JANUARY TO JUNE 2016
On the 11th January I woke to the news that David Bowie had died. To say he has been a major figure in my life would be an understatement. His ‘eras’ defined and lent a sound track to my own. ‘Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders form Mars’ I listened to as a 14 year old on the boat I grew up in and this prompted me to investigate ‘Pin Ups’, bought by my sister at roughly the same time. I discovered ‘Hunky Dory’ on a Summer Holiday to my mother’s in Loughton; ‘Aladdin Sane’ sound tracked my A-Levels and life at Lancaster Royal Grammar School after transferring from Secondary School. ‘Heroes’, ‘Station to Station’ and ‘Low’ bring Norwich and University back to me in vivid colours. And my subsequent move to London and life in Camden and Chalk Farm was sound tracked by ‘Scary Monsters’ and subsequent move to Hackney, Love and eventual Heartbreak by ‘Let’s Dance’. Of course I listened to a vast quantity of other music but Bowie was a real constant and through my formative years - 14 to 24 - he was a constant and hugely rewarding presence. I recall ‘Robyn Hitchcock and Friends’ performance of ‘Hunky Dory’, the album in its entirety about five years ago when, at the end of rehearsals, we got down on our knees in mock worship and said ‘Thank you, David’. I know now that we really meant it. Rehearsing with Rhoda Dakar in Brixton a couple of days after his death, the Ritzy Cinema had the words “David Bowie - Our Brixton Boy - RIP’ emblazoned across the marquee and the Telecom Tower had his name revolving in lights across London. David Bowie was always big news.
On the 15th January the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra played a sold out Jazz Cafe. It was so packed we received a couple of complaints. However, not being in charge of ticket sales there was little we could do. However the gig was a stormer, the new songs giving us a new lease of life.
The following day I had a gig with Rhoda at ‘The Queens Head’ in Aylesbury which was also sold out but it being a much smaller country pub this was on a more modest scale. The Landlady made us delicious home made fish and chips, and Rhoda was at her entertaining best fending off drunken offers of marriage to our saxophone player, Magumi. It was another gig the memory of which raised a smile and driving back to London with Paul Tadman afterwards it was great to see powdered snow settle on the fields.
Towards the end of January Lee Thompson and Mark Bedford received the relative bomb shell from Dave Robinson (the legendary head of Stiff Records) that he would like to manage us. However there have been disagreements about some of the mixes that Robbo has supervised for us which made this news all the more surprising. Certainly his love of the band is genuine and that is a fantastic complement from a man who has worked with Hendrix, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and the Blockheads and etc. etc.
The problem mixes wouldn’t go away. A quorum of us - Lee, Mark, Mez, Seamus and myself - met at The George across from Borough Market, a Coach House that Charles Dickens described in ‘Pickwick Papers’. We all agreed that - for the most part - the mixes simply didn’t groove . . . but who was to tell Robbo. In the end Lee said he would have a chat with him that night but when Robbo rang me later it was clear he’d received no phone call and he was still expecting me to turn up at the studio the following day so I had the disconcerting task of telling him myself. I rang Mark who responded, “That makes an awkward situation even more awkward” but added “Bottom line is: we’re not paying to promote an album we don’t particularly like.” The result was a brief note from Robbo who said he was ‘backing off’. Happily he didn’t mean entirely; just the mixes. He is a good man to have on your side! In the meantime I completed a fourth painting to accompany my forthcoming EP ‘Paris Sketches’.
On the 8th February, Mez and I went to Seamus’s to demo alternate harmonies for ‘Sweet and Dandy’, edits on ‘Cry To Me’ and ‘Hongry’ and generally discussed our approach to the remixes of the album. By the end of the day we thought we had found a way forward but the responsibility sat pretty heavily with all of us.
Melody on my birthday, served up a marvellous breakfast for me (she could now give any chef in the country a run for his money) and we had lunch at a French Restaurant on Charlotte Street before taking in the film, ‘My Lady Eve’ at the BFI with my Mum. I can’t recall a birthday I have enjoyed more.!
Meanwhile the LTSO had booked a week of evenings at Perry Vale Studios in Forest Hill for the remixes with Pat Collier at the desk. Our decision to accentuate anything that contributed to the groove seemed to work: bass against drums; against piano; the skank on piano and guitar; the organ grooving (often) between the off-beats; having little details ‘pop out’ of the mix. By the second day our nervousness and despondency had vanished - we had the bit between our teeth. In addition to mixing Lee added new vocals to ‘Cuss Cuss’ and Mez, Lee and I christened ourselves ‘The Shuffling Cubans’ on backing vocals in a nod to the great Professor Longhair and his ‘Shuffling Hungarians’ - a moniker bordering on genius. In an intense week we tackled everything we intended to and were very happy with the results. On the last day I dashed from the studio to join Rhoda and the band supporting Horace Panter’s Uptown Ska Collective at The Fox and Firkin in Lewisham. There I agreed with Horace that we would take out time learning the arrangements for the forthcoming Doug Veitch gigs in April. Having dashed straight from the studio I hadn’t had a chance to sound check so I was thrown into the deep end tackling three keyboards lent to me by Horace’s band - a baptism of fire. The highlight of the night for me was Rhoda’s Marcel Marceau impersonation whilst drinking a glass of water - which got an encore!
The following day, Saturday 20th February, I again travelled to s studio south of the river; this time to Sphere Studios in Clapham to record with Gareth Huw Davies (on Double Bass) my ‘Paris Sketches’. The studio is not a place I could possibly afford (I believe it belongs to the Producer of Simply Red) but Gareth lodges his grand piano there and works there occasionally so we had an in. It took a while to relax and get the takes I wanted and Gareth did an excellent job on Double Bass and Production. By 6 pm we knew we had it. I was a very happy man on the train back to Camden.
The beginning of March saw the release of the second EP by ‘Mole’: ‘The Grand Tour’. I continue to be delighted with the playing of everyone on this project; take it from me this is well worth checking out. And another project was initiated this month. Paul Tadman and Rhoda Dakar started to convene at mine to work on new material for a recording Rhoda is planning entitled the ‘Lo-Tek-Four’, a series of EP’s stripping songs down to their essence and recorded acoustically to the highest quality. Very exciting - let us see where this leads us.
On the 19th (March) I boarded a train to Sheffield to play with Rhoda and the band at The Embassy Club in Sheffield. With a flask, sandwiches and a book I looked forward to a restful, relaxed journey. However an hour in the train stopped at nowhere in particular. Eventually the tannoy boomed that there had been an ‘incident on the line’ (it turned out to be a suicide) and the train crawled to Leicester and we were ushered out of the station to await coaches. Terry Edwards - on saxophone duties - rang me from the train behind mine and told me that he was now at Leicester as well and he had been told to proceed to Platform 3b - a message that certainly hadn’t been conveyed to us outside the station. I dashed back in and managed to board that. We got as far as Derby and - again - were told to disembark (cue a chorus of loud groans). I now felt terrible with the return of a bout of flu I thought I had recovered from the day before. We finally boarded another train but now - feeling increasingly feverish - I lay down beneath a luggage shelf in the corridor only to be joined by a lively farting dog for the rest of the way. To misery you could now add nausea. Terry and I jumped a taxi to the venue but we had missed the sound check. The dressing room was handily placed between the pub section - in which a very loud Karaoke was in full swing - and the main club area in which we recorded a decibel level of 109! We complained to ‘Goblin’, (“Just call me Goblin”) the sound man, during the performance who appeared to sulk for the rest of the evening. You could say we suffered for our art! Then it was the long drive home stopping at a deserted Newport Pagnell for a coffee at three in the morning. I crawled into bed around five with a streaming nose, and a full blown fever . . . Ha! the glamour! And beware the cacophonous Goblin of The Embassy, Sheffield.
The following Friday - the 25th March - we had an even longer hike to a Scooter Rally in Whitby. For this Rhoda had hired a splitter van and driver; essential for such a long haul. Magumi replaced Terry on saxophone and Danny replaced Lenny . . . (my we’re a busy bunch of people). A seven hour drive and we finally entered the town in which Bram Stoker had Dracula arrive in England and I was keeping my eyes peeled for the graveyard and church he so memorably described in the novel. Here - in stark contrast to Sheffield - the sound men were excellent and - after soundcheck - we got back in the van to head back down to the Port to sample the fish and chips. There they could name the trawler on which our fish had been caught and they proudly proclaimed that their chips were exclusively Maris Piper and they were truly excellent. I noticed, back at the venue, that there was scant evidence of any scooters and mentioned this to the promoter. He looked at the audience happily drinking and smoking outside getting ready for a real Northern night out and grinned: “Well - they’re possibly a bit past that now I think”. We might no longer be teenagers but that doesn’t mean we are entirely grown up! And it was a great night. This time I crawled into bed back in London at roughly eight o clock in the morning!
On the 13th April I heard Paul Whitehouse on Radio 4’s Midweek programme (promoting his and David Cummings’s excellent ‘Nurse’ series) comment that - at University - he “. . . wasn’t exactly focused”. I’ll say, Paul. I was there! Neither was I come to that so I will draw a discreet curtain over past extra curricular activities. It was fun though! Then it was off to Coventry to play ‘The Arches’ with Champion Doug Veitch which was the first of two gigs in two days with him (the other being the 100 Club in London).This time the train journey was hitch free. Walking through Coventry in fine sunshine I found a Mediaeval street in which ancient buildings housed Kebab shops and Beauty Parlours and - bizarrely - there was a contemporary design award placed on one of them. Our drummer, Rick Medlock’s wife, solved the puzzle for me later telling me that they had ‘rounded up’ all the Mediaeval buildings left in the city after the war and created this street with them; hence the award. We rehearsed at the venue all afternoon without the brass section who finally arrived (from Cornwall) at 6 pm. As well as a music venue The Arches houses a snooker room and the staff told me that Ronnie O Sullivan had played an exhibition match there the week before: “He was very nice if you managed to speak to him but he was ushered around by his manager who was a complete bastard.” A customer at the bar nodded: “Not a very nice man” he said. What a strange lonely life; playing exhibitions whilst being shielded from all human contact by a ‘complete bastard’. Chatting with Martin Bell, our M.D, and fiddler I expressed my condolences for the death of his father. Martin was phlegmatic: “Well . . . he had a good innings . . . especially if you consider the sixteen or seventeen mistresses he had going at one time in Leamington. And now my mother’s shacked up with her lesbian lover and she’s in her eighties!” ‘Families!’ we agreed, ‘aren’t they just great!’ Doug drove me back to the hotel so that I could lie down before the gig. The Coventry Hill Hotel looked like an old style Soviet block and was decorated in hideous 1970’s brown and oranges. They actually asked if I would like a smoking room which tempted me to take up the habit again just to complete the 1970’s time travel experience but desisted - not before being informed by the receptionist that you have to blow smoke out of the windows to “avoid the smoke detectors.” I suggested to Doug that perhaps we could get something to eat before returning to the venue but he looked so horrified at the idea we settled for a chippie near the venue. Horace Panter’s country outfit supported us and we put in a very good show but, sadly, it wasn’t as well attended as we hoped but those there loved it and quite a few (middle-aged and overweight) regulars said that we had got them dancing and “. . . we’ve NEVER danced here before”. Doug got lost driving back to the Hotel (for a second time!) so there was plenty of swearing and blinding at the Sat-nav and Coventry in general.
The following morning I woke to scalding hot radiators and opened the windows. The Hotel was not central and I was told by reception that there was an hourly bus from the ‘village’ down the road. I observed a Northern rush hour from the top deck which somehow took me back to my school days in Lancaster oh so long ago. I could find nowhere more picturesque for breakfast than a Weatherspoon’s. Then to the station for the train back to Euston to prepare for the gig at the 100 Club later in the day. We arrived at 6 pm to find that the club kept losing power due to the Cross Rail works outside. We set up by torchlight being constantly assured that power would return ‘in half an hour’. However the situation merely deteriorated until Doug was left with little choice but to cancel the gig; too dangerous to risk a power surge on the deck or have the audience plunged into complete darkness. Unfortunately this was the gig that would have paid for the whole two day adventure. We had done all that work and been denied a chance to even play; I commented that it was “like ordering a drink, spilling it all and then being told that the bar had shut,” and the commiserating sound man added “And then being told to clear up the mess!” Yes - that was about the size of it. Doug did the right thing but it cost him dear - hopefully he will receive some compensation.
The following Saturday saw me rehearsing in High Barnet with the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra for a gig later that evening at Boisdale - a high end dining establishment in London’s Docklands. After rehearsal I drove there with Mark Bedford marvelling at how like The Emerald City in Oz, Docklands looked from the markedly more run down environs of Commercial Road. A lift bore us from an underground car park to the plush interiors - textured Tartan wallpaper, rich red patterned carpets and bespoke artworks - of Boisdale. After soundcheck and a delicious ‘Haggis, Neeps and Tatties’ Seamus and I went out to explore the strange world of Docklands at the weekend. Most of the bars and restaurants are largely deserted. We had a coffee and discussed Hammond Organ technique - few people know the Hammond organ better than Seamus! The gig - despite Lee’s reservations about the suitability of the venue for us - was fantastic though our most loyal fans stood in marked contrast to the gold-cuff linked regular crowd. Darren (bless him) had enjoyed a little too much of the fine red wine we had been given with the result that his backing vocals verged on’yobbo’ rather than ‘crooner’ in terms of quality. He later tried to blame this on a bout of flu but that is the first time I have encountered this little know side effect. “Lesson learnt!” he emailed later, “Never again!” Well: we’ve all been there.
The following Thursday (21st April) it was another journey out with Rhoda Dakar to play the opening gig at Skamouth in Great Yarmouth. The railway station there is truly the end of the line and looks it. There I met our guitarist, Lenny Bignell and we spent an hour wandering around looking for the venue, Vauxhall Caravan Park, before ringing Rhoda in desperation and getting directions from her. We settled into our caravans and with two hours to fill before a line check we (Terry Edwards, Paul Tadman, Mark Clayden, Lenny and myself) decided to wander down to the promenade. What a place! Hardly anyone there! All the usual trappings: arcades, a pier, tea-rooms, pubs and desolate looking fun fairs. We had a drink in the pier bar, the only other occupant studying racing form in a newspaper spread out in front of him. As we looked out of the window we spotted a shuttered cafe called ‘Prince’s Tea Rooms’ just as Mark looked up from his mobile and said, “Prince has just died!” To commemorate this shocking news Terry and I took each others photographs outside the Tea Rooms - celebrity mortality has suddenly become a weekly preoccupation! On the way back to the gig we bought some chips (and scratchings! - fantastic!). The gig was punctuated with lots of laughter and the crowd was enthusiastic, clearly gearing up for an epic weekend. Afterwards I had a not-very-good orange juice followed by a not-very-good portion of chicken nuggets at the only food outlet that seemed to be open. Then - under an impressive moon - back to the caravan and bed.
Determined to see more of Yarmouth before my train at midday I set off back to the seafront after farewells to the band. It was bright but chilly and a jogger labouring towards me, his jowls wobbling in time to his steps, said breathlessly, “Good gig last night”; “Cheers” I shouted at his retreating figure as he laboured up the hill towards the caravan site. On the seafront I sketched an extraordinary old theatre - The Empire - now looking forlorn and forgotten, before having breakfast in a little shack on the prom complete with tied back curtains and yellow and blue decor . . . I was their only customer. Walking along the prom I encountered several wonderful buildings - mainly derelict - full of the ghosts of holiday makers past. The Windmill Theatre listed Tommy Trinder, Morecambe and Wise, Max Wall and a host of other veterans from another era as having played there. And looking out to sea it was exhilarating to see vast expanses of deserted beach. I headed inland to the back streets, stopping to look at a pub set in a terraced house called The Red Herring next to which was a house with a framed photograph of an old lady in blue placed in the centre of the bay window. The front door and garden were full of ornaments and mementos and an old man was struggling out, resplendent in a scarf, slightly soiled suit, moustache and trilby. He noticed me looking at the photograph and said, “That’s my dear wife. She died four years ago. I’m devastated still.” The order of the wording struck me and I listened. “I’m ninety four years old” he announced to which I replied, “And looking good,”. He looked me up and down: “You don’t look bad yourself” he replied. He opened his bag clearly wanting to show me something and as he rummaged around amongst exercise books and bits of paper he said “I like to talk you see”. He pulled out some photographs, ancient, a little faded: “That’s me in the Navy; Able Seaman so there isn’t much I can’t do. And that’s me . . . a choir boy” He smiled at me and at the memory. Finding out I was a pianist he brightened up: “I would have been in showbiz like a shot . . . if it hadn’t been for the war . . . I’m a cockney. Can you hear the accent?” He had taught himself piano in East End pubs and said he had to stop when he went to sea, “Just before I got as good as Nat King Cole”. I nodded, impressed. He then showed me a photograph of a golden statue: “That is in the back yard. A hundred and fifty quid it cost me. I’m an artist too, see. I covered it in four layers of gold leaf. It’s a tribute to my dear wife”. He thought for a while and then said “We’re all a bit mad us artists”. I laughed my agreement. “I’m getting a little old now” he said staring down the street. We shook hands and I wished him luck. As I walked away I looked back to see him stop and adjust the bags on his zimmer frame underneath a sign on The Red Herring that proclaimed, below a picture of a foaming pint of beer, ‘Happiness is Hand Pulled”.
Just up the road I stumbled upon ‘The World’s Most Sensational Room’. I had been tempted in by a sign that proclaimed ‘We Are A Museum’. An old lady at the counter said she had been running it for charity for thirty years and the donation was £3.00. The opening room was cluttered with Royal memorabilia and the old ladies’ assistant - a no-nonsense women in her fifties - handed me a stereoscopic viewer and said,”If you can touch it you can play with it”. There was a cabinet displaying dry clay models of market stalls. In explanation she said, “Her husband died so she took this up as a hobby. Beautiful aren’t they”. Next to this another cabinet was full of ‘An Amazing collection of Working Models made entirely out of Matchsticks.’ I wondered if the entire museum was devoted to the various hobbies of widows and widowers. It turned out that the old ladies father had run an acrobatic troupe in the early 1900’s which brings us to ‘The World’s Most Sensational Room’. One of her father’s colleagues had had to retire due to an accident and had spent his remaining forty years covering an entire room and everything in it - guitars, a piano, pictures, chairs, tables - with postage stamps. The room was set behind some bars like a bizarre prison cell. A placard displaying an old newspaper proclaimed the whole thing ‘A Labour of Love’ with a blurred photograph of the acrobat, now an old man. “People come from all over the world to see this” said No-Nonsense, “There are three Penny Blacks in there”, and she visibly swelled with pride.
Then to the market and chips at ‘Thompson’s Fish Stall’ fulfilling a promise to Lee who had ‘family connections’ with it (“Done old style with dripping” he had told me.) On the train out of Great Yarmouth I stared out of the window at the flat, watery Broads and remembered the heavy sea fogs we used to get in Norwich. Other Worldly.
Dave Graney and Clare Moore arrived in London from a tour of Europe, and on the 6th May, I cycled to The Betsy Trotwood on Farringdon Road to see them play. They were - of course - brilliant. Every time I hear Dave’s sardonic, soaring delivery I am transported back to my time with them as a Coral Snake in the late 1980’s. They told me that many Australian bands buy cheap flights and THEN book a tour; there is a website with great deals to and from Australia. “It’s better that way ‘round” said Dave, “There are some great deals.” He was suggesting I do the same and told me there would be little problem getting a couple of gigs in Melbourne. This I must do (as soon as I have enough money . . . and time!). It was especially good to see them perform songs that I had recorded with them back in the 1980’s and to see people like the artist, Dave Western who I haven’t seen since the last time Graney was in town. The following Sunday I went for lunch with them and caught up with them properly. Then we went to Foyles and Dave got stuck in the Poetry department, “But everything’s too heavy” he said, before dryly adding, “For my baggage allowance”.
I had promised to be interviewed for a film that has been crowd funded about Dave and Clare’s career. Nick, the director, was to come the following Thursday, the 12th May, to film me talking and playing snatches of Dave’s songs on the piano. I was expecting him in the morning but, with refreshing Australian candour he rang to say that he had an ‘all-mighty hangover’ and could he make it the afternoon. When he arrived he stopped at the door in sudden thought and said “That was stupid” and entered. He had forgotten his tripod. We ended up improvising with chairs, books and boxes of jigsaw puzzles. He also had a camera the like of which I have never seen; even squashed against the far corner of the room he couldn’t get more than my head and shoulders into a shot. So I talked and played and answered questions about Dave and he seemed very happy with the results. I look forward to seeing the complete film.
The following day I was filming again, this time for Frank Higson (son of Charlie) who wanted to film me telling stories from the piano. He had ben struck by my habit of responding to any question with a torrent of stories that - though linked - become less and less relevant to the question that had been asked - I think the first idea he had was for his animation team to create a character who does this. Frequently after ten minutes of free association I would look at the camera blankly and say “How did I get there?”. It seemed to go well and - again - I look forward to seeing the results . . . that is if any of my free associations are usable and/or entertaining.
After I had finished teaching for the day on Tuesday 17th May, I dashed by train to Maidenhead and was met by fellow Old Codger (of UEA), Ray Vaughan, who organises an annual Manchester United dinner in which Man. Utd. players of the past are invited, memorabilia is auctioned for charity and we get to meet names I vividly remember seeing on television as a teenager (and beyond). This was held at a beautiful country pub in Hurley called The Old Bell. Fellow Old Codger, Steve Hackett was also invited over from Paris. Before the dinner we settled into our rooms: four poster beds, wonderful views of the gardens and orchards, and very posh soap and shampoo! Each player was allocated a table and we were lucky enough to get Gary ‘Pally’ Pallister who was hugely entertaining. Amongst many stories, he told us of the free kick he scored the first time he was on Match of the Day. His celebrations had included the phrase ‘Fucking get in there!.’ He continued: “Ma Gran. read my lips and gave me a right clout when I got home - disgracing the family, swearing on the telly” The food was great and I won Pally’s autobiography in the raffle which he signed to ‘King Louis’. The final entertainment of the night was a comedian: Max Pressure whose material was extraordinarily filthy. However my favourite moment was, when a member of the audience walked across the raised dais in the centre of the room from which Max was performing. He looked resignedly after him and said “It’s just a stage he’s going through.” Of course he was targeting members of the audience and I thought I’d got away with it until:
“How the fuck did I miss you? Fucking earrings; fucking hat; bloody hell . . . ye alright?”
We found out that our room’s past lodgers had included Boris Karloff, Errol Flynn, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. There are film studios not far away. The following morning (after a luxuriant bath with a view of the orchard) Steve and I were certain we could identify locations around the pub and hotel that had been used in old British films. Breakfast included the best black pudding I have ever tasted and I decided to walk by the Thames some of the way back to Maidenhead. Steve accompanied me as far as the banks through a pleasant drizzle and I pushed on to Marlow. However the drizzle soon turned into a torrent and as I got on the single track railway there, I was soaked right through - my coat, my hat, my suit . . . even my underwear. The views however had that kind of archaic beauty that you encounter in that vintage period of English films - the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Friday 20th May at 5 o clock in the morning saw me in St Pancras Station for a weekend in Paris to record ambient sounds to include in ‘Paris Sketches’. I had a minute or two to spare before before catching the Eurostar so sat at one of their public pianos and started playing. Thirty seconds later a lady passed and slammed some money on top of the piano and winked at me. When I looked it was £7.50! Wow - that works out at £150.00 an hour. Just a shame it was a mere thirty second gig. I had booked a flat in the Batignolles area which gave me good access to Montmartre and the centre of Paris in general. Besides recording (Crows in Montmartre cemetery, Church Bells in Montmartre etc) I visited an exhibition of paintings from the Montmartre school of painters who lived and worked there between the 1850’s and the 1930’s which absolutely blew my mind. Montmartre Museum is a hidden gem; I highly recommend a visit.
On the Saturday I met up with Steve Hackett at the studio he uses in Montparnasse for his Pottery and general creations in clay. We then went to an Irish pub near The Eiffel Tower to watch the FA Cup Final. There we met a group of English expatriates, one of whom - by a remarkable co-incidence - attended UEA in 1976 which was our period there. The match itself was not one of the greatest but Man Utd. won and Steve was visibly a little ‘over-refreshed’ by the end; “It’s the tension!” he exclaimed. We finished the night with a meal in an Italian Delicatessen. I spent the final day - Sunday - roaming with my microphone before catching the train back in the evening. Paris is always rejuvenating and exhausting in equal measure.
My six monthly check at the hospital (for the liver transplant) yielded startling news. They are conducting a study in which they think it might be possible to take liver transplant patients off anti rejection drugs and asked - as I have been doing so well - if I was interested in taking part. “Of course” I cried. Their delight in how well I am doing is infectious. It is strange to think that, had I not been lucky enough to find a matching donor, I would now be dead. No doubt this is the reason I cram so much into my life now - a time I might never have had. Remember folks! Life is precious. Live it!
Back in London I went to a party thrown by Angela Wint in Leytonstone and it was a joy to sing with my old Hackney Five-0 compadres: Jim Reilly - still one of the greatest lyricists north of the Antarctic - and Chris Barter our bassist. There is so much you don’t have to say with such old friends, and so much unsaid that provokes laughter merely from the memory. We talked of writing and playing together again; the only barrier seems to be time.
Monday 6th June and Rhoda Dakar etc. got down to rehearsing properly as a band, the new songs we have been writing which seemed to work very well. And the following day I went to Gareth Huw Davies’s place to insert the ambient Parisian sounds into ‘Paris Sketches’ and master it. However I didn’t have quite enough recordings to finish the job so that will entail a further trip to Paris in the next couple of months. However the solo piano versions sound excellent - and I am delighted with my performance of them.
Gareth invited me to a gig he was doing the following night at the Dover Street Arts Club. I haven’t been there since working at Quartet Books in 1985 when we launched a book by the great V.S Pritchett (who must have been in his nineties then). The gig was in aid of the Nordoff Robbins charity and Gareth and the band were backing singer and philanthropist, Miel de Botton (sister of Alain) in a set of French chansons some of which she had written herself. The music was as diverting as the venue and the audience positively reeked of money. The snacks, handed around by impeccably suited waiters were a constant delight but star prize has to go to The Arts Club itself. Framed portraits of regulars lined the walls (port sodden regulars don’t change very much) and - framed at the bottom of the stairs - was a cheque from Charles Dickens. Did his celebrity give him free member ship? I should have asked!
Out of the blue at the beginning of June The Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra were approached by Boots the Chemist to take part in a commercial for their Audiology Department. They wanted an ‘older band’ some of whose members were likely to have some degree of hearing loss. I dutifully turned up at Boots in Oxford Street for a hearing test but the wax in my ears made one impossible so they referred me to a Harley Street specialist who spent an hour, with a combination of ear washes and suction tools, clearing out the offending wax (at one point he muttered “I won’t be beaten”). However it was discovered that both Lee Thompson and Andy Neal had a degree of hearing loss so they could be our guinea pigs. The first part of the filming took place on ‘The Lightship’, a boat in Docklands on the Thames, supposedly rehearsing (as you would). Enter a lady in Boots uniform; we all stop playing and look at her in surprise as she asks “Hi. I’m Nav from the Boots audiology department. Who would like a hearing test?” (this of course is normal too!!). We spent time in the gaps between filming, watching the England v. Wales match in the catering bus . . . and what a delicious lunch! Lee and Andy were fitted with hearing aids and interviewed and we ended the day in discussions about filming a ‘gig’ that they have set up at the Dublin Castle where Lee and Andy could be interviewed as to their efficiency as well as getting shots of the band in full swing.
In the meantime, on Saturday 11th June, I had a gig at the 100 Club with Rhoda Dakar where we continued to bed in the new tunes - it is usually best to ‘road test’ new tunes before they are recorded. As we started ‘Dreamland’ Lynval Golding joined us on stage, stopped us, gave a little speech about Rico, then joined us as co-lead vocalist. Fantastic stuff!
The following Wednesday had been booked for the ‘Boots gig’. I had been investigating the possibility of getting some genuine fans there but this proved impossible - I could not see how we could notify 50 fans without alerting hundreds which would have made filming almost impossible so we looked forward to playing to an audience of paid extras. There were some initial tensions between Robbo and songwriters in the band regarding permissions - there had been no time to inform them of the contracts involved. In the end the only song involved was ‘Feel a Little Better’ which Andy - the writer - was fine as to it’s usage. We played three (I think) sets of three songs and added ‘Everybody’s Free’ by Rozilla which is the Boots campaign song. The sets got an enthusiastic response from the crowd (Note to self: they WERE being paid!). After playing we did shots of us entering the venue and Lee, Andy and myself were interviewed about our hearing. We are trying to rid ourselves of the habit of saying ‘Pardon’ to everything anyone says to us! (Ho Ho Ho). The evening ended on a high for Robbo with a brilliant performance from Ireland in the Euros which we watched in the bar as all the paraphernalia of filming was dismantled around us.
Then, on Friday 24th June, Brexit happened. Instinctively I was for remaining. Forget the economic arguments which are totally unpredictable. I was instinctively for remaining - the World has to pull together to confront worldwide problems such as Climate change and the refugee crisis. I also had no trust whatever in the team of politicians advocating leaving Europe which was vindicated by Nigel Farage proclaiming at 6 o clock in the morning that the vow to redirect the millions we send to Europe into the NHS as having been a ‘mistake’!
It’s only on your Battle Bus Nigel! For us musicians (and - I believe - for the country) this is pretty much a disaster in my book. The freedom to work all over Europe has been a Godsend to us who have to work abroad. With a heavy heart I was on the train to Glastonbury to play two shows with Rhoda: Left Field on the Friday and The Hell Stage on Saturday. If there was a place to be on this day it was Left Field with Billy Bragg playing a storming set that night. The audience sang along to ‘New England’ with such commitment and tune-fullness that I had tears in my eyes watching from the wings. I retired to my tent (in the rain) hugely grateful to be there. One of the bonus’s of being a performer is that our camping area had four showers which made us all fell brand new the following morning. At Saturday lunchtime we waded through the mud to the Pyramid Stage to see Squeeze. What a fantastic back catalogue, extraordinary sound and impeccable playing. I do hope they are proud of their achievements - they should be; best band I have seen in some time.
The Hell Stage later on didn’t live up to its name but the journeys there and back from the Left Field did. Glastonbury has got too big and the security passes were in a mess. It took an hour and a half to get back after the gig which nearly scuppered the chance of Tad, Lenny and Mark getting back to London that night. Meanwhile I had fun in the hospitality tent with Rhoda (who was DJ’ing - sort of) and the organisers of Left Field until two in the morning really glad to be part of this temporary ‘family’. I slept soundly and spent the morning having breakfast, breaking camp and generally preparing to leave. I was driven back to the perimeter for the bus to the train station (thank God!) and we were hosed down by porters at Castle Cary which decreased our weight by some pounds what with all the mud clinging to our boots.
So a full, hectic six months. Mostly good; the occasional stress; In short - LIFE!