This is part four of the Jugular Vein story. New readers start here.
A leg end in our own lifetime
Despite the failure of the Norton York Agency to find us work, the gigs began to roll in. We were now often working three or four – and occasionally five – nights a week. The act tightened up considerably and the influence of the Bonzo Dog Band began to assert itself upon us. We began experimenting with theatrical explosives, smoke capsules, ‘Pantomime Transformation Powder’ and all manner of bizarre props.
The first item to find its way into our performances was a display half-leg, the sort of thing that was more usually found in the window of old fashioned drapers shops or hosiers, with a nylon stocking artfully displayed on it. It was a feminine leg which ended just below the knee, the foot of which was pointed as if standing on tiptoe. It was flesh-coloured, made of some light synthetic material and – most importantly – hollow. They say that one should never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cosy does not put it on his head. Mr Murfet would not have been Mr Murfet if, when confronted with some sort of hollow vessel, he did not immediately blow a raspberry into it to see what it sounded like.
I can’t recall exactly where the item came from in the first place but within a very short space of time it was being featured in the act. One of the more unlikely things that Mama forbad (see previous posting) was leg playing, as in ‘Mama don’t allow no leg playing in here’. At this point in the performance Max and Rich would play a chorus of stop-time rhythm, Muff would grasp the leg in the ‘saxophone’ position and play a jug type solo on it and I would reach around him from behind and perform the ‘tap-dancing mice’ effect by tapping on it with my thimbles.
At some point along the way we acquired an actual full sized artificial leg. If my memory serves me it was Ron Bartholomew who had found it in the attic of the house he had moved into. It goes without saying that his first instinct was to offer it to The Jugular Vein and our first instinct was to accept it. This too was flesh coloured (or at least’ the War Department’s version of ‘flesh coloured’, namely a rather lurid pink). It had obviously belonged to quite a tall man as it was rather long, and it featured an elaborate ‘knee’ joint and a rather complicated leather harness to strap it on with. It was stamped with a government broad arrow on the ‘thigh’, underneath which were the letters ‘W.D.’. We were unable to work out a satisfactory way of playing it but it often accompanied us on gigs and could be seen lurking at that back of the stage in a thought provoking, if distinctly tasteless fashion. It never occurred to us that such a thing might cause offence until the night that we did just that.
Alan Bridges (or ‘Honest Al, the motorist’s pal’ as he frequently billed himself: his family were in the motor trade) was standing in for Muff, whose shift pattern clashed with this particular gig. The club was in posher premises than we were used to, in that there was a back-stage room for the perfomers. This meant that we did not see the audience before going on stage. Hearing ourselves announced from the front of the performance area we bounded out into the spotlight carrying our instruments. Alan, always an ‘edgy’ performer, rushed on whirling the artificial leg around his head, saw the audience and rushed off again, only to return seconds later, red faced and sans limb. The entire front row of the audience was occupied by wheelchair users, several of which were missing all or part of one or both limbs. We never used that particular leg again.
Another of our more tasteless inventions was the ‘Letterphone’ or ‘Frenchy Horn’ as it was sometimes known. This consisted of a penny whistle powered by an inflated condom, and I was assisted in the playing of this by Nobby the roadie. After an announcement to the effect that “we would now like to feature a rare and esoteric instrument that we had unearthed during our travels”, Nobby would join us on stage and be introduced as “Dendron, our roadie” to a mixture of groans and bewilderment from the audience. I would then hold the penny whistle in the bagpipe chanter position, with my right elbow cocked. Nobby would then ceremoniously inflate a condom and pinch it into position on the mouthpiece of the whistle. As he held it there I would clamp my elbow down, squeeze gently and finger the notes of The Drover’s Dream. All of this was performed with much solemnity and musical posturing. The fact that a condom could not hold enough air to complete a chorus did not seem to matter as the end of the tune was invariably drowned out by howls of laughter from the audience. Max, Muff and Rich would add to the whole performance by standing around solemnly and mugging their appreciation for this most artistic of endeavours.
By now we were writing quite a lot of our own material. I had written a song called ‘One of Our Film Stars Is Missing’ which was about some of the actors in the moral-boosting movies of the second world war, who indulged in great heroics on screen and held officer rank but had never seen a shot fired in anger. This slowly evolved into something of a set-piece performance for us and featured Rich on guitar and wordless falsetto vocal, Muff on concertina and Max and I singing in a faux Flanagan and Allen style whilst playing ukulele and swanee whistle respectively. ( Well obviously I didn’t sing and play at the same time: a gob full of swanee tends to inhibit the old vocalising, but you get the picture).
Our new found enthusiasm for theatrical pyrotechnics came into full play here, as did a strong sense of the absurd. Muff, who by now had moved to Richmond to share a flat with his elder brother, had discovered and purchased some 2nd World War Air Raid Warden’s helmets in a bric-a-brac shop near his new home. At the start of this particular song I would announce that we now intended to try and recreate the atmosphere in a London Underground Station during the blitz. We would all then don our A.R.P. helmets and Nobby would ceremoniously ignite a smoke bomb in yet another helmet that had been placed on the floor in front of us for this precise purpose. The first two or three verses were often accompanied by the sound of coughing but little sight of the audience, who would only become visible again as the smoke cleared towards the end of the last verse. The song would conclude with the swanee whistle imitating the sound of a dying buzz-bomb, then a brief pause followed by the word ‘BANG!’ shouted in unison by the band as I simultaneously flashed a large sheet of cardboard with that word inscribed colourfully upon it ( the very one that you see at the top of this page). As the audience had generally already been subjected to one real explosion during the performance (see Mutt and Jeff) this came as a wonderful anticlimax to the proceedings, affording us much amusement and generally baffling the onlookers.
Rich was responsible for probably our finest theatrical moment. As I have already indicated (see Washboard blues), he is an extremely practical man and can turn his hand to most things. In fact, during his time with the band he had abandoned his Epiphone Texan guitar and was playing one that he had built himself. No one had had the faintest idea that he had been spending much of his spare time for the last couple of years in learning the luthier’s art, until the day that he turned up for rehearsal with a different guitar. He was soon being approached by other guitar players of our acquaintance for running repairs on their instruments. As Rich was known as a bricklayer at this time, guitar repair inquiries generally took the form of a request for re-pointing. The joke wore thin after a while. Rich eventually abandoned the brick work in favour of instrument building, and he is now one of the finest guitar builders in the country, having been full time in his chosen profession since the early seventies. But I digress.
The first records featuring Moog synthesizers had just arrived upon the scene and we were amusing ourselves on the way home from a gig one night, with the idea of a jug synthesiser. A couple of weeks later we turned up at Rich’s house for rehearsal to find a large, object in the centre of the room. It was about four feet high and about eighteen inches wide at the bottom and shrouded in an old curtain, which Rich whipped aside to reveal a two and a half times life size, papier-mâché model of Muff’s jug, painted to match the stoneware and inscribed – in identical lettering to the original – “Fryco Aerated Waters Jug Synthesizer”. A loudspeaker had been fitted into the mouth of the unit and a cable emerged from the back of it, which was plugged into a portable tape recorder. Once the laughter had died down we got down to the serious business of compiling endless recordings of belches, farts, flushing lavatories and the like, to provide the ‘synthesiser’ sounds.
The device was soon incorporated into the act. We had enjoyed the unveiling so much that we always brought the ‘synth’ on to the stage under wraps. At a certain point in the proceedings we would announce the inaugural performance of a brand new electronic device, then issue the summons for ‘Nobby, the Demon Roadie’, who would appear in the best ‘panto’ tradition - in a flash of green smoke - wearing, for reasons that escape me now, a crash helmet, and intoning the words “Yes, Oh masters?”. Nobby would then manhandle the device to the front of the stage whilst miming the shifting of an extremely heavy object, and then hurry off stage to stand by the tape recorder. On the words - “Ladies and Gentlemen! We give you the world’s first Fryco Aerated Waters Jug Synthesizer!” - I would twitch away the cover and Nobby would start the tape. The last toilet flush was the cue for us to start the next song. Well, it amused us.
Sadly, with the exception of the ‘BANG’ notice, none of the other artefacts have survived. There must be some kind of metaphor for life in the fact that substantial, complex and lovingly crafted objects just disappear without trace whilst ephemera such as a scrap of cardboard, hastily scrawled upon with marker pens, is still in my possession nearly forty years later. Or perhaps we were just a bit careless…