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A Good Time to be a Teenager

I count myself lucky I was a teenager in the 1960’s. Born in 1948, I entered my teens just as the pop music phenomenon blasted off in the UK. In the words of a Conservative prime minister of the day, we 'never had it so good’ and that certainly applied to pop music as well. Popular groups of the day (this changed to the cooler US term ‘bands’ in 1967 as I recall) used to appear in ‘package tours’; one night stands in the large variety theatres scattered around the UK. These were the dying days of variety and touring musical shows, and nearly all these theatres became bingo halls or closed altogether a few years later.

The show format was always the same: about half a dozen ‘name’ acts doing short sets of about twenty minutes each, with the curtains coming down in between so that gear could be quickly swapped around (groups didn't have quite so much then), with the impatient teenage audience placated during the delay by a second division comic of the day in evening dress. There were always two ‘houses’ or shows, one at 6:30pm for the smaller fans plus their parent(s) and one at 8pm for the older teenagers. In a few short months in the mid-‘60s I went to most of the package tours that stopped near us at the Coventry Hippodrome, seeing amongst others The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, The Byrds (the audience started to walk out early on their bill-topping act, not understanding their new blend of folk-rock), The Kinks, Manfred Mann, The Hollies, The Nice, as well as bands not later favoured with a place in the rock pantheon such as Paul and Barry Ryan, Eire Apparent (sic) and my favourites at the time, the US all-girl Goldie and The Gingerbreads!

I can remember the Who gig clearly, they were top of the bill. I was in the front row and the previous bands had overrun. It was Sunday and the law stipulated that the front of stage curtain and the fire curtain behind it, must come down promptly at 10pm. The Who had only performed one song when the curtains began to come down and Pete Townsend went berserk, coming to the front of the stage and working his way along all the footlights, smashing every one with the heel of his Gibson SG before finally launching his fist at a staff ‘jobsworth’ in his brown overall who walked on stage in an attempt to stop the anarchy. We sat there dumbstruck.

What seemed like a never-ending stream of new bands assailed our young, newly-liberated teenage ears, each bringing their own take on a potent mixture of happy pop and blues. And boy was it loud! Unlike today, we could genuinely say we’d never heard anything like it before, with bands vying with each other to break new ground. Ok, the music business being what it is (and was then), there was also a flood of me-too rubbish and un-original tripe as get-rich -quick entrepreneurs rushed to cash in on the 'beat boom' but there’s no doubt the ‘60s gave us a plethora of truly original pop and rock music unequalled before or since. And I was there.

Early Guitar Yearnings

My Dad had a four-string guitar that he used to play during singsongs around the fire when camping with his best friend Freddie in the 1930s. Freddie was posted missing in action during WWII. I know this hurt Dad although he's never talked about it at any length.

As a small boy I remember being allowed to see this guitar on rare occasions during visits to grandma’s where it was stored. It languished in a hard wooden case lined with what seemed to me the most beautiful red plush. The musty smell of the case mixed with the wood aroma from the guitar was divine. In the black coffin-shaped case was a strange pick, or plectrum as they used to be called, made of very hard red plush instead of today's plastic. Perhaps it was better suited to the vigorous jazz strumming popular in the 30s, when without amplification the guitar was purely a rhythm section instrument. And that’s how it started: a lifelong love affair with that fragrant crafted assemblage of wood, metal and lacquer – the guitar.

Once I became a teenager Dad thought I was responsible enough to handle his precious guitar although he wasn’t able to teach me much, having only progressed himself to a few chords in the first position. I desperately wanted to make those weird and wonderful noises that were coming from the records on the radio and echoing around in my head. At first I didn’t know that most guitars had six stings and that an electric guitar was what I really needed: and an amplifier of course. Nevertheless, after hours of work alone in my bedroom I could crank out the opening riff to Roy Orbison’s "Oh, Pretty Woman" – well, it sounded pretty close to me - and the journey had started.

Dad could see I was really keen so took me to the only music shop for miles, in Leamington Spa, run by a local dance band leader Geoff Gough, who probably thought the ‘new’ pop music was dreadful but nevertheless was making a good living from the associated country-wide guitar boom. It was only years later that I discovered the sheer size of this boom – almost every teenage boy in the UK was buying a guitar, working on those difficult finger-pinching chords for hours on end in his bedroom and trying to form a group, and the ramifications turned out to be immense. This whole phenomenon is affectionately and hilariously, chronicled in the book “Only 17 Watts” by Mo Foster which is a must-read. Amazon have it.

We didn’t know this at the time, but guitars from the US were subject to large import duties so imports were very few and prohibitively expensive. Cliff Richard claims to have imported the first Fender Stratocaster into the UK at great expense for use by Hank Marvin in his backing band, The Shadows. The gigantic gap between supply and demand was therefore filled by 'planks' mainly from Italian, German and even Chinese manufacturers who swamped the UK with guitars ranging from the completely unplayable to the passable (some Hofners for example). Accordingly I became the proud owner one Saturday lunchtime in 1964 of a Rossetti ‘Lucky 7’. Later that same afternoon we took it back to the shop - one of the machine heads had almost detached itself being of such poor quality. Instead I chose a second hand, no-cutaway, f-hole semi acoustic which wasn’t all that sexy but it was better made and far more playable in terms of the action and sound. It also had a pickup, but I couldn’t afford an amplifier so never heard it what it sounded like plugged in.

In a few months I’d mastered a few chords and was starting to understand my way around the fretboard. There wasn’t a wide choice of tutorial books then. In fact there were none as I recall, except ‘Play In A Day’ by Bert Weedon, a popular guitar instrumentalist of the 1950s. Bert passed away in 2012 at the ripe old age of 92 but a web site lives on here in his memory. 'Play In A Day' is still on sale having notched up sales of over 2 million!  It helped me a little, but I wanted to learn how to play the hits of the day not old standards like "Whispering". But I found after a while I could listen to records and gradually figure out the chords being used, and then I discovered how the same chord patterns were used in lots of different songs. I either sold or swapped that first guitar and bought a new acoustic which was still only of 'entry level' quality. Necessity being the mother of invention I was going to sing folk music, which at the time was undergoing a big revival with the likes of Bob Dylan and Donovan. Anyway, I didn’t need an amp for folk music.

First Public Appearance

It's 1965 and I'm 17. My school, Kenilworth Grammar, is going to do a very avant-garde thing and hold an after-hours candlelit ‘Folk Evening’ – most daring! Folk and jazz music are acceptable to the older generation, i.e. parents and staff, but they would never have countenanced a ‘pop’ evening.

I team up with two pals, John ‘Ned’ Foyle and Richard Maynard and we do a spot. I don’t remember the songs or how many we did or whether the audience of 120 enjoyed it, but I certainly did! The local newspaper covers the event and there we are in our first photo spread. Besides ‘scratch’ groups comprising pupils, two guest groups appear who are a lot more proficient, including a trio called ‘Kiandra’. I remember one of their guitarists had a beautiful Gibson Hummingbird acoustic, and it's my first opportunity to see the enormous difference between a quality, professional instrument and a ‘plank’, like mine.

All these influences are becoming tattooed on my soul. I’d fallen in love with the guitar: its looks, feel, smell, and I wanted to make music with one and entertain people.

A friend of my brother's, Norman Stagles, plays bass in a local band "The Incas" and he arranges for me to see them play at a church hall in Leamington Spa. It's the first time I've been up close to a pop group hammering out amplified music and I'm completely intoxicated by it. I remember them playing the Kinks' raucous B-side "Where Have All the Good Times Gone".

I decide to go electric and answer an ad in our Kenilworth newspaper placed by a guy selling a Hofner Galaxie electric, in its own case plus a small 15 watt amp. I see him, do the deal for £20 and walk home on air with my cherished red electric, in its own case! (Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music began with a Hofner Galaxie..) By the time I get home the phone is ringing and the seller says he wants more for it. I say no. He obviously regretted letting go of his beloved Galaxie and must have had second thoughts as soon as I'd left. Here's a picture of me (40 years ago for heaven's sake..) cradling my treasured Hofner Galaxie.

So in the Summer of 1966 we form a band with myself on lead guitar; Nigel Maltby, a school pal on rhythm guitar; Ned Foyle on vocals; Laurie French on drums and Geoff Timms on (home made) bass. We call ourselves "The ‘Trane" after John Coltrane the jazz saxophonist, emulating the Yardbirds who took their name from the sobriquet of another jazz saxophonist, Charlie Parker.  Our first practices are held in the garage of Laurie's home, but we need to find somewhere more suitable and Nigel arranges for us to use his stepfather's company's industrial unit in Coventry one Sunday. It's cavernous but we set up our tiny amplifiers and start. Shortly after, the Police arrive to shut us down. A local resident had called to complain about the noise, which must have become amplified again on the outside by the nature of the building. In 1966 the type of music would have caused just as much offence to some people as the volume. We later find a village hall in Honiley where we can rehearse well away from houses.

We practice hard, and place some ads: "Good beat group available for all kinds of bookings. Versatile and above all musical", and print some cards: "The Beat Group for All Occasions" and start gigging in November. Our first gig is a dance at Stratford On Avon Rugby Club and our Dads ferry us and our meagre equipment to and from the venue. At our very first outing we manage to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. My amplifier expires after the first couple of songs – we grossly underestimate the volume required at a real gig – and I have to plug in to Geoff’s Vox AC30, the sound of bass and lead guitars through the same small amp not sounding good. The spring on Laurie’s snare drum breaks so the snare sound fails but he manages to do a running repair with string. But by the end of the evening with the audience liquored up and determined to enjoy themselves, we finish triumphantly on the Beatles’ sing-along "Yellow Submarine" which we’d never played before and hadn’t a clue how the chords went.

Not being able to afford a real amplifier, I send off for a mail-order 30 watt one and couple it with a raw chipboard speaker cabinet and two 'Baker' 12" speakers (not very good) from a shop in Coventry selling DIY electrical components. I cover the 2x12” speaker cabinet with kitchen ‘Fablon’ material. The amp fails to arrive so I write a letter to the Bristol Police complaining of possible fraud. They say they’ve had similar complaints but eventually the amp arrives. I assume now the poor guy making these wasn't running a scam, he was probably just inundated with orders for his very economical 'chassis only' amplifier. Meanwhile Geoff buys a proper Hofner bass and Ned buys (or rather his parents buy) an impressive Vox ‘pro’ PA system. We attract another newspaper write up "Grammar Old Boys in Trane" in which our musical ambitions are revealed, (War-time BBC Mr Cholmondeley-Warner newsreader voice needed here) “Early rock and roll interests tempered, the group now feature the very popular soul music to which lead singer ‘Ned’ Foyle’s voice is more than adequately suited”.

Spring 1967 and we play our largest gig so far at the Chesford Grange Hotel where we’re the support act on a double bill. Our fee: a princely £12.50 for two one-hour sets, £2.50 each. We come a poor second to the other band "From The Sun" and Ned and I lose our voices from not having a loud enough PA. It was as they say, a learning experience. The lead guitarist of the main band kindly points out to me after the gig that I need to use thinner strings in place of the ‘steel hawser’ tape wound variety I was using. I didn’t know that it was the judicious bending of light gauge strings that was enabling Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck et al to get those sweet bluesy sounds I liked. Not only was there a paucity of guitar tutorial books, there was no such thing as guitar magazines so we all lived in our own bubble of knowledge and didn’t know how others got their sounds.

Then came the warm summer of 1967. I was 19 and spent languorous days sunbathing in the back garden while the transistor radio blared out The Kinks’ "Sunny Afternoon". Like the smell of fresh madeleines triggering lost memories for Proust, my thoughts go back to those warm halcyon days every time I hear that record today. But the garden idyll was soon to be shattered.


The Trane 1965

The 1960s

1967: posing wwith my Hofner Galaxie

 and (Futurama?) acoustic guitar

L to R above: Nigel Maltby, Laurie French, Geoff Timms, Me, ‘Ned’ Foyle

The End of Innocence

Earlier that year Geoff Timms had bought an old Bedford van (every group had to have a van) which was supposed to ferry us to and from gigs but it was a bit of a ‘banger’ and at least once we arrived late at a booking after pushing the lifeless jalopy uphill. By today’s standards it would not have been allowed on the road.

I’ve finished school now and some non-band friends ask me to join them on a short camping holiday in Cornwall. On the spur of the moment I decide to go. The band had been thinking of approaching a girl we knew who we’d thought might make a good lead singer in the band and whilst I'm away Ned and Geoff decide to drive over to see her and discuss it. Together they set off towards Hampton In Arden on 10th August 1967 and just outside Balsall Common crash head-on into a lorry and both are killed outright. Ned was 18 and Geoff 19.

The Beat Goes On

We reform the band in the autumn, bringing in Bill Fielding from Coventry on bass, but things aren’t the same and the line-up folds a year later in mid-1968. There's a highlight in the last months however, when we play support to the Jeff Beck Group in Rugby on 30th December 1967. Jeff Beck is my favourite guitarist and I can't believe our luck.

I've read somewhere that some Japanese guys have put together a book supposedly chronicling every single gig of Jeff Beck’s career together with all known aspects of each booking – so here’s a tiny portion of the jigsaw to put in place! Their line-up on this night was Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood on bass, Rod Stewart on vocals and (bizarrely) Graham Edge from the Moody Blues on drums – their regular drummer was Mickey Waller but he was touring in Japan with the Walker Brothers. Some of my memories of that night: the Jeff Beck Group’s dressing room packed full with girls and admirers and our dressing room having only four visitors; Ronnie Wood’s BO (they’d all been confined in a Transit van from London to Rugby that evening); the moment when the curtain went back at the start of our performance and the audience thinking for a nanosecond they were seeing the Moody Blues (we’d pooled equipment and Laurie was sitting behind Graham Edge’s drum kit with its distinctive ‘Moody Blues’ psychedelic logo). I still have a souvenir from that show - a bent screw driver discarded by the roadies!

In November 1968 I win a prize in a competition run in "Beat Instrumental" magazine – the first magazine in the UK to cater for aspiring pop/rock musicians. Laurie and I travel to London for the presentation at the Baldwin showrooms where Hank Marvin, lead guitarist of the Shadows, presents me with a brand new "Burns Vibra Slim" guitar, retailing at the time for the princely sum of 99 guineas! We have an interesting chat with the magazine’s staff and learn some inside information on just how much drugs Pink Floyd are doing. Laurie and I get Hank’s autograph on the only things we have with us, the records we’d bought that morning: my John Fahey album and Laurie’s Ten Years After Album.. (The Shadows weren’t at all cool in 1968).

Nigel left the band - and home - abruptly, ending up in Cornwall. The Trane comes to a halt after playing 55 gigs.

Career Break

After some carefree teenage years and the immense joy of making music with a band of pals, reality had crashed in. I’m really not sure if the following forty years contained any happier times. I’d lost two of my best friends, another had banished himself to Cornwall picking potatoes, and now I had to ‘choose a career’. Parents in those days, because of their own tough experiences, were anxious you got a ‘proper’ job and a career in pop music was a simply ludicrous notion.

Whilst taking my ease in that warm summer of ’67 I fall to talking to a neighbour over the fence at the bottom of the garden. He's a partner in a Coventry firm of Chartered Accountants and wondered if I’d considered it as a career. Was he mad?! The image of a Chartered Accountant in those days was, well, the image of a Chartered Accountant. Monty Python’s Flying Circus had only recently featured a sketch in which an inadequate Chartered Accountant wanted to become a lion tamer. Hilarious. But our neighbour explains I could go straight to college for nine months first and, as playing in a band is the most important thing to me at present, that seems a way of postponing the start of real life for at least a little while. So I sign four-year articles and go to college, Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry, now Coventry University.

Laurie (drummer) and I are the only members of The Trane left, and in 1968 he changes career to train as a teacher, whilst I pass my college exams with distinction. I seem to have a flair for this accountancy stuff, but it’s more likely the fear of failure I’ve had all my life that makes me work hard to succeed at it. I start work in the office, or rather clients’ offices, resplendent in the first suit I’d ever worn. The next four years sees me ploughing on with ‘real life’ and I don’t remember playing the guitar much. Looking back now I think I must have been ‘comfortably numb’. In 1971 I marry my wife Jane and we’re making a home. Laurie is married to Angela, a friend of Jane's, and his first teaching post takes him away to live in Halifax.

Early 1968: The last lineup of The Trane. L to R: Me, Nigel Maltby, Laurie French, Bill Fielding

‘Trane Summer 1966. L to R:  ‘Ned’ Foyle, Geoff Timms, Laurie French, Nigel Maltby, Me

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