Chris’s return to Denmark Street was to prove more fruitful than his first visit but you may wonder, as he did over the years, if he made the right choice back in 1966. All is revealed in Chapter 9 of Heartfeeder. All previous chapters are on the Band News section of the website.
Time to reflect as we remember Chris’s passing just two years ago. His brilliant published book, The Grail Guitar – The Search for Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” Telecaster, is still available to purchase from our on-line store with signed copies almost run out. Grab one while you can at a bargain price. Booklist said of it – “Endlessly fascinating. It’s not often that you can say about a music book that readers will be inpatiently turning the pages, anxious to see how the story plays ou, but that’s exactly what happens here”.
Anyway, without further ado……
This Wheel’s on Fire
John’s brother Terry had kindly invited us to stay at his house in Gravesend, and with two days to kill before our meetings, Sunday lunchtime found us in the Town Arms, where John had lately been the sun in his own wee planetarium. Many of his former satellites were still there and as we had our instruments with us, an impromptu session ensued; nothing formal, just us sitting round a table near the door, singing and playing. It being a fine day, they were wide-open and the room began to fill with people tempted in by the lure of music. Soon pints of bitter started to appear like magic on our table, then totally uninvited, a guy at the bar borrowed a soft felt hat from a fellow drinker and began to go from table to table, taking a collection. Unexpected as this was, we couldn’t exactly stop half way through the song to object, so we just let him get on with it.
It was apparent from the continuous sound of metallic clinking that the audience was happy to show its appreciation and in due course, the guy arrived back at our table, where he proceeded to pull out three half crowns, and having laid one in front of each of us, he turned and walked out the door, carrying the bulging hat. John stopped dead in mid chord, crying out in astonishment, as did the owner of the hat, and in a matter of moments a posse of Kentish drinkers was rushing down the road after him. Happily, he hadn’t got very far by the time they caught him and he put up no resistance as they marched him back into the bar, standing there with a sheepish grin as one of the satellites tipped the takings onto the table. Quick as a flash, John took his half crown and pressed it into his hand, and next minute he was out the door, narrowly escaping a boot on the pants on the way.
So that was John; sharp as quicksilver and larger than life, he was a great frontman, and with his strong tenor voice, he was the natural choice for lead singer. In fact, the trio had been built round him, musically and comically, with me playing second fiddle and straightman, respectively. But while he was flawless in his renditions of the songs of Hank Williams and Bob Dylan, when it came to my material, the demos had revealed a certain stiffness in his delivery, which I put down partly to deficiencies in my writing style. After all, Hank and Bob were melodic geniuses, so making their songs sound good was easy. Mine, on the other hand, were still basically untested, and if I had a burning belief in them, well that was because I was biased. The truth was, no-one in the music business had thus far acknowledged my writing abilities, though hopefully all that would change in the next few days.
This time around, we looked the part; John with a striking D’Artagnan style goatee, me with a pair of those tiny granny glasses made fashionable by Lennon, but actually first worn by John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful. As for Pauline, well – as a fan from Carr’s Keg had put it, she was just heartbreakingly beautiful. Also, two years of hard gigging had given us a belief in our own ability to turn any situation to our own advantage, as witness the Town Arms “hatman”. So, whatever the quality of the last-minute demos, we were up to the job of selling ourselves and as we left the Tube at Tottenham Court Road and walked up into the afternoon sunshine, I knew in my bones that we were ready for anything those famously unimpressible Mus Biz types might throw at us.
Denmark Street is a narrow little byway right on the edge of Soho, with rows of three storey eighteenth century buildings, which by the early Fifties housed enough publishing companies to make it the UK version of Tin Pan Alley. If you recall, I had found all of them closed when I arrived one Saturday morning back in ’66, so it had taken me all of three years to return; but at last I was about to pass over one of their thresholds. After a brief wait in the Feldman’s foyer, we were taken up a flight of stairs into a small office by an uber cool, twenty something executive, who yawned as he threaded our tape onto his deck. But no sooner had he begun to play the intro, when out in the corridor there came the sound of what is known in Scotland as a stooshie, in other words, a disturbance. Obviously startled, our exec threw the door open to discover that this was due to the arrival of two white label 78’s, straight from the US. Now I knew that white labels were hot pressings available to music business insiders but even so, it was hard to see why these particular ones should be causing such excitement.
‘It’s Dylan’s new album’ said a face rushing by.
‘Aw shit!’ said our exec, ‘We gotta hear this!’
So off we all set down the corridor into a room already filling with people, two of whom I recognised as members of The Tremeloes, all eagerly gathering round the board room table on which sat an old Dansette record player and the aforesaid white labels. Now at this point it was two years since Dylan’s last outing, John Wesley Harding, so a reverend silence fell as needle met vinyl and after a few bars of Hammond organ, Bob’s voice rang out. For a moment, the self-appointed DJ seemed confused and actually checked the speed settings, but there was nothing wrong with the RPM; rather it was the corny croon issuing from the tinny speaker, inviting some nameless lady to lie across his rather unlikely sounding big brass bed.
Heads turned, eyes met, eyebrows shot up.
‘What the f… is this?’ asked one of the Tremeloes.
‘Sounds like Adam bloody Faith’ replied the other.
Back in his room, the exec was still shaking his head as he returned to the business in hand, though for me, what followed can best be compared to one of those horribly vivid dreams we all have of running though crowded streets in broad daylight, stark naked. What had hitherto been a slightly speeded up tape now made us sound like Pinky and Perky, while the wow and flutter had drowned everything in a dreadful washy warble. In the ten interminable minutes it took to play three songs, I sat there like a convicted felon awaiting the judge’s black cap, though in the event, the exec just pulled out another reel and loaded it onto his tape deck.
‘I like the voices, but the songs don’t grab me. So, have a listen to this.’
He hit play, and the sound of a guitar pattern being strummed incredibly fast filled the room, followed by a mournful, soulful voice wailing over the incendiary backing.
‘This is a writer we’ve just signed called Richie Havens. I think you should consider trying some of his material. I reckon it would suit your style.’
As he held out his card, John looked suitably grateful, but with my creative ego now well and truly shattered, I just smiled and said we’d get back to him.
After this experience, my previously unshakeable confidence had evaporated like a saucer full of water in the Sahara sun, but happily we had no time to ruminate, for the offices around us were closing and across the street, there was no sign of life in Campbell Connelly. As requested, we rang the bell, and moments later the door was opened by a bespectacled middle-aged man who introduced himself as Roy Berry and led us up a staircase to a well-appointed office containing a grand piano, on which was a signed photo of Georgie Fame. This was more encouraging, for back before he sold his soul to the BBC, Georgie was one of the cooler stars in the firmament, though it has to be said that the recipient of his autographed portrait looked about as cool as Benny Hill.
Once seated, Roy welcomed us to Campbell Connelly, which he pronounced in a very strange manner, making Billy’s surname sound positively Italian. How, he wondered, had I got his name. I explained about the sheet music and, smiling, he informed us that lately his staff had failed miserably to find new talent, so when he received my letter, he had glimpsed an opportunity to show the indolent bastards how to do it. Hence all the after-hours cloak and dagger stuff. I wasn’t sure how to take this but decided that if Fate was now dealing us river cards from the bottom of the pack, we’d better go with the flow. Roy then played our tape, which didn’t sound as bad as in Feldman’s, though as it progressed, a look of bemusement slowly spread across his face. When it was finished, he admitted that he didn’t feel properly qualified to judge it, but felt sure his A&R man, John Read, would give us an honest opinion, so could we kindly ring the office at noon next day.
So, with one definite follow up in the bag and a possible opening courtesy of Richie Havens, we headed for the post office to phone home, only to discover that another publisher had been in touch. His name was Rod Buckle of the Swedish company Sonet, and according to my Mother, he wanted us to phone him pronto. It was now after six, but I decided to take a flyer, and just as well, for the man himself answered, and immediately invited us round to his office, half a mile away in Soho Square; but as we exited the post office, excitedly discussing this latest development, we bumped into a long-haired guy in a very cool tweed cloak.
‘Hi’ he said, apropos nothing. ‘Are you a group?’
‘I am’ said John.
He laughed, as intended, for John had a way of quickly charming people.
‘Then take this’ he said and handed us a card.
On it was the phone number of some guy called Mick Farren. ‘He might be able to help you…’
Things were now approaching the surreal and with each successive twist, the memory of the Feldman’s ordeal was beginning to fade. In fact, I was convinced that there must have been a fault with the guy’s tape deck. Obviously, it was running fast and this had exacerbated the slight technical flaws. When you’re young and on a roll, you tend to tell yourself this kind of thing, for if you believe you’re destined to be famous, then everything else is predicated on that one unassailable assumption. And so we headed for our third meeting of the day with our smiles beaming back at us from passing shop windows.
Soho Square is a little oasis of green in the muddled jumble of streets that make up this infamous district, so the offices that ring it have an outlook totally at odds with reality, as I was to find out a few years later, for as it happened, Sonet was based in the same building that Charisma would one day inhabit. Rod Buckle turned out to be a charming chap with hair just long enough to gain some street cred from musos and it transpired that he’d already had a tip about us from Eric Woolfson, who was still working for Immediate, so when he received our letter with the moody photo, his interest was doubly aroused. Again, I was struck by this little quirk of fate, for though I’d met Eric years before, I couldn’t recall ever seeing him at our gigs, so the tip must have been due to our growing reputation.
Rod explained all this as he wound our tape onto his high-end reel to reel player, but unlike Roy Berry, he actually seemed excited by what he then heard, immediately drawing comparisons with another vocal trio then breaking out of LA called Crosby Stills and Nash. I still find myself smiling wryly at this, marvelling at the role that bullshit plays in the music business. Anyway, it turned out that he was about to head off to a gig to watch the Strawbs playing at the White Bear, a pub in Hounslow where they were being filmed for the BBC’s new music flagship, Disco 2, and oh by the way, he thought their main man, Dave Cousins, would be perfect to produce our first album. Would we like to come along? It all sounded great, but for the inconvenient fact that Rod’s record label, Sonet, was Swedish and like most British record buyers, we’d never heard of it.
But we gladly went along, riding this ‘day of wonder’ wave all the way to the beach. And the Strawbs were great. They were still in their acoustic period; six string, twelve string and double bass, with Dave giving it big licks on ‘The Man Who Called Himself Jesus.’ We instantly hit it off with him and it was agreed he’d come to Glasgow in the near future to produce some more demos for us. So by now the Feldman’s offer was looking pretty thin and it was coming down to the two RB’s, the old fashioned music publisher Roy Berry with his Georgie Fame photo and Rod Buckle, the hip friend of the Strawbs main man. My heart was telling me that Rod was definitely the way to go, but my head kept reminding me that Sonet had absolutely no track record in the UK. What we needed was a big American label like CBS, not some totally unknown Scandinavian outfit.
Next day in Denmark Street, we met Roy’s A&R man, John Read. He was in his late twenties and seemed intrigued that we had managed to get over his head to the main man, but that said, he was really enthusiastic about what he’d heard. Oh, and coincidentally, it just so happened that Campbell Connelly was planning to launch its own record label, hopefully to be distributed by CBS, so our timing could not have been better. Obviously, this mention of CBS chimed perfectly with our ambitions, though being distributed by them and signing for them were two very different things. Anyway, all of that was in the future and for now, they wanted us to record some more demos, which they would naturally pay for, and if the quality of songs was ‘still as high’, then according to Read, they would be happy to offer us a deal.
Back in Glasgow, with our feet barely touching the ground, we took stock of the situation. Despite the weak demos, we’d done what we’d set out to do, namely land ourselves a recording deal. The question was, should we go with the established music business pros who were about to put big money into their own label, hopefully to be distributed by the giant CBS, or should we plump for Sonet who had the credibility of Dave Cousins behind them? We opted to delay a decision till after Dave came to Glasgow and when he did, the demos he produced at the studio in Royal Exchange Square were streets better than the previous lot. We also established a really good rapport with him on a musical and personal basis, something that couldn’t be said for either Messrs Berry or Read, but in the end, it all came down to our lack of belief in Sonet. What chance did they have of breaking an unknown act, if they themselves were basically unknown?
John Read reacted favourably to the latest batch of songs and confirmed that he was ready to offer us a recording contract with the new label, now to be called Concorde. At this point, the CBS deal was still being negotiated, but another factor which was important to me was the fact that Campbell Connelly were established publishers with writers like Graham Gouldman, whose songs had been hits for The Hollies and Herman’s Hermits. As they were offering me a four-year songwriting deal, this presumably meant that my material would be getting played to producers and A&R men, so at the time, the final decision seemed like a no brainer. When I broke the news to Rod Buckle, he was astonished that we’d want to get into bed with these old timers, and he sent me a telegram offering a £500 signing fee and a three-album deal. But in the end, we went with Campbell Connelly, blissfully unaware that John Read had only given us the time of day because our demo had come down from Roy Berry, and that Roy had only signed us because he thought Read was genuinely impressed by us. To compound this double travesty, we soon discovered that he and Read knew as much about starting a label as I did about flora in Outer Mongolia.
One other little gem emerged from our London trip, for later that year I was sitting in our flat watching Top of the Pops, when on came John Lennon with the Plastic Ono Band, doing Cold Turkey. Thinking that the long-haired bass player looked strangely familiar, I called Pauline through. She moved in on the screen and nodded.
‘It’s the bloke from the post office. You know; the one who gave us the card’
And of-course she was right; it was indeed the guy in the tweed cloak, and later I found out he was B.P. Fallon, a former DJ from Ireland who was working with Derek Taylor at Apple at the time and was on hand to become one of John’s Plastic Ono members at short notice. But this being the case, something has always puzzled me, for what could Mick Farren of Deviants fame possibly have done for us that Fallon’s four fab employers couldn’t?