Inspired by Acoustic Guitar magazine I doodled my guitar yesterday, outside in the garden decorated with a few leaves.
1971 seems a long time ago. The pre-digital age when we all bought vinyl LP’s in a cardboard sleeve. Our musical heros would speak to us through the etchings made in a plastic disc, rediscovered by a needle following the contoured groove round and around. And the music was really really groovy. But, mixed with our love of the music was a collective shared vision in the promise of a new world order, one based on the humanitarian principles that enlightened the sixties sub-cultures. One founded on love, and peace. Of course, accompanying the mind expansion, came the excesses of liberation. Freed from the cultural stranglehold that was the post war western world and fuelled by the drugs that had now become generally available, some of our musical heroes burnt themselves out – Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix to name just the better known. But yet, there was always the hope that someone might rise above the ashes of self-glorification – and do something practical to help. Use their fame to highlight someone’s plight, draw attention to universal suffering and shame the cynics. Well someone did. Answering the call of Ravi Shanker, George Harrison pulled on many a string to arrange a benefit concert, to be filmed and recorded, the proceeds of which would go to alleviate the hardship being endured by the people of Bangla Desh. And what a concert. Fellow Beatle Ringo Starr, southern rocker Leon Russell, gospel soulster Billy Preston, guitar god Eric Clapton and topping it all, – the cream on the dream – in strides Bob Dylan doing his first live gig since his motorcycle accident of 1966, nervous as heck, but lured by the thought of supporting his close buddy George.
The accompanying film portrays the heightened emotion of this pre-LiveAid, pre-Geldorf event. The quiet Beatle, George Harrison had pulled it off – and helped to salve the conscience of a generation. Yes – we could all feel the power of giving.
Continuing the meander down the track of my bygone musical wanderings, the year is 1972, the occasion a Bangladesh benefit concert organised by the Swansea University’s Progressive Hedonists Union for Culture and Creativity (known by its friends as the PHUCC club!) Really the club had little to do with the university, other than using its facilities and venues. It was a largely underground run by my buddy Tony Tillmanns who went on to run a very successful music advertising company. I used to help Tony out with the club and when George Harrison organised his hugely ambitious and successful Bangladesh charity gig in New York we wondered whether we could replicate the idea (on a more modest scale of course) in Swansea. A date was fixed, and a venue organised, namely the town’s Top Rank ballroom. Acts were contacted – and there was a real willingness to play for chips so that we could maximise the money raised. Genesis, Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come (one of the best live acts then and now and the classy Mick Abraham’s Band had all agreed. We were just short of an act to open this prestigious event. Who better than our own band, The Fitton’s Freaker’s Jugband? After protracted negotiations the deal was sealed. We would play for a crate of beer. On the night we suddenly realised we had a problem – no amplification! No worries we naively thought. We’ll just use Genesis’s!
Unsurprisingly Genesis refused our request but with one concession. We could use one microphone. So, huddled around this mike like flies trapped on flypaper we ran through our set with a sound caught somewhere between the Grateful Dead and Lonnie Donegan. I can’t say how we went down because we were all a tad pissed having consumed the free beer in something of a dash. I do remember one guy saying he liked one song – ‘Binding Myself To You’ – the rest is a little hazy.
Much to my astonishment a flyer from this show has survived the years. Here it is typed lovingly by Tony’s fair hand.
On a much sadder note – this was also the stage that later that year witnessed the tragic death of the gifted and still remembered Stone the Crows guitarist, Les Harvey, at a gig organised by the Entertainments Committee of Swansea University. Les grabbed hold of a mike with a wet hand, a mike that sadly was not earthed. An utterly shocking and heartbreaking thing to occur. I shan’t ever forget it.
Such is the passing nature of our fragile life…………….
Some influences don’t go away. They stay with you – to guide you, push you and pull you into shape, sometimes gently, sometimes with a bang. I first heard of Missisippi John Hurt through listening to Mike Raven’s ‘Rhythm and Blues’ show on the radio. There was a simplicity about his music that appealed. The alternating bass patterns were slightly hypnotic with the melody picked out on the treble strings of his guitar. The whole effect had a syncopated ragtime feel that beautifully complemented John Hurt’s gentle voice and resonant delivery. As an aspiring guitarist alongside many others at the time I seized upon this appealing music and using Stefan Grossman’s instructional tabulature books began to learn how to play it on my trusty Harmony Sovereign guitar. And then I learnt more about the man behind the music. Born into poverty as one of ten children he worked as a sharecropper developing his own style of playing that became popular at local dances (because of its swinging qualities). In 1928 John recorded an album for Okeh records and then disappeared into obscurity until the mid-sixties when he was re-discovered as part of the American folk blues revival. He then had a successful career making a number of excellent albums for Vanguard records and touring the college/festival scene extensively until his death in 1966. He was, and continues to be widely respected not only for his music but because he always remained a mild-mannered, courteous, humorous and engaging man despite being propelled into the dizzy heights of near-legendary status. His influence on my music was considerable. You can hear that alternating bass and melody picking on ‘Gladrag’ a track from my first album ‘Echoes of A Day’.
There is a brilliant website and Foundation celebrating John Hurt’s life and music that’s worth a visit. Check him out if you are at all into roots music.
Finally – here’s a quick sketch in memory of the magical Mississippi John Hurt.
Growing up in the Lancashire textile town of Haslingden during the 1950’s going to church was an inescapable aspect of my childhood. Trussed up in my Sunday best I was marched off with sister Valerie to the nearest church to be bored scared witless by a man in a big white frock and purple collar promising eternal damnation or salvation based on your personal behaviour. Now, for a naughty wee lad like moi, this horror show was guaranteed to turn me off established religion for ever and a day. Much rather would I be listening to the cowboy serials on the radio or trying to split an apple with an arrow from my trusty toy crossbow.
A little sand passes through the glass and I’m carrying my guitar case along Blackburn Rd with a Beatles tune in my head. One of the early ones – maybe ‘Ticket to Ride’ or ‘Help’. Thinking about the chords and how to shape them on a cheap gloss white f-hole guitar with an action like pressing hawser wire onto a steel girder, bought from the legendary Mary’s Music in Accrington. Mary’s Music was run by a kindly, knowledgable yet not-to-be-messed with lady. Walking with rhythm guitarist Ian Brown and singer Chris Hardman past the imposing walls that held the churchyard up off the main road to the lead guitarist John Cowpe’s house. Lucky John whose dada had fixed up their mains radio to act as a guitar amplifier, lucky John who owned a Selmer Futurama a guitar that closely resembled the mythical Stratocastor, lucky John who was deeply musical and who could play lead like Hank Marvin. Steven Proctor bashed out the drums with an uncanny sense of timing whilst Ian and I laiked about trying to work out the difference between E7 and E9. It was great. We never played any gigs, but we did carry on for what seems like a couple of years regurgitating the hits of the day by the Beatles, Stones, Yardbirds, Byrds et al, playing from old fashioned sheet music in the days before guitar tablature and internet.
All of this within shouting distance of St James’s church whose churchyard walls were once breached by the floodwaters of a local storm. A landslip ensued leading to the loss of a few coffins out of the cemetery slipping on to the road. Someone had the job of sorting out the remnants!
Painting the picture evoked these and other memories, including one of drinking cheap Woodpecker cider in the churchyard before miming to the latest Manfred Mann tune at the end of term school dance, sneaking the bottles into the hall within our guitar cases. Ah – that good old rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle!
This is my latest Soundshoots piece on the theme of Hedonism.