First Gig

How it all began…

Thursday 29th October 1981, it is early evening and I stand huddled in a small attic bathroom, together with six of my mid-teenage compadres. We are jocularly nervous as we prepare ourselves for the next 70 minutes in front of an already jeering, but friendly, invited audience. There is a drum solo at the end of the first song but unlike today, I have little or no fear about displaying my crude, raw talent. In fact, before the night is over, I will have shamelessly performed no less than three solo indulgences without a hint of reticence, or the restrictive self-awareness that will later come to plague me throughout adulthood. Later on that evening, I return home quietly ecstatic, telling my mum I have reached a milestone in my short life whilst she reluctantly patronises an ironing board in an upstairs bedroom.

Bus-Pass mugshot, photobooth, circa 1981

The horrific school bus-pass mugshot, circa 1981. The idea was to look completely ‘not arsed’ and remotely cool with long hair, green ex-army surplus combat jacket and half-snarl. It didn’t really work did it….

My journey to this watershed of musical emancipation was but a short one, starting at the most inconvenient time of my academic life when the last thing needed was a major distraction during the first year of O’Level studies. For my future band mates it was worse, being one year above me and enduring the run-up to their final exams at the high-expectation Grammar school I was deemed too unintelligent to attend. Nonetheless, my unrefined flair as a fledgling drummer raised my personal skill currency up to the echelon of very much in-demand.

It all started 7 months previous in March, when I started hanging around with my Grammar school friend Rob Heath and what I had christened as his ‘weird gang of hippies’. Studious as they were, this bedraggled bunch had discovered a way to rebel against the stuffy upper-class system they’d been sieved into, by forming their own band scene – complete with virginal groupies, mild herbal drugs and 2% proof beers. Within this creative, pubescent ecosystem, lay a labyrinth of egos, hormones, tantrums and backstabbing musical rivalries for my immature moral compass to navigate.

The apex predators at the top of this ambiguous food-chain are a band called ‘Sabre’, owning a legendary status talked about only in whispers. They have what is regarded as the cream of musicians from their school year, including guitarist Paul ‘Hawky’ Hawksworth, who is rumoured to be able to play the whole ‘Freebird’ solo, note-for-note. In fact, their USP is their seeming ability to tackle any song from the 1970s Rock music back-catalogue.  In the early months of 1981, these guys were the local school band superstars, to be held in awe by lesser mortals such as myself. The band rehearsed on Saturdays at a large house within walking distance from myself, overlooking the affluent seaside promenade of Meols. Somehow, my friend Rob got us an invite to one of their rehearsals, a subtle reconnaissance mission in the making…

Of course, this was a two-way street fuelled by rivalry. For them, it was the chance to show off to younger hopefuls, offering a frightening benchmark for have-a-go rookies to meet. For us, it was a chance to size up the opposition and play ‘spot the flaws’ up close. Having said that, many a person went to a ‘Sabre’ rehearsal with the intentions of forming a band, only to leave thinking twice about it. I scrutinised their drummer, Martin ‘Shirl’ Sherlock, as he played a Tama drum set I could only ever dream of owning in his open-handed style, complete with an expensive set of Evans Hydraulic Blue drum heads. Sure, he was good, but my youthful cockiness and infallible self-belief told me I could match what was on show. We left undeterred and inspired, Rob confident he could put a band together as good – if not better than the older Lions in the pack. We were the challengers, about to scent in their territory, and I didn’t even have a proper drum kit to do it with!

The other new Pretenders on the block came from another collective of Grammar school boys, sitting very much in the ‘Hawkwind’/’Here & Now’ Hippy-Stoner camp. They called themselves ‘Inter-Kinetic-Wardrobe’, led by flower-child Ben Hunt, and didn’t seem to have any rigid structure to their songs. Ben’s unit seemed to change its line-up like the wind, but were underpinned by the semi-permanence of at least two competent musicians, Justin Ryan and the very un-hippyish Rich Jones. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I would go on to form a 3 year rhythm section partnership with Rich and his Rickenbacker copy Bass guitar.

Every Easter school holiday, Ben would hold an ‘Inter-Kinetic Wardrobe’ gig in his attic, naming it ‘The Easter-Feaster’. It was like trying to pack in a music festival in a day, with a constant stream of people wandering in and out of a darkened, psychedelic attic room. During the 1981 holiday, Rob dragged me out to this strange affair with the intention of checking out the competition and seeing who could be coaxed/poached to join his new venture. Upon reaching the third floor of the Bohemianly decorated thin, Victorian terrace, a cacophony of semi-chromatic noise greeted us through the darkness, occasionally brightened by the flash of multi-coloured disco lights and floor lamps pointed toward the ceiling. As my eyes adjusted, I could see a few scattered couches with people draped over them and on the floor before me, a number or splayed bodies had collapsed into large bean-bags. There was smoke – lots of it – and not the stuff made by ordinary tobacco. We found ourselves a spare bean-bag each and tried settling into the surrounding quirkiness.

Whether ‘Inter-Kinetic Wardrobe’ had a set list or not became irrelevant, as one piece of music morphed into another. If it was possible to recreate a scene from the 1967 summer of love in 1981 Hoylake, then Ben Hunt had managed to achieve it, with the full backing of his parents. After whatever was deemed to be the final song of an open-ended set, the highlight ritual of ‘Easter-Feaster’ was performed – the distribution of lots of tiny Easter eggs to the surviving audience. I viewed this as small recompense for suffering hearing damage and the strangely soporific effect of inhaling second-hand Cannabis smoke. Having seen the best of the local competition, it was time to deliver the plan Rob had been surreptitiously formulating.

Gareth 'Gaz' Hill, rehearsing, 1981

Singer/Songwriter Gareth ‘Gaz’ Hill, circa 1981 at one of our after-school rehearsals at 3 Devonshire Road, West Kirby. Barely visible in the background, my first drum kit, a Maxwin ‘Funky’ outfit! Gaz’s guitar is a quite tasty Eko acoustic with a pickup attached to the sound-hole, possibly the best quality instrument in the room!

Despite me being sans-drum set, I find myself as Rob’s first choice for drummer; he on the other hand, has already acquired some basic guitar equipment – a Kay branded Fender Stratocaster copy guitar that won’t stay in tune, an ancient Marshall 100 watt combo amp plus a volatile ‘Little Big Muff’ distortion pedal. The Kay guitar refuses to remain harmonious  for more than one song and the horrible little effects pedal has a life of its own, its cheap circuitry unable to deliver any other volume number less than ten. When Rob stamps the silver footswitch, everybody knows about it. A fellow schoolmate of Rob’s, Gareth ‘Gaz’ Hill, joins us on a fairly expensive semi-acoustic guitar and vocals. Gaz, like Rob, also writes his own songs so the pair naturally evolve into a songwriting team and pen schoolboy epics together, one memorably titled ‘Plato’s Cave’, affectionately renamed as ‘Plato’s Hole’ at a later date when their creative partnership begins to turn sour. These are early, innocent days and the mood is still cohesive as we try to make a full line-up. At this point, I completely fail to understand the concept of a ‘rhythm section’ and am ignorant of the fact that we need a Bass player. Luckily, my older band mates are a few steps ahead of the game, already recruiting another of their school friends for the job, John Cross, AKA ‘Hunky Cross’, due to his large, muscular physical build. Unfortunately, Hunky’s skills on the four strings aren’t really up to much, but he owns an echo unit and a couple of stage monitors so is deemed ‘useful’.

No self-respecting schoolboy Prog-Rock band would be complete without a keyboard player, so yet another Grammar school recruit is encouraged to join our promising supergroup. My Secondary-Modern school rabble of 11+ failures are thin on the ground when it comes to creative music types, so any recruitment drive is forced to return to base by default. Steve Montgomery is pretty cool for a local middle-class Hippy; he already scores highly for having great hair and a nice looking Hippy-chick girlfriend from my school. He hangs on the outer fringes of the Ben Hunt/’Inter Kinetic Wardrobe’ stoner scene but is not yet involved in their musical collective. This is because like me, he is yet to own his instrument of choice; although he plays piano, he doesn’t have an electric keyboard of any description, but reliably informs us that he is in the process of building a synth. Nevertheless, we finally have a full line-up and although not completely kitted out with all the gear needed to function properly, are eager to rehearse.

Sometime during March 1981, our new troupe gathered at Hunky Cross’ house in Greasby for a makeshift rehearsal. Despite my lack of a drum set and a keyboard player without keyboard, we somehow battled our way through an enthusiastic version of Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ for most of the day. As far as I can remember, my contribution was drumming out beats with my Premier ‘E’ model drumsticks on the padded top of one of the host’s kitchen stools. For schoolboy  egocentric reasons, this event was recorded onto cassette tape and is rumoured to still be lurking within the archives of the unidentified wannabe sound engineer who turned up with the other spectators that day. Such was the buzz on the street about our new ‘super group’, a first rehearsal captured on tape could either be used as a potential warning to our rivals, or an easily shared source for ridicule. Despite our lack of equipment, whatever noise we made as a unit was impressive enough to fuel the rumour-mill that these new kids on the block had form.

Saturday 11th April 1981, a monumental date in my life, the day I got my first real drum kit. After years of pestering, my mum finally took the hint that this drumming thing wasn’t going to go away. A deal was struck and as long as I agreed that it would be a joint early birthday/Christmas present, she would buy me a drum set. I couldn’t leave the house fast enough and we made our way to further regions of Wallasey by bus. FB Percussion was the archetypal Aladdin’s cave for a schoolboy drummer. The awkward trek involving changing buses followed by a long walk into unfamiliar streets was worth every second of inconvenience. Run by the late Frank Bielecki, it had more delights packed into its floor space than my excitement could comprehend, including the very Staccato drum kit used by local band, ‘Access To Data’, at the recent Radio City ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition I had attended. As I stood in awe at being up close to its weirdly shaped white fibreglass shells, Frank entered into gentle salesman mode, neither too pushy nor condescending. With a thick mop of dark curly hair and close beard, he transmitted an air of mid 1970s muso-cool, as though he could have been a member of ‘10cc’ or similar. Instinctively, I put my complete trust in him to lead my mother’s chequebook in the right direction.

Maxwin 'Funky' Drum Kit

The Maxwin (By Pearl) ‘Funky’ drum kit – my first set of drums, except mine was in a silver wrap. Compared to the price and quality offered at the time, you kids have got it far too good today!

This was way before the Chinese budget percussion manufacturing revolution had started leaving scant choice for consumers on meagre funds. However, Frank sold me the idea of owning a Pearl made drum kit by introducing me to the ‘Maxwin’ brand he had sitting on the shop floor. A 5-piece ‘Concert Tom’ outfit (read as no bottom heads = cheaper price-point) in a fetching silver plastic wrap with cymbal stands (but without cymbals) became his soft sell. At the £250 asking price it was within scope, but seeing as I already owned a 1960s ‘Olympic’ Hi-Hat stand with a pair of awful ‘KRUT’ branded cymbals, a reduction of £25 was made.

At long last, the dream of owning my first real drum kit became a reality on an April Saturday afternoon in 1981. To say I was ecstatic would be an understatement; when Frank delivered my acquisition that early evening, I couldn’t get the lightweight shells up the stairs to my bedroom fast enough. The frustration was, our terraced house was flanked by neighbours and being after 6pm, there was zero chance of me introducing my new acquisition to the neighbourhood. Having set the kit up, adding the few extra ‘Zyn’ cymbals I’d managed to beg and borrow from benefactors (whose identities remain obscured by the mists of time to this day), I sat in awe on my bedroom floor, staring up at the shiny new mass of cheaply manufactured Taiwanese plywood, plastic and metal. I had arrived, the keys to my destiny were here, right now and like an athlete on the starting blocks, I was poised to start the race of my life.

Unfortunately, being the only person in Ferndale Road Hoylake to own a drum set, the anti-social aspect of being a drummer was soon made clear to me via the introduction of homemade cardboard drum silencers and the unwillingness of any of my band mate’s parents to host future band practice’s. Word had got around that I owned a drum set escalating the fear- factor amongst parents, terrified they might be asked to host a neighbour unfriendly noise-fest at any moment. Now there was a real set of drums involved, everything went up a notch in terms of both seriousness and volume, making me an anti-social pariah overnight. Another rehearsal was set for Friday 24th April, this time at Rob’s house, a large three-storey semi located less than a mile from me, at 122 Birkenhead Road within the outer limits of Meols. Despite fraught negotiations between Rob and his parents, my barely two week old drum kit was forbidden to enter the house for this event, forcing me to resort to a similar surrogate percussion option as employed at our previous rehearsal.

Maybe it was the post-rehearsal disappointment kicking in, but our band suffered its first departures following that ill-fated get-together, with both ‘Hunky’ Cross and Steve Montgomery bailing out. Cross gave the unrealistic excuse of wanting to concentrate on his studies whilst Montgomery jumped ship to Ben Hunt’s ‘Inter Kinetic Wardrobe’ collective who were clearly move in tune with his Hippy sensibilities. Down on our ‘supergroup’ headcount, we started the search for replacements, knowing that our choices were limited. Unusually, I managed to attract the attention of one of my schoolmates, Roy Duddleston, who reported that he could play both Bass and guitar! As I had permission to make some noise with my drums in my bedroom, I set up an audition time for Saturday 2nd May at my house involving just myself, Rob and Roy. Things seemed to go well and Roy filled the vacant position of Bass player. Meanwhile, another Calday Grammar school boy was being recruited for the keyboard player job; Martin ‘Yozzer’ Hughes had a decent Casio Keyboard, plus some rich parents with a large detached house in Caldy making for an ideal future rehearsal venue.

With new recruits on board and back to a 5-piece lineup, we were eager to make some noise; but the Grammar school contingent being one school year ahead of me and on the cusp of taking their final exams meant they were under a lot of collective parental pressure not to flunk. Much to my disappointment, we had to cool things down until all parents were suitably convinced exam revision wasn’t being neglected; maybe ‘Hunky’ Cross had been telling the truth after all?

During the exam period Roy suffered a setback when his amp suddenly stopped working, dampening his enthusiasm in the process as he didn’t have the funds to get it repaired. Money was tight for us all back then (even for the allegedly ‘Middle-Class’ kids) so all musical equipment was usually hard-won and cherished. While Roy was wondering how he was going to get his amp repaired, a considerably flusher Rob had saved up £10.00 to purchase a used ‘Cry Baby’ Wah-Wah pedal which he couldn’t wait to try out at rehearsals. Tuesday 23 June was a beautifully warm day, laid to waste by the annoyance of it being my school’s loathsome ‘sports day’. Wanting no part of this futile activity, I managed to feign illness and sneaked myself off to FB Percussion on a foraging expedition, returning home victorious with a free piece of skipware. My pitiful acquisition destined for the scrap yard was an old ‘Zilket’ 20” Ride cymbal, complete with dents, buckled edges but most surprisingly, no cracks. Frank, recognising me as the impoverished schoolboy customer who bought the ‘Maxwin’ drum kit earlier in April, decided that his cast-off would be better living out a recycled life in my Hoylake bedroom than dumped in local landfill. At last, I owned a cymbal larger than 15” diameter.

Invoking our ‘friends with benefits’ band policy, a noise-unlimited rehearsal was arranged to happen at our new keyboard player’s residence, a large, modern house in one of the most affluent areas of West Wirral. This was anticipated to be a monumental occasion and as such, our collective teenage egos got the better of us. A few days before the rehearsal, we attended a party at the house of one of our friends and future ‘roadies’, Steve Home. Living on the only remaining farm in Hoylake, Steve possessed the luxury of some huge barn space, ideal for teenage soirees and unbeknown to him, future band rehearsals. As we drank ourselves into action within his renovated barn walls, we bragged and boasted to the other partygoers about our impending rehearsal, lauding to our captive audience about what a great event it would be. As if our obnoxious bravado wasn’t enough, we also made sure everyone knew about our latest, most pompous band name, ‘After The Harvest’. If a guide to teenage pretentiousness needed to be written, we would have made both model subjects and authors.

Image of 'Kensington', 26 Croft Drive East, Caldy, Wirral

The almost palatial ‘Kensington’ at Croft Drive East in Caldy; home to Keyboard player, Martin ‘Yozzer’ Hughes and host venue to a number of rehearsals and crazy parties masquerading as ‘social evenings’ between 1981-83.

Saturday 11th July; Rob arrived with his mum for my 9:30 morning pickup. Being a car-less household, it was necessary for me to rely on the sympathy and generosity of  my fellow band member’s parents to facilitate the transportation of my drums to the home of whoever had drawn the short straw. Mart Hughes’ seemingly palatial abode stood at Croft Drive East in the affluent Caldy area, populated by company directors and self-made millionaires. It would be a few years before the footballing hoi polloi would join the ranks of the Caldy elite and ultimately, exceed the wealth of their old-money neighbours. Although he officially lived at number 26, Mart  advised us to look out for the house name on the gatepost, ‘Kensington’, as a positive means of identification. It was to be my first time visiting a house in the poshest part of my locality and despite having an educated, professional Mother, there was no denying the feeling of instant inferiority.

Mart’s parents had wisely vacated the premises for the day, not before leaving a large, hospitable pan of Bolognese sauce for our hungry teenage bellies to devour later. As I carried my drums into the house, Mart directed me to possibly the largest lounge room I had ever seen, complete the Grand piano, luxurious pale grey carpet and a huge set of patio doors leading onto a seemingly endless garden. Despite spacious proportions, we had to remove a sofa away from the patio doors to accommodate my drums, a touch of Feng Shui that would play to our advantage later on…

One-by-one, people began to arrive and set up their gear while Mart provided non-alcoholic drinks and constant instruction about keeping cups on coasters, wiping our feet if we came in from the garden, not placing anything on the Grand piano and not to touch any of the ornaments. Clearly, he had a lot riding on this rehearsal passing damage free in order for the process to be repeated in the future. Gaz arrived, took a quick reccy of the decor before quietly declaring to me in the hallway, “two bathrooms, we’re really in the middle class area now!” Mysteriously and without warning, Bass player Roy failed to materialise, no doubt due to the shame of not being able to get his amp fixed. However, there were three extras in the room whom I had not anticipated being there, all members of another band we didn’t consider to be a threat to our fantasy superiority. Considering the amount of boasting we’d done leading up to this ‘event’, it was reasonable to expect at least somebody to come and bear witness to our self-perceived greatness.

Will Stephenson I already knew as a school friend of Rob’s and also as a Bass player, owning both Bass guitar and a working Bass stack but for reasons unknown, had turned up to watch with his Bass guitar. Chris ‘CJ’ Mason (commonly referred to as ‘Siege’) was keyboard player with the visiting band, a studious, quiet type, also in the process of building his own keyboard. Will Hudson (AKA ‘Chaz’) was their singer/sound engineer, owning a half decent tape recorder plus microphones, also conveniently present in the room.

Seeing our dilemma and being equipped to help us, Will agreed to stand in on Bass on a ‘session basis’ while Chaz recorded the proceedings. Chris sat quietly absorbing the loose cacophony of our self-penned songs, including titles such as ‘Riot Song 81’, ‘I’ve Got That Feeling’, ‘I’ve Only The Night’, ‘No Fear Of Dying’ and a parody song ‘Highway’, written intentionally to mock rival Rockers, ‘Sabre’.

Making a break for lunch, we headed for Mart’s equally spacious, modern kitchen to prepare Spaghetti Bolognese for 8 people, forgetting that Bass player Roy was absent. With an extra plate of lunch left over, so the foundations were laid to build my reputation as the ultimate food-bin drummer. Some say that not only did I demolish 2 portions of Spaghetti Bolognese, but there are claims of an incident taking place not normally associated with Caldy household etiquette of the early 1980s. It is alleged, still to this day, that I brazenly applied my tongue to both plates and licked them clean, just as a starving animal would. As to whether or not this final crude display of culinary appreciation actually took place, I could not possibly comment…

We played on until late afternoon, stripping our gear down in time for the pre-arranged parental taxi services home. Much to Mart’s delight, nothing in his parents showroom lounge had been scratched, damaged, saturated or soiled; until the removal of my drum kit revealed the only casualty of the day. This being my first foray in drum kit ownership, it was far too early for me to have learnt about the benefits of having a marked stage carpet as an essential part of my setup. However, I had been passed on the valuable old drummer’s tip about keeping one’s Bass drum pedal permanently oiled and greased, so to avoid nasty squeaks during performance. This advice I had heeded to rather enthusiastically, keeping my cheap and squeaky pedal dripping with my mum’s old tin of ‘3-in-1’ brand oil. Thus, upon removal of my drums, the indelible mark of my day’s enthusiastic raw footwork on the Hughes’ unprotected deep-pile weave was revealed as a permanent, pedal-shaped, oil print. Following a brief period of panic and failed cleaning attempts, we realised that my drummer’s calling card would actually be concealed by the sofa we had removed earlier. As long as the seating arrangements didn’t change, we banked on our accident going unnoticed, at least until Mart left home for his expected university place.

Sometime during the closing moments of the day, it was decided that our coincidental visiting spectators Will, Chris and Chaz, would join us as full-time band members; ‘After The Harvest’ were officially a 7-piece. In a diary entry made that evening, I declared the days proceedings as “Excellent, the best yet!” So began our opening manoeuvre into a Walter Mitty world of schoolboy musical domination.

Wednesday 22nd July 1981 couldn’t come soon enough, five days before my birthday and the day our schools shut for the summer. Unfortunately, any hopes of an immediate flurry into musical activity were scuppered as my fellow band-mates were individually dragged away on family holidays. I was no different, escaping to the Isle of Man, meaning we could not reconvene rehearsals until mid August. In the meantime, the recording Chaz had made of our game-changing rehearsal had been doing the rounds amongst friends and gathering good feedback. When everybody got back, we decided that our new line-up deserved a name change, so ‘After The Harvest’ became ‘Swift’.

Our expanded headcount brought with it extra rehearsal venue opportunities, notably the beautiful Edwardian/Victorian? three-storey semi-detached house Chaz Hudson lived in with his gracefully accommodating Dad and siblings, plus a perky little Jack Russell dog. Number 3 Devonshire Road West Kirby contained a warm atmosphere within its walls, despite the recent bereavement that had befallen its inhabitants. Unbeknown to me, Chaz and myself already shared a mutual connection between our Mothers, both being colleague teachers at my school. Having only just emerged from the misogynistic quagmire of 1970s Britain, most work environments were still stuck in reverse gear as far as gender equality was concerned. Men who came from traditional, British, pre-war backgrounds, found it near impossible to accept female employees at an equal professional level, preferring to grasp onto a crumbling two-tier society where women were only ever regarded as Mothers and homemakers. Naturally, any women forced to walk amongst workplace dinosaurs gravitated into their own protective cocoon within the safe harbour of other female kindred spirits. Both my Mum, Mrs Hudson and the other female teachers suffered the same discrimination and thus, often shared each others company during staff break times. Strong bonds of solidarity were forged amongst these women and a common sisterhood emerged to run gauntlet against the omnipresent wave of persistent, dominating chauvinism.

Unfortunately, not long before Chaz entered into our band circle, his mother had tragically died after a battle with Cancer. My Mum and the other female staff took this hard, all very upset, having lost somebody who was described to me as a lovely, warm, gentle person and popular teacher. It is only now, many years later, I can begin to appreciate the severity of personal grief Chaz must have been enduring when he entered our self-centered musical world. Maybe it was therapy for him, a diversion from reality, but he never let his personal loss stop him from moving forward at what must have been a most difficult time in his young life.

Chaz’s Dad was another warm hearted soul, a tall man with an unmistakeable soft Northern Irish accent and a Jack Russell he affectionately called ‘Bootsy’ at his side. Although I knew they had lost their matriarch, I was completely clueless about how a family grieves after such a tragic bereavement. Maybe the prospect of having his house regularly full with the lively activity of young people seemed more appealing than grieving in daily silence; but whatever the reason, Chaz’s Dad agreed to allow his son’s new band to rehearse in their spacious home.

3 Devonshire Road, West Kirby

Number 3, Devonshire Road, West Kirby, AKA ‘Woodfold’. Many memories were created behind the top-left attic window.

Monday 17th August, 1981; our first rehearsal as ‘Swift’ takes place at ‘Woodfold’ – the original grandiose name given to the house sitting at number 3 Devonshire Road – after Chaz manages to wangle the use of his large downstairs dining room to accommodate our musical invasion. The ceilings in this old house are high, matching their spacious rooms, enabling us to set up with very little furniture movement and utilise the large upright piano sitting against a dividing wall. Furthermore, the room is isolated from the neighbouring house so we can be fairly uninhibited with our noise making. The Jack Russell ‘Bootsy’ makes the mistake of wandering in to observe us, no doubt protected from our racket by the onset of senior  canine deafness. Unwittingly, our wiry haired investigator finds himself the subject of discussion as we assess his potential as a natural sound-effects generator. It has been decided to record a song at this rehearsal, a childish parody we knocked together to poke fun at local rivals ‘Sabre’. Our self-penned three-chord dirge is called ‘Highway’ and to go the extra mile, we decide it needs a roaring motorcycle engine effect for a dramatic intro. But we have a small problem; there isn’t a motorbike on the premises so we need to get creative to find an alternative noise provider. Chaz suggests that with some gentle persuasion, ‘Bootsy’ the dog will be able to provide the sound we are looking for. As the record button is pressed, Chaz gently lifts the little dog off the ground, suspending him securely in front of the microphone. On perfect cue, the disgruntled animal starts to emit a low, guttural growl, in a manner not too dissimilar to a revving motorbike engine; we have our song intro. Naturally, we find our inventive solution hilarious, unlike the poor little dog who trots out of the room in disgust and straight back to the feet of his Master. We rehearse there again three days later but this time, our canine friend gives us a wide berth,

Grasping every opportunity, we manage another rehearsal at Mart’s house on Monday 24th August; this time, I bring a piece of carpet to prevent a repeat of last time’s yet to be discovered oil slick. The stationary sofa has concealed my earlier mistake and number 26 Croft Drive East is cleared for a return visit from the great unwashed.

Before our summer is over, Chaz plays a trump card with his Dad and asks if we can employ their unused third floor attic as a permanent rehearsal space. Mr Hudson agrees in principle, as long as we keep the noise down, meaning some careful consideration must be given to ad-hoc soundproofing. Excited with the prospect of having our own dedicated rehearsal space, we set to work with much enthusiasm.

View of Welsh Hills from Devonshire Road, West Kirby

Attic rehearsal-room view from Devonshire Road. It was shame to block this off, but at least I got a photo before the matresses went up.

Chaz’s attic is reached by a narrow set of stairs from a second floor landing. It contains two small bedrooms and a long room that runs the length of the house with its own en-suite bathroom. This being the largest space, becomes the object of our furtive attempts at schoolboy soundproofing techniques. We plunder the mattresses and blankets from the neighbouring bedrooms and block up the large front window, concealing the beautiful view over the River Dee to the Welsh hills. It is a shame to block out an iconic Wirral view, but we figure this glass gateway is the biggest threat to our noise escaping to the reserved Devonshire Road residents. Satisfied with our efforts, we test out the attic’s sound retention capabilities on Monday 7th September, our final rehearsal on the eve of a new school year.

After settling into the Autumn term, we have our final rehearsal at Rob’s house on Sunday 11th October, before moving into our new permanent base in Chaz’s attic. During the Summer we learn of new competition in the form of ‘Bad Gamble’, another product of the Calday Grammar school band scene. Their line-up are all known to us, Martin Harvey (vocals), Will Shand (Guitar, also the son of my physics teacher!), Steve Black (Bass Guitar) and Graham Mates (Drums). They are rumoured to play Heavy Rock in a way that threatens to topple the untouchable ‘Sabre’ from their throne. However, we remain unimpressed and egocentrically dismiss them as “just another Heavy Metal band” in contrast to our superior belief that we are Wirral’s answer to Genesis.

Ring O'Bells pub, West Kirby

The old Ring O’Bells pub, West Kirby, host of many post-rehearsal attempts at underage drinking – apart from myself who always stuck to Orange juice!

Friday 16th October, we start rehearsing in earnest at Chaz’s house, deciding Friday nights and Sunday afternoons will be our dedicated rehearsal schedule; surely, none of our contemporaries can hit the same level of professionalism? This particular rehearsal coincides with Rob’s 16th birthday so we decide to try our luck at the local pub, ‘The Ring O’Bells’, an early 19th Century hostelry within 2 minutes walk. Rob is now the oldest amongst us, complete with some very convincing facial hair for his meagre years. In comparison, we are all fresh-faced 15 year olds with varying degrees of youthful looks and it is only Rob and Gaz who successfully sup on beer, whilst the rest of us surreptitiously nurse soft-drinks.

So begins our new Friday night ritual for the coming Winter months; I will catch a six o’clock bus bound for West Kirby, usually picking up my rhythm section partner at the next bus-stop. Alighting at the centre of West Kirby opposite the nefarious Dee Hotel pub, we quickly dash for the cover of Westbourne Road, wary that our long hair makes us an inviting target for the snarling, bristle-bonced thugs lurking in the shadows of the pub doorway. After making a shortcut across the tranquil and hopefully thug-free Ashton Park, we make the final leg of our dusklight journey past the allegedly Vampire inhabited St. Bridget’s graveyard, finally passing ‘The Ring O’Bells’ pub before turning into the safe harbour of Devonshire Road. Local bloodsucking folklore aside, it is the more the thought of what harm the living can do to us that quickens our pace on these bleak Autumnal evenings.

St Bridget's Church Yard, West Kirby

St Bridget’s Church, West Kirby 1982. There was an urban myth doing the rounds in the early 80s claiming that the graveyard had a resident Vampire! Always made you quicken your step walking past it on a dark Winter night, no matter how absurd the suggestion…

Our 7-piece is an unusually disciplined unit and we rehearse solidly from 6:30pm, breaking off at around 8 to find something to eat. With safety in numbers and bolstered by Chaz’s tall stocky frame, we can afford to swagger fearlessly into West Kirby where we visit the ‘Golden Sunrise’ Fish & Chips emporium for our weekly dose of unhealthy eating. Our walk past the ‘Vampire’ graveyard is done with  complete irreverence, all fears of the mythical undead quashed by our bullish attitude. Eventually, the alluring  smell of Friday night frying guides us into Banks Road for what usually turns out to be a case of deception by aromatherapy. My habitually unadventurous gastric autopilot homes in on a near unpalatable meat & potato pie with chips and sugar-laden fizzy drink. If it is possible to embody the experience of disappointment in a silver-foil tray, the average fast-food outlet meat & potato pie circa 1981 captures the moment of dismay to perfection. Beneath a thick layer of dry, unappetising pastry, a meagre dollop of what looks and smells like steaming dog food awaits the unfortunate diner before making its inevitable flight of rejection into the nearest bin. Thankfully, all is not lost as basic compensation can be sought from the reliably tasty chips flanking the disaster in pastry. At this point, I find myself appreciating my regular Hoylake chip-shop, ‘Nick’s’, run by a family of warmhearted Greek Cypriots whose children have all enjoyed their time in my Mum’s Art classes. I deduce that namesake owner Nick, must source his pies from a different supplier to the ‘Golden Sunrise’ though not even Nick’s superior meat products will prevent me from turning vegetarian in 3 years time.

None of us ever seem to be particularly enamoured with our Friday night food, hence the sporadic breakout of chip-fights that usually occur during the walk back to Devonshire Road. Hostilities begin around the Ashton Park leg of the journey on a dimly lit field of battle, where our collective visual impairment challenges the accuracy of our potato trajectories. It’s all good juvenile fun and being well-bred boys, we dispose of our empty chip papers in the park bins, leaving our spent missiles as an unexpected smorgasbord for the local Rat population. By 8:45 we are back in the attic to rehearse, making sure we don’t break our 10 o’clock noise curfew after which, we will continue to try our underage luck at ‘The Ring O Bells’. 99% of the time we play it safe and leave the hard stuff to those of us with a more generous spread of facial hair, only ever being refused service just the once when the barman deemed our porcelain complexioned Bass player too much of an obvious risk during a brief period of Police raids. This isolated incident doesn’t put us off and we resume our après-rehearsal pub ritual once the local heat has died down. Being long before the advent of 24 hour licensing laws, last orders are called at 10:30 and by 11:00, we are saying our goodbyes for the journey’s home. Gaz and Chris are eager to catch the few remaining chances of Heswall bound buses, Mart can easily walk back to the affluent Caldy borderlands but myself, Rob and Will have to venture back into a potentially thug-ridden West Kirby.

Occasionally – but not by design – we will find ourselves in time to catch the last Crosville C22 bus making its final evening stop at the top of Grange Road by the old Mariner’s Beacon. If we are too late, then we must walk into the town centre and risk a kicking. Even though we are three in number, none of us are adept in Bruce Lee style moves and the local Skinhead gangs already know our type are easy late night pickings. Chaz on the other hand, being of a larger build, displaying a more normal haircut and dress sense, isn’t afraid of what might be waiting in the shadows. When we miss the C22, he will escort us back through Ashton Park into West Kirby and see us onto the train. If we want to see out our teenage years without broken noses, waiting for a bus outside The Dee Hotel is simply not an option. As Chaz leaves the station to make his solitary walk home, I often worry if he will make it back without being jumped. The reality is however, the ranks of these pseudo boot-boy wolf-packs are mostly lined by cowards who think better of trying to take somebody down who looks as though he might actually be able to defend himself. Chaz returns home, unscathed.

Our Sunday afternoon rehearsals offer a much lower-risk journey than Friday nights, nor is there a dare-to-get-served pub opportunity to look forward to after we finish. A respectable English Sunday demands no noise before at least 1pm, so we have to wait until the last pages of the late breakfast broadsheets have been turned and the lazy dregs of all suburban teapot’s have drained before we even think about tuning a guitar. Rehearsals go on into the late afternoon but there are no fast-food shops open, so we curb our hunger during breaks by raiding Chaz’s biscuit supply. Plain McVities Digestives and pink wafer biscuits are consumed with copious amounts of Co-op instant coffee, not the finest bean, but enough to gently draw me into what will eventually become a lifelong addiction to quality filter coffee.

It doesn’t take us more than a couple of rehearsals at Chaz’s to realise our band is sounding the strongest it’s ever been, especially with Chaz now doing vocals virtually full time. We hatch a plan to unveil ourselves to our waiting public by putting on a performance in our attic retreat for the benefit of a select group of friends. This performance or as we deem it, ‘giglet’, is set to take place in the early evening of Thursday 29th October, only a few short days away. Thankfully, the date also coincides with our half-term week holiday, allowing us the freedom to go the extra mile on rehearsals.

Friday 23rd October, the day we break up for the holidays, rounded off by another Friday night rehearsal. During the breaks, we discuss a new name for the band and by the time we set off for our usual sojourn into under-age drinking, ‘Swift’ have become ‘Tomorrow’.

Monday 26th October, so begins our frantic rehearsal schedule against Thursday’s deadline; although we are  collectively apprehensive about it being our first gig, this doesn’t stop us from attending a party that evening in the barn of our number one ‘roadie’, Steve Home. Once again, we use the occasion to brag about our forthcoming gig and offer personal invites to party goers who appear potentiaIy sympathetic to massaging our ego’s.

Rehearsals resume promptly on Tuesday and we go at it hell-for-leather, terrified our reputations will be torn to shreds should we perform anything less than outstanding. So engrossed with the challenge, we even decide to sleep over on the Tuesday and Wednesday nights, making sure we wake fresh for the gig. However, thanks to the onslaught of six extra digestive systems, a full night’s sleep for myself and Chaz is not on the cards for Wednesday…

While the others are ensconced in their makeshift beds, my bladder sends me an irritating wakeup call that cannot be ignored; no problem, two minutes interruption and I’ll be back counting sheep. But there’s a slight problem with the toilet – it won’t flush properly or to be more precise, there’s something already obstructing the U-Bend that’s not for moving. Trying to be helpful, I give it two more flushes but every time the cistern empties its payload, the toilet bowl fills alarmingly close to capacity before receding. The multiple flushing activity wakes Chaz who strolls down to investigate; as he appears in the doorway, I bluntly give him my diagnosis of the problem;

Someone’s laid a log!

After clearing my name from the suspect list, we go about deducing who the culprit might be and then attempt to get rid of their unsavoury evidence. Figuring that his Dad won’t be too impressed if a plumber has to be called out, we employ our limited methods of arm’s-length turd removal.

Neither of us wants to go poking around the blockage, so we opt for forcible expulsion by water involving the repeated discharge of large bucket-fulls into the toilet bowl. Putting our blind faith in physics to dislodge the monster, it is clear after several attempts our brute-force method is futile. A mixture of failure and disbelief injects a large amount of hilarity into the situation and we struggle to keep the noise of our laughter from waking the household. In a final desperate bid to defeat the hidden Dragon, Chaz bravely decides to joust the beast with a toilet brush; but our prey is safely hidden beyond the recesses of the pipework where inflexible plastic and nylon bristles cannot penetrate. At what must be around 2am, we give up the physical assault and decide on a different approach when daylight comes. Recalling my past miserable camping experiences, I suggest we try and obtain a bottle of Portaloo liquid, renowned for its ability to dissolve stationary sewage into a disposable chemical form. Luckily, there is a camping shop opposite our Friday night chippy so we retire to our beds with optimistic hopes of finishing the job.

Thursday 29th October – the day of the gig. Having amused the rest of the band with our nocturnal exploits, we hold a brief band inquiry into the source of the blockage, pinning the crime onto one of our compadres who denies all knowledge! In truth, it is impossible to nail the identity of the suspect, but there is much fun to be had playing detective. With time pressing, we saunter into West Kirby to visit ‘The Outrigger’ camping equipment shop in pursuit of a bottle of the strange blue liquid that dissolves toilet bowl undesirables. God knows what the female shop-assistant thought at the sight of seven unfashionably dressed teenage lads walking through the door, but she remained calm and composed whilst I made my opening salvo as elected spokesperson;

Have you got any of that blue liquid chemical that goes down camping toilets?

During the pause before her reply, an impish voice from the back mumbles informatively that we have a blocked toilet. Now struggling to keep her composure, the hapless assistant manages to deliver a straight-faced reply explaining she knows what we need, but doesn’t have it in stock. As we turn and make our exit, Gaz decides he will have the last barely audible quip by exclaiming, “oh no, I’m dying for a shit!” sending us into freefall laughter as we stumble out of the shop. Not looking where he is putting his feet, Gaz fails to see a perfectly placed lump of dog poop outside the shop front and as if written for a Laurel & Hardy script, lands one of his Dunlop Green Flash Tennis shoes into the soft mess! In my own fit of hysterics, I turn and glimpse inside the shop window to catch the shop assistant’s face contorted with unmistakable laughter. She has been witness to the whole debacle and can no longer hold back her reaction to the comedic behaviour of the seven young fools. Gathering our composure, we return back to Chaz’s and find the toilet has magically unblocked itself, much to the relief of Chaz who wanted to keep the whole scenario quiet from his Dad.

With only hours to go before the arrival of our invited audience, we make good use of the afternoon rehearsal time, tightening our set to the maximum level our collective musical abilities can muster. As the Autumn sun sinks behind the Welsh hills, our adrenaline levels rise in opposite parallels, anticipating the imminent arrival of our peer of Judges. The doorbell rings its repeated tune for the condemned, as each spectator is ushered upstairs and seated in front of our fairly impressive backline. If there wasn’t already enough pressure, Chaz has turned the thumbscrews down another notch with the visual presence of his tape recorder, silently threatening to capture every nuance of our impending debut.

The time to prove ourselves is only minutes away, so we force ourselves up the stairs to our final stopping place before the big reveal. The tiny attic bathroom will be our makeshift dressing room and as I dive for cover within its temporary refuge, I catch a glimpse of our pseudo-gig venue looking surprisingly full of people. There can’t be more than ten or twenty in there, but it’s enough to kick-start the rapidly multiplying nerves that will fuel me through what is to be my first public performance. We cram ourselves into the confined space and close the door behind us, shutting out the noise on the other side which is getting louder. Our audience are becoming more impatient, taking every opportunity to rattle our nerves with jeers of “get on with it” and even the age-old festival cry of “Wally!” making an appearance. With the inclusion of an antagonistic, slow handclap added to the mix, we realise we can’t hide in the toilet forever.

Feeling like a death-row prisoner preparing for his final walk to the gallows, it dawns on me that this is exactly what my musical heroes must feel like when they are waiting in the wings; but instead of assuming my usual role of spectator, I have made the leap over to their side of the fence. In a moment, my fear turns to excitement, but before there’s time to ponder any further, somebody thinks out aloud on behalf of us all:

Shall we do it then?

The bathroom door opens and we enter into a semi-ambience of murky coloured lamplight, the near darkness almost concealing us from the scathing eyes of seated mockers. We walk in single file past their verbal ridicule, almost like a procession to a Tyburn tree of our own making. For me, there is safety to be found within the half-light behind my drum kit whilst the others must stand their ground and take up the front line defences. But we are well rehearsed and exude an air of confidence that rises above the barrage of incoming jocular flak. The past few months of dedicated time we have shared together creating music are at last, about to come to fruition. From within the dimly lit alcove embracing my drum kit, I fumble about to locate the square-topped kitchen stool employed as a temporary Drum Throne and seat myself into what will become, the first day of the rest of my life.

2 thoughts on “First Gig

  1. Performance seems the tip of an iceberg. I wanted to know how you were received. And what happened next…
    I have pondered the verve of youth, too. I don’t think of it as confidence so much as focus: myopic and close up.

  2. To be perfectly honest, the actual gig itself is the most forgettable experience, a group of songs stitched together by musicians into an extended piece of time nobody on the stage will ever remember. In my 30+ years of performing, I can’t remember the actual playing of a single gig, bar the memories of the venues, the stages, the characters met on the road, the physical performance is all a blur. Post-gig you know you’ve either played well and redeemed yourself, or you need to up your game the next time. Even the video footage I’ve seen of myself playing, I can never actually remember the moment on stage, even though I can see the recording of me doing it!

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