A bit later than intended, but here is Chapter 11 of Heartfeeder. This Chapter sees the introduction of Colin Wilson and then Graham Smith to the line-up and finishes just before Charisma’s Tony Stratton Smith comes to see the band play at Burns Howff. Catch Chapter 12 in 2019 to see what happens!!!!
In the meantime, a Very Merry Christmas andd a Happy New Year to all.
If you are looking for an ideal present for someone who loves music and detective stories, then why not buy one of the last signed copies of Chris’s book “The Grail Guitar, The Search for Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze Telecaster”. Described by Booklist magazine as “Endlessly Fascinating”. Head over to our on-line shop for a great bargain.
Another Night in This Old City
One night, a few months after Scotland’s first ever Rock Festival, there was a knock on the door of our flat, and when I opened it, on the doorstep was a young man with granny glasses and a frizz of dark uncombable hair.
‘Hi,’ he said. ‘I’m Arnie Toshner. I saw you playing at Inverness and wondered if you might need a roadie.’
His timing was excellent, for by now we had two heavy guitar amps to hump. John had a Vox AC30 and I had a HiWatt 100 watt with a four by twelve cab, into which we were plugging a twelve string Rickenbacker and a sunburst Epiphone Casino, a guitar forever associated in my mind with John Lennon. So, Arnie became our roadie and though at this stage, he hadn’t yet got his driving licence, in every department save this, he proved to be an invaluable find.
Although we’d been going for two years, I always think of this period as the start of the band proper, as if we’d served an acoustic apprenticeship and were now getting into the real nitty gritty of playing music. We were doing colleges, supporting bands like Fotheringay, featuring the great Sandy Denny; and Quiver, with killer guitarist Tim Renwick, so for the first time it felt like we were actually riding the zeitgeist wave, rather than bobbing around in its wake. One date which provided good experience was supporting Mungo Jerry at a venue that would soon become famous as the Apollo, though at this juncture, it was still a cinema called Green’s Playhouse, moonlighting as a rock gig. For this, we had our friend Chester to thank, as he had moved briefly into promoting, though happily he didn’t give up his day job. Mungo Jerry were a strange outfit, with banjo, upright piano, drums and bass. There was something buskerish about their sound, but there was no getting away from the catchiness of their one big hit, ‘In The Summertime’, which seemed to follow us wherever we went in that first blazing Summer of the Seventies.
As we moved into 1971, we decided it was time to start looking for a bass player, and by chance, a suitable candidate appeared in the form of Colin Wilson, younger brother of our latest roadie Charlie. Colin was an accomplished guitar picker, a born musician, at home on both banjo and mandolin, so when I asked him if he fancied trying bass, his answer was in the affirmative. And a very fine player he turned out to be, with a quirky individualistic style which syncopated with my ‘down stroke’ rhythm guitar, creating the basis for the trademark String Driven sound.
Let me briefly explain this down stroke thing, for it was at the heart of our style. My rudimentary musical education had involved learning a few chords and finding which Buddy Holly songs I could then strum, but no-one ever took the trouble to show me how much easier it is when you play up and down strokes, so I used only the latter, with my elbow as a fulcrum and my lower arm sweeping back and forth in a forty five degree arc. There are many drawbacks to this style, lack of exactitude being one, but what it loses in technique is more than made up for in the energy department, as any punk guitarist will tell you, because down strokes give the music a helluva lot more drive. Years later, I watched an interview with one of the surviving Crickets and discovered to my surprise that Buddy Holly had also been a down strokes man, and indeed, if you listen to his music, one of the things that comes across is the fantastic energy. That said, he also mastered the exactitude problem, but Buddy was a genius, whose guitar style was an integral part of his songwriting, so maybe subliminally, my downward strum came from him. Either way, it became the spine of the band and without a drummer, it was what kept the tempo solid, but by playing off it, Colin immediately made our sound more interesting.
One of the first gigs he did with us was a Scottish mini tour with The Dubliners, who were then at the height of their fame, but seemingly untouched by it. Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew came across as hard drinking troubadours more at home in the pub than on stage, while their fiddler Barney McKenna was a true gentleman, and just as charismatic in his own way. We were a strange match for the legendary folkies, for musically we were now much heavier. In fact, if one number sums this up, it was our version of Hamish Imlach’s famous song, Hairy Mary. This tells the tale of a hard man from Glasgow’s East End, who meets young Mary at a dancehall called the Dennistoun Palais, and proceeds to impregnate her “al fresco”, or as Imlach puts it, “doon the dunny”, the rear exit of the tenement close where they keep the bins. Over time, our rendition of the song had become longer and wilder as John evoked the scene in the dunny in ever more lurid detail, employing his mic’ stand as a bottleneck to create Mary’s shrieks of passionate pleasure. Rechristened “Heavy Mary”, it had become our closing number, and Dubliners fans who had come to hear “Whiskey in the Jar”, would sit open mouthed as successive waves of undisguised sexual innuendo washed over them. But by now, we couldn’t have cared less. Our days of pleasing anyone but ourselves were over.
One reason for our growing popularity was Pauline’s onstage presence. Now wearing long flowing hippy silk dresses and kooky white Victorian smocks, she would dance her way barefoot through the set, brandishing a huge skinned tambourine, a one woman, pirhouetting percussion section, swirling and twirling in time to the increasingly intense rhythm as we abandoned the vocal based twaddle of the Concord album and began to stretch out musically. In an era when ninety nine percent of bands were all male, this gave us a huge advantage presentation wise, and though she and I had hitherto shared a mic’, her confidence in her own vocal abilities was now blossoming, so when she finally decided to use one of her own, she soon started to take her share of lead vocals.
Adding to our growing street-cred were regular appearances at The Maryland, which as the name implies, was a Trad jazz club that had morphed into the hippest of rock venues, with fashionable London bands appearing every weekend. There, in the all-enveloping fug created by various mood altering substances, John and I had begun to stray into the kind of territory mapped out by Cheech and Chong, riffing on extended comic routines involving unlikely characters like Billy the Boil Sucker. The response was so enthusiastic that comedy was in danger of taking over the show, but happily, the Maryland was the only place where this kind of material was viable, so in the end we were saved from our hedonistic selves by the need to keep body and soul together.
That said, I believe humour was John’s true vocation. He was a really funny man with great comic timing, but it wasn’t just up on stage that he made us laugh. Over time, he had developed a persona not unlike Jack Benny, who set himself up as a vain, miserly individual, continually undone by life’s cruel ironies. From this rich vein of hubris, he extracted much laughter, though offscreen, he was seemingly generous to a fault. In contrast, John’s persona had begun to bleed into everyday life, albeit without the slings and arrows that Benny used to such effect in his tv show, so it was inevitable that sooner or later, outrageous fortune would make an appearance, and so it proved. The setting was the dangerously steep hill on which the Maryland was sited, and the immediate cause of the incident was the handbrake of the vehicle being driven by Jamie, the latest in our long line of roadies.
As it happened, John was in the rear of the van that night, eating a fish supper, when we stopped outside the venue and the back door opened, at which point he was surprised to see Jamie apparently running on the spot, a look of alarm spreading across his face. It was only when he dived to the left and disappeared, that John realised to his horror that he had actually been running backwards, as the van was now sliding down the steep incline. Had it careered on down the hill, John would have been a goner, for the traffic on the main road was heavy, but miraculously it veered to the right, hitting a set of railings that guarded a twenty foot drop. At this point, we heard a high-pitched scream, for though the van had now come to a sudden halt, the gear had not. It was sliding downwards, trying to push John out through the back door onto the metal railings, some of which had already begun to drop out, under the immense weight.
As I ran to the rear, there he was, arms spread-eagled across the width of the van, his fingers clutching both the fish supper and the two stanchions as behind him the piled up amps and speakers slid ever closer to the tipping point, threatening any moment to send him and what was left of the twisted railings, hurtling down into the abyss.
‘For fuck’s sake get me out of here,’ he screamed, eyes wide with terror, though it must surely have occurred to him that such an intervention was technically impossible. The only solution was to get all four wheels of the van back onto the street, but herein lay the problem, for it was obvious that any attempt to do so might well propel both the gear and him over the edge. But by now, Jamie had recovered his wits sufficiently to slide gingerly into the driver’s seat, where he started the engine, and as we all held our breath, he began to double declutch his way inch by inch back to terra firma. Moments later, John was on the pavement, still clinging to his fish supper but, though he was badly shaken up, he immediately reverted to type by demanding that we give him credit for having saved the gear!
All in all, the Maryland was to prove pivotal for our career, providing us with the final piece of the String Driven jigsaw, for it was here in early ‘72 that we met our violinist, Graham Smith. At this point, he was an assistant principal in the Scottish National Orchestra, but he was moonlighting with younger musicians in an avant-garde outfit called Chaccone. The resident DJ, Maryland Mick, had told me about his prowess and when we finally shared a bill one night, I was impressed by the intensity of his playing and the otherworldly aura he managed to convey, even in those moments when another soloist was centre stage. The group was purely instrumental, with much interplay between violin and keyboards, and though they were a bit too far out for my taste, Graham’s pyrotechnics were outrageous enough for me to introduce myself after the gig and ask if he’d care to come along to our flat for a jam, an invitation he gracefully accepted.
For some time, Colin and I had been using our PA desk and my reel to reel recorder to chart our progress in the jamming stakes. There was no real attempt to fashion songs, just a vague desire to hone the two styles and see where it led us. In mid ’71, we had recorded a set of demos in a studio in Strathaven, a small town south of Glasgow, and I had used them to contact Dave Cousins, on the basis that he might still want to work with us. The session had been interesting, and one song, ‘Old Love, New Love’, really caught the change of direction we had taken since the Concord album, but once again it had highlighted the fact that John’s forte was the stage, not the studio. Colin was particularly impatient with this situation, as he was a natural musician, and couldn’t come to terms with John’s inability to get up to speed quickly with the new material. Add to this the fact that I was singing lead on most of the new songs, and it was obvious that John’s input was becoming less and less.
For all the above reasons, I decided to meet with Graham on my own, and this turned out to be one of my smarter decisions. After a quick warm up, I played him a song I’d just finished called ‘Easy to Be Free’, a light airy piece about being on board a sailing ship at sea, feeling the waves move beneath your feet and hearing the wind whistling in the sheets. I ran through it once to give him the general outline, but as I reprised the intro, he immediately summoned the sound of seagulls from his fiddle. In that moment, I was sold. The idea of marrying the lyric to such vivid sound pictures opened up the possibility of creating a whole new musical vocabulary. In short order, we moved on to ‘Regent Street Incident’, and here his playing was sonorous and emotive. It was the missing link we’d been looking for.
After the jam, we went down to my local for a pint, and I asked if he would consider joining us full time if I could get us a recording deal. Again he said yes, and this despite the fact that he was married with two small children. It seemed that having spent his early life kowtowing to the conventions of classical music, Graham had been bitten by the Rock bug, big time. His father was a violin maker, his brother a cellist, and he confided in me that he had never so much as had a drink until a couple of years back when he had been invited to furnish someone with a soundtrack for a highly experimental film, and during this process, he had been unwittingly introduced to the delights of lysergic acid diethylamide, otherwise known as LSD. Sitting there with his cheesecloth top and canvas trousers, it was obvious that he was more than just another of our generation’s myriad of tripped out hippies. Indeed, as a former child virtuoso, nothing could be more natural than for him to become the Jimi Hendrix of the violin and given the name of our band, it seemed almost as if it was meant to be.
Colin was delighted at this new departure, but it soon became plain in rehearsals that Graham shared his view about our frontman’s musical frailties. On stage, John had always been the central focus, but with the addition of Graham, the whole band changed dramatically in character. The three voices were now an add on, and John’s jokes strangely at odds with the explosive energy that the other four of us were creating. In fact, for the first time, String Driven Thing was doing exactly what it said on the tin, and yet here was this last extraneous element from our past, literally slowing the act down, holding us back from what we now saw as our immediate destiny, for Dave Cousins had come back to say that the Strawbs’ managers were interested in hearing our new material. Put all that together and you’ll understand why there were only four of us playing on the ensuing set of home demos.
Around this time I bumped into an old acquaintance called Ken Brown, who ran an amplifier repair shop called Brownsville Electronics. Ken was a jazz bassist, and like many of that ilk, a professional reprobate, but it transpired that he was looking for someone to drive him to London, so I volunteered, for the demos were now ready. Dave Cousins then booked an early evening appointment with his mentors and the day before, I rendezvoused with Ken at the agreed time and place. Not wishing to enter Quentin Tarantino territory, but I have to report that the drive to London with Mr Brown was highly unusual, for he kept rolling spliffs which he insisted I share with him. Not being used to either his car, or for that matter, driving stoned, I did as Bill Clinton would later do and mimed the act of inhalation, but even with the driver’s window open, I was soon aware of the effects of what we now call passive smoking. As we pulled up in front of a substantial house somewhere in the South London suburbs, I gave a sigh of relief, blissfully unaware that my ordeal was just beginning.
The house turned out to belong to the session guitarist, Chris Spedding, later to be nicknamed Count Rapido for his love of little white lines. At this point, however, there was no sign of marching powder, for his lounge was full of West Indians, all of them in colourful variations of the Rasta theme. Ken’s arrival was greeted with much hand slapping and as I had a beard and hair down my back, I was able to blend in easily.
‘So,’ said Mr Spedding, ‘fancy a joint?’
Ken was all in favour of this, whereupon my namesake walked across the room and opened a cupboard to reveal a series of shelves, each neatly packed with rows of cellophane bags, three or four deep, roughly the same size as two pound packets of sugar. Lifting one, he burst it open casually on the coffee table, thereby creating a mini mountain of grass, the smell of which reminded me of a crack by our old roadie Don, who when confronted by an airbrushed image of a beautiful young lady, had proclaimed:
‘If this is a wumman, I’ve married a man!!’
So, if this was grass, what had I hitherto been smoking? And to compound matters, one of the Rasta brigade then rolled a joint that could have come straight from a Cheech and Chong sketch. When it eventually came round to me, I did my best to take a shallow puff without collapsing choking on the floor. God, how the threat of appearing uncool hung over our heads back then, a vital part of this dynamic being the ability to take large quantities of drugs with seemingly little or no effect. Strange, but that’s the way it was.
The effects of this particular puff, however, were virulent in the extreme. As the evening wore on and the soiree became a party, my mouth dried up to such an extent that my tongue started to curl backwards down my throat, and only the constant intake of water prevented me from choking to death. To add to my misery, I had to appear unruffled, calm and serene, not easy when you’re hanging on to a plastic water bottle for grim death, taking sips every minute or so. Interminable hours seemed to pass before I found a couple willing to drive me to a tube station so I could get to where I was spending the night, namely the flat of an air hostess with whom my old buddy Harry MacGregor was shacked up.
Harry had re-entered my life two years previously, by which time, he’d been round the world and back again. He had emigrated to Canada in the mid-sixties, then with some like-minded adventurers had headed down into the States, minus the prerequisite green card. Hitching through Texas, he got a lift from an elderly gent who asked him where he was from. Harry replied that he was originally from Scotland.
‘Ah, right! That’s up North somewhere, ain’t it?’
Lingering in LA, where he lived in an A-frame on the beach at Santa Monica, he and three others then headed for Australia, where they worked in a mine in the quaintly named Mount Isa, before heading back to Europe through Asia, taking in the rugged delights of Afghanistan and hippy India. From this, you’ll gather that he was very much a soldier of fortune, though one who could always get himself a sensible job when needs demanded, so at present, he was working as a sales rep for Avery, the weighing machine company
After the tube journey from hell, I made my way to the given address, a three storey block of flats in the Hammersmith area and having gained entry, climbed the stairs and rang the bell of the young lady’s flat; or so I thought, for in my befuddled state I had mistaken the floor and when the door opened a few inches on a latch chain, there was a startled scream from the occupant, a little old lady, obviously woken from a deep sleep to find a long haired, bearded hippy with wild eyes, clutching a water bottle, on her doormat. The door slammed before I could apologise, and upstairs I related the story of my long and horrendous day to Harry and his ceramic skinned blonde, who seemed decidedly unimpressed with her beau’s old buddy and summarily excused herself with a disapproving sniff.
‘Oh well,’ said Harry, philosophically, pouring me another beer, ‘looks like I’m in for more of the old frosty bum treatment!’
Next day found me not at my best. The eight-hour drive with the serial spliff roller followed by the Rasta coup de grace, had sucked all the youthful vigour from my veins, leaving me prematurely old and withered. I looked the way I felt, raddled and pasty. But, after a liquid lunch with Harry in Soho, I began to perk up and, finding myself with a few hours to spare before the meeting, I went into a nearby phone-box, flicked through the yellow pages and came across an entry for a music production company called Stratton Smith Enterprises. I knew this to be the name of the owner of Charisma Records, then the most happening label in the land, having bought the first album by their new discovery, Lindisfarne, which I had just about played to death. Anyone sussed enough to sign these guys ranked high in my estimation, so I phoned the number and got through to their music publisher, a chap called Mike De Havilland. Having listened to my pitch and discovering I was actually in Soho, he invited me right round, saying:
‘You can’t miss us. We’re just above a dirty book shop in Brewer Street.’
A ten-minute walk took me to the site of this establishment, and a narrow flight of stairs led up to the Charisma headquarters. Thinking back to Rod Buckle’s premises in Soho Square, I was surprised that such a happening label should be housed in such meagre quarters, but there again, possibly that said something about their priorities. The receptionist showed me into a small office overlooking the street, where Mike, a good-looking guy in his mid-thirties, listened intently to the three songs on his reel to reel and nodded sagely, as they say.
‘Can you leave the tape with me?’
I apologised, explaining the upcoming Strawbs appointment, but I gave him my number and promised to send him a copy on my return to Glasgow.
The meeting with Dave’s managers was harder to read. They listened politely and said they’d like to hear more before they committed, but they didn’t quite close the door. Back in Glasgow, it took me a couple of days to recover from my ordeal, then on the morning of the third day, I got a frantic call from Mike De Havilland asking me where the hell the tape was. I apologised, and said I’d get it off pronto.
‘Well make sure you do. I’ve been giving you the build up with Strat.’
This was the first time I’d heard Stratton’s Smith’s nickname, and I knew immediately that there must be something different about a chief executive who encouraged his underlings to refer to him thus. Either way, the tape went off as promised and two days later Mike rang to ask me when our next gig was, because Strat wanted to see us live. I told him we had a date in a few days time at a famous Glasgow venue called Burns’ Howff and he called back within the hour to say they’d both be there.