MUTTER'S LIFE IN MUSIC, PART 1
Well this is quite a project to drop into one's lap with the non-negotiable edict that it must be outlined, honed, scrapped and honed again within three days!. Still moaning about it is not going to cut any ice with anybody especially Crun, who is still hounding me agressively for a meagre tenner he leant me in 1972..........
Strange as it may seem the first year or so of my existence seems rather bereft of anything remotely musical. This of course cannot be the case because the Slater hovel, being without electrickery and being miles away from anywhere that had anything remotely like a radiogram hitched up to the national grid, had very little in the way of entertainment for a mewling brat like me. I'm sure that mother must have done her best with a few rag books and a stirling repertoire of lullabys. This, I'm sure, goes some way to explaining a lifelong affiliation to the school of simple melody. If only Mrs Gallagher.....?
My first genuine recollection of responding to music was when we visited my maternal grandmother (a.k.a Gran) in Ryde. She had been and for all I knew could still have been a piano teacher, anyway she played the piano!. Consequently she was constanly pressured by her favourite (and at that time only) grandson to play 'The March Of The Tin Soldier' so that he could stamp around the living room with imaginary shouldered rifle in time to the marching band of a piano.......ahh! the simple pleasures of those bygone days. I'm afraid for my grandparent's sake that they had to keep me topped up with musical fixes in those formative years. I am told that whilst my parents were away for a visit to London and The Festival of Britain I was left in the care of those poor two people. I tried to do my part; I arrived with a brand new penny whistle and entertained them royally with a tuneless piping, dribble fuelled, endless whistle solo and just as my parents returned after three days and they felt they could allow relief to pass over their faces, I fell over and rammed the cursed whistle into the roof of my mouth!. The screeching cacophony that they had endured over those long three days was nothing to what I was giving them now!!!! I still wonder; did I fall or was I pushed?.
Eventually, I'm sure to the great relief of my grandparents, we managed to find living accomodation that offered more than oil lamps and chemical toilets. Yes, running water that was meant to run where it ran and (joy of joys) electricity. It was but a short time of nagging on my mother's behalf before a radio was installed. Ah, the days of the Light programme and the Home Service, Uncle Mac and Listen with Mother, the Billy Cotton Band Show and Worker's Playtime......... a load of old rubbish on reflection but meat and drink to a little boy who had nothing more than fields and whistle ramming as a divertissement.
Over the next few years I slowly I slowly added to my repertoire; when playing cowboys I would always ensure that there was a moment that cried out for the hero to sing a Gene Autrey song as he slowly rode across the prairie. The Runaway Train was staple fare as I lay in the bedroom awaiting such sleep 'as may beguile the night' and any boy or girl foolish enough to be brow beaten into a Slater-rigged talent competition seldom got a look in!. All sad, I'm sure, but strangely true.
If steam radio had such a dramatic effect you can only wonder nearly as much as I did when a record player entered our home around 1959. It was not stereo, I will admit, but it did play vinyl records as well as the old 78's and you could stack ten 45's in one go without jamming the record player's arm too many times. I had long left Uncle Mac and Housewife's Choice behind, I had outgrown such anodine stuff a nine year old craved excitement in his music that Joe Loss was unable to provide, cue Rock and Roll. We had a record player and slowly, very, very slowly we had records. Some; Craig Douglas, Jerry Keller, were alright but little more exciting than Edmundo Ross others, well........I still get a buzz even just writing the name ' Little Richard ' let alone when I hear him play and, more especially, sing. I don't expect I'll ever know what it is that speaks to me so clearly and deeply when I play ' Tutti Frutti ' it hit me back then like a thunderbolt and still does the job now - two minutes twenty two seconds of such unspeakable passions.......Phew!
Well, like so many other kids around that time I was hooked. Billy Cotton took a back seat for some considerable time and only then returned because of a kind of kitch quaintness that blended into the Stackridge ethos. Rock and Roll consumed me until the advent of The Rolling Stones. Back then you were either a Beatles fan or it was the Stones. The Beatles were cute and mop topsy in a way that indulged your parents and, worse still, your grandparents; The Stones played R&B with brash passion -there, that word again - and better still, they looked like a group of people that no one in Somerset over nineteen years of age would give houseroom. They looked a little bit like Little Richard sounded. Of course, The Stones led me on to Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and a whole raft full of music that relied more upon on how you felt and how you said it rather than how you dressed it up!.You could be a scruff, have only the meagrest talent and still get away with it. I was in.
We were queueing outside a formroom at school all gauche and spotty. I was singing in a rather primitive way the B side to something to a rather uninterested member of my class, when I was buttonholed by someone else entirely who enquired as to my availability as a singer in his band. I know you're meant to be cool in these circumstances and feign disinterest, but I was having none of that, I said 'Yes' almost before he had finished the sentence. We practiced every Saturday morning in his father's garage; he played a rather cheap guitar through an old radiogram, the drummer played a kit of biscuit tins, cardboard boxes, and spare tyre, I shouted my lungs raw and sucked and blew on an Echo Super Vamper like a possessed spotty schoolkid, which was exactly what I was. It was a start, not a very auspicious one because we never had a name and we never played to anyone other than his parent's corgi and the odd petrified cat as it flew past the garage door, but it was a start.
By now the family had left The Isle Of Wight and had landed up in the thriving metropolis of East Chinnock in Somerset. At least metropolitan is what it seemed to me, I had only shared my surroundings with farm animals and wild life up until this point, there must have been a hundred or more humans where I lived now, certainly enough to fill a village school with about fifty off-spring. As I have said I had left this school by now and was creating a few ripples in the academic waters of the local Grammar school, but in the evenings I still mixed with my old chums from the village. There was talk of setting up a band, now to a hardened veteran of the garage practicing circuit this held few fears, so The Anonymous were born, yes, we had a name, I was making progress. We did eventually play to the public (i.e our combined parents and sundry relatives and friends either in East Chinnock or West Chinnock villge halls) but the music, an assortment of Stones and Animals covers, did not stir the soul. Perhaps the fact that nothing was plugged into anything more powerful than a radio had something to do with this, merely a guess on my part.
A friend at the Grammar school, the tyre thumping drummer, had had more success than I in showbiz. He was now a member of a group that not only had a name, but also proper amplifiers and guitars, even he had a drum kit and wonderfully enough their singer was about to leave for a life of degradation in the army, was I interested?. Well, I was quite a bit cooler with this opportunity, I gave him a second before I said ' Yes' and dropped to the floor on my knees and gave my thanks to God.
I was now a member of The Cellar Rats a town band with gear, a regular practice venue ( the cellar of the name ) and eventually gigs that did not involve family or pets. From the age of 14 to the age of 23 I was consumed with the ridiculous idea that there was nothing else worth doing other than playing in a band. Up until The Cellar Rats I was on my own in this foolishness. Now others joined me in the dream. We went to school from Monday to Friday and gigged all over the Southwest from Friday to early Monday morning and so on. For some reason my schoolwork suffered, but what did I care, I was going to make it!
Now, yes now, I have rediscovered this dream and am possessed of the same zeal that drove my mother nuts when I was a third of my current age. It is rather comforting to find that I was wiser then than when I tried to follow the conformist's path. Bugger 'em is what I say now. Thus far you have had to take my word for the facts of Slater's life heretofore mapped out. There are no recordings - thank God - no videos - ditto - and only a handful of rather alarming black and white photos somewhere, but not in my possession. Gone are such masterpieces of the early Slater oeuvre as;'Embryonic Dream', Periodically Yours' and something about a medieval fair that's title is sadly lost to posterity. Gone, gone. long gone.
'Mick and Mutter' were an acoustic off-shoot of The Cellar Rats. Mick Howe was going to play the 12 string guitar and I was going to play......yes, what was I going to play? I could sing of course, by this I mean that I couldn't sing, but I had the brass neck to stand at the front and convince enough people that I knew what I was doing, but playing blues harp was losing it's appeal, what I needed was a challenge. Whilst staring longingly through the local musical instrument shop window, a favourite pastime when days seemed too full of nothingness and believe me Yeovil had more of it's fair share of nothingness in the 1960's, my gaze fell away from shiny red guitars and alighted upon a flute. 'They sound nice' I thought to myself, 'Why not give it a go?'
I walked around town waiting for a bus, carrying the new flute in a brown paper bag ( either they didn't have a case or I couldn't afford one, I can't remember ) and every time someone of my acquaintance approached we would go through the same routine;
He or She: What's that?.
Me: A flute.
He or She: Give us a tune.
Me after assembling the instrument: Silence, breathy, wheezy noises, silence
He or She: Let's have a go..........(a clear note, then another followed by an incredulous glance in my direction)...(Doubfully) I'm sure you'll soon get the hang of it.
Before the bus could save me from any further embarrassment I bumped into Mick Howe. We went through the same routine that had already done for my spirits except that when he handed the flute back to me he said, ' Well, you had better have learnt to play it by tomorrow afternoon, I'm coming over for a practice! '
Obviously things did work out. By the following afternoon I had not only managed to get one note out of the cursed instrument, but had found sufficient in number to accompany it that I had the rudiments of riffs pinched from Traffic and Jethro Tull. We rehearsed assiduosly and I listened to as many flautists as possible; Eric Dolphy, Yusef Latiff, Roland Kirk, and my particular favourite Harold McNair.
Harold was from Jamaica originally (as far as I can remember) but settled over here and played in the British jazz scene through the early sixties. His flute technique was prodigious and the tone was sublime. I only ever found one solo album, which I still possess, and that one record only had half a dozen flute solos on it, but even to this day they still inspire awe. Some of you have probably heard him play but never heard the name; he was invariably the flautist that accompanied Donovan on his records.
Mick and I played whenever we could, be it town hall or someone's living room - we were not proud. Armed with a set of covers and a handful of originals we decided to go for the big-time. The plan that we hatched, being supremely naive and confident, was for me to go back to the Isle Of Wight, get a job and find off- season accommodation. Then Mick could follow in my wake with only the need to find a job himself. We could live together through the winter months practising like men possessed of some great disillusion and by the spring we could leave the island and take London by storm. We would have the capital at our feet before the year was out!.
I was most productive, before too long I had found myself a job in the Production Office (a curious description for somewhere so unproductive) of British Hovercraft in Cowes and had found a chalet bungalow to share with two friendly chaps in Gurnard - a mere two mile walk and ferry ride from work (if you could call doing nothing but crosswords work! ) Things were now set up for Mick's arrival.
Unfortunately I was not the only one who had been productive over those weeks. Mick now informed me that there was to be a change in plan in our relentless trek toward world domination, because he had made his girlfriend pregnant. Basically it was count me out as far as he was concerned - guitars and amps would have to be traded in for cots and pushchairs. I had to regroup with myself.
Luckily the last gig that we had scheduled was to play Glastonbury Town Hall with Marsupialami. After our performance a short cove in a rather smelly Afghan coat approached and asked if we would like to play at The Old Granary in Bristol. Ignoring the reek of his raiment I said 'Yes'. This was my first contact with Mike Tobin and his Afghan coat. The booking in Bristol was with Magna Carta and went down rather well - even the singer from the headlining band told me that I'd go far, or was it 'to go far '? Mike Tobin asked if I'd like to join a band he was trying to form in Bristol and Mick Howe said that I should go for it as marriage and nappies were as far as he could see into the future. I had aimed for London, I was heading for Bristol.....some sense of direction!
The winter of 1969 found me sharing a flat with a bunch of alarming eccentrics in Clifton in Bristol; the sort who never sleep and put on flying helmets to drive battered sherpa vans through the night to all-night transport caffs; the sort who stare through pilot's goggles at you across a greasy table and say 'Wow'. Weird or what?. I blame the alarming substances that littered the long low table in the living room and the farmhouse cider that was on tap in the local hostelry - that combination would be enough to make to make John Major weird.
Well, Mike Tobin's band lasted about four weeks, which included the grand total of one gig. The Old Granary Christmas Party, playing with assorted other Bristol bands including Stackridge Lemon, who like us were playing their first gig, but, thankfully, unlike us, not their last. I heard them play and liked what I heard. I began to feel jealous. They had original material and when I say original I don't just mean that it was self-penned as they used to say in those days but that it was intrinsically original. No-one else was doing anything half so ludicrous as playing a nice melodic tune for ten minutes only to fall into some heavy bluesy riffy stuff for another ten and this was just one number! There was something indefinable within the morass of ideas. I chatted with Andy, Crun ,and James whenever the opportunity arose. Eventually they began to remember my name and when Crun suggested that a flute might sound nice within the band I took the other two's silence to be a nod of approval. I was in.
We practised incessantly in Andy's parents' living room in Yatton with Bill Bent on the drums. We played and replayed various songs and tunes. Syracuse and Slark were conceived as were Teatime and Purple Spaceships, they assumed many shapes and disguises that would render them almost unrecognisable to the form that made it to vinyl in later years. One of them, I cannot remember which, contained a middle section that comprised of merely a musical box in a stein accompanied by Crun and I having a meaningless conversation in the voices of an elderly couple. Pete Donovan's magic desk was introduced to the set; the bells on the ankles heard in Teatime, and the bass drum worn by the caped mummy in Purple Spaceships. Why the conversation and other ideas should fall by the wayside, whilst other equally ludicrous ideas should remain and become part of the Stackridge folklore is a moot point. Personally I feel that if something we tried was just silly and nothing else then it was dumped if, on the other hand, it was different and sounded good then it was retained. You, my dear reader must make your own judgement.
I feel that the next six years are pretty well known to all Stackridge followers so the need to go into any real detail appears superfluous. We played all the possible club and college venues in Bristol, we ventured forth across the Severn Bridge into the sheep trembling wilds of Welsh Wales, but nothing more stimulating than a gig at The Old Granary and a debauched night in The Dugout Club came our way until Mike Tobin assumed the mantle of manager and got a job as a booking agent in London. The days of travelling on the A4 and eventually a little bit of M4 all the way to Wardour Street and the infamous Marquee Club for the princely sum of five pounds expenses had arrived. We played and we played; we travelled and we travelled; we argued and we stank. Five pounds goes very little way to covering the cost of fuel and accomodation, so the van became not only our transport but our living and sleeping quarters. Bill, the only one with a driving licence at this stage, had the benefit of the bench seat in the front, the other six of us had to make do as best we could. Crun had the advantage of possessing a tent which he would erect wherever the location permitted. When the prospect of yet another night scrunched in the foetid van became too much to bear then the announcement would go out before the last number of the evening, ' Has any one got a floor we can sleep on tonight?'. You wouldn't believe it, but some people were actually christian enough or stupid enough to want to have six smelly individuals rotting in their living room overnight and eating them out of house and home in the morning. Amazing!
Anyway we trundled onward and sideways until we managed to fool M.C.A into giving us enough money to record an album and pay Brian off at Bristol Musical for the gear he had sold us in the hope that something like this might happen. We recorded Stackridge and went back to trundling up, down and around the country. We went to Denmark, we came back. We went North only to go South the next day in order for us to go even farther North the following day so that Southwards was even more daunting on the morrow; we became dizzy!. We recorded 'Friendliness', we went out on the road to promote it. We went to Glasgow to play so that we could have the pleasure of going all the way to London the next day to record for the B.B.C and then blaze a trail Northward for an evening's entertainment. We recorded 'The Man In The Bowler Hat'. We burnt out. An over simplification perhaps and I have missed out a load of good bits, but essentially that is what happened. The lack of record sales meant that there was never enough in the coffers to act as a buffer against the demands of constant gigging. Something had to give and eventually Stackridge imploded; Bill was out, Mike Tobin was out, Mutter was off!
I know that there were some good albums after this period and some good line-ups, but nothing quite recaptured the musical uniqueness of those formative years. Some of the results, of course, on fresh listening are pretentious and immature others are just too silly for words, but some, especially the genuine collaborations like; Slark, Syracuse, Teatime and Purple Spaceships have exquisite moments of both musicality and humour. Nothing subsequently quite captured this. For my part I believe that the process of fine honing that came as a direct result of rehearsing day after day and the grinding and sifting that constant gigging brought about lead directly to producing these golden pieces of music.
Never again would we have the luxury of seemingly limitless time and unsuspecting and patient audiences to generate such songs. The pressure was on; rehearse-record-tour-rehearse-record-tour etc. I know that more talented and a lot more successful musicians have more than managed to cope with this relentless cycle of events, but for some reason not us. Perhaps the myriad of ideas that came from all quarters at rehearsals needed the luke warm response of an audience to sort the wheat from the chaff. If a few had gone bananas as a direct result of Crun's and my dialogue with music-box accompliment then it could well have made it to vinyl, thankfully you were more discriminating.
Where was I?. Ah, leaving. All the way along we had been interested in classical music, especially in my case; Stravinsky, Delius, Satie, Ravel, Debussy et alia. The experience of watching George Martin at work, both arranging parts for our album and for the James Bond film 'Live and Let Die', which occupied a fair chunk of his time whilst we worked on 'Bowler Hat', combined with a slowly growing envy for the home spun life of a composer grew into outright frustration with the life of a jobbing musician. When Stackridge started to unravel I thought that I would slip away into the night, as much as one can slip away when all the music press feature it in their publications!
Apart from having a few piano lessons and playing flute with the occasional musician in the local I did nothing musical at all. I worked as a builder's labourer and I drunk, certainly, but nothing remotely like a piece of Ravel emerged - not even one chord or, come to that, one note. I eventually found employment as a part-time petrol pump assistant (back in the days when such jobs existed) and it was while I was doing this that 'Bowler Hat' was released having been delayed for a seeming age after its final mix. To be sitting in a draughty kiosk earning a fiver a week and seeing an album that you were a part of enter the lower reaches of the charts is a bizarre experience I can tell you. The life of the homespun composer was beginning to lose its appeal, somehow the daily grind of the jobbing musician did not seem so unappealing. I phoned Andy.