Out of the Camp Ch. 28 – Out of the Pit
Shortly before I joined the National Coal Board, I’d parted ways with the Boys Brigade after nearly seven years if you include the three years spent with the Life Boys, now known as the Boys Brigade Junior Section. During that time, I learned the basic rudiments of drumming from the then Drum Major of the Edinburgh Police Pipe Band, and for a time played in the local Boys Brigade (9th Edinburgh) Pipe Band and this, ultimately, led to me getting a drum kit, provided now I was working, that I paid for it myself. So, one Saturday, I took myself off to Pete Seaton’s music shop in Hope Park Terrace and bought myself – on the never, never, of course! – a beautiful blue pearl Premier Drum Kit comprising snare, two toms, bass, hi-hat and two cymbals. I don’t remember what the cymbals were, but I know they weren’t Zildjians! Anyway, from that day on I’d visit the shop every Saturday with my little payments card and each installment was checked off as I paid. What was fun about these trips was that Pete’s shop was a hang-out for local musicians, pop groups mostly, especially Saturday mornings when folk weren’t working. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I didn’t go out and buy the drum kit the day after I left the Boys Brigade.
Back at Easthouses, one of the other apprentices was a boy called Don Loughton from Leith, who was bass player in a group that had a regular gig at a Leith church youth club, and one day he asked me if I’d come and audition for them because their singer was leaving. I was always singing, walking from the pit bottom to the coal face or wherever we were working, provided it wasn’t a dry section. Where there was no moisture underground there was always a lot of dust, so it wasn’t a good idea to be singing and taking in great gulps of dry dust. The wet sections were fine except there was always a horrible damp stench but, as far as anyone could tell, there was nothing nasty floating around in the air that would harm you. What’s strange about those aromas is that no matter how much time goes by, whenever you smell something similar it takes you right back to those days underground. I used to sing in the showers at the pithead after work, because the acoustics were great although now and then I’d get a bar of soap or a wet flannel thrown at me by uncultured oiks with cloth ears! In any event, Don said I had a nice voice and persuaded me to go to his group’s rehearsal at the youth club that weekend to sing something. Actually, the prospect terrified me as the only singing I’d done in public was after three pints of heavy at the Gilmerton Gardeners’ Arms pub on a Friday night with the accordionist and his drummer (sic). Years earlier I’d sing ‘I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Clause’ every year at the Moredun Coronation Club Christmas parties and before that, when I was three, according to my Mum, I sang ‘Donald Where’s Yer Troosers?’ at my auntie’s wedding.
I turned up at the church hall the following Saturday night expecting to audition at a rehearsal but when I drew near, I heard the group playing Santo & Johnny’s ‘Sleepwalk’ and noises that could only be generated by a crowd of people. Sure enough, when I pushed the door open and walked in, I saw the hall filled with teen couples in death clutches just rotating on their respective spots to the music, oblivious to anything or anyone around them. When I saw the crowd, I was all set to turn around and take off except Don saw me and waved me over to the stage. I walked around the dancers and gave him a look that said something to the effect, “What the ….?” He shrugged an apology and I waited until they’d finished the number. Luckily, I had arrived just as they were taking a break. Don jumped down from the stage, came over and apologized, he hadn’t known that earlier in the week the church minister had asked one of the other group members if they could play at the youth dance tonight and no one had passed on the message to him. I told him I wasn’t ready to sing in front of all these people, but he somehow sweet-talked me into it. What made it worse was that the other singer was there and as Don was trying to set my mind at ease, the other guy, Ray, who was a handsome prat with a quiff like Billy Fury or Bobby Rydell, was watching me warily as though he’d been briefed about me. After the break Ray got up and sang a couple of numbers that were obviously well rehearsed and received a rapturous response. I started to ask myself what the hell was I doing here. Don said this guy was leaving the group so why is he making it so difficult for me. Of course, that’s just when the guitarist, who seemed really cozy with Ray, called me up to sing. I regretted bitterly not having just left when I first arrived and saw the crowd, and I would have extricated myself from this dilemma before it developed. So, anyway, not to prolong this, I got up and sang I don’t remember what, and it was an unmitigated disaster. The key was wrong for my range, the group weren’t familiar with all the chords and, coming out of the bridge (middle eight), the band fell apart and I got completely lost. The hall erupted in hostile jeering and ultimately started chanting, “We want Ray! We want Ray”. I was so thankful that I didn’t have any equipment to pack up and I was able to just get out of there without any delay.
Back at work on Monday morning, Don couldn’t have been more apologetic. I told him no, it was my own fault. When it was clear that there wouldn’t be any rehearsal I should have just left. If there had been any charts around it might have been different, but there weren’t. I was trying to be philosophical, but I had to ask what Ray’s game was. I said to Don, “I thought you said he was leaving.” Don said that Chas (the guitarist) had been talking to him and that Ray was having second thoughts, and my showing up had made him nervous. There wasn’t any point in dragging this out and so I just let it go. Before that evening, I had never heard of Santo & Johnny, far less the tune, ‘Sleepwalk’, but now, even to this day, whenever I hear it, I’m transported right back to that night. And you know what? I love that record! Around the same time, I did audition for a number of groups, but I was incapable of overcoming my nervousness and that’s when I started thinking about pursuing drumming as I mentioned earlier.
I don’t remember auditioning for any drumming jobs other than the one I got, which was with a group called the Blue Beats that was very quickly switched to The Sect. There were four of us in the group, Ian Hampton, vocalist and lead guitar, Russell Robertson, rhythm guitar, Alex Pringle, bass and, after my successful audition, me on drums. We used to rehearse mostly, I think, in Ian Hampton’s parent’s house in West Mains. Alex lived just along the street with his parents and Alex’s Dad was both our manager (sic) (or maybe it should be “hic!”) and our driver. I don’t believe that any of us had our licenses at that point. I certainly didn’t as I remember passing my test at nineteen a couple of years later in an old dormobile at Portobello Testing Centre, or was it Joppa? Anyway, long time ago! Apart from the odd youth club, our first gigs were at Bungy’s and the Gamp Club where we were regulars. I’ve been in touch with Ian, and he recalls one occasion when we got attacked outside Bungy’s and he ended up in a punch up with some idiot and remembers smashing him over the head with a goose neck extension. The funny thing is that Bungy’s was across the close from the Police Station; you could walk from one to the other in less than a minute. The Gamp came slightly later if memory serves and we got to know Stuart Sutcliffe, the owner, quite well and he rebooked us a lot back then. His one memorable characteristic was that he didn’t smile much. I never understood this because the Gamp did really well and was hugely popular. Mind you, I also remember his Dad, and he was no barrel of laughs either, God rest his soul! It was at the Gamp where I figured out that I could sing a song and play drums at the same time, sort of! I think I only did a couple of numbers like that, anyway it wasn’t long before we moved across the street to The Place when that club became popular.
I loved The Place in the early to mid-60s, especially on the weekends when they had some of the great Glasgow bands appear. The first one I remember but I can’t quite recall their name. It was something like The Belltimes , Bell something or something Bell, and I’ve wracked my brain trying think, but I can’t quite get it. After them I think the Pathfinders showed up and they were sensational! I think it was the Pathfinders who first introduced me to Tamla, covering songs of The Temptations, The Four Tops, Isley Brothers and material of other acts from that stable. It seemed that Glasgow was like a conveyor belt churning out one fabulous band after another because, after The Pathfinders came The Blues Council. I really didn’t think that I could be any more blown away by a band than I was with the Pathfinders but, my God, The Blues Council did it. They were playing Motown/Atlantic/Stax songs and introduced me to Smokey Robinson, Major Lance, The Miracles and countless others. At the time it felt that there was a world of music out there that we hadn’t ever heard before and it truly was, for a 17-year-old anyway, absolutely mind blowing to suddenly be exposed to it all at the same time. I bought the Blues Council’s first and only single, ‘Baby Don’t Look Down’, written by then unknown composer, Randy Newman, when it was released and which could easily have been a product of Detroit, replete with horns, clapping girl chorus over a driving beat, and I was really distressed when I heard about the motorway accident. Apparently, they’d been on the way home to Glasgow from a party in Edinburgh celebrating the release of their record. Fraser Calder, the vocalist and Jimmy Giffen, the bass player were both killed. Jimmy was dead on arrival at the Royal Infirmary. Fraser clung on but died the following day. He was an outstanding singer with a truly unique voice. If you can imagine a younger Mose Allison, I think that that would come pretty close to describing his sound, except Fraser was better looking and dressed in the cool ‘mod’ style of the day. Had that accident not happened I really believe that they would have been a hugely successful international success. I still feel desperately sad when I think about it.
After we’d been playing at The Place for some time, often opening for some of these great bands, Brian Waldman, the owner offered us a management contract based, I think, on the popularity of Ian with the girls. I think our most popular number at the time was George Benson’s ‘On Broadway’ made a hit by The Drifters, and Ian blew it out of the park every time we did it. The Boston Dexters were one of the bands we opened for and who we got to know quite well, particularly Tam and Toto, and in my humble opinion, were probably one of if not the greatest band Edinburgh ever produced. I had more than one pro bono drum lesson from Toto when he just happened to show up during a rehearsal at The Place. Tam had been around town for years with other bands and we knew him from our days at The Gamp. Tam, who also left us too early, was described by Alexis Korner – who I came to know years later – as “the greatest undiscovered blues talent of our time.” Another Edinburgh venue we played was The International Club, owned by Jimmy Roccio (or “Jimmy Factifano” as Bert, our manager/roadie called him, as he couldn’t ever remember his name). There was a plan to send us to Germany for a month playing at The Star Club in Hamburg. I found the contract for a 31-day-stint, all signed but I don’t remember why we didn’t go. Brian Waldman, in conjunction with the Malcolm Nixon Agency in London, had set it up starting on February 11th, 1965, but I’d actually have to wait another 3-4 years before performing in Germany.
Around the same time Brian organised a tour of Nottinghamshire for us. I know that sounds daft, and it may well have taken in bits of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, but it’s hard to image there would have been that many young people’s venues in such a small area back then. We weren’t really a working man’s or a miner’s welfare type act. And, speaking of miners, while all this was going on I was still working at the Easthouses Colliery, getting up at 5 every morning and some nights not getting too much sleep after gigging or rehearsing the night before and, of course, the prospect of asking for a month’s leave of absence to go on tour with a pop group wouldn’t have gone down too well with the colliery management. This had been coming for some time and I’d really made up my mind that working underground wasn’t something I wanted to do, despite at the end of my 5-year apprenticeship, I’d be a time-served mechanical engineer with skills that would adapt to many industries. It didn’t matter, I wanted to quit and go on the road with the group and so I was required to appear before the mining review panel to request release from my indentured apprenticeship so I could leave. In today’s world this sounds almost medieval, but the National Coal Board was a Government Bureaucracy and that was how it was done back then.
So, soon after that, we set off for Nottinghamshire in our old Dormobile van to play at a club in
Bosworth! Our van broke down in the snow somewhere on the A1 and we didn’t show up for our first gig of the tour, so the promoter fired us. Just like that! Can you believe it? We got stuck in Boroughbridge for the weekend while the van got fixed and we had a blast hanging out with a crowd of Boroughbridge girls. Shortly after that we broke up, though I don’t remember the circumstances but years later, Ian really hit the big time in the early 70s as bass player for Ron and Russell Mael’s band Sparks, recording several albums and touring internationally with them for years. I, on the other hand, went back home to Edinburgh and got a job as an assistant aerial erector with Grant’s furniture shop on the North Bridge. I don’t know what happened to Russell and Alex, the other two members of the group, or whether indeed, they’re still with us.