Monday, 24 September 2018

Alan King: Hardship Lane in Hastings

I’ve never had a guitar lesson in my life, said Alan King, as he spent two hours musically extrapolating on western and Indian music and the links between them. Friday night’s gig at the Electric Palace Cinema (EPC) in Hastings was supposed to be by ‘Hardship Lane’, a raga exploration by Alan and other musicians schooled, like him, in blues, jazz and rock (In fact quite a lot like the last time Alan played at the EPC with his band, The Prisonaires, (as reviewed on this site).

Having felt ill, demotivated and, he confessed, wanting to pass the gig on to another act, on the night Alan pulled it together. That said, the evening didn’t go as it would had Alan had the preferred anonymity of being one of several musicians on stage. It looked like he was winging it when he began by digressing into talking about such early guitar influences as Roy Buchanan. Less predictably perhaps he also talked about Nils Lofgren, Neil Young’s drunken sparring partner on the infamous ‘Tonite’s The Night’ tour: a major influence on an impressionable young Alan.

His point to not only emphasise guitarists who can perform under the influence, but those whose playing is raga-like. Another muse, Davy Graham, who Alan played with in the 1990s, was recalled for his technique and for a recklessness than both inspired and destroyed his musical career. One story, part-apocryphal maybe, was of Davy taking £20 in advance for a guitar lesson, then sticking on an Indian classical record and handing the student a guitar before exiting quickly to score some smack.

Before Alan got much further in telling a personal guitar history that spans some 50 years of western music, a member of the audience piped up and asked Alan if he knew Bert Weedon. Not satisfied by Alan’s response, the man, who’d plainly been enjoying some pre-gig refreshment, asked if Alan actually knew his stuff. Wilfully absurd, this provocative question produced a first rate version of ‘Guitar Boogie Shuffle’, making me wonder if this semi-heckler was hired in. (The man later declared that he’d been at The Prisonaires’ EPC gig three months earlier and, as a guitarist himself, had been seriously inspired by it). The number of people attending this gig was no more than at the last EPC Prisonaires one; in fact less if you count all those who were on the stage last time. However there were more middle-aged, bevied up, males this time around. This could be fun; the Bert Weedon enthusiast had a drole humour that usually made his interjections entertaining.

Alan observed that import restrictions amidst an economic crisis in Britain had made it impossible to get hold of American rock n’ roll records like those of Bert Weedon, so the Americans got around the problem by launching London Records to sell their product into the British market via a company that was also registered in the UK (In the ‘60s this same American label sold records by UK bands like the Rolling Stones into the US market).

Davy never liked Bert Jansch’s version of ‘Anji’, Alan said; it was too fast. Alan proceeded to play a version that was somewhere between the two but a copy of neither. He later wondered if he’d missed something musically by not being close to the dark side as substance users like Davy Graham. Bert Jansch was scary, said Alan; he could be off his head but then play some totally obscure 15th century tune.

Alan is an intuitive player; you cannot teach guitar, he says. When I went to the local grammar school, he said, there were maybe two guitarists (including himself) out of 2,000 kids. Now there’ll be a thousand and they’re all having lessons. Alan said he started out playing a plastic four-string ‘Beatles guitar’ his dad had bought him, but at around 10 years of age his father gave him the same acoustic guitar he was using at this gig.


Alan goes to open mic nights in Hastings. Young guys get up and there's a wonderful tension and atmosphere about those first early appearances. One year later it's over, they've been schooled in a certain way and all the emotion has gone out of it, he says. 

Alan started to get more impatient voices from the back but he carried on in his studiedly relaxed but didactic mode. For my part I enjoyed listening to Dr King both talk and play, either way he's a piece of living musical history (a description he'll probably hate). He even dismissively commented on digital guitar tuners. You don’t always want to be in tune, all ending up sounding the same, he says. “It's got to be wrong to be right.” Goebbels would have said that the A string has to be tuned to 440 Hz, Alan observed.

So who's your favourite guitarist, shouted the Bert Weedon fan. Paco de Lucia …maybe, said Alan. Talking about guitar maestros encouraged Alan to go to the inevitable subject of Jimi Hendrix. He spoke of his particular affection for the album ‘Electric Ladyland’. If Hendrix had had the equipment we have..., Alan started to say. The point though, Alan corrected himself, was that Hendrix had all the equipment he needed. Hendrix was a blues man and always played in the five note Pentatonic Scale; the black notes on a keyboard as Alan put it, dismissing the importance of even this knowledge. Alan proceeded to play a version of Hendrix’ ‘Little Wing’ that was tasteful, mannered, and beautiful.


He then started talking about the musicians that really excite him. Fred Frith, who he said played in a “south London Marxist collective experimental jazz band” …. Henry Cow. What were they like, asked the Bert Weedon fan. F***ing unbelievably incredible, was Alan’s pithy reply.
Neil Young has this thing where he is not quite in tune, Alan said, and that way you can bend it in tune. You should show some imagination in your playing, Alan said.

He noted however that Neil Young admitted that ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ was a rip-off of Bert Jansch’s idea on ‘Needle of Death’, while on ‘Ambulance Blues’ Neil Young appropriated Jansch’s tune too. This can cut both ways though, as Alan revealed by demonstrating how Pink Floyd’s ‘Breathe’ is a close copy of Neil Young’s ‘Down by the River’.

He then talked about songwriters he likes before playing a Carole King tune. Another favourite of his is Junior Kimbrough, a name lost on almost everybody in the room – and this was a fairly informed audience. Kimbrough was a one chord ‘country’ performer, said Alan, emphasising that it isn’t all about being a (taught) virtuoso. Charlie Feathers (a friend of Junior’s) was the rockabilly “real deal”, never mind Elvis, who screwed him over, said Alan. Feathers lived and worked right next door to Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio in Memphis, he said, but didn’t get a break there. Feathers was threatening; “he was evil.”

Alan also mentioned how much he admired the songwriter Alan Hull. “Who?” asked the guy at the back. He was in Lindisfarne, Alan explained, who later became a “cabaret band”. He talked about the beauty of a folk tune Alan Hull did when they played together, ‘She Moves Through the Fair’. Are you going to play it then, asked the bloke. Alan declined, to some sweary but good humoured frustration. Before taking a comfort break, Alan commented that when he was touring in Ireland a few years ago, he walked into a bar and was told that because it was ‘Holy Hour’ they couldn't serve him. However he was offered a drink while he waited.


It's well known that Alan helped Bert Jansch to resume his career when he had more or less abandoned performing altogether. In the Gents we talked about Alan and Bert’s musical collaboration (which included Alan producing and recording Bert's celebrated 'Live at the 12 Bar'). I asked whether they worked up ragas together, and, not immodestly, Alan said that he had got Bert into playing them in the first place. This was the early 1990s after a long and mostly fallow period in Bert’s career. Bert had had a drinking problem and a big cocaine addiction, said Alan. There were times in the ‘80s when Bert Jansch was not together enough to be in The Pentangle line-ups even if he’d wanted to. Without Bert, John Renbourne and Jacqui McShee, Pentangle didn’t make any sense, said Alan. Gerry Conlon (ex-Fotheringay), who Alan calls a 'click drummer', someone who just plays in time, was going out with Jacqui; so he got the drummer’s gig. How can you hope to replace a jazzer like Terry Cox with a click drummer, he asked. Back on stage Alan said that John Lennon said that Ringo wasn't a very good drummer, but all the great drummers Alan has met, including Billy Cobham, said that Ringo was the best. He played in a few big bands, noted the guy at the back.

Alan’s raga infatuation started when he went to collect an Indian takeaway and heard this incredible music playing in the background. He’s been obsessed with playing ragas for more than ten years. Alan normally likes to play ragas for three hours, but reassured this EPC audience that he wouldn’t being doing that tonight. The great thing about ragas, he said, is that if you come at them from a blues, jazz or flamenco tradition you can understand them; likewise raga can inform these western musical traditions.

In the ‘80s Alan said he practically lived at The Marquee Club. He also had a photography business and used to shoot artists for their album covers, including on one occasion Bruce Springsteen. Alan was living in Hackney at the time, which back then was like 1950s Warsaw, he observed.

Alan mentioned that he worked with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, later of ‘Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out’ fame. Mortimer, an old school friend of Alan's, was practising as a lawyer; “at which he was sh*t,” said Alan. However Mortimer was also into comedy. For a year Alan pestered him to come and perform at an open mic night in Deptford, which eventually Mortimer did. Alan then wrote material for Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer when they were into what he describes as Dadaist, situationist, humour. I liked Vic because, like me, he had a northern accent, recalls Alan. I set up a gig for them with BBC bigwigs who just wanted formulaic stuff. The rest is history, he says. Vic used to eschew the celebrity circuit but he soon embraced it; he became insufferable, said Alan.

Partly out of frustration with the organisational and financial side of band gigs, Alan said off stage that tonight was going to be his last. What about more solo spots, I asked. I don't want to be up in lights on my own, he said, I have never enjoyed that. A highly accomplished guitarist with so much to teach players and fans alike about the evolution of western music, but who eschews personal attention. Alan says though that he’ll probably still attend a few gigs in Hastings pubs, and maybe he’ll join in occasionally at some open mic nights.

Before playing us out, Alan digressed about going into a bar in Sweden one night, desperate for a drink after having just finished playing a gig. Suddenly somebody rushed in urging him to come around the corner because “someone just like Stevie Ray Vaughan was playing; he's even got the hat.” “He’s even got the hat,” Alan repeated to emphasise his contempt for the superficial side of the business. He never liked Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “boogie-woogie stuff,” he said, but his subtler, jazz, playing was sublime. Two of these tunes, ‘Riviera Paradise’ and ‘Lenny’, were fused together by Alan in a wonderful, virtuoso performance; the effort and concentration etched across his face. He was working very hard; fingers flying across the frets.

Let’s hope we can catch him around Hastings in a pub somewhere if he ever feels like showing some other musicians a few tricks. 

Thursday, 19 July 2018

American music legend plays Whatlington Village Hall


Award-winning American acoustic musician and song-writer Doug MacLeod stayed in the tiny East Sussex village of Crowhurst on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. This 70-something survivor of child sexual abuse discovered as a young man that music could save his mortal soul and went on to found a one-man musical ministry to heal us all. Doug was staying at Nina’s “Woodside” B&B in Old Forewood Lane before giving an intimate gig in Whatlington Village Hall, the new venue for Mrs Yarrington’s Music Club, the best platform for acoustic music in the south-east of England.


Doug played at Mrs Yarrington’s back in 2016 (click here for my review of that gig). In fact it made such an impression on him that on Tuesday night he went straight back to the same venue (at The Senlac Inn in Battle), sat in the bar, and wondered where his punters might be. He made it to the new venue in time however, bringing much needed relief after the opening act, Song Box Band. While this Brighton pop-folk duo impressed with their in-sync guitar playing, the singer's musings on Mediterranean holidays and other anodyne middle-class preoccupations grated.

When Doug began his song sermons, there was an almost palpable sense of excitement as an audience that was mostly familiar with the man readied themselves to get healed. He did not disappoint. Having heard some of his blues-based gospel before, I had an idea of what to expect, but songs familiar, and ones I had not had the privilege of hearing him sing live before, were equally compelling.


Among the stand-out songs were ‘Who’s Driving This Bus?’, a musical musing on the interests that may lay behind our elected leaders, with a nod to John Lee Hooker in Doug’s phenomenal guitar playing done in his professed “gumbo” style. Another musical acknowledgment was made by Doug when introducing a song that almost stole the show, and whose title went something like “(I Believe That) The Sun is Gonna’ Shine”. It was, said Doug, a song influenced by the celebrated black bluesman (and long-time muse), Tampa Red. You had to fight back the tears when hearing a tale of hoped for redemption that came straight out of Doug’s backstory. It was truly one of the most extraordinary vocal performances I’ve heard in nearly 40 years of attending gigs.

This man is an acknowledged master of his particular art; he just played in a village hall up the road from where I live. His landlady came to the gig and joked that she’ll be putting his sheets on e bay. She hadn’t heard of him before Tuesday but knew that, somehow, she had a star staying in her guest house. If you want to be similarly blessed, make sure you check him out the next time Mrs Yarrington’s puts this huge performer on a tiny stage.



Sunday, 1 July 2018

The Prisonaires Live at the Electric Palace Hastings

“Is this a supergroup?” asked a friend of mine as we took our places last night in the third row of this tiny, historic, yet barely half-full Hastings cinema. If about 250 years of combined experience playing with some of the most important western musicians of the 20th Century fits the bill, then The Prisonaires are definitely a supergroup. While not household names, any blues, jazz-rock, folk, or rock enthusiast will understand that these gentlemen were pivotal to some of the most ground-breaking music of the 1960s and '70s. Yet there were plenty of empty seats in a venue that only has 48 of them.

Acoustic guitarist and leader of the band, Alan King commented wryly that scheduling a gig during an international football tournament is always a disaster. But can it be that south-coast music buffs preferred staying at home to watch telly in the hope that Argentina would defeat the French, than attending a gig of this quality? When The Prisonaires finished their set a member of the audience stood up and shouted that it was the finest gig he’d seen in Hastings in years. It was one of the finest gigs I’ve seen anywhere in years.

Alan (left) with Bobby Valentino (fiddle), Les Morgan (drums) and Tony Reeves (right,bass)

Musical impresario, Alan King was a doyen of the famed 12 Bar Club, the ‘60s Soho music venue that gives the name to Dr King’s ‘12 Bar Music’, the platform for this and for some forthcoming Electric Palace gigs. King told me outside the Gents – the Electric Palace is so small that the toilets are never far away – that he is lucky enough to have played with his favourite guitarists, Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, and his favourite singer, Miller Anderson. For many years King also played with his favourite songwriter, Alan Hull (of Lindisfarne).

The aura of Graham and Jansch hung over proceedings as King opened the set riffing on the rite of passage folk guitar tune, ‘Anji’. What the advance publicity promised would be a hybrid of The Pentangle and Can, “with a touch of Miles Davis’” jazz-rock-funk fusion, was underway. ‘Anji’ went from sounding like The Pentangle were performing it, to something with a lot more attitude. Almost like Fairport Convention’s ‘A Sailor’s Life’, but lifted beyond even that wonderfully free-flowing, folk-jazz hybrid  However I couldn’t detect the influence of Can on this or on any of the other tunes The Prisonaires performed last night. It was undoubtedly an eclectic set though, and The Prisonaires have certainly embraced Can’s determination to kick against the musical pricks.

What happened on ‘Anji’, and throughout the gig, was a superannuated jam session without the tedium that that would normally imply. Each number, often only loosely based on professed connections to an original tune, has a distinct concept behind it that’s usually conceived of and initially worked up by Alan King. It might be a radical reworking of a known tune or the fusing of diverse tunes and elements together – the second number was inspired by ‘Sketches of Spain’ era Miles but went all over the place. King communicates with some band members via SoundCloud (“or just by text”, grinned guitarist Paul Baverstock). Rehearsals are live. Some band members, like the audience, may be hearing a number for the first time. To carry this off you need musicians of a very high calibre and, as importantly, imagination.

Alongside King in this endeavour last night were virtuoso fiddle player Bobby Valentino, who at 64 is one of the youngest in the band. Valentino was in The Fabulous Poodles, worked extensively with The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and has played with Dylan, Knopfler and Petty. He is part Stephane Grappelli, part Jean-Luc Ponty, but is mostly just himself. 

Bobby Valentino

On electric lead guitar was Paul Baverstock. Paul, who also spoke to me outside the Gents, said that he was in the celebrated London band that nearly made it big in the early ‘80s, A Bigger Splash. Their first single, ‘I Don’t Believe A Word’, was produced by Sting who also, with Eddie Reader, sung harmonies on it. It made it to the influential BBC Radio 1 review programme, ‘Roundtable’, but had the misfortune of being followed by Prince’s ‘Kiss’ which, Alan said, blew everything else out of the water that week (or pretty much that decade). Last night Paul’s impressive pedal effects assisted him in alternating between a blues-inflected rock guitar sound that often echoed Dave Gilmour, and being a Hammond organ virtuoso. Paul was loud for a small venue but was darned good. 

To his right in the all-star line-up was Tony Reeves. Tony has a strong jazz feel to his impressive electric bass playing; hardly surprising given that he was founder member of fusion band Colosseum and later joined Curved Air. Like Alan, Tony started out on the folk circuit. He’s on Davy Graham’s first two albums. A few years later he joined John Mayall’s celebrated Bluesbreakers, along with Mick Taylor who a few months later replaced Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. Reeves has also played with, and produced, John Martyn and is the bassist on a Sandy Denny LP. By contrast, as a Pye Records’ plugger in the mid-60s, Tony promoted, and then played on, Tony Hatch’s ‘Sounds Orchestral’.

Les (drums), Tony (bass) and Paul (guitar)
In the centre of the stage, and often, my friend observed, making sure that the whole thing held together, was drummer Les Morgan (who’s performed with leading UK blues artists Alexis Korner and Jo-Anne Kelly, and with singer Chris Farlow). Les isn’t musically ostentatious like Paul, but, as good drummers often do, provides backbone (and flair) when some of the showmen occasionally threatened to take proceedings off on too conflicting a set of tangents. Alan King told me that the band also normally features Mike Paice (a Jools Holland sparring partner) on sax and harmonica, who, to King’s surprise given the unusual combination of instruments, gels successfully with violinist Valentino.

Among the most interesting musical adventures of the night was a number influenced by Miles Davis’ darker funk-fusion phase that also informed its title, ‘It’s About That Voodoo Time’; and a latin jazz excursion based on a number by jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell. In something of a preview of his own forthcoming set at The Electric Palace on 21 September, King took the band on a further musical diversion: ragas. He found suitable accompaniment from Valentino, before Reeves and Baverstock somehow worked out their place in the evolving mix. The Prisonaires' ‘raga rock’ is wholly its own thing, and has been a decade-long musical preoccupation for King. No easy nod here to George Harrison, The Byrds or even L. Shankar. The September gig by Dr King, possibly accompanied by some other members of The Prisonaires, will be well worth seeing.

(Listen to 'It's About That (Voodoo) Time' by clicking on this Soundcloud link)

Getting in tune? Les, Alan & Paul

The closing number was introduced by Alan as a fusion of two pivotal Jimmy Webb songs: - “the greatest anti-war song ever written”, ‘Galveston’, and the “greatest love song ever written”, ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’ – but without the words! This was an extraordinary musical idea successfully realised: you could hear the trace elements of both Webb classics in the heady mix.  

On a sweaty night out in Hastings some thirty odd people had experienced a real treat, and they rightly gave the band a rapturous response. Cries for an encore were understandably resisted though as the band, tired and thirsty, had done what they set out to do – whether Can were in the house or not.   

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Regrets, I’ve had a few - The musical life and times of Pete Sadler

Pete Sadler was the reason I started the ‘Searching for the Old Folk Rebels’ blog and research project. On reading ‘Singing from the Floor’ by JP Bean, among other contemporary sources on the folk boom of the 1960s, I was struck by the people and places who were missing and who were, in less celebrated ways perhaps, pivotal to the scene. Pete was a folk music impresario, accomplished guitarist, rock and blues journalist, playwright and horror script writer, nuclear engineer and Rolls Royce mechanic. Each are rare careers for many, let alone in combination, but this was all in a life’s work for 73 year old Pete Sadler. Yet there is sadness and plenty of regrets as he tells his tale, although thankfully this is leavened with much sweary humour too. Pete feels that he missed the musical boat on more than one occasion. Yet he was at the heart of things during two pivotal moments in British musical history.


So where did it all begin Pete?

“My earliest experience with folk music was almost disastrous,” he says. The music teacher at grammar school made the class listen to ‘Wraggle Taggle Gypsies’ and ‘Green Grow the Rushes Oh’ sung by Joan Sutherland and Donald Peers. They were fine singers but they weren’t actually of the people. They were the BBC Third Programme - posh. If you can imagine Pavarotti singing ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ you get an idea of what it was like.”

This was the 1950s. Pete was converted to rock n’ roll in 1955 when, barely 11 years of age, he first heard Bill Haley’s ‘Rock around the Clock’. He was hooked but a little young to be a Ted. His Mum had to take him to see the film ‘Blackboard Jungle’ (which featured Rock Around the Clock). “Even though I was quite tall, they wouldn’t let me in. I don’t think my mother was impressed with the film.” This was the time of slashed cinema seats. “There was trouble everywhere it played,” Pete says. “And all this for one song played three times. I watched it again a few years ago and it was terrible, but at the time it was a musical revolution.”

Pete discovered some other pivotal songs thanks to his Dad, who was shipping master at Tilbury. “He would bring home American LPs from sailors - Indians, Pakistanis, Lascars - who would be signed off to go on land for lodgings, but who were always in debt and had to sell what they had to pay their board. ”Or they died and their effects were sold on. Pete got his first guitar this way. This “cello guitar”, three quarter size, cost his Dad 7/6. It was, he says, “a terrible thing to learn on; very hard action, very high up, but you learnt the basics. I wasn’t a five minute wonder. I was really into the guitar (though)…”

At Gravesend Grammar School, which Pete attended from 1955, he met a couple of lads, Mick Turner and Norman King who, like him, were trying to learn guitar. “The first tune I learnt was Bert Weedon's version of Arthur Smith’s ‘Guitar Boogie Shuffle’ and then Bill Justis’ ‘Raunchy’. We were all using the Bert Weedon book, ‘Play in a Day’. I got quite captivated by him. People said ‘Bert Weedon’s no good,’ but he was still playing concerts in his late 70s! I also loved Duane Eddy’s guitar sound. He was (and is) an accomplished player, though not outstanding. Eddy, Les Paul and Hank Marvin, they all had one thing in common - their sound. It’s like a fingerprint…you’d know them anywhere. I was always interested in how Duane he got that sound, and once he admitted some clever techy had modified it – just like someone did for Hendrix years later.”

Pete and his schoolmates later tried out the skiffle craze, mucking around with a tea chest and a washboard. Skiffle was alright, says Pete, but soon got stupid. ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavour Overnight’ didn’t impress a young man fired up by rock n’ roll. They moved to on to doing Shadows (neĆ© The Drifters) and Duane Eddy instrumentals, and US rock n’ roll covers.

It was hard to find any access to popular music in the media in those days, says Pete. “There wasn’t much music on the telly until ‘65 Special’, and then Jack Goode did ‘Oh Boy’. This, he says, was a revelation because it was live bands one after the other in different parts of the studio.

Many schoolboys in the day had a paper round. Pete had two, and a grocery round to boot. His paper round gave him early morning access to the weekly music papers, hot off the press. Disc, Melody Maker and The New Musical Express; he’d read them all from cover to cover and then, eventually, put them through somebody’s door. “This was the only information we had about bands,” he says. “Even if some of it was inaccurate, it’s all there was.”

This was the days before Radio Luxembourg. “The American Forces Network Radio could be picked up on the crystal set,” says Pete, and on the BBC Light Programme (the Radio 2 precursor) on Sunday mornings there was ‘Easy Beat’ with Brian Matthew. “People were doing cover versions of stuff you knew from the Melody Maker Hit Parade. Then you could hear the original on the headphones (in the record shops). We used to spend all f*****g day …listening to these songs. In fact they used to get pissed off with us because we’d never buy anything.”

I asked if Pete was trying to pick up rock n’ roll riffs. “I was trying to play guitar,” he says emphatically, “and was copying what they were doing, I didn’t have a very good for ear for music, so I was miles out at times. I was only about 11 or 12.”

In an account reminiscent of what some renowned lads in Liverpool and down the road in Dartford were doing a little later, Pete recalls that the local docks were how he and other boys got access to black American music. Blues LPs would enter the house, played on their tiny record player, he remembers. I heard acoustic players like Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, the Reverend Gary Davies.

These players, and later on other blues performers like John Lee Hooker and Big Bill Broonzy, as well as Weedon, Eddy, and Chet Atkins, were to prove very influential on Pete.  “I didn’t know what to make of Leadbelly at first,” he admits. “His was the first folk record I ever heard.” This was ‘In the Pines’, the B side of ‘Goodnight Irene’. In 1958, at the age of 14, Pete had saved enough from his newspaper and grocery round earnings to buy his first LP, for 38/6, ‘The “Chirping” Crickets’ (Buddy Holly). Before that he had been buying ‘78s by Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins.

Pete and his school pals would take a mile and a half detour from school down Harmer Street, Gravesend to the music shop, which, as was typical in those days, Pete says, was mostly selling sheet music but sold a few guitars as well. “We would eye up a white Hofner Club 40 in the window, just like the guys in ‘Wayne’s World’ drooling over the Fender. I carried on with my guitar and saved and saved, and eventually, in about 1959, I got a Hofner Committee from Selmer’s in Charing Cross Road. I played it non-stop. It was an electric acoustic arch-top. It was beautiful, ingrained with mother of pearl. Dreadful sound.”  

Pete at 15
Funnily enough, says Pete, “My school friend Willy had a sister who was going out with a singer, some posh kid from Dartford called Jagger. He had a band and they were totally sh**. They were playing US Rn'B, Muddy Waters covers and the like, and we were playing Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochrane, and other real rock n’ roll. Having never heard of Muddy Waters, I was interested in what they were doing, so I suggested we meet them. My friend said no - he couldn’t stand Jagger, and said they aren’t going to do much anyway. I often wonder if we had (met them) we might have hung on to their coat tails ….and life might have been very different.”

“By 1960 I thought the music had died,” says Pete in a nod to Don Mclean. Elvis had joined the army; many of the greats had died in the air or on the road: Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Gene Vincent. Little Richard had re-joined the Church. “Aside from Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, the freshness of rock n’ roll gave way to pop mediocrity,” he says.

In fact 1960 definitely was the year the music died for Pete because at 16 he and his mates had to leave school. “We all worked in different factories, having been farmed out … on different apprenticeships. I met a guy, Tony, whose friend played sax part time for Joe Loss who was performing at Hammersmith Palais. I went along. I didn’t really like the music but I thought the band were incredible; the noise, a live brass band.”

Pete’s friend Tony knew a couple of lads from a council estate in Dartford who also had guitars, and who were looking for a rhythm guitarist, which Pete was playing then. ‘The Boys’ were formed. “We did very well,” says Pete, playing evenings and weekend gigs at youth clubs and parties. In early January 1963 they had done well enough to get an audition with Pye Records. The record company’s A&R man asked if they were from Liverpool. No, they said. He stuck on the song ‘Please Please Me’. Can you do this, he asked. “What is it?” they asked. “That was it, dismissed,” says Pete.

‘The Boys’ had gone through many different incarnations as a rock n’ roll act, but had worked really hard at being a success. “We really thought we were going to make it big and be able to chuck in the factory apprenticeship, but it wasn’t to be” says Pete. “Rock n’ roll had hit the buffers, but then The Beatles dropped like a bomb on us, he said. “ ‘If you’re not from Liverpool, we can’t use you’ was the stock response from record deals and gigs everywhere.” After that body blow the band folded.

Pete began discovering different music after ‘The Boys’ went their separate ways. One of his mates had been saving up and had bought himself a Mini with a radio. Listening to Radio Luxembourg on the car radio, Pete was transformed. He hadn’t really noticed Dylan before, but somehow ‘She Belongs to Me’ made a big impact. Nasal-voiced, but he had something says Pete.

Folk-inflected pop was beginning to take off. The Byrds’ interpretation of Pete Seeger’s ‘Turn Turn Turn’ made a similar impact on Pete. It was through so-called folk rock that he became more susceptible to contemporary folk music too. Paul Simon was looked down on a bit, Pete remembers, as he had by then fully embraced pop. Pete remembers going to venues like Les Cousins in Greek Street in London when a then unknown Paul Simon was playing the London clubs. Simon would sing and play from the back in order to upstage the performers, Pete recalls. “ ‘Get up on stage yourself or f**k off’ is what we should have said to him,” says Pete.

1965 was a watershed at work too. Pete and the other band members had continued their respective apprenticeships until the companies they worked for made them redundant. It was cheaper for them to get rid of us and to take on new apprentices rather than pay us a proper wage, Pete observes. He wanted to continue his engineering studies, having had a motorbike accident in 1965, and, not having sat his exams, was obliged to re-sit the whole year. Needing another apprenticeship with paid day-release college options, the Atomic Energy Research facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire beckoned.

He stayed in a government hostel, Rush Common House, in Abingdon where Harwell workers were housed. One day Pete was playing his Hofner in his tiny room when a guy called Alan Smith overheard. Alan wanted to introduce him to a guitarist friend of his, Dusty Jeans, who played at the local folk club.


“I never knew much about him (Dusty), even though I played with him for two and a half years, but he was a good straight, steady guitarist, with good backing chords, a ….strong singer (who) could do it without instrumentation… acapella. I was impressed with that. I said well I’ve only got this guitar and I played along, followed the chords at the top end, and we played ‘Whisky in The Jar’. Smithy said, ‘Well, that sounds good.’ We did a bit of blues; Chuck Berry; Carl Perkins’ country stuff, (however) I didn’t like Hank Williams, (it was) droning and morbid.

Jean Iliffe the receptionist at the hostel, and her partner John, a technician at one of the nuclear facilities, also ran the Rusty Rails folk club. After Beeching’s axe had swung through a large swathe of the country’s rail infrastructure, Abingdon’s railway station was closed. The Rusty Rails, which was held in the back room of the Railway pub located on one of the railway platforms, took its name from the tracks' faded glory.


Pete plays mandolin
Dusty and Pete would play as a duo, Pete was still playing his Hofner, “very unsuitable for folk,” he says. So Pete eventually went up to London and got a 12-string and began working up what, for younger fans of this burgeoning genre, were the trendy folk tunes of the era. Pete, like many other budding folk guitarists, schooled himself in the finger-picking technique that both folk and blues players had for years been using, albeit differently until the jumbo acoustic guitar with steel strings was introduced to the folk scene. A work colleague played Pete a record of blues legend Big Bill Broonzy. “It was eye opening. I went to town, learning everything I could, finger-style, to the extent that I found it difficult to revert to the plectrum.”

Pete learnt the method in about three months, which is going some, ensuring among other things that he could played Davy Graham’s ‘Anji’. “It was a standard,” he says, although he wasn’t sure it was folk, noting Graham’s jazz and blues stylings. Pete would also play Bert Jansch’s ‘Needle of Death’, which would prove popular among younger people, alongside more traditional material. Pete admired John Renbourne, Davy Graham and ….. Jimi Hendrix.

But there was no rock n’ roll in Abingdon, he notes. “We did look for it! It was Dylan, Phil Ochs, Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, and even some poppish stuff like Ralph McTell that was wanted,” he recalls. “The students liked Dylan, John Renbourne and The Byrds (if they played Dylan), whereas the traditionalists would appreciate Dave and Toni Arthur, the Dubliners and Alex Campbell, for example.”  

For some students the imagined purity of folk was an attractive counterpart to their developing anti-war politics, just as many of the students who marched to Aldermaston in the late 1950s believed British jazz was a purer form of music than commercial American rock n’ roll. Aside from the students, Pete believes that many of the folk fans and musicians who frequented the Rusty Rails either worked at Harwell or at one of the other nuclear establishments, or were trainee teachers. He doesn’t recall a demonstration at any of the local atomic facilities, or even in the student redoubt of Oxford.

In 1966 John and Jean split up and went their separate ways: she to a hotel chain in Yorkshire, he to Barrow in Furness. So Pete and Dusty took the club over. “Alan said we can do it, I thought f**k, but we did it. It wasn’t much, you just took money on the door, hired singers; and if you’re stuck for a guest then you just invite anybody who was there to come up and sing for free.

“When we took over the reins, it was very traditional, with little time for guitars. It was finger-in-your-ear music with maybe a squeeze box or two, but the rise of contemporary folk and the departure of some of the older generation…broadened the range of folk styles that were played,” says Pete.

(L-R) Pete, Dusty and Alan 
The Rusty Rails had been a reasonably popular venue presenting guest musicians every two months. Initially there was drop-off in attendance because under Pete and Dusty the venue was considered less pure in folk terms by the purists. However, with the expansion of the area, they were being inundated with people who were, says Pete, literally queuing up to play. “At the same time we raised enough money to out on name acts every two weeks instead. We would play as a duo, and I provided a ‘backing track’ to Dusty or to those who got up and sung from the floor, whether on guitar, banjo or dulcimer.” The performers were paid a percentage of the door or via the traditional bucket.

(Hear a recording of Pete from this period by clicking on this link  )

Les Parker, who worked at one of the nuclear sites, used to come to the club, Pete recalls, and sing songs like ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’ and Ewan MacColl’s ‘The Shoals of Herring’. “We also put on Davy Graham, and Toni and Dave Arthur (see this blog's July 2017 entry) among other big name folk acts.” According to Pete, “Davy Graham was fresh out of rehab and wasn’t very good. Toni had a wonderful voice, while Dave Arthur too had a good, clear voice and was an accomplished guitarist.”

Pete says that the finest guitar player he ever saw was Doc Watson, the celebrated flat-picking and finger-picking bluegrass player who in the 1960s was beloved of folk fans too. “Brian Jones,” he notes, “made the observation that when Hendrix came to London, he had never seen so many guitarists crying. Well it was like that for me when I saw Doc Watson.”

Pete notes that there was one other folk venue in Abingdon, the Mousehole in Market Street, but it wasn’t anything like as popular as his venue. He and Dusty had a virtual monopoly on the local scene. When Dave and Toni performed at the Rails they invited Pete and Dusty to stay at their house in Lewisham, as many folk musicians of the day did, and together they performed at venues in south London. At Dave and Toni’s place in London Pete recalls hearing and playing with Bill Boazman, who had just released an EP. “I copied Bill,” Pete cheerfully admits. “He also did ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ by George Shearing; now that’s not folk!” Pete notes that there was quite a lot of imaginative interpretation and reinterpretation during this period of tunes that didn’t originate in the folk world, which for him made a nonsense of those who tried to enforce a rigid orthodoxy.  


“On one occasion,” recalls Pete, “we went down to Shepton Mallet in Somerset, drove for two and a half hours to get down there, got home at 2am after a load of booze, and then got up for work at 7am. It was an experience…it was nice to get paid but we would do these gigs because we enjoyed it.” Or rather, they usually enjoyed it. On one occasion he and Dusty played on a house boat for an Oxford University student party. A very rich and very young aristocrat was hosting it. “They were as high as kites. Weed, drinking.” I said to Dusty, ‘Would they notice if we f****d off?’ When Pete went to the bathroom he found one of the undergraduates having intercourse with a young woman who was vomiting into the toilet. He and Dusty were just about to get off the boat when a load of plain clothes and uniformed police turned up. His lordship was alerted with the shout, ‘Charles, coppers!’ Pete recalls that the young aristocrat then swiftly intercepted the police on the gangplank, saying, ‘Do you know who I am?’ Just like that, the police were gone, said Pete.

Pete and Dusty played in folk venues in Didcot, Wantage, Newbury and throughout Oxfordshire and Berkshire, partly to check out what other clubs were up to. One of the greatest gigs he ever saw was Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick at a folk club in Wantage in 1967. Swarb was already coming to prominence playing with the Ian Campbell Group, and before long would playing a leading role in Fairport Convention’s innovative melding of folk and rock, spawning prog-folk, along with The Pentangle and the Incredible String Band.

The Oxfordshire and Berkshire area was alive with folk music and with those who brought more contemporary elements to the mix. “This seemed to be a big area for traditional music,” Pete remembers. “If you had an acoustic guitar you were labelled folk. I think (the definition) depends on what you sing about.” But using an electric guitar somehow wasn’t folk, he says. “They would say that isn’t pure, but what’s pure, an acoustic guitar isn’t pure.

“F*****g hell, Blondel used to walk around in Sherwood Forest playing a lute. Or is folk sea shanties? But black slaves sung acapella; the call and response, the real roots of the blues.” In later years Pete would write a degree thesis on the roots of the blues. “People weren’t just singing ‘I woke up this morning’ straight off the boat! Some slaves were sent to Latin American and their blues became Latin music.”

The weirdest gig Pete ever did was at The White Hart pub in Reading, in a folk club run, he says, by a bloke called Sid. “Before we went on, a fireman called Mark did instrumental Renbourne material like ‘Judy’ and was very popular, they loved him. We played a number and there was total silence. It was dead. It was the same after the next one. In the end I said to Dusty just keep going, segue way, don’t explain anything about the songs, just keep going. We had to do that because of the stony silence. You know what folk clubs are normally like, you get somebody telling you all about the song. It takes 10 minutes to tell you about it and two minutes to sing it. I never liked that, but I used to say ‘This is so and so; it’s about a bloke who died.’ At this gig Dusty was ready to quit halfway through a song, he was really getting angry. As we finished I said to Dusty ‘I think we are in the s**t here. Let’s just grab our guitars and go.’ And then the audience got to their feet and applauded like mad. I thought this is the weirdest thing I have ever, ever experienced. For the encore we did ‘Whisky in the Jar’, a traditional number, later popularised by Thin Lizzy, that every folkie knew at that time, and an acoustic cover of The Animals’ take on ‘House of the Rising Sun’.”

It was Sid who in 1967 suggested to Pete and Dusty that they do a tour of Israeli kibbutzim. “He said this means you’ll both be turning professional.” Still in their early ‘20s, they were obviously highly excited. “The Six Day War broke out just after we’d handed in our notices at Harwell, and so we had to ask for our jobs back! I thought f**k that, there is no way I’m going out there with that going on, no way.”

This knocked Pete for six. “It was a setback. I’d bitten the bullet. It was a big thing to do to pack your job in, even though there was quite a lot of work in the factories and elsewhere. I thought, it had gone, the moment had gone. I lost interest in all music after that….I didn’t realise how much I’d enjoyed it until it was over.”

He and Dusty did start playing again after that, but somehow, once again, the music had died. By the end of 1967 Dusty announced he was leaving the job at Harwell, and by March 1968 Pete had departed the area too.The duo’s swansong had been a folk concert at Oxford Town Hall in early 1968, headlined by Alex Campbell and Johnny Silvo. “Alex Campbell was a funny bloke. We saw him backstage. Totally drunk. We were the first on. We did two songs and we were off. People were still taking their seats when we finished.” Looking back Pete agrees though that this gig was “a big affair.” Folk was coming out of the clubs and on to, literally, a bigger stage. The Oxford Town Hall was packed for a gig that, while featuring relatively traditional performers like Campbell, also had Silvo whose contemporaries, including Pete, crossed genres.

Folk at this time was entering the rock mainstream. “We just got on with it. I should have been looking at the bigger picture, I suppose, but we played what we played. You liked what you did and then it fizzled out.”

It’s hard to appreciate 50 years on, but groups like The Pentangle, The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention were incredibly hip at the time. Their impact had been felt in some of the acoustic material played at the Rusty Rails, but, looking back, Pete thinks he had been quite isolated from some of the wider musical trends. That said, within a couple of years of Pete and Dusty quitting the Rusty Rails, the folk explosion was dead. Folk-rock had already morphed into prog-folk, but by the turn of the decade the mainstream fascination with folk had more or less passed, and rock had become decidedly heavier. In retrospect Pete and Dusty were ahead of the game by quitting folk as early as 1968. 

They had run the Rusty Rails for less than three years, but, says Pete, “it was probably the best period of my life. I enjoyed doing something I was proficient at, and being with like-minded people, good crowds. Life in general was less stressful than it is now. I enjoyed this part of my life, more than the rock n’ roll years.”

Dusty would eventually go back to playing in Abingdon, and (once again) got his old job back. “I got a job up in Derby as an engineer at the Rolls Royce plant. I took my guitar with me, but I just didn’t seem to have any motivation.”

He hadn’t completely cut the connection though, and remembers checking out a folk club called Peasemouldia, which was held at The Grandstand Hotel in Derby.  “I went down; they were playing some of the same stuff, but it was different. It was a big, big hall, and very brightly lit. There was a three piece playing there called the Lonesome Travellers: Doug Porter, Graham Cooper and Steve Rostron. They were good, doing stuff that Dusty and I did. There was also a country & western, Jim Reeves-type, singer, Jack Hudson, who I think is still performing. This (c&w) stuff didn’t inspire me. In this club there were lots of people, lots of noise; nobody was actually listening to any of it. It was a bit weird.”

Pete was told of another folk club in Nottingham, held in a pub with an apocryphal name, ‘The Trip to Jerusalem’. He checked out folk clubs in Derby and Nottinghamshire, he says, but “I thought that’s not me anymore.” He remembers seeing some “finger in the ear” singers at one particular folk club and thinking “It doesn’t change…it just doesn’t change.”

Pete stresses that he’s always been into all kinds of music, and wanted a change of musical direction. He didn’t want to get stuck in a folk rut.  “Having said that, in 1968 and 1969 I didn’t do anything.” Around 1970 Pete and a mate started searching for music around the pubs in Derby and further afield. They soon discovered plenty of it. Prog-rock was starting up, recalls Pete, and so was heavy metal. Given the heavy industry of the Midlands, this wasn’t surprising. “When I worked at Rolls Royce there was a guy, an electrician called Mark, who was a part time roadie for Girls School, a heavy metal girls band…he knew everybody. I got into it and we went to see Minas Tirith, who took their name from Lord of the Rings; very heavy progressive rock; they used to do 15 minute songs, influenced by the Enid, who came up to one of the local clubs.

“I decided to started sending reviews to the local paper the Derby Evening Telegraph because it was (up to that point) all about a (single) jazz band ('Tony’s Cronies') who had a whole page of reviews every week. Then I found out that the music editor of the paper was the drummer in that jazz band!
“I would say (to the newspaper), ‘I’m going to a big festival, do you want me to review it?’ I reviewed Dylan at the Birmingham NEC. Pete got interested in punk too. “I thought in 1976 and 1977 that it was a breath of fresh air. I liked Supertramp and Pink Floyd, but then you come back to the basics. I thought the Pistols were a great band. I didn’t go in for all the gobbing though. I went to see the bands that played in Derby and would write about them for the Derby Evening Telegraph.
“BBC Radio Derby under Terry Christian had a youth programme, ‘Barbed Wireless’, a mix of speech and music. I said to Terry ‘I do this stuff for the Derby Evening Telegraph, why can’t I do something on the radio for the local bands, they’re trying hard. They’re not going to be the Eagles,’ I said, ‘but (give them a chance).’ Christian, and the programme’s presenters were OK with it, and so for few years from 1981 Pete did a weekly broadcast about a local or visiting band. He hadn’t given up the day job at Rolls Royce though.

“I did the same thing (as on the newspaper), reviewing every week the performances I’d seen over the past seven days, including major bands at the Assembly Rooms and at the annual Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donnington. This progressed to another two slots on which I played and discussed ‘The Blues Through History’ and another playing and reviewing the latest heavy metal records that had been sent to the radio station.”

Pete often went backstage at the Assembly Rooms or Donnington to interview people like Ritchie Blackmore, Scott Gorham of Thin Lizzy, Ronnie James Dio (singing with a revamped Black Sabbath), and blues guitarist Dave Kelly. At Donnington he interviewed a member of Twisted Sister who was so completely out of his head that their manager had to keep intervening to fill in the blanks.

“I’m a great fan of heavy metal being loud, theatrical and raw, just as punk had been in the ‘70s. It was the most popular genre in the Midlands, with more venues than any other type of music.”
Pete didn’t abandon playing guitar completely, however, nor the ambition to make it big. He says that in 1979 he “got so totally fed up with everything” that he went to the Wigmore Hall in London to audition for the hard rock band, UFO. They were looking for a replacement for guitarist Michael Schenker! What was I thinking? I go in there and there are a load of 16, 17, 18 year olds. And so I go up to the desk to sign in, and they said, ‘”So who have you brought?’ I replied, ‘Myself!…..Forget it,’ I said. It opened my eyes a bit that all these kids had already been in so many bands. While I’d been doing all this stuff down the (narrow) tunnel of folk music and journalism, a whole music industry had blossomed into hundreds of branches. I thought (Pete) you’ve really dipped out.”

However, says Pete, he still used to teach a few people a few tricks informally, and have a bit of a jam from time to time. In the early ‘80s a budding recording engineer, Martin Fisher, was trying to record stuff, Pete recalls. “He had watched (how it was done at) live gigs …and worked it out. He said ‘I’ve got a friend, Karen Smith, who can sing.’” Pete remembers that she sang his song ‘Martha’s Vineyard’ right off the bat. “I played some of the backing and hummed it a bit for her. I laid down the rhythm track and she sang it. I put down the bass and the lead guitar on top of all of that. It wasn’t going to go anywhere but (we enjoyed it). She did it in one take.” Pete explains that the song’s title “was about Teddy Kennedy driving off the bridge in Chappaquiddick and leaving that girl to die. F*****g coward.”

In 1986, at the age of 42, Pete took the risky decision to quit Rolls Royce and attend Trent Polytechnic to do an Arts & Drama degree. Then two years later BBC Radio Derby cancelled the ‘Barbed Wireless’ show. It had won two Sony awards.” Pete enjoyed being a broadcast music journalist, but sadly didn’t have the newspaper to fall back on either as that reverted back to doing just jazz reviews.

“The BBC did invite me to do something for Radio 1,” recalls Pete. “It was when Tommy Vance was going on holiday. They said, ‘Would you come and do the ‘Friday Night Rock Show’ for two weeks, but they took Ian Gillan instead; went for a celebrity.

“It was,” observes Pete ruefully, “another could have been moment! There have been more ‘could have been moments’ than moments,” he jests.

During his studies Pete wrote a “comedic drama” based on life on the shop floor in one of the factories in which he had previously worked. It was called ‘At the End of the Day’ and was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Afternoon Theatre’ slot in February 1989. Pete and a relatively long term collaborator, Andy, entered a short film, ‘Out of the Blue’, to a Channel 4 competition ‘Showreel 88’. It reached the final. Pete and Andy also collaborated on writing sketches for Radio 4’s ‘Week Ending’ and Channel 4’s ‘Spitting Image’, but, sadly, without success. 

In 1990, after Pete had moved to London, they wrote a full length screenplay called ‘Mirror, Mirror’, which was about Islamist terrorists attacking the London Marathon after bombing the World Trade Centre. Given that the World Trade Centre had first had an attack on it in 1993, long before Al-Qaida was heard of, this was far-sighted indeed. It was, says Pete, centred on a doppelganger hero and villain. “Julian Krainin, a co-producer of the movie ‘Quiz Show’, read it and was impressed, but didn’t take us up on it,” he says.

Pete and Andy lost touch until about 2012 when they decided to write horror screenplays. “But, again, no success at even getting stuff read, let alone bought. I have to admit I have almost given up with it,” says Pete sadly.

Pete Sadler has now fully retired from music, although he still dispenses advice to budding musicians. Pete can still play guitar but lacks the dexterity he once enjoyed. He does sound sad at times about the “might have beens”, of which there have been several in his career. However Pete’s biggest regret is not having kept a diary to enable a clearer recall of exactly what happened, when, and by whom. He hopes that readers can fill in some of the inevitable blanks in this retelling. Pete Sadler played with some of the great names in the British folk scene, and, more importantly, gave a platform to the established and not so established in the worlds of folk and of heavy rock. We thank you Pete.


Monday, 10 July 2017

Dave Arthur: The storyteller tells his story

Together with his then wife Toni, Dave Arthur was a pivotal figure in the UK folk scene in the 1960s and 70s. As a duo they broke down the barriers that compartmentalised traditional music, and in the process they helped made “folk” a more understandable part of British culture. In the latter 1960s and early 1970s they were unique in combining song, music, dance, story-telling, even magyk, in a single gig.

Dave argues that these days folk is more open to its constituent parts and to other traditions, but when they started out this was unusual. Just as there were folk clubs, blues clubs and jazz clubs, so within the folk scene there were the folk singers, the dancers (whether Morris or ‘social dancing’), and, occasionally, the story tellers. Rarely did the twain meet.

The standard image of a folk musician from this era is that of a young man playing an acoustic guitar in a London coffee shop. In fact the names who predominated were disproportionately Scottish in origin and often not especially folk in musical orientation. Leading "folk" guitarists Bert Jansch, John Renbourne and Davey Graham were more rooted in the blues, and brought a strong “jazzy blues” feel to their so-called folk playing, argues Dave Arthur. They didn’t popularise the use of the guitar on the folk scene either. In fact when a whole host of “folk” guitarists were arriving in London in the mid-60s, folk fashion had already dictated the ditching of guitars for the imagined folk purity of acapella performances. Dave had stopped playing guitar as this point, and he and Toni would often perform traditional songs unaccompanied, and use their instruments to perform a reel or a jig. Toni was clog dancing at some of their earliest gigs; it was some years later before others, such as Maddy Pryor, took it up, he notes.  

Dave’s hero, AL ('Bert') Lloyd, about whom Dave has written an excellent biography, was central to the 1950s UK folk revival. Dave, like Bert, is open, embracing, and inclusive. In 1950s and early '60s England however, the man who ultimately determined what passed for folk correctness was singer Ewan MacColl, the man who’d been decisive in pushing the acapella trend. A communist paradox, MacColl insisted that his version of English folk be the template that the whole scene should follow. Folk for MacColl was also political manifesto based on the imagined realities of English rural and industrial life. “MacColl thought the sky would fall down if someone played a Stratocaster at a folk gig,” says Dave, noting the parallel with those who were so outraged at Dylan’s electric conversion. MacColl was also a classic example of “don’t do as I do, do as I say,” noted Dave when reminded of a flautist accompanying MacColl on one version of his classic ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’. Peggy Seeger, MacColl's wife and musical partner, would often play along on an Appalachian guitar, he noted.

Those less hidebound by musical nationalism would both treasure lost English folk gems, and take a healthy, internationalist, interest in popular music from around the world. Dave, like his mentor Bert, wanted to mine lost songs and traditions as cultural artefacts in their own right, to reify not deify them. However, as Dave points out, Bert too would discard much “traditional” English material as not “properly” folk, even though such songs would be sung, acapella, by poor people in village pubs up and down the land. ‘Come into the Garden, Maud’ didn’t pass muster for the cultural high command of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (any more than ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Working Class Hero’, would for folk purists today).

Dave: an early 70s publicity shot
Since the 1990s Dave has been as likely to be singing Appalachian songs as English ones. Like his stories, they have evolved as they’ve been passed down from generation to generation. Likewise, a measure of Bert’s curiosity and openness was his interest in central and eastern European music. Says Dave, Bert discovered in the 1950s that folk music in the communist bloc had often been “modernised” by being played on accordions and clarinets. However Bert knew that it would have been absurd to have suggested to these musicians that they weren’t playing their own music properly. Dave argues that Fairport Convention’s ‘Liege & Leaf’ (voted the most influential folk album of all time in a 2006 BBC Radio 2 poll) was appreciated by Bert for bringing some traditional material to the attention of modern listeners. Electrification wasn’t Bert’s thing either, but Fairport Convention’s ability to instrumentalise around a traditional song impressed him, says Dave.

Dave points out that the Fairports were by no means the first contemporary musicians to dig out songs like ‘Tam Lin’. Though their lyrical take on it was unoriginal, their "folk-rock" reworking of the tune, and of other songs, was exciting, says Dave. Fiddler Dave Swarbrick had introduced the traditional numbers to the band, having learnt them off of Bert, and Sandy Denny wrote good songs of her own, he says. Pentangle - incorporating Jansch, Renbourne, Jacqui McShee and decidedly non-folk musicians Danny Thompson and Terry Cox - picked up on a few well known folk tunes too, says Dave. It was the Scottish-Jamaican guitarist Davey Graham though that everyone really admired, he says. His eclecticism encompassed ragas more than reels, his tuning method was highly influential, and his ‘Anji’ was the standard that every budding “folk” guitarist had to play. (Not for nothing perhaps was his seminal 1965 album called ‘Folk, Blues and Beyond’). The much quoted ‘Folk Roots New Routes’ album that Davey Graham recorded with Shirley Collins in 1964 was mostly a separate showcase of each of their talents, and, he argues, its influence can sometimes be overstated.

At the time Swarbrick was one of a handful of professional fiddle players on the UK folk circuit, observes Dave. He had been part of the Birmingham scene under eponymous group leader Ian Campbell (father of UB40’s Ali and Robin Campbell). Swindon folk club was run by Ted Poole. Liverpool had Jackie and Bridie and the Spinners, Dave recalls. Pete and Marion Grey ran a club in Brockley, south London. Dusty Jeans and Pete Sadler ran and performed at the Rusty Rails folk club in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, he remembers. Didcot in Oxfordshire was the first club gig that Dave and Toni performed at.

By day Dave was running the literature and records section of the Pergamon Press bookshop in Oxford, owned by Buckingham MP Robert Maxwell, later the infamous head of Mirror Group Newspapers. Mindful of the budding University folk scene, Dave kept his section of the shop well stocked with publications like ‘Sing Out’ and the influential Folkways records. He and Toni hitched right across the country to perform at gigs, and would be back in Oxford, sometimes at 5am the next morning, ready to begin work a few hours later. Dave and Toni later moved to Lewisham, south London, where they regularly played host to visiting musicians, from the US as well as from across the UK.
With Toni
The tragic performer Jackson Franke stayed with them for quite a while. His ‘Blues Runs The Game’ was almost as much a folk song standard at this time as ‘Anji’ was for would-be folk guitarists, notes Dave. A great songwriter and guitarist, Franke influenced many players, says Dave, including Wizz Jones and Ralph McTell. He arrived in the UK with loads of money because of an insurance pay-out for injuries he sustained in the States, and promptly bought himself a flash sports car. Jackson had a dark side to him though, says Dave, because of his injuries; and was a child-like prankster, letting off a smoke bomb that closed down half of Lewisham High Street. Jackson couldn’t settle in relationships, observed Dave. He is sadly best known for having died in 1999 whilst living on the streets in the US.

Dave notes that these performers’ supposed authenticity resonated with the dissenting college kids who often considered rock n’ roll commercially crass and vulgar. Folk was the soundtrack for the politically conscious youth who joined the Aldermaston marches in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he says, just as it was for the anti-Polaris protests in the second half of the '60s. Folk was revolutionary, Dave argues, not just in form but in lyrical content. The overlap with Communism, or at least an acutely class-conscious political agenda, had been spearheaded by MacColl and party member Lloyd, and was burnished by American visitors like Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton. Dave sung me a few lines from Bert’s version of ‘Billy Boy’, which Bert adjusted to address the Malayan Emergency of the late ‘40s to 1960 (one of Britain’s last colonial military engagements). Feelings against the UK tyre company Dunlop, deeply immersed in protecting the source of their cheap rubber, ran high among folk musicians and followers of the time, he notes. However the younger folk protest generation embraced a revolutionary romanticism more enamoured of what, in 1968, was going on in Paris, Prague, Hanoi, and even London and Peking. Of course many of those who later became music legends, whether accepted as such by the folk cognoscenti or not, were primarily focused on the music. Dylan and Paul Simon were, briefly, part of the British folk circuit in the early ‘60s, while 1970s rock stars Al Stewart, Gerry Rafferty and John Martyn had been an established part of the ‘60s folk scene. (Of the three, only Rafferty remained in Scotland, at least until he found pop fame in the ‘70s with pop duo Stealers Wheel). Dave remembers Clive Palmer, of the original, Edinburgh-based, Incredible String Band very well, and he still runs into ISB’s more renowned figures, Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, on a regular basis.

The “progressive” folk musical journey undertaken by ISB underlines how much the burgeoning scene of which Dave was a progenitor had outstripped the confines of “folk”. By the late 60s/early 70s, the UK folk revival “had died a death,” he argues. Yet Dave remained broadly a part of the amorphous folk movement. He played with the late Barry Murphy in the Anglo-American banjo playing duo, The Rufus Crisp Experience, and in addition to still globe-trotting in his storyteller guise, Dave Arthur is part of the roots musical group, Rattle on the Stovepipe.


Rattle on the Stovepipe, with Pete Cooper (left) and Dan Stewart (right)
Dave hated the fact that, like pretty much all UK folk singers in the 1960s, he couldn’t sing in his own voice. Not having a “regional accent,” he, like many, sang ‘Mummerset’, a nonsense word for a nonsense, fake rural, accent ironically affected by those seeking acceptance from folk purists. In the UK folk world of the '60s and '70s, sounding like you came from Northumbria rather than the south-east of England was much more acceptable. For many years though Dave has sung in his natural voice, whether singing English folk or Appalachian songs whose musical origin, as Dave points out, often lay with British and Irish immigrants. 

The UK folk scene today, while not as influential as it was for much of the 1960s, is in better health, Dave argues. There may have been five fiddlers in the 1960s but there are hundreds of them now, he laughs. You can graduate from Newcastle University with a degree in folk music. From strictly “orbits floating around each other,” folk’s component parts are today more aware of each other’s importance, and performers he says are more open to the diffuse elements of the tradition. There aren’t many who can sing, play, dance, storytell and puppeteer though, as Dave still does.


Dave played at the Royal Albert Hall with Shirley Collins at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in May 2017. Shirley had recently returned to public performance for the first time in 30 years and had released an acclaimed new album ‘Lodestar’. On the night, as throughout her recent UK tour, Dave accompanied her on guitar, as did Pete Cooper of Rattle on the Stovepipe and the album’s producer Ian Kearey. Perhaps it was fitting though that the lifetime achievement awards went to arguably the ultimate world musician, Ry Cooder, and to Al Stewart, confirming that folk is a bit less precious and rather more inclusive these days. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Kelvin Message: A life in music

Kelvin Message is a guitar specialist – a tech guy who played his first gig at 14 and who’s been professional ever since. Kelvin was also a musical impresario, providing UK musicians with a key south coast platform in the '70s folk scene. 

Until he was in his mid-20s, Kelvin kept his engineering day job. In 1976 however he jacked it in and became a full-time professional musician and guitar tutor. Kelvin still had a family to support though. Paying the bills came first, but, he ruefully admits, my family didn’t. “You don’t think about it at the time,” he conceded. The allure of overseas gigs and organising music events got in the way of a steady family life. The kids have all grown up and all the wives and partners are dead, or gone, he observes sadly.

Kelvin has had a stab or two at the big time, releasing a single in 1973, and playing on the same bill as many famous musicians. His musical career actually began at a church school where he sang soprano in the choir until his voice broke and that particular career path ended. His dad encouraged him to take up an instrument instead. The harmonica proved a disaster, but he played a toy guitar until he had destroyed it.

At 14, 'The Vandeanon Sound' were launched on unsuspecting punters at St Stephen’s Methodist Church Hall in Hampden Park. Apparently taking their name from a Tolkien character, the band helped satiate the burgeoning beat boom demand. They were paid 5 shillings for their trouble. Officially Kelvin couldn’t play in pubs, and obviously he couldn’t drive. So, still at school, he relied on his parents to get both him and his gear to gigs. In some pub venues though, wearing “long trousers” might get him in, he says. These days we are all trying to look younger, he notes ironically. “Keep taking the pills and wear a hat,” he strongly advises.

Kelvin had been playing rock covers in what, initially, were non-amplified bands until one day in 1970 he had an epiphany outside The Dolphin pub in South Street, Eastbourne. On his way to a regular afternoon gig at the Habib Restaurant directly opposite, an old guy spotted the guitar case and, somewhat absurdly, asked Kelvin whether he could play. “I like to think so,” was his faux modest response. That night, peering through a hole in the wall in a back room of the pub, he spied proceedings at what would later be referred to as a “folk club”. Kelvin was mesmerised by the playing of acoustic guitarist, Johnnie Winch. Johnnie, from Hastings, would become renowned on the UK folk circuit throughout the ‘70s and '80s. He and Kelvin often played together and remained friends. Like many so-called “folk” guitarists, John Renbourne and Bert Jansch included, Winch’s style was heavily blues-influenced, and, like them, his fluidly combined melody, rhythm and bass. Johnnie was doing the work of three guitarists, Kelvin says.

Kelvin with Johnnie Winch (right) in a publicity pic the duo used in the 1970s
Kelvin would do his own turns at The Dolphin, and at The Crown as well. After a few years he decided to branch out and form his own folk club at The Lamb. I had noticed that at a certain point in proceedings at the Dolphin, everybody would up-sticks for another venue, he says. This mobile crew were as much performers as fans, so we needed a following like this to run our own club, he says.

The Lamb pub in Eastbourne still has a folk club thanks in part to Kelvin for founding it in 1976 and running until 1993. In the late 1970s and ‘80s he put on folk line-ups in various Eastbourne theatres, including The Hippodrome and The Tivoli, and played electric guitar in rock acts, acoustic in folk combos, and ran music nights throughout the town. Kelvin helped found the Eastbourne Folk Club at the Terminus pub too.

We would have ‘club swaps’ where singers and musicians from folk clubs throughout Sussex would perform at each other’s venues, he says. Hastings was a major folk venue in those days, and Kelvin worked closely with Keith Leech, who runs The Jack in the Green Festival, and who he describes as having been given an MBE “for services to folk music.” “Where’s my bleedin’ gong then,” he asks rhetorically.

Davey Graham played in Eastbourne, he noted. The celebrated Anglo-Caribbean guitarist helped launch the second British folk boom in the mid-60s. He was, Kelvin says, basically playing piano music on an acoustic guitar. The same is true, he says, of his personal folk guitar hero, Ralph McTell. To make his point, Kelvin promptly picked up an acoustic and deftly played with ragtime syncopation. Kelvin agrees that his old guitar sparring partner, Terry Lees, has a flamenco inflection to his playing.

In 1971 Terry came down from Leicester and helped put Eastbourne on the folk map by coming runner-up in a national finger-picking competition in the mid-'70s. Kelvin and Terry gigged together in Holland. Kelvin would pack up work at 5 o’clock on a Friday and high tail it down to Harwich with Terry for the ferry crossing for a weekend of gigs and be back at the factory at 8am on a Monday morning. Picking up on the flamenco theme, Kelvin launches into a virtuoso display of how a music not normally associated with UK folk was, like ragtime, like jazz, essentially a dance music. Spanish players, noted Kelvin, would keep their heads down. Not because they were being modest, but because they were watching the dancers’ feet and would improvise accordingly in order to drive the dancing on.

Kelvin (right) in a promo photo with Terry Lees back in the day
Listening to Kelvin, I was reminded of what Gil Scott-Heron says on his final album, that what would later get called jazz music was simply dance music, and the best players were those who could keep people dancing the longest. Kelvin understands that labels like ‘folk’ are sterile and often obscure the eclecticism upon which supposedly pure musical forms are based. “It was no good me sticking my nose up,” he says, and judging one kind of music as ‘good’ and another as ‘bad’. I needed to earn a bloody living! I was though a total purist in terms of just playing…yes. My business card still says: ‘No backing tracks, no effects, no vocals; just guitar.’ I wasn’t anti this or anti that though; I was just against anything that distracted from me playing. I still am.”

Don’t forget, he said, what were later called ‘folk clubs’ were places for entertainment, for blokes to try to pick up girls…for drinking and for smoking. Kelvin paints a picture of Eastbourne folk clubs in the 1960s and early 1970s that’s a long way from the preciousness of those who often ran folk venues. Other big names would come down, he says, recalling that he put John Renbourne on at The Lamb, and that Martin Carthy played at the Terminus in the 1980s.

For Kelvin it was, and is, all about the music, any music. “If you wanted country I could do that; classical, no problem.” He and Andrew Walker, a guitarist and composer, formed ‘Third Half’ in the 1980s as a self-consciously ‘contemporary’ folk outfit, playing their own material rather than so-called standards. Another Kelvin vehicle, ‘Just Guitars’ did what it said on the tin. The ‘Old Town Band’ featured Kelvin on banjo and guitar, along with Paul Rawlinson, in folk-based sets that would sometimes stray into rock or classical styles. Kelvin also helped to organise folk and other music events, including the Eastbourne Folk Festival, which took place over several days throughout the 1970s and '80s, including at the Bandstand - “a nightmare for lugging gear to, unless you had a boat,” he says. “It’s since been replaced by f*****g Airborne,” he notes. One renowned performer he remembers putting on at The Tivoli in the 1980s was American folk singer Julie Felix. Asked to recall what it was like to have worked with this international star, Kelvin soon found an appropriate Anglo-Saxon phrase.

Through all these years Kelvin has remained a guitar teacher and technician. In the 1990s a Fureys and Davey Arthur gig at the Congress Theatre in Eastbourne was rescued by Kelvin sorting out Davey’s guitar and delivering it right to the stage door. In the 1980s Kelvin performed a similar feat at a Birmingham NEC gig organised by Jeff Lynne and featuring a former member of the Fab Four who was about to play live for the first time in a decade. As George Harrison nervously prepared to hit the stage, his allotted guitar started playing up. Kelvin was on hand to sort it out. As a guitar tech, Kelvin could have become a semi-permanent feature with ELO, but says phlegmatically, “If I’d been offered a job on, say, bass, that would have been different. I didn’t want to end up as a bleedin’ roadie.” Steady, predictable, income was key. Kelvin has many album credits though, usually, he says, as guitar tech.

Kelvin at home in his workshop, Nov 2016
For several decades Kelvin has been a guitar player, engineer and tutor, for much of that time he had wives and kids to support. He still teaches and repairs guitars in a front room workshop at his long-time home in Eastbourne. Kelvin still plays regularly too, including at a seafront ‘Shadows Club’, in homage to the seminal guitar band. Interesting studio work continues to come his way as well. He plays guitar on Ruben Vine's sci-fi comic/punk concept album, "The Life and Times of an Imaginary Rock Star", which has just been released on vinyl, CD and as a download.

Kelvin is still keeping on keeping on. He betrays no hint of resentment for what might have been, other, perhaps, than some sadness for what the music business can do to family life.