In which our teenage marionette feels the raw power that sends him AWOL from form 6 and leads to his first demonstration despite the I.R.A. blowing his ooh la la!
can’t recall exactly when I first became aware of Iggy Pop and the Stooges. It was undoubtedly sometime during the year of 1974 and it was certainly their seminal album, ‘Raw Power’, that originally assaulted my ears and which, in due course, would deeply penetrate my psyche and enter my imaginative bloodstream.
This initial slow acting infusion took place in a record store next to West Croydon Bus Station. It was a diminutive, somewhat shabby establishment that a former Monk’s Hill High classmate had secured a full-time job at aged fifteen. This was perfectly legal at that time and although this meant that early school leavers would depart without qualifications it also advantageously gave them a jump start in the employment market ahead of those peers who stayed on another year to take exams.
I would visit him there from time-to-time to pick up a record for a healthy unauthorised discount and to receive his wisdom in regards to what worthwhile new albums had freshly entered the premises. His tastes were faintly different from mine. He loved T. Rex, Bowie and Roxy Music as I did but had also gotten heavily into Velvet Underground and solo Lou Reed material and had begun to proselytise the fierce musical merchandise of a band from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who Bowie had recently embraced and turned producer for.
This record store had a small listening booth that reeked of the fetid trinity of stale cigarettes, urine and cheap lager. Although supposedly a soundproof and comfortable location for customers to listen to the music, when it rained or turned exceptionally cold it became a short-term shelter for the indigenous alcoholic vagrants who shuffled about trying to bum fags and small change off the travellers alighting from or getting on the various buses that converged at the station. Hence the putrid aromas. So it was in this curiously suitable environment, and at my friend’s assertive insistence, that I agreed to hear out the album I’ve already referenced at the outset of this chapter.
At first listen I wasn’t keen. The muddy production didn’t help and I had no point of orientation for fucked-up rock music like this. It was not overtly Hard Rock, although there were certainly elements of that in the general metallic texture of the tracks; unalloyed Glam it wasn’t either, nor Pop-Rock or heavy Blues; and it emphatically wasn’t Prog Rock. It was disturbingly novel sounding and I left the booth confused and somewhat disappointed. Still, I agreed to take the album home after it was offered me for a mere £1 and stuck it at the back of my record collection like a pariah possession, hidden way behind the Mott the Hoople, Alice Cooper, Rolling Stones and the T. Rex vinyl.
But like a teenager who takes a surreptitious though not necessarily pleasant occasional nip of an alcoholic beverage from their parents’ drinks cabinet in order to re-orientate their tastes for an adult world, I would sometimes pull out ‘Raw Power’ to play a track or two and slowly, incrementally, began to appreciate its monolithic, napalm-hearted assault on my senses. I eventually discovered it was the perfect album for playing before going out to a party or as a sonic aperitif for a night at the Greyhound to catch a beer or a band. It could elevate the mood and raise the pulse in quicker time than any other offering in my collection. What I couldn’t have dared to envision at this time though was that in the following decade I would end up playing those same tracks in venues around the world alongside the man who composed and sang them, an extraordinary species of twisted motherfucker who would eventually be popularly acclaimed as ‘the Godfather of Punk’.
For a taster of what was to come see the below video...
Getting kicked out of sixth form sucked! The circumstance are as follows: I didn’t want to go on to higher education in the first place and agreed to do so only because my father thought my good exams results were a testament to my natural potential for academia, especially seeing as I used to bunk off school a lot and couldn’t be bothered with set homework, revision or relevant study. Actually I was more like an idiot-savant, but without any traces of the savant.
Anyway, having agreed and attended sixth form collage for a few weeks, I set about sabotaging my supposed glittering academic career by spending more time at home hunched over my bass or six string guitar than spent in the classrooms of my new school. I used to go in for morning register, stick up my hand when my name was called, then make straight for the fire exit door at the rear of the school gym in order to race home to listen to my ever expanding record collection or to originate some ideas for self-penned material intended for my band, Marionette.
The first song I exclusively wrote - both lyrics and music - was called ‘High School’. It was a satirical take on formal education and, as collectively played with Marionette, kind of sounded like a Boomtown Rats track some years before that outfit actually emerged from Dublin to join the New Wave.
But, as is my way, I’m digressing again…
Having managed to skip sixth form on a regular basis for eight months or so without hitch or hindrance I returned from a band rehearsal one particular evening to discover my father in a foul mood. It didn’t take long for him to articulate what his problem was.
“So, you’ve been wasting time messing about with guitars and music when you should have been at school finishing your education!”
“Er, no, not exactly…”
“Don’t lie to me son. We’ve just had your form teacher stop by to tell us he’s hardly seen you since you started there. Today they had a fire drill and spent an hour or so trying to work out why you weren’t on the premises when the register was recalled?”
“Ah, well, the thing is…”
“Save it! Just tell me what’s going on?”
So I did. I explained I wanted to be a professional musician, wasn’t interested in university and higher education, and made my plea for tolerance and understanding regarding this admittedly problematical life choice. After he had calmed down a bit he stated: “It’s your life, do what you have to do. But until you make some real money from music you better get yourself some proper work, ’cause neither me nor your mother are going to feed and financially support you while you mess about playing at being a poncy rock star.”
Fair enough I suppose, even if this wasn’t the game plan I’d envisioned. I actually thought I could get away with feigning to attend sixth form for two years while in reality working on my playing skills, writing material and getting my band Marionette up to at least a semi-professional footing. Now, thanks to the school fire drill fiasco, I was obliged to find myself a genuine, work-a-day, hard graft, up in the morning, unfulfilling, shitty job. Despite being despondent at that prospect I consoled myself with the knowledge that at least with the university option now out of the way, I no longer had to sustain my fictitious double life as wannabe student/musician and could now focus on finding employment that would finance my real aspirations.
After, mercifully, failing the interview process for the position as a telephone salesman with a company called Ready Mixed Concrete and actively sabotaging my chances of becoming the next assistant manager of the Selsdon branch of Woolworths - I turned up forty minutes late, horribly hungover with conspicuous beer and kebab tinged vomit stains on my suit, jacket and tie - I passed my next interrogation which saw me secure a job as a care assistant at a residential home for the elderly and infirm. The home in question, Davidson Lodge, was located near East Croydon Station and required a bus ride from Monk’s Hill. This meant getting up at 6 am in order to make it for the 7.30 am start.
I hate and have always hated early morning starts. I’m naturally a night person, which is just as well really considering the nature of my business. Even as a small child my parents tell me I would scream and act up when told it was bed time. Come the morning I would equally scream and act up in order to stay in my bed. I’m simply not equipped to handle the time schedules of the common workplace. But I tried, and for a couple of months sort of managed to get to work on time, well… most of the time.
There was a lot of black West Indian folk who worked at Davidson Lodge and it didn’t take me long to discover that I had more in common with most of them than with the white English hierarchy that ran the institution. I especially became good friends with a couple of Jamaican guys who introduced me to the pleasures of drinking cockspur rum and listening to authentic Reggae music. I’d been aware of the genius that was Bob Marley and some of the more commercial Reggae acts, but my new work associates introduced me to unknown records by the likes of the Mighty Diamonds, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Third World, King Tubby, Delroy Wilson, U-Roy, and Toots and the Maytals - genuine roots Reggae artists that could sooth the mind and activate the hips.
As well as this unexpected advantage to my new vocation, I also had the financial resources to attend more gigs then ever and to upgrade my musical equipment. Legendary outfits Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, the Heavy Metal Kids (loved them!), the Mighty Diamonds and Peter Tosh, were among the thirty-two acts I saw play live in post-sixth form 1975. It was also around this time that I swapped my £50 Rickenbacker copy for an incredible looking, though not so excellent sounding, bass called a Burn’s Concorde which I balanced out with the more practical purchase of the bass that you can see to my right in the photo below where I’m sitting on the floor playing on Marionette’s lead guitarist’s Gibson Les Paul guitar. I can’t remember the make of this bass but it had the exact reverse qualities of the Burns - not so hot looking but sounded good.
Most importantly, working full time also meant that I could fund two very significant projects. Firstly I paid the £100 fee to get Marionette into a small but fully equipped four-track South-London recording studio for a twelve hour day to lay down four original songs from our repertoire. We were all studio virgins, utterly ignorant of the ways of capturing rock music on tape. Luckily we had a patient, very helpful studio engineer who explained the process in detail and acted as our guide and producer for the session. Our set had developed into a fifty-per-cent covers, fifty-per-cent original material balance. Among the songs we covered in our own singular fashion were a version of Mott’s ‘All the Way From Memphis’, the Heavy Metal Kids’ ‘The Cops Are Coming’, and a very (in retrospect) punky, fast rendition of Simon and Garfunkle’s ‘The Sound of Silence’, which, after gratuitously adding some perverse lyrics and a sinister delivery, we re-titled ‘The Sound of Violence’. However, I insisted on only original material being chosen for the recording session but in order to keep everyone sweet in the band I agreed that each of Marionette’s songwriters should be represented on the demo. My ‘High School’ track; keyboard player Mel’s ‘In Your Hands’; and two Mick Sheldon efforts – ‘Overtaken By The Dead’ and ‘A Town Across the Border From Detroit’ - were duly captured satisfactorily on tape.
The whole experience was thrilling. We had our first demo and were starting to get real gigging experience, playing in church halls and local pubs that we were all still, officially, too young to drink in. I loved being in a band. It seemed to me like being in a gang, but with music as the weapon of choice.
The second noteworthy project I used my hard-earned cash to finance was leaving the UK for the first time. A friend and I had noticed these two young women drinking in the Greyhound pub one Friday evening. They were talking together excitedly in French, the way that young French women do, and although not being in the same league as the Bridget Bardot goddess from Gatwick Airport, they were both very pretty and kept glancing up at us and smiling. Before I could think of a slick ruse to join them, my mate John staggered over (he had consumed five or six pints of Guinness by this point) and in his heavy South-London accent said to them, “Hello my continental darlings, voo lay voo a bit of British male company, ooh la la, ooh la la, know what I mean?”, while I choked on what was left of my Double Diamond from embarrassment and shock.
It still dumbfounds me today that this farcical kamikaze approach actually worked. “Sure”, one of them giggled, and having wisely invested in buying them a round of drinks each we were soon learning the pleasures of authentic French kissing from our chosen Gallic partners who spoke reasonably good English.
First and Second bases were duly established and the hallowed Third base seemed eminently viable when they enthusiastically agreed to meet up with us the following evening for a second round of ‘ooh la la’, as my drunken friend annoyingly persisted in referring to it.
Pascal (my choice) and Simone were both exchange students from Paris and we figured we’d show the two girls the rival breathtaking sights of Croydon - the awe-inspiring Whitgift Centre multi-story car park, the very select Wimpy burger restaurant, Surrey Street market with its amusing cheeky-chappy vendors and aromatic odours of rotting fruit and vegetables, and, of course, West Croydon bus station with its marvellous collection of itinerant alcoholics going about their quest for loose change - to conjure up the romantic spirit before buying them a few vodkas at the Greyhound and getting them back to John’s place. His parents were due to be out all evening at a Shadows concert at the Fairfield Halls, and we could get up to all the ‘ooh la la’ we wanted there until 11.30 pm or so. It was a good plan but the IRA went and fucked it up!
When we got to John’s with Pascal and Simone, both nicely intoxicated from the vodka and the carbon monoxide emissions from the heavy traffic on Park Lane, we discovered his parents at home watching On The Buses. It seems the IRA had phoned in a warning that there was a bomb hidden in the concert hall after Hank Marvin and his fellow Shadows had started their set and the event had to be cancelled so that bomb squad officers and sniffer dogs could comb the place for offending explosives.
Still, this did not discourage the French pair. Due to their persistence and ingenuity I later discovered what amazing things can be achieved in an old fashioned ’phone box, and John was equally surprised to learn what fun can be had behind a secluded bus shelter. Plans were then made to meet up for a third night, but when we got to the meeting spot there was an unknown English girl waiting for us with some bad news.
“Pascal and Simone send their apologies. They had to go back to Paris this morning and asked me to come here to tell you what had happened”, she explained, without elucidating as to why their hasty departure was necessary. We made for the Greyhound to eradicate our disappointment with glasses of beer. After we’d reached that inebriated point where stupidity starts to resemble genius I came up with an enterprising plan.
“Listen, I’ve got a week holiday coming up and a few quid in the bank left. Why don’t we go over to Paris together and find these French birds?”
John was on the dole so time off wasn’t a problem for him, and seeing I was prepared to subsidise this venture he was all for it. Neither of us, being utterly naïve and borderline insane at that age, considered not having an address for either of these women in a city with a central population of over two and a half million any kind of impediment.
And so, in a state of youthful anticipation, we ordered up another beer and toasted the fact that both of us would be beyond the borders of the United Kingdom and enveloped by a different culture, language and environment for the first time, very shortly.
Tune in next time for...
Alvin's further exploration of the pleasures of music, his witnessing the decline of rock music up close and personal, and then accidentally discovering its saviours in the guise of the geeky but brilliant beat outfit, the Ramones...