In which the gong is banged, further awakening our adolescent hero to the GLAMorous world of rock music. The young Gibbs also gets his first record, record player, guitar and band.
He witnesses his first gig, chooses MM & NME and is caught up in a nuclear hurricane!
life-changing, aspirational episodes go, catching Marc Bolan and T. Rex performing Get It On, on Top of The Pops, was perhaps the most important on that metaphorical long march I’d embarked on to reach the singular destination of a professional career in rock music.
Having reached the age of thirteen at the dawn of a new decade, football remained my primary passion, but I’d also retained an active interest in popular music and had slowly become enamoured with the overt theatricality of sound, dress and performance that a number of early 1970s bands were beginning to adopt. This ascending phenomenon had been awarded the suggestive genre title ‘Glam Rock’ by the media, and as I embarked on my teenage years Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, The Sweet, Slade, Alice Cooper and David Bowie each provided the captivating noise which in due course became the radio and TV soundtracks to that awkward, vulnerable state of being that was being hormonally conferred on me by the onset of adolescence.
Glam Rock’s fashion-sense and resonance was excessive, flashy, shameless and fun. But for me, the apotheosis of this emerging, entertaining ultra-dandyism appeared on my family’s television screen on a very significant Thursday evening in 1971.
“Well you’re dirty and sweet, clad in black…” Bolan delivered his evocative Ladbroke Grove poetry into a microphone, wearing wide-lapelled silver lamé jacket and salmon-pink strides. As well as general make-up he had applied lines of glitter dust above each cheekbone. Wild corkscrew hair, pouting, strutting and flinging around his Gibson Flying-V axe, he was the personification of ‘otherness’ enlarged and consecrated. He was the detonation of 1970s Technicolor (quite literally, as we had only just acquired a colour TV) that would finally annihilate any lingering greyness from the decade into which I’d been born.
Working their instruments on his left was Bolan’s backing group of animated young men, each evidently cut from the same extravagant cloth as their singer - an effusive modification of the male Regency Peacock look of the 1960s for hip malchicks of a brand new age. Around them, dancing enthusiastically to the bass heavy pulse of the music was an array of mostly good looking women wearing Hot Pants and other body-enhancing garments, all conducive to attracting the admiration of a boy reaching puberty.
Below: Bolan's TOTP performance
It was an epiphany: the immediate, if illogical, understanding that I must get seriously involved in this form of music in an active way. After the broadcast had finished, with the chorus to “Get It On” still rotating around my head, I went and sat in the garden away from the noise of the household and sought to formulate a plan that would exchange my fantasies of a career in football for a professional entrée into that mysterious but alluring realm that the likes of Bolan and Bowie were beginning to dominate.
There were some obvious drawbacks to this insane idea of course. Not least the regrettable fact that I couldn’t play a musical instrument of any kind, that my singing voice was no more than mediocre, and that there were no traditions of musicality in the Gibbs’ family what-so-ever. Although my father would occasionally play his Glen Miller records and my mother likewise spun her Amelia Rodriguez (the late queen of traditional Portuguese ‘O-fado’ music) LPs on the turntable for a nostalgic listen, neither of my parents could/can whistle a song in tune, keep regular time, nor possess any talent when it comes to the domain of music. But imbued with that wonderful blend of naiveté and optimism that is a natural component of the young, I dismissed this detail as a minor hurdle and set about educating myself more fully in what was going on in this fresh sphere that I now desperately wanted to infiltrate.
To this end I shocked my parents by asking for an album as a gift for my fourteenth birthday rather than new soccer boots or some other anticipated item of football-related paraphernalia. Still surprised, but content to oblige, my father took me to our local record store where I picked out my first piece of vinyl: the debut LP by T. Rex - 'Electric Warrior'… I still think that’s a killer album title.
When we returned home I literally ran to the turntable, slipped the disc out of its sleeve and hungrily dropped the needle onto track one. Mambo Sun’s percussive intro throbbed through the speakers and I was in. Engrossed, mesmerised, euphoric, I played Side 1 of the album, then Side 2, then Side 1 again, then Side 2 again, then attempted to play Side 1 yet again, but was foiled by my father who jerked the record player’s mains’ plug from the wall and growled “OK, enough of that hippy stuff, I want to watch the news on TV now.”
The Vietnam War had begun to favour the North Vietnamese and he had taken to obsessively watching the news reports to check on their progress and America’s increasingly desperate attempts to halt the Vietcong’s advance on Saigon.
I argued the case for just one more play through, but he wouldn’t relent. In order then to play my precious album and any future record acquisitions whenever I wanted - thus circumventing my father’s compulsive need to witness the unfolding military humiliation of the United States in South-East Asia - that following week I bought a somewhat beat-up but fully working Dansette portable record player from a school friend for £5. The money had been earned and saved from delivering paraffin heating fuel door-to-door in the assortment of containers offered by customers immediately after I’d finished playing whatever game of football for Warren Wanderers on Sunday mornings. My job was to take these receptacles from the clientele and fill them from a nozzle attached to an Esso-Blue tanker lorry driven by a very creepy fucker called Barry.
Barry was just the sort of person you didn’t want in charge of a vehicle carrying large quantities of highly inflammable liquid: a middle-aged weirdo who insisted on sharing in graphic detail his various suicide attempts, his depressing sadomasochistic sex experiences, and who claimed he regularly received disturbing telepathic messages from a supernatural entity called Mephistopheles, who Barry confided was the ‘Scythe of Satan’.
Having then filled these vessels with the odorous stuff, I would carry them back to the customers, move on to the next house, and repeat. This went on from 11 a.m. to 9.30 p.m. in the evening. By the time I’d finished my shift, for which unhinged Barry reluctantly paid me the sum of 70 new pence and which got rounded up to about £1 in total thanks to tips from the wealthier customers, my reeking clothes had absorbed so much of the paraffin that a stray spark from a match, cigarette or similar combustible might have seriously transformed me into a human torch. Still, the work provided the resource for buying more records and funded the second part of my educational plan - purchase of the weekly music press.
Titles such as Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Sounds and New Musical Express (N.M.E.) were available in most newsagents and provided all the up-to-date gig information, reviews, interviews and commentary for those interested in popular music. I saw them as a means to fully acquaint myself with what was happening in the contemporary music world and eventually decided to get my weekly fix from Melody Maker and the N.M.E. exclusively for both reason of economy and because they were in my estimation the best of the bunch. In the pages of these two publications I discovered bands that I had never heard of before. Led Zeppelin, Yes, Hawkwind, The Groundhogs, Grateful Dead, U.F.O, Humble Pie, Stray, The Edgar Broughton Band, along with other mysterious outfits that were part of what was sometimes referred to in articles as ‘the Underground Scene’.
I quickly sussed there was a clear distinction between the consciously marketed and commercially minded bands that I liked at that time - T. Rex, Slade, Roxy Music, etc - and this subdivision of groups and solo artists who eschewed the mainstream and courted an audience with unconventional musical tastes, anti-establishment politics and a loose sartorial style that social commentators had taken to calling the ‘Counter Culture’.
I’d noticed that another pupil in my class at school also routinely bought the weekly music journals. His name was Jon Easton. We had not had much dealings before as I had tended to hang out with the more skinhead, suede-head, into football type of people at Monk’s Hill High. Although my admiration of George Best meant that I had started to grow my hair longer, I’d also had a suede cut for a while and out of school uniform wore Ben Sherman shirts, Stay Press strides, Loafer shoe, Tonic jackets and trousers, and the obligatory Crombie overcoat in the cold months with a red silk handkerchief neatly pressed into its outer chest pocket. A very smart, post-Mod look.
Jon, on the other hand, had perennially greasy shoulder-length hair, a liking for flared denim jeans and cheese-cloth shirts, and walked around with a pair of white sneakers on his feet that were so filthy and threadbare that even a barefoot vagrant on a snow-ravaged December day would have scornfully refused them if offered. These were not the sort of clothes that anyone on my council estate aspired to wear, but I recognised they were closer in style to what was generally seen in photos of the so called ‘Progressive Rock’ bands when featured in the music press.
I managed to activate a conversation with him one lunch break after I’d noted he was reading a piece about Marc Bolan in the N.M.E:
“Like T. Rex?” I asked.
“Nah, not much, too commercial for my tastes”, he replied.
“What bands do you like then?”
By the time he’d finished answering I’d wished I’d never proffered the question. A long list of groups that I had no idea even existed tumbled from his mouth. I felt like the novice I was, but was thankful I at least knew a little about one of the bands he’d mentioned.
Focus were a Dutch Prog Rock outfit that had charted with two novel singles: ‘Hocus Pocus’ was a highly eccentric, ramming-speed, piece of rock music that featured yodelling, whistling, drum solos and the incendiary riffing of ace guitarist, Jan Akerman. As a contrast to this mad, frantic five-minute opus, they had followed up with an exceptionally catchy and melodic instrumental offering entitled ‘Sylvia’.
“Well, I know a bit about Focus”, I gingerly offered. “Their guitarist is really good… and I like ‘Hocus Pocus’.”
“How about going to see them play then?” he asked.
They were due to perform at the Fairfield Halls (a theatre in the heart of Croydon that seated about fifteen-hundred punters) that coming Thursday. Jon said he would get the tickets ahead of time and I could pay for mine when we met up at the venue for the show.
“OK”, I said, “Why not?”
Below: Focus play 'Sylvia' and 'Hocus Pocus'
Seeing and hearing a rock band in the flesh for the first time is an indelible experience. Jon and I immediately took our seats in the theatre on arrival and checked out the view. All that hardware up on that stage looked pretty sexy to us. A wall of guitar cabinets and corresponding amp heads - each in possession of a ruby halo manufactured by their red standby lights; a vast drum kit with polished cymbals that functioned as reflective prisms for the podium lighting; the bass rig, a dark monolith, the generator of subsonic largesse that solemnly awaited owner and instrument to incite its power; yodeller extraordinaire Thijs Van-Leer’s assortment of keyboards that were shrewdly arranged like a small fortress; and those mountainous towers of matt-black P.A. speaker-boxes that dominated the margins of the rostrum.
The lights dimmed, the band filed on to the stage to the sound of the audience voicing their united approval, and as the music filled the auditorium my predominant thought was how great the bass guitar physically felt as the low notes pounded against my chest and its palpable authority rattled the theatre seats. To be candid, some of Focus’ music was not much to my liking. There were compositions that were too lengthy, too ponderous and indulgent for my tastes, not at all like the Glam Rock stuff I was into. But I appreciated the fine musicianship and happily joined Jon and the rest of the audience to cheer and clap them back for an encore, which much to our satisfaction comprised an amazing mad-fast version of ‘Hocus Pocus’, followed by a melodious rendition of ‘Sylvia’.
I had been to my first rock concert. The year was 1973 and I had just turned fifteen. Having now drunk from the well - I had come away with an even greater thirst for more.
Jon and I became good friends. We started to hangout at school and spent our lunch breaks and after school hours talking about rock music, discussed the merits and failings of various bands, made plans to see other gigs and visited the Croydon record stores together to pick up new vinyl.
A few days after the premiere rock show of my life, one school afternoon, Jon casually revealed that his parents had bought him an electric bass guitar and a small ten-watt practice amplifier as a Christmas gift. “Shit”, I responded, “I got a chess set!” He also heedlessly let slip the fact that he could also play a six-string and that a super-cheap but playable acoustic guitar leaned against one of his bedroom walls alongside his new bass at home. These revelations were the catalysts for a simple equation that instantly appeared in my mind…
Jon’s new bass = Jon on bass guitar + his six string and knowledge of music = the necessary instrument and teacher for my learning guitar + his amplifier = the foundations of our own future rock band.
Not exactly E=mc², but in regards to my personal destiny, a calculation every bit as important as Einstein’s theorem proved to be for the development of nuclear fusion. And there’s another very tenuous connection here to matters atomic which will be revealed shortly.
I started with the three basic chords that Jon had me practice on his acoustic - E major, A major, D major. His guitar’s action (the space between strings and fretboard) was so high, the strings themselves, so old and thick, that it’s miraculous that I managed to generate any kind of sound out of that old dog. Despite the painful blisters and frustrating moments when my fingers refused to comply with the instructions my mind had supplied them I persisted, and having got this important three-chord-trick down moved on to some other major and minor chords, a twelve bar blues, and even some very simple lead licks.
After a couple of months of Jon’s tutorage I felt confident enough to move up to an electric axe. My birthday had come and gone and I’d tactically refused a present at the time. Now I made my move and came back to my parents with “You know I didn’t get a birthday gift this year? Well…”
When I asked for an electric guitar they got seriously worried. It took me some weeks to reassure them that I wasn’t about to join a hippy commune, start smoking hash, reject all authority and drop out. Eventually assured that having an electric guitar didn’t necessarily mean the beginning of its owner’s moral, physical and social decline, my mother got me a Top Twenty brand electric six string from her shopping catalogue for the sum of 75 pence a week, for a payment total of twelve months. £36 was a lot of money back then, but not in guitar terms. Even in the early 1970s new authentic Gibson and Fender guitars cost £300 or more, which is an indicator then of the somewhat rudimentary quality of the first instrument I’d ever owned.
None-the-less it was a huge step up from Jon’s acoustic, and having noticed his amp had two inviting input sockets we both plugged in and started to lift some riffs and a couple of complete song from records by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Alice Cooper on the Dansette with a view to building up a repertoire for a future group.
We needed a drummer. There was a kid in a lower year that played good jazz-style drums and owned his own kit. We tracked him down to the school’s music room where he was messing around on a timpani on a break from lessons and convinced him to join up. Paul Coe, the drummer in question, then persuaded us to let his mate John join. Paul assured us his friend had a decent guitar and a good quality combo amp and this was agreeable enough news to confirm membership.
After some subtle pressure, my parents decided to let us rehearse in their bedroom on Sunday afternoons, being that this was the only upper floor room in the house large enough to accommodate the drum kit and the rest of us too. The first rehearsal was an utter mess. Paul, although technically very good, evidently thought he was playing in a jazz combo; John, now designated rhythm guitarist, despite being the loudest in the room due to the superior power of his amp was unfortunately far from being the most competent; also being a rank beginner I never-the-less fared slightly better than John in timing and remembrance of chord changes but kept horribly fucking up the lead breaks. It was therefore left to the most experienced player in the band, Jon, to demonstrate how things should be done on his Jedson, Fender-copy, bass. Even at the youthful age of fifteen-years he was a really good bassist.
Despite this unpromising start we pressed on each Sunday and things started to very slowly, incrementally improve. At the same time I allowed my hair to grow a lot longer and started to wear clothes that were more in keeping with someone who sought to play with a rock outfit. After one particular rehearsal Jon said he had come up with a good name for the band. We put down our instruments and waited in anticipation for him to announce the collective title of our still sloppy but improving group. “We are now called Nuclear Hurricane”, he declared, in the manner of someone who had just announced the Second Coming. ‘What a shit name!’ I thought. I looked to Paul and John, who by their facial expressions were also less than smitten by this choice. But Jon had become our band leader, and out of deference for his advanced knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll, both musically and broadly, we kept quiet and accepted the designation.
His second announcement was much more appreciated. “There’s going to be a school disco in the drama hall next month. I’ve talked to the headmaster and he’s letting us play a couple of numbers up on the stage during the DJs break, so we better start getting it together”. This was certainly good if somewhat nerve-inducing news. I was going to appear on stage again after an interruption of almost a decade, although this time not as part of some lame school theatrical production, but as a guitar wielding member of a wannabe rock ‘n’ roll band.
Tune in next time for...
Alvin's further exploration of the pleasures of music and gigging, humping gear and his increasing confidence on stage...