Biography (part 19)
The 22nd July saw me in St. Leonards attending a party celebrating my old childhood friend (fellow ‘South Road Commando’) Bernard Fox’s sixtieth birthday. On the way I popped into the Kino Teatr to see Simon Charterton and Russel Baker and tried their new grand piano - a beautiful instrument - gathering an audience of two (unknown to me) from the cafe outside the main auditorium. At the party Bernard was on fine form making plans for the future as always. We’ve come a long way since digging trenches in his back garden, pretending we were in the Great War. The following day, at the 606 Club in Chelsea I played piano for real at Cathy Cornford’s (Melody’s Mum) 50th birthday celebrations and, on the day after that had my mother and most of our family round to mine to celebrate HER birthday. By Tuesday I was totally birthday’ed out!
The month of July ended at Southgate Studios to join Mole, working on the last tracks for the excellent ‘Danger Island’ double LP project. I played piano and Fender Rhodes on a couple of tracks - I can’t wait to hear the final results (the LP is due out in the Spring of 2018); the ratio of great, great songs to content is 100%! Extraordinary.
Unfortunately my good friend, Jenny Wilkes had been moved from UCH to the Marie Curie Nursing Home in Hampstead and the outlook for her was looking increasingly poor. It was her birthday on the 1st August and the weather enabled us to celebrate in the beautiful garden there. This was to be her last - she died peacefully just two weeks later. The last time I saw her she gave me a radiant smile as I left - for a moment she looked like a little girl. These aren’t the kind of smiles you ever forget.
The weekend of the 19th and 20th of August presented us (Rhoda Dakar) with the slightly daunting prospect of travelling to Manchester for a gig at The Great Northern Ska Festival in Trafford at lunchtime before heading straight to Devon where Rhoda had booked a hotel a short drive from The Beautiful Days Festival. The Manchester gig was held in a huge metal warehouse with a stage at either end to facilitate band change-overs. Neither the venue or the weather (dull and rainy) were much of a reminder of the sunnier climes from which this music originated but the audience seemed unfazed and enthusiastic. After the gig and obligatory Jerk Chicken we were ready to set off for Devon. Hats off to Bill Lewington in the driving seat who managed the mammoth drive whilst keeping us entertained with an unending stream of dry, foul mouthed tales from the world of the professional bouncer. We finally arrived at the Hotel - The Poacher’s Pocket - at ten o clock. The proprietor had the kind of fixed smile you get in Hammer Horror films: “Oh - you will never find the rooms without help” as he declined to actually give us the keys, “I will need to show you”. As Bill was parking the van (or something) this resulted in him not being shown to his room. With admirable bluntness he knocked on doors apologising to the occupants (“It’s not this one then”) before finding his bed. In the middle of the night I was woken by a fearsome argument in a neighbouring room. On mentioning this to Lenny - with whom I was sharing - in the morning he said “So you missed the fucking then.” The game in the Breakfast Lounge was to identify the couple who were the extremely noisy ‘fall out, fuck and make up’ pair. It wasn’t difficult.
The Beautiful Days Festival was just an hour away and when we arrived the fantastic atmosphere there infected us all. The back stage area was decorated with mock Grecian statues and Doric columns, the food was great and the stage crew incredibly professional and helpful. I played a glorious solo on ‘Fill The Emptiness’ but I was so ‘in the zone’ I can’t remember what it was. The weather wasn’t fantastic but in all other respects the moniker of the festival summed this one up. We got away around 6 o clock confident that we would make London in time for the trains to Leicester (for Sax man Tony from Horace Panter’s Uptown Ska Collective) who had deputised on the two gigs for Terry Edwards). However, shortly after Stonehenge, the traffic ground to a halt whilst the weather conditions deteriorated drastically. We learned there had been two separate pile-ups ahead and the motorway had been closed in both directions. We finally made South London at midnight - too late for the trains - so I offered my sofa to Tony so that he could make the early coach back on Monday morning.
The following weekend we were playing in The Isle of Wight at at a Speedway a short drive from Ryde. After sound-checking we returned to Ryde to have fish and chips on a Promenade crowded with Scooters on display, and their owners who spilled out onto the pavements from the copious pubs there. We ran into the Beat who were playing a venue on the front there and wondered whether we would have an audience at all with such competition so close by. Rhoda chatted with Dave Wakeling who said that - contrary to popular belief - The Beat (little known fact alert!) were actually founded on the Isle of Wight, not Birmingham. We returned to the Speedway to find our support was a Psycho-Billy band who ended their set with deafening renditions of The Wurzels back catalogue which was joyfully received by a pogo-ing mass of drunk middle aged men who were in no mood (that is if they were still awake) to listen to any subtlety at all. The gig was a repeat of the last Scooter Festival I played here with the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra - this is an audience who need to be blasted with noise, rather than caressed with music. Afterwards a bloke approached me as I was packing up the piano: “I feel your pain - you were brilliant; and so tight”. “All part of the job” I replied, “And we ARE being paid.” We got the one-o clock ferry and I finally got to bed four hours later.
I was ready for a holiday and on Wednesday 30th August, we (myself, Melody and her boyfriend, Adil) headed for Gozo, a small island off Malta for ten days of sun, Saints Day Festivals, sea and superb food. What was fascinating was the peculiar (to me at least) mix of Arabic and Italian in both the language and architecture. The highlight of the holiday was a boat trip round the Island during which there was plenty of opportunity to swim in startlingly blue lagoons, caves at the base of impressive cliffs and - a first for me - a dive from the roof of the boat. It didn’t rain until we had actually set off for the flight back - the Gods (of the weather at least) were with us.
Meanwhile I got a call from Sue Vertue, the Producer (and wife of the writer, Steven Moffat) of ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Sherlock’ asking if I would teach piano to their son. My first visit there yielded an extraordinary sight: a hedge surrounding the two storey house that was taller than the house itself like something from the annals of Lewis Carroll. Which brings us to The Mad Hatter himself: Lee Thompson. On Sunday 1st October I headed for Dingwalls in Camden Town to play two shows launching the superb film ‘One Man’s Madness’ a surreal account of the life of Lee and Madness, directed by Jeff Baynes in which Lee plays all the characters with quite unexpected brilliance and hilarity. The manager hadn’t arrived so the band - with an eccentric line-up of sax, accordion, bass, drums, banjo/ukulele and trombone - rehearsed in the dark. The shows were chaotic and fun and it was good to see Mike Barson (with his Mum) and Chrissy-Boy’s Dad sitting at tables at the front. Mike told me that it was great hearing ‘some of those old songs again’. I have rarely seen such a lawless Q & A but this is what you have to accept at a Lee Thompson show. I think the day was judged, overall, a success.
Another weekend of gigs with Rhoda Dakar followed on the 6th October and we boarded the tour bus at the hire place in Hatton Cross - Edinburgh followed by Newcastle. On the way we stopped at Tee Bay Services in the Lake District which had gorgeous views and boasted a stunning butchers from which I bought a slab of ‘Josephine’s Award Winning Black Pudding’. On arriving at The Voodoo Rooms just behind Princes Street we were taken on a surprise trip. I can’t give any details in case I get someone in serious trouble but it involved our motley crew and a tour of a historic Bank after hours. This was both bizarre and a privilege; thank you; you know who you are if you read this. The gig was a wonderful experience with a crowd that were really up for it and Rhoda fearlessly adopting her best Prime of Miss Jean Brodie accent. My home town never ceases to amaze me - what a beautiful, life affirming place. Afterwards we made our way to ‘Acorn Acres’, our hotel on the Shore of the Firth of Forth. In beautiful grounds that rolled down to the coast the hotel itself was more akin to some remote Borstal; paper thin walls, no wi-fi, no fridge, a very small towel, no plug in the bath, and a 50% ratio of working to non working light bulbs. And at five in the morning I was woken by a fearsome distant clanking that advanced, room by room down the corridor as the central heating groaned into life. We entered the breakfast room laughing that we felt just as exhausted as when we had retired to bed. The breakfast was pretty spartan too. However there was time to walk down to the shore line and admire the wild view across the firth where - due to the cold - I quickly sketched the view. Then it was back to the van for the modest drive to Newcastle. We stopped in the beautiful town of Berwick for lunch and as we searched for a likely place noticed a life size cut out of Jeff Goldblum smiling at us from a second storey window. Why? - strange things in Berwick. However as soon as we saw The Brown Bear we knew this was the place - real ale and fantastic home-made pies with gravy and peas at around £8.00 a head. The traditional pub lives on in our northern climes (thank God).
We arrived at The Cluny in good time and sound-checked before Paul Tadman discovered a ghost in the Gents toilets. In his words: “I’d just settled down to - er - do the business when I heard someone whispering menacingly from the next cubicle, ‘I spit on your grave’ and whoever it was started cackling in a menacing manner. I got the fuck out of there . . . fuck that!’ We wondered who the madman was but no-one emerged. Some time later Tad felt it safe to try again . . . and the same thing happened! Does someone live there, we wondered. And - if a ghost - why haunt the Gents toilets at The Cluny; there have to be better places. The mystery remains. Meanwhile the excellent Emily Capell was playing an equally excellent set and like Edinburgh (but so unlike Edinburgh at the same time - it is fascinating how, in such a small country everything is so different from the accents to the attitudes) the set was rapturously received. Afterwards I was offered £20.00 for my tie by a young woman who was attending a Hen AND Stag party there (isn’t that unlucky?). I declined the offer even when she raised the stakes from fifty to a million pounds: “You don’t think I have a million pounds do you?”; “Er - no - not really”; “Yer right! I haven’t”. It was a long ride back to London where I crawled into bed at six in the morning but Bless You Edinburgh; Bless You Newcastle (and Berwick). A super weekend.
Later in the week Dave and Clare Graney were in town (over from Australia) to play a couple of shows at the Betsy Trotwood in Clerkenwell. I took Melody to finally introduce her to two ex band mates (The Coral Snakes) who had such an effect on me in my early years of playing as a professional. I have said it before but I must get to Australia to visit them again - it was a wonderful show.
I don’t generally fear Friday 13th but on this particular one we had a gig booked at ‘Patterns’ in Brighton. What could possibly go wrong? Well . . . it would have helped if the venue had bothered to advertise. It would have been good to have a sound man who cared a damn and didn’t come up with pitiful excuses that I remember from my apprentice days in the early 1980”s. A few friends turned up (including Chrissy-Boy - good to chat to him again; it’s been too long) but the audience could have fitted into your average pub toilet. Emily - again supporting - and Rhoda put on a good show but the curse of the date persisted. We drove back to London in two separate cars and on arriving at Tad’s place in Norwood we got a call from Lenny, our guitarist: “Where are you” he said, “I’m outside”. Tad went to have a look out of his front door but couldn’t see him: “Where?”; “Outside the venue” said Lenny. We had left him behind thinking he was in the other car. He had stayed behind to have a drink with his gypsy cousins and we had left, each car thinking he was in the other. He had to cadge a lift back with them. “Good job my cousin like driving” he said later. No - I don’t generally fear Friday 13th . . . but.
At the end of October we were ready to record our second EP, ’The Lo-Tek Four, Volume 2’ which we did - again - at Paul Weller’s great studio, Black Barn in a village near Woking. We loosened up with ‘Comfort Zone’ which we have played live a few times and this got the juices going. I played the Grand but transferred to Wurlitzer for ‘Back for More’ and tagged a rendition of ‘Daisy, Daisy’ to the end of ‘Theme Park’ on their out of tune upright the out-of-tune-ness magnified by my playing the left hand in Db whilst the right played in C. After Terry Edwards had added some marvellous horns we were astonished at how well this had turned out; we knew the new tracks had potential but the results were truly impressive and playing plenty of live dates has glued this band together into a force to be reckoned with. Check the record out when it is released in the Spring of 2018.
On Friday the 3rd November I went to Leatherhead Crematorium to attend the internment of the ashes of Jenny Wilkes. In the waiting room we marvelled at the brochure advertising the many different items of jewellery, paperweights etc. that could be created from your ashes. I privately concluded that should I be converted into - say - a pair of cuff-links I would probably end up on the shelf of some Oxfam somewhere. The Remembrance Garden was enclosed by what looked like Tudor walls, and - in the Winter afternoon light - looked beautiful and peaceful. I know that Jenny fell in love with it when she came here last year. Farewell Jen.
Rhoda Dakar had a clutch of gigs supporting ‘From The Jam’ featuring Bruce Foxton, so the following day found us in Northampton. As I walked from the station to the venue I passed a massive establishment called ‘The Sausage Cafe’ and, on arriving at the venue itself I found that the wi-fi password to be ‘Sausages’. What is this thing with sausages in Northampton? Any readers with further sausage stories from this part of the world please forward them to me. I would be fascinated to hear them. Another striking feature I noticed was a huge, life-size elephant clutching a parasol on a nearby roof. When I arrived and Rhoda asked how I was I told her that I had just seen a massive elephant clutching a parasol on the roof of what looked like a car wash. “Of course you have” she said.
On the 10th it was Nottingham where - on my walk from the station to Rock City - I bought two belts for £10.00. The buildings here were impressive (apart from the aforesaid shopping centre). Plenty of Victorian civic structures and beautiful pubs. But no sausages or elephants. I had my first chat with Bruce Foxton after the sound-check. As the gig was quite an early one (there was a club night afterwards), he told me that he would probably be going straight home afterwards, forgoing a hotel. “In time for Match of the Day” I said cheerfully. He looked at me with a kind of stern acknowledgement but I blabbered on regardless, “Oh no”, I continued, “there isn’t one because of the Internationals”. He nodded and went back into the dressing room. He probably hates football!
I plan to travel to India on the 1st January 2018 so, I realise in retrospect, that I had a touch of typhoid when I turned up at The 100 Club on the 17th November for a Rhoda headline gig there due to the immunisations I had had; I was feverish and - at the time - a little confused which wasn’t helped by the sight of our support, Emily Capell’s backing band. She had bought them matching Dick Van Dyke outfits to play in. A marvellous idea but ever so slightly surreal. This wasn’t helped by a punter asking me when The Higsons were taking the stage. I said they hadn’t played for a good ten years but - by sheer co-incidence - he was asking their ‘legendary stylophone player and raconteur’ (I was briefly in The Higsons in 1980) “. . . so you can at least see one Higson tonight”. I asked him why he was asking me. “You looked like the most likely person to ask”. Again - I wasn’t hallucinating. The gig seemed to go swimmingly however but I was glad to get home to bed.
I had revived by the following morning when we had to whizz up to Manchester for another support slot with From The Jam at the Ritz 02. There had been a football match somewhere and I noticed a preponderance of very drunk middle aged men (yes - those again) at the gig. During the headline act I heard later that audience members had been knocked cold by huge, plastered pogo-ers revisiting their youth in the mosh pit.
On the first day of Advent we were at Leeds University. Motorway snarl ups meant that From The Jam had to pass on the sound check and we managed a very brief one then had a mere ten minutes to get ready to play for an early stage time. The gig itself was great but too short due to time constraints after which - on the recommendation of the Crew there - we went to an Indian Restaurant in Regents Park which had on its menu ‘Akmel’s Very Hot, Hot, Hot Dish’. We decided that this was strictly for the students though it was a temptation. Rhoda had booked a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Leeds which was excellent. In the breakfast room the following morning I commented to one of the staff clearing plates, that it was very vibrant - busy and cheerful, and in a broad Yorkshire burr she replied, “Yeah - if I’d known I wouldn’t have come in today” and laughed. Sheffield - our next port of call - was just down the road so we had time to browse an excellent second hand furniture and junk warehouse followed by a visit to the Cartoonist and Artist Peter McKee’s shop and gallery which sorted me out for a couple of Christmas presents. We were directed to a pub down the road - The Lescar - for lunch which is the best pub I’ve visited in years; a pub like the ones I remember from the 1970’s - warm, friendly, unpretentious, real ales, and great (not over-priced) food. It was getting dark when we made our way to Leadmills and this was to be our last gig with From The Jam. By all accounts we are a good mix of styles - very different but complimentary at the same time. It’s been a real pleasure playing with them. Back in London we had the luxury of the night tube to get home . . . and how did we do without that?
For Melody’s birthday I decided to push the boat out and booked a table for dinner at Mere on Charlotte Street not realising that the proprietor is Monica, one of the judges on Masterchef. My God! What a rare treat - we are still talking about it. Not cheap of course but worth saving for.
We (Rhoda) had two more gigs before Christmas in Cardiff - the 8th December - and Southend the following night. In the former it was great to run into Rebecca Horner Seddon who I first met whilst undertaking the practical week of my Music Degree in Durham ten years ago. It was a long drive back to get two or three hours sleep before teaching in Mortlake and then the train to Southend where the support band drank most of our beer whilst we were out having a fish and chip supper. The cheek of it!. And with Christmas fast approaching it was very funny - again on the night tube home - observing the detritus of office parties making their way home. I overheard two rugby guys being advised by an old Jamaican - all three sporting wonky Christmas hats - that if they were going to play rugby in the morning they would really have to eat at least a kilo of bananas before going to bed . . . “Really, Man. My mother always told me . . . a kilo of bananas.”; “You’re kidding”; “No. I’m not kidding - a kilo. AT THE VERY LEAST” The paper hat slipped with his vigorous nodding and he carefully adjusted it back into place. I think he had forgotten it was just a crumpled and torn Christmas Cracker item.
Again there wasn’t much time for sleep as I had to be up early and in place behind a beautiful grand piano at Burgh House in Hampstead for the wedding of Alex and Katrina Asen. I taught Alex when he was but a teenager and it was wonderful to meet up with him and Aya and Denise his parents, who were so supportive of me in the past. Denise, when I told her that Melody and I habitually visited Paris every year before Christmas, said we were welcome to stay in their flat there and recommended a restaurant nearby which, by strange coincidence, is on the other side of the Canal St Martin from one of our favourite spots, Chez Prune. The ceremony was beautiful, though the pressure on me to match the beauty of the surroundings with equally beautiful music was palpable, but all went well and - after farewells - I got home in the mid afternoon to finally get some sleep before . . .
Manchester United versus Manchester City at Old Trafford with Melody and Adil the following day. We awoke to find half the country under a blanket of snow but the train to Manchester, though a little late, made it there for 1.30 giving us time for lunch at ‘Bill’s’ before boarding a barge full of exuberant fans down the Manchester Ship Canal to Trafford. We had fantastic seats, courtesy of Ray Vaughan, and the only black mark of the day was the final score: 1-2 to Manchester City. However I enjoyed the wit and complexity of the anthem sung by the United fans at the final whistle: ‘Fuck off City. Fuck off City’ (etc. etc.).
On the 18th we set off for Paris and I decided to take Steve Hackett to the restaurant recommended by Denise - ‘Matiere a . . .’ - which was worthy of the recommendation. I love the atmosphere of Paris before Christmas which is somehow more chilled out than Oxford Street and London, and Montmartre looked crisp and clear in the cold winter light. On our final day there we visited the new Louis Vuitton Centre in the Bois de Boulogne to see the exhibition, ‘The Birth of Modernism’ and remarked that the building, based on the sails of ships, was an exhibit in itself.
Back in London, Melody and I did our Christmas food shopping at Borough Market which, if you get there early enough, is always a pleasure and at home I started preparing my Mediaeval Ham (cooked in a Salt Dough case and subsequently basted in a mix of mustard and honey, spiked with cloves). Melody had arranged one more event before Christmas which was a trip on Christmas Eve night to Kew Gardens for the lights, mulled wine, roasted marshmallows and, at the end of the trail, a Fairground. It wasn’t until I got to the top of the Helter Skelter that I had the passing thought, ‘Am I too old for this?’ but it was far too late to turn back. I survived, though I flew off the mat at the bottom sliding across the grass on my backside at some speed but preserved some dignity by bouncing to my feet and exclaiming ‘Wow - Brilliant!’ And so we returned - Melody, Amelia and Charlie (Melody’s half sister and brother) myself, and their Mother, Cathy - on the last train back to Camden and all was set for the usual mayhem on Christmas Day.
Melody had one more surprise for us on the 27th; tickets for ’Scrooge’ at the ‘Young Vic’ which was a real treat and featured Rhys Ifans in the title role.
In the relative tranquility that descends between Christmas and the New Year I finally had time to reflect on a tremendous and very active year . Rhoda , along with Jenny Belle Star - guested as backing vocalists with The Beat on ‘Jools Holland’s Hootenanny’ as I finished my packing on New Year’s Eve. And I was ready for my first act of the New Year: a flight to Kerala in Southern India . . . but that is for another instalment.