Below is the personal ancient history that I wrote for my old page on the original Comus website…….
When I was but a tiny, tiny child……..
Never Never Land, Southend-on-Sea (1960s).
I was born in the election weathervane constituency of Basildon in Essex in 1955, and later moved to Southend-on-Sea, home, at the time, of the world’s longest pleasure pier.
The class photograph, Prittlewell Primary School, 1962
As for so many of my working class contemporaries in the late 1960’s, music became vital to me with the arrival off the coast of the UK of exciting and seemingly dangerous ship-based pirate radio stations like Caroline and London.
Their output appeared to stand in deep and unflattering contrast to the received pronunciation of folk songs on BBC children’s programmes and stuffy bits of dead classical music that we were occasionally, mortifyingly subjected to at school.
The world at the time had the appearance of having divided on generational lines, and our lot appeared to be winning.
At the age of 11, I passed an exam and was sent – alone from my junior school – to a boys-only grammar school. Where the posh kids went. Music lessons were a grotesque conflation of physical abuse, favouritism, folk song and Schubert lieder. Lifeless, irrelevant and rebarbative.
Not a hint of anything that used electricity. Popular music did not exist. Well, apart from the Schubert lieder of course.
Perhaps we weren’t winning after all.
It was whilst at grammar school, however, that I was catapulted into the burgeoning ‘underground’ music scene by the impact of a record I heard called ‘Volume Two’, by the Soft Machine. It was 1969. I went out and bought a copy of the album. I played it until the grooves wore out, and decided that music like that was what I wanted to do. Somehow.
My brother was learning to play the ‘pianoforte’ at the time with a venerable LRCM, a lady who shared a house with ‘mother’, an even more elderly lady. So I signed up too.
I quickly surmised that my new teacher of piano and music theory was not overly familiar with the music of the Soft Machine.
For a year or so I dutifully took a pair of carpet slippers to her house and, in her porch, exchanged my world for hers in the deeply symbolic and deeply anguishing act of shedding my street shoes for carpet slippers, before entering her house.
I never saw ‘mother’, who remained mysteriously hidden behind a frosted glass window that let into the back room of the house. Every so often the piano teacher would stiffen, cock her head towards the frosted glass, raise a hand to demand silence and then hurry out of the room with a quiet ‘mother’s calling me’.
I never heard a thing, but I had seen ‘Psycho’……
We never did get round to the Soft Machine.
‘Third’, the next Soft Machine album, gave me my instrument. The album heavily featured the band’s new member, Elton Dean, on saxophone. I played the new album until the grooves wore out, and decided that music like that was what I wanted to do on the saxophone. Somehow.
My parents were unwilling to fund what they regarded as a passing fad, and the nearest thing to a saxophone available at the grammar school was the excruciatingly uncool clarinet. Metaphorical carpet slippers all over again, but I signed up for lessons anyway.
Though I couldn’t stand playing the clarinet, I found the school clarinet teacher amiable.
I bashed unmoved through stuff on the unloved clarinet until I discovered some Bach studies, which I played until my reeds wore out.
By now I was also scouring the pages of ‘Melody Maker’ each week for reviews and listings of the most obscure and avant-garde musics available. I made my way to gigs in dark clubs or the upstairs rooms of obscure south London pubs to watch and hear key British and American jazz and free improv musicians play.
Only once did the clarinet teacher ask me what I wanted to do on the clarinet. I was so shocked and embarrassed that I blurted out ‘jazz’, which, it turned out, was rather too wide a label.
To my horror, he expressed great enthusiasm for ‘jazz’, and told me that he had once depped in a trad jazz band. Whatever that was.
To compound the teeth shattering embarrassment of the moment he proceeded to bash out something entirely unintelligible on the piano and invited me to improvise over the top. Was this jazz? What was I supposed to do with it?
So I squeaked. For what seemed like several lifetimes, I squeaked tonelessly over what I now assume must have been a blues progression. And then we stopped, and carried on with another morceau of Mozart.
Leaving clarinet lessons marked the end of my ‘formal’ musical training. I tooled up with a bass clarinet and soprano sax (thank you, John Surman, for the inspiration) and launched myself at the 20th century……….