We are reaching the end of what Chris had fully written before his sad passing. It had been the intention that I would try to finish the book with Chris’s help when I returned from my trip to New Zealand. Sadly, this never came to be but, there are a few bits and pieces that I will try and pull together. They may not be in exact order and may not be complete in detail but I will endeavour to do my best.
In the meantime, this is the last almost complete chapter which takes the band into the studio with “Master of Knobs”, Shel Talmy to record the debut Charisma album.
There are other parts of the story in the published book “The Grail Guitar – The Search fof Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze Guitar”. A very limited number of signed copies are still available from the On-Line Store at a very discounted price.
Not long before we came South, Pauline and I had been given comps for the Glasgow stage of the Lindisfarne tour but, unfortunately I had come down with flu, so our old friend Don had gone in my place. Imagine my surprise when he came back raving about the support act, Genesis, whom he said had totally stolen the show with their theatrical presentation and their innovative use of lights, something then unknown outside London. This, of course, was a classic example of Strat’s tactic of using a national tour to piggyback one of his lesser known bands onto a more established outfit, something that sounds great in theory, but which had a nasty habit of making the first last, and vice versa, as the Bible so poetically puts it, thereby alienating the star act which he had worked so hard to ‘break’.
Later, in the light of our own experiences, I discussed this thorny subject with Glen Colson, who had seen Lindisfarne serially upstaging Van Der Graaf on the famous 1971 Charisma Package Tour. Glen was not a Genesis fan, being really close to the down to earth Geordies, and he told me that when the tables were then turned on the ’72 tour, Alan Hull had become so pissed off at being outshone every night by the dramatic pyrotechnics that he eventually arranged for the house lights to be put on during Lindisfarne’s set. Obviously, this didn’t help, in fact it made things much worse, but it highlighted one of the main problems in Strat’s “under one roof”’ strategy for, had Lindisfarne had an independent manager, he would never have dreamt of hiring such a diametrically different support act.
All of which brings us to yet another reason for Strat’s decision to sign us for, as a drummerless band, he must have immediately seen how easy it would be for us to slot in as support for Genesis, with their complex stage setup. And that, in turn, brings me to the first occasion that we shared a bill with the future superstars. This was in some London college, that October, and, for me, it was mostly memorable for an incident during our soundcheck when one of their lights fell off its gantry and exploded onto the stage. Luckily no-one was below it, but I remember how casually their public school roadie dealt with what could have been a tragic accident, much like my idea of how the officer class handled the deaths of men in the First World War. Perhaps that’s wrong of me, but I’ve always been offended by the kind of mind frame which believes that the only people who ever existed are those who merit an obituary in The Times.
As for the band themselves, their performance evoked conflicting emotions. I knew immediately that Peter Gabriel was something special, with a unique voice and an onstage presence dramatically at odds with the shy young man whom I’d met in the dressing room. Like Rory Gallagher, this was a Hyde-like transformation as unexpected as it was complete, but it too was at variance with everything else that surrounded it. At this point, I must nail my colours to the mast. Despite the fact that our band was later saddled with the label, I have never liked the description, ‘Prog Rock’. My definition of progressive music is what the Beatles did in a few short years, taking the genre from its pop roots to the point where ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ blew our collective minds. But intricacy and complexity for its own sake never attracted me, and I’m not a fan of those classically trained keyboard players who insisted on bringing grand concerto style playing to what I had always seen as the common man’s artform.
As for their material, with its convoluted key changes, strange time signatures and elusive lyrical wanderings, it left me cold. Add to this the fact that there was absolutely no movement on stage, with Gabriel tied to his bass drum and Hackett, Banks and Rutherford seated. In fact, the main source of motion was Collins, who in my humble opinion was guilty of gross overplaying. From all of which you’ll gather, that like Glen Colson and Alan Hull before me, I wasn’t a fan. In fact, I think people either loved Genesis, or loathed them, and I was most definitely and unapologetically in the latter camp.
To me this was overblown, self-indulgent pap, dressed up as intellectual fare. Whilst I could appreciate Gabriel’s sublime voice and admire his bandmates’ technical skills, I was neither moved nor excited by what I heard, and frankly I couldn’t for the life of me get what Strat had seen in them. Standing there in the shadows, watching them trudging earnestly through twenty minutes of what I discovered later was ‘Supper’s Ready’, but which we took to calling ‘Tea’s Oot’, then reaching a climax with the flailing drums and atrocious screaming on ‘The Knife’, I had to ask myself whether I might have been wiser to get back in touch with the Strawbs’ managers than sign up for this lot. But it was too late now and besides, we were about to go into the studio with Shel Talmy, so hopefully we wouldn’t be sharing a stage too often with our chalk and cheese stablemates.
Shel was an American in his mid-thirties, who had come across from the States in ’62, claiming to be a big time producer and by the time Decca discovered this was bullshit, he had a handful of hits under his belt. At the time we met him in ‘72, an inherited illness had left him almost totally blind, but working in a world of sound, this didn’t affect his performance. His studio of choice was IBC in Portland Place, very much in the Abbey Road mould, with a large high ceiling recording area and a control room overlooking it. He liked to work from noon till six, believing that to spend any longer in the studio was counterproductive. This method had seen him turn out a string of hits in the early to mid-Sixties, and as proof, there was a long corridor in his Knightsbridge flat where he’d hung his gold discs, one every eighteen inches or so. A quick walk down it earned instant respect for the man’s genius, but times had moved on, and in this album orientated world, Shel was no longer the go to producer he had once been. The reason that Strat had gone to him, as I was to find out, was that he owed Shel, big time, not financially, but career and personnel wise.
I mentioned the large Knightsbridge flat, but in fact he had two, the second being a replica on the floor above. This one he lived in, the other he used for business and when Strat started Charisma, Shel was good enough to lend him a spare room and his PA, Gail Colson. From here, they released ‘Sympathy’ by Rare Bird, and never looked back. When it came to moving to Brewer Street, Gail went with him, and her place was taken by another efficient young woman called Judy London. So now, Strat was repaying Shel by having him produce one of his new acts, and as the American was as well known for bringing records in under budget as he was for churning out hits, the deal was extremely symbiotic. And just as well, for with Genesis currently spending huge sums in the studio, it made sense to have at least one act that wouldn’t break the bank.
Shel had no time for Genesis either. In fact, he called them “Strat’s folly”, believing that hit records were the only route to the top and you didn’t get hits with twenty-minute works. All of this came from the Sixties philosophy of get in, get out and get a hit, but again I stress that times had moved on and, whether I liked Genesis or not, I could see that whatever they laid down in the studio was always beautifully recorded and perfectly played. Shel, on the other hand, went for spontaneity. The first day we arrived, all our gear was set up and miked. Basically we were ready to go, and when we did, there was none of this two hour trying to get a sound lark, which meant we stayed fresh and focused. It was apparent that Shel had the art of creating a conducive atmosphere down to a tee and his engineer, Damon Lyon Shaw, was skilled at getting him exactly the sounds he wanted.
In two days we had the backtracks for the electric numbers down, including a new one called ‘Eddy’ which Shel reckoned should be the single. He then asked me if I had any more acoustic material. I had recently written a song for Pauline, called ‘Fairground at Night’, which he liked and I played him some others, of which he picked two. Again, it was mostly a case of first takes, even though now and again I wasn’t totally sure of the playing.
‘Don’t worry,’ he’d say, ‘we’ll sort that out in the mix.’
When it came to overdubs, Colin added some really nice banjo and Pauline played some percussion. She now had a set of congas for stage and would soon start to assemble a variety of cymbals, of which more later. After we’d laid down our vocals, it was time to start mixing, but here I got the first of a succession of shocks, for it now emerged that Shel was booked in with Damon to do this himself, and while he was at it, he went ahead and did the sequencing for the two sides of the album.
Looking back, I still find it hard to believe that I went along with this, but I can only say that at this stage, I didn’t feel confident enough to start rocking the boat. It’s interesting to note that in the background, Genesis were going through producers at an alarming rate, and we actually caught echoes of the ructions this was causing from Fred, another of the Genesis “undecided”. But there again, Foxtrot was their third Charisma album, and Gail was keen to stress that each band would get their shot when the time was right. This seemed baffling to me, for if we had a potential hit on our album, this would obviously alter the pecking order, just as Lindisfarne had already done. However, as we were the new kids on the block, I stayed shtoom, vowing to myself that it wouldn’t happen next time.
The other interesting departure at this point was the gatefold sleeve for the album, which was to be designed by Hipgnosis, famous for their work with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Strat had introduced us to their main man, Storm Thorgeson, who despite the Viking name was from Cambridge. We discussed ideas, but his mother in law was taken ill, so his business partner, Aubrey Powell, aka Po, took over. Riffing on the theme of the band’s name, he took a motley crew of freaks to a West End restaurant called “La Popote”, and photographed them having what can only be described as a polite orgy. There was a dwarf in a sailor suit, a Godfather with a huge plate of spaghetti, a lady with snakes and some minor celebrities, all in a Felliniesque wide angle shot. When I saw the proofs, I suggested that Po shoot us in the same setting, which he did to great effect. The finished product looked wonderful, as well it might, for when the sums were added up, it turned out that the sleeve had cost more than recording the album.
By this time, thanks to Paul Conroy, we were gigging regularly, supporting everyone from Stackridge to Status Quo. We’d watched the “Telecaster Twins” at Reading and I’d been amazed at how good they were, given that they were totally ignored by the elite music press. On the day, their road crew looked at the Festival PA, shook their heads and then set about assembling their own, which will give you some idea of how loud they were. When we got to support them at a London Art School, I noticed one of their roadies at the ticket desk with a clicker, checking the numbers going in, which meant they were on a share of the gate. And what a gate it was! I’ve never seen a hall more packed, with fans actually sitting in the bass bins! Their audience were also much more our cup of tea than the Prog Rock fans, who were predominately male geeks with otherworldly expressions. In contrast, the Art School Crowd were a lively, mixed sex, brigade out for a good time and the high that only rock music can bring. Once we’d done our encore, we headed down to the nearest pub, at least a hundred yards away, and as Quo launched into their first number, Graham smiled knowingly:
‘Would you believe, they’re still playing in the same key!!’
The single sank without a trace but the album came out to mostly favourable reviews, with Chris Welch’s piece in the Melody Maker really positive about our ‘drummerless band’. That said, I was disappointed in the final cut, which had too many little sloppy mistakes and poor vocal overdubs. Shel had certainly caught our energy, but with just a little more care and attention, it could have been so much better. However, I kept my thoughts to myself, working on the basis that I now had to play things as if was holding a mediocre hand in high stakes game of poker. Sooner or later, the river card would appear and if Lady Luck took our side, then I’d go all in. For now, the political ramifications of strife were obvious, as Charisma’s corridors were already haunted by two singers without bands, namely Howard Werth of Audience and Peter Hammill of Van Der Graaf. No way did I want that happening to me.
On the back of the album release, we were invited to film a slot for a French tv show at the Chateau d’Herouville, just outside Paris, and specially for the occasion Strat saw fit to lend us his limo and his personal chauffeur, Cracky. Like everyone else around the great man, the one-lunged ex Van Der Graaf roadie was a real bon viveur and to underline the point, on the way across on the Channel Ferry, he soon had a whole bevvy of waiters serving us a huge selection of hors d’oeuvres and fine French wines, no doubt to get us into the spirit of things. Then with the float almost gone, it was on to the ‘Honky Chateau’ as it was known after the Elton John album recorded there earlier that year, though I preferred to think of it as Chateau Obscure, after Pink Floyd’s most recent opus, ‘Obscured by Clouds’.
Arriving at the beautiful eighteenth century building set in lush parkland, I could see the attraction which this sixteen-track studio held for its elite clientele and as it transpired, the sound was as classy as the surroundings. We recorded four songs and when I watched a video of the programme recently, I was fascinated to see that only a few weeks after laying down ‘Circus’ with Shel Talmy, we had incorporated an instrumental ending that would later become a vital part of the song which I’ve used as the title of these memoirs. So, we were obviously working as well as playing hard and we all looked to be in good spirits and on friendly terms, from which you may take it that this bonhomie would not last long.
After a fine French dinner in the medieval kitchen, Cracky drove us into Paris for a live radio session, a set fuelled by more excellent wine and afterwards, I remember distinctly sitting on the bonnet of the limo as he drove serenely down the Champs Elysees, which was certainly a more pleasant Parisian ride than the one I’d taken so many years before on the back of the cop’s moped, though probably just as dangerous. And then it was back to London to explain to Strat why we’d spent the sizeable tv fee on yet more lashings of food and drink on the return Ferry. I remember he was initially not amused, but Cracky insisted on taking the blame, which was only fair as he was certainly the ringmaster on this occasion.
As always, after exotic trips, it was back to the weekly grind of college and club gigs,
and it was around this time, supporting Roxy Music in some college basketball arena, that I made a decision. Considering the hype these ultra-fashionable ‘art rockers’ had generated, I found them high on the art quotient but lamentably low on the rock and watching them go through their paces, with one Brian preening, posing and crooning and the other desperately switching leads on the patchbay of his Moog, like one of those 1930’s telephone switchboard ladies but with a lot less aplomb, it struck me with Damascene force that the drummer, Paul Thompson, was all that was holding them together. In that moment, I realised that on these larger stages, without a drummer, our band had one hand tied behind its collective back.
Energised by my revelation, I decided to talk to Gail after we got back from a trip to Dublin, where we were booked to play the Gay Byrne tv show, sandwiched between two nights in a club whose name has now escaped my memory. All the gigs went well, this time in relative sobriety, so to make up for our abstemiousness, we decided to have a Guinness drinking competition before catching the ferry. These were the days in Dublin when white jacketed youngsters would bring the drinks to your table, and I remember the lad who was serving us was called Gerry. Naturally he was getting well tipped and as Graham had decided we should have some oysters with our stout, he was running back and forth with dishes and drink, till about six rounds in, when we found we’d run out of sterling, at which point I saw him exchange a dubious glance with the burly barman. For a brief moment, things hung in an uneasy balance then Arnie lifted his black moulded attaché case onto the table, and clicked it open, whereupon the boy gasped as the lid shot up to reveal a bulging cornucopia of Irish punts. Taking a wad from our two nights’ takings, Arnie licked his thumb, peeled off a few notes and threw them contemptuously onto the table, saying:
‘That should cover the rest of the evening. Keep whatever’s left!’
Understandably, Gerry now took our roadie for the main man and after that it was a case of Arnie dishing out orders and the lad responding to his every whim!
Colin won the competition on nine pints, but less than half an hour into the crossing, he probably wished he hadn’t, for after leaving the relative shelter of the Irish coastline, we sailed into one of the worst storms to hit the North Sea in decades. With hatches battened down and corridors covered in sheets of brown paper, we endured endless hours of torture as the ship plunged downwards into the giant swell, for all the world as if it was heading straight for the bottom, then with an almighty juddering and screeching of metal plates, it would rear up towards the next crest, as if struggling to break free from the savagery of the seas. Unable to sleep, I made my way to the bar, where even the old timers on the staff were white faced and grim, all of them agreed that this was the worst night they’d ever spent at sea. As always with car ferries, the danger lay in the possibility that one of the vehicles might break free, but happily on this occasion, the chains that held the lines of huge artic trucks remained secure.