Playing in the Band (For Fun) – Epilogue

As my pair of articles about playing in bands accumulated a decent number of votes in the GP Autumn Competition, and there were some interesting reactions at the time of publication, I’ve written one more, final (honestly) part.

And thanks to all who chipped into the comments on those articles with their own band and musical experiences. I made a mental note of them all, and will be getting in touch soon with details of a new GP Puffin Orchestra you can all join.

The shortlist includes Audrey’s Daughter, who has had a proper life-long amateur/semi-pro music career playing her baritone sax, Neil on wood blocks, and there are many others, too numerous to mention. (I’m only kidding about the GP orchestra!)

Mrs. Raft asked why somebody with some musical ability wasn’t still playing music. I know exactly what she meant. Our folk band Belladonna was such a thrill, and had a bit of promise, and the disappointment of it ending prematurely was a bitter pill to swallow.

Plus I’m a bit of a dilettante, so I find it a bit too easy to move on to something else in life, and I haven’t really come across the right people to play music with since those days anyway. Some Puffins suggested Belladonna should have a reunion – but it all happened 40 years ago now.

Other Puffins suggested I get back in touch with old band members, and I’ve since found out what the guitarists in my university band, Moonshine, went on to do, although I haven’t got back in touch with them just yet. Both of them went on to achieve considerable success in the music industry, but more of that later.

How many more column inches can I squeeze out of old ‘glories’, and what were really only quite brief musical episodes, measured in months, rather than years, you may ask? As I originally said there would only be two parts to the article, I’ve had to call this part an ‘epilogue’.

Going back to the very beginning, my Old Man definitely deserves a hat tip for helping set me on a ‘musical’ path. If it wasn’t for his old uke, which was guitar-sized for a little boy, and which I soon learnt to strum, I probably wouldn’t ever have played in a band for fun.

Video 1. Swing Low Sweet Chariot

Dad sings Swing Low Sweet Chariot along with his uke, recorded in his bedroom in his 60s and in the 60s. He’d be chuffed to know people might be listening to him playing in 2022!

Mum helped me too, because she had a love of classical music, and the ballet, and could play the piano to a modest standard herself. She was ‘instrumental’ in arranging piano lessons for me.

So of the bands I played in for fun, two stand out above all the others. Moonshine, my university band, and Belladonna, the folk band I played in just a few years later.

Band 6. Belladonna (1981-1982)

My sixth musical adventure was in folk music, and the band was called Belladonna. The girlfriend at the time, who was the band’s fiddle player, was definitely the boss. What she said was the law, and woe betide any of us if we put a foot wrong. Her inner ‘school teacher’ would swiftly come to the fore with a few carefully chosen, stern words.

Musicians generally being sensitive souls, with fragile egos, tend to crumple when criticised or admonished, and while we all had to do what teacher said, on the other hand she did a great job of driving up everyone’s musical abilities. Our mandolin player progressed from being a fairly ordinary mandolin and guitar player, to being a pretty awesome musician in just six months.

Thanks to our excellent PA system, and a bog-standard cassette tape recorder, I’ve got a wealth of recordings of the band to listen to at my leisure, and relive some of the glories of my youth.

As well as live recordings of gigs and rehearsals, we managed to get half a dozen tunes down on a 4 track tape recorder, which means the recordings can be remixed and tidied up, and turned into reasonably presentable artefacts. I’ve made a few videos using these recordings recently.

With each instrument separately recorded, it’s easy to edit out the odd bum note, violin scrape etc., and also to closely inspect the playing of each musician!

Our fiddle player was excellent, the mandolin player was good, but when I listened to a tin whistle track recently, I suddenly realised just how good our tin whistle player was too.

She was also a good singer, with a lovely voice, perfect diction, and played the guitar well, stroking her plectrum across the strings, harp-style. Looking back, she really didn’t get the praise or recognition she deserved. But she was still a teenager at the time, the junior member of the band, so I suppose it went with the territory. So yes, our female singer was underestimated, and under-appreciated.

One of my fondest memories of the band is of an evening we played a few tunes in someone’s kitchen. With the rest of the band, and pretty much everybody else having gone to the pub, Belladonna’s girl singer, and myself, played ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ to an audience of one. Just voice, acoustic guitar, and electric bass. The first and last performance by this duo. We got a round of applause!

I well remember adding a few unexpected extra bars at the end of the instrumental break, just to savour the moment for a tiny bit longer. The singer had to wait to start the next verse, and it kind of added an extra dynamic to the performance.

The best performances never seem to get recorded, and that was definitely one of them. The memory of the thrill of playing that tune on that occasion remains. The truth be told, I was madly in love with our singer, but that’s another story, and it’s a secret, anyway.

The Belladonna band van. As we weren’t ELP, all our equipment fitted into the back of my van, with room for the mandolin player too

Some of us in the band regarded our adventures in folk music as a kind of stepping stone, as we were starting to go a bit ‘world music’ by weaving other influences in, and still of course had the option of going properly electric. Bizarrely, one thing we found we were quite good at was bringing a reggae beat into the folk music.

We all really put a lot of effort into the band, almost to the exclusion of everything else. We had a voracious appetite for new material, and of course there is a wealth of old tunes and traditional songs out there. Folk records, song and dance tune collections, and other sources were scoured for material. If we heard a tune we liked, we nicked it.

One such song, almost forgotten now, which we had a bash at, is the Broadside Ballad ‘The Tinker’s Wedding’. Bizarrely, this worked best for us when sung in a Scottish accent, although that was kind of appropriate, as the wedding in our version of the song was celebrated on the banks of the Solway Firth.

The tune was handicapped by a rather awkward sort of rhythm which we never really got on top of. We did try it live a couple of times – in the pub, and once as I recall in a field in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Essex, near Chelmsford.

We’d been asked to entertain a camp of Peace Protesters who were on a long march to Mildenhall airbase (I think it was). The Peace Movement was a big thing at the time, as the West’s nuclear brinkmanship was pushing the Soviet regime to the brink of collapse, and a lot of people were living in fear, a bit like with Covid today.

I see that The Makem Brothers bravely put out a version of ‘The Tinker’s Wedding’ in 2001. If we had persevered with the song, it would have been our first ‘original’ interpretation of a traditional song.

In those days, I used to go to Primrose Hill about every two weeks to visit a wholesaler based in St. George’s Mews, just off Regents Park Road. Also in Regents Park Road, at number 2, is Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

So for quite a few months, every time I went past, I would dive into the library for an hour or so, and plough through as many old pamphlets, song sheets and suchlike as I could, in the hope of finding something worth using. (I’m not sure I’d leave a van full of stock parked up on a London street these days, but times were gentler, and safer, and we had a proper ‘high trust’ society back then).

I always looked at the words first, because many songs could be rejected simply because the words were too obscure, the story wasn’t up to it, or just wouldn’t resonate with a modern audience.

If the words seemed useable, I’d look at the music, and that’s when I found ‘The Tinker’s Wedding’, which I showed to the girlfriend when I got home. She deemed it suitable for consideration, and we gave it a go.

We did have two songwriters in the band, but they were very shy about their stuff, and we never really had a bash at any of their tunes, although they did play a couple of them to demo to the rest of the band on one occasion, and they were actually rather good.

‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’ was one of those songs we played just a few times. I don’t think we ever played it live, or maybe we did – at one of our pub gigs. I really can’t remember. Those ‘beer gigs’ didn’t have set lists – we just played what we fancied, or what seemed right at that particular moment, as and when.

There are other songs that fall into this category, which if they weren’t recorded, or weren’t on an old set list, you would forget you’d ever played after a while. One such tune which recently returned to memory was ‘The Wild Rover’. A great tune, and a good sing-along song, because almost everybody knows it, or the chorus at least.

The first time we played the song was at the mandolin player’s house. It came out reggae style, with a reggae ‘off beat’. It seemed to work, and the mandolin player’s wife was really taken by it. She said it sounded “amazing” – just the sort of word a muso with a fragile ego wants to hear! Although we tried and tried, it never ever came out quite the same way ever again.

Video 2. The Atholl Highlanders – Belladonna

Recorded on New Years’ Day 1983, just violin and guitar, when four of the five band members got together for the very last time. Drinks had been taken, but that’s no excuse for a slightly hesitant, uncertain performance.

Bizarrely, there are almost no photos of Belladonna. You would have thought we’d at least have got a few photos taken at a performance or two, or at one of our rehearsals which we used to conduct at my workshop – a converted dairy building with very thick walls and brilliant natural reverb.

But we never did – the only photos I have were taken by the local newspaper when we played a pub session for free beer.

We almost got famous. Essex Radio (OK it’s not BBC Radio 2) were going to record us at a gig in January 1982. Unfortunately there was a very heavy snow storm the day of the gig. The singers managed to get to the gig by car, while us 3 got there in my French greengrocers van, with all our kit, plus the mandolin player, rolling around in the back.

We slithered all the way down the M11 as we travelled across Essex to get to Epping. It was quite ghostly, as I don’t recall seeing another vehicle on the motorway the whole time, and my van, nicknamed ‘Snowy’, as it was white, blended in quite nicely.

Essex Radio, as might have been expected, didn’t turn up. Fortunately a decent number of folk did, the bar was well-stocked, it was nice and warm, and we were able to poke fun at the BBC between tunes, calling it various names, without any fear of blowback.

Then, as related previously, the band came to a sudden halt when one of the band lost his wife and baby daughter in a horrific car crash. His little boy survived, but the band member, and the band never recovered.

Band 5. Moonshine (1972-1973)

Moving backwards swiftly from the 80s to the 70s….. and to Moonshine, my university band. A guitars-only, sharp-sounding rock band. Although I thoroughly enjoyed playing folk music ten years later, and it was a true challenge, and a great spur to improving as a musician, the kind of free-form, unplanned, improvised acid-rock stuff we played in Moonshine was really more my thing.

As is often the case with bands, Moonshine’s formation was serendipitous. I’d met an English bloke at a motorway intersection while hitch-hiking out of Amsterdam in 1972, and a quick chat revealed we were both starting courses at UEA later that Summer.

We soon spotted each other when we arrived at university. He’d already met a guy who happened to be from my home town of Enfield, and who also happened to be a drummer, and Hey Presto! – a rhythm section was formed.

This new rhythm section soon found two good singer-guitarists while wandering around the university residences. We heard the pair playing in one of the study bedrooms, knocked on the door, introduced ourselves, and Moonshine was complete.

A slightly interesting bunch – three lads from suburban London, plus a German fellow who’d spent his early life in Africa.

We’d all played in bands before, and our German guitarist had received his first guitar lessons from a Nigerian highlife musician in Ibadan in the late 60s.

Yes, Moonshine was indeed blessed with two very good guitarists. Our German’s light, airy and lyrical playing style, heavily influenced by his African teacher, was complemented by the other guitarist, whose playing was hard-edged, urban, Western rock-style. We could actually boast African influence in our music at a time it was still pretty esoteric.

As there was a distinct lack of debauchery in Parts 1 & 2 of Playing in the Band (For Fun), I think I should tell the story of the only ‘groupie’ I ever came across. Moonshine had booked the Old Barn at UEA for a jam session one Saturday night, and quite unexpectedly, a young lady turned up with an electric keyboard, asking if she could play with us. Of course she could. (These groupies come up with all kinds of tricks to get to meet the band).

Truth to be told, she was OK (on the keyboard), although her playing was a touch ‘Mickey Mouse’ at times. I let her plug her organ into my socket – amplifier socket, that is, and the band, with this temporary addition, proceeded to play about a dozen tunes that evening – all improvised, spontaneous, and made up on the spur of the moment. What fun!

Everybody enjoyed the jam session, and I ended up spending the night with the organist. I found out later that she was in fact the best friend of the student girl I really fancied, who no doubt eventually received a report about my performance, musical, or otherwise. I got the gig with the girl I really fancied shortly after that.

The Moonshine video that accompanies this article features one of only half a dozen recordings that exist of the band in action (thank God). It was made in The Barn the night the keyboard player turned up.

Video 3. Improvisation 1 – Moonshine

A ‘warm-up’ number played at a Moonshine jam session – sort of an attempt to find ‘the groove’, which I think we’d succeeded in doing by the end of the tune. It’s a totally improvised instrumental, so a little rough around the edges, despite its newly-restored, ‘remastered’ and digitised state.

For proper gigs, we mostly played cover versions. Our old drummer, and an old girlfriend have managed to recall 5 tunes we played regularly (not a very good memory count, but it was 50 years ago): Careful With That Axe Eugene – Pink Floyd; Wait – J. Geils Band; Blue Suede Shoes – Carl Perkins; Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry; Get Off My Cloud – Rolling Stones. We also tried out a couple of my own compositions a few times, using a small electric piano, which appeared out of nowhere, and which I played.

Apart from Christmas and party gigs, and our participation in the outdoor UEA Vernal Equinox Concert on the grass with other Norwich bands, I do recall playing in the brand new UEA Student Union concert hall, now known as The LCR. We were the support act to a weird, occult-themed, psychedelic/progressive rock band called Saturnalia.

They had the rather dubious distinction of being the first rock band to have ever been advertised on TV in Europe, and also released one of the earliest of the (almost unplayable) picture discs. Theirs was reputedly the world’s first 3D picture disc album.

Their male and female singers seemed to be a bit too keen to writhe around on the floor during their numbers for my liking, but we got to use their fabulous, top of the range, bang up-to-date PA system. It was a joy to use that kit, and our roadie had great fun twiddling the knobs. Our version of Careful with That Axe was truly awesome that evening. We got rather more applause than Saturnalia did, if I remember correctly.

It now turns out that Moonshine were one of the first, if not THE first band to play at The LCR, and may actually have been the very first act to ever perform there. Sadly I didn’t write the date in my diary, and it’s proving very hard to establish the date conclusively. The LCR is arguably the top pop music venue in Norfolk, and one of the top venues in East Anglia.

Sadly, Moonshine’s dim and watery light went out after about six months. It had become clear that I’d be changing university at the end of the academic year, and the German guitarist had already started a new band called Avalon, which our drummer joined. They performed rock interpretations of Medieval English music – something our German guitarist was quite partial to.

The band ‘reformed’ for an evening to entertain students conducting a Sit-In in the main university buildings in November ‘73, and that was it.

At this point, I should give Moonshine’s loyal roadie a quick mention. He had an old Wartburg van which qualified him for the job, and was very good at humping stuff around, borrowing bits of kit, fetching drinks and fish and chips, etc., when required.

Where Are Moonshine Now?

Our roadie was a fellow student, and for some strange reason, his Moonshine experience convinced him he wanted to be….. a roadie. I believe he made it, because I can remember seeing him working onstage at a Who/Little Feat gig some years later, and scurrying around the stage at one or two other festivals as well.

So he made it in the Music Biz, and I’ve tracked down our two guitarists, who both made it in the business too.

Our German lad has released a number of records over the years, and has often appeared on German TV with the various bands he’s been in. He claims to have founded the first ska band in Germany, and wrote an African musical because of his love for the continent. He’s performed on the same bill as acts such as the Clash, Bob Marley, Devo, Eric Burdon, Inner Circle and The Specials.

Our other guitarist went on to be Union Entertainments Officer in his second year at UEA, and after leaving uni, he set up his own music management/agency. He’s represented or worked with artists such as the Skids, The Tourists, Joe Jackson, The Inmates, The Vibrators, The Rezillos, Human League, Gang of Four, Au Pairs, Fad Gadget, Spear of Destiny, John Cale, Depeche Mode, Vince Clarke, Erasure, Yazoo, Sade, Pere Ubu, Delta 5, Steve Hillage, Gong, The Outlaws, Sparks and Orbital.

As far as artists I’ve played on the same bill with, I can name Dave Swarbrick & Simon Nicol (Fairport Convention), Zoe and Pod (both Norfolk bands of the early 70s), Saturnalia, and that’s it. Doesn’t have the same ring about it, does it?

Moonshine’s drummer did particularly badly as he can hardly be heard on any of the few Moonshine recordings that exist. Two mics for 5 instruments is hardly a proper recording studio set up of course, plus the guy on the tape recorder kept moving the mics around during recordings – an absolute no no, which is making restoring the tapes a bit of a task. He went on to teach in Italy, and later on in Germany, where he lives to this day, and hasn’t played music since leaving university.

Probably my very first musical instrument, although I do recall having a metal and wood xylophone at one time. The trumpet was a Christmas present, aged nearly 3. Mum and Dad soon regretted putting that in Santa’s stocking. I couldn’t understand at the time why they kept telling me to stop playing

Final Conclusion

In your old age, it’s possible to re-assess things, especially when you’ve got a bunch of tapes of old performances to keep you entertained. I have to admit that I was in the clique in the folk band that rather looked down on the musical talents of our singers.

But listening to the tapes, I have to admit they were unfairly maligned – the girl singer had a lovely guitar style, and the male singer’s guitar style wasn’t as lumpen as we thought at the time.

Sadly I only have half a clue as to where the rest of the folk band are these days, so I can’t apologise on my, or the others’ behalf, for being a bit catty all those years ago.

Shame it always came to an end when performances were getting tighter and better, thanks to the familiarity and confidence that playing together for a little while brings. But it was all very enjoyable, which is what the whole thing was about.

Moonshine play at the UEA Vernal Equinox Concert, 1973

 

© text & images NeverUpToTheJob 2022