A retrospective look at life in a band in the 1970s by one of the Mumble’s top writers …
In late 1971, I joined a band. What kind of band was it? Well… a folk band… no, a ceilidh band… no, a… um… well… Basically all of those and none. We would open our set with the intro to Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, which would then segue into the theme tune from the BBC’s ‘Music While You Work’, which would in turn segue into a medley of Irish and Scottish reels. Oh, the second half of our performance, after a beer break, would always start with the beginning of the 2nd Movement of Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony. It got the attention of the people in the pub.
When I first joined, I played mouth organ. The rest of the band were Rick West (guitar), Peter ‘Blossom’ Currie (accordion), and Barry Laing (fiddle), and we had got together through vaguely knowing each other at Goldsmiths College. We had a residency at the Walpole, a pub in New Cross, SE London, and our boast was that we would go for a whole evening without repeating a single tune. That meant we played every jig, reel, and Strathspey we could think of, sung every English, Irish, and Scottish song we could remember, and then resorted to South African Voortrekker tunes and comedy fox-trots – Blossom had been a session musician for the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, and also had spent time in Africa. I can remember Barry standing on a bar stool, singing ‘We Are The Bold Gendarmes’. Barry had one of the clearest, most distinctive voices on the folk scene, and you can hear it on this recording of the New Zealand song ‘Shanties By The Way’.
One day I turned up at the Walpole to find they had bought me a drum kit. “I can’t play drums!” I said. “You’re a musician – you can play anything!” they said. The kit they had bought me was an ancient 1930s dance-band set, with a huge, thin bass drum, a set of ‘Chinese temple blocks’, what must have been the original Zildjian cymbal mounted on a spring (and it seemed to have had a bite taken out of it), a rattle, and a stuffed parrot. I made do. I painted a big ‘The Who’ logo on the front, in honour of Keith Moon. A few months later, when I returned from a holiday, they told me, “We sold the drum kit… but we bought you a double bass!” I looked at them in disbelief. “I can’t play a double bass!” I said. “You’re a musician – you can play anything,” they said. I struggled with the bass for three months or so. We used to travel everywhere in Blossom’s short-wheelbase Land Rover, Blossom driving, his girlfriend in the passenger seat, and the rest of us plus the double bass and all the other instruments crammed in the back. At one stage we had a gig every night for a week, and my fingers were raw. I gave up and left the band shortly afterwards. I spent some time as a solo artist, singing, playing melodeon and anglo concertina, on the folk club circuit in London after that, but that’s another story.
The band had several changes of personnel – at one time various members found their way temporarily into The Cray Folk, who were sort of a rival band, and various members of the Cray Folk defected to the Rats, which made things rather confusing. I seem to recall once playing melodeon in an ad-hoc line-up that went by the bare name of Skinner’s Rats, but of which I was the only original member… or was it the Cray Folk with no original members? I can’t recall! At one point, during a time when Barry was absent, the band was joined by a Scottish fiddler called Kenny Logan. He played a Hardingfele – a Norwegian fiddle with a set of sympathetic strings – and he taught the band the wonderful Irish jig ‘Banish Misfortune’.
The band had a couple of tracks on a compilation album of folk acts from Kent, and then brought out an album called ‘My Boy’s Can Play Anything’, which was the boast of their manager, the landlord of the Bull Inn at Farningham, when people rang up to hire the band for a wedding, a funeral, a Bar Mitzvah, or whatever. I also got in on one recording session, which resulted in a single. It was a rather lacklustre version of ‘Granny’s Old Armchair’ with ‘Tramps and Hawkers’ on the B side – it was always on the jukebox at The Bull, but I am glad to say it has otherwise sunk without trace. If you do happen to come across a copy, let me know! Lead vocals were by Pete Hicks formerly of the Cray Folk, and I can be heard plunking away at the double bass and joining in the choruses. But the last I heard Skinner’s Rats is still going, with the core members of Barry and Blossom. Here’s Blossom half way up Mount Etna in 2012!
I think our greatest moment came when we played the Roundhouse in London. It was the night of the ‘Greasy Truckers Party’, 13th February 1972. We arrived late and were told we had missed our spot and couldn’t perform; however, part way through the evening there was a power cut, and the organisers realised they had an acoustic band ready to go, so under battery lights we were ushered onto the stage. My ‘The Who’ drum kit drew cheers, but when we launched into ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ the crowd of bored hippies went wild! At that time Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey was a popular movie to drop tabs of acid to. The London Chapter of Hell’s Angels was in the audience too, and I seem to remember they took Blossom on as a Prospect. Of course we never made it onto the album, except as the John-Cage-like track ‘Power Cut’, though the album cover has a picture of us. Good grief – this was all nearly half a century ago!