The Story of a Band
by Henry Ayrton
Everyone stuck around town for most of that summer and, although the residency at The Nag’s Head had to be curtailed until the bulk of our audience returned at the start of the new term, we still picked up the odd gig to keep our hand in.
The new academic year brought one immediate unwelcome change when we discovered without warning that the lecture theatre where we usually rehearsed was no longer available. We were fairly sure we hadn’t trashed it in a fit of forgetfulness, but the college porters were immovable, if apologetic: we were no longer allowed to practise there. We complained bitterly to the authorities, pointing out that, as the official university rock band (we’d promoted ourselves from being a humble beat group), we absolutely had to have rehearsal facilities in order to fulfil our role of musical ambassadors of such a fine academic institution. This particular line of cynical claptrap seemed, surprisingly, to have some effect and we were grudgingly allowed the temporary use of a dismal, windowless basement room next door to the launderette.
One evening a week or two into term we were grimly plugging away in these far from inspirational surroundings when a hairy head suddenly popped round the door.
“Hello,” it said, “what’s going on?”
“Just playing the blues, man,” came back the well-rehearsed ad-lib, “just playing the blues.”
“Well, it’s meant to be a rehearsal…” someone started to say before being interrupted by another voice that chimed in, “Oh, why not.”
“Oh good,” said the disembodied head, “I’ll go and fetch me guitar,” and promptly vanished.
“Why the hell did you say that?” complained a dissenting voice. “It’s a rehearsal, not a jam session.” But really there were no serious objections since any diversion was welcome in such a depressing room.
In an extremely short space of time the hairy head reappeared, this time attached to a body and clutching a guitar.
The instrumentally snobbish among us sniffed disapprovingly at the sight of a mere Hofner Colorama – a budget model distributed in the UK in the early 1960s by Selmer and very much a getting-yourself-started instrument. The more instrumentally challenged, on the other hand, just thought it was a pretty little red guitar.
Its owner was called Neil Arnold and he said he’d played a bit with one or two bands back home (in Leicester, I seem to think it was, though I’m not sure) but nothing very serious. Was he into the blues, we enquired? Yes he was, mostly via the playing of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor and other British guitar heroes, although he’d now also started listening to the black American musicians such as B.B. King and Otis Rush who’d inspired their styles.
Satisfied as to his credentials, we launched into something or other and gave him the nod when it was time to play a solo. As soon as he struck up we shifted from condescension to full attention as it was immediately apparent that here was a musician of more than ordinary talent, his playing blessed with both fluidity and inventiveness. We played one or two more numbers before reluctantly saying we had to get on and rehearse since we had a gig coming up, but surreptitious eye contact with each other indicated that the old thought processes were lumbering into action. Dave, meanwhile, remained absolutely impassive.
We bid farewell to Neil before making sure we knew how to contact him and returned to the task in hand. No one said a word although the atmosphere had taken on a certain tenseness.
Muttered and guarded conversations took place over the next few days whenever two or more group members happened to bump into each other and when we were as near as dammit quorate one evening in a bar, the subject that dare not speak its name finally got broached. We quickly agreed that Neil was an outstanding musician and from that reached the view that we would be mad to let him slip through our fingers. But what about Dave? We all liked him a great deal and didn’t want to do anything underhand, even if all was probably fair in running a band just as it was in love and war. Neil seemed a genuinely nice sort of guy – modest, quiet but sociable – and would clearly fit in without any difficulty, but would he be reliable? Dave’s commitment to the band, on the other hand, seemed absolute, so wouldn’t it be better to stick with someone dependable, even if his musicianship wasn’t in the same league as someone untested in battle? The argument raged back and forth but, as so often happens, the application of several pints of beer seemed to clarify the issue. Maybe we could ask Neil to join as our new lead guitarist and retain Dave as our rhythm player: he’d be better than me in that role and it would enable me to concentrate on slide guitar. It wasn’t an entirely happy compromise – it could lead to friction and Dave might in any case feel patronised – but it was as close as we were going to get.
The next question was: who was going to break it to Dave? We looked enquiringly at each other, seeing who would crack first and volunteer. No one spoke. Then Jay, who’d been quietly puffing away at his pipe and seemingly in a world of his own, came to with a start to find several pairs of eyes boring into him.
“What? What?” he cried weakly. “ Not me, surely to God?”
But we were remorseless. It was obvious, really. Jay was the oldest and tallest of us (any excuse, however flimsy, would do). He had a professorial air about him that instilled confidence and he was universally held to be witty and articulate (funny how you look on people in a particularly good light when you want them to do something for you). Howard quickly volunteered to undertake the onerous task of sounding out Neil lest Jay should weaken and the foul act was done in word if not yet in deed.
In the event, the transfer passed off more smoothly than it deserved. Neil seemed genuinely surprised to be asked to join the band but showed delight and enthusiasm and didn’t hesitate to accept the offer. Dave for his part had seen it coming and quickly put the wretched hangman at his ease in the condemned cell. Neil was a very good guitarist, anyone could see that, he delared. Besides, it let him off the hook since he’d been thinking of handing in his notice to go off and try something else when the opportunity arose. A load of bollocks, obviously, but it helped smooth the rite of passage and everyone thankfully remained on good terms. Indeed, Dave would eventually rejoin the band in one of its later incarnations.
Meantime, Neil’s particular enthusiasms led us to add Britblues standards such as “Born Under a Bad Sign”, “I Can’t Quit You” & “Sweet Little Angel” to our repertoire, the last of them being notable for a lovely solo introduction from him that we always took particular delight in listening to.
It’s only very recently that I’ve learned that Howard had in fact set up this seeming chance encounter between the band and its latest recruit. Unknown to the rest of us, he’d previously bumped into Neil in the student bookshop (owned by the infamous Robert Maxwell) and, having an undoubted instinct about the interests or attitudes of complete strangers (especially those whose appearance he approved of), had engaged him in conversation. A shared enthusiasm for music was quickly established, followed by the discovery that Neil was a guitarist – a blues guitarist, moreover. Howard then “revealed” that the band he was in was actively seeking a replacement guitarist on account of the unreliability of the current incumbent. Much was made of an occasion when Dave had got a little tired and emotional on stage, an incident that had caused some tutting from the rest of us, though little more.
Playing the part of the subversive puppet master was something that Howard excelled in and he made no mention of his chance meeting to the rest of us, pretending the same delighted surprise that we expressed when this new and unlooked for guitarist suddenly dropped into our lap. Neil himself can’t remember the details too well, but it would be entirely in keeping with Howard’s preferred modus operandi to have told him to say nothing about their previous meeting lest it embarrass Dave. No wonder he volunteered so promptly to be the one to make the formal offer of a place in the band.
But no sooner had we begun to bed in our new guitarist than we had another visitor to our subterranean rehearsal room. This time it was a sleepy-eyed American with an unruly mop of curls wanting to know what was going on. We explained what we were about and then enquired if he was a musician himself. He was a classically trained violinist, he admitted, “but I don’t do that shit any more.” He did, however, suggest he could “sing a bit.”
Out of politeness rather than any real expectation we tried him out and discovered he had a remarkably good singing voice with a convincing blues inflexion – and, of course, an authentic accent.
“Yes, very good,” said Howard hastily, “but we must get on – there’s a gig to prepare for.” Clearly this new arrival was more of a loose cannon than our previous, carefully primed visitor had been and Howard for one wasn’t keen to encourage him. But the eyes had started sliding around and making surreptitious contact in a by now familiar fashion. And once more the muttered conversations began whenever two or more were gathered together.
Howard, it has to be said, had by now long since put behind him his days spent hiding from the audience. Indeed, he was getting quite forward, bopping energetically in front of the microphone and sometimes even going to the lengths of wearing eye-catching clothes such as a white Levi suit until caustic comments made him modify his appearance. And his voice, without being particularly distinctive, was more than adequate to the task. But he had a big problem: he had immense difficulty in counting off the bars and coming in at the right point. For someone who spent so much time listening to blues- and jazz-based music (and speaking knowledgably about it), he had remarkable difficulty in grasping the basics of timing. He could sometimes be seen furtively counting the bars off on his fingers – but the minute you have to do that, you’re as good as lost. I foolishly made things worse one day by telling him that certain blues singers such as John Lee Hooker & Lightnin’ Hopkins used to drive their accompanists crazy by adopting a very cavalier attitude to bar lengths and taking extreme mathematical liberties with the standard 12 bar format of the blues. Big mistake. I was only trying to cheer him up over his by now legendary tendency to jump in three bars too early or one and half too late or whatever.
But now, like the old army joke about our Willie being the only one who could march in step, the scales fell from Howard’s eyes and he could see that only he had the true authentic feel for the music, whereas the rest of us were shackled by our desperately conventional and rigid insistence on set bar lengths.
So we hardened out hearts and had another of our summit meetings at which we decided to ask Howard to relinquish his role as singer in favour of our new discovery. All eyes turned expectantly towards Jay.
“Oh no,” he said firmly, “not me again. I did it last time. It’s someone else’s turn now.”
But we buttered him up with praise about how skilfully he’d broached the subject of the position of lead guitarist with Dave and followed up with the irrefutable point that he was the only one of us who’d had the experience of giving a group member his marching orders. The rest of us were mere amateurs by comparison. Of course, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy with Howard since he’d been in the band from the very beginning and was also a very forceful character with a strong ego who would find it difficult stepping down. Perhaps, someone suggested, he could be offered the role of manager as a sop. It didn’t seem too convincing but it was the only ammunition we could offer the hapless Jay before sending him off into battle.
As we’d guessed, Howard didn’t take the news at all well. He mounted a vigorous campaign in his defence whereby he attempted to pick off group members one by one and get them on side. I came in for a particularly intense grilling since the band had been his and my idea to start with, but I eventually managed to persuade him that his managerial skills were undoubtedly superior to every one else’s and that, although we had an agent, a manager was certainly something we could also do with to advance our cause.
Once he’d been persuaded (or rather half-persuaded), Howard began slowly to warm to the idea. After all, if there was one thing he enjoyed it was schmoozing. It wasn’t called schmoozing then, of course, but “rapping” and that’s what Howard liked doing. Also browbeating people (though I tactfully didn’t put it quite like that). And manipulating them (as I was very slow to discover). Maybe the final clincher came
when it occurred to him that The Grateful Dead were more like an extended family than a band and had a squad of musicians rather than a set lineup – and they certainly set a good example to all other groups.
Anyway, by fair means or foul, we now had a new vocalist. His name was Tad Lauer and he was from Indiana, a state within the Corn Belt that was full of the descendants of German settlers and has always been staunchly Republican.
To say that Tad wasn’t entirely in tune with the culture of his birthplace is something of an understatement – indeed, he’d fled to the UK and signed up for a university course specifically to avoid the draft, the Vietnam war then being at its height. His brother had had the same idea but had chosen his destination less wisely, ending up in Australia, which then promptly gave in to American pressure by sending troops to Indo-China themselves. Harold Wilson, however, stood firm against LBJ and I for one will always excuse him for a great deal on account of his unwillingness to become a poodle of the United States, unlike one of his successors I could mention. And we swelled with pride at the thought that we were harbouring a genuine draft dodger.
So there was Tad – and pretty penniless on account of his circumstances. No white Levi suit for him, that was for sure. Crumpled clothes in dingy blues and muddy browns were more the order of the day – and a complete absence of a stage act. He simply stood in front of the microphone, knees sagging slightly, and sang. In moments of extreme excitement he might occasionally attempt a strange, jerking dance that didn’t involve actually moving his feet, but that was about it. Studied nonchalance was very fashionable at the time, however, and Tad’s very immobility was held to be deeply cool. Furthermore, he always looked as if he had a right to be up there on stage – something that
communicates well with audiences – and he had a voice of undoubted high quality, not to mention that authentic drawl.
His constant companion was a Liverpudlian called Ray who bore a faint resemblance to George Harrison (some local genetic trait, we assumed). Our guess was that they were drawn to each other because both were men of few words – or appeared to be. Tad, for instance, took care to keep his intellectual accomplishments well hidden, preferring instead to signify approval by declaring, “That’s fucking real, man” or some such construction. Similarly, anything he disapproved of was invariably condemned as being “a bunch of shit”.
But, compared to Ray, Tad was positively garrulous. Jeff, for instance, was under the impression that Ray actively disliked him since he never said a word to him; but it was nothing personal. Ray’s utterances, few that they were, tended to the Sphinx-like and used to be mulled over to see if some profound meaning could be gleaned from them.
Eventually, the penny dropped: Ray might not be a sparkling conversationalist but he always used to know where the best dope was to be found. His frequent trips back to Merseyside were not, seemingly, the actions of a dutiful son catching up on a bit of quality time with his dear parents but visits to his suppliers. We wondered if they were as taciturn as he was and, if so, just how long it took to conduct each deal.
But whereas we were resigned to letting Ray remain an enigma, we were determined to introduce Tad to the riches of English culture.
And what more English than a trip to an Indian restaurant, a type of establishment somewhat thin on the ground in Indiana, we learned. We entered the holy portals of The Anathema and stuck a menu in front of him while we fired off requests for dhansacks, vindaloos, bhunas and the like whilst tucking in to a large plateful of pappadoms until Peter could be revived sufficiently to begin cooking.
Peter, it must be explained, was the restaurant’s chief cook (funny how many of the people involved in it had English forenames). The rumour was that he smoked marijuana obsessively and so was frequently incapable of plying his trade and was instead often to be found slumped in a corner, wearing an insanitary-looking, curry-stained chef’s jacket and a vacant expression on his face. I myself thought these stories were highly exaggerated until one day someone at our table let out a yelp of disgust and declared there was a roach in his curry. I assumed he’d found a large, unsavoury insect and instantly downed tools until I realised it wasn’t that kind of roach – it was a dog-end, left over from one of Peter’s consciousness-altering smoking sessions. The enraged diner sent his plate back immediately – after all, the roach was by now smothered in curry sauce and would be impossible to light. I then realised that not only were all the stories true but I’d also discovered the explanation for the fact that any one dish would taste completely different each time you ordered it.
Nothing of this was revealed to Tad at first, of course: his education must proceed one careful step at a time. Meanwhile, he was studying the menu he’d been given with a frown – a frown brought on, we soon realised, not so much by the unfamiliarity of the meals but because of their price, an outrageous 4/6d a time for the most basic dish (that’s 22.5p, all you youngsters). Then his face brightened as he noticed the sundries. “Bombay duck, 9d each!” he cried in triumph. “Fuckin’ real, man! Gimme a plateful of those!”
“But that isn’t…” someone began but was quickly shushed by everyone else. The waiter, used to our eccentric ways, took his order impassively.
When it arrived, Tad’s face was a wonder to behold. “What kind of fuckin’ duck is this, man?” he cried in baffled rage.
“It’s dried fish fuckin’ duck,” we explained helpfully. “Just don’t sniff at it before you start chewing.”
To his credit, Tad managed to get though about five of them before caution got the better of his hunger and we charitably topped up his plate with our leftovers.
A bigger cultural problem for Tad than Indian restaurants was coping with the English sense of humour. We’d heard reports that he’d encountered an example of this on his very first day at the university.
He’d been advised that the place to visit when in the centre of Lancaster was a student haunt called The Shakespeare in St. Leonardgate, a pub run by an avuncular but no-nonsense landlord called George Daly who was universally liked, not least because of his ability to integrate students, lecturers and working class locals in perfect harmony under the same roof. One of his student regulars was a certain John Havelock-Davies, usually known simply as Havelock or even more simply as Have. Havelock was a member of quite a literary family, I understand, and his own particular talent lay in his quick wit and his ability to knock off pastiches of just about any poetic style you’d care to mention (his Dylan Thomas spoofs were particularly fine). His physical appearance didn’t disappoint. His tall, broad-shouldered frame was invariably clad in a faded denim suit whilst his hair fizzed out spectacularly from a centre parting. He had granny glasses perched on his nose through which he would peer at you quizzically and, over a decade before designer stubble was invented, he would always manage to look as if he’d last shaved two or three days ago.
Havelock’s favourite spot in The Shakespeare was the corner of the bar next to the jukebox and he could always be seen there perched on a stool, gently nodding his head in time to the music and smiling benignly at a partly-consumed pint of beer. The instant Tad entered The Shakespeare for the first time he spotted Havelock in his usual corner and decided that here, if anywhere, was a kindred spirit. He walked straight up to him and accosted him.
“Hey, man,” he said without preamble, “are you a head?”
Havelock’s immediate response – with a perfectly deadpan face – was: “Yeah, man, miles.”
OK, it was quite likely an apocryphal story but it was a very popular one and was repeated endlessly, its nuances carefully savoured.
But even having been softened up by Havelock didn’t prepare Tad for his initiation into The Goon Show. It was quite a mountain for him to climb, based as it was on British army humour with a strong dash of surrealism, and Spike Milligan’s bizarre world view took some time to insinuate its way into Tad’s pleasure centres. He confessed himself baffled at first, but repeated plays of my collection of well-worn, scratchy LPs of the show gradually won him over. Humour, of course, is very contagious and at first he simply enjoyed our enjoyment, although we noticed that he seemed to appreciate the adventures of Neddy Seagoon, Bluebottle and co. much better when he was stoned out of his head.
In such ways were cultural barriers broken down and the noble cause of international understanding advanced.