Playing in the Band (For Fun), Part 1

As someone who never reads the comments, it’s strange how I’ve got to know that a number of Puffins have played in bands at one time or another, just like myself, so I’ve put together a two-part article about my time playing in amateur bands. Part 1 covers ‘the early years’, school and university bands, and mercifully is not padded out with any recordings of those early bands, although tapes do exist. I’ll stick with photos only for Part 1.

Part 2 covers my rather unlikely adventures with folk music. As a number of half-decent recordings were made of that band, YouTube videos of a few of them will be included for anybody who fancies a headache – available completely gratis. If you are expecting tales of debauchery, sex and drugs, fear and loathing in these articles, you will be sadly disappointed, although there are one or two mentions of rock’n’roll.

I hit my teens in the mid-60s, with youth culture centre-stage, and the pop explosion happening, so something I got into was…. playing in a band.

In the end, I enjoyed doing this for about 20 years, from 1963 – 1983. I was lucky to have had a father who enjoyed music. He sang in a number of choirs, and had performed in his own amateur musical groups and musical theatre groups down the years. He was the proud owner of a 1920s banjo and ukulele, which had seen a fair bit of use.

The Old Man performing with the White Crotchets in February 1939 in Bishops Stortford, with WW2 on the horizon. He’s the guy with the guitar, who appears to be the one who got the girl on this occasion

Dad’s uke was small, as ukes are, which made it easy for a little boy to pretend it was really a guitar. I spent many happy hours standing on the dining table, which I imagined to be a concert stage, miming to early Beatles 45s when I was around 10 years old.

The Old Man worked out the chords to a number of pop songs of the time, which gave me a start, and I was also lucky enough to be given piano lessons, which gave me a fairly solid musical background – although I had a love/hate relationship with the lessons at the time.

I didn’t develop a real feel for playing, or a true understanding of the logical, almost mathematical underlying structure of music, until a few years after the lessons stopped. But thanks to those early lessons, I later found myself able to sit at the piano and play for hours on end to my heart’s content, making it all up as I went along.

This provided good entertainment for Mum while she slaved away in the kitchen. She often used to pop her head round the door to say how much she was enjoying my playing.

And as I grew older, I found that being in a band was quite a good way to meet girls…. and even if you were a nowhere man in a nowhere band, there’d usually be one or two girls in the entourage who’d quite like you.

Little bruv and I pose with Dad’s 20s Uke and Banjo

Reviewing the 20 years of my ‘pop career’, it turns out I was involved with nine different ensembles. But before I ever got together with any other musicians, I had my own, imaginary, fantasy band all to myself. This band was called The Earwigs.

I can remember designing publicity posters for The Earwigs, and made a drum kit out of old scraps of wood and biscuit tins. The neighbours can’t have been too pleased when I started bashing the thing with a couple of drumsticks the Old Man whittled for me from some dowel rod. Worse was to come in later years when my school bands practised in the garden shed with electric guitars, amplifiers, drums and wailing singers.

The Earwig’s name was a kind of insect tribute to the Beetles/Beatles, and could also be taken as a pointer to the kind of ear-defenders that might come in handy while listening to me/us.

Band 1: The Ravers (1963-64)

This was my primary school band, and the first band I ever performed in ‘public’ with – that ‘public’ being the other children in the school. Our class performed a farewell concert and variety show to entertain the other pupils before we left for secondary school. We were the main musical act for the show.

The Ravers was born out of a band called The Leather Jackets, that I wasn’t a member of. When The Jackets were invited to play at the show, one of the boys in the band suggested that I should join, as I had a real guitar, and that another lad, who had a proper drum because he was in the Boys’ Brigade, should join too.

So one of their guitarists was unceremoniously dumped, to be replaced by me. The outgoing guitarist had a Beatles guitar, which he’d bought from a company called Hopes for 19/6 (I think) via one of those box ads in a Saturday newspaper.

It was actually a small plastic toy guitar, about the size of a ukulele. I hope he’s still got it, because if so, he’ll be laughing last, as it’s quite collectable as far as Beatles memorabilia is concerned. It can sell at auction for up to £200, and very occasionally even more.

The Boys’ Brigade drummer joined too, and the band’s name was changed to The Ravers to please the two new members.

We played three numbers at the concert, the first being Juliet by The Four Pennies, which was riding high in the charts at the time. Dad had written the chords out for me, and this was the only song we’d actually rehearsed. When our rendition was enthusiastically received, we were at a bit of a loss as to what to do, standing on stage like lemons. Enter our teacher who insisted that another boy join us for a subdued version of Bizet’s ‘Toreador’.

Now this was a rather adventurous piece of music to attempt, completely unrehearsed, but I don’t think our teacher knew any pop songs, and definitely wasn’t a musician!

When this ‘number’ ground to a desperate halt, our singer, who was ideal for the job, being a bit of a poser, and a natural rebel and loon, launched into a suitably edgy, and also completely unrehearsed version of ‘You Were Made for Me’, complete with silly Freddie and the Dreamers dance moves!

I well remember winging it, and surprised myself by getting the chords approximately right. Our singer carried the whole thing off with much aplomb. It was the ideal song for a bunch of little kids, and it went down a storm with the audience.

I don’t recall whether the audience called for an encore, but it’s unlikely. Yes. truth be told we weren’t very good, but as we were seniors in the school, the younger kids lapped it up – wow, a real pop group! I was quite surprised they enjoyed it, because I knew it wasn’t that good.

Mercifully no recordings exist of The Ravers. I was the only member who could actually play anything, i.e. strum a tune on the guitar. The other guitarist in the band had a home-made guitar constructed of various odd bits of wood. It made some sort of noise. I kind of kept it all together on my Spanish guitar.

Band 2: The Gravediggers (1965-1966)

This was my first secondary school band (if you see what I mean). After settling in to the new school, I discovered that two boys in my class owned proper, real, electric guitars. One had a Hofner Galaxy, and the other had a Fender Telecaster (or Telecaster copy). Wow!

Forming a band seemed like the right thing to do. Everybody could play to a reasonable standard, and as the singer from The Ravers was also at this new school, he got to be our frontman. Another lad joined to play the chair (in lieu of drums), making 5 of us in all.

We rehearsed a few numbers, including For Your Love (Yardbirds) and Keep on Running (Spencer Davis Group), and I even made recordings of us playing them, which my horrible brother erased a few years later, much to my annoyance. I remind him about this incident from time to time.

Yours truly still only had the £8 (or was it 8/-?) Spanish six-string I’d been given for my birthday some years before, and as this instrument didn’t really cut it with the new band, I was soon quietly discarded.

The Gravediggers became The Diversions, and they brought in a new lad who did have an electric guitar. He turned out to be a bit unreliable, and only played with them occasionally. I sometimes heard what The Diversions were up to, but they kept it all pretty much to themselves, to avoid any upsets or unpleasantness.

The Diversions fizzled out in Autumn ‘66, which meant the end of hopes of stardom for our singer, who left ‘the business’ at this point. He went on to get expelled from secondary school just before A levels for refusing to get his hair cut.

Band 3: The Sawdust Grenadiers (c. 1967-1968)

A year or two later, I still didn’t have an electric guitar, which meant I’d have to be the drummer in a new band. Someone managed to cadge a drum kit from somewhere, and we began practising from time to time in the cedarwood shed at the bottom of the garden, which had previously been used for Gravediggers rehearsals.

Poor neighbours. They had to listen to the tedious, wooden guitar part from ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ time after time on what otherwise would have been quite pleasant afternoons.

After a few rehearsals, the band acquired a singer, who’d even appeared on a children’s talent show on the telly. He had personality, good looks, and a good voice, but soon got bored with the band. So I was called upon to be vocalist again. And then everything fizzled out.

As the family had owned a half-decent Philips tape recorder since 1961, I have recordings of The Grenadiers doing: All or Nothing; Baby Come Back; Bend Me, Shape Me; Get Off My Cloud; I Don’t Want Our Loving To Die; Lazy Sunday; Love is All Around; My Mind’s Eye; and of course Pictures of Matchstick Men.

Band 4: The Fatty Davies Band / The Bessie Barnes ‘Evil Muck’ Circus Road Show (1970-72)

By the time interest was rekindled in messing about in a band, we were all a couple of years older. In the interim, I’d acquired an electric bass guitar, paid for with birthday and paper round money.

It would have been a waste of time me getting a six-string electric as we already had two of those between us. So my future musical ‘career’ as a four-string player was determined by ‘circumstances’.

Our lead guitarist had upgraded his Hofner Galaxy to a Gibson SG Special, and we’d also acquired a proper drummer. He had a full drum kit and was pretty good. He was in The Boys’ Brigade, like The Ravers’ drummer, which is where he learnt his trade.

The names we came up with for this band were absolutely appalling. We played a few gigs at school, and at youth clubs, and developed quite a good repertoire.

Interestingly, or not, I recently found a set list for a gig we did on 7/1/1972 at a local church youth club. It included a few good tunes:

    • Let’s Work Together (Wilbert Harrison – Canned Heat)
    • Money (The Beatles)
    • Politician (Cream)
    • I’m So Glad (Cream)
    • Shakin’ All Over (Johnny Kidd & the Pirates)
    • My Generation (The Who)
    • Jumping Jack Flash (Rolling Stones)
    • Back in the USSR (The Beatles)
    • Natural Born Boogie (Humble Pie)
    • ‘Coz I Luv You (Slade – requested by audience)
    • Better By You, Better Than Me (Spooky Tooth)
    • Mambo Rock (Bill Haley & His Comets)
    • Paranoid (Black Sabbath)
    • Foxy Lady (Jimi Hendrix)
    • Crossroads (Cream)
    • Jumping Jack Flash (Rolling Stones)

The only thing the girls in the audience wanted to hear that evening was something by Slade, who were riding high at the time. Fortunately we had rehearsed the band’s current Number One, and were able to deliver a passable copy of the work. For a bass player like Yours Truly, the sliding, lolloping bassline on ‘Coz I Luv You’ is an absolute joy to play! I was delighted the tune was requested, but the rest of the band were absolutely disgusted.

I remember zooming up to the West End on the morning of that gig to buy a new bass guitar amplifier from one of the guitar shops up there. Later that year I bought a second hand PA system I’d seen in an ad in Exchange & Mart. It cost me £100, and included two large coffin-shaped PA speaker cabinets. It was previously owned by Amen Corner, according to the vendor.

Band 5: The DNT Band (1972)

My guitarist mate tried to get a band together during his first year at university, which was my gap year. There were lots of plans, but only ever two rehearsals. He told me that one of the guys he’d recruited was an ex-Hawkwind guitarist and another an ex-Skin Alley drummer. I never established whether either claim was true or not. Boasting is all we ever did as far as this band was concerned.

Yours truly enjoying a ‘Moonshine’ jam session in The Barn, UEA

Band 6: Moonshine (1972-1973)

Later that year I was off to university, and the Old Man had the task of delivering me, all my stuff, plus two rather large coffin-shaped PA speaker cabinets, both precariously tied to the roof rack, to UEA in Norwich.

I soon met up with a fellow fresher who happened to be a drummer, and bizarrely came from the same London borough as me. We immediately discussed forming a band, as you do. But what about guitarists?

Funny you should ask that, but a couple of days later the pair of us were wandering through one of the student residences when we heard the sound of some quite pleasant guitar playing coming from a room – it was definitely live music – it wasn’t just somebody playing a record.

So we knocked on the door and introduced ourselves, and Moonshine was born. The study bedroom contained 2 guitarists who were firing stuff off each other. One was a German lad who was studying Art History, and the other was yet another London fellow, who was blessed with more than his fair share of self-confidence – a very valuable asset in show business of course.

Whenever he started a guitar solo, there was always a risk it would never come to an end, so I developed a subtle technique which I used from time to time to stop him soloing endlessly. It involved strolling across the stage, and giving him a friendly kick on the ankle. It usually worked, and he always took it in good part. Or at least I think he did!

There were rehearsals and hangers-on, somebody got hold of an electric piano for me to play, we did a few gigs, and even got to play with a proper PA system when we were booked as support act to a ‘proper’ band who were playing at the Student Union.

In those days ‘jam sessions’ were pretty common. Basically a few musicians would get together, you’d all start playing, and play whatever came into your heads. Occasionally somebody might demonstrate a simple chord sequence,  or say ‘let’s play a 12-bar’, and then everybody would join in. Great fun. I have some tapes of one such session, and it’s amazing just how listenable some of it was. A few student friends would come along for the ride.

A memorable gig was one we played with a couple of other Norwich bands to celebrate the Vernal Equinox. We had two drummers that day, and we all played outdoors, on the grass, between the UEA Ziggurats. Nobody was electrocuted, fortunately, and you can see one of the afore-mentioned coffin-shaped PA speaker columns in the photo.

Moonshine play at the UEA Vernal Equinox Concert, 22/3/1973

The German guitarist went on to be a ‘somebody’ in the German music industry, and still plays in bands today, while the other guitarist went on to hit the big time in the music business on the management side.

Our drummer became a language teacher, and has lived in Germany for the biggest part of his life. The other drummer, who played with us once in a while, whose dad was something to do with the US security services, went back to The States.

By now I was almost fully grown up, and had ‘proper’ girlfriends, and other states of consciousness to explore, so I rather lost interest in playing music, and the hobby fell by the wayside for some years. Quite by chance, I found myself in a new band in 1981, and the old white bass guitar which had long since been sold, was soon to be replaced with a brand new black one. Part 2 to follow.

My Fender Mustang short-scale bass guitar, which delivers a punchy sound, and a very rich tone. Purchased for £120 on 17th September 1981, just in time to join my next band for their ‘big gig’. I still have this guitar. You’d be paying  £800-1000 if you wanted an identical instrument today.


© text & images NeverUpToTheJob 2021