The Story of a Band
by Henry Ayrton
1) Start Me Up
There’s an old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film (“Babes in Arms”, I think it is) in which a bunch of eager young kids are sitting gloomily in a barn where they’ve been rehearsing a show they want to put on, but have been thwarted in their attempts to find a suitable venue. Cue Master Rooney, who leaps to his feet and cries, “Let’s put the show on right here!”
That’s Hollywood for you. In reality, most of our great ideas occur round about closing time and never make it past the following morning’s hangover. Just occasionally, though, the old Rooney spirit asserts itself and a madcap plan actually comes to fruition.
The idea of forming a blues band occurred to Howard Fraser and me in one such drunken moment in the summer of 1967. We were both students at Lancaster University coming to the end of our first year there and feeling that The Future Beckoned – even if we were pretty hazy about what kind of future that might be. We had no firm foundations on which to build a band, simply a shared enthusiasm for the music and a naïve belief that if you wanted to do something, well, you just went ahead and did it. We didn’t let our lack of experience as performers put us off, either. I’d been teaching myself the guitar for the past two or three years, picking up what I could from records and through attending my local folk club back home in Harrogate. Although some school friends and I had formed a short-lived beat group (as such rhythm combos were then endearingly known), my current style was essentially an acoustic finger-picked one, taking the likes of Davey Graham and Big Bill Broonzy for its inspiration. Not only that, but I’d only just started to play in public in this style a few months earlier, having made my nervous debut at a pub in Skerton at the beginning of the year. For his part, Howard could scarcely be called a musician at all, though he reckoned he could sing a bit and play the harmonica.
Before we got on to the problem of our lack of ability we had to address the issue of repertoire because we had rather different ideas about what kind of music we should play. Howard favoured something along the lines of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (though how we could tackle that, we hadn’t a clue), whereas I had more purist ideas centred very specifically on the acoustic sound of the album “Muddy Waters – Folk Singer”, especially on Muddy’s version of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” performed with Buddy Guy. Was this blind faith or merely tunnel vision?
Then one evening when I was visiting Howard in his gloriously unsavoury flat in Blades Street in Lancaster, he instructed me to sit down and, pausing only to thrust a herbal cigarette into my grasp and jam some earphones over my head, he said, “Here, smoke that and listen to this.”
What “this” was was a number called “Sure ’Nuff and Yes I Do”, the opening track of Captain Beefheart’s “Safe As Milk” album, then available as an import only and hence pretty much unknown in this country. It was a moment of great revelation as I’d recently been trying to teach myself the rudiments of the slide and bottleneck guitar techniques and I could dimly see where the playing of the young Ry Cooder (as I later discovered it to be) was coming from.
So, our music would be a hybrid of down home blues and avant-garde rock. Not only was this outrageously ambitious, given our immediate resources, but we still had the problem that there weren’t terribly many musicians in our immediate circle of friends. So we went prospecting, checking out any musicians who took our fancy at gigs around the university with a view to seeing who we might poach. This wasn’t quite the exercise in fantasy bands it might seem, since we correctly assumed there would be a considerable general turnaround in personnel with the start of the new university year at the end of the summer and we had it on good authority that the official university beat group (charmingly called, as I remember, The Lurking Gropers) was fated to disband.
The first thing we discovered was that, although there was a bewildering multiplicity of musical ventures in a variety of styles on offer, the line-up of each group tended to give you a feeling of déja vu. The university was still very small then (around 800 students altogether) but nonetheless quite a hotbed of creativity. The result of this was that the same faces kept cropping up in whatever artistic activity you attended, be it jazz band, theatre group or poetry reading.
As far as music performance was concerned, we learned that the original group that had sired all the rest was an R&B outfit called The Flowerpot Men (on account of the lead guitarist being called Phil and the vocalist Den – well, close enough). This band was no more by 1967 but three at least of its former members – the guitarist Dave Grant, the saxophone player Julian (“Jay”) Holt and the pianist and bass player Charles Chabot – were actively involved in its various offshoots, which included a jazz group and a couple of soul bands. One of the soul bands was called The 96. This was another example of tortuous undergraduate humour at work: it was soixante-neuf in reverse (no, don’t ask).
Anyway, Howard and I decided to concentrate on finding a lead guitarist first of all, given that my schoolboy beat group experience, though limited, still meant I could probably manage rhythm guitar duties myself without too much difficulty.
Two candidates for the post of lead guitarist immediately presented themselves: a guy out of the beat group called Andy who seemed quite adept and who played an impressive white Fender Stratocaster but who was rather too poppy for our tastes; and the aforementioned Dave Grant, who played in The 96 and so whose style was, in the parlance of the day, more “valid” (a catch-all word whose contradictory meanings were both “authentic” and “fashionable”). This part of our recruitment drive went very smoothly.
Dave, when approached, seemed quite prepared to give the thing a try. Not only that, but he was in the process of buying Andy’s Fender Strat off him – the best of both worlds, as far as we were concerned.
So now we were a trio.
Thus emboldened, we thought we’d try to poach Jay Holt & Charles Chabot next. Jay and Charles seemed most committed to the university jazz band but that didn’t prevent them cropping up in one or other of the soul lineups as well. To our surprise, Jay seemed well disposed towards the idea of our band, which pleased us greatly since he was an accomplished musician whose jazz-influenced alto playing would, we felt, give the proceedings some class. Charles, however, declined our offer since he wanted to concentrate on his finals come the new academic year – or maybe that was just a polite brush-off. Either way, it was a big disappointment since his bass playing in the soul band, for which he used a very trebly, attacking style, had seemed right up our street. Not having planned for rejection – and having had no luck at all in finding a drummer – we simply shelved the problem of our rhythm section for a while, hoping it would magically resolve itself.
The summer vacation had intervened by now in any case and, on my return, I discovered Howard enthused by a new wheeze he’d had. The university beat group had indeed broken up as threatened and no new lineup had come along to take its place, which meant that there was equipment up for grabs. We had to jump through the right hoops to acquire it but we sweet-talked the president of the student financial committee, a former trainee monk called Peter Naughton whose skills in conducting public meetings were legendary. We attended the meeting during which the issue of the band equipment was due to be considered in a state of some nervousness since there were rumours flying around that another beat group threatened to rise from the ashes of the old one after all. But, in the event, no new band materialised and Peter was on top form: he had the whole issue cut and dried and passed by popular vote while some delegates were still struggling to find which page in the minutes they were supposed to be looking at.
So now we had equipment (basically a P.A. and a couple of very battered but still serviceable Vox AC30 amps) and the core of a band (still minus a rhythm section, but never mind). And after a few weeks had passed we got the promise of our first gig. The writer Adrian Mitchell had recently been appointed Poet in Residence at the university, a post funded by Granada Television. His role was to encourage student creativity and so he was happy to have us on the bill of a mixed media event he was organising for later on that autumn.
The prospect of turning into a real, live performing band made us redouble our efforts to find a rhythm section – and also made us realise we didn’t have a name. We thought that using the title of a blues song would be a pretty cool idea and I came up with The Canned Heat Blues Band after a number by Tommy Johnson, which I smugly imagined was too obscure for anyone else to have thought of.
However, an article in the “Melody Maker” about the current American blues-rock scene revealed that my prediction was way out – the same idea had already occurred to a rising Los Angeles outfit two years earlier. So Howard suggested the name Mother Earth, after the Memphis Slim number, but that, too, was quickly revealed to be already in the public domain. It was beginning to look as if some smart-arsed American act would always be one jump ahead of us as far as the titles of blues songs went so we scratched our heads to think of a different approach. Then, one day, Howard triumphantly announced that he’d come across a piece of writing called “Stark Electric Jesus” which he said had been written by the American beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (actually, it was by the controversial Bengali writer Malay Roychoudhury, but that’s by the by). We blinked at him in astonishment. “But it’s not a gospel group we’re forming,” someone pointed out. Howard got extremely exercised at this obtuseness, berated us for our dimwittedness and said that the name of the group would be The Stark Electric Blues Band. Obviously. No one could come up with a suitable objection to this (and it did sound a bit Captain Beefhearty, come to think of it) so now we had our identity.
We also soon afterwards found our rhythm section at last – both musicians confusingly called Mick.
Mick the Bass Player was a university librarian and a very accomplished finger-style acoustic guitarist, but he reckoned he could also play the bass all right. As for Mick the Drummer (Mick Foster, to give him his real name), he wasn’t university-based but lived in the town. I don’t know how we found him, to be honest – one of Howard’s contacts, I guess, via the local art college. All seemed to be going well by now, even if Mick the Bass Player wasn’t the world’s finest at turning up for rehearsals. He kept assuring us he’d done this sort of thing before and that it was all pretty straightforward stuff that needed little practice. But come the great day itself (11th November, 1967), disaster struck: no bass player. No warning, no explanation, just no bass player.
It just so happened that a couple of friends of mine from Harrogate were visiting me that weekend. Everyone was very impressed with the pre-war Daimler they turned up in (especially as plenty of people could be ferried around in its capacious interior) and even more impressed when I mentioned that the driver of this fine vehicle, Chris Sant, had been in my old beat group.
Seeing which way the conversation was heading, Chris hastily pointed out that he had been the group’s keyboards player but then I went and dropped him in it by mentioning that these days he was a guitarist first and foremost. In vain did he try to explain that he was really a country/bluegrass-style acoustic flat picker and not an electric blues/rock bass player. With the whiff of salvation in their nostrils, the others overrode his objections and insisted that he deputise for our errant bass man.
The venue for the gig was the low-ceilinged, acoustically-suspect Bowland College refectory on the university campus at Bailrigg. We were first on, the idea being to attract an audience and warm it up (at least that was the kindly explanation). We launched into our first number – which was, of course, “Sure ‘Nuff & Yes I Do”. It didn’t sound half as good as in our practice sessions and but we staggered through it without too many disasters. At the end of it, our audience applauded politely and nobody booed or threw things, so we reckoned we were a success and tackled the rest of our set with more confidence.
Despite his reputation for being a fearless, even aggressive extravert, Howard showed an unexpectedly shy side to his nature by insisting on singing with his back to the audience – and, for good measure, hiding behind a convenient pillar, “so I can keep an eye on what the rest of you guys are doing”. Fortunately, the audience thought it was merely a piece of studied eccentricity and let it pass.
Even Chris started to enjoy himself, despite protesting loudly from time to time he didn’t know what he was doing. He was rather taken aback at the end of our performance when Geoff Woodhead, a local artist who was possibly in charge of the light show that night, approached him and said, “Far out, man! You were playing stuff out of Handel’s ‘Water Music’ there at times. Crazy!”
After it was all over we were able to relax and enjoy the rest of the show, which largely consisted of Adrian Mitchell reading his poems (a sure crowd pleaser) and his main guest, the folk singer Leon Rosselson, performing his right-on political and socially aware compositions.
Many years later I asked Leon if he remembered that gig. He said it didn’t strike any sort of chord at all which, on some reflection, I took to be a good sign: clearly he hadn’t been scarred for life by the experience. I’ve a vague idea we were asked to do a short second set at the end of the show so people could get up and dance. No doubt we merely repeated highlights from our first set since our repertoire was still rather on the slim side. Anyway, after it was all over quite a number of people came up and said how much they’d enjoyed our performance.
So we really were a proper band now. Except for one thing. We got a message a few days later from the errant Mick that his wife had insisted at the last minute that he take her to see The Incredible String Band in Manchester on the night of the gig. It hadn’t occurred to him to tell us at the time. Not only that, but Chris had fled back to Harrogate without leaving a forwarding address.
It quickly dawned on us that we were sorely in need of a reliable bass player.