Somewhere I have generally avoided if the truth be known, save for a couple of forays into deepest darkest Colchester. And the inevitable journeys into the hearts of darkness that are London Underground termini in the early hours of the morning, such as Upminster, Dagenham, Barking etc; which, though pleasant enough they may be during the daylight, are distinctly unwelcoming to the traveller, slowly-sobering as they (me) try to figure out how they have managed to slumber through so many stations and how the fuck am I going to get home.
Having said that, it does occur to me that actually I spent a good proportion of my time learning drive on the roads in the county of Essex.
Learning to drive
But my first driving lessons, however were courtesy of my Dad on the beautiful country lanes (deathtraps) around our home, Seascale in the Lake District. One day, after sitting in the car for a few minutes, looking out of the windshield at clear blue skies, listening to a grinding, whirring sound as it slowed and faded; the sound of front wheels that no longer have contact with a road surface, but which are running free and gradually losing momentum. (They were able to do this as the fuschia Hillman Avenger* that we were sitting in had come to rest, yours truly behind the controls, at an angle of 45 degrees after taking on a dry stone wall and fence.) My Dad turned to me, stiffly – It may have been the whiplash – and said “Let’s swap places” reversed it back onto the road and never mentioned it again.
(*It was the ‘70s)
So it was at the age of 26 while living in Bromley by Bow in the East End of London that I eventually learned to drive when the streets of Whitechapel, Mile End, Old Ford, Stepney, East Ham, Ilford and Barking were my training ground. I must confess, I had my doubts about my instructor: not because she was a woman, but because one memorable lesson she told me to drive up the off-slip of the A12, Blackwall Tunnel road just to the north of East India Dock road. All my instincts said ‘Noooo’ and I voiced my concern but she wouldn’t have it until we got to the apex of the tight loop that the road makes to find two lanes of traffic bearing down on us. I think it probably prompted the quickest three point turn I’ve ever done. Funnily enough, she never mentioned it again.
My first car was a 1971 1.8 Marina coupe: GLD 967J. What a car. I remember the day I bought it, which also happened to be the day I moved from Bromley by Bow to Sudbury Town, Wembley. A Momentous day. It began an icy December morning. I had to get the tube at what seemed like the crack of dawn, from Bow to Ickenham where the car was garaged, collect it, then drive (my first solo drive) down the A40 into and through central London back to Bow to load up my gear. Then a drive in the gathering gloom to Wembley to take possession of a three bed house I was to share for a year with mates Chawkey and Wiz. Not content with that, later the same evening I went to a party I’d been invited to near Rayner’s Lane. In itself, unremarkable except for the fact that it was there I met and fell in love with the woman I was later to marry. But that’s getting ahead a bit.
- Look at that! Marina 1.8 Coupe. Poetry in motion. Sorry that should read Pottery in motion.
On the subject of the Marina, for those of you who know the stretch of road (A501) that runs from Grays Inn, past Euston, Baker Street and finally onto the Marylebone flyover. Well I’d not been driving long when one night, coming back from watching speedway at Hackney’s Waterdon Road stadium, now, of course virtually the epicentre of the 2012 Olympic Park. I managed to get from King’s Cross to the A40, without a single red light! Couldn’t do it now of course. Too many new sets of lights. And speed cameras.
One of the things about Parkinson’s – what my then consultant, Richard Crawford described as this ‘insidious disease’ is that eventually you lose your driving licence as, quite rightly, you are deemed too disabled to safely control a vehicle. Not a good day when that happens. I don’t dwell on it, but I did love driving, and if you’ll forgive the conceit, think I was a pretty good driver at that.
A real blast
One of the things I used to get a real blast from was driving the school minibuses. The first one I drove was an old Transit ‘crewbus’ with the wooden bench seating in the back, down each side – wouldn’t be allowed of course these days – interior coverered with a generous layer of fine dried mud, kicked off hundreds of pairs of football boots. Naturally you had to undergo rigorous training before you were allowed to take it out. As I recall, my minibus training consisted of driving it in a circle in the school car park and then stopping it.
I remember some good times in it though. Taking it to France with a group of kids and staying in a beautful old French farmhouse south of Boulogne. In Slough for ice skating, getting it stuck under the car park height restriction because of the bloody roof rack. Again at Slough (different school and more modern buses) the one I had elected to drive, unbeknown to me had a slipping clutch. Apart from having to nurse this bloody bus there and back, the nearest I got to the ice was Wexham Park Hospital where I spent the entire evening with one of the girls who had taken a tumble and hurt her wrist. Needless to say when we needed any ‘wheels’ for jobs at home – clearing out the garage for instance, going to IKEA or if the car broke down, there was always the minibus and it became quite a familiar sight outside the house in Sudbury Town.
The minibus also came in handy when we needed to move the band’s equipment around. At the last school I worked at there were always concerts and talent shows, so for a laugh a few of us got together and decided to do a couple of numbers. We had great fun and soon a couple of numbers became a couple more and a couple more, until we had over an hour’s worth of fairly eclectic covers of songs as diverse as (Iggy Pop) ‘Passenger’ (Radiohead) ‘High and Dry’ (U2) ‘With or Without You’ (Green Day) ‘Pulling Teeth’ to (Van Morrison) ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ (The Beatles) ‘Back in the USSR’ and (Abba) ‘Mama Mia’. At the time, our main rivals were the 6th Form band. Two of whom subsequently stuck at the music caper and now make up 66.6% of chart band ‘Scouting for Girls’, and therein lies a bit of a story.
I was a big fan of the ‘second wave’ punk band The Ruts right from the outset and remember their first airing on John Peel’s show. I had seen them live, twice in Newcastle and liked their energy, intelligent songwriting and their ablity to bring in other musical influences (specifically Reggae and Dub) without it sounding blue-eyed and artificial . I played their first album “The Crack” again and again in the slug-infested flat I shared in Stoke Newington with my best mate Aky and the former members of Sade’s band. I can’t think of a single person I played it to over the years who didn’t like it. Key to it all was the distinctive guitar sound and innovative playing of Paul Fox.
Now, it was coming up to the Christmas concert and the Sixth Form band had a little ace up their sleeves in the shape of a promising drummer, one Lawrence (Lorry) Fox. Despite being four years or so younger than his fellow bandmates he got the gig because he was so talented and had his own pretty cool Gretsch drumkit. It wasn’t until the night of the concert as we stood on the hall stage admiring this professional-looking drumkit, that I was introduced to proud dad Paul, who was there to see his son’s debut. And then the penny dropped. It was Foxy, the legendary Ruts’ guitarist; and the drumkit, of course was the band’s original kit, given to Lawrence, by drummer Dave Ruffy. Anyway our band dutifully did our slot which closed the first half just before the interval, during which, Paul sought me out. “It was crap wasn’t it?” I said. He looked at me, thought for a while, grinned and said “Well, put it this way Andy…I wouldn’t give up the day job!” And so began beautiful freindship only sadly cut short by his untimely death in 2007.
Four Weddings and a Funeral
To be able to out-perform the Sixth Form band when it came to school concerts was one of the things that prompted us to get ourselves organised and get out and about to play ‘real’ gigs: weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, you know the sort of thing. And so it was that our first live appearance as The Crabs (not my idea) with yours truly on bass and vocals was at Eastcote Hockey club in Middlesex, A ramshackle clubhouse with function room and bar and which sported a mass of corridors and a labyrinthine collection of passages and was prone to flooding.
Russ our, guitarist, discovered these passageways and was soon able to navigate most of the hockey club – in the dark. In fact, most of the exits opened out into the changing rooms which were our green Rooms – Lovely! a pungent mix of mud, Deep Heat, sweat, lager and stale farts.
Well, to cut a long story short… On the night, Russ decided to go ‘walkabout’ during one of his guitar solos in Oasis’ “Some Might Say” using his ‘wireless radio’ guitar lead. He’d planned his route: Main Bar, Gent’s toilets, playing all the time, from there he was to go through the juniors’ changing room and up on to the back of the stage – except that unbeknown to him, one of the doors had been locked so he had to go back and of course, got lost. Meanwhile, as we continued to play on stage, no idea where he was, his guitar lead began to pick up the local cab service signal, the Police waveband, Heathrow Air Traffic Control and a Turkish Radio programme. He finally made it back after we had played 47 choruses, got all the Turkish league football scores and ordered everyone’s taxis home for the night.
We must have played twenty-odd gigs during our time which (honestly) included four weddings and a funeral. (Strictly speaking a memorial service. But close enough.) One of the weddings we were booked for, I couldn’t make as I was in Spain, so the Bass player from the band Ride took my place. Apparently when he saw my amp he was delighted ‘A Carlsbro Stingray! I’ve always wanted to use one of those.’ Then midway into the second song he blew the bloody speaker.
A to B In the Yellow Beastie
Getting our gear from A to B had also begun to get a lot easier and a lot more fun, courtesy of ‘The Yellow Beastie’. The school had bought an old banana yellow Land Rover Defender for use in preparing the school grounds for the frequent car boot sales and fairs it used to run. Whenever we had a gig and there was no fair or boot sale, in exchange for a donation to school funds, it was ours. And by far and away the most fun vehicle I have ever driven, even though it handled worse than a Lancaster bomber, and had a wider turning circle. It was a pig to control in narrow suburban streets, but when you cranked it up and travelled in a straight line, it was like shit off a shovel. The only problem was you had to plan your braking about fifteen minutes in advance if you wanted it to stop.
One booking involved travelling over to Stow on the Wold. Another wedding, it was a beautiful summer’s day. A Saturday. We had packed the ‘yellow beastie’ the night before and I had parked it outside our house overnight. I set off about midday with Russ and Nic (drums). Trevor (guitar) was already over there as he was one of the wedding guests. Ray (Our sound and lights man) was playing cricket and would join us later, which meant that we would have to set up all the gear without Ray’s watchful presence. Well, the journey was great, the ‘Beastie’ was in fine form and we pulled in at Stow in plenty of time. We bought two bottles of chilled white wine. Then on Nic’s direction we made a beeline for the most amazing house belonging to friends of his, and for which he had a key. Its owners were on holiday – so we had the run of the place: tennis courts, sun loungers and a beautiful outdoor swimming pool. Wine opened, we were in heaven.
We were also late for our rendezvous with Trev who was beginning to get his knickers in a twist more than somewhat, sitting in a village hall looking at a bare stage. Especially since we had neglected to phone or text him.
When we finally showed he was almost apoplectic.
But there was no real harm done, once Ray had arrived and sorted out all our ‘stage spaghetti’ thus reducing our chances of electrocution by 100%. In fact it was great. A lovely warm summer’s evening. We played pretty well. One of our best I reckon. I remember part way through one song, looking across at Russ I was beaming a huge smile, he caught my eye, he was doing the same thing. I knew he was thinking the same as me, that this was just fucking great. I could do this every night for the rest of my life.
Pictures and audio: “Do Anything You Wanna Do”
Unfortunately, I had to get back to London that night, so once the ‘beastie’ was packed, I left the lads to carry on drinking in the village square and made my way home. The Land Rover was brilliant. I drove fast, but felt completely safe. I got back about 2am, but paused a bit before going in and making for bed, just to savour that summery quiet of the wee small hours.
All things considered
Moving band equipment about wasn’t always as straightforward. I’ve been in and out of a number of bands over the years, but the one I have most affection for looking back was called The Pressure Drop in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Now believe it or not on one occasion we took all our gear: bass amp, guitar amp and drum kit to the venue we were booked to play at (Havelock Hall, one of the Leazes university halls of residence) on the number 41 bus! I’ve no idea how we managed it, especially since there was a fair walk from the stop at the Spittal pub to the venue.
The band was Self: guitar and vox, Keith: bass, Stalker (AKA Simon Stalk/ Stalker Suave) drums and later, Jill: frilly dresses and vox. and of course our ‘honourary’ member roadie and sometime driver, Naughty Nige. We set out with a true punk ‘Do it yourself’ ethic. I could play guitar, but neither Keith nor Stalker had instruments let alone the ability to play them. We all worked during the summer 1980, and by the september had the basic gear and a sufficient level of musicianship to get us off the ground. The Jam was our loose template. I wrote most of the songs, which were mainly comments on what I saw or heard around me, or personal relationships. For instance there was one song we played which (although he never realised it) was a commentary on my deteriorating relationship with the drummer. I’ve got to say, all things considered we did develop into a tight little unit, and although only a threesome, with nothing much to fill out the sound: no keyboards, effects or suchlike, we made a pretty good noise, largely the result of Keith’s intelligent and solid bass playing which allowed Stalker the framework around which to build his machine gun fills and thumping bass kick.
We played our fist gig to a packed house. Literally; it was a house party in Benwell and it was packed full. We were in the upstairs front room. There could only have been space for 15 to 20 people in there. The recording we made of the evening’s performance features the arrival of the local constabulary, investigating complaints about the noise, and shortly after, a deep ‘boom’ followed by muffled shouts and the appearance of people covered in what seemed to be white circus make up. In fact, it was plaster dust. The ceiling below had collapsed. As we packed our gear up and made our way home, the streets were covered in sets of white footprints all of which emmanated from the house in question.
We then went on to perform at a variety of venues over the two years or so we were together; The New Darnell (off Barrack Road) The Londsale in Jesmond, Newcastle University, Balmbras – The famous music hall in the Bigg Market (reputedly where ‘The Blaydon Races’ was given its first public airing.) We gradually became more competent as we got more organised. We had a rehearsal space over in Felling. It was an unused room above a builders workshop/storeroom that we had access to, pretty much when we wanted. We never got bothered by anyone – however loud we played AND there was a pub pretty much next door. Brilliant! The only problem was its distance from home. For about eighteen months, the band was our lives, and we spent whole days – whole weekends rehearsing.
Other bands who were on the scene, so to speak as us were Punilux (Punishment of Luxury), Arthur Two Stroke and The Chart Commandoes, Insecure, Eaten By Missionaries and The Rythmn Methodists, who were sort of our mentors. They had recorded and released an independent single “Don’t Rely On Me”. They took us under their wing, but often we found ourselves in a ‘catch 22’ situation where we wanted to play live, but venues – such as there were, were reluctant to book you if you weren’t self-sufficient (eg with your own PA, transport etc all of which cost money: the one thing we never had.
The Sabrejets above, sadly not us. Our ace cameraman booked for the night we headlined was due (to technical reasons) unable to provide us with suitable images. He forgot to put a fucking film in the camera.
Probably the best venue in the city at the time was The Cooperage, a really atmospheric old dingy quayside pub, with a function room which featured a low, beamed ceiling … and no stage. So the performers were at the same level and touching distance from the audience. Much to our surprise and glee we came home on afternoon to find a note pushed through our door, from The Rythmn Methodists, who had been booked to play the Cooperage the following night. They needed a support: would we do it? Too right. It was a mint gig and off the back of that we got our own headline slot.
Top of the bill at the Cooperage, along a brief tour of the North West (one night in St. Helens: long story) were probably the most satisfying gigs we played. By this time was had expanded the line up to include the drummer’s girlfriend. She ticked all the boxes – that is with the exception of the one marked ‘Ability To Sing’. She was always flat. I think people thought is was just part of our quirky sound. To tell you the truth I needed someone else to help me front it. Neither Keith nor Stalker sang. I was pretty confident with my voice, and playing the guitar belting out into a mic was no problem. In fact, it has always felt/feels the most natural thing in the world. I could cut all the Weller/Strummer shapes quite convincingly I think (this was why with the exception of the songs I took in the Crabs – ‘Anything You Wanna Do’, ‘High and Dry’ and harmonies here and there; I always felt like a spare part playing the bass. I was a bit lost without a mic in front of me) No, I was crap at all the ‘in-between’ songs bit. The talking to the audience, introducing the songs. All that. I guess I was too shy. I’d written most of the lyrics and music, arranged it, sang and played it, but just couldn’t do the ‘frontman’ bit. Be different now, of course, after a working life spent at the front of a classroom.
Tea with the Mayor (and getting drunk with Nick Brown)
Anyway, the ‘Newcastle scene’ proved too small to sustain even the small number of bands around and in 1982 the inevitable happened and we split…. Just as a more interesting Newcastle scene began to emerge. I became a founder member of a musicians’ collective which emerged from council-run workshops in conjunction with Special Projects ( a kind of drop in centre for musicians and those interested in stage sound and lighting and funded through the Recreation Department of the City Council) Originally called Band Aid – this is well before Geldof and Ure – we joined forces with another group of like-minded individuals around at the time who called themselves Metropolis, and re-named the group Lula Music in September 1982 Leading lights at this early stage were Julie Cranston, Rob Meek, Nev Punilux and Keith Jeffrey. It was basically set up to bid for Inner City Partnership money via the council to set up rehearsal and recording facilities which would be accessible for local bands, and a music venue; along the lines of Sheffield’s Leadmill. We used to meet at the city library. An EP was recorded and released to raise awareness of the project, featuring four bands Darkness & Jive, who Jeffrey managed – so no conflict of interest there then – Kant Kino, Prayer Before Birth and frankly, the only decent thing on there, the mesmerising “See the Light” by Illegal Sane. It sold 400 copies, one of which I am the proud owner of. Anyway, around this time the project was causing some interest and representatives of the group we invited to take with the mayor up at the Civic Centre. (this is true!) It was so funny, because we weren’t the only ones there: it was a sort of weekly ‘meet and greet’ session. So there was this ‘Blue Rinse’ set a sprinkling of golf club types and then this rabble of red and green- haired herberts in leather jackets, lurid mohair tops, bleached jeans or tartan bondage trousers, Doc martins or monkey boots! But it was great. There was no spitting or fighting and we all sat round sipping tea from dainty cups and nibbling cucumber sandwiches and cakes.
A few of us stayed on, and made a bee-line for the bar when it opened. We were treated to free drinks all night by the local councillors and MP Nick Brown, later a member of Blair’s cabinet. Needless to say my recollections of the evening from 7:30 onwards are somewhat hazy. What I do remember is I was starting to get cheesed off with the petty politics of it all. I had also met by this time, through an advert in Windows (The city’s main music shop) a great bass player, Mark Jackman and was starting to rehearse with him and a drummer. He was a terrific musician and we had one of those relationships where, when we jammed each seemed to know what the other was going to do next. Incidentally, his girlfriend, Liz had the most spectacularly soulful voice.
So with a cracking rythmn section behind me, a burgeoning scene (Lula, eventually did get its venue: The Riverside) The Kane Gang and Prefab Sprout about to put the North East on the musical map again, what did I do? Yes that’s right, turned my back on it to go and work in an off licence down in ‘The Smoke’.
Bring on Hangovers.