Voltarol - related music

Monday, 16 February 2009

Music in a jugular vein 2

This is part two of the Jugular Vein story. New readers start here.

Washboard blues

We began getting together and rehearsing on a regular basis, sometimes in my flat, occasionally in Muff’s family home but mostly at Rich’s parents’ house. We soon had a dozen or so numbers together and were beginning to evolve a distinctive sound of our own. It quickly became apparent to us that three guitars and a jug created a pretty monotonous effect, and it became a golden rule never to have more than two guitars playing together at any one time. This problem was partially solved by the fact that Max also played the cornet and the harmonica, Richard had taken up the mandolin, I played the harmonica and we all played the kazoo. I was by far the least able guitarist of the group and the worst singer but I did have quite a good ear as well as a strong sense of rhythm, so when a penny whistle sound was required for a song, I was your man.

One day I turned up at Rich’s house for a rehearsal to find him sitting on a chair playing his Epiphone ‘Texan’ guitar and simultaneously playing a washboard with his feet. To achieve this he had taken a pair of old moccasins and fastened a handful of beer-bottle tops – the old Crown Corks – to the sole of each one. The result was interesting but he found the necessary coordination required too much concentration and affected his ability to play anything more than fairly basic strumming on the guitar. However, we quite liked the idea of the washboard as part of our sound. ‘Why don’t you give it a go?’ said Rich, so I did (see also I’ll give it a bash).

I now know that the washboard is conventionally played across the lap but as I had never seen anyone play one before I soon evolved my own approach, which involved holding it upright between my knees and playing either side of the board. This was slightly unsatisfactory because one hand tended to ‘damp’ the efforts of the other, but the problem was soon solved with Rich’s usual practicality and ingenuity. He went out and bought more washboards and bolted a pair of them back to back. He then fitted them with red and white striped metal ‘tapping plates’ at the top, which he cut from a ‘liberated’ Wall’s Ice Cream sign, and dyed all the wood a rather fetching shade of blue just to add that final touch of pazaz. I managed to purchase a cymbal, a cymbal stand, a cowbell and a red, wooden temple block to add to my percussive armoury and, just to add gilt to the gingerbread, Richard manufactured a rexine-covered carrying case for the washboards, complete with thimble compartment. This case was to become a source of great amusement to audiences and was always proudly displayed during our performances. (The photo at the top of this posting shows the washboard plus case and what's left of the original percussion ensemble as of February 2009. When Rich makes something he makes it to last!)

I’m not absolutely certain where we made our debut performance, but I think it was at The Load of Hay folk club in Uxbridge. As I have observed elsewhere (Mutt and Jeff) at that time folk clubs were very catholic in their interpretation of the word ‘folk’, and we had no trouble in getting ‘floor spots’ (unpaid performances of two or three numbers in the interval) at a number of clubs around London. We would scan the Folk Forum column in Melody Maker and select our targets, then turn up and request a spot in the hopes of turning it into a booking. Within a very short space of time we got our first proper gig and we were soon getting a couple a week.

At first we would all make our own way to the venues by public transport, but this quickly became a problem as the bookings came in from further afield. Rich was the first amongst us to pass his test and buy a vehicle. It was an elderly ‘E’ type Morris which consumed more oil than petrol and was soon dubbed ‘The Clampettmobile’ (for those of you too young to remember see The Beverly Hillbillies). We made many a cramped and precarious journey to pubs all around London before we were earning enough to hire someone to drive us, but in the meantime we rehearsed new material and expanded the act to satisfy the increasing number of re-bookings without repeating ourselves totally each time.

At this time I didn’t consider myself to be a musician. I was just someone who loved music and could play a bit. But I knew I was more of a performer than Max or Rich and I began to work on my introductory material. Muff, despite his shyness, was an excellent foil for my routines and shared my sense of humour, as did Rich and Max, who happily entered into the swing of things. Within a year we had evolved into quite a polished unit. I had begun writing songs with Rich during our first couple of months and we now had a repertoire that include a mix of blues, jazz and original songs, performed by four multi-instrumentalists (Richard had added harmonica to his accomplishments, Max had owned up to being a closet Ukulele player (see Anarchy in the UKe) and Muff was also playing recorder and concertina), all laced together with jokes and patter. We were ready to take it up a notch.