room, circa 1973. Jon Easton in the foreground, Paul on the drums, and myself in shades literally getting down to play a high lick. Click image to enlarge...
Eventually, my persistence in pushing Glam Rock material garnered results and I got the band to add two T. Rex songs to the set. John, the rhythm guitarist departed, and we became a three piece. I even, thankfully, got the name of the band changed. I wanted us to be called The Electric Warriors, for obvious reasons, but after fraught negotiations with Jon settled for Warlord instead.
Warlord, circa 1973. Myself, with dark shades, ripping off a Marc Bolan move while Paul Coe on drums looks on and Alan, the roadie, keeps a watchful eye from above. Click image to enlarge...
1973 transmuted to 1974 and Warlord got to play that year’s school disco by direct invitation of the DJ who, for reasons unfathomable, thought we deserved another shot at playing for an audience. We received a similarly positive response to the one we’d harvested the year before and my self-belief increased another notch. Our drummer Paul was really into the legendary jazz skin-beater Buddy Rich. Paul was very, very good and via the two shows we had played with him had become pretty much the star of the band. When we got in difficulties during a song I would turn to Paul and nod, and he would always fill in with an amazing spontaneous drum solo until the rest of us had sorted ourselves out and were ready to start playing again. But the problem for Jon and I was that he just wasn’t rock enough. He didn’t play with his sticks in the palms of his hands like the drummers we’d seen at gigs, but between his fingers in the jazz style, and didn’t hit the skins with the power and conviction we thought a rock drummer should be capable of. I therefore invited a young black percussionist who was in the year below us at school and who also happened to live on the Monk’s Hill council estate to be his replacement.
Chris Taylor looked and played great. He had one of those cool 1970s Afro hairstyles and conducted himself on his drum kit in the required manner. We did a lot of rehearsing with Chris and played one lunch-time show together as Warlord at a church hall not too far from where we lived. Unfortunately our set was cut short when the church’s vicar burst in and demanded we “put an end to the infernal racket that has upset so many in this neighbourhood and has ruined my Sunday lunch” - that’s an accurate quote by the way, recorded in and reproduced from my diary.
Chris Taylor went on to be the drummer of the highly successful band Roachford, who had a string of hit albums and singles in the late 1980s and 1990s. I knew then he was destined for better things.
The tensions between Jon and I increased. I kept wanting to do more Alice Cooper and Mott The Hoople, and he kept wanting to do more Genesis and Yes. Glam versus Prog. I split from the band just before attending six-form at a school no more than a ten minute walk from Monk’s Hill High, John Newnham Comprehensive. I’d somehow managed to get four top grade O-levels, and three decent CSE grades in the final year exams, and my father kind of talked me into going to six-form to attain A-levels with a view to attending university thereafter. But it didn’t work out like that.
I’d met some musically like-minded teenage wannabes over the course of going to some shows in ’74 at the Greyhound. At a Pink Fairies’ gig (great anarchist garage rock band, one of the loudest shows I’ve ever been to) I got talking in the bar with a guitarist, Steve Crittal, who played a real Fender telecaster and knew a good drummer who was also into Mott and Alice. At a Groundhogs performance I then ran into a keyboard player, Mel Wesson, who revered the same records and, more importantly, loved the New York Dolls.
The New York Dolls had become a very divisive issue.
I’d caught them when they appeared on the BBC in the late night progressive music series The Old Grey Whistle Test, a must-see weekly item that had exposed me to a lot of new groups. Despite TV presenter Bob Harris’ facetious ‘mock rock’ insult, I thought they looked and sounded incredible and made a point of purchasing their single ‘Jet Boy’ and debut album that same week. When I’d mentioned I liked T. Rex or the Dolls at a party, or if socialising with people at a gig, Jon Easton used to positively cringe and accuse me of having pitiable taste. Mel, on the other hand, shared my enthusiasm for both these bands and we put together a group with the New York Dolls as our template. Guitarist Steve and his drummer mate Nick were contacted and added to the line-up, but we lacked a bass player.
Bass players were an extremely hard commodity to unearth in Croydon in 1974. I knew of just one, Algy Ward, who went to my six-form school, and who I often would run into while attending gigs at the Greyhound. I tried to recruit him but he’d already started playing with an established semi-professional band and politely declined - Algy of course would end up playing bass with The Saints, The Damned and his own three-piece rock band, Tank.
There were a fair few lead guitarists, drummers and front-men/singers about though, all positions considered far more glamorous than that of bassist. The bass player was customarily the guy who stood unanimated, gazing at his shoes while playing his instrument up around his neck like some fucking guitar shaped bow tie at the rear of the stage. The runt of the litter. But I’d seen Mott’s extrovert bassist Overend Watts and had caught a band called UFO at the Roundhouse. UFO possessed a bass player named Pete Way, a cool looking rocker who prowled about the stage with his Gibson Thunderbird slung low and who threw some great shapes.
With these two in mind I eventually agreed to switch to bass. I figured Steve was a much better lead guitarist anyway and didn’t want to end up just filling in on rhythm. I’d got a summer job that year at my dad’s factory packing paper products from 8 am to 5 pm for the remarkable sum of £16.50 per week. On the strength of this impressive wage I got myself a second-hand Fender bass cabinet and a H & H 100 watt bass amp on HP from a music store that became a kind of Mecca for Croydon rock musicians, Rock Bottom. I had also spotted a Korean Rickenbacker copy bass in the window of a pawn shop close to the factory where I worked. After borrowing the £50 required to attain it from a work colleague I purchased this reasonable if not top-quality instrument along with a hard case for its protection for a fiver, and in so doing become a bass guitarist.
We decided to call ourselves Marionette (see pictures right), after the title of a song by Mott on their latest album, ‘The Hoople’. We rehearsed in Mel’s bedroom in Thornton Heath, a part of Croydon where people actually owned the homes they lived in and whose residents predominately fitted the white, middle-class, suburbanite profile. Eventually Steve and Nick moved on: Steve Crittal much later played with Pauline Black’s Ska outfit Selecter, and Nick King drummed for some years with the left wing 1980s band, The Redskins. They were promptly replaced by Simon on drums, Paul on guitar and, to front the band, a camp, high-voiced singer, Mick Sheldon, was invited to join… Queen had just started to break big with their album ‘Sheer Heart Attack’, and camp, high-voiced singers were all the rage!
I had swapped guitar for bass, founded a band of compatible aspiring musicians and had even lost my virginity to a 24 year-old curvaceous secretary I’d met at the Greyhound that year who was employed at the Home Office, which had relocated its administrative centre from Westminster to Croydon. I was really enjoying my sixteenth year of living, but just as things seemed to be going my way I got kicked out of school and had to abruptly face up to the challenges of living in the harsh work-a-day world.
My struggle to achieve the ambition of one day being a professional musician was about to get substantially harder.
Tune in next time for...
Alvin's further exploration of the pleasures of music, his discovery of Raw Power, roots reggae and how going AWOL from 6th form worked out for the best, despite briefly having to get up early in the morning...