I was quite terrified of music in primary school. I can remember this quite clearly as I have a memory of a teacher telling us that at her next lesson she would bring some percussion instruments in for us to play. I was terrified at the prospect and I remember talking this through with my mum who attempted to persuade me that having to play a tambourine would not mean my world would end. Obviously this incident was a lot less important to the teacher as she forgot all about it and I learned a valuable lesson on not to worry about things that might not happen.
All this happened at a British Forces School in Germany where educational standards were a bit lax even by the standards of the 60’s (we actually had some great education but it wouldn’t get past Ofsted these days). On return to England I entered secondary School and my education hit a new level. My new school was a Grammar School and proud of it. Some teachers still wore gowns and even mortar boards. A positive spin off of this was that they had a good music department, I became aware of instruments I had never really recognised before cellos, trombones etc terrifying and exciting at the same time.
The person who made a real difference to my musical education was the music teacher Mr H. I would love to report that her recognised my innate musical genius at an early age but I came to his attention for all the wrong reasons. Mr H was that rarest of animals, a posh Australian. He would burst into his lessons wearing a gown and demand we stand and then he would say ‘good morning class’ , we as one would reply ‘good morning Mr H’. I had spend the last three years alongside the children of squaddies in asbestos lined classrooms and this level of formality seemed totally ridiculous to me. I couldn’t resist saying ‘good morning Mr H’ in a silly sing song voice which Mr H with his finely attuned posh musical ears noticed and immediately accosted me. In those days canning was an option and Mr H had no reservations about any sort of physical punishment deferred or immediate, on this occasion however he settled for a dressing down and parted with the words ‘I’ll be keeping and eye on you’
Well I had made an impression and true to his word Mr H kept an eye on me and as a consequence of this I had to learn music to get him off my back.
In our front room we had an upright piano. This belonged to my mum, as the only girl in her family she had been given the task of learning the piano as a child. This was fairly normal in the better off working class families of the 40’s.The weird thing was that getting a piano was a huge expense, often several months wages, my granddad never owned a house but buying a piano was ‘the done thing’. My mum had lessons and entertained the rest of the family until Radio and then television made her redundant. She still played at our house though and I enjoyed listening to her popular renditions of songs of the 30’s and 40’s.
Learning to play chopsticks on the piano was a rite of passage for a lot of children, there were enough instruments around to enable you to impress your peers at social gatherings by mastering that simple tune and really that was all you needed. Thanks to Mr H’s diligence however I could now read basic musical notation and before long I could pick out tunes from my mum’s music books,’Tavern in the Town’ ‘British Grenadiers” God Save the King’ (the books were that old), I soaked up anything and everything.
I knew the piano wasn’t really for me though I had my eyes fixed firmly on the far sexier guitar. We’re talking the acoustic guitar of course asking for an electric guitar was akin to announcing that I wanted to inject heroin into my groin. The electric guitar was considered a dangerous instrument, in fact a lot of people still regarded it as some sort of bastard version of the pure instrument. At this point I didn’t even know about amplifiers and assumed that you could just plug an electric guitar straight into the mains.
Also acoustic guitars were still popular notably with the singer song writer boom from the West Coast of the USA. Closer to home the New Seekers were everywhere, most notably on the Cliff Richard Show which was required family viewing at the time and this was were my musical direction started to take shape. I remember clearly Cliff and the New Seekers doing a version of ‘Horse with no Name’. This was an atmospheric but lyrically nonsensical song by the group America who for a while functioned as a sort of budget Crosby Stills and Nash. Its essentially a two chord song although I didn’t realise this at the time, I was just impressed at the possibilities of sitting around playing and singing.
My first guitar came my way by accident via my Uncle John. John worked ‘on the bins’ and there had unlimited access to other people’s rubbish. In the early 70’s this was not exactly a treasure trove, people had a lot less and threw less of it away,however somewhere in Norwich someone threw a guitar away.
As you might anticipate the guitar that came into my possession was not exactly a Martin or even a Yamaha, it was effectively rubbish which it why my Uncle John had it.
My Dad grudgingly bought a packet of strings and we set about restringing it. We were in uncharted territory, my school was more likely to endorse devil worship than popular music, no one was going to teach me what to do. I think I must have got hold of one of the basic tutors which would teach you how to play American folk songs like ‘Polly Wolly Doodle’ and so was able to gather the basic information that the guitar was tuned to EADGBE. In those days if you bought a new guitar the salesperson might throw in a set of pitch pipes to help tuning. My unknown benefactor had neglected to throw these out as well but I did,of course, have my Mum’s piano.
So, my Dad would hit the required note and I would tune the string up to that note. This was a rather terrifying experience, the string was getting tighter and tighter and the guitar was starting to groan. Eventually it couldn’t take anymore and the string snapped. After a couple more attempts we gave up, it was like playing Russian Roulette, at any point the string might break with an alarming snap.
A few days later we reconvened with a new set of strings and decided to tune it a tone lower. This worked and I was ready to play, I placed my fingers on the strings and pressed. The result was absolute agony, I managed about 10 seconds before I retired hurt.
Already I was quite disheartened, I knew that you had to build up pads on your fingers but it took days before the pain had gone, only to return after a few moments of playimg the next time, this was going to take me decades. My routine went something like this..play (20 secs)..rest (2 days)..play(30 secs)..play, break string (20 secs)..buy new string (5 days)..play (40 secs).. rest (1 day)..play, break string..and so on.
Something was wrong, not only was this slow progress but I needed a continual supply of strings, I knew guitarists did break strings but I didn’t expect it to happen on a weekly basis. It took a while but eventually the penny dropped.
I had been trying to tune the guitar an octave too high.
How the guitar just didn’t implode ripping half my face off as it did so is a mystery but we tuned it to its proper pitch and it became slightly more playable. I suspect that the action was terrible, our tuning way off and the fretting probably left something to be desired. I’m quite impressed with my younger self for even bothering as the rewards weren’t that great but I know that eventually I could play a couple of chords.
Unfortunately the guitar had a sad demise.
Sundays in my household were often extremely miserable. Firstly everywhere was shut, apart from the church of course. The TV was worse than usual and Radio One gave way to Radio Two at 7pm with ‘Sing Something Simple’. That show has traumatised millions. It actually ran until 2001 so you probably share the same sense of dread but here it is again
Between getting up and going to bed there was a lot of time to fill and I was bored. My Dad enjoyed working 50 hours a week but even he couldn’t work on Sundays. Denied employment he tended to retreat to the shed to either build something or,more likely, pull something apart. My Mum having been a housewife all week was simmering with resentment about having another day stuck at home.
Home was like a power keg waiting to explode. It didn’t take much, one Sunday bored me and angry Mum had an argument which resulted in her taking my guitar and smashing it against the kitchen floor.
It took a year to get over that by which time my parents were willing to invest in a new guitar which had nylon strings and was a lot easier to play, within a couple of weeks I could actually play’ Polly Wolly Doodle’ within a year I could play ‘Horse with No Name’.My glittering musical career had begun
Finally as a tribute to Norwich’s own Pete Townsend here is a tune my Mum used to play