Secondary School and the 1960s
Having failed the 11+ I went to Lancaster Boys School, Leicester in 1962. I didn’t feel like a failure though, in fact I was glad to be going there. It was a new school in nice grounds and there was a girls school next door that proved significant in later years! At that time the role of Secondary Modern schools was changing. In the 1950s they were a bit of a dumping ground for those who were incapable of rising to the academic rigour of the Grammar Schools (Yes, I am being sarcastic!). Unfortunately, this accounted for about eighty per cent of the population and it was gradually becoming obvious that these pupils were capable of a lot more. Lancaster Boys was given the remit to get kids to pass exams and, perhaps ironically, they had one of the highest pass rates in the city by the mid 60s including the grammar schools. The official school leaving age at that time was fifteen and passing the 11+ didn’t guarantee success. Lancaster Boys was seen as a good school and I enjoyed being there.
In the first week or so of being there we were given the opportunity to play a musical instrument if we wanted to. Those interested had time out of lessons to try a variety of wind instruments. There was a school wind band run by a visiting band master named Mr. J.Ord Hume. He was the relative of a famous military band composer. We could try all sorts of instruments: trombones, cornets, clarinets, euphonium. It was great fun. I decided on clarinet because at that time there was a big hit by Acker Bilk called “Stranger on the Shore”. I was still heavily influenced by light orchestral music! We didn’t have actual lessons but he showed us the basics and then we just learnt on the job. He showed us the music and we learnt the notes and he shouted at us if we got it wrong! It’s amazing how quickly you can pick things up. He did his own arrangements with some really easy parts so anyone could be part of the band right from the start. Then there were more difficult parts as you got better. It actually sounded very good and set me on my path as a musician.
We also had singing once a week which was still my favourite activity and every Monday morning all the first years had hymn practice. The headmaster Mr. Dickson was often there ensuring that the boys sang up, at risk of a whack round the head if you didn’t. This was a time when corporal punishment was used extensively not just for misbehaviour but as a teaching method! It included hitting, hair pulling, ridicule and a whole range of methods of torture. Didn’t do me any harm though!(Yes, the old cliches are the best!). To be fair, it was often done accompanied by a sarcastic sense of humour which made it a bit more bearable. Mind you, if teachers employed these methods now they would probably all be arrested!
There were assemblies every morning where we sang at least two hymns, it was like a mini service including a lesson for the day and a prayer. On Fridays the wind band would play for the hymns and sometimes play an instrumental. My first real experience as a performer.
Things were moving fast though and my interests were expanding.
In 1963 Beatlemania struck and things were never the same again. This was the watershed, it opened up the floodgates of new possibilities. This was when youth was liberated from the conformity of the past and I lost interest in light orchestral music. Even at that age I could come out with a convincing rendition of “Twist and Shout” and “Please Please Me” and my future as a vocalist was assured, or so I thought. With the emergence of The Rolling Stones shortly afterwards I became a total convert and spent most of my time singing or playing records over and over in my mind until they actually became a part of me. I wasn’t a passive consumer, I was living it!
I had a problem though. Although intuitively I understood perfectly what was happening I didn’t know how it was done. I had no access to the instruments used in pop music and my music theory was poor. When I discovered how chords worked it was an epiphany! Yes!!, that’s how you do it!! You play chords and sing along to it!! Once I worked that out there was no looking back!! It took quite a while to reach that point though.
1965 was one of the best years for music ever what with “Rubber Soul”,”Highway 61 Revisted” and a whole string of brilliant Rolling Stones singles (albums not so good though apart from “Aftermath”). It was also one of the most significant years of my life. I was a real teenager now and part of a wider sub-culture. This was the time of the mods and rockers both of which I was on the periphery of although I tended towards the mods. The rocker connection was that I attended the Avenue Road Youth Club, which was a rocker stronghold. They were quite impressive with their powerful bikes and reckless ways. I can remember them doing speed trials around Avenue Road and Bulwer Road where occasionally one them would crash into a wall. They were a bit moronic. I liked their macho swagger and the leather jackets and studded belts though.
The mod connection was more by association. Although my friends and I were aware of what was happening we were too young to go to the clubs and coffee bars frequented by the mods. The mother of my best friend at the time had a hair salon on Queens Road. She had an apprentice who was a fully fledged mod with a real scooter and he became a source of information about what was happening and where the best places were even in London. These stories were passed on with a sense of awe and wonder that was virtually religious.
Our time was spent mainly hanging around in parks and town and getting up to all kinds of mischief. This included things like casual shoplifting, illegally travelling on trains and performing ridiculously dangerous dares mainly on building sites and railway lines. I was surprised to learn much later that John Lennon and his pals got up to very similar things in Liverpool ten years earlier. It was perhaps a rite of passage for boys in the immediate post-war period. We were like a bunch of trainee “rebels without a cause”. We also developed our skills at chatting up girls. Bizarrely, one of the main weekly meeting points for people of our age was the Museum on New Walk on Sunday afternoons. I had many an assignation there. By the end of 1965 I think I was probably lucky to still be alive! I also had a criminal record but , fortunately as I was a juvenile, it didn’t affect my later career.
On a more positive note we were all really into music and listened to each other’s records. This was a fantastic year what with The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun”, The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man”, The Who’s “My Generation” and perhaps, for me, the most significant song I have ever heard Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”. There was also a remarkable string of Beatles hits. I internalised many of the songs at this time to such an extent they have effectively become a part of what I am and I still perform them now. At this time singles were the most important format and they were all we could really afford. We listened to the top 40 on the radio and juke boxes were an important outlet for music that could be found in many cafes. We also often went roller skating at the Granby Halls on Saturday afternoon where the latest hits were played on a loud PA system.
This was where I first heard Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” which made an enormous impact on me. I realised that songs could be about anything you wanted or even about nothing at all. It was an epiphany.You could also listen to records in booths at the record shops. The main stores in Leicester were Brees on Churchgate and Cowlings on Belvoir Street.
In 1966 I became bored with being a delinquent and decided to become an intellectual. I wasn’t exactly sure what this entailed but I realised that knowledge is power and that if I continued following the path I was on I would end up either in borstal or some boring job at the age of fifteen. I was in the exam class now and became separated from the retrobates I’d been hanging around with. I started going to the Phoenix Theatre which had recently opened that was staging fairly avant garde plays. I was particularly impressed by “Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs” which I saw several times. I related to Malcolm’s rage against normality and mediocrity and yearning for freedom. I also quite fancied one of the actresses in it although I was too shy to speak to her in the bar afterwards.
I also went to the De Montfort Hall to the classical and jazz concerts. You could get a cheap ticket if you stood at the side. I saw some remarkable performances and events like The Modern Jazz Quartet, the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Dave Brubeck who I watched sitting on the stage just behind where he was playing. Fantastic!
I was becoming very interested in jazz and bought several records that were sold cheaply on a market stall. I particularly liked Bix Beiderbecke and still play the records now. I also developed a life long love of Louis Armstrong who I think is the greatest jazz player of all time. I saw Jacques Loussier at the De Montfort Hall and found his jazz treatments of Bach pieces quite compelling. All in all, it was a time of growth and awareness for me. I was breaking away from the conformity of the working/lower middle class attitudes around me that I found so stifling. I was also beginning to reject the macho posturing of the youth scene that I had found myself in. I was discovering my creative side!
I had a new set of friends and we were old enough to start going out at night. The mod thing was still happening and we bought made to measure suits from John Collier and fancy shirts and shoes. At this time I was doing three paper rounds so I had a bit of money to spend.
The main places we went to were The Green Bowler (a coffee bar on Churchgate) and the Casino Ballroom on London Road. This is where I first encountered the local live music scene. Several bands played there but the standouts were definitely Legay. The lead singer, Rod Read, was incredibly charismatic and they had a huge fan following of mainly attractive girls. As you can understand, this helped serve as an inspiration for me to follow a musical career! They also had their own style that included rocked up versions of Motown hits (Motown was hitting it’s peak at this time). When the bands weren’t playing there was a disco. Contrary to what many think is mod music the majority of records played were Soul and Bluebeat (a name taken from one of the main record labels. People call it Ska now). This love of Black Music persisted into the later Skinhead subculture (and what became known as Northern Soul) but not so much the Hippies with some notable exceptions like Otis Redding. Motown was seen as too “pop” and watered down for the main stream but that changed in the 1970s with artists like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
By 1967 I was really in the groove. “Strawberry Fields Forever” became my favourite song as I worked towards taking my ‘O’ Levels. The Green Bowler was still the main place we went to and they started putting live bands on in an upstairs room there. They also had a really good, loud juke box where I first heard the song “Happy Jack” by the Who which became a firm favourite.
As well as the Green Bowler we went to the Nite Owl, a large coffee bar on Newarke Street. They had all-nighters and featured some of the top groups at the time like Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and Geno Washington and his Ram Jam Band. Another brilliant group who played there was the Graham Bond Organisation who had Jack Bruce as their bass player. Legay were also a regular feature who I saw quite often on Sunday afternoons and were fantastic as usual. They also featured many American soul stars there. A very good place until it burned down and I’m not speaking metaphorically!!
1967 was the “Summer of Love” and the new phenomenon of Hippies took hold. This started in San Francisco and the song “San Francisco (wear some flowers in your hair)” by Scott Mackenzie became an anthem that summer. I welcomed this with open arms, it beat the pants off the kind of casual violence that epitomised the Mods and Rockers! It also felt incredibly liberated. Later that summer Leicester had it’s own Love-in on Victoria Park.
Local poet Terry Wilford read his poems, people strummed guitars and we all felt very clever as the police looked on. I wasn’t really involved yet but that was about to change very soon!
For many the Hippie Explosion was seen as a commercial thing and, certainly at the time, many people cashed in on it. Club owner Alex Barrow closed his “Bluebeat Club” and opened up the “House of Happiness”on Campbell Street. The Chicane Club on the other side of town, which I never went to, advertised “Flower Power”. A new club opened called the “Fifth Dimension”. There were plenty of people who became known as “weekend hippies”, “straight” jobs during the week and “freaking out” at the weekend! But all this misses the point that something actually was happening. Attitudes were changing. There was a new autonomy amongst the young and their older sympathisers. Home grown businesses started emerging selling alternative clothes and other paraphernalia. The area around Silver Street became a hive of enterprise of alternative culture. An “underground” press emerged on a national level most notably with the new paper “International Times” which was distributed clandestinely. Later on there was “Oz” magazine where the editors ended up in jail for obscenity! At this time the established record companies briefly lost control of their product. The fans and the musicians were calling the tunes and were in control of their own culture. It was a liberating time where, for once, what was best was also the most popular!
I left Lancaster Boys and went to Charles Keene College to do my ‘A’ Levels. This was the beginning of a whole new life. In the first few weeks I met Mick Pini who was a fellow student. He’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met and one of the best musicians. We became friends and had many interesting times together over the next few years but the most significant one was 1968.