Who Month. Out of my brain on the 5:15

I was trying to make sense of this Rock thing. By 1973 the world of rock was beginning to really captivate me. It was a journey without a map, all I had was the New Musical Express and late-night radio shows. Occasionally I would catch The Old Grey Whistle Test but that tended to confuse matters as it seemed to feature Californian singer songwriters rather heavily.
As I commented previously, the Who were always around, particularly Pete Townsend who seemed to have a one-man crusade to communicate with as many people in as many formats as much of the time as possible.
And so, it was on one late night show that I came across Townsend talking about his latest ‘project’. It was another rock opera (at this point I hadn’t even got to grips with his first which had recently been remade in some terrible orchestral ‘project’). The star of this new opera would not be Tommy but Jimmy and Jimmy would have four different aspects to his personality which would be represented by the four distinctly different members of the band. Jimmy would not be schizophrenic he would be Quadrophonic which by no co incidence at all was the prevailing audio technology of the day designed for people with more than two ears.
I might have only been an impressionable 14 year old but this was already sounding like complete garbage. Townsend was as usual overreaching himself by creating what was going to be the greatest musical spectacular ever only to have the reality crashing to the ground when it was released to the general public. No wonder he drank!
My schoolmate Phil had an older sister who, every 6 months would buy an album. This would cause us great excitement in our vinyl starved days. You can imagine our anticipation when she brought home the latest double album by the Who, namely Quadrophenia.
Unlike Tommy, Townsend’s second ‘opera’ is actually a pretty good selection of songs, there’s a coherence about the record that Tommy lacked. Apparently, this meant that when they toured the record Daltrey took time out to explain to the audience just what the hell was going on- sounds like fun. Anyway, if you ignore the storyline bollocks and accept there aren’t 4 sides to Jimmy’s personality and the story isn’t that great anyway Quadrophenia is a pretty good album.
Sandwiched between these two events, in my life anyway, was the mighty single 5:15.
This first came to my attention when the band appeared on Top of the Pops (yes they would do that, Fuck you Zeppelin !). With no VCR you had to make the most of these appearances, three minutes or so and they were gone, possibly for ever. The talk in the classroom with my select band of friends the next day was around just how great that performance had been. We had been particularly impressed by Daltrey’s mike swinging which we sought to emulate. By tying a knot in our school scarves, we could stamp about pretending to be Daltrey swinging his mike. Today of course we would have had to undergone a health and safety appraisal but in 1973 we just hoped that we wouldn’t hit anyone tougher than us by accident.

 

https://binged.it/2N58D9i
Anyway…
After a couple of years our school appeared seemed to admit that religious education (RE) was a bit of a mistake. We had spent a year looking at bible stories during which our teacher attempted to persuade us that Jesus was some sort of Hebrew Derren Brown rooting the miracles in some sort of grand illusion. For a following year we received weird life lessons which involved the teacher talking about what the hell they wanted to. All I can remember is one day he played January Song by Lindisfarne and on a further occasion he informed us that after taking LSD you never become a car salesman (really!)
Before we could turn to a rational world and drop RE altogether we had to complete some weird community service and were sent out to do ‘good works’. Along with a couple of fellow classmates I was given the addresses of a couple of elderly people and told to go and ask them if they needed ‘anything doing’. At the first address we were informed by an elderly and possible terrified man that he had no use for us. To be fair he was probably less scared than all of us forced well outside our comfort zones and terrified of looking a fool in front of our peers. At the second address, much to our relief, no one answered. We mooched about the streets for a while and went back to school.
Following our failure to engage with the needy our teacher had a bright idea-we could volunteer at the local mental hospital. There was a psychiatric institution quite near who we all called the ‘loony bin’ of course. Understanding of mental health was almost non existent and individuals with all sorts of problems would be incarcerated in huge Victorian buildings (the’ House on the Hill Kevin Coyne was to sing about’). Due to this separation between the well and not so well there was quite a fascination with ‘madness’ Pink Floyd and David Bowie for example were to carve out careers with their own experiences with mental illness.
It certainly seemed more interesting than old people so off we trotted up the hill twirling our knotted scarves and singing the riff to 5.15.
Amazingly we had had no preparation at all for this, we were simply told to go. I can’t remember how we even got in but soon we were patrolling ancient corridors with absolutely no idea of where we were going. Eventually someone who looked like he might have a job there appeared, we explained our predicament and after a bit of sucking of teeth he led us to a ward.
We were greeted by a doctor ‘thanks god you’ve come’ he said ‘we’ve been expecting you, let me show you where you will be sleeping’. We exchanged worried glances as we were shown our quarters. Eventually some had to point out we hoped to be school by 4pm and hadn’t expected to stay overnight. The Doctor was quite apologetic, he had been expecting a group of junior doctors to be arriving. Now this would have been an understandable mistake had it not been for the fact that we were all 14 years old and dressed in school uniform. We began to suspect the lunatics had taken over the asylum.
We were eventually relocated to another ward where we were delivered to another nurse who wore the expression that would become familiar to me over the years which basically said ‘I’ve got enough to do without you fuckers being dumped on me’. Still, like most nurses she was friendly enough, so friendly in fact that she would kiss some of the inmates on the lips if they asked her to. It appeared that we were now trapped in some overheated smoke tunnel. Somewhere in the gloom were various elderly men sat in chairs, smoking was the main activity but some of the livelier inmates had board games. We were terrified, I don’t think we moved further than a yard from the door in all the time we were there despite the nurses attempt to get us to mingle. At various intervals a man would lurch out of the smoke and grab the door handle ‘thank you, I must be going now’ he would tell us. Nurse would then take him gently by the hand ‘it’s not time to go yet Billy’ she would tell him as she guided him back into the gloom pausing only to kiss anyone who need it. Billy was quite persistent but so was the nurse, it seemed to pass the time.
Eventually, realising that she had landed the most useless volunteers ever the good nurse disappeared to actually do some work. We skulked by the door trying to look as inconspicuous as a gangling bunch of 14-year olds wearing a school uniform in a mental hospital could do. Time dragged, Billy appeared ‘thank you, I must be going now’ he said
And then he was gone..
Time dragged, my lungs were screaming in protest, I was to young to have emphysema. We decided it was time to leave and waved the nurse over. ‘Where’s Billy?’ she asked. We had to admit that Billy had left the building as were we, suddenly the Nurse seemed to have something more urgent on her mind, we took the opportunity to depart.
Now, I swear this is true. As we trudged down the gravel path though the ample grounds we caught sight of Billy being pursued by a number of staff, he seemed to be making a good effort to run but I expect it was only a matter of time..
Anyway, we were out, breathing fresh air and tasting sweet freedom.
In the meantime, the Who were struggling to present the grand concept of Townsend’s latest offering. One problem was that Quadrophenia relied heavily on other instruments notably Townsend’s keyboards and Entwistle’s horn parts. Ironically, given the orchestra that now constitutes the band, all apart from Townsend were resistant to other musicians being involved. The solution they decided was to use tapes, that’s tapes not digital samples, what could go wrong?
It was a disaster, the tapes failed to operate as anyone not in the band might have predicted. Playing along with pre-recorded music is one of the most dispiriting things a musician can do especially a band like the Who. One night the ever cheerful Townsend, exasperated by the tapes starting at the wrong or just not starting at all hauled long suffering sound man Bob Pridden over the mixing desk and basically beat him up in front of the audience and then set about destroying the tapes with his bare hands. Eventually a compromise was reached and a lot of the Quadrophenia material was dropped and Townsends grand folly was over.
At least until he revived the show with a stellar array of stars including Garry Glitter.
But let’s not go there….

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It’s Who Month !

It’s July, and here with The Future Is Past It’s Who month. If you like July and like the Who you are in for a great month !

Or perhaps not…

For me the Who are the most frustrating band ever with the possible exception of the Beach Boys, I love the band, I hate the band, it’s complicated.

In my early to mid teens the band were always there for me. My initial favourites, the Beatles were long gone, never to disappoint. The Stones , of course were still alive and kicking although Keith was challenging that definition. But the Stones were aloof, they were virtually American, also they were getting sloppy and a bit crap.

For a teenager from Norwich the Who were more accessible. They lived in Britain and might just pop up on Top of the Pops or The Old Grey Whistle test, the more charismatic members might turn up on a chat show here and there. Most importantly for me was a radio program where each member of the band was given the spotlight for (as far as I remember) a full hour. I would sit in front of the radio holding the mike to the family tape recorder and committing each show to tape. As well as clips of the featured member talking there was also exerts of music from the band’s career (so far).

In the days before I could afford LP’s I suddenly had a plethora of Who related material to listen to over and over again. The Who were a generous band giving us albums, TV appearances, radio shows and even a film, compare this to Led Zeppelin who zealously guarded their treasures. More fool them because it meant that impressionable youngsters like me formed an alliance to the more accessible band, Fuck you Led Zeppelin!

For most of the 70’s I was a big fan of the 60’s. Classic bands and classic singles, it was inevitable that I was going to like the Who just like the Kinks or the Small Faces. With the possible exception of the Stones the Who were the only one of the class of 66 who were still producing some passible material.

Thanks to Radio 1 I became familiar with Barbara O’Reilly, 5:15, Won’t get Fooled Again and Who are You although one of the first tracks I can remember hearing was Squeezebox off Who by Numbers which confused me no end. There was also a suspicion that, although I would never get to see them, they put on one hell of a live show.

Such was our general good will towards the band that my schoolfriend Phil and me decided to go halves on the sheet music to Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy their contemporary greatest hits album. Theoretically we had the means to play all the classic 60’s singles but anyone who has tried to play rock hits from sheet music will know it’s a disappointing experience. Despite this embryonic band get togethers would feature terrible versions of’ I can see for Miles’ or ‘The Kids are Alright’

The final attraction of the Who was that, like the Beatles or the Monkees, each band member had a distinct personality. It’s a cliché but here was a band with a lead singer, a lead guitarist, a lead bass player and a lead drummer. Ordinary members of the public knew their names, even the bass player.

For a few years the Who were with me every inch of the way in my life, wherever I was I was only a few meters from a Who track.

But the seeds for the destruction of that special relationship had been sown. One of my other musical chums Chris had the Tommy album which we would sit and listen to together. I found the ditties to paedophilia as amusing as any 14 year old would have and there was the mighty ‘Pinball Wizard’ of course but gradually it became apparent to me that Tommy was pretty much a crock of shite, a stupid story with far too much padding in the songs.

It had turned Townsend’s head though, no more did he want to make punchy 3-minute singles, Tommy was hailed as a work of genius and Townsend needed to spread his wings. Unfortunately for him he found himself saddled with some of the most distinctive musicians that ever lived. Townsend became sick of writing for Daltrey’s vocal range and having his masterpieces swamped by the most unique rhythm section ever to take to a stage. Instead of being happy to be part of the greatest rock band of the day Townsend just seemed to become increasingly unhappy with the constraints that that placed on him. Unfortunately, Townsend was capable of writing some utter stinkers and this seemed to increase the more self-important he became. Like most of the 60’s icons the well of inspiration has run dry, I’m fine with that, he’s only human but the couple of new tracks that have crept out in the last decade are terrible, please just stop Pete.

Townsend’s problem was partially resolved by the death of Keith Moon. Kenney Jones took over the drum seat on the assurance that a new era beckoned only to find that the band still had to churn out the old hits and Roger Daltrey hadn’t recovered from the fact that it wasn’t Keith on the drum stool. Having seen videos of the 80’s band I can confirm they are spectacularly terrible and it isn’t Jones’s fault as much as an insistence of Townsend wanting to play terrible guitar solos over disinterested backing.

There’s also the issue for me that the Who are still in existence despite the loss of two members, two members in fact who helped make the band unique, two members who it appears were irreplaceable but have been replaced and Townsend is sharing the stage with someone he appeared to despise in the 70’s. I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Daltrey whose reliability and solidarity has kept the band going when other members were decidedly flaky about the whole affair.

So I’m not sure if I have come to praise or bury the Who but I suppose it speaks volumes that to this day the number of Who albums I own is nil.

For some reason via the miracle of YouTube I have been revisiting what little we have of the band at their peak, for such a credible band they were pretty fond of miming but there’s enough surviving to suggest that the band were just absolutely awesome live.

Here they are at their last proper gig. Townsend is pissed off as ever, his amps are playing up, Keith Moon looks like widow twanky and is huffing and puffing behind the drums. Worst of all, as far is Townsend is concerned, is that wanker Daltrey is holding it all together with his usual professionalism.In theory this should be piss poor ,Townsend has already stated on mike there is no point in filming this but as soon as the music starts he is a man possessed.

Despite it all here is the greatest rock band..ever

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Unsung Heroes- The Wick

Here on The Future Is Past we are willing and able to celebrate the achievements of anyone regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation religion or politics. So, taking equality a step further still, this week’s unsung hero is not even going to be a living breathing entity. Instead we are going to celebrate the bricks and mortar rock sensation that is The Wick.

It was all the fault of the Beatles and the Stones of course. Towards the end of the 60’s there was a minor migration of the rock aristocracy out to the country, for some reason Surrey was a popular destination. All of the Beatles, with the notable exception of Paul McCartney had fled the capitol by the time they had split up. Ditto the Stones had already flirted with their own property portfolios. A notable absence from the property goldrush was the Small Faces whose financial situations remained the stuff of nightmares. By the time they had split the members were struggling to afford a bedsit between them.
As far as the 1970’s was concerned rock never sleeps, a couple of years into the new decade and serious money was being made. Some of the musicians had learned form the mistakes of the 60’s and started hiring accountants as well as managers who had their clients’ best interests at heart. The core of the Small Faces had teamed up with ex Jeff Beck singer and bass player namely Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood. Within a couple of years the band had moved from grandad shirts to satin jackets, from cannabis to cocaine and from bedsit to mansion.
Stewart was clearly the most bankable asset of the band having a solo career as well as being a major songwriter. Soon he was actively being encouraged to buy expensive cars and bigger houses. A major reason for this was tax, the more you spent the less tax you paid as long as your accountant could write the purchases off as expenses. And so Stewart was soon being advised to sell his expensive house and buy an even more expensive one.
Wood had only a fraction of Stewart’s business acumen but even he was realising the potential of property and turned his attention to The Wick, a 20 room 4 story Georgian mansion perched on Richmond Hill in Surrey (of course). This might seem excessive for someone who has been rootless for most of his life so far but this was the 70’s Wood had money and needed to get rid of it.

The property had previously been owned by the actor Sir John Mills but a couple of hundred years earlier had been home to portrait artist Sir Joshua Reynolds. The cost of the property was the laughable sum by today’s standards of £140,000. Despite this it was still too expensive for a still rising pop star but help was at hand in the shape of fellow bandmate Ronnie Lane who agreed to buy the cottage in the grounds and so offset the total cost. Lane set about building a mobile studio at his cottage while Wood, clearly having a lot more space set about converting the basement of his mansion into a rehearsal and recording studio. Obviously 20 rooms would be excessive for just one person but Ron had his wife Krissie. Krissie had originally been Eric Clapton’s girlfriend before her and Ronnie fell for each other big time. This was the period when free love collided with big business, Ronnie and Krissie were products of their time, she clearly had a thing for rockstars managing to squeeze in a low key affair with George Harrison and actually leaving the Wick for a while to have a relationship with Jimmy Page.
And as for Ronnie Wood…
Wood is actually a very talented guy indeed but for whatever reason he’s best remembered as the person that all musicians form that era love. He was a catalyst or the glue as and when needed. He was great with the two things that musicians loved namely music and drugs, if you loved those things you could be assured of a great time at the Wick.
And so, the stately Georgian pile became a gathering place for the emerging rock aristocracy, Clapton, Bowie, Townsend and most importantly, the Stones. When Clapton emerged bloated and shivery after his heroin holiday it was Pete Townsend who gathered a superstar band to welcome him at a concert at London’s the Rainbow. Wood was in the band and rehearsals were at the Wick. The building was becoming the epicentre for the new generation of emerging millionaires. It was secluded and just enough out of London to allow everyone to go about their unlawful businesses without attracting any unwanted attention. Keith Richards so loved the place that he moved into Wick Cottage. Richards was free to so what he wanted which was mainly to take shitloads of drugs and jam with his new best mate. If he needed to go into the capital he would just drive there in his Ferrari at 90 miles an hour down the country roads regardless of the fact that he had never passed his test. He was immortal.
As might be anticipated life at the Wick was not all sweetness and light. If you didn’t want to talk bullshit all night it could be a dark place. Stewart’s girlfriend at the time Dee Harrington was always uncomfortable there as were drummer Kenney Jones and his missus. Jones being as abstinent as you could be in the Faces didn’t always have a choice about attendance. Wood was soon recording his own solo records there. His albums have a certain charm if you can appreciate groove and feel over substance (which I can). In addition to what might be regarded as more focussed projects there were endless jams. Jones soon began to regret that Wood had his phone number as he was dragged out of bed yet again at 2 am because Keef and Ronnie wanted to play. One night a session was taking place with Mick Jagger on guitar and David Bowie on backing vocals. For some reason Keith Moon was also present but the call again went out to Jones. The hapless drummer was frequently encouraged to play ‘more like Charlie’. Jones pointed out that they wouldn’t call Watts out at 2 in the morning.
The track was taken away by the ever-canny Jagger who stripped it of everything apart from Wood’s 12 string guitar and the drums which Watts felt ‘sounded more like me than I do’. The track was finally released as Its Only Rock ’n’ Roll (But I Like It). It’s a track that to me was just too knowing, one of those songs that starts with a title that DJ’s and reviewers were going to love.
But what do I know.
The happenings at the Wick were about so much more than music. It marked a time when musicians could achieve almost unlimited wealth in a few months and could live the life they chose. There was no Twitter or Instagram, what happened in the Wick stayed in the Wick, any memories will be pretty unreliable. And so, they were able to live like the aristocracy of old, they had the money and they could pretty much do what they wanted. There’s no doubting that a good time was had by many, amazingly no one died and new musical friendships were cemented, most notably with Wood and the Stones…this would come in handy.
Ronnie Wood is naturally useless with money although possibly better than fellow bandmate Ronnie Lane. There was no way that Wood was going to hang onto a house that today is worth, well put it this way, the cottage alone was up for 3.65 million a while back. This is the man that according to his next wife Jo blew his kids school fees on a Rolex watch.As might be anticipated his separation from his first wife proved too expensive to keep the property although, in a bizarre twist of fate the house is now the property of a certain Pete Townsend.
Kenney Jones also made good just by virtue of not getting divorced or off his face too often. An 80’s YouTube clip shows him launching a helicopter from the front lawn of his mansion to go and collect fellow(Who) bandmate John Entwistle.

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My Punk Rock Moment With X-Ray Specs

One of the killer lines in political debate these days is that the slightest wiff of socialism will drag us ‘back to the 1970’s’. Speaking as one who was there I can vouch for the fact that that is not necessarily a bad thing. By spring 1978 I was doing very nicely thank you. The state was willing to pay me for doing nothing for a while, it wasn’t great money but no one expected it to be, here was a phase I was going through not a design for life. Despite the prevailing punk ideology there was work around, you had to look a bit but zero contracts hours and minimum wages hadn’t been invented yet, if you had a job you had a job, at least for a while. The working-class aristocracy, the dockers and the miners actually earned decent wages and were keen to keep them. There were a lot of strikes and sometimes things didn’t run too well but if the trains were late it was probably because the drivers were on strike not because a millionaire owner was failing to provide a service and pocketing the difference. Sometimes rubbish would pile up on the streets and you had to walk round it but it was no worse than stepping over people sleeping on the street like you do today, I genuinely never saw anyone begging until I made a trip to Ireland in 1979.
For me personally I had time to read and hang out with the teenage hipsters from the college. I had all the benefits of a college lifestyle with none of the work. England was mine and it owed me living.
And due to the college connection I had my most punkest moment.
It wasn’t shooting up smack with Sid Vicious obviously. To put things in context my second most punk moment was later in the summer with my mate Steve, one-time sort of singer with the Rockwell Buzz Company. On an idyllic summers evening Steven and I infiltrated a posh girls party somewhere posh and lovely in Norwich. After gorging in the best free food the 70’s had to offer and availing ourselves of some alcohol we noticed that the DJ was looking all forlorn on his own, no one was responding to his gentle disco sounds. ‘Have you got any Punk?’ we asked. Mr DJ seemed to be happy to oblige, I don’t think he had a lot to lose after all and so he put on ‘no more heroes’ by the Stranglers. One day I will explain how much I dislke that band but NMH is a cracking tune by anyone’s standards. Steve and me took to the empty dance floor pogoing like our lives depended on it. Flares a flapping we gave it our all, so much so that the DJ found another punk single and another…and another. We were soon causing quite a stir but the problem was we didn’t know how to stop now. After what seemed like several hours the DJ decided to revert to ‘Disco Duck’ or something similar and Steve and me could retire several stone lighter. Worst of all it had been too much for my sensitive stomach but I did make it as far as the toilet before jettisoning the nights food and drink.
But my punkest moment was even punkier than that!
Being at a loose end musically I had been approached by a Bass player at the college called Simon. He kind of had a band that were kind of punk. This being Norwich and only 1978 meant that punk was a tentative term. At this point no one was going to commit to straight trousers and we all had long hair apart from Simon who sported a moustache. Along with Simon was Nick on guitar who, rather irritatingly, also played classical percussion so could play things on the drums that I couldn’t. Stevie was the singer, we needed another guitarist and actually put an advert in the NME ‘The Aerials need a guitarist’. No one had told me we were even called The Aerials but that’s showbiz. Our repertoire was firmly 60’s, the Velvet Underground and the Doors being our two main influences. The only thing I can really remember about the band is that Simon would explain how a song went by playing the bass line in real time assuming we actually listened to the bass (a common failing with bass players). And so we would stand or sit in disbelief as Simon demonstrated
Duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma
Da duma duma duma duma Da duma duma duma duma Da duma duma duma duma Da dumpty
Duma duma etc etc
I did discover that the Doors had some extremely repetitive bass lines.
I don’t think anyone responded to the NME ad but as spring turned to summer we had recruited a rhythm player through the college. We were also expanding out repertoire a little with a nod to contemporary music
‘Oh Bondage up Yours’ was, briefly, one of the best punk singles by, briefly, one of the best punk bands. The backing was pretty basic stuff, as we were to discover when we covered it. A mixture of the Pistols and the Ramones, pretty powerful and to the point. As was often the case with punk X-Ray Specs were significant for more than music. Firstly they had yet another of rock’s new breed of musician Lora Logic on saxophone. People often assume the sax is an easy instrument to play but like the violin it takes a lot to get the tone and pitching right. David Bowie always had a naive sound when he played the instrument which is one reason I live his playing. Similarly Lora was no John Coltrane but her playing lifted X-Ray Spex out of the musical gutter.
The jewel in the crown though was the singer Poly Styrene (surprisingly not her real name which was Marion). Her voice was enough to make you pay attention ‘powerful enough to drill holes in sheet metal’. Also striking was her appearance, dual heritage (almost certainly called half caste in the 70’s), Styrene wore braces and made no concessions to femininity. She also experienced mental health problems before it was accepted or understood which probably worked against her long-term career. Logic’s age worked against her’s and she was soon to leave the band to go back into education.
Back in Norwich on a lovely spring day the Aerials were doing their own version, not that good to be honest as we lacked the logic factor. We would rehearse in Simon’s flat and as it was warm the windows were open. The next thing we knew, in the street outside was a Green Goddess fire engine. Among the strikers that year had been the firefighters. Not having the rubbish taken away was one thing but having your house burn down was an altogether more serious matter. For this reason, the Labour Government had literally brought in the troops. The Green Goddess was a formidable vehicle and it was staffed by soldiers. The army was literally on the streets of Norwich, we showed our opposition to military rule by play ‘Oh Bondage’ as aggressively as we could. The army were no match, after checking there wasn’t actually a fire they left, no doubt quaking in their boots.
And so, ended my punkiest of punk moments.


The Aerials didn’t last long, I don’t know what happened, one moment we were a band then we were gone, it all seemed fairly amicable, I didn’t have a band, soon I wouldn’t have a girlfriend and school would be out for the summer, I decided I would  need to find a job.

Poly Styrene died of cancer seven years ago at the age of 53

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Danny Kirwin is Missing

‘Thank you, Danny Kirwan, you will forever be missed’
Mick Fleetwood via Facebook

As ever, with my eye for a bargain, I recently purchased a 5 CD set of Fleetwood Mac. There is always something fascinating about a band’s wilderness years. They are usual a barren time for a reason, often because times have shifted and the band has fallen out of fashion but it might be something darker, drugs, mental health or general bad vibes. For Fleetwood Mac at the beginning of the 70’s it was all of these things.
The band’s first post Peter Green effort was a terrible mess largely thanks to Jeremy Spencer a man capable of an impressive Elmore James impersonation and very little else. In the early days of Fleetwood Mac Spencer was a vital part of the magic with songs by Elmore James and his rock and roll parodies being an essential part of the stage show. After a couple of records Green realised that Spencer was not exactly the music foil that was going to support his career long term, he needed someone who would at least change his guitar strings occasionally and knew more than 3 chords.
Enter the 18-year-old Danny Kirwan.
Kirwan was young, keen and talented, a much better match for Green who was to go on to some of his best works like ‘Oh Well’ and ‘Albatross’, on the former tune Spencer was reduced to the roll of maraca player and subsequent live shows veered between Green’s increasingly sophisticated songs and more Elmore James numbers.
The burn out of Green has been well documented and the three-guitar line up became a two-guitar line up. The main redeeming features of their next album Kiln House were a couple of songs by Danny Kirwan, it wasn’t enough but it was a start.
With Spencer leaving to join the Children of God (he was replaced for a tour by Peter Green) the weight of Fleetwood Mac legacy began to weigh more heavily on young Danny.
I have always considered out of all the victims of that godforsaken band it is Danny Kirwan who is the most tragic. A few years back with the aid of the internet I set out to find where he was and what had happened to him. I pretty much drew a blank.
By 1972 Kirwan was in deep trouble, he was drinking heavily and becoming more withdrawn and unapproachable. Being in a band and drinking more than John McVIe should have served as a warning in itself but Kirwin was just becoming more isolated and it got to the stage where only Mick Fleetwood was willing to travel with him. It all unravelled one night when Kirwin got into an argument with newest member Bob Welch. In an dispute over tuning Kirwan totally lost it, smashing his head against the wall and then demolishing the dressing room with his beloved Les Paul. With this meltdown Kirwan consigned himself to history. He failed to make the stage and the band struggled on through a set with Welch covering all guitars. Kirwan might have survived for a while had he stormed into the night but instead he watched from the sound desk and afterwards offered an unwanted critique of the performance which was the final straw. Fleetwood went to his hotel and sacked him.
Amazingly Kirwan’s stock was high enough for him to make 3 solo albums on the back of once being in a band that was seen as a challenge to the Beatles but then that was it…for ever.
It seems quite amazing that in this day and age people can disappear but that was virtually the fate of Danny Kirwan, there followed 40 years of drinking, homelessness and mental health problems. There hasn’t been a picture of him for all that time, I think the one at the top of this article is the most recent. At some point a journalist tracked him down in homeless accommodation in London where for the price of a few Special Brews Kirwan was willing to give a short interview. He said that being homeless was OK, he had been effectively homeless for most of his life. He had left any trace of showbizness well behind. Another YouTube clip showed him making a cameo appearance with his new brew crew friends in a London pub, Kirwan had effectively become a street drinker. The last trace of Danny Kirwan I could find was a report when he reached 50 and was in relatively good health and was at least keeping a guitar in his room again.
The wilderness years Fleetwood Mac records are pretty unobtainable either as CD’s or streaming unless, like me you bought them as a set (only £10 folks) *
And as I drove around the Nottinghamshire Countryside listening to Kiln House or Future Games or Bare Trees I was wondering again if Danny Kirwan was still with us. I don’t know what the life expectancy of a street drinker is but I assume it’s a lot nearer 48 than 68, it seemed possible that Kirwan was no longer with us, he had disappeared after all.
But now he is finally no longer with us. I assume that in some way the Mac organisation had links to him and so Mick Fleetwood broke the news. My theory is that Fleetwood’s a far better guy than people give him credit for but his tribute seems out of tune. ‘Much missed’, by whom exactly? Its possible that Kirwan died in his country cottage surrounded by loved ones. Despite his assertion that he had been homeless for much of his life he had once had shares in a beautiful country house in Hampshire where he lived with the other band members as well as his own wife and child, it was a far cry from the streets of London. I really hope he found peace but his death is only really a loss to those who really knew him, the rest of us lost him 40 years ago.
But all of a sudden, tributes are everywhere not least among my fellow bloggers, it seems I wasn’t the only one who cared about Danny Kirwan after all.
His legacy is a slim but curious one. There was no doubt he was a very talented guitarist and a very tuneful guy (too tuneful, hence the fateful fight with Bob Welch) but he was quite a diffident singer and some of his songs are gossamer thin, hence a preference for instrumentals. He did however give birth to a quite unique body of work which is lost amidst the constant ‘songbird’ reworkings of Christine McVie and the professional rocking out of Bob Welch. Take Kirwan’s songs on their own and you have a muscular indie rock sound that’s earlier 90’s than early 70’s.
With a lack of liner notes its hard to make definite recommendations without making the terrible mistake or recommending a Bob Welch track by mistake and making a total laughing stock of myself but I will stick my neck out and recommend ‘Sands of Time’ from Future Games which sounds like Midlake who themselves were influenced by The Mac.
And a final recommendation ‘Dust’ from Bare Trees, Kirwan was never that good with lyrics so the words are by Rupert Brooke but it’s a fine end to his time with Fleetwood Mac.
Remember him this way

*or so I had thought, they are now on Spotify

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The Creation of Alvin Stardust

In December 1959 TV producer Jack Good went to the airport to meet American rock and roll star Gene Vincent with a view to putting him on his show. Good was met by a casually dressed quiet spoken polite individual. This was a bit of a let down for Good. Vincent seemed too nice, too normal.

In retrospect this seems quite improbable, Vincent was in a lot of pain following a motor cycle accident which had crushed his leg, he was prone to drink heavily and relied on pain killers of the opiate variety. This was a man who actually tried to shoot Gary Glitter a few years later. Still maybe he had had a good flight over.

Good took Vincent away and did one of rock’s first makeovers on him. Vincent emerged as a kind of rock and roll Richard III. Hunched over a microphone dressed in black leather, a medallion and, most significantly for the purposes of this story, black gloves. Clad in this style he went on to make an impression on audiences in Britain and the continent.

Fast forward to 1972, the golden years of glam rock are about to commence. Peter Shelley ( no not the guy with Buzzcocks) has written and recorded a record. ‘ My Coo Ca Choo’ has lyrics that could have been written by a 6 year old but its shiny piece of glam boogie and too good to waste. It’s future is helped by the fact that Shelley has co founded Magnet records so he’s effectively got a record deal already. Strangely, unlike 99% of the rest of the population Shelley does not fancy poncing about on Top of the Pops so he holds auditions with business partner Michael Levy to find a singer who can front the record.

Day one of auditions a blond 31 year old man turns up stating he is Shane Fenton who had a small career in the early 60’s. Shelley and Levy liked Mr Fenton but were looking for someone a bit ‘moodier’. Day two Fenton turns up with died black hair, black leather, clunky jewellery and , most important for the purposes of this story, a black leather glove. He got the job.

Within days Fenton was christened Alvin Stardust and was miming his way to No1 with a song he didn’t even sing on.

He had already had a bizarre life. Born Bernard Jewry, he had spent most of his life growing up in Mansfield Notts, theres a lot I could say about Mansfield, I know it quite well but suffice to say it will never be referred to as the Athens of the Midlands. It does however appear that he was not typical of that fair town. His parents owned a large house and rented out rooms to travelling actors and musicians, young Bernard went to the prestigious Southwell Minster School and his stage debut was in pantomime.

In the early 60’s he was helping out a bunch of unknown teenagers called Shane Fenton and the Fentones. They had just mailed a demo tape to the BBC when unfortunately their lead singer Johnny Theakstone died. The band were devastated, he was only 17 years old after all. Not surprisingly the band gave up only to receive a letter stating the BBC had liked their tape and invited them to London to audition. Johnny’s mother gave them her blessing. Their ex roadie took on the role of Shane Fenton the band passed the audition and ended up with a contract from Parlophone records with sustained the band for a couple of years.

Somehow during this period Jewry/Fenton had infiltrated the Liverpool scene, eventually marrying Iris Caldwell, sister of Liverpool legend Rory Storm and ex girlfriend of at least two Beatles. In fact John Lennon later commented on Stardust’s success ‘I’m so glad for Shane, he really deserves this success, he’s a great bloke and performer’

And great bloke he was. His career continued in acting, musical theatre and the odd record until his death three years ago. As befits a man who seemed willing to swap names to maintain a career he never stuck to one form of music. This meant he was never out of work but he wasn’t superstar material. I last saw him on TV, looking about 10 years older then he did in the 70’s(the names changed, the face remained the same) ,he was talking about a crappy old acoustic guitar he owned which had actually been signed by all sorts of famous people such as the Beatles and even Buddy Holly who Jewry/Fenton/Stardust had run into in the course of his career. The guitar was spectacular in it’s crapness but worth a small fortune and yet again he had the last laugh.

alvins guitar

Here’s his second hit and one that actually features his vocal .

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Unsung Hero’s Harvey Hinsley

A constant source of amazement to me, this is by far my most visited post . Hot chocolate appear to be more loved than the sex pistols,yes,the clash or even gentle giant.

harvey hinsley

In the 1960’s forming a multi racial band in Britain was still considered pretty risky. We’d had The Equals which if you listen to Ken Bruce’s ‘Pop Master’ you know this was the band that launched Eddie Grant to pop stardom but even the name suggests that this was something to make a big deal about.

Hot Chocolate were not only multi racial they were good and successful. Starting off at the end of the 60’s they had a minor brush with fame when they covered Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ which got them signed to Apple Records but as the Beatles were about to dissolve this was a mixed blessing. As you can hear they are a very different band here

In the early days they were a bit happy clappy, the band revolved around not only suave shaven headed man Erroll Brown but also bass player Tony Wilson who not only provided the band’s material but also wrote for others such as Herman,s Hermits and Mary Hopkin.The first couple of years were a bit hit and miss and the band only really hit their stride with the introduction of guitarist Harvey Hinsley and drummer Tony Connor both rock rather than soul or disco players.

I had a soft spot for Hot Chocolate in the early days as they were one of the few bands I can remember playing live on television probably, I suspect, on some kids show. One of the tracks they performed was ‘Cicero Park’, a slightly gloomy ecology song and the title track of their first album. The singles around this time were ‘Emma’, a dead girlfriend song and ‘Brother Louie’ which was about racial intolerance, for me they were like a British version of the American group War.

The thing I really liked were Hinsley’s guitar line’s, not solos but hooks which were an integral part of the song. If you listen to a lot of the band’s material there’s not a lot going on musically, the band (especially after the departure of Wilson) tended to form songs out of jams which means they are high on grove but relatively low on melody and chords. If you sat down and played a lot of Hot Chocolate’s songs on an acoustic guitar the weakness of the material becomes apparent. Nothing wrong with that of course, it never bothered James Brown but this does show just how important Hinsley’s contributions are.

Hinsley was a rock player of some pedigree. An old mate of Chas (and Dave) Hodges, he joined the latters band The Outlaws, replacing Richie Blackmore in their dying days. He then later rejoined Hodges in The Rebel Rousers, in effect replacing Cliff Bennett in the band. He came to Wilson and Browns attention through his session work where again he was part of a pool of musicians including the nascent Chas and Dave backing a variety of artists such as Labi Siffri.

Hinsley brought his Gibson SG to the band, this is the guitar that Angus Young plays, its not a disco or soul guitar but Hinsley made it it work. Actually, on his first outing he’s opted to play a bouzouki type line on a telecaster but lets listen to it again, its a great song and allegedly has a spoken part by the late Alexis Korner

With ‘Emma’ the band had really hit their stride. Another dark and paranoid song with some terrific screaming by Brown at the the end and now present and correct we have the Hinsley guitar line

And then their biggest hit much loved of unemployed steelworkers and mums and dads at the wedding reception. ‘Sexy Thing ‘is a great record and another example of the melodic genius of Hinsley’s playing

And the blueprint was set, Wilson left and the band became adept at creating pop/disco records, drummer Connor would never have to learn another drum part.

Hinsley’s greatest achievement  was to be a couple of years in the future though. On ‘Every 1’s a Winner’ Hinsley’s guitar line, played though a synthesiser, serves as the hook and the chorus

The band went on to have plenty of hits and experimented with other styles as bit but if I went to a Hot Chocolate gig these are the tracks I would want to hear. By the time of hits like ‘it Started with a Kiss’ and ‘No Doubt About it’ they had moved a long war from any comparisons with War.

And in a strange twist of fate going to a Hot Chocolate gig is a possibility. Despite being the only black guy in the 70’s with a shaved head who wasn’t  Isaac Hayes, Brown was a conservative character, quite literally one of the few pop stars who was willing to endorse the conservative party (he was rewarded an MBE) He left the band in 1986 and made a couple of solo records and continued to be a popular draw with women of a certain age.He died earlier this year of Liver Cancer.

Hinsley, Connor and Bass player Oliver continued as Hot Chocolate despite the fact that for many people the band was Erroll Brown. So a couple of vocalists down the line the new singer is Greg Bannis who has spent most of his life as an Erroll Brown impersonator and in effect the band look and sound just like Hot Chocolate always did.

Probably not what Brown had in mind when he went to Apple HQ in 1979 to ask Lennon if he could record his song.

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