I’ve always like the idea of a band incorporating a member who’s musical contribution is minimal. It sends out a very strong message that the band is more than just about music and money. Of course bands are mainly about music and money so incorporating someone who does not add much to the music but wants a share of the money is understandably not that popular within bands.
One of the earliest examples of this was Tommy Hall is 60’s garage/psychedelic/Texas band The 13th Floor Elevators. Being a bit older than the rest of the band Hall had something of a guru role steering them through the psychedelic experience to the max until inevitably their collective brains were fried. As a non musician Hall wanted a piece of the on stage action so he developed the electric jug. Jugs were an integral part of, wait for it, jug band music from the 20’s and 30’s where household items such as washboards and jugs would augment guitars and banjos for impromptu folk sessions.
The jug simply makes a low note when you blow over the top of it which is not exactly going to compete with an amplified band. Hall therefore just cheated and made noises with his mouth which were amplified by the microphone attached to the jug. By doing this he transformed the bands garage tendencies into something a lot more psychedelic with a strange bubbling noise going on in the background.
Recently of course the non musical member has been elevated to an art form by Bez of the Happy Mondays who’s fame rests of looking off his face and playing maracas out of time. Bez has made the transition from drug fiend to national treasure simply by being himself and sticking to the same thing without deviation for over 20 years.
So my nomination for unsung hero this week goes to Mickey Finn, not because he was obscure, although its possible you’ve not heard of him, but because his contribution was underrated.
Finn was the percussionist in T Rex during their glory years, you might think that glam rock didn’t really need extra percussion and you’d be correct, in addition to this Finn didn’t sing or write songs or even poke one fingered at a keyboard, he hammered away at the congas regardless of whether the song needed it or even if he was audible.
Marc Bolan’s career in the 70’s went through four stages, firstly he was the cool hippie cat then the superstar, then the coked out has been and finally a kind of amalgamation of all three. Then his girlfriend drove his mini into a tree and killed him.
Finn was by his side from the very beginning of the 70’s. Not exactly a known musician he was working doing odd jobs painting and decorating when a chance meeting with Bolan led to him being recruited to Tyrannosaurus Rex. The ‘band’ was missing a percussionist following the departure of Steve ‘Peregrine’ Took. Took was a talented individual in his own right, a psychedelic explorer and well connected in the Ladbrook Grove underground scene. His talent and erratic behaviour was too much for Bolan to handle and after his sacking it was a relief to replace him with the easy going Finn who looked better and did what he was told.
There followed a couple of happy years where the band was driven up and down the country by Bolan’s wife June often playing gigs with DJ John Peel who thought them the best thing ever. After Took’s sacking there was still some resentment towards them from the ‘heads’ and the hugely ambitious Bolan took to playing more electric guitar and adding extra musicians Steve Currie on bass and then Bill Legend on drums. From this point Finn’s musical contribution became minimal.
In retrospect Bolan’s legacy is largely a testament to his amazing ability for self promotion, he had an unshakable belief in his bands ability and would prompt them at every available opportunity. His main virtues were his amazing distinctive voice and his presentation. His songs were generally unremarkable, strum along hippie dirges and crunchy rock riffs along with rather off the wall first draft lyrics. These frequently made for great singles however due in no small part to the ability of producer Tony Visconti to ‘sprinkle a bit of fairy dust’ on them. Bill Legend has often reported that his drum parts were underdeveloped simply because the recordings were often first draft, tracks were banged out and left for Visconti to work his wonder.
Live the band was a different proposition. Every band leader recognises the value of a second in command, Mick has Keith, Rod had Woody, Bowie had Ronson and so on. So Bolan had Finn, subsequently probably not the best choice in the long term but initially you got the impression here were two equals, good looking, well dressed with Finn playing the tall dark and silent role to Bolan’s hyperactive scene stealing.
Live the band were better than you might expect without the strings and backing vocals of their records. Legend was able to cut loose a bit and Currie was a dependable and fluid bassist. Bolan always seemed like he was impersonating an electric guitar player, he made all the right noises but never seemed to say much, not that that matters too much he could strut and play at the same time. On stage you could hear Finn OK and he was able to take some of the weight off Bolan by looking cool and throwing tambourines into the audience.
Here they are with a pretty great performance of ‘Buick Mackane’
And here’s a decent version of ‘Hot Love’ from the days when groups tuned up on stage and shows Finn’s contribution to the live show.
Of course they were too popular to keep it together. Bolan not unreasonably decided that because he wrote the songs, sang the songs and played lead guitar that he was T Rex. The rest of the band were hired hands although Finn got a slightly better ‘mates rates’ deal thanks to him being there from the very beginning. Bolan had always believed his own hype but he was becoming a monster aided by booze and coke and a whole new set of showbiz friends. John Peel was dropped like a stone and then Bolan tried to cut Visconti’s royalty rate. He had also replaced the faithful June with ‘Tainted Love’ singer Gloria Jones.
This is what happens when you take too much coke and invite your girlfriend and her mate to join the band. More Tambourine please!
Christian family man Bill Legend was first to bail out from rock and roll Gomorrah but sometime around 73/74 Finn was out as well.
And that was pretty much the end. Finn had picked up some bad habits over the previous couple of years and although he occasionally appeared with ex Small Faces man Steve Marriott who career was following an equally pointless trajectory, he was now a has been. Neither talented enough to get another decent gig or together enough to get a proper job Finn’s best hope was an inevitable T Rex revival were he could have earned more money in a couple of months than he had done in the rest of his musical career. As we know of course Bolan was killed in 1977 (Currie also died in a motor accident 4 years later). The final option left open to Finn, now he was reduced to living back home with his mother, was a tribute act.
Mickey Finn’s T Rex was formed post 1997 when he was inspired by the reception he received at a concert to mark the 25th Anniversary of Bolan’s death. The band were able to make some sort of living and they received a boost when Marc’s son Rolan joined them for a while.
Here is a mini documentary which , if nothing else points to the fact that Finn was only tall if he stood next to Marc Bolan.
And so Finn was able to make some sort of a living again but drink and drug abuse had taken their toll and he died at the ridiculously early age of 55 which was nothing short of tragic.
But for a couple of years he was one of the coolest men in rock and that’s more than most of us get to achieve.
Of course the story couldn’t end there, there are bills to pay and Mickey Finn’s T Rex are still at large staffed by a rota of ageing professional musicians and a bloke who looks a bit like Mickey on Congas, Bill Legend has also been topping up his pension pot touring Germany and Australia with Bill Legend’s T Rex.
If you want to learn more I recommend the book Goodbye Mickey Finn by Philip Cato, a work of fiction that seems frighteningly realistic