Voltarol - related music

Monday, 9 March 2009

Music in a jugular vein 6

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

A Star is (not quite) born

I had totally immersed myself in the band by now as an escape from my increasing unhappiness at home. I saw the Jugular Vein as my potential saviour. If you were to have asked me how I thought this would work I would not have been able to answer you very adequately, although I did suspect that song writing might have something to do with it - that and the anaesthetic effects of large quantities of beer. The beer meant that not only did I begin to put on weight at an alarming rate, but some of my song writing efforts veered sharply between the maudlin and the pretentious. One particular lyric that was to come back and haunt me was ‘The Song of the Wastelands’ – a rant about our rubbish laden environment. Fortunately, the other members of the band were quick to deflate any hint of pomposity, so most of the worst material got filtered out at rehearsals.

As our reputation spread we began to get bookings from further afield as well as from the more prestigious London clubs. We played colleges and universities in addition to the usual folk venues, and these were generally fairly well paid. The quality of the heckling was frequently quite good too. Whenever I used a capo on my guitar I would refer to it as a ‘Bessarabian jock strap’. At a college in Lewes, this quip was greeted with a rather pained voice from the audience saying “I happen to be Bessarabian and I can tell you it isn’t”.

We became regulars at the Troubadour in Earls Court, and played to packed houses at the Saturday night sessions under the auspices of the late Redd Sullivan and (the equally late) Martin Winsor. The club was in the cellar beneath a coffee house in The Old Brompton Road in Earl’s Court, and those Saturday night gigs were the folk world’s equivalent of ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’, but without the glamour and the television cameras, and in considerably less salubrious surroundings. The stage was tiny and was located directly underneath the pavement. It was also the location of the air conditioning unit, which made so much noise that it had to be switched off when anyone was performing. The walls frequently ran with condensation – most of which. I’m sure, started out as perspiration - but as we never used a P.A. system we were not at risk from electric shock. It was here that Bill Leader first saw us and suggested that he might be interested in recording us at some point. He was then in the throws of setting up his own record labels – Leader and Trailer - and suggested that we might be suitable candidates for the Trailer label. We were eventually to record an album with him over a period of about a year, but in the meantime we continued to establish ourselves outside of London.

Our first breakthrough in the north of England was a booking in Sheffield at the legendary Highcliffe Folk Club. By this time our reputation had expanded to include the fact that we were a bit of a ‘drinking band’ and people came to our gigs expecting fun and games. They were not disappointed that night. I had already become unsteady enough on my feet to sit on my own pint during the course of the first set. Most of the audience seemed to be under the impression that it was all part of the act that I was performing in a pair of beer-reeking, sopping wet jeans.

At this time my oldest brother, Alcohol (by no means as booze-inclined as his nick-name implies) was a Liberal Studies lecturer at nearby Mexborough Tech. He and his Head of Department, together with a fellow Liberal Studies lecturer from Doncaster Tech, had been attending a lecture given by the historian A.J.P. Taylor at Sheffield University. My brother felt the need to see exactly what it was that his younger sibling had got himself into and so had unwisely persuaded his fellow academics to come to see our performance after the lecture. They had arrived shortly before the beer incident and had seated themselves at a table near the back, where they observed our antics with a certain degree of bemusement. The Department Head, who was somewhat older than his companions and had in fact served as a bomb disposal specialist during the SecondWorld War, was still wearing his overcoat. At the end of the first set I went over to their table, where my brother was just offering to take his coat and hang it up. The Head, who stammered somewhat, replied “N-n-n-n no thank you dear b-b-b-boy. It gives me a c-c-c-comforting sense of imp-p-permanence”.

I have chastening memories of a gig that we did somewhere on the south coast. The performance had gone extremely well and we were about to head for home but, as was often the case, the need for post-gig food kicked in and we looked around for somewhere to eat. Eventually we found an open fish and chip shop and were soon sitting in the van and munching our way through cod, chips, saveloys and ‘wallys’ (large pickled cucumbers) out of newspaper-wrapped greaseproof bags that were soggy with vinegar. I finished eating, wiped my fingers as best I could on the newspaper, slid the door open and – without a thought –deposited the greasy rubbish in the road. Muff glanced up from his food, raised one eyebrow and murmured “’The Song of the Wasteland’, was it?”

In September 1969 we finally got booked for a festival – the first ‘Buxton Blues and Progressive Music Festival’ as it was billed – which was an all night event at the Buxton Pavilions. I don’t remember how we got the gig but I for one had high hopes for us. The event took place on two stages - we were booked to play on the small one – and featured all the big names of the day: Fleetwood Mac, Family, The Spirit of John Morgan, The Edgar Broughton Band, The Third Ear Band and East of Eden. It was compèred by John Peel I didn’t think much of the music and found it incredibly loud, but it was an extraordinarily cold night even though it was only September, so we stayed inside and put up with it. We finally got to go on at the same time that Fleetwood Mac – who had had major chart success earlier that year with ‘Albatross’ - took to the main stage. The net result was that we performed to a rather sparse audience and I can’t say that we made much of an impression on them. In fact John Peel wrote a four page article about the festival in ‘Disc and Music Echo’ ( a now defunct music paper) the following week, in which he commented on every band that had performed there. Of us he wrote “The Jugular Vein also played”.

We celebrated our third birthday that year, with a benefit gig at the Angel, Hayes End, for the Middlesex Housing Association, and the poster for that event (see above) shows me at my fattest. However, it was not me but the slender Mr Murfet who won the pie eating contest! It could be that my eating form was affected by toothache. Thanks to a bad dental experience in childhood that had ended with me being carried home in a blood-soaked towel, I had a deep fear of dentists and would tolerate incredibly high levels of discomfort rather than have my teeth seen to. This state of affairs was to last until my early forties, when I finally overcame the phobia and began visiting a dental surgery on a regular basis, but at that time my first resort was aspirin and my second resort was whisky. I was often in considerable discomfort and on one occasion when returning from a gig in the small hours of the morning, became so desperate that when we were passing a pharmacy, I insisted that Nobby stopped the van, then jumped out and went and hammered on the door of the shop. Given that it was about three in the morning I suppose I should not have been surprised at the – extremely Welsh – pharmacist’s reaction when he finally answered the door in his dressing gown. “TOOTHACHE? TOOTHACHE? You get me out of bed at this time of night for bloody TOOTHACHE?” But to his credit, he did give me some painkillers.

One other gig that was memorable for the wrong reasons was a Communist Party social that we were booked for, that took place in a function room above a pub, somewhere in the depths of Southall. We were not required to put on an actual show. They merely required us to provide music in the background. This meant that we had to stretch our usual set with a selection of traditional jazz tunes. Fortunately, Max had a large repertoire of these and we spent most of the evening playing in ‘cornet – guitar – washboards – jug’ format. All was going reasonably well when, towards the end of the evening, a couple arrived at the ticket table just as we were between numbers. A heated argument rapidly developed and it became apparent that the female half of the couple’s very recent ex-partner was already at the function and took great exception to his replacement being there.

In no time at all, the heated argument had escalated to an attempt by the ex-partner to throw the new partner out of the window. The next thing we knew, we were playing in the middle of a full-on bar-room brawl. Women were screaming, men were shouting, fists and feet were flying and the band was desperately peering around for an escape route. It soon became apparent that the only route other than the stairway was through the window and we did not consider this to be a reasonable option. There was only one thing for it. The great American film cliché is that the band starts to play the National Anthem and the conditioned reflexes of the crowd make them stand to attention and salute, thus affording a chance for the mob to calm down and the band to escape. But this was England not America and furthermore this was a Communist Party event. Max turned to us and said “Quick lads, ‘Maryland, my Maryland!”. It was an inspired choice. For those of you not familiar with the tune, it shares the second part of its melody with ‘The Red Flag’. The mêlée ground to a halt and we were able to escape unscathed. We never did get paid for that gig…