Inklings #12 is something of a departure from form and, to an extent, content too. A few years back, I was preparing a brief record of my immediately post-school year prior to rolling up at Goldsmiths’ College for 3 years of teachers training when, out of the blue, a commission offer came my way from ‘The Mod’ magazine, a short-lived glossy aiming to provide the putative picture of all things mod first time around. I was to write an account of a face’s night out on the Thames Delta back in the days when R&B meant rhythm-and-blues. Hence the previous soft-focus wistful giving way to the present hyper histrionic! Sadly, the magazine folded before I could burst into print and the only account I have of my year out prior to re-entering the education system got spiked. Because of the stylistic artifice that carries forward a (fairly) authentic year’s-worth of high and low jinks compressed into one frenetic night. I make no great claims for it. However, the substance might inform a little and amuse a tad…
Funky Kingston. The innocent abroad…
“Bring it to Jerome”, Johnny and I sing as we both shuffle down the line for Friday wages. “Bring it to Jerome” – and Johnny shakes his little brown envelope like The Duchess as I sling chords Bo Diddley-style, across an imaginary square guitar. We head for the car park at a run, dodging round the 9-to-5ers trudging home to a cooked supper and a popping gas fire. Johnny and I are going to pick up Anne-the-Man and Thick Mick then head for the Kingston mods’ GHQ, The Crown by the Apple Market. The plan is standard: too much Merrydown cider followed by midnight chorusing in the churchyard followed by oblivion and most of Saturday lost under the covers.
Johnny leans on the horn at around 7.00. I look out of your bedroom window but the old Thames van is just out of sight. I can place it by the plume of blue smoke and the guttural chunter of a holed exhaust. I check myself in the full-length mirror on the wardrobe door. Looking good. I’m wearing my pink shirt – fly-front, inch-and-a-half deep tab collar, from Man Boutique in Eden Street – under the rolled-edge-lapelled silver-grey herringbone jacket (Cecil Gee). Black knitted inch-wide nylon tie with a loose Windsor knot. Knuckle-chord black hipsters and the Annello & Davide Cubans, bought last weekend in Brewer Street. I run the knife-handled steel comb carefully across the fringe to get the fall just right and then take the stairs two by two. I pause at the front door, the air lock between two worlds. And then, the Cinderella Fella, I spin off into the night.
Thick Mick’s in the back of the van, stretched over the spare tyre. He’s fiddling with a 20-pack of Camels, trying to get one to jump into the breech by flicking his thumb against the bottom. Johnny told him weeks ago that it really impresses the birds and he’s been practising ever since. Johnny’s girl Anne-the-Man is sitting in the front seat. She’s had her hair cut even shorter and she looks up at me through panda-rimmed eyes. Anne-the-Man because of that flattop brush-cut, but there the resemblance ends. A tough option next: she’ll have to sit on my lap as Johnny throws us all around the five minutes of suburban avenues on the way into town. Which works out pretty well for me and I’m hoping my passenger too.
Johnny gets them in and Anne looks everywhere but at me, like butter wouldn’t melt. Thick Mick feeds the jukebox. He’s excused buying rounds because he always gets the order wrong so Johnny siphons off his coinage in kind. Soon the bar pounds to The Pretty Things’ Rosalyn and the business of the night begins. By 9.30 it’s Mod Central. You can’t move for mohair, Shetland wool and tattersall checks. Toshak elbows his way through the faces and pushes Johnny along the bench. He’s wearing his maroon bluebeat hat and a Fred Perry shirt and he’s smoking a Black Russian. He leers down the line – Johnny G., Anne the Man, Mick, me – and shaking his closed fist like a Latin percussionist, he lets slip a blue bomber. It bounces once and Johnny snatches it on the ascent and slips it between his teeth. Soon you’re all humming like bees and not a coin has changed hands. Toshak’s generous with his medicaments, but the price you pay is a temper that turns on a sixpence. He’s been banned from every other pub in Kingston, Richmond and Twickenham for disturbing the peace, causing an affray and just the once so far, ABH.
Things jump into top gear when it’s my round. I’m up at the bar waving my ten bob note like a bookie’s runner with a bet and I bump into a geezer on the turn with a couple of pints. Not much gets spilled but it’s on the new shirt. I look down; I check the damage. Cold and wet enough. Time to look up and make my play.
Suddenly it’s shit or get off the pot time. I went to boarding school; I cried on my last day there a year ago; I’m going to college in the autumn; I live with Mum and Dad in the big corner house in a tree-lined avenue. I’m a sham, here on the wild frontier. Beneath the glam I’m still a stranger in a strange land. But since wage-earning at the glasses factory out here in that so-long-anticipated Real World I’ve found a sort of urban stride that carries me where I know I have to go. No one knows me from before and in this bright new peacock country, intoxicatingly, I am who I say I am. All those hours of closeted dress rehearsal in classroom and dormitory have paid dividends and here, under the lights, the lines learned, the costume fitted, the curtain raised, I believe it too.
So, because the shirt’s new and clothes maketh the man, there are protocols to be observed. Just before I go eye-to-eye, I take in a 3-ply midnight blue, 4-button tonik suit, cut by a master and then hand-stitch finished, wrapped around a Ben Sherman Oxford button-down and a polka-dot slim-jim tie. This guy’s a Face. How come I don’t know him from across a score of crowded rooms? But I do – from bandstand close-up. It’s Eric ‘Slowhand’ Clapton, lead guitarist with The Yardbirds, the band that took over at the Railway Hotel when the Stones went into orbit and who now play down the Richmond Athletic Ground where we go every Sunday. It was Johnny’s mate Ealing Steve who first wrote ‘Clapton is God’ in indelible laundry marker across the booking office window in Richmond Station over the road from the Railway Hotel. Now municipal walls across Kingston and Richmond are telling the world like it’s the second coming.
Time freezes, like on Doctor Who but in colour. In the thumping silence I notice that his Ben Sherman’s carrying more light and bitter than my fly-front and my pill-dry mouth dries out some more. I can feel a shit-eater’s smile tugging at the corners as I compose your speech.
“Oh, sorry, man”, Eric says, putting the glasses down on the bar. “I wasn’t looking. Here”. And he tugs out a blue polka dot handkerchief from his breast pocket and hands it across. As I’m holding it like it’s a fragment of the Turin Shroud, he’s only turning back to the bar and ordering me a pint, “…and whatever your mates are having”.
So that Sunday night as usual the pack heads down the Crawdaddy in Hooray-Henry country, the Richmond Rugby Club. I cop a pillion lift from Toshak, the Lambretta Loony. We two-wheel drift into the car park alongside a pair of tooled-up Vespas, all headlights and squirrel tails. Weekend mods: Toshak kicks the stand away from one and they both tip over. Outside pill-consumption he’s got a real problem with cultural excess. He says it brings the cause into disrepute. A true zealot.
Johnny and Anne are waiting by his clapped out old van and together we sashay down the outside of the long queue. Flash Harries, all five of us, stepping between a couple of schoolboys and the very classy bird taking the money and rubber-stamping the hands.
“We’re on Eric’s guest list, doll,” says Toshak, his hat tipped forward and his Madras cotton jacket swinging from his crooked forefinger. “Toshak, Johnny H., Anne the Man, Thick Mick and DJ”. We swing into the half-full rugby club bar. Nearly all righteous faces with just a sprinkling of art students in beatnik duds and trippers in Millet’s parkas and catalogue hipsters. Close to phony image overload, I breathe deep and close my eyes. “I believe”, I tell myself three times over. And third time lucky I do.
The empty space is still more rugger bugger’s romper room than a throbbing R&B venue, for all that Marvin Gaye’s giving out Can I Get A Witness? over a crappy sound system. Toshak goes to get some beers in; Mick’s picking up 19 Camels he’s just launched all over the floor; Johnny goes for a piss before the band fires up. And Anne looks at me for the first time that evening. She’s got one of those lopsided smiles that go with a head tipped sideways and blue eyes scrutinising. Bells ring and worlds collide. She doesn’t say anything, just gives the slim-jim a tug and kisses me full on the lips. Then Thick Mick straightens up with a geriatric grunt; Toshak ambles over with five light ales between his fingers; Johnny returns from the bog, shifting his tackle into position behind his cords; Anne studies the ceiling with those panda-rimmed baby blue eyes; I am alone with my thoughts.
Within the hour it’s another world. It’s like being tied to the rail tracks in a tunnel with the Midnight Special a second away from impact – 4D sound and the train keeps a-rollin’ as five live Yardbirds hammer through the rave-up section of Smokestack Lightning. My £5 shirt and £25 jacket cling to me like a sausage skin. Sweat transpires through the packed, heaving crowd. The legendary ‘H’ (no one knows his real name) is out front conducting his dancing fools from the edge of the stage. The boozed out and the blocked climb onto shoulders, skinny naked torsos weaving. The real amphetamine kiddies grab the underside of the exposed RSJs holding up the ceiling and swing over the bobbing heads like crazed capucine monkeys. The tribe has gathered and it roars its solidarity as the band drives on. I close my eyes again and go with the pulse of the music. My arms are loosely draped over the shoulders of Anne the Man in front of me whose arms are looped loosely over the shoulders of Johnny G. in front of her. We all move as one as Eric sends whiplash solos cracking out through the smoke and the steam. Rock and roll, drugs and, in a long distance sort of way, sex. About as good as it gets. Someone ought to write a song…
Funky Kingston = A punning reference to a track by pioneer ska band Toots and The Maytals celebrating the musical heritage of Jamaica’s capital city and on my part of Kingston-upon-Thames, the sedate county town of Surrey, just down the river from R&B headquarters, Richmond.
‘Bring It To Jerome’ = A Bo Diddley favourite featured by most of the R&B bands.
The Duchess = One of Bo Diddley’s back-up musicians.
Bo Diddley = Né Elias McDaniels, a blues/crossover rock’n’roll guitarist and singer, a staple source of songs for the R&B bands.
Merrydown cider = a cheap and fatal brew.
Annello & Davide = highly fashionable shoemakers, originally to the dance fraternity.
The Pretty Things = with The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones’ only credible rivals.
Black Russian = A brand of cocktail cigarette made by Sobranie.
Blue bomber = amphetamine pill.
Ten bob = ten shillings, or 50 pence in post decimalisation coinage.
Crawdaddy = the club from which The Rolling Stones climbed to fame, now the territory of The Yardbirds.
Lambretta = motor scooter.
Tooled-up Vespas = motor scooter burdened with several extra headlights and a squirrel’s tail dangling from a whip aerial mounted on the rear of the bike.
Millet’s = a chain army surplus store.
Parkas = baggy anoraks, favoured more by the second wave of post-punk mods.
Hipsters = hip-hugging trousers, French in origin.