I wrote my first poem at the age of 15. It was a war poem depicting my experiences in the trenches during the first Battle of the Somme. Or, to be more accurate, distilling the experiences of a range of the First World War poets we were studying at the time and then filtering them onto the page via my attempts at jaded profundity within an ABAB rhyme scheme. Shortly after that I performed a similar service for the then very current Beat poets, distilling and then filtering onto the page their accounts of narcotics-fuelled road trips between New York City and San Francisco and the sexual marathons that took place both at either end and in transit. In these early poetic endeavours I was very fortunate to have the patient and forbearing support of my English teacher, the poet Brian Merrikin Hill. He would read these feverish creations carefully and manage through the elegantly tactful manipulation of his critiques to encourage me further whilst suggesting gently that I try to tackle themes a little closer to home.
There’s no doubt in my mind all these years on that without Brian’s gentle, tactful support at that time, my verse-making would have been limited to the hormone-driven years of adolescence. But beyond my own callow attempts at emulating the war poets and the Beats, Brian instilled in me and many of my contemporaries an enduring love of poetry and a recognition of its unique role in the deployment of language beyond all of its semantic and expressive limitations. Everything that I have written in the decades since my five years at Wennington School has sprung from an active taproot running back to that time.
Deriving from that period too is a sense of identity. In an unfussy, unpretentious way, Brian established the status of ‘poet’ as being as legitimate and substantive a self-ascribed status within the arts as ‘painter’ or ‘musician’ or ‘dancer’. For all that those nomenclatures carry with them a set of procedures and disciplines linked with specifically applied skills – the wielding of a paintbrush, the plying of a bow, the bending of the body around the dictates of a musical soundtrack – the fact that all that the poet wielded, plied or bent were the words that are accessible to all of us in no way limited or constrained the poet’s creative role and its potential achievements.
I have always seen these two acquisitions as gifts and I’ve cherished them as such. Their value to me and the particular resonance of that time and place were enhanced greatly in 1986 when I paid a visit to Brian Hill in his little bungalow on the Wennington School estate. Sadly, the school had closed 11 years earlier, but Brian and his family had security of tenure on the house. Before I called round I wandered through the two or three acres of mixed woodland contained within the school grounds and re-visited the three-story sandstone mansion that had housed the main part of the school. And I was, of course, subject to the nostalgia attendant on all such re-visitings. All the agonies of the teenage years notwithstanding, I had enjoyed my five years there and was conscious even as I rejected authority and embraced modish and pretentious rebellion that I was absorbing influences and energies that I would carry forward with me. Brian and I talked subsequently of those years and, generous again, he offered to read anything that might be upcoming in the poetry line.
That visit had the immediate and dynamic effect of coupling the continuing drive to write, manifest up to that point in a largely random and unfocussed form and style, with a new, refined sense of the coalescence of past and present; of the seamlessness of the junction between early emotional experience and the more evolved self. It’s from 1986 that I date the writing of the poetry that has, for me, approached most closely in the product the fulfilment of the process undertaken. And I perceive all of the work that has emerged between that time and up to 2015 as having, for all of its thematic or stylistic disparity, an underlying continuity of intention and purpose.
But it was in 2015 that I stopped writing poetry. I’d had fallow periods within the nearly 30 years between those two key dates. But during them I retained a constant sense of a conduit to the place of creativity remaining open. It was always more a case of the need to draw breath, to recharge the batteries that powered the familiar procedures that would draw a poem up from inchoate, pre-verbal form into language. And always that charge did build up and I each time resumed the process.
But somehow I knew from the start of this particular cessation of activity that it was qualitatively different. That conduit was closed; no current fed the batteries; not a phrase or a word floated into being. The silence was total and it consumed all the familiar territories within which a poem would grow from a nascent whisper to its final crafted form. And so it is now: I can read and recognise and appreciate, but I can’t write. I feel the loss more keenly than I can say. It’s like the dysphonia that robs the singer of the power to sing: I feel all the need, the urgency, to transform the winds and currents that still arise regularly into the form that once defined my creativity, but I can’t utter a note. I’ve tried all manner of strategies, either to re-open that conduit or to find a new route down to the old, familiar place, but I’m denied access.
Two activities help to dull the edge of the feeling of abandonment – teaching and music. The former absorbs time, provides a sense of purpose and allows for a level of generative activity. The latter caters – unstintingly so far, thank God – for the other area of creative activity that has sustained me through the years. But neither of them compensates for the withdrawal of the exclusively personal, self-contained creativity that’s afforded by poetry. Maybe it will return as unaccountably as it departed. But until that event (and how I have tried to avoid the upcoming loaded word with its overtones of circumstantial melodrama!) I have to sustain what amounts to a feeling of bereavement whereby my sense of self is irremediably damaged. Life goes on; laughter prevails; I get up in the morning and go to work with a will. But poetry – the writing of it, the sharing of it with fellow poets, the reading of it out loud – is conspicuous by its entire absence and I wish daily that this were not the case.
The band that emerged from the dismembering of the Drama Band we called Big Sur, named after the wild coastal region of Central California redolent of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac and the wide-open spaces of our shared sense of a mythical America. Initially no more than a theoretical extension of Robin’s guitar and my bass for the few weeks that it took to conjure dreams into auditions, a form and substance emerged remarkably quickly as the Melody Maker small ads did their magic. First of all, PJ on vocals, 4-string guitar and songwriting and Len on bongoes joined us from Goldsmiths’ and South-East London School respectively. But it was at this point that the key member of the next few incarnations of Robin’s and my musical collaboration and beyond came into the circle. From Halifax in West Yorkshire, Keith Washington was an English student at London University. He played a 12-string acoustic guitar, he had a fine singing voice and he wrote songs. Keith’s sense of humour, his tolerance of the circuitous routes whereby we arrived at our musical solutions and his sense of his own place in the setup from the start sealed the deal. And overall shared good will, mutual regard, respect for each other’s distinctive abilities and a readiness to just let the sum of the parts find its own level and outlet produced something of real musical value.
Big Sur’s music was airy and expansive, strummed and plucked on acoustic guitars with primitive contact mics fitted, a homemade lap-dulcimer, a mandolin and a bowl-backed Greek bouzouki that I’d brought back from Cyprus. Initially, we occupied the same whimsical, genre melting-pot territory as such contemporary ‘weirdfolk’ outfits as the Incredible String Band, Comus, Dando Shaft and Doctor Strangely Strange, Robin’s gnomish musical imagination and my rather self-consciously off-the-wall lyrics pushing the direction. As time passed musicians came and went as ever, particularly drummers/percussionists and with them the style morphed and evolved according to what characteristic each brought into the band. But the core of Big Sur comprised Robin on ‘string-driven things’ (guitar, mandolin, the bouzouki and the dulcimer), Keith on 12-string guitar and vocals, PJ on his 4-string guitar and lead vocals, myself on bass guitar and various whistles and Len on bongos and hand-drums.
The great virtue of the band was this readiness on the part of its members to adopt and adapt. Robin’s strange serpentine melodies and surreal lyrics – the weirdfolk touchstone with its compound of surreal whimsy and degree-level high-brow melded with Keith’s romantic and very hooky ballads. There was, during the earlier times at least, a real honesty and authenticity to our aims and achievements. Our overall approach didn’t arise from the wilful eclectic perversity that had so many of the cross-genre bands of that time disappearing up their own musical orifices; we were genuinely intrigued and excited by the possibilities of synthesising diverse influences. Which is not to say, however, that we were guided constantly by a corresponding awareness of the need for an element of structure and discipline. Rather sadly, and definitely counter-productively, such concepts were seen as belonging to the old order and so we were driven more by an uneasy balance of organic process and chance. But that collective sense of there being nothing so unfashionable, so off-genre, so outré that it wouldn’t be up for consideration was very liberating. And so Robin’s extraordinary multi-movement galactic dream In Space sat comfortably alongside Keith’s lament for stalled romance Going Wrong. And my apocalyptic World War X1 might follow comfortably Robin’s entirely wacky Adult Tree Ballad.
Gigs were spasmodic (and sadly the Marquee managed to bill us as ‘The Big Fir’!) But the Oval House continued to provide us with hospitality and having it as a headquarters enabled us to work on content and presentation. Nick Condron’s friend Robin Murray-Rogers stuck with us and we continued to feature a light show. Robin’s multi-instrumentalist brother Jed joined briefly on various keyboards and Alison Martin’s words and movement contributions maintained a link with the Drama Band’s espousal of mixed-media performance.
With a base, we were also able to make overtures to those that we thought might be able to advance our cause. For a short while we had the attention of the Waldman brothers, the hard-headed duo behind the legendary Middle Earth club in Covent Garden at which both the Nervous System and Tintagel had had regular bookings. There was talk of management and a publishing contract with Middle Earth Music, the publishing arm of the record label that they set up following the demise of the club. They put a few prestigious gigs our way (including an appearance as ‘The Big Fir’ in support of their star outfit the Writing on the Wall at the Marquee). But we fell just short of signing the contracts that they’d already written up after a chaotic session convened to seal the deal. Equipment shed sparks everywhere; we managed to generate no sparks at all.
So as we fizzed and crackled, misfired and stalled the usual bail-outs took place. Much as with Pete Currie and I three years previously, Robin and I stayed constant, as did Keith, and gradually what passed for balance in the resolutely asymmetrical Big Sur was restored. However, the absurdity of a band name known only to readers of Jack Kerouac and/or Henry Miller or to backpacking Californians escaping the city became apparent to us. The usual list-making took place and after pondering such dope-derived options as Ra, Penguin Dust, Sleeveless Tree, Toadwater and Vacuum Shoes, we reverted to Tintagel, picked ourselves up and motored on.
At around this crossover point, as a result of a contact made concerning a record he played on his show, BBC DJ Pete Drummond took an active interest and soon became a very practical friend of the band, featuring us on two of his late night Radio 1 Sounds of the Seventies. There survive rickety recordings of a couple of numbers, both taped with a cassette recorder mic placed next to a portable radio at the time of the programme’s transmission. In Space is probably the most representative of them all in its fruit salad of influences and inspirations. It’s very much of its time: the product of a generation still breathing in the fumes of that heady herbal mixture of West and East – of the likes of Lewis Carroll, Arthur Rackham, Isaac Asimov, and Tolkein blended with cod Zen, the Beats’ take on the Sanskrit Vedas and the fragrance of patchouli oil and the Bengali bong. Here it is, filtered somewhat through GarageBand, but still sounding very much as though life is imitating art and the signal is being downloaded from some distant star cluster. Keith Washington is singing the lead with harmonies from Robin, myself and supplementary guitarist Kent Parker. I’m playing a very battered bamboo whistle, its dividing strands held together with cellotape and with four tracks available to us Robin has dubbed on a slide solo from a zither made out of boxwood and mandolin strings. Robin and Kent are playing acoustic and electric guitars and I’m playing my Hofner ‘Violin’ bass.
Recording at the Beeb’s famous Maida Vale studios – all functional uniform grey 8-track reel-to-reel tape recorders clad in mellow-grained wooden cabinets – was exciting. Following the broadcasts we waited for the high-tide to bring in messages from stunned listeners and competing record producers. But like yesterday’s local broadcast news our 15 minutes of psych-folk floated up into the ionosphere, ending up, appropriately enough, somewhere in space.
We re-trenched at Oval House for a while before having to relinquish our small corner of the premises to a mime troupe who were actually getting regular work. Gigs for us were by now fewer and further between and when we did pull in the odd prestigious ones, technical problems caused by terminal equipment decay and narcotic confusion generally rendered them patchy at best. But, as ever at that time, we were simply unable to draw a pragmatic distinction between the cheerful, hazy, fume-filled chaos of our daily lives and the ordered routines of practice and performance. A few decent gigs lifted spirits and aspirations a little. But rehearsals in Robin’s tiny bedroom in Goblin City, the shabby Victorian villa he shared with his two brothers, descended all too often into giggling cacophony within which only we could hear the sound of the lost chord.
By the end of 1970 the elusive charms of 30-minute acoustic jams fuelled by marathon smoking sessions began to elude even the musicians adrift inside them. So in a burst of unaccustomed energy and resolve, we brought in three new recruits – Vern Cochrane, an American drummer with his own kit, a van and high-credibility shoulder-length curly hair plus full beard; Steve Moorby, a young guitarist/vocalist of prodigious ability, and Jenny Holland, a Californian flautist/vocalist on the London leg of a home university scholarship to study ancient Greek music. For a while it worked startlingly well and with the musical blandishments brought in by Steve and Jenny, we levered ourselves up and out of our Wonderland whimsy and into something with a real cutting edge. Steve’s stinging, light-gauge string guitar work, reminiscent of up-and-coming Richard Thompson (although entirely of Steve’s own generation) brought a rock front line sound to the band for the first time. And Jenny’s enormous positivity and sharp musical intelligence imposed a discipline and structure that we’d pretty much lost.
The core of the band. This was taken shortly before Vern Cochrane and Jenny Holland joined, From left to right: DJ, Steve Moorby, Keith Washington, Robin Stone.
Apart from a couple of quirky arrangements, our material was still all self-written. Keith and Robin provided the bulk of the songs, with Robin using some lyrics by me. Within a week or two of Steve’s joining Tintagel, I gave him the words of a song I’d just written. Called Drunk in a Gale, it depicted via a series of vaguely apocalyptic images the existential distress that was at the centre of so many songs at that time. The melody and arrangement that Steve provided fitted the narrative perfectly – in fact, arguably, it lent a dignity to the somewhat overwrought words that they didn’t really merit! And from that point a creative deal was sealed and the nomenclature ‘Moorby/Jones’ appeared at the bottom of a rising pile of typed-out manuscripts.
Rocking hard, but still with quirkiness in full flow, we managed a couple more Radio 1 broadcasts, this time on Jon Curle’s late night show Nightride. We also got through to the semi-finals of the prestigious national annual Melody Maker Rock and Folk contest, beating bands across the country to the punch and for a while it seemed very much as though we might be insinuating our way back into the commercial-but-with-credibility stakes. Writing contracts signed with folk-rock band Lindisfarne’s publisher Hazy Music for Keith, Robin and Steve and I seemed to confirm the upward trajectory. Barbara Hayes, the chain-smoking Central Casting one-woman dynamo behind the operation fought our corner for several heroic months, pinging her various lines of communication along the complex network of DJs, A&R men, producers and agents that linked the vast jungle-floor tangle of bands and singer/songwriters with the movers and shakers at the top.
Sadly, events sometimes run counter-intuitively to deeper currents and for all of the advances that these few months produced, the sum total of the disparate parts, musical and, increasingly, inter-personally, didn’t gel for long and once again the band began to falter. Musical allegiances once strong and friendships once binding began to unravel. Keith’s subtle, melodic, well-crafted songs were increasingly out of kilter with the edgier, rockier direction in which we were moving and in one of those cowardly coups managed by ‘phone call and letter, he was dropped from the lineup. However, there was no clear consensus as to what that new direction should constitute and with Jenny’s departure for Greece in pursuit of her studies, Vern’s divisive manoeuvrings and Robin’s increasingly fragmented commitment to a common cause, Steve and I (also conscience-stricken about the dismissal of Keith) found ourselves increasingly uncomfortable within the band. Time passed; the gigs dried up; the Hazy Music contracts were discontinued; the increasingly recalcitrant Vern was dumped, and rehearsals at Goblin City became increasingly directionless and fragmented and then increasingly infrequent. Robin took a musical break in a function band with brother Jed on the Isle of Man and with his departure Tintagel died quietly and undramatically, leaving just Steve and I, a songwriting duo without a band.
With the gravity of a distinct sense of identity, purpose and direction diffused, the component parts of Tintagel simply floated away into space, leaving nothing behind but vivid memories and an undischarged hire purchase agreement. Whilst the resultant free floating was initially deeply unsettling, it did create a pressing need to fill the vacuum as a matter of urgency. All around was a sense of rapid evolution, mutation and innovation. The now emphatically self-proclaimed ‘underground’ was hot-wiring principle and practice in all areas and at all levels of creative activity. Not just music, but publishing, graphic design, film, dance, high-street fashion, theatre were all made subject to the dump-the-rulebook enterprise of the alternative culture.
Although by now I was a fledgeling primary school teacher, I was still very much in social and cultural orbit around Goldsmiths’ College. My girlfriend (later wife) Gez was still a student there and several of my friends and acquaintances were either, like me, teaching locally or had yet to complete their English or Drama courses. Some carefully composed small ads in the then thriving Melody Maker ‘Musicians Wanted’ columns had produced a strange but never less than interesting caucus of instrumentalists looking for new challenges. And the nexus created by the bringing together of some of the slightly more plausible musicians with a group of Goldsmiths’ students resulted in the five-legged dromedary that was The Drama Band. Excited by the heady atmosphere of artistic d-i-y that prevailed on the fringes, The Drama Band was conceived by close pal and Bismark’s co-creator Mal Griffin and I as a small theatre company structured around a rock group. Ideas were never in short supply from the start. The guiding notion was that we would build up a musical repertoire designed expressly to underpin a number of scripted and physical performance items. We would retain the light show, adding in projected backdrops and presentation would be against a collapsible screen. All material would be thematically organised and delivered in two 45-minute programmes around an interval. With rehearsal space at the college taken up by departmental activities, we needed to find premises within which we could, in the first instance, develop the material and then perform it.
By now the tight circuit of the London and provincial underground clubs had largely unravelled. Amiable hippy management had given way in a cloud of patchouli and pot smoke to the hard-headed promoters, now on their feet once again after the brief flower-strewn hiatus, and the bigger venues were back on the map. But arising from the diaspora of the diggers and levellers who had got it all together in the first place there emerged a new subterranean territory of tiny clubs, pub theatre spaces, railway arch workshops & ‘arts labs’, free of ‘breadheads’ and ‘straights’, wherein the square peg bands or left-field roaming players might locate their audience. So a casual visit to a local arts lab might present the onlooker with anything from spittle-flecked invective shrieked at close range by wild-eyed actors tackling an obscure Antonin Artaud text with maximum enthusiasm and minimum understanding to the very earliest stirrings of musical genius, later to flower into global prominence (as will be revealed).
We made our initial base at the Oval House just off Camberwell Green, a single story brick building resembling the bleak overground section of a municipal air-raid shelter. Under the dogged, patient, enterprising lead of organiser Peter Oliver, it had recently been transformed from a community sports and recreations facility into a crucible for experimental theatre so much of which was springing up at the time. Mal and I made a convincing pitch, based on a seamless synthesis of minimal fact and maximal fantasy and we secured both rehearsal and performance space.
Mal and my best intentions concerning a disciplined theatrical structure dissolved at the outset and a period of wildly creative chaos followed. Mal opted out in favour of a sensible career in teaching and I forged ahead, high on groundless optimism. My initial musical co-conspirator was a moody but brilliant guitarist whose speciality away from the fretboard was the creation of electronic soundtracks on state-of-the-art equipment in a suite of rooms in his mother’s luxury basement flat in Kensington. His name was Nick Condron (although his subsequent alter ego, Rikki Sylvan, will be more familiar to students of the nascent New Wave 10 years later when he flared brightly but briefly). Access to Nick’s battery of electronica was a major initial stimulus in the devising of some of the more outré drama pieces with the sonic media that Nick could produce frequently dictating the content of the writing. And his angry aptitude on his blue Strat pushed the musical direction towards the much heavier sounds that were superseding the whimsical, serpentine approaches of the post-psychedelic/folk-rock stylings. Selected from the latest small ad, a second guitarist, Chris Aldous – a down-to-earth but open-minded player – joined us and with him a German émigré called Piers Delft on drums.
The Drama Band at the Oval House
As Robert Browning declared, ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp / Or what’s a heaven for?’ Whatever mixed-media heaven it actually was towards which we strived, we certainly specialised in the excessive reach. Practicalities of the most basic kind impeded the realisation of the various projects that we mapped out on paper and much time was spent in our Sunday room at the Oval House in wearying doctrinal arguments about theory and practice. Our failure to locate the precise chemical formula that might bring about a successful fusion of sub-Hawkwind rock, dystopian science fiction and Brecht’s theatre of alienation, Nick Condron’s thunderous sulks and the gradual falling away of jaded personnel had us gradually sinking collectively into our own special Slough of Despond.
There was, however, a curious creative interlude that breathed a little final oxygen into the fast-deflating Drama Band. It came in the form of a prosaic coincidence of local geography and the intervention of a visionary young man whose own notions of cross-fertilisation between performance art forms were galvanising him into action just down the road from where I now lived. Newly married, Gez and I had only very recently moved into a tiny maisonette in Bromley, then a North Kent town of almost Stepford uniformity. It was all we could afford and it offered easy bus routes into Lewisham and New Cross and the two schools in which we were teaching. One dull household shopping Saturday a couple of barefoot girls pushed a scrappy duplicated flyer into my hand advertising a free festival in neighbouring Beckenham. Promoted by the Beckenham Arts Lab, the Growth Summer Festival and Free Concert boasted a fascinating bill of performers. Three names in particular caught my eye: John Peel, our old friend from Middle Earth days; Bridget St, John, whom I knew to be a protege of Peel’s, and David Bowie, a singer/songwriter about whose involvement in mime and theatre I’d just been reading in International Times. Clearly too good to miss both as entertainment and an opportunity for networking, we made our way over there on August 16th.
My recollections of the now immortalised Free Festival are clear but fragmented. With the self-indulgent reasoning of the time, we sharpened our potential experience of what was a remarkably varied and enterprising event by smoking ourselves to a standstill before it started. But I do recall that Keith Christmas did extraordinary things with his guitar, Bridget St John delivered Autumn Lullaby in a velvet baritone voice and David Bowie wearing a shirt I’d have killed for sung several beguiling songs to a Hagstrom 12-string. A surprisingly large number of kindred spirits had found their way to suburban North Kent and in between the somewhat chaotically presented acts they watched psychedelic puppetry, bought hand-painted balloons and caught a glimpse of the future via tarot readings.
Recollection is most vivid from some time after the acts had finished and the crowds were heading for bus stops and station. Clearly etched into memory is the moment I recognised David Bowie standing alone at the edge of the recreation ground. It was the aurora of curly hair and the magnificent shirt that once again drew my eye and since I hadn’t come across John Peel yet, I thought I’d introduce myself and find out what he might know about ‘Growth’ and the Beckenham Arts Lab.
David Bowie creating memories at the Free Festival.
Bowie was very easy to talk to. He revealed at the start of conversation that he was a key figure in the Arts Lab and that he and his co-organiser Mary Finnegan were on the constant lookout for new acts. Although clearly passionate about his own work, which at that time was prolific songwriting (Space Oddity had been released the previous month), he was also an interested and generous listener. I explained about the Drama Band, enhancing carefully and creatively the ratio of ideas in process to actual performance to an audience. Bowie was immediately responsive, declaring that it sounded ideal for the Lab. So I gave him my address and ‘phone number and he promised full details of the upcoming programme and any potential vacancies for an initial gig for the Drama Band. He also said that a major element in the Arts Lab process was collaborative work and that he was sure that we’d find some common ground for shared performance. I’d long wanted to incorporate mime into our repertoire, but where free interpretative dancers were all-too-easy to find, skilled mime artists were a rarity. Bowie, having done extensive mime training with Lindsay Kemp a couple of years earlier, responded readily and we parted both fired up at what might emerge from a next meeting.
Within a few days I received a call at home saying that he was on his way over imminently. Arriving in a cluttered red Fiat 500, he played us several songs including a two-section version of Space Oddity, with the 12-string placed to one side as he solemnly keyed the tiny stylophone with its little attached metal pencil! There was much talk of the arts lab and a couple of dates were put in the calendar for a Drama Band appearance, sight unseen. Bowie sent an enthusiastic letter a day or two later confirming the booking and – thanks to this unwarranted piece of serendipity – we managed our two rickety performances, one of them supporting the man himself*.
Sadly, any hopes of our heading for the stratosphere hanging onto the fringes of our mentor’s buckskin jacket were swiftly confounded. Gathered up by the formidable Angie Barnett (later his wife, then just a very attractive force of nature), David Bowie’s career went into overdrive and along with other arts lab proteges, some of them much closer to the heart of the operation than we were, we watched the dust rise in his wake as he whirled away from Beckenham in the direction of Shangri-La.
At around this time I changed schools. Restless amongst the glue pots, milk queues and dinner duties of my cosy primary school, I decamped to a boys’ technical secondary school in the heart of unreconstructed Deptford. Whatever crusading spirit had fired me up at the beginning of the first term, it soon evaporated in the face of the day-to-day frontier realities of riot control, corridor and playground anarchy and a staffroom full of bitter and exhausted post-war-emergency-trained middle aged male teachers.
Salvation came in the form of a skinny, curly-haired English teacher straight out of university and new to South-East London. Robin Stone brought with him a restless, hyperactive energy, a cheerful irreverence for order and protocol and a passion for music. Within a week I’d drafted Robin into what remained of the The Drama Band and what followed resulted directly from the sparks that flew between us. A final summit meeting at the Oval House had Nick Condron storming out with the Marxist-Leninist wing of the party, leaving we battered anarchists contemplating the flotsam and jetsam left behind. Galvanised by Robin’s cheerful unconcern for practicalities, I spent no time mourning the demise of yet another musical venture as we sat around in his Brockley flat, wreathed in smoke, laughing a great deal and planning the next musical revolution.
*I still have the letter, but couldn’t find it at the time of writing the above. It’s interesting for its early glimpse into the extraordinarily varied imagination of David Bowie. When it turns up, I’ll scan it and add it to the narrative.
We entered 1968 with just Pete, drummer Phil Burroughs and myself as original Nervous System members. From the many sides of typing paper onto which we all wrote our choices of names, we selected ‘Tintagel’. Redolent of the Celtic Twilight/Albion mythology undertones that were such a feature of early British folk-rock-into-psychedelia, it seemed to fit the bill perfectly. By now Pete had augmented his Danelectro 12-string guitar with a sitar, both added to the now dangerously obese yet slenderly resourced HP account. (And with all due respect to the mighty Ravi Shankar, whose claim it was that even after several turns around the karmic block the most dedicated practitioner would still be a mere novice on the sitar, it takes only 20 minutes to make it sound as if you know what you’re doing. This is helped greatly if your audience has never seen one before, or if they are comprehensively stoned. Or both).
Pete, Phil and myself were living together now in modish squalor in Charlton, South-East London (think Withnail and I and magnify to the power of 10). We lived off sixpenny packets of chips and steak and kidney pies, the wrapping residue of which was skilfully fashioned into floor covering. I occupied a double bed in the front room, which I saw as an island of relative sanitary sanctuary amongst the flotsam all around. The hallway was full of amplifiers, speakers and instrument cases and inside the cupboard under the stairs an electricity meter hung silently off the wall, its kilowatt hours recording dials mysteriously stilled. Each weekday morning, regardless of the lateness of the previous night’s gig return, Phil and I would rise at 5.30 and drive blearily in his tiny Thames van up through the east of London to Woodford Bridge in Essex and the Victorian gothic horror that was Claybury Mental Hospital. He worked as a porter and I laboured away amongst the steaming tumblers in the laundry hall. (The bizarre tales that derive from that experience will, at some point, be told).
The band was, as ever, a constantly shifting organism. But at the beginning of 1968 Tintagel was blessed with some outstanding musicians. In front we now had two flautists/guitarists – Iain Cameron, who subsequently went on to play with posthumous wunderkind Nick Drake at Cambridge and Ian Macdonald, who subsequently went on to co-found King Crimson. The Melody Maker small ads brought us Brighton-based guitarist Geoff Matthews, whose skill and consistency helped immeasurably to both augment 12-string-string and sitar-playing Pete when he was on his highly creative game and to compensate for him when he was indisposed. So as regulars on the now burgeoning underground circuit our cache was high and our credibility sound. We were working through an agency and getting steady re-bookings. All we lacked was the two-edged benefits of management and the all-important record deal.
In the early spring of 1968, we peaked. For some time American singer Dorris Henderson had been looking for a band. She’d recorded with guitarist John Renbourne (an album recently re-released to much, very late acclaim) and was touring the folk clubs with a repertoire of traditional British/American ballads, gospel songs and blues.
She had been a de facto resident in the UK for some time and with the first visits from touring American gospel and blues artists still fresh in memory from only 10 years before, she had been accorded somewhat iconic status. Tiny but with a deep and powerfully soulful voice, Dorris wanted to break free from what she saw as an increasingly stifling set of musical expectations on the part of her audiences. She was tired of being the authentic voice of black American music – a sort of UK Odetta – and she wanted to explore the very musical roots and shoots that were exciting us so much. With Renbourne now ensconced in the band Pentangle and the influence of the West Coast folk-rock bands still a powerful force, Dorris was looking for similar opportunities. It was our ad in the increasingly progressive New Record Mirror that caught her eye and after a meet-up and a session, we agreed to hitch up together. We were more than happy to take on much of her solo repertoire and she was excited by our portfolio of eclectic covers and original material. But it was from the start a mariage de convenance rather than a merger and for all the insouciance of the age that had us boasting of taking on a ‘chick’ singer, Dorris was calling the shots.
Three gigs, all close together, fully justified the union, helping Dorris expand her musical scope within a band context and doing us no harm at all for the distinguished association. Two of the gigs were engagements that Dorris had had in her diary for months and, because of her musical clout and strength of personality, she was able to re-negotiate both to include ‘her’ band. The first was at Bert Jansch and John Renbourne’s folk club situated in a huge pub at the top of the Tottenham Court Road. We played to a sizeable crowd and it went down well. Dorris’ driving voice sat comfortably on top of our12-string arpeggios, our woodwind, the running, looping bass lines and Phil’s light but driving drumming.
Several members of the audience hung around as we slipped down a quick after-hours beer at the bar before shifting the gear into the van and heading south of the river. Dorris brought over a pale, rather diffident Scot and a small, dark, solemn-faced New Yorker and we found ourselves being thanked for our efforts and praised for our originality by club host Bert Jansch and his pal Paul Simon.
In early spring we fulfilled, with Dorris, one of our bookings at the Marquee in Wardour Street (a club whose minute, unsanitary dressing room has accommodated every band of subsequent note in the land.) After a storming set to a packed house we adjourned to The Ship, the nearby Marquee local. Clinging to Dorris’ arm and talking urgently as we walked the few yards up Wardour Street was a fierce lady with thick blonde hair and dark eyes. In the pub she ignored the band completely, leaning conspiratorially towards its singer and telling her – as if at that high point she needed persuading – that the future for the female vocalist was in front of a shit hot band. Within a month or so Sandy Denny was fronting Fairport Convention.
In May we played the Albert Hall. Dorris had a support spot on a packed bill for the farewell concert of folk’s first family The Watersons, splitting after relentless touring since the early ‘60s. Following a nightmare soundcheck with Phil’s bass drum echoing back off the circular galleries a half-beat late (“The night they invented ska”, muttered a miserable Phil), I paced the ornate corridors, dry-mouthed with terror as post-Dylan epic balladeer Roy Harper overran his set massively. (I bear the grudge still). We hurtled onto stage 40 minutes late, whimpering like aristos facing the guillotine. At all points of the mighty hall an audience still in post-Harper rant shock, stirring and muttering, watched us as we stumbled about the vast stage, tripping over cables and manhandling instruments that we had completely forgotten how to play. But Dorris, the consummate professional, seduced the audience within seconds and lost in the unrepeatable moment, we played our full programme impeccably. Numbers I remember from that extraordinary night included from Dorris’ erstwhile solo repertoire the folk song Watch the Stars and Jackson C. Frank’s Milk and Honey, and from our set-list Love’s Message To Pretty, Donovan’s Season Of The Witch (featuring Pete on bravura sitar) and our own White Morning (lyrics by D. Jones).
A handful of further gigs came and went and then Dorris returned to Los Angeles for a family visit. On her return, with regrets she quit Tintagel to join the fast-rising, already successful Eclection, who had management and a recording deal. Suddenly bereft of our supremely talented meal-ticket, we wobbled, recovered, lost members (notably the very talented Iain Cameron and Ian Macdonald), auditioned, gained members and tried to re-orientate as in the days before Dorris. But we’d been royally spoiled and within a few weeks we lost direction and with the compass gone that crucial sense of being ourselves alone dissolved. So with neither bang nor whimper but simply a drifting away of key components, Tintagel finally sundered at the end of the year. For the first time since Bismark’s Imperial Jug Wizards, Pete Currie and I were not either end of a stage together. His departure to join the protagonists of the revolution in the offices of hippy broadsheet International Times pulled out the last threads of the old lineup and with the gravest of misgivings I took a deep breath and leaped into the unknown…
L. to R. Martin Fry, Dave French, Martin Fieldhouse, DJ, Pete Currie.
2. THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
By the end of 1966 the demob suits suddenly began to smell of mothballs, the starched collars chafed and the music now sounded scratchy and thin. And as Thunderclap Newman observed a couple of years after it was no longer the case, there was definitely something in the air. In Tony Hall’s Stateside zeitgeist column in the New Record Mirror – a regular feature stuffed ignominiously into a two-inch column space south of the Petula Clark and Walker Brothers interviews – hot news was coming from San Francisco. That a group should simply be named Jefferson Airplane, Sopwith Camel or the Quicksilver Messenger Service was exciting enough. That the musicians wore scarves around their heads, fringed buckskin jackets and square sunglasses was indication that the revolution must be close at hand. The ever patient Chris Wellard obliged, orders were placed with his American supplier and within a few weeks Pete and I were working out the chords to Love’s Message to Pretty, The Crystal Ship by The Doors and – entirely unsuccessfully – Captain Beefheart’s Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do. (What the fuck’s a ‘slide guitar’?)
In the meantime, beatnik Dave (who became our roadie long before our first down-payment on guitars and amps) had introduced us to the kind of hand-rolled cigarettes that hitherto I had only read about in jazz biographies. As we lay in the long grass just beneath the college Chancellor’s office window, turning on and tuning in, the spring before the Summer of Love of ’67 gathered us up. Conversion was swift and comprehensive. Like Toad of Toad Hall, my rapture for the new disorder was total and all I wanted was an indiscriminate mess of jangling 12-strings, screaming feedback, wacky lyrics and psychedelia (whatever that was) in indiscriminate spades. Nearly all of the Bismark’s crew ran for cover in the face of such wild-eyed zeal leaving Pete and I to press on undaunted. We formed a new band and went in search of the local branch of the New Jersusalem.
After spending a fortnight arguing about an appropriately outrageous name (The Flesh Knot, The Sperm Bank and Pete’s favourite, Disastrous Partridge and The Seven Year Whistle were stoned front runners for a while), we ended up as The Nervous System and began to sort out who was going to play what. Pete knew several more chords than I did and could barre all of them without getting finger cramp so I moved from guitar to bass, using a blue Selmer of Pete’s with a bent neck and a correspondingly high action. Pete, with a cavalier disregard for the real-world economic niceties of the hire purchase agreement, stocked us up with amps and a PA and suddenly we were, not a group, but a band! After a few rehearsals with three others of equal incompetence – a second guitarist, a drummer and a faute de mieux singer – an initial line-up stabilised and we shambled out onto the mile-high stage of the Knight’s Youth Club, Brockley for our debut gig.
Jingling like lost sheep, appropriately clad in our woolly Afghan coats and peering myopically through our regulation Jim McGuinn dark glasses at an incredulous audience, we proudly demonstrated our complete lack of understanding of rhythmic and melodic coordination, stage dynamics and basic electronics. With amps on overload and between-song guitar tuning sessions that exceeded in length the songs themselves, we managed to lurch through three numbers – one original and two Byrds b-sides – before an apologetic vicar asked us ever so nicely to pack it in.
Hubris without even a modicum of foundation is a great asset and over the next few weeks we persevered in the face of derision and indifference. And then our time came. Suddenly someone invented the Summer of Love and even the hardcore South-East London soul and ska hotspots went all beads and kaftans and the search was on for native folk rock and psychedelia. Instant experts, prophets honoured in their own time, veterans of three months jangling in pubs and church halls, we were in demand and a brief but intensive period of hard gigging grew us up fast.
Initially, we signed up with a Lewisham agency, South-East London Entertainments from whom we received a proliferation of gigs across the Far West and the Deep South. Whether motivated by a sense of devilment or simply failing to recognise the seismic changes of the time, SELE booked us into some real lulus. Turning up at a village hall deep in the Wiltshire countryside, we were a little surprised to find that we’d been billed as ‘The Merva Sisters, with lights and uniforms’. What the village youth expected from this enigmatic combination can only be imagined, but the reaction couldn’t have been more extreme than the mixture of horror and hilarity that greeted our emergence from the van. Velvet loon pants, frilly-fronted satin shirts and embroidered Afghan waistcoats may have reached the streets of Swindon, but they had yet to make it as far as the fields and hedgerows. It took a bravura performance that night to get our public to switch attention from ducking-stool to dance floor.
L. to R. Dave French, Bob Meadows, DJ.
On another night at some equally bemused bucolic venue the audience benefitted from an unexpected side effect of our primitive light show. It comprised two troughs of 60 watt bulbed lights mounted at the front of the stage variously gelled up to give a colour mix. To one side of the stage an ancient slide projector was mounted, casting a swirling, constantly changing display of psychedelic shapes across the band and onto the nearest wall. These effects were obtained by squirting via a pipette a mixture of water and oil-based coloured inks into double-glazed slides, each tiny panel secured at the bottom and sides by tape and open at the top. At the best of times there was a hit-or-miss element in the procedure, but this cheerful amateurism was compounded on that night by our equally improvisationary approach to wiring. One plug too many had been crunched under foot during a post-gig get out and we’d jammed two sets of wires into one socket on the plugboard with matchsticks holding them in place. We managed to get through three or four numbers before splash-over from over-enthusiastic water injection from the light show anointed the plugboard. Bob, our singer (an ex-Butlin’s redcoat who’d crossed over with a vengeance) always sang barefoot. He was always a bit of a singing dervish and some time passed before we realised from the unusual vocal embellishments that his particularly animated performance owed more to the properties of water conductivity than the spirit of the dance.
Happening 44 functioned on Thursdays and Saturdays, operating as a strip club for the rest of the week. We played it several times, benefitting from authentic Californian Ron Henderson’s Fiveacre Lights.
Through a combination of simply being in exactly the right place at precisely the right time and Pete’s shameless creative hustling, we soon found ourselves moving from the gobsmacked fringes to the heart of the capital, now in full spectrum London swing. Early in the game we joined the circuit of bands doing the rounds of the nascent underground clubs, always trailing in the wake of the heavyweights, spectacularly present and manifestly future. So from our humble corner of a Dionysian dressing room, we watched Syd Barrett being lifted bodily up the steps and onto the stage at the International Love-In at Alexandra Palace, his guitar hanging around his neck like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross, his mind high up amongst the thermals. We were approached after a set at Middle Earth in Covent Garden by members of Fairport Convention (who we were supporting), fascinated that we were using a traditional folk song in an electric format, something they’d been considering. At the same club, we gathered up a shy and unrecognised John Peel at 3 am and bought him a steak pie in the busy market, surrounded by bemused porters at early breakfast. At Chiselhurst Caves Eric Burdon roared so mightily into the two mics we lent him in quick succession that we had to bin them and buy new ones. And cradling our precious guitars like sickly children, we watched (again at Middle Earth) a distinctly unmellow Denny Laine slam his Rickenbacker repeatedly against the wall in reaction to a malfunctioning amp.
The International Love-In Festival at Alexandra Palace (venue of the earlier and more celebrated because pioneering 14-Hour Technicolor Dream), staged in July 1967 was a spectacular event. We closed the whole glorious shambles as the sun rose over North London. Before us lay like the newly slain the slumbering forms of our audience.
The summer of 1967 seemed to go on forever. We began it as The Nervous System, a college band that got lucky, and we closed the year as Tintagel, thoroughly gigged, half-competent and twice as arrogant (although, of course, in a loving and peaceful sort of way).