The T&M webitors are extremely grateful to Alvin for his time in bringing you these fabulous memoirs... Cheers Alvin!



Chapter Three: Part 1

 

 

 


In which our Paris visiting teenager sees his future career path, whilst the mid-70s man in the street is left bewildered by the excesses of the Rock royalty, and our emerging bassist witnesses the first Kings of 'Punk'...


OK

 

...before recounting my seemingly misguided expedition to Paris in search of the two young women mentioned in my previous offering of regurgitated memory, I firstly want to thank Mark Barratt, Andy Radford and David Wisbey for kindly taking the time to email in to the T&M website that it was a Hayman 4040 bass that I was unable to recall from the photograph where I looked worryingly like Jimmy Page’s anorexic younger brother (circa 1973).

I was suffering from a bout of what I like to refer to as ‘Alzheimer’s light’ during the writing of that episode and I’m most indebted to these three gentlemen for stimulating my sorely abused brain tissue, which has now provoked total recall in regards to this instrument… and Mark, yes, there will indeed be some photos of myself playing the Burns’ Concorde bass in its rightful contextual setting very shortly.

So, how ludicrously naïve was this caper?

To set off for a week in a major continental European city in expectation of coming across two young women somewhere in its vast environs bereft of the aid of a telephone number, an address, or any clue as to what area of the conurbation they inhabited. Affix to that improbable outcome total ignorance of the size and orientation of this capital, its pricing for accommodation, food or transport and our extremely limited knowledge of its common language. And furthermore ice that huge slice of idiocy with the fact we had no idea where we were going to stay and between us had the miserable sum of the Franc equivalent of £25 for the entire seven days of our visit.

Still, as my relatively new drinking buddy John and I boarded the night train from Victoria station to Dover, we were blissfully unaware that any of these issues might represent a problem and so armed with a half-bottle of Courvoisier Cognac in order to get us into the correct entant cordiale disposition, talked eagerly of our glorious week to come with those cute daughters of France, Pascal and Simone.

I strongly recollect being on the upper deck of the ferry as it slowly eased its way into Dunkirk Harbour during the moonlit early hours of the morning. John had stayed in the warmth of the interior to try to sleep off the larger split of the Cognac. Out there in the cold, standing alone, I thought for an unnerving moment that I could hear the pained cries of the ghosts of the allied soldiers who didn’t make it off the nearby beaches in 1940, but figured it was simply the conjoined sounds of a vigorous wind and Channel waves breaking against the harbour wall.

We got through passport checks and the once over from the local Gendarmes without any problems and followed a group of fellow ferry passengers to the station where we caught the connecting train to Paris. Arriving there as dawn broke, we reached such a state of excitement that neither of us cared about the fact we had only snatched a few minutes sleep apiece in the previous two days and immediately set out to locate and climb the Eiffel Tower which was just about visible on the skyline.

It turned out to be miles away from our starting location, but distance and time didn’t seem to matter. Just walking in such a fine alien city, feeding off its architecture and café culture and hearing the lyrical cadence of spoken French gave us the necessary energy to reach our objective and we literally bounded up the multitude of steps to the viewing platform of Monsieur Eiffel’s iconic structure to survey the capital’s landscape.

Below right: Only surviving photo of my trip to Paris in '75. I'm sitting by the river Sienne.
In the background you can just about see a vertical black line - the Effiel Tower.
Click to enlarge.

We continued walking and looking for the remainder of that day. No food, no drink, just a ravenous curiosity for this new place of ‘otherness’. By the evening we were starting to wilt and found a little café in a side street, the inner atmosphere of which was dominated by the composite smells of cheap wine and Gauloises cigarettes. We ordered ourselves a Coke and a sandwich each and were amazed to receive very large baguettes generously filled with pate and salad with our drinks. We were expecting the traditional English style sandwich: two thin slices of white bread with a scraping of filling and a limp piece of lettuce.

I figured we could frugally live on this kind of meal for the rest of the week but we were still badly in need of a place to sleep. One of the Gauloises smokers overheard our discussion. In rudimentary English, delivered in a strong French accent he advised us that the ‘madam of the establishment’, as he termed her, rented cheap lodgings directly above the café. After utilising his services as translator the elderly proprietress took us up to a small, basic room that contained two single beds, a sink, and what looked to be a pre-war chest-of-drawers, all ours for the Franc equivalent of £2 a night. With the accommodation sorted there was just the minor problem of tracking down the girls.

We decided to scour the city each day hoping to discover them in a café, a street or some other public venue and ended up viewing the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces in the Louvre, strolling under the Arc de Triumph, visiting the imposing Sacré Cœur and the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, and stumbling across various other crucial Parisian attractions by luck. Come the second-to-last day of our trip the elusive Pascal and Simone remained undiscovered, but for me, at that point, it simply didn’t matter anymore. I was having such a great time seeing and being in Paris that I’d almost forgotten the primary reason why we had travelled there.

Therefore, as we strolled along the Champs-Élysées it was somewhat shocking to have John abruptly grab my arm and shout “fuck me!” while looking towards a strolling group immediately across the avenue from us. Among them, and I promise you this is no fabrication, were the two women we’d been searching for since our arrival.

But here’s the payoff… both were arm-in-arm and intermittently kissing two males of similar age and it was obvious to anyone whose eyesight functioning marginally better than Stevie Wonder’s that these Frenchmen were far more than just good friends to the capricious Pascal and her fickle sidekick.

I thought there was no point in revealing ourselves in these circumstances and said to John “forget it, we’ve come over here on a false premise. Let’s go get a beer”. “Bollocks!” was his crisp reply, adding “I’ve not travelled all this way and spent all week searching to let ’em off the hook just like that”.

He darted out into the road before I could stop him and chanced serious injury to meander his way through the speeding traffic to reach Pascal and Simone’s entourage. Even from across the wide Élysées I could see the blood drain from their faces as John approached. Both became doubly mortified when I crossed to join him. Their acute embarrassment was obvious to everyone and both boyfriends started asking aggressive, uncomfortable questions about us in French, which notched-up the general awkwardness of the situation a couple more degrees.

With his habitual raging bull attitude to all things, it was likely John was going to get us into a fist fight with the understandably distressed boyfriends and the three or four other Frenchmen who were accompanying the two couples. I saw no need to get into a violent confrontation over a one-night-stand and so pulled John away and ordered him to calm down. Eventually, after aiming some verbal abuse at the group, he allowed me to drag him off and we headed back to our shabby little room above the café with some cans of cheap Belgian beer to drink away the taste of duplicity.  

Some of you are now no doubt thinking ‘what has this misadventure got to do with the subject of these memoirs?’ which is primarily centred on my career as a rock musician and the events and circumstances that have shaped its evolution. Well, actually, everything!

Leaving the boarders of the UK and visiting a foreign city for the very first time was another of those transformative experiences every bit as career significant as catching Bolan on TV in his prime, or my inaugural gig with my school band. It reaffirmed what I already intuitively knew… that Croydon was but a relatively small, dull and insignificant backwater location in comparison to the many other exciting and exceptional places in the wider world waiting to be enjoyed and appreciated.  And it got me thinking: if I could intensify my exertions to attain a playing position in a professional touring band I would actually be paid to travel to these alluring locations to perform the music I esteemed. Such thoughts, inspired by being in Paris, redoubled my inner resolve to convert what was still a fantasy aspiration into fact.

The other important realisation acquired from my Parisian trip was that the female of species can be every bit as duplicitous as the male.

Time eventually murdered off what remained of 1975 and promptly delivered us the start of 1976. During ’75 and the early months of the succeeding year I managed to widen my musical tastes to include not only Reggae but also confessional singer/songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Todd Rundgren. I also got into some authentic blues via the recordings of John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and other major artists from that genre, likewise with a number of classic rock ’n’ roll performers: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, early Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent being among the originators of the music that would loudly emanate from the speakers of the new stereo system I’d bought to replace my knackered Dansette.

For my eighteenth birthday in ’76, a friend gifted me the debut album by a then unknown band called Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I really liked that record and others of a similar genus, such as the Aerosmith albums ‘Toys in the Attic’ and ‘Rocks’. I also listened to the general output from Thin Lizzy, from the Who and the severely underrated Be-Bop Deluxe, and became a belated but devoted fan of Jimi Hendrix after hearing the trio of albums, ‘Are You Experienced’, ‘Axis: Bold as Love’ and ‘Electric Ladyland’, each an unalloyed masterpiece of electric rock. But despite enlarging my listening pleasure beyond my original fixation with Glam, it has to be stated that what was commonly happening in current music at that time was pretty dismal.

There was a common impression that the ostentatious rock bands and fashionable personages such as Zeppelin, Elton John, Deep Purple, Bowie, Queen, Rolling Stones, Genesis, Yes, etc, had lost touch with the realities of ordinary life and had become insensitive and insulated from those who were ultimately responsible for awarding them their fame and fortunes, namely the general record-buying, concert-going public.

Times were tough in mid-1970s Britain. Strikes, public spending cuts and a wage freeze had led to a manifest political and social malaise. Unemployment and inflation were at a post-war high, the pound had been devalued, oil prices had soared and there were still many parts of the UK scarred by depravation that badly needed investment and rejuvenation.

These mean circumstance provided the perfect conditions for the far right to make a concerted comeback in the guise of the National Front, who had taken to marching in the streets to spew out the evident lie that all the nation’s ills were due to immigration. They were met by counter demonstrations resulting in serious violence between the crypto-fascists and those who were willing to physically take them on. Add to this aggression a serious wave of mainland bombing by the IRA and you can appreciate why the popular notion in the mid ’70s was that the UK was a nation in terminal decline.
In contradiction of this bleak national backdrop some of the excesses of these rock stars…

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, for instance, with their 3 huge petrol devouring articulated trucks and Greg Lake’s insistence on an authentic Persian carpet at each gig for him to showboat on, plus other ludicrous demands born of a warped sense of entitlement…

…were indicative of the decadence and insensitivity of those who were living limousine lives utterly removed from the common experiences of the vast majority of the country. And the 70s Prog bands who hadn’t managed to attain a tax-exile super-group status such as Camel, Gentle Giant, Barclay James Harvest and Greenslade had somehow managed to become even more musically pompous and duller than ever.

But in the midst of this musical and behavioural nonsense more apt alternatives had already emerged. In 1975 I saw a band called the Doctors of Madness perform at the Croydon School of Art. They were very different from the customary rock band of the period. They were decidedly avant, both musically and stylistically. Singer, Kid Strange, had unfashionably short dyed-black hair and a face colour that had been cosmetically transformed to that of bleached masonry. They played music that was entirely free of cliché rock anthems as epitomised by Peter Frampton and his immensely popular live record of ’75, ‘Frampton Comes Alive!’ Nor did they indulge in the Prog rock synthesiser-led masturbation pieces that were being commonly offered as serious compositions by ELP and their sort.

Among the audience that evening were such future celebrity personages of Punk Rock as Siouxsie Sioux, Steve Severin, Billy Idol and other members of the Bromley Contingent, as well as Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible.


Below right: Dr Feelgood in 1976, from left, Wilko Johnson, John “The Big Figure” Martin, John B Sparks and Lee Brilleaux. Photograph: Estate Of Keith Morris/Redferns.
Click to enlarge.

That same year I caught Canvey Island rockers Dr. Feelgood at the Marquee in central London. They were an invigorating lungful of fresh air. Their succinct, energetic R ‘n’ B sound outflanked the drivel being offered by the likes of Rick Wakeman who had performed on ice (no kidding!) his 1975 album release, ‘Myths and Legends of King Arthur and His Knights of the Roundtable’ (just the title is enough to reveal what a pretentious scoop of excrement this record was) with ice skaters playing the parts of King Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad, etc, while the composer, in a ridiculous silver cape, let fly some conceited bullshit from his array of synths on a plinth at the centre of this ludicrous pantomime.

By early ’76 similar bands to the Feelgoods, with stripped-down music and back-to-basics philosophies, were to be found playing small venues and pubs around the country. Eddie and the Hot Rods, the 101’ers featuring Joe Strummer, the Speedometers, Kilburn and the High Roads and the Motors were bands that were accessible both as musical entities and on a one-to-one basis. Members of these outfits chatted and drank with their audiences at the bar and traveled in beat-up Ford Transit vans with their gear. Their modus operandi was appropriately rudimentary for the times, a palatable low cost option to the aloof rock dinosaurs that played once a year in cavernous stadiums for large payoffs and behaved like degenerate medieval monarchs. The music press started to refer to these no-nonsense groups as Pub Rock bands for the blindingly obvious reason that they played a lot of shows in public houses.

At the same time as Pub Rock was beginning to make an impact on my New York Dolls styled group, Marionette, they broke up. Keyboardist, Mel, chose to take a degree course at Croydon School of Art, guitarist Paul likewise took the higher education path, and singer Micky snagged a good job that required him to work long hours and weekends thus leaving him little or no time to rehearse.

Undaunted by this setback and within a week of this separation I got to hear about a SE London based semi-professional Pub Rock band called Man in the Street, who urgently needed a replacement bassist.
After a bit of minor detective work I acquired the drummer’s ’phone number and after a brief conversation with this skin beater got myself an audition. We played through some of their original material together and I guess things went pretty well as I was offered the bass gig immediately my try-out had ended. This was heady stuff. Not only did it demonstrate that my playing was now sufficient to go into a cold situation and hold my own with other more experienced musicians, but it also meant that for the first time I would be receiving payment for undertaking shows beyond the boundaries of greater London.

Below right: Rehearsing with Pub Rock outfit, Man In The Street, early 1976.
Click to enlarge.

Our premiere gig together was at a Cambridge University May Ball. There we shared the bill with Screaming Lord Sutch, Chicory Tip, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Troggs, Mud, and a number of other less-established performers and groups. As well as getting to brandish my bass on a large stage amongst this distinguished company and being able to consume as much Champagne as I liked from the marquee erected for that purpose, I received the astonishing sum of £40 for my share of the fee which was around £10 more than I got for an entire week’s work emptying the urine and turds from the commodes of the elderly residents at Davidson Lodge.

The USA was also going through a period of seeming decline and national self-doubt. These conditions had similarly inspired the emergence of fresh strains of music and attitudes which were starting to be written about in the British music press. As 1976 progressed I got to read about a poetess called Patti Smith who had chosen the rock medium to express her word imagery and creative notions along with other related outfits such as the Voidoids, the Ramones (pictured left), Blondie, Television, the Dictators and Talking Heads. A fanzine founded by John Holmstrom, Greg Dunn and Legs McNeil called ‘Punk’ had started to cheerlead this promising upsurge of innovative music along with established figures with correspondingly singular approaches like Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and the ever shape/sound shifting Bowie.

Playing dives like the New York Hell Angels’ hangout CBGBs, these groups were diametrically dissimilar to the insipid North American arena rock bands like Styx, Rush, Reo Speedwagon, Boston and Journey who dominated the FM airwaves and whose music literally rendered me nauseous whenever I had to endure one of their appalling singles on a pub jukebox or when unleashed on the radio.

As a logical genre banner for the British press, the term Punk was conscripted and applied from the title of Holmstrom, Dunn and McNeil’s magazine to this new musical tendency. In turn it motivated a quantity of fledgling musicians and bands in the UK to base their own musical and visual approaches along the same lines. Articles about homegrown Punk Rock bands with strange names like the Sex Pistols, the Stranglers, the Clash and the Damned began appearing in NME, Melody Maker and Sounds.

Now I don’t want to get bogged down with too much historical context here as A) you probably know all about this stuff already, and, B) this saga is not about Punk per se nor its emergence as a valid musical genus but about my direct involvement in it. So let me just state that I was aware and interested in what was occurring in regards to this new and still mysterious movement from its inception. I went out and bought what is widely regarded as the first British Punk Rock record, ‘New Rose’, by the Damned (pictured right) , saw the Stranglers perform and avidly read all the articles to be found in the press about analogous outfits that were starting to rise to the surface of what was then a very shallow pool of new talent. But Punk only genuinely made sense for me after I had seen the Ramones.

This event took place at the Croydon Greyhound (where else) as part of their first tour of the UK. I was unsure whether to go as I’d been disappointed by the Stranglers the first time I caught them - for some reason I thought they sounded like the Doors, a band I’d never gotten into - but after Mel, the ex-keyboardist of Marionette, phoned to assure me that he was definitely going to attend, I changed my mind. It’s strange how these kinds of seemingly insignificant decisions can have such a profound impact on the direction of your life.

Below left: The transitional stage from New York Dolls fan to Ramones devotee...
...note the leather jacket, tie and Levi jeans! Click to enlarge.


I got to the venue too early, as per usual, and joined Mel for a cup of coffee at a burger restaurant in the High Street. As we drank and chatted, Mel, who was sat facing towards the door, said “don’t look now, but the Ramones have just walked in”. They filed past our table and made for the counter to order their food. I glanced over my shoulder and the first thing that occurred to me was how geeky and tall Joey was. He was wearing a beat-up leather jacket which had its ripped sleeves attached to the main part of the garment by large nappy pins. We both thought this looked really cool. The other feature that immediately came to mind was that there was no doubting that these four individuals were members of the same band. Each was wearing the classic Ramones uniform: leather jacket, Levi jeans, T-shirt and Converse sneakers. There was also something undoubtedly unifying in regards to their bearing and mannerisms which, despite the obvious differences in their physical characteristics, had you believing that they really could be brothers.

We left them to their fast food meals and walked up the street to order a beer from the ground floor bar of the Greyhound. The place soon filled up with a multitude of extraordinary looking people wearing leather jackets, plastic trousers and day-glo sandals. Most had shortish bleach-blonde or dyed jet-black hair, some were flaunting consciously ripped T-shirts over which were worn loose fitting ties. This crowd was as far removed in their sartorial style from the long-haired denim dressed audience that had attended the Thin Lizzy gig of the previous week as could possibly be envisioned. Where did all these weird looking fuckers come from? I was still in my New York Dolls informed clothing and started to feel somewhat uncomfortable and self conscious in this unfamiliar company.

When the doors opened for the upstairs venue Mel and I stayed put awhile and ordered another beer. I eventually downed my pint and climbed the metal steps to the first floor bar. I could hear that the Ramones were playing, but had one more lager before venturing into the hall itself which was insulated from the drinkers via a set of large and heavy glass and wood-framed doors.

Let’s go see this band” I shouted to Mel, who was chatting to an acquaintance across the room. We reached these doors together. I yanked them open and a detonation of sound and heat engulfed us. Joey’s voice, sharp and sinewy like a wire whip, cut through the beautiful noise of Johnny’s guitar; Tommy punished the shit out of his kit while Dee Dee, deep into his own personal performance, pitched some nice shapes with his white Fender bass…

...and my internal thought processes immediately concluded: ‘this is exactly how it should be done!

That moment represented the final destination on my long march to discover the music that I truly wanted to be an essential part of my life; but although the advance was now over, the real battles to become a career musician were about to begin.

Above right: Fast forward: Joey Ramone and I sharing a beer
together having both just played the 1988 Reading festival.
He, with the fabulous Ramones, and I as bassist with Iggy Pop. Click to enlarge.


Tune in next time for...

Alvin indiulges in Rage as Punk goes global, co-habits with his first long-term girlfriend and finds himself targeted for violent abuse by the British press!


 

Alvin on stage again - click to enlargeFirst published Thursday 3 May 2012.

Thanks to Ade Oakley too ;o) MC.

T&M