On the 12th of March 1971, my younger brother John made his first public appearance. It was at The Royal King's Arms, Lancaster. He was seventeen and playing bass and singing in the hastily cobbled together Chalk Farm. The gig was a dance in the hotel's ballroom for the art school John attended.Lancaster College of Art was The Storey Institute, just opposite the front entrance of The King's Arms on Meeting House Lane. He'd managed to get himself elected as ‘Entertainment Secretary' amongst his fellow students after pointing out there wasn't one, and why shouldn't the art school have rock concerts like the university did?
The first thing John did in this new role was come up with the name Chalk Farm, which was the location of the Round House in London, and then book Chalk Farm for a ‘Spring Twist'. I got roped in on guitar and asked Derek Fitzpatrick, the wild Irish drummer who I'd played with when I was in The Mind Machine, to play drums. His brother Gerald agreed to roadie with The Mind Machine's two ton ex - post office van and all their gear. At this point, John didn't even have his own amplifier! One of John's friends at art school, Allen Harper, printed some posters and another David Ferrington took some promotion photos in Morecambe with a borrowed art school camera; at a fairground, at the Pier, and my favourite; lighting up cigs in the Clock Tower on the promenade. John produced some great silk screen prints in a variety of colours of the Pier photo. All we needed were some numbers!
From then on, John always seemed to be skiving off art school and coming round my attic flat on Regent St. first thing Monday mornings knocking me up. I'd hear banging on the door and open my attic window. At this time I was playing mainly in Liverpool for an agent called Billy Scott, Top Class in Newcastle and Beverly Artistes in South Shields, for a professional cabaret group called ‘Three New Pence' with Tony Crane on bass and harmonies. We didn't play in Lancaster. Usually we went away for the weekend and returned very late Sunday night. Although I'd only been in bed two or three hours, I'd get up and open the window.
John would be standing on the pavement in the cold, clutching the home made Telecaster bass my friend Tony Crane had sold him and waiting for me to throw down the key. We soon sorted out enough material to cover the approaching gig. I still have a tape of John and me practicing for that gig we made in my flat. We recorded it on my old Grundig so John could hear how it sounded. How it takes me back! ‘Fire and Water' by Free gave me the most trouble. Although it was a dear favorite of John's, I'd never heard it. John tried to show me how it went on the bass, but from a single bass note, it's hard to get a proper idea of a song other than the basic chords. We worked out ‘Hey Joe' and ‘Red House' by Hendrix; ‘I Hear You Calling', Ten Years After, ‘Night Life', B. B. King and various twelve-bars including ‘Dust My Broom' and ‘Mean Mistreated Man' by Elmore James. Of all the numbers that we were to play at that dance, ‘Dust My Broom' is the most evocative of John and the kind of music he was into at the time.
I'd recently left the heavy rock Mind Machine and playing around Liverpool and Newcastle Working Men's Clubs in a three piece at weekends made me just enough to avoid getting a job. Looking back on my diary for 1971, I notice the 12th of March left free. John came roundto my flat that tea time and we got his bass and my Marshall stack and my Telecaster down the stairs into Gerald's van when he came for us. That night we were using the Mind Machine's P.A., bass rig, drums and the lights Gerald had made himself during the time I was with them playing guitar.
The King's Arms, Lancaster is in the town centre and we were soon unloading the van round the back into the stage door of the ballroom. I noticed one of the bar staff, a tall, thin, plain looking spinster with black hair and a long sad nose stiffly eying up The Mind Machine's ton of equipment. Times might have been changing, but not for The King's Arms. The bar staff might just overlook accordion and drums at a wedding reception, but something about her frowning expression promised trouble.
We set up the gear and as the art students started to fill the room I looked over to John who was sitting quietly alone with half of bitter and his roll up tin. He was lost in great introspection, and I wondered what was going through his mind. I could tell he was very nervous. Would he be up to it? He'd always been so shy and quiet. Now he was about to make his debut playing bass and singing! There are no passengers in a three piece rock band and John was going to have to be front man and keep locked onto the bass drum simultaneously without dropping a beat! And in front of his fellow art students, all his mates and his girlfriend Lyn. It was going to be a real baptism of fire for my brother.
Eight-thirty, the room was packed and it was time to bite the bullet! The lights went down and I felt for John as we cracked off with ‘Rock Me Baby'. Though I'm not much of a singer, I sung the first number to get us underway and John didn't seem too fazed as his simple, but solid bass patterns underpinned the riff. Derek lay heavily into his drums as though he was auditioning for Ginger Baker's job in ‘The Cream' and his brother Gerald enthusiastically stabbed away at the bell pushes behind us. As the lights flashed and the volume started to edge up, The Royal King's Arm Lancaster, a staid old bastion of conservatism, almost belatedly caught up with the psychedelic Sixties.
Nobody danced. Not that anybody ever does first thing. Most people need a few beers before they feel like boogying. As we finished ‘Rock Me' the audience clapped and all eyes were expectantly on John. Counting John and Derek in on four, I took a deep breath and launched into the opening triplet chords of ‘Dust My Broom'. What happened next amazed me! Within seconds, the whole room seem to be on its feet. Those who weren't dancing were stood in a circle round John watching every move as he sang and played his heart out.
We seemed to be getting louder by the second as guitar and bass struggled to keep abreast Derek's very physical drumming. He wasn't used to all the applause and was getting carried away. Usually when The Mind Machine played to teenyboppers in the desolate, God forsaken village halls of Cumbria, eyes narrowed and fingers went in ears. I knew from experience. Maybe it was because The Mind Machine never played on its own turf to appreciative fellow art students; didn't have any mates and, any girls watching the evenings' performance didn't know they were going to be ‘girlfriends' until they were lured into the van afterwards.
At the end of ‘Dust my Broom', just as things seemed to be going okay, amongst the applause, we got the first complaint about the volume. I'd been expecting her and I promised the long nosed barmaid that we would indeed ‘turn it down'. We continued with a very slow and soulful version of ‘Red House'. John's voice filled the ballroom as Derek and I played along quietly behind. Apart from ‘Night Life', it would seem the only slow blues we played that evening. The nascent Chalk Farm continued in full tilt.
We played out the first set and Long-nose almost became part of the band as she constantly kept coming at me after each number and complaining. John seemed oblivious to her and was enjoying himself as his confidence grew. His voice got even stronger and his playing more adventurous and when we took a break everyone wanted to buy him a drink. I got a visit from the hotel manager who told me in no uncertain terms that he wanted the volume reducing. Again I agreed to the demand. When we restarted it soon became obvious that we were never going to match accordion and drums for sound levels. Long-nose kept on complaining, I kept on promising and John kept on playing and singing.
Later, Derek launched into an impromptu drum solo. Purely self taught, what he may have lacked in skill he more than compensated for in pure animal strength and enthusiasm. As he really got into it, he looked like he was trying to drive his drum kit into the stage. In his fury, the rolled up right sleeve of his denim shirt came loose and fell round his wrist. Without a pause, he grabbed it with his other hand and ripped it clean off! John and I just looked at each other and cracked up. And so it went on. Towards the end, tired of my empty promises, Long-nose tearfully and dramatically jacked her job in. She had been hysterically demanding aspirin from the manager for a volume induced headache and complaining all night. I personally think she was a bit of a wet blanket.
The Spring Twist didn't go full course. Someone, I can't think whom, called the police. They arrived in front of the stage with a chatter of two way radios and a strong smell of blue serge and industrial strength disinfectant. A very large police sergeant came up to us and viciously pulled the plug as he made it abundantly clear to us what would happen if it was to be replaced. They left to booing of disappointed art students.
The Spring Twist might be over, but for John, things were only just beginning!