Biography (part 13)


As the commentators said, regarding the crowds that thronged to the English leg of the Tour de France, “They can say they were there,” and - after a quick dash to Blackfriars on my bike - I was!The Tour and the World Cup both proved to be excellent entertainment, not least the staggering score of 7-1 that marked the end of the Brazilians reign as world beaters to an impressive Germany.
On the 12th July Crunch convened at Mill Hill Rehearsal Studios for a second rehearsal - we had two reunion gigs to do. It was a great shame that Chrissy Boy Foreman had opted out on this occasion but the songs seemed to sound better than ever. Later the same week Lee Thompson’s Ska Orchestra played a sweltering Brixton Jamm. Then two treats: an all day showing of all six parts of Dennis Potter’s ‘Pennies From Heaven’ at the BFI which I remember enjoying in 1978 and was even better than I recalled; and a Proms performance of Richard Strauss’s ‘Der Rosenkavalier’, one of my favourite operas.
To round of the month the Ska Orchestra headed north of the border to the wilds of Dumfries to play the Wickerman Festival. This was a joy from beginning to end. A nice hotel, fantastic organic food at the festival itself and a well watered Scottish crowd. We were (bag) piped on to the stage by a lone piper and given one hell of a reception. Poor Mark and Lee thought they were being attacked by enthusiastic members of the audience afterwards: “Ah ye fuckin’ Madness cunts! Made ma day! Ah wis eleven - Barrowlands! D’ye remember me - ye bastards - fuckin’ fantastic!” I had to quietly tell them that they were being complemented; the inebriated, Glaswegian version of high praise can sound fairly threatening to the uninitiated. At midnight the festival lights were dimmed for the ritual burning of the Wickerman accompanied by a dazzling display of fireworks. The following morning I took a walk in Dumfries town centre. I was sketching at the outside table of a pub when two girls - looking a little battle scarred - sat down at the next table and told me that Dumfries had lots of streets that lead elsewhere: Edinburgh Street, English Street and Glasgow Street to name but three. However “. . . once you are stuck in Dumfries ye cannae escape”. They gave me the impression that, beneath its attractive exterior, lay an underbelly of drink, drugs, unemployment and sex crime.
On the 3rd August Crunch played the first of their reunion gigs at The Fiddlers Elbow in Kentish Town. When we arrived we found a scene I thought had been banished to history; something I haven’t experienced since the late 1970’s. A ‘Cockerney Knees Up’ was, in fact, a convention of National Front thugs - extremely drunk and violent National Front thugs. Horrified, we chatted outside the pub and debated whether we should cancel the gig altogether.. The ‘Knees Up’ finished at 6.00 pm and were ejected by the staff who seemed to be severely traumatised by the whole experience. They assured us that they had had no idea of the true nature of the event. Finally we decided to go ahead with the gig as a crowd of fans had turned up and we managed to banish the foul taste that these people leave with a truly excellent gig. The second Crunch gig was later the same week at The Boomtown Festival. Alas this gig was not problem free either. We turned up to find a huge mix up re. band passes. It might have been easier to break into a bank (ok - I exaggerate . . . slightly.) Once inside there was an unaccountable aura of gloom about the place and we found in our dressing room not only an absence of any kind of rider, but no tables, chairs or toilet facilities either. A roadie informed us that ‘some numky’ had neglected to hang up stage lights so there would be a delay before we could play. Once on stage the gig went well but we were (frankly) glad to get the hell out of there.

Ready for a holiday, on the 12th August, I took Melody and her younger sister, Amelia, to Charlie Higson’s place in Puglia, Southern Italy. Here we had a wonderful time cooking, swimming, reading, embarking on trips to the beach, eating pizza and ice cream, and generally laughing, talking and having a thoroughly good time. Charlie and Vicky were (and are) brilliant hosts. And on our return was the much anticipated wedding of Paul Tadman (Bass thumper extraordinaire with Crunch and Dubweiser) and his lovely fiancee, Krysia. This was a fantastic day in South Norwood at which Seamus’s band, The Duplicates, played and were joined by an all star bash through Ian Dury’s ‘Wake Up And Make Love With Me’ with an impressively on form Lee Thompson on vocals.
On the 22nd August I took the train to Edinburgh for two gigs with Timber, featuring Malcolm Ross and Syuzen Buckley. As always my birthplace thrills me. Between rehearsals in Portobello I did my usual ‘revisiting old haunts’ routine and discovered some new ones too such as the incredibly rural Deans Village which is like a little piece of countryside plonked just north of Princes Street in the middle of Edinburgh. Beautiful! And I must revisit The Gallery of Modern Art there . . . I hadn’t time to take in all it’s glories. On the Friday night we played a wedding at The Charlotte Rooms in Leith; my - this band is good! The whole venue heaving with people dancing and having a raucous time. The following day - Saturday the 30th August - we played the Cricket Pavilion on Leith Links to an equally enthusiastic crowd. On arriving at the gig the lady on the door said that two people had arrived asking for me. They turned out to be Champion Doug Veitch, the undisputed King of Caledonian Swing. and John Hasler (who was the original drummer with The North London Invaders who eventually became Madness). Both friends, they hadn’t seen each other for years and each didn’t know the other was now living in Edinburgh. It was good to bring them together. Afterwards, having a smoke outside at around midnight with a bloke (whose opening line was “I should be deed, now. Had a heart attack last year!”) we noticed a distant figure meandering across the links. Severely impeded by alcohol he was gamely jogging in our direction. We watched, speechless, for five minutes as he approached us and blindly carried on towards the other side of the links and into the distance. “Jogging” I said with some amazement: “ . . . not the first thing I’d want to do after a night down the pub.” However my sozzled, heart attack companion was now demonstrating a masonic knock on the door of The Pavilion as we had been locked out. “Never fails” he said. Finally I was allowed in but he was excluded from the after gig drinks: “Musicians only” he was told and the door was slammed shut on a face that was showing the first befuddled signs of outraged disappointment. Edinburgh nights eh? We headed back to Malcolm and Syuzen’s at about two in the morning just across the links and - knowing I had to be up at 4.30 to get the bus to the airport for the 8 o clock plane to Heathrow I decided to sleep (according to my diary) ‘. . . in my shirt, tie, underpants and socks’ to make sure I woke up in time. That’s interesting, Louis! Originally I had planned to get the train back because the Ska Orchestra was due to play The Feastival but Lee had got the wrong stage time (3 pm - not 7pm) so the flight was a last minute emergency measure. The flight though was lovely with fantastic views of both Edinburgh and London both resplendent in the morning sun and a cooked breakfast to boot. I had a three hour wait at Terminal 5 and was picked up by our driver, Jim, and Seamus. After picking up Mark Bedford, Jamie Owens and Bob Dowell we headed into the beautiful countryside in which The Feastival - run by Blur’s Alex James and television cook, Jamie Oliver - is set. This was the exact opposite of Boomtown - a well oiled machine with (predictably enough) fantastic food, a lovely backstage area for the performers and the bonus of glorious sunshine. We were introduced by our hosts and played a fabulous gig which helped my energy levels as I had had just two or three hours sleep in the previous two days and three gigs in a row. On getting home I tried to watch Match of the Day but it was hopeless and I retired to bed and slept the sleep of the absolutely knackered.
The beginning of September saw Melody commencing her first term at The University of The West of England to study Interior Design. My response to this was to write seven piano miniatures - one for each day of the week and each titled after an area of Paris - which I have entitled ‘Paris Suite’. Emotionally these seem a kind of memento of our times together in that wonderful city through the years as she has grown up. Simultaneously The Ska Orchestra had a gig in Cranbourne in Cornwall supporting UB40 but as we set off by train I knew there was something wrong with me. I felt increasingly ill as we travelled and was in a fever by the time we took the stage. I managed to play, buttoned up to the neck in my overcoat and it was perhaps fortunate that we didn’t have time to do an encore as I vomited as soon as we left the stage. The stewards at the festival were wonderful and ensured I was taken back to the hotel where I could be ill in peace. That was it for this trip which was a real shame.
The Ska Orchestra’s final gig of the year was on home turf at the Jazz Cafe on the 2nd October. We were delighted to welcome Linda Lewis (Big hit: ‘Rock-a-Doodle-Doo’) as our guest vocalist for the evening. And - wow - can she still hit those high notes. After completing our soundcheck I was just leaving to return home to change and get a bite to eat when Linda asked me where I was going. When I told her she said, “Oh don’t change. You look good like that. You look like - oh who was it - that Lieutenant Pigeon” My response? I went home and changed. The gig was fantastic - a great climax to a good year for The Ska Orchestra.
The following week I received a call from Cathal - Chas Smash of Madness - who was launching his first solo album ‘A Comfortable Man’ - at Wilton’s Music Hall over three nights: the 7th (Press Night), 8th and 9th of October - and wanted me to support. It turned out that there would be no room for my band as the stage would be too cluttered; his line up included a choir and string section as well as guitars, bass, drums, piano, mandolins and the proverbial kitchen sink. So it was decided I would play solo accompanied by Gareth Huw Davies on Double Bass. Aargh! I had the usual terror followed by the conviction that I had to do it - it is a real compliment from Cathal to be involved at all.
To allay nerves a bit I visited Melody for a day in Bristol and it reminded me of my university time in Norwich. A great vibrant town, she had settled in well with a the group of girls in her corridor and I thought it very symbolic that she took my bag from me as I alighted from the coach and said “Right - where do you want to go?” She’s her own woman now!
I spent the weekend before the Wilton’s opening finishing two paintings: one for Gareth (my second commission) of the Quai D’Orleans in Paris, and one for Cathal for the charity auction he will be holding at Wilton’s of the car in Havana both reworked from diary sketches.
On Monday 6th October I visited Wilton’s to meet up with Cathal, check the piano and generally check that everything would be fine for the opening. We opened the following day. As the ‘great and the good’ turned up Gareth commented that “Wow, this seems to be THE place to be in London tonight” and at precisely 8.00 pm I took to the stage and relaxed myself by telling one of my Havana tales and we were off. The three gigs were a huge success. Wilton’s is a wonderful place to play and the performances were rapturously received, ‘A Comfortable Man’ is a beautiful and moving piece of work and I had my fair share of compliments too. On the Wednesday subsequent to my set an audience member approached me and said that he had never enjoyed ‘just a man on a piano’ as much and added that his son “dropped everything he was doing and was absolutely spellbound.” I - of course - thanked him and as an afterthought asked how old his son was: “Two”. Well you can’t fool a two year old and I recalled my mother telling me that as a two year old, virtually the only thing on television that really made me smile was Liberace! So there you go: a budding musician. I debuted one of my new French pieces - ‘Place Des Batignolles’ - at two of the performances and several people wondered where they could purchase it. I had to tell them that it had yet to be recorded but this would seem to be an advance seal of approval. The final night made for a glorious finale with after show hugs; that mix of relief and jubilation that follows any truly challenging event. As I awaited my train connection on the platform of Highbury and Islington overground station later that night I was joined on the bench by the father of one of my pupils, Ninki, a Philosopher accompanied by one of his colleagues who after asking about my evening said that they had been enjoying a lecture about Kant. They generously included me in their conversation: “Of course when Kant writes about the aesthetics of Art he clearly hasn’t much idea about Art”; “Well I think you would agree that that’s almost an advantage.” I listened and hope I nodded at the right moments but it struck me as a wondrously surreal end to an extraordinary night. So thank you, Cathal for the challenge and opportunity.
In the second week of October Dave Graney and Clair Moore were in town to play a couple of shows as part of their short European tour. I went to see them at The Windmill in Brixton; a dilapidated music bar that might as well be situated at the end of the world. Dave has lost none of his style and I still miss playing with him as a member of his band, The Coral Snakes, in the late Eighties. We discussed the possibility of my playing a couple of festivals in Australia next year. Whether that comes off or not I must visit them again all the same. I can feel Melbourne beckoning in my bones.
And to continue on the theme of old compadres, The Old Codgers (the vibrant bunch of us who met at the University of East Anglia) met at The Carpenters in Fitzrovia - something we do every six months or so to catch up with each other. It was also Ray Vaughan’s birthday so we organised a cake and I designed a card featuring our Gig Society - of which Ray was the driving force in more ways than one - which was a thinly veiled way of arranging transport for us all to go and see bands we liked over the length and breadth of Norfolk. So fond memories of The Pretenders, The Clash, The Members, The Two Tone Tour etc. etc. Attendees included Terry Edwards, Simon Charterton, Jem Moore, Charlie Higson, Pete Saunders, Ruth Mayne, Steve Hackett, Kath McClinton, Colin Marshall, Lucy Peal and Kate Ennals (apologies for any omissions). As a result of the card Ray commissioned me to design and paint a ‘Traditional Nativity card with a contemporary twist’. As Ray’s work largely deals with airports I decided to set the nativity in a duty free departure lounge - quite a challenge.

On December 9th I managed to make it to the first launch of Cliff Slapper’s biography of Mike Garson - ‘Bowie’s Piano Man’. This is a fascinating read about a great pianist (and - yes - he was responsible for THAT solo on ‘Aladdin Sane’) and I was gratified to be included in the acknowledgements for my modest suggestion regarding footnotes. The book will be launching nationwide in the Spring of 2015.
Then it was time for Melody and I to take our regular Christmas trip to Paris on the Eurostar. At one point, as we were walking down the bank of the Canal St Martin on our way to Chez Prune for lunch she said that she looked forward to when she would be bringing her children on the same trip: “So you’re going to make it a family tradition?” I asked, not a little gratified, “Yes - we can push your wheelchair.”; “Thanks very much!” We dined at Steve Hackett’s place in Montparnasse, spent a rainy day in the Centre Pompidou and I was finally persuaded by Melody to invest in a pair of shoes - why did I resist the idea? I could finally walk without limping and falling over in the wet. Sometimes my prudence goes too far! The whole trip beats struggling through Oxford Street hands down!
As Christmas day approached we had one more Christmas essential to fulfil: Borough Market. Here we stocked up on cheeses, a turkey crown and a ham and with no gigs booked it turned out to be a relatively quiet one.
And when the New Year rang in it felt to me that I had been through one of my better years. I can thank a lot of people for that . . . I just wouldn’t know where to start....