(Musical) sweepings from the factory floor
My favourite definition (largely because I thought it up) of “esoteric” is “of huge interest to virtually nobody”.
This page qualifies superbly for that description and is where I’ll dump whatever odd musical memories occur to me. (See Note below for probable origin of the phrase in the title.) There’ll be no particular order and nothing but esoteric trivia will be included.
Obviously over nearly 60 years of playing, some gigs stick in your memory more than others – radio and TV broadcasts (largely because I haven’t done all that many), playing on a single that reached number 14 in the charts, and of course memorable performances ranging from playing guitar for Screaming Lord Sutch to playing solo piano for Matt Monro. But others stick in the memory purely because of their quirky nature. Here are a few:
– playing the music for two silent films. The first was back in the 1960s for the 50th anniversary of a Bournemouth engineering company. I had no idea of how to go about it, but consulted my mum, who’d worked as a silent cinema pianist for a while in her youth. Aside from teaching me a couple of suitable tunes, she taught me the knack of watching the movie and fitting the music to what’s happening on the screen at any given time. That’s harder than you might think, as it means instantly ‘composing’ and playing something suitable while you’re watching the action. About 20 years later, in 1986, I did something similar for a video for ‘100 Years of Heinz’, celebrating the food company’s centenary. (I’ve still got the video of that).
– playing piano accordian. I’ve done that only once, for the Giles brothers at the EMI studios at Abbey Road. For most of the recording session (which was produced by Bill Le Sage, the jazz musician), I played the studio grand piano that was used by Paul McCartney on several Beatles’ tracks, but for ‘One In a Million’ I had to use a piano accordian. My part wasn’t difficult to play, but I kept forgetting to squeeze the damned thing, so the early takes sounded like the last gasps of a deflating balloon. The end result did, however, make it onto the album The Giles Brothers (1962-1967).
– playing on ice. I’ve played on boats several times, but in 1964 Trendsetters Limited did a gig at the Westover Road Ice Rink in Bournemouth, where one night a week accomplished skaters liked to show off their prowess at jiving or doing the twist on skates (waltzing would no doubt have resulted in serious injuries). The ‘stage’ comprised merely a raft of wooden pallets resting on the ice and although the piano, amps etc had already been set up for us, we still had to shuffle across the whole width of the rink to reach it, by which time we were all too cold to play properly. Our management did relent and allow us to play in overcoats, but we declined to stay on for an encore.
– playing in my sleep. During the late 1990s/early2000s Rig and I used to holiday regularly at Longboat Key, on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Pretty soon we befriended Dennis, the pianist at ‘Poseidon’, the local restaurant/bar on Gulf of Mexico Drive, and I often used to sit in for a few numbers at Dennis’s invitation. One night, after a particularly heavy day’s drinking, I woke up and, to my dismay, found myself sitting at the piano, playing and singing ‘Route 66’ to a crowded dining room. I had absolutely no recollection of getting up to play, and had never sung the song before. I suppose I must have woken up as I’d reached the point where I didn’t know the lyrics, but I managed to launch into a piano solo, and even got a round of applause at the end. (Longboat Key must have more than its share of profoundly-deaf visitors.)
The Giles brothers
My first memory of Michael Giles, later of King Crimson, and then known as “Mick” Giles, is of him playing drums in a group in one of the many competitions held in Bournemouth in the late 1950s. The name painted on the front of his bass-drum was, however, Cal Thorpe, an early attempt at a cool-sounding stage name. (Michael told me a few years ago that he adopted the name as he then owned a Calthorpe motorbike.) I don’t remember if his younger brother Pete (whom I briefly remember from Bournemouth School, though he was a year younger than me) was playing bass at the time, but over the years I played with both Mick and Pete: with Dave Anthony and the Rebels in 1961; Trendsetters Ltd. in 1964; a couple of recording sessions*; and finally, as far as Peter was concerned, in the 1980s/90s with Birdland, the jazz quartet in which we played at Palookaville, Covent Garden, plus many other London venues.
Over the years I’ve kept in touch, albeit infrequently, with Mike and Pete. As I write (July 2013) I saw Pete and his talented wife a few weeks ago and in two days time will be having lunch with Mike. In both cases as soon as we get together it’s like the intervening years just vanish and it’s one long laugh – always the sign of really good friendships.
*One with Giles, Giles and Fripp, and one with The Trend at Abbey Road studios, where we spotted a drum kit at the far end of the room and lifted up the blanket covering it to reveal a bass drum with “Ludwig: The Beatles” on it. (The Beatles were in India at the time.) The 4 tracks done at Abbey Road that day, which were produced by the eminent jazz musician Bill le Sage, were released in 2009 on The Giles Brothers album, and the one with GG&F is on The Brondesbury Tapes – see Discography.
My Guitars etc.
My first guitar was a second-hand acoustic with a warped neck, bought from a junk shop in Pokesdown, Bournemouth. I think I stuck an old RAF throat-mike on it and ran it through an old radio amplifier so I could try out bits of lead guitar, but I soon switched to a Hofner Senator acoustic, bought on the never-never (i.e. hire purchase, or HP for short) from Don Strike’s guitar shop in Westbourne Arcade. That had a proper pickup built into it and I soon added a vibrato device to the bridge. That only tightened the strings, unlike a proper tremolo arm which tightened and loosened them, but you could get a sort of vibrato effect, albeit only by raising the pitch back and forth quickly. Around this time (1959/60), however, solid electric guitars were starting to appear and the first Fender Stratocaster in Bournemouth was bought from Don Strike by Roger Collis (with whom I’d later play in Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band). I couldn’t run to the cost of one of those, but one day saw an advertisement in the Melody Maker for a cheap second-hand Burns Weill solid guitar. The address was somewhere near Shepherds Bush, London, but I persuaded my good friend Eddie Evans (aka Ed Roberts) to go up to London with me and after a bit of wandering about we found ourselves in the flat of Henry Weill, one of the manufacturers of Burns Weill guitars. He was an electronics man, who’d recently split with James Ormston Burns. I liked the look of the guitar and its feel (it had a narrower neck than my Hofner and a lower action), plus the fact that it had a proper tremolo arm, and I quickly bought it.
As well as the technical improvements over my old Hofner, the Burns Weill was a lot cooler-looking (see Gallery 1960s) and its small size meant that we could much more easly carry out stage movements copied from The Shadows and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. I can’t recall the amplifier that I used (though I did have a Selmer echo unit, whose little spools of tape regularly snapped during a gig – most guitarists used the more reliable Watkins Copycat), but by the time of Dave Anthony and the Ravers we were running guitar, bass and vocals through a Watkins Dominator amp. that I somehow managed to carry to gigs under my arm while sitting on the back of the trials bike belonging to Jet Berryman, the bass-player. His bass and my guitar were slung over my shoulder.
The Burns Weill guitar did, however, suffer from one design fault. Between the bridge and each of the strings was an individual tiny slug of metal, which wasn’t recessed into the bridge but stood out proud of it. These occasionally tended to fly off when a string was plucked too hard, putting the string about half a semitone flat and dropping its volume (though not enough to avoid being noticed). That necessitated me frantically trying to retune the string until I could replace the metal slug at the end of the set, and/or trying to avoid using the string in question. The problem occurred regularly, including the only time I depped for the great Roy Phillips, later keyboardist with The Peddlers, but then guitarist with The Dowland Brothers. The Dowlands (whom I knew quite well) never asked me to play guitar with them again, though I did do a guest spot with them as a pianist a few years later at Bournemouth Town Hall. (I opened with Floyd Cramer’s “On the Rebound” and was terrified, though it went down ok.)
Note. The phrase “sweepings from the factory floor” was how Domino cigarettes were decribed in the mid-’50s. If you couldn’t afford packets of 5 Woodbines or Players Weights, you could get by with paper packets containing 4 Domino cigarettes. A Domino tasted absolutely foul, but at least it was a smoke and a packet of 4 only cost 6d (2.5 pence). The trick was to avoid spilling the tobacco out of the cigarette paper when you tried to light one.