L. to R. Martin Fry, Dave French, Martin Fieldhouse, DJ, Pete Currie.
2. THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
By the end of 1966 the mothball smell of the demob suits began to pall, the starched collars chafed and the music now sounded conspicuously scratchy and thin. And for the vigilant zeitgeist spotter, there was definitely something in the air. From The Tony Hall 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 – there was hot news of radical musical departures in San Francisco. That a group should simply be named the Jefferson Airplane, the 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 Willard stumped up again and orders were placed with his American supplier. 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. Following Dave’s lead, 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 again, 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 hire purchase, 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 in Grove Park, 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 hell-holes. 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 from 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-energetic water injection from the light show anointed the plugboard. Bob, our singer (an ex-Butlin’s redcoat who’d crossed over with a vengeance) 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).
First sentence of para. 4 is superb. And the printed shirt in pic 2 reminds me of a subtler version you still wear.
Dick, this series sounds like a book-in-the-making, illustrated with all the great ‘period’ photos you’ve got stashed away. Why not? Do it! Title?
More on the way today, Natalie. I don’t know what cumulative interest any of this might have. I guess that provided I set the specifics against the cultural context of the time, there might be enough material to engage a reader.
Of course there would be – not just among those whose experience was much like yours and your mates but also all the rest of us in other places and at other times.
Just been catching up with you “basement tape” posts. I found myself constantly reminded of a documentary I watched on BBC iPlayer the other day – Three Swings on a Pendulum, which you might have seen.
Your plug experiences reminded me of the band I briefly played with in the early 1980s which, during rehearsals, was powered entirely from one light socket, which bristled with various old bakelite extension sockets unnaturally forced together. It never blew and, somehow, the light socket never fell from the ceiling.
Great to have encountered Bowie as you did. Although a friend and I used to cover his Andy Warhol song on guitar and ukulele (we called ourselves The Flying Pancakes and wandered uninvited into pubs to perform what my friend dubbed “guerrilla gigs”) I’ve only, to my shame, recently got into him. When I was a sixth former, peer pressure dictated that the people who’d left after O-level were the Bowie fans – those of us who stayed on for more punishment were Genesis fans to a pimply adolescent, whether we really liked the band or not. Looking back, the school-leavers were so, so right.
‘3 Swings.. ‘ passed me by so, thanks, I’ll look forward to watching it.
Re Bowie, I was never a great fan, although I recognised him as one of the few true innovators. Those brief memories of him are of how down to earth he was & how genuinely interested in & fired up by the creative activities of others. At that time at least, he was friendly, unaffected & very joyfully engaged in his & others’ creative activity. However, Angie Bowie was something of a force of nature & although I lost contact with him shortly after the Big Sur gigs, I can see how she was the Svengali influence of legend.
This is fun, Dick!