In an exclusive interview with Ava Rave, Jet charts his early life and his first steps in the musical world. The article covers Jet’s education, his first musical forays, jazz and his business ventures which lead him to Guildford. It’s a mammoth interview (c.14,000 words) so may take a fair time to read.
Early this year, Jet was interviewed for the site by long time band afficionado Ava Rave about his musical awakening and the journey to the formation of The Stranglers. The interview provides a uniquely detailed insight into the formative years of his life, through various musical and business endeavours, to the now legendary off-licence in the centre of Guildford, Surrey:
I’m interested in the beginning, the very beginning. My understanding is that you were in your mid thirties, in business, apparently doing OK, and you suddenly decided to start a band. Can we start by getting to understand how that all came about?
You have to understand that I didn’t just suddenly become interested in music at that point. By my mid thirties I had quite a lot of experience in music. If you really want me to start at the beginning I guess I need to go back to when I was about five, and that’s a very long time ago!
My earliest recollection in music terms, was when one day I found myself going to have piano lessons. I don’t now remember how that came about. If it had been under my own initiative, I think I would have remembered that. There is no residual recollection of having a burning desire to play the piano. I can’t see that the idea came from my parents either, although it must have. The problem there is that my mother was non musical and my father, I think, actually hated music. I don’t think he even understood what the point of it was. I’m pretty much certain that he never experienced any pleasure from music in his entire life.
Anyway, it didn’t last for long, maybe a few months. But I do well remember – in fact it’s permanently carved into my memory – that my teacher used to have an annual concert featuring all of her students. This was something she staged for the benefit of the parents.
I remember being ushered onto a stage in some village hall in front of maybe a hundred or so. I was terrified. I froze, and after a spine chilling pause which seemed like hours, the teacher had to come up to me, to show me where to start. I must have been the youngest performer that year. So it was all very embarrassing. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to bring such humiliation upon themselves. I don’t know if that was actually why it didn’t go on much longer, but it didn’t.
I suppose I ought to own up that I wasn’t very good, but also the domestic environment wasn’t conducive to any kind of study. Music or otherwise. What with my father hating music in the first place and then having to listen to my pathetic efforts on the piano, it’s not so difficult to see how it all fell apart. Plus the romance had long since departed from my parents’ marriage and it had descended into domestic warfare.
So what was the next chapter in the Black career?
Just a few years later, I was around ten, and I was sent to a school on the south coast. I have written about this before so I don’t think I need all the detail. However, I was sent there because I was a chronic Asthmatic in those days. It was thought at that time that the best environment for the condition was clean fresh air.
Holy Cross School stood on top of the cliffs near Broadstairs and from that point of view it was an ideal location for the condition. I was there for around eighteen months in all and loved it.
As a side issue, I quickly became less ill and it wasn’t until many years later that I came to the conclusion that it hadn’t been so much to do with the clean air, but the clean – as in peaceful – environment. Home life was fraught with domestic strife. I believe it is now thought that nervous anxiety can play a part in Asthma
So anyway, one day the class was asked if anyone would like to learn to play the violin. Don’t know why, but I put my hand up. I must have forgotten about the horrors of my piano life! Within a short time, I was the best in the school. I was the one who did the virtuoso spot on parents day. So that was my first success of sorts in a musical context.
How long did the violin thing last?
Not very long actually. It was fine while I was in Broadstairs but pretty much the minute I got home, the Asthma started up again and Dad hated the fiddle noise and I was sent down to the shed at the bottom of the garden to practice. To his credit, he did find a new local teacher for me, but it just fizzled out. There was no enjoyment in it at home and it was a bit like trying to make ice in the middle of a bonfire. You just can’t win. I felt completely unenthused.
So, the violin chapter ends, what was the next step?
I guess it was my ‘discovery’ of music. Obviously, I knew what music was, but there came a day when I discovered foot tapping music. It opened my eyes. I was now only just, a young teenager, and had journeyed to a youth club which was situated outside of what might have been considered my ‘manor’.
Friends had told me about this place where there was a fantastic music scene. I had no idea what they had really meant, but there I was one evening with some pals, in a dingy amenity hut or barn. Just a lot of kids standing around and talking and there was a tiny stage at one end. I believe there was a piano and drum kit. After awhile the main door opened and in walks a man in a boiler suit and a hard hat, or whatever it was that they wore in those days. He was carrying a squarish box in one hand, which I took to be his lunch/sandwich box. Thought he had come to fix the plumbing or something. He went up to the stage, opened his ‘box’ and pulled out a cornet and started playing. Wow! I was amazed. Never seen anything like this before. It was exciting. Soon there were others on the stage behind him, and that was my musical renaissance.
Can you recall what kind of music it was?
I didn’t know right there and then, but it was jazz of course. Jazz in those days was very basic. New Orleans/Dixieland inspired stuff. Easy to like. I used to really love it, but I kinda fell out of love with Jazz when it got serious. I like to hear melody, but eventually it all descended into a avalanche of technical wizardry which still to-day bores the arse off me. I don’t want to know how clever a musician is, I want to hear toooons.
Did you go to that place again?
Oh yes. Many, many times. Each time I took new pals along. All of us just wanted to be part of it. I was now becoming fascinated with the drums. I decided to find out more about them. I used to get all the drum catalogues and stare at them for hours. What I could never work out, was how anybody was ever able to afford to buy them. They seemed to cost a fortune compared with the sums of money that existed in my humble life. It was all very frustrating, I really yearned to get my hands on a drum kit.
But obviously you did at some point?
Yes but it was quite awhile before it happened.
So what was the next stage in the story?
Well my passions for music had now been aroused, and I went on for the next handful of years to explore every opportunity to be involved in music.
Can you remember what you were actually doing in this period of discovery?
I can remember a lot of it, but it was a very long time ago and some things stick in the memory while others get forgotten. But I do recall that I was beginning to spend a lot of time in and around youth clubs all over my part of the world. The centre of which was Ilford, the Gants Hill end of Ilford, rather than Ilford ‘proper’ which was and is a densely populated borough. My end of town was considered by many to be ‘out in the sticks’ but to-day it’s just another part of the sprawling mass which is Greater London.
I actually didn’t see much school throughout those years because of the Asthma thing and education was a real struggle for survival since having lost so much elemental instruction I was completely out of my depth most of the time. The system then didn’t seem to give much of a damn about my educational status. But anyway the upshot of all that was that I had to teach myself pretty much everything I know and so it came as nothing new when it came to trying my hand at another instrument.
There was yet another instrument?
Yes. There was now loads of incentive in my life having found a new love for music. I was now mixing with friends who for the most part were far better educated than I was, and all of them were competent players of one instrument or another.
We began to congregate at the local youth club, and forming a band was a natural consequence of our combined interests. Since there were loads of saxophone, trumpet and trombone players, it was going to be a swing band, and it was. Don’t forget, Rock ‘n’ Roll hadn’t been invented! Even the guitar was almost unknown to many people at the time. Well, I guess everyone knew what a guitar was, but few were actually familiar with it. I think most people would probably have said if asked, that it was some primitive instrument played by the Spanish.
For my part, the only instrument I had been able to get my hands on was a clarinet and so I proceeded to try my hand at that.
One day we were playing away and the drummer was making a bit of a pigs ear of the part. Somehow he just didn’t seem to be getting any inspiration and everyone was getting agitated about it. We kept stopping and starting. At one point, something came over me. Some would say it was divine inspiration, I just got up, went over to the drums, and asked him for the sticks, sat down and said, “play it like this”. Everyone then said I should take up the drums. That, without any doubt at all, was the start of my journey.
It didn’t happen straight away, but eventually the drummer did agree to sell me his kit, but he was asking what to me was an extortionate amount. There was no way I could afford it so things just drifted along.
Soon my disastrous school years came to a disastrous end and I found myself signed-up to a seven year apprenticeship to become a joiner/cabinetmaker.
I loved the craft of creating things of beauty out of chunks of wood and I was good at it, but the passion for music never dissipated. Then the day came, when with the benefit of an income, I was able to buy the drum kit. It really was a pile of old kak, but it was a start.
My brainy band pals were moving into higher education but were still interested in the musical pastime. There came a time when we were offered a gig. Can’t now say for certain but it was probably unpaid, but that was to be the first of many.
Eventually we got to hear about an organisation called ‘The Semi-Professional Musicians Fellowship’ (SMF). We soon learned that the SMF had weekly meetings in which semi-pro gigs were discussed, exchanged and booked. There would also be a band spot where members would do thirty minutes for the hell of it. This was a wonderful new discovery. It marked the beginnings of a new chapter in all our experiences.
Band reunion 1997
Many of my pals were good enough to have considered a career in music, but I think apart from myself, there was only one who went on to work as a pro trumpet player, Kevin Hegarty, and another – a brilliant sax player, one of the finest this country has ever produced, Michael Healey – who has now spent his entire career in music.
So now you had a drum kit. How did it develop from there?
The ‘school’ band continued for a year or two. We did quite a few gigs, weddings and things like that, and we got a fee but pretty small beer though. Certainly not professional rates, but then we weren’t professional quality either!
The final glory came when we decided to ‘cut a record’! Wow! The ‘EP’ had just been invented, and we were one of the first people to actually make one. Let me hastily add however, that it was never for commercial purposes, just for nostalgia. I think they only pressed about 40/50 copies. I still have my copy.
Jet kindly provided an image of the EP that the band recorded that day. Under the name ‘The Omega Dance Orchestra’ they captured four tracks including In The Mood and Apple Honey. It was a 7″ white label pressing with the catalogue number SON-EP-106. Jet’s copy has a plain sleeve with band members’ names and other details handwritten on it.
With a total pressing of under fifty copies, this definitely has to be one of the rarest band related collectables…
The recording session was a slight disaster. We of course had no experience whatever of studio life. For their part, I don’t think the studio had seen much in the way of bands as big as ours either. We had only booked a two hour slot naively thinking it would be enough time, in the end it all started to get rushed as time was slipping. It’s not the greatest recording in the world!
I imagine sessions of those days involved three of four people. Listening to records of the period to-day, it’s clear that many didn’t even have a drum kit on them. Almost unheard of these days. I don’t remember the name of the studio, but I do remember that it was in the basement of a building right next door to the building in Soho Square, where CBS were situated for a long time and where of course we spent a large part of our recording career. Now there’s a spooky coincidence.
It may give you an idea of how long ago this was when I mention that inside the studio, there was a big blackboard which was autographed by some of the stars of the day, names like Tommy Steele, Guy Mitchell, Cliff Richard and Bert Weedon!
Then I started to get more into the real semi-pro arena on my own and some of the other guys did also. I did hundreds of gigs all over the place.
So you’re working during the day and doing gigs at night?
Yes, I had gigs almost every week.
Was there a high point during that part of the story?
Yes I think the one, out of so many, that keeps recurring in my memory, is the day I got a panic phone call from a Musicians Union booker who wanted a drummer for a ‘big’ band gig. They needed a drummer who could read. I certainly knew by then how to read music, but no-way was I practised and good enough to do a gig with ‘dots’, but I wanted the gig.
After a brief hesitation he said do it anyway we’re desperate. So I go along and it’s a Saturday night dance orchestra, well, more of a big band than an orchestra. About twenty guys in all.
It wasn’t too difficult, it just meant that I needed a nod from someone when there was a break or particular feature. I got through it pretty well OK and it was both a tremendous opportunity and a real thrill. There’s something really exciting about being in the midst of a big band of professionals and being part of making it happen. But that was an unusual gig. The run of the mill type of gig was more like four to six guys doing standards.
How long did this scene last?
Not sure how long it was now, but it seems like I was doing gigs for quite a few years.
What were you aiming for, at that point?
I was beginning to think about maybe going into music as a full blown pro.
And did you?
No, is the short answer. I did look at the opportunities and I did do some auditions but I think with hindsight I can say I was confused about exactly what I did want.
How do you mean?
Well, I was now coming towards the end of my seven years apprenticeship, and although I did enjoy much of it, I had reached the conclusion that I didn’t really want to be a joiner for the rest of my life and I had become tired of being told what to do. Music had shown me another life altogether, and I was kinda hooked.
Two things were becoming clear to me, firstly, unless you were fabulously wealthy, going into music meant – in all probability – working for someone. Playing in someone else’s band. Secondly, to get such a job, you needed to be the greatest player in the universe.
Music at that time, wasn’t innovative in the sense we know it today. These days, or certainly until very recent trends which have rocked the industry, (and I don’t mean that in a musical sense), the trend is/was towards new music, new personalities, new bands.
Back then, it was ‘quality’. Loads of bands all doing the same thing, but each competing to be the ‘best’, the slickest, with an emphasis on arrangements.
Now obviously, there were and always will be exceptions, but in general terms, to get anywhere, you had to be a virtuoso performer. In that sense, it was a bit like classical music, where perfection is king.
There just wasn’t an industry supportive of new innovative music, as opposed to ‘quality’ performers. It was the ‘performance’ that mattered, even at the expense of interesting music.
Somewhere along the line it changed. It became new and continually innovative ideas achieved by any means, and not necessarily ‘played’. It was the ‘sound’ that mattered, no matter how it was achieved, not so much the ‘performance’. I suppose the logical conclusion of that process culminated with ‘Punk’, where any ability to play, to ‘perform’, actually became a handicap!
These days, you can be absolute crap musically, so long as you wear crazy clothes, to exaggerate only ever so slightly!
So what was the answer to the problem?
I had to confront the reality that going into music perhaps wasn’t the promised land I might have hoped. Gigging around had provided a great deal of freedom, and a whole lot of fun. If I was now going to go after money, a ‘living’, the game would change.
I knew I didn’t want to be a session drummer. Just turn up and play this, type of thing. Or be in a band and just play what was put in front of me. That was not for me.
So what was the solution?
There seemed only two options, do what I didn’t want to do, what for me would have seemed like a nine to five job, or quit music.
And that’s what you did?
Yes. I gave it up, or at least I gave up the ambition to be a pro. I hung on to the semi-pro thing for quite a long time, many years in fact, after all it was a very useful supplement to my then modest income, and it was simple, uncomplicated.
I did what so many have done and many still do, I stayed with security and peace of mind, if somewhat unfulfilled. I guess you could say I chickened out.
So we know you did eventually go into pro music, what was going on in the hiatus?
The day the apprenticeship ended, was the end of a chapter of my life. I never worked in the industry again, not one single day. I seized my qualifications but have never made use of them professionally. I was beginning to wrestle with new possibilities in my life.
I was clear that the one thing I didn’t want to do was to spend the rest of my life working for someone and doing what I was told. As an apprentice I had spent the best part of seven years being subservient, not in a really bad way, it wasn’t unpleasant, but I just didn’t want any more of it. But for awhile at least, that’s exactly what I did.
I did loads of nonsense jobs. Bought this, sold that, drove this, drove that, sold that, bought this. After the disappointment with music not going anywhere, I realised I didn’t know anything about anything. How could I? I had left school illiterate after all those missed years and health problems through most of it. I had had a brush with music and it left an indelible mark on my psyche. I wanted to see what else was out there to be discovered.
Perhaps naively I thought if I were to just roam around I would eventually bump into a new life. Strangely, that is more-or-less what happened. All the bum jobs which seemed to be leading me nowhere, led me into circumstances which would never have presented themselves had I spent all those years in the joinery workshop.
I suppose the first inkling of a chain of events – although of course I didn’t know it at the time – was when I first encountered the cold white stuff. Yes, ice cream. Moving around constantly from pillar to post, I got to hear that there was a new trade boom in ice cream.
During the fifties, the country was beginning to find it’s feet again after the long austerity of the war years. New business opportunities were opening-up all over the place. I wanted to get into something new and exciting. But I had precious little capital, well, practically none.
Some enterprising company had started importing soft ice cream machines from Italy. To-day, everyone has seen them, but back then, it was a new sensation. The mere sight of one of these machines was a guarantee of a queue a mile long. I thought I’d like some of that. In both senses! Then someone started putting them into vehicles, the rest is history.
Yes, for awhile I drove one of those vans. I had discovered that you could hire them and buy and sell ice cream anywhere you wanted, pretty much. It didn’t cost much to set-up. This was a new kind of excitement, it was just making money, but nothing wrong with that, surely. However, I soon tired of dishing out the hokey pokey, as it used to be called.
One day, the company who supplied me, offered me a job in a new depot they were opening in Guildford. You can see where this is going. Soon I was moving into Surrey. Not Guildford at first but a near-by satellite village.
So up to that point you were still living in Ilford?
No, not all the time. I had several places in different parts of London and at different times as I progressed through my adventure, I moved many times, but it was never much more than a dire bedsit room in most cases.
However I did return to Ilford for awhile before moving to Milford and then Guildford. I always thought that was a funny coincidence. Incidentally, I was still doing semi-pro gigs from time to time up to around this period but this roughly is where it ended.
Why end it?
It was just that I seemed to have greater priorities in my life than doing gigs. I had thrown away my chance at a music career and my energies were now focussed on a different way of life altogether. I was about to get a ‘proper’ job!
And so why Milford?
Oh it was just another coincidence, that just happened to be where I first found a place to rent.
So now you’re working in Guildford, nine to five presumably, and you’re living in Milford?
Yes, it was awhile before I finally found a place in the town. You can probably imagine it was, and still is, a very expensive place to live. It wasn’t exactly nine to five but regularly irregular hours, if that makes any sense.
What did the job entail?
I was depot manager. I controlled the distribution of ice cream in the region.
But you were illiterate!
I suppose it shows what you can do if you put your mind to it. Seriously though, I hadn’t been idle in my wilderness years. I hadn’t earned any qualifications but I had worked at educating myself and I had an enquiring mind and a lot of determination. Perhaps my greatest asset was organisation. I was a good organiser and fastidious about detail. Oh dear, that’s a double thingy, fastidious itself is about detail!
Was it an interesting appointment?
It certainly had it’s moments, but you couldn’t say it was a great career move, at least not to my satisfaction but it took awhile for that to dawn on me. Ice cream is an oddball industry in that it’s about moving millions of low value items which of course are highly perishable. It calls for a certain industry knowledge, which by that time I had accrued, and a lot of associated organization to go with it.
It wasn’t just moving units though. There were a lot of ‘outside’ events to organise, the largest of which was in fact the biggest show in the United Kingdom, the Farnborough Air show. Unfortunately that was no stroll in the park. I remember one year they had the worst year on record weather wise. The whole place turned into a mud bath and the wind and rain was so bad I think most if not all of the flying had to be cancelled.
Then another big event was the Royal Ascot meeting. I employed my joinery skills and designed and built a custom ice cream booth for the ‘posh’ end because no-one had a booth smart enough for the up-market Tattersalls arena. The poor dears couldn’t bear to look at a ‘normal’ ice cream booth. There were also lots of cricket and other sporting events.
How long did this go on for?
Too long really, but in terms of my career it was a necessary means to an end. There came a point when I was starting to get bored again. It was becoming too routine for my liking, I was beginning to feel I was stuck in a rut. I needed change.
Would you say that there was no music at all in your life during this period?
Almost. There was a short period when I lived near to Barbara Andrews, Julie’s mother. She was a music hall veteran and an accomplished concert pianist. We just happened to go to the same pub. I often got invited to her very regular and impromptu house parties.
She would always end up in a jolly mood and with a bravura performance on her concert grand piano. They were wonderful days.
When I mentioned I was a sometime drummer, she wasted no time in persuading me to bring them around. I banged the skins loads of times, over a period of many months, to help jolly up the party.
However, the day came when I was due to move into Guildford ‘proper’ and I decided I didn’t have the room for a drum kit any longer. I hadn’t done a real gig for awhile and I didn’t see how I was going to have the time for gigs anymore. My job was occupying too much of my time.
I decided to do the unthinkable, sell the kit! When Barbara heard about this she immediately said, “we can’t let the drums go out of the family” and bought them off me right there and then.
I was now drumless.
Wow, didn’t you feel sad about that?
Yes I suppose I did. But the reality was that my life was undergoing a substantial change. I had been in ice cream for what seemed a very long time then and I was so busy that I suppose I forgot all about drums, and music in fact. However, eventually I began to get fed-up with it all. I needed to do something, I needed a change.
And did change come about?
Yes, after far too long, I had reached the conclusion that I was actually getting bored with it all. I eventually got around to thinking about the future. Did I really want to be doing this for the rest of my life? I just couldn’t accept that. There was something missing, there must have been, otherwise I wouldn’t have had the time to think about it.
For a long time I had a hobby in winemaking. I first found interest in it back in the late fifties. I guess that was about a decade or so previously.
I was quite fascinated that it was so easy to make excellent wine from unlikely ingredients. I remember how people would taste my wines and refused to believe I had made them from such things as blackberries, sloes and even dandelions. It’s a relatively cheap hobby with a wonderful payoff at the end. I had never got into it on any kind of grand scale. The problem being that my domestic abode had never been particularly stable or grandiose so space was always a problem but I had future ambitions that if and when I found myself in better circumstances, I would create a more serious winery.
Anyway the point is that I knew all about making wine and beer. However, it was illegal to make beer, that is unless you declared it and payed the government duties. It’s always about money. The result of this was that very few people are thought to have been engaged in brewing beer domestically, either legally or otherwise.
Anyway, in the sixties Reginald Maudling, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, abolished the duty on home brewed beer. This effectively legalised it and opened a floodgate of interest in domestic brewing but at the time I believe, there was only one supplier in the whole of Britain where you could obtain domestic brewing equipment. W.R Loftus in London’s West End.
I spotted an opportunity. After a bit of planning I opened a domestic brewing centre in Guildford. I was married in those days and my wife was to run the shop. After the first week nothing. After the second, a bit. After the third, a bit more, after two months it was pretty busy. After the first year, the tiny shop was inadequate.
I began to look for larger premises. As a precautionary measure I had made sure the shop was about the smallest in the town, the problem was that there weren’t too many shops of the size I considered appropriate for my needs, bearing in mind that there was still an element of risk in the enterprise and Guildford being a very affluent area, property prices were sky high. I searched week after week, but nothing. Then I began to notice the old building across the road. It was very old, three storeys high. The ground floor was an ‘off licence’ (a ‘liquor store’ for non Brits). It was so antiquated, dark and dingy with not even a window display save for a few booze posters. I got to hear that the owners, a prominent brewery, were looking for a new tenant to take over the running of the place. It was a ‘tied’ house just like a pub. I went across to have a look.
It was all very sad. A lonely old lady down on her luck was the tenant, her husband having ended his days running the place some unknown time previously. There was hardly any stock and it’s customers were restricted to a few local winos. As a business it was clearly a disaster.
I made some inquiries which ended up with an interview at the brewery headquarters. It seemed to me that because of the size of the place, it was quite huge, if the owners would play ball so to speak, I could run the off license and my own business as well with space to spare. When, as I had to, I disclosed my business was domestic brewing equipment, they blew a fuse. No way hozzzzay! I departed with the offer to run the place for them if they changed their mind.
A couple of months later I received a call from the brewery.
They were interested?
Yes. No-one out of the many who viewed the place thought it was worth a carrot as a business, and rightly so. The brewery somehow thought they were taking a gamble but I assured them that I could double and triple and quadruple the turnover. This was no idle boast, there was only one way it could have gone in my estimation. It just wasn’t possible for the business as it then was, to get any worse.
So this is where you moved into the famous off licence?
So how did you fulfill your boast?
It was the easiest thing I have ever done. Ever. With some difficulty and procrastination, I had wrung an agreement out of the owners that I could do pretty much anything I wanted with the building, so long as I made a go of the off licence. I told them I would be happy to modernise the entire shop if they would do the same for the shopfront. They agreed but went on to renege on their part of the agreement. However I ripped out the entire interior and with my joinery skills turned the place into a modern double shop. Half off licence, half domestic brewing centre.
I installed a music system and self service displays. The brewery couldn’t believe the result. I doubled the turnover every month for months on end. It was so successful as an off licence that they sent all their trainee representatives to see what I was doing.
So what about the domestic brewing side of it?
There was no conflict at all. Why would there be. You were either interested in one side or the other. Some I guess were interested in both.
What about the ice cream depot while this was all going on?
Oh, I was still doing the day job but it was becoming clear that at the current rate of progress I couldn’t keep both balls in the air forever. But I’ll come back to that.
It was indeed huge, much bigger than I had first thought. The ground floor consisted of the retail shop with large storage rooms behind. On the first floor there were three massive domestic rooms plus kitchen and bathrooms. Then on the second floor there were another four huge rooms which hadn’t even been used for centuries. Then there was a basement. At the back of the property the land sloped away towards the river Wey which runs through the centre of Guildford. As you went around to the rear of the building via the driveway which ran down one side of the building, you could then turn into a massive basement which was so large you could drive a big truck into it. So there was loads of scope for all kinds of things.
Plus, and to me it was a big plus, I could live there too. Effectively free accommodation. The whole package was an absolute bargain. I couldn’t believe my luck, I had really landed on my feet.
And did you get into all kinds of things?
Yes indeed. I had been one of the first people in the UK to get into this domestic brewing market. It soon became clear that similar shops were opening all over the country. It occurred to me that with my massive storage space I could get into the supply of some of these shops and there wasn’t much competition. So I started to wholesale. At one point I packed my car with samples and drove across the length and breadth of the country opening up accounts with dozens of businesses and expanded into wholesale.
And what did the brewery think about all this?
I don’t know how or what they knew about the extent of my activities but under the agreement it was none of their business. The off licence was booming so they were very happy.
What then was the next milestone?
It didn’t stop there. The new homebrew boom in Britain was being noticed around the world and we started to get enquiries from abroad. At first only domestic customers. I guess there were different laws in different countries and I can’t claim to know any detail about that but whatever the cause, we were now getting orders from Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand, and interestingly some middle eastern countries where alcohol was illegal. You can imagine what was going on there!
So you sound like you were frantically busy.
Hectic it was, but it didn’t end there either. I was of course well acquainted with the ice cream business so it wasn’t long before I was making plans to get back into the white stuff!
Of course I was still holding down the job at the depot. Now, ice cream is a very seasonal business, so during the winter months when trade can vary from slow to practically stationary, it was not a real problem to keep it all together. However, as the summer months approached it was becoming clear that problems lay ahead.
I was determined to get some ice cream vans of my own on the road and turn the basement into a new department. As it turned out my boss at the depot had got to hear about it and he wasn’t very happy. It’s not that my new enterprises were a particular secret, I had told him about it, but I guess when he heard I was going into ice cream he saw red. There was no way I was going to abandon my new entrepreneurial endeavours so the inevitable happened. The day job had to go.
So now you were independent?
And so where did it all go from there?
Well the expansion continued apace. I had developed a few unique products for the homebrew trade and began to market them. I now had a small workforce and everything just got bigger and bigger and bigger. So perhaps sooner or later it was inevitable that there would be a price to be paid for the pace at which everything had exploded. That turned out to be the marriage.
Ah, so this must be some kind of turning point of sorts?
Yes. What turned out to have been an obsession of mine in building my mini empire was all too much for my wife who didn’t wholeheartedly share my enthusiasm for work. The marriage crumbled. I think it could be argued that had this not happened, there would be no band to-day known as The Stranglers.
Well this really is the start of the story of the band.
So the start of the story of The Stranglers begins in Guildford at the off licence?
Tell me more.
My wife had reached the end of the road, pretty much. She walked out. She returned and departed a few times before the final throw of the dice so-to-speak, but the writing was firmly on the wall.
What was the immediate effect of this new turn of events?
I guess it caused me to stop in my tracks and sit down and evaluate what had happened to my life. I had built something quite impressive out of nothing and it never occurred to me for a minute that my wife wasn’t loving it as much as I was.
There came the day when I closed up the shop, I think it was about 10:30 or 11:00pm in those days. I switched off the lights, fixed myself a drink and sat in the shop, in the dark. I turned on the stereo and switched it to ‘radio’.
I stared out into the evening watching the passers by and I started to ponder. What had all this been for? I thought I had been doing it for ‘us’. But apparently only half of ‘us’ had actually been enjoying it. What’s the point, I thought. Did she expect me to just give it all up? There didn’t seem to be any alternatives. I either do it, or I don’t. What kind of choice is that? Everyone has to make a living for Christ sake.
I started working my way through some of the bottles which were now all around me. I began to groove on the music. Wow, I love these songs, I thought. I began to reminisce about the old days, the gigs, the buzz of playing. That feeling of being on a stage and being appreciated. What had my life become? A glorified shopkeeper. A noble profession no doubt but was that what I really wanted? What had happened to my ambition for a music career which I had abandoned before it had got started?
Wow, there’s some real nostalgia going on here!
Well I suppose I was feeling more than a bit shell-shocked. It had just never occurred to me that I would find myself in this situation and for once I was stumped for words.
As the music played on, I began to think how would I play that tune? How would I have dealt with another one? It suddenly hit me that what I was listening to, compared to the music of my ‘playing’ years, was from another universe. This wasn’t the boring old fanatical search for pointless virtuosity. This was innovative, clever and exciting fun music. Music anyone could play.
The Beatles had long been and gone. This now was a new era. I had of course been well aware of the excitement of the sixties, you could have hardly missed it. But somehow, I had just been too busy to comprehend the detail and I had made the dumb decision to quit music at just about the worst moment possible! At the precise moment when contemporary music was to undergo a revolution. How dumb is that!
This now wasn’t just the same old same old with everyone trying to show they were the best musicians. This was new fun songs, catchy irresistible songs and thousands of them. The beat had changed too. The swing beat was dead. Now it was the square beat, rock. I sat there playing an invisible drum kit. I started to get excited about music for the first time in years.
Sounds like you’re going through a metamorphosis?
It was cathartic. It was a sudden realisation, it was a revelation. It had been staring me in the face for years and I hadn’t even noticed. I ought to be back in music! Music is where I belonged.
So let’s say it’s the next morning, what were your waking thoughts?
I was immediately thinking music. I turned on the radio and flicked through until I found a pop channel. I wanted to do a gig. I thought, could I do a gig? Do I remember how to bang drums you dumb fool! I wanted a band. I wanted to create one, a unique one. I even had the transport, I could clear out one of the ice cream vans. That would solve any initial transport problem.
I made plans to go out and look at drum kits. At least now I could afford one at the drop of a hat. My childhood puzzlement about matters concerning money had long gone, I didn’t have to think twice about it. The first stop was Anderton’s in Guildford, I believe they’re still there to-day.
I don’t recall how many days it was before I bought the new kit but it was certainly days, not weeks.
I cleared out one of those empty unused rooms at the top of the building and set up the drums. I told my right hand man he was now in full charge of running the business. He asked what was I going to be doing. I said “banging drums”. He looked at me like I had gone mad.
It must have sounded pretty weird to suddenly stop everything and start thumping?
I can see that now, but then I was actually in a position to do what the hell I liked. So I didn’t really give it a second thought.
How long did that last?
Only a week or so. I was soon convinced I had lost little in the intervening years. Rusty of course but it only needed polishing up a bit. I was soon thinking about how I could put a band together. Then I realised it would be more sensible if I actually did some gigs and prove to myself that I could actually still do it.
And did that come together OK?
It took awhile to get to grips with how things worked at that time. I just didn’t know anyone in semi-pro circles anymore. There was no SMF as far as I could tell. I don’t think they existed anymore. So the obvious place to start was the Melody Maker. They had long had the best small ads section for finding gigs and opportunities. Anyway, by way of an advert, I found someone who wanted a drummer for one gig. That first one was nothing spectacular. Just a pub with a mostly middle aged audience.
I believe the next one was an outfit who needed a drummer for a wedding. The gigs were actually a breeze but not what you’d call interesting. Hi Ho Silver Lining et al!. But there seemed to be nothing I couldn’t handle.
How long did that scene last?
Quite a long time, I was doing gigs all through the next year alongside my attempts to get a band together.
How did you go about that?
It was quite difficult at first. I advertised in the MM for musicians interested in auditioning for a possible full time band. It was pretty vague, intentionally. I thought it best to talk about the idea when the phone started to ring, rather than try and explain my ambitions in print.
There was no lack of interest. It soon became clear that there was no shortage of people wanting to get into a band. Far more difficult was finding anyone who wasn’t simply an out and out ‘time waster’.
Having found people, what then was the procedure?
Well you understand I hadn’t tried this before. This was something new. I would certainly have to admit to being green, even naive but I decided to get people to come over to the off licence in fives and sixes. The ‘drum’ room was now my official music room.
How did that go?
Some evenings were really quite fun but others were very dull. There were lots of blokes who ‘knew everything’ but strangely didn’t have a band. The main problem was attitude though, ‘give us the money and we’ll decide if we want to join your band’, type of thing. Ultimately, the big obstacle was the fact that just about no-one wanted to lift a finger really, until there was some money on the table. For my part, I was certainly prepared to do that, and indeed I did in the end, but I wasn’t prepared to pay anyone to show me how good, or more probably how bad they were.
Most were quite competent players or even I would say they were up to a high standard. The thing that impressed me most though was the quality of the equipment they had. A lot of them had quite good jobs and they had lavished more on equipment than a lot of pro’s could boast.
So you’ve got a room full of players. What do you do?
Well, a lot of talking and then just playing anything they felt comfortable with. Then we talked about original ideas, this didn’t produce much as a rule.
I felt strongly, that I needed to get to know the kind of people they were, just as much as what they were capable of musically. After all, I was looking for a kind of marriage, a musical marriage. If I couldn’t live with them, I reckoned I couldn’t work with them either. I was faced for the most part with a load of pub singers and pub players. Occasssionally I would find someone who had a riff he’d developed and we got to play along and see where it ended up, but mostly it was uninspiring and quite boring. At times it was a bit like an ‘X Factor’ audition.
It doesn’t sound like it was going anywhere then?
Absolutely so. It went on for months and months and was largely disappointing but I got a few gigs out of it here and there which did solve one problem, it showed to my own satisfaction that I could still actually do gigs after my long decade in the wilderness, but no, it wasn’t getting me much closer to my goal.
One guy had a regular gig in a pub. His drummer was due for a holiday so I took that and it was just covers of well known songs and OK as an exercise but it was a no-brainer that it wasn’t going to lead me anywhere. For me it was just a way of keeping my hand in, but always with a chance that something might come out of it. I didn’t even really need the money, although who’s going to turn down a handful of dough that’s on offer?
As I saw it, I had nothing much to lose as my search was progressing. The business was ticking along fine and I only needed a general overview of the whole thing. Any gigs that came my way meant additional pin money and I could have kept that going for quite a long time if I’d had to. What I didn’t want, was to start making commitments before I was absolutely certain I had found the people I was seeking. From that point on, it was going to get expensive.
But I persisted. I thought that as with earlier experiences, if I just kept on at it, sooner or later something would emerge. It was kind of do-or-die. Then, something did emerge. A new session produced a guitar/bass duo who had apparently done a lot of work together and were hoping to get into the prospective new band together. They were actually quite good and a cut above the usual pub covers band. We did a number of sessions over several weeks and I was beginning to feel this was starting to get interesting when they started demanding money.
Confidence is a wonderful thing, but it all fell just short of my being confident enough that these were the right guys, so it all fizzled out from that point. It’s sometimes very helpful the way that money concentrates the mind.
Why didn’t you just advertise for bona fide professional musicians?
Ah, now that’s a good question. I guess the first point is that I neither had a bona fide band, nor was I a bona fide creator of bands. I had no idea what I was doing really, and I certainly had nothing to offer a professional.
What I did have, was a certain conviction about what I was doing and a determination to succeed by hook or by crook. It was quite clear to me that any established pro would have had much the same opinion about me, as I had had about the people who I was in the process of selecting or sifting through. My only way forward was going to be with the help of a great deal of bullshit and persistence. At least that was the way I saw it.
So you must have been very patient apart from anything else?
I think I did indeed have a lot of patience in those days, but as soon as one door of ‘hope’ closed, another opened. The next thing was a phone call from someone who had got my number from someone who I had done a gig with. They said they were a married couple, bass and keyboards, who were full time pro’s and they had a residency in a south coast resort.
Can’t remember why they were drummer-less but I agreed to do one show to see how it worked out although the last thing I wanted was a residency in a holiday camp. It turned out to be a caravan park somewhere near Chichester as I recall, not at all what I wanted to be doing, Hi Ho Silver Lining again!
After that gig, they wanted me to join them permanently and I did end up doing five or six with them as they were really nice folk and a lot of fun to work with but then I just had to move on and get back to the search.
How long had this been going on up to this point?
I couldn’t give an accurate answer to that but it was several months rather than weeks.
Did you reach a point when you thought about giving up?
No. I’m quite sure about that. In fact I would say, the longer it went on the more determined I became. If you think about it I was getting more removed from my mini empire by the day, I was certainly neglecting it which was probably sheer madness now I think about it. I don’t know what possessed me, many not only thought I had gone whacko but said it too! Just look at it, I was a near middle aged man with a successful business and what was I doing? Chasing around the country with a drum kit, an ice cream van and a load of no-hope musicians! It frightens me to think about it now.
So now you’re a few months into it, and you’re getting nowhere, I think I would have just given up and gone back to the office. Surely you must have had similar thoughts?
I don’t think so, least not as I remember. If nothing else, I had invested a lot of time in the project and I was still committed to a new career for myself, the excitement of that far outweighed the occasional ‘highs’ that had a place in my usual routine at the time. So I pressed on.
So what next then?
I found out that the local Guildford paper had a bit of a music market in the small ads so I advertised there for a time and this unleashed a new retinue of hopefuls.
There was one bass player from I think it was Woking, not far from Guildford. He was pretty young, no more than maybe eighteen. I think the youngest by far. He was a ‘pretty’ boy in the boy band sense. Really good at bass, very enthusiastic too, I did a number of sessions with him. I even got one of the earlier more promising guitar players to come over to the off licence again to see how it would work out with the two of them. That perhaps was one of the best phases of experiment up to that point and I was getting quite hopeful that I had found something at last, but again it came to nothing. I suddenly discovered that he was married and couldn’t commit to the amount of time necessary. Oh dear, another disappointment.
If I recall correctly, the next bloke was a keyboard player who’s face was familiar to me. He had been a customer in the shop, from time to time, and I knew him to chat to, although all I knew about him was that he worked at an estate agent’s a few doors along the street and I also had known he played keyboards. I was pretty sure he was a committed semi-pro but thought it unlikely he was going to quit his job and jump on board. But I invited him around anyway and he duly turned up with an amazing pile of equipment. He was some kind of draughtsman or something and he clearly took his music very seriously and was very good. But it was the same old problem. Not being prepared to really bite the bullet and jump in. There are a lot of people who dream about a music career but few who are prepared to suffer the hardship that so often goes with it. I knew only too well, I had been there myself.
Had there been many keyboard players?
Off the cuff, maybe as many as guitarists, so quite a lot.
Had you expressed an interest in keyboard players in your adverts?
Not as I recall. I think it was vague. I was just looking for something, anything that got me excited, so it was probably ‘interested musicians’ or something like that.
So where do we go from here?
OK, the next big thing – although it didn’t actually turn out to be big at all – was a call from London. In answering my advert for ‘drummer available’, I got a call from someone who told me they wanted a drummer for their band. They had a manager, gigs lined-up and a recording contract, so they said. So off I go with the kit in the back of the ice cream van.
It still didn’t sound like it was the kind of thing I was interested in, but I figured I just might learn something here. It seemed that here was someone who was trying to do what I was trying to do. It must have been a good idea to check it out, I thought.
It was just off Muswell Hill in North London. The band were rehearsing when I turned up. It was a terraced house and it was all happening in a small room at the back.
They looked like ‘Yes’, they sounded like ‘Yes’ and apparently they worshipped ‘Yes’. They took one look at me and didn’t like what they saw and I took one look at them and did the same. Mutual indifference. Can you imagine, Jet Black in a band like ‘Yes’?………No! I got straight back in the van and drove home. I never heard of them again.
Well if I’d have been you, I would have been hopping mad by now. Did you see any light at the end of the tunnel or were you just groping around in the dark?
Mmmm. Perhaps a bit of both. Maybe I didn’t actually see any lights, but I was certainly doing a lot of groping, the acceptable kind that is. On the other hand, I was soon to bump into a certain local rock luminary.
All along, there had been a burgeoning rock scene in Guildford which I had been completely unaware of. In my business life there had been no room for such frivolities as the new rock culture. I had long abandoned my musical interests and thrown myself into an entirely new way of life, never thinking that one day I might be looking towards music again. Like most people, I was getting to the age where many would get set in their ways and the thought of moving in rock circles had never entered my mind. But now things had suddenly changed.
It turned out that the big-wig on the local scene was a guy with the unfortunate name of Dick Cox. On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t such a misfortune, being a local rock legend. Or perhaps he had changed it. Funnily I never thought to ask him.
Not sure where I had met him but I think someone introduced me and we talked about, well, my intentions, and his. After that first encounter, we seemed to keep bumping into each other over the next couple of years. If I remember correctly he was a guitarist. Everyone said he knew everything and everyone, but I don’t think I actually gained much out of the encounter except he did point me in the direction where it was all happening. There were a few local rock ‘hot spots’ where I could expect to find like minded musicians.
I was soon off in a systematic tour of said venues. I did a lot of talking and got some phone numbers. The best thing I can say is that it did in the end, produce another army of players, and then this in turn led to more sessions at the off licence. However, the inevitable. They all pretty much to a man, were just the same as the other lot. Same motives, same attitudes, same abilities, same shortcomings. Same old, same old. Hopeless.
So where are we now in the scheme of things?
I guess it must be over a year down the line by now.
And you still haven’t got anywhere. How are you feeling about things and what’s going on back at the shop?
Well remember, I still lived above the shop so I had a daily eye on things there. As for the ‘new’ career, I did at least have a large database – as we would call it to-day – of music contacts. Not that it had actually led me to my goal as yet. But if nothing else, I had learned a lot. I was getting less green by the month, more determined and perhaps more ruthless.
What do you mean, ruthless?
I was now far less willing to take any bullshit from anyone, although I must admit I was still dishing out large dosses of the stuff myself.
Are you proud of that?
No, not really, but then sometimes a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. In any business, you have to do some fancy foot work, and music, love it or hate it, it’s just a business like any other. I knew that sooner or later, I was going to be writing out cheques and I wasn’t going to take any crap from anyone. But there were still a few more hurdles to jump, and I did take some crap.
Ah, hurdles, how so?
More of the same old. I had a new lead. One of the earlier contacts, it may have been the couple who worked the caravan site, but I’m not certain now. My number had been passed to someone who called me. He was yet another guitar player.
What was his claim to fame?
He had been told I needed players for a new band, he said he was a songwriter/guitarist and wanted a chance at it. Of course I soon had him over to the off licence. He was very likeable. Said he’d been in loads of bands. He looked the part too, if you’d have seen him walking down the road, you’d have said “I know what he does for a living”.
We got to play and I was sufficiently impressed to want to get someone else in on the session. I called around several people with no immediate luck and eventually thought of trying the young bass player who had dropped out a long time back. He said he would be happy to help out but it would cost me. Well, here it was, my first real decision whether to cough up or not. I suppose I must have been very impressed as I did cough up and offered the bass guy a fee which he seemed pleased about.
So, we did a session, I think it was the following week. He was situated somewhere south of Guildford, don’t remember exactly where, but he was mobile, had a car, so it wasn’t much of a problem for him. It went really well. He had plenty of ideas and all three of us felt pretty pleased about the evening.
I arranged for a second session for a few days later and re-booked the bass guy. The bass guy turned up, but not the guitar man. Grrr. I was not pleased. He called me the next day with some excuse which I had no reason to doubt but I told him he would only get one more shot at it. I shouldn’t have bothered. What a damn fool, he turned up alright about an hour and a half late, legless. He had a drink problem. I wasn’t going to throw any more cash in that direction and that was the end of that one. Lesson learned.
By now we must surely be getting near to the Johnny Sox moment?
Yes, close. As you know, I was still advertising and I got a phone call from someone who’d seen my ad. Thinking about it now, I guess it was probably Hugh but whoever it was, the voice on the phone said, “we’ve just arrived from Sweden and our drummer’s quit. We need a drummer”. My first thought was, “was this another ‘Yes’ type scenario?”
As on previous occasions, I figured I had nothing to lose. So I threw the kit in the back of the van and drove off this time to London’s Camden Town. The house turned out to be a squat.
Hang on a minute, what exactly is or was a squat?
Well, I believe the dictionary definition is, an unlawfully occupied uninhabited building, which is sometimes, but not exclusively, boarded up.
I have no idea why this particular house was so designated but it would have been either, it having been scheduled for demolition, awaiting modernisation or possibly purchased by someone not yet ready to move in. Of the three, and it’s a pure guess, I reckon the first is the most likely.
This is where the band was based. I had no idea what to expect on my arrival but it was a bit of a surprise nonetheless. There wasn’t a stick of furniture in the place. They were living and sleeping on boxes. The only thing of significance in the whole house was the band’s gear which was set-up right there as you walked in. The other surprise was the fact that they actually had electricity on.
That was decidedly odd, but as a side issue and by way of an astonishing coincidence, many years later, maybe in the 80’s or 90’s, I met someone who said he knew the house and that it had once been occupied by Joe Strummer and his band. Now that probably wasn’t The Clash which I’m sure came along too late to fit the story. So, I reckon it must have been his earlier band, the 101’ers. Perhaps the house was number 101? Not sure about that now, I simply can’t remember, but anyway, this guy told me that back then, when he was a young student, he was the actual person who had connected up the electricity, illegally. He is now a prominent solicitor in Central London!
So, I meet the Johnny Sox band. They were cheerful enough and clearly pleased to see me. They wasted no time in telling me about their band and how they had come from Sweden and they wanted to get going with gigs and the only problem was that their drummer had quit.
I was soon unloading the van and setting up. We proceeded to play for about 45 minutes or so. It was really quite enjoyable, very interesting and quite different to anything I had encountered during that previous year. I remember a lot of the songs were original, if we did any rock ‘n’ roll numbers, it hasn’t registered in my memory but we probably did.
They were soon asking me if I would join them. In their estimation it was a done deal. It was all about how soon could I start? I had to say, hold on a minute, what’s going on, what’s the deal here? I needed to know what they were all about, how come they were living in a squat, where were the gigs going to be, what plans did they have? It was nothing, nothing, nothing. How could it have been otherwise, they didn’t really have any gigs as far as I could see, they didn’t even have a band actually, unless I joined them and I had no plans to do that. They didn’t have any security of tenure, they could have been chucked out at the drop of a hat, they were stealing electricity, which was also very probably a fire hazard, and liable to get arrested too.
It was all complete and utter madness. I said what do you want me to do? They said join us. I didn’t hide my opinions, I didn’t think they were anywhere near good enough to do gigs, certainly not the kind where they might reasonably expect to make any money. They needed loads of rehearsal. The singer was awful. They had no transport, no money, and as far as I was concerned, at the time no prospects either. No wonder the drummer had quit. It looked like a complete nightmare. And yet, in spite of all that, there was ‘something’ which really intrigued me.
Well it’s difficult to get all the chronology exactly right after all this time, but there is one certain and immoveable date. The day I registered the name, that as we all know was during September 1974, there can be no doubt about that. We have the records. So we can work backwards from that date.
Now, there was a long period of some months, when Hugh had spent working one of the ice cream vans, but I’ll come back to that. Prior to the September date, the band existed as Hugh, JJ, and myself for certain, and possibly Hans Warmling too. So there was a workable band to actually register, so-to-speak.
Precisely when Hans was and wasn’t there, is a bit more difficult because he came twice actually. Hugh must have told him where he was then staying – at the off licence – and he just turned up with guitar in hand on a two week holiday.
He spent that fortnight jamming with us and then returned to Sweden to wind-up his day job – which took many long weeks, and more probably months – and then returned to re-join the band.
So, the first workable band was formed by that September. Therefore, with Hugh having spent the summer months working the van (it could only possibly have been during the summer months), it would have to be late 1973 or early 1974 when the phone rang, enter Johnny Sox.
That at least is an informed guesstimate, whereas much guesswork has been written about this period by people who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.
That puts everything into a much clearer perspective, what happened next?
I told them I really found some of their material very interesting, I actually really liked a lot of it and said straight out, they needed loads of work. I told them that frankly, I wasn’t prepared to come all the way up to London again for more of the same. But in any case they needed to understand that I didn’t need to be doing gigs, I didn’t even need to be working, I was doing OK. I wanted to do gigs, but not on these terms, no way.
I didn’t really quite want to let it go nonetheless, it was that ‘feeling’ which had excited me as we were going through the numbers. I felt that if I could, I’d like to explore it a bit.
It wasn’t until a long time after this that I reached the conclusion that the thing that had caught my attention was the Hugh input.
I said, tell you what, if you would like to come down to my place in Guildford, I can fix you all up for awhile and we could rehearse for a time and see if it went anywhere. I said if something comes of it fine, but if it doesn’t, you can come back here and you’ll be no worse off, but I’m just not prepared to come here again.
No way, no way, was the response. They said “we need to be here, this is where all the gigs are, this is where the record companies are, the managers, the whole biz”. I laughed, I said you’re dreaming. You’ve got nothing going for you. Nothing at all. Then I happened to mention that I could give them a room above my off licence.
What, did you say off licence? Hey guys perhaps it’s not a bad idea to try out Guildford! I told them that was the best offer they would ever get and left it at that. They had absolutely no bargaining chips. They were soon on their way to Guildford.
Was it right there and then?
I really can’t remember, I have no recollection of driving them back to Guildford, but I very probably did. I don’t see any other way that they were able to get there.
So they arrive at the off licence, what then?
We had a long talk, I spelt out the deal. They could live there rent free, each had their own room. There had to be regular rehearsals and if it didn’t come to anything, they were on their way back to London.
I knew from the outset it wasn’t going to go their way. The singer was a loose cannon. He was the real boss and I think the others were actually afraid of him. A real loud mouth. As for his vocals, well, if I have to be charitable, maybe he might have fitted into one of today’s death cult bands but I couldn’t see him fitting into my scheme of things. But I thought if I could just find out what that ‘something’ was that got me interested, maybe I could get something out of it. I needed to do some fancy footwork.
The rehearsals started out well enough, but if I had needed any reassurance that I didn’t have a future with the singer, it was clear from day one. Not only could he not sing, he was divisive and destructive. His game was, whizz through the songs as fast as possible and then go out and get laid. I had him marked from the outset. After a couple of days I said we needed to work on one song until, we got it sorted out. Only then, move onto the next. He wasn’t having it. He wanted to call the shots. However, I will give him credit for his writing, he was a pretty good lyricist and wordsmith but there was one word he had never heard of, subtlety.
How often did you rehearse?
Pretty much every day, I didn’t want it to go on forever, as it was now starting to cost money. If nothing else, the phone and electric bills were beginning to rise. So I needed to see some sort of progress one way or another. The singer was becoming more and more obnoxious. One day he even had the nerve to ask me if he could borrow my bed as he had to shag his women on the floor! For Christ sake. I don’t know how the others had put up with him for so long, although I don’t know how long that was. He had no conception of detail, he was so arrogant that once he had done a song he considered it perfect and wanted to move on. It was going nowhere fast.
How long would you say it went on for?
I really don’t have a good handle on that, it was quite a few weeks actually and while the band was still making no progress mainly because of the un-professionalism of the singer, I was beginning to see where that ‘something’ was coming from.
As stated, the singer – Gyrth, an American draft dodger – was hopeless, Jan the Swedish bass guy was very competent and he could do backing vocals fine, but there was a strong Swedish accent I just didn’t like, but as far as I was concerned the band was Hugh. The others were superfluous. I had no problems at all with Hugh. He was reliable, enthusiastic, creative, willing and extraordinarily quirky. I could now see a future with him but not the others. So the day came when I issued my ultimatum. Get serious or get out, I made it clear that if the band decided to get out, there would still be a place for Hugh. I left the room and let them get on with their decisions.
I didn’t have any doubts at all that it would be a get-out choice and that the real decision would be coming from the loud mouth.
They were going to quit. Thank fuck for that I said to myself. I reassured Hugh that if he so chose, he was welcome to stay on and become part of my plans. He of course did. I said “what is your decision?” He said “I’m just going to continue on with music until I reach the top”. He was very driven.
And so a new chapter had begun.
Did they move out straight away?
I think in his short time in Guildford, Gyrth the singer must have seeded half the female population of the town. He wasn’t even gone 24 hours before the Police were knocking on the door looking for him for allegedly knocking-up under aged girls. They’re still looking for him.
I was glad to see the back of him, and I had doubtless done him a favour, unwittingly, as had he not gone he may well have ended up in jail. I have no idea where he went and never heard from him again.
So, are we now on the cusp of the emergence of the band?
No not at all. It was to take a lot longer.
What was the next step and how did it work out with Hugh?
We spent many long hours talking, over quite a lot of drinks. Obviously we needed to get to know each other. He seemed to be more relaxed with the others gone out of his life. I made it clear to him how I saw things. I had every intention of selling-up my business interests and going into music but not until it was clear that I had a viable band. He was the first person I had found in my long search whom I really thought I could work with. I also made it clear that I had no idea how long it would take to complete the formation of a band.
I spelt out that he was free to stay for as long as I could see into the future and I expected him to be as committed as I was to making it happen. It was also understood that if it was to become protracted, I was always going to be happy to sit down and discuss where it was all going. We had a working understanding. It’s possible that he may have wondered if he could have put his trust in what I had said, but on the other hand, he would also have had to realise that allowing him to make the place his home was a clear demonstration of my commitment.
And so we begin the next bit. Hugh wasted no time, and spent hours and days on end writing loads of songs and lyrics. We jammed along sometimes and talked about how to find a bass player which we both agreed was the next most important step, but it wasn’t easy. There was a new plus to it all though, in that there were now two people searching rather than one.
Hugh, always a very gregarious person, moved around quite a lot. He had friends all over the place where he would stay from time to time and soon found a local girlfriend. He was on the lookout all the time and we would go around the town ever hopeful of finding our new bass player. The days became weeks and the weeks became months.
Hugh began to become irritated a bit by the lack of progress. Until we found our bass man there was no real progress in a performing sense but there was a lot of progress with songs.
It was beginning to look like it was going to go on forever. There came a point when I asked him if he would be willing to help out a bit with some payback. “What do you mean”, he said. Would he be willing to take one of the vans out and sell some ices? I wasn’t expecting him to traipse around the streets hawking his wares, but I did have a couple of local beauty spots where I had vans parked up during the summer months selling ices. He willingly agreed to do this and started a daily routine of driving off to a location. He would take his guitar along with him and when he returned in the evening he always had a new song. They were very productive months in terms of song writing but sadly few of those early songs ever actually made it onto record.
It all seemed to drag on forever. I was very frustrated and so was he. He would say, “when are we going to get started?”. Truth was, it wouldn’t happen until we had a band and we both knew it. Eventually the day arrived and JJ appears on the scene for the first time.
I think it’s well known that he was very young, just out of university with his
degree, and not doing much except driving a van around delivering paint and stuff, while he made plans to travel to Japan to study Karate. At least that’s the way I understood it. He had picked up Gyrth who had been hitch hiking in what turned out to be his final days in Guildford. The conclusion of which was an invitation for a drink at the Off Licence on his return.
Subsequently, JJ had stayed in touch. We had only met him a few more times when we became aware he was a talented classical guitarist and songwriter. We also discovered he had a long held desire to play the bass. Hugh happened to have one which he didn’t often use.
We soon found ourselves trying out as a three piece, with the bass. Within a day we asked him if he wanted to move in and join the band. Amazingly he immediately said yes. That was another milestone and hurdle overcome. Thank fuck for that too!
So now you’re a three piece band. What changes in the daily routine?
Everything really. We start a much more serious rehearsal routine. Practically every day. We are all getting a good feeling about it. The atmosphere is jolly and productive. This goes on for months. Eventually I start to get complaints about the noise from the locals. We persist nonetheless but it becomes clear that something has to be done. I can’t have people coming into the shop complaining and disrupting the business.
The next step is to find somewhere new to rehearse. A new search begins. Then I discover that I can rent out the local scout hut in Shalford, only about three of four miles away. This works out fine but soon we get complaints there too. Nevertheless, my confidence grows by the day and I start to think about making plans to sell my business interests.
Hans had arrived, and departed. At one point we think it might be a good idea to get a sax player, bad idea, sax player goes. I sell-up and rent the house in Chiddingfold, we rehearse like mad for months, Dave comes on the scene, the band is born. The Stranglers had arrived…
Thanks very much to Jet and Ava for this incredibly detailed and lengthy piece, which clearly was hugely time consuming to write.
Teenage drumming, band reunion and EP – Jet Black
Nashville live and ice cream van – Garry Coward-Williams
Guildford Off Licence – Chris Twomey
Guildford ’75 photosession – photographer unknown (courtesy of Neil Horgan)