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.