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About music…

It all started a long time ago during an embarrassing school talent contest – more like a lack-of-talent contest in reality. With absolutely no grounds for doing it, four of us fresh faced 6th formers decided to be a ‘group’. I can’t remember what we ‘performed’ other than the fact that I was assigned to be the guitar player. As luck had it. I actually had a guitar, acquired from a distant cousin, but I’m not sure I had mastered the art of tuning it, yet alone playing it. Somewhere in the mists of time I have a recollection of vaguely waving my hands across the strings as softly as possible and hoping that the discordant noise emanating from the sound box never exceeded the ambient noise level in the room. Remarkably, we didn’t feature in the prize giving ceremony, and our only accolade was the fact that we took part, although I suspect that some wished we hadn’t. But in modern parlance, it was the start of a journey.
Armed with a copy of Bert Weedon’s ‘Play in a Day’ (I’m sure that contravenes some form of advertising or naming standard – it would be better named ‘Play Eventually, Perhaps’) I set about mastering the art of the guitar, and I’m still working on it. A few years after the inauspicious debut, and armed with a shaky knowledge of three chords, and possibly a fourth (so long as it didn’t include F major), I became friendly with some work colleagues, 2 other guitarists and a singer, who shared a similar level of talent and ambition. We set to work and established a repertoire of three songs, and made our public debut at a Young Liberals’ fund raising evening. Young Liberals?????- the pathway to fame and fortune…..not. When we were called on to work our magic on the assembled audience, basic instincts took over; fear, loss of memory and a nervous twitch. How we got through the opening number without being thrown out I’ll never know. I can only assume the audience was so dumbstruck by the strange discordant noise, they just didn’t know how to react. But on the other hand it was the Young Liberals, so they were probably just being nice. Encouraged by a smattering of semi-polite applause, we recovered sufficiently to perform the other two numbers with something like our authentic sound. Today the Young Liberals, tomorrow the world.
This major breakthrough into the word of performing arts signalled the start of a decade of music making (I use the term cautiously) with a number of different people, different combinations of instruments (6 string guitars, 12 string guitar, banjo, double bass, electric bass), singers and different styles (now know as genres – I don’t think the word ‘genre’ had been invented then). I purchased a 12-string guitar and found myself having to adapt my style, but the fuller sound helped mask some of my inadequacies. Collectively, we were known as Country Union, although I suspect that other names were used when we were out of earshot. As our fame grew, we found ourselves as the resident group in a Folk Club (now knocked down), a regular attraction at a local pub (now knocked down) as well as performing one-off engagements at various events when the organisers were desperate to find a replacement for the group they really wanted to book.
At various times we managed to cast some of our musical repertoire to tape. This was typically achieved by us all standing around a single mike, cutting loose for a single take at the shout of ‘go’, as the reel to reel tape recorder was switched to record mode. Sadly some of these recordings still exist, hidden in dark vaults, well away from public scrutiny. But I must confess that a compilation CD of our greatest hits (Country Union – The Noise Lives On) was recently released, but immediately recaptured and assigned to a dank place in the hope that it will deteriorate. The following is taken from the cover notes:
The Identity Parade
Jan: Can’t remember her surname. Can’t remember how we came across her, but she and her husband (whose name I can’t remember) took us to a new level. Jan had a great voice and played the guitar very well. Hubbie had a sort of hanger-on role, or roadie.
Debbie. Debbie was the daughter of Jim and Linda, US citizens who lived in
the Harrow area for a couple of years. Jim was serving in the US military (Naval Intelligence). Debbie was the typical US teen; loud, mad and irritating (but didn’t have braces). But she could sing!
Graham A. The Frimley hillbilly. Graham got turned on by bluegrass banjo, a sad condition that has been known to be terminal. He developed his playing technique with a lot of hard work and a grubby hand towel. The towel was stuffed into the resonator to reduce the volume; not all of his landladies appreciated his finger-picking .
Graham S. Brilliant guitarist, wasted on the likes of us, unreliable, unpredictable, but saved by his sense of humour. Had a great following – his fans used to meet every week in the telephone kiosk on the corner of Harrow View.
Pete. The Patron Saint of Fluff. Easy going, always smiling, everybody’s friend.
Could he play? Could he sing? Ask the audience, or phone a friend.
Steve. The artiste; took the music very seriously, and struggled to understand why the rest of us made such peculiar noises and how he came to be mixed up in it all.
John. Notorious for his wise reluctance to sing. When vocal chords were being
handed out, he was at the back of the line. Even knowing that Bob Dylan was only just ahead of him in the line was not enough to cause John to inflict aural damage on the people around him. He let the guitar do the talking. Hmm.. should have learned to play it.
The songs
1. John Hardy (Graham A, Pete & John)
We always used to open with this number, which can only mean that it must have been bloody easy to play. If you listen carefully you can hear something trapped in the double bass trying to escape. I think it was an elephantine woodworm.
2. Richman’s Woman (Jan, Graham S, Pete & John)
Some great lead guitar from Graham S (but, can you spot the bum note, or was it two?)
3. Early in the Morning (Debbie, Vicky & John)
Debbie on lead vocal with her irritating little sister adding some harmony in the chorus.
4. Blues in the bottle (Jan, Graham S, Pete & John)
Jan in good voice. This song was one of only two that ever had any percussion. Percussion? Actually, it was a one legged morris dancer, hopping in time in time with the music. Music? Listen to those funky handkerchiefs – shame about the bells.
5. Sounds of Silence (Graham A, Pete & John)
This is the song that every folk group performed. I wonder if Paul Simon realises what he did. However, this version adds a new dimension to silence when a truck starts up outside the Locket Road studios. Eat your heart out, Paul.
6. Beedlumbum (Jan, Graham S, Pete & John)
What the heck does ‘beedlumbum’ mean? We considered naming this group line up (Jan, Graham S, Pete & John) Beedlembum. Somehow, something prevailed and it never happened. I can’t imagine that it was common sense.
7. No Regrets (Steve)
This was a Steve ‘special’. I think this is a solo performance. I can’t make out a second guitar. Usually a few duff chords or out-of-tune strings tend to be clues.
8. Things We Said Today (Graham A, Pete & John)
A testing time for Graham A’s tonsils; note the self control as his voice almost breaks and he stifles a fit of giggles.
9. St James Infirmary Blues (Jan, Graham S, Pete & John)
Don’t know what it is about blues; miserable songs, but great to play. Oh yes, I’ve just remembered; blues only requires three chords.
10. Wildwood Flower (Graham A, Pete & John)
Features John on 12 string guitar, Graham on 5 string banjo and Pete on 6 string guitar. If my maths is correct, it took 23 strings to make this noise.
11. Maverick Queen (Debbie & John)
Not sure whether I’ve got this right, but I think this is a song that Debbie wrote. Don’t worry, it only lasts a minute and a half.
12. Urge for Going (Graham A, Pete & John)
This was always popular with our audiences; they would all join in and sing ‘I’ve got the urge for going’, and then piss off.
13. Stud Poker (Jan, Graham S, Pete & John)
Most of the songs with this line up were stolen from some old Jug Band tapes. We actually tried using a jug at one stage, but only a produced rather unpleasant, but odour-free emission that lent nothing to the quality of the song. So we filled the jug with beer again.
14. Alabama Jubilee (Graham A, Pete & John)
This features John on 12 string guitar, with some dazzling banjo from Graham; shame about the guitar really.
15. Greenback Dollar (Jan, Graham S, Pete & John)
Believe it or not, this was the first thing I ever learned to play on a guitar. Of course Jan, Graham and Pete weren’t around then to mask the noise.
16. Knaresborough Town (Steve & John
This is Steve, with John on second guitar. Pete supplies some additional vocal support. I was going to say harmony, but no, I hate lying. I can’t remember who the one-legged tap dancer is in the background; stunning!
17. Bill Bailey (Debbie & John)
Debbie lets go a bit on this one; her voice really had something. Deserved much better backing.
18. Cripple Creek (Graham A & John)
A fine example of Graham A’s Scruggs-style finger picking. It was a disgusting habit; the banjo sounded great though. I think it was just Graham and John on this recording. It was probably one of the earliest songs we played together.
19. Break My Mind (Jan, Graham S, Pete & John)
This is Graham S. at his nasal best, saved in the chorus by some real harmony from Jan. One of the special features of this song is that it contains the only instrumental solo that Pete ever got to play (on bass!). Just listen for the three note lead-in after the solo guitar. Knockout!
This awe inspiring decade came to an ignominious end as marriages, careers or just the overwhelming desire to escape the noise, took over.
For my part, the 12 string guitar took up residence in a cupboard, and over the years was rarely disturbed. I made a disastrous mistake in not loosening the strings, and over time, the tension caused the neck to distort to the extent that the guitar was both unplayable and unrepairable. I’ve still got the guitar, but it’s only fit for the rubbish tip, but I haven’t had the heart to throw it away.
I purchased a new 6 string guitar with the express intention of learning to play fingerstyle jazz. And to see me on my way, I signed up for a series of lessons with a guy called Les Hague. These lessons were nothing like I was expecting! Les was a really interesting guy; in his 70s, and struggling with some arthritis in his fingers, he was still out gigging on a regular basis. Music was his career and he was always dropping names of established guitarists he knew, and had played with. But when it came to the lessons he was a tyrant. There was only one way to do things – his way! It took me a while to figure this out, and when I did, we got on fine. I spent 18 months with Les before I opted out, so that I could do things my way, but his disciplined approach taught me a lot – a case of ‘shut up, it’s doing you good!).
‘My way’ hasn’t been quite what I thought it would be; I haven’t become a fingerstyle jazz guitarist at all, but what I play seems to sit somewhere in middle of a triangle that has jazz, blues and country at its three corners. I should point out that ‘country’ and ‘country & western’ are not the same thing; I could go on about this. I added an electric guitar to my collection, mainly so that it became easier to create ‘home recordings’ using digital audio programs. The recordings here represent my first tentative ventures down this route

1 comment to About music…

  • Bob

    Les Hague taught me to play Guitar at the Ivor Mairants school of dance music Wardour Street, Soho, London. He was a fine guitarist who was strict about the correct way to play the instrument.. He did indeed know many session guitarists, two of whom I also had lessons with. They were: Judd Proctor, who had played with the Ray Ellington band on the Goon Show…and Don Sandford…the then BBC show band…Period about 1959—1963…could be a bit out…Les also used to play in the Astoria ballroom in Tottenham Court Road, with his own group which included members of the Ivy Benson Orchestra, then play at the Quebec rooms, Lyons Corner House, Marble Arch…He would commence playing at about 3pm in the afternoon, about the time that the Soho totties started there day’s work! Les in time became a personal friend but I lost touchand I would receive extra instructions on Sunday mornings at his home…Muswell Hill rings a bell…I lost touch with Les, after I married my first wife…I had been given the chance to play at the Mecca dance hall Scunthorpe, which Les had lined me up for…never let women influence you in what you want to do!
    I would dearly loved to have kept contact with the man, and indeed did a few yeras ago but it would seem by about 2009, he had been forgotton…what a shame for such a talented man…

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