Archive • Sing A Song of Sixpence
Biog Notes of 1963-72 ©2008 KING ROLLO
My first ever public performance was in 1963 with a school band in Bungay, Suffolk. The performance was ostensibly as a contribution to the inevitable end-of-year Parents Day, but I envisioned the band as a potential opportunity to entrap girls into our all-male school for steamy fantasy sessions. Reality prevailed. It was a boarding school for the impoverished, and a popular depository for diplomats' sons when doing a stint in the UK
Hence in the band we have Henry from Nigeria and dear little Kumalzwat Kumelzwera from Cambodia. With the awful conflicts both those countries have suffered since then, I often wonder whether they survived. Our enthusiasm for playing pop music was not shared by the staff or authority at this grubby little establishment where they were making hay while the sun sets, but fortunately we played mainly Shadow's tunes while 'they' were within earshot so it must have been just acceptable. It was around this time I discovered a healthy contempt for bumbling authority, a doctrine I have maintained ever since. And it was there I acquired the nickname of Rollo. True value in return for all those school fees.
Even on leaving school my parents seemed helpless to prevent me from indulging my despicable guitar habit and eventually gave in completely, allowing me to entertain them when their friends came round for boozy evenings. I can remember shortly after one of these sessions I sang in public for the first time with a local group called The Farinoes, whose bass player, Peter Huckstep, hereinafter known as Huck, turned into my early song writing partner, and who I now find has a remarkable memory for detail of those days.
I sang Chuck Berry's 'Carol', one of my favourite R&B numbers to this day. It was at one of those apocryphal Co-op weddings that ended with a proper punch-up with blood all over the floor and kids sliding about in it, I'm sure you know the kind of thing. It was in Wealdstone, just up the road from the Station Tavern where a local group called The Who belted it out on a fairly regular basis.
Huck and I shared an acquaintance with a useful fellow, Mick Billington, who had a mini-van and was one of those born roadie types. He also drove for Reg Dwight (later Elton John) who lived a mile away at a time when Bluesology was in its formative stage.
Roger Glover lived literally round the corner from me and I remember calling at his house one day to see if he fancied trying to get a band together, or something of the sort, and his mother said "no, I'm sorry he's gone to rehearse with some people and I know he's very busy right now." The people turned out to be Deep Purple.
In our very active cluster of Pinner and Harrow we once went to Bruce Welch's house The Wonderful Land' in North Harrow and he put us onto Shadow Music. We collected a nice range of rejections slips from them and other pet publishers and after that we got a bit silly. Me writing stuff called things like 'I Dig My Baby Best When The Wind Blows On Salisbury Plains Blues' fancy! Huck responded with one called 'Porridge' which we performed at the Master Robert quite regularly.
The Master Robert residency ended, Peter and I were getting worn down with a feeling of failure in our song writing enterprise and while we drifted own separate ways in discovery other avenues of life, others with more staying power absorbed their failure somehow until success hit them full in the face a year or two later. Sheer dogged staying power and a genuine feeling that there is nothing else you can do is a wonderful recipe for success in art. As Paul Gaugin declared. “The life of an artist is a gamble it is all or nothing.”
This would have been in 1968 and as a frequent visitor I got to be chummy with the delightful crowd who gathered there but never actually seemed to achieve anything. Or do very much. Much was talked about. Indeed so much was talked about that it hardly ever seemed to fit into the working day of 10am-4pm and had to be continued within the many and various hostelries to be found in the area out of business hours. One of the staff writers we get to be friendly with mentions that he's written thirty songs that day. Dazzled with such productivity I ask him to run one through for me. He can't think of one. "The best one" I prompt. It is incoherent and total gibberish. I've sometimes wondered what the others were like.
I had re-organised my bedroom to accommodate the various machinery necessary to accomplish this task, which in those days consisted of two two-track Brennel tape decks. I can still remember the price of £38 per deck for this state-of-the-art machinery which was built with the type of engineering that would last a couple of lifetimes, but would actually be obsolete in five years. With these two machines I could layer sounds to build up a complete production good enough to demonstrate our ideas. The only wasted space in my bedroom was the bed.
Drums and guitars and racks of rather primitive boxes full of glowing valves occupied the space normally sought by clothes and bedside tables in more conventional homes. Now back to our meeting at Polydor International.
It's Peter Knight, musical director of Polydor and Andy's boss, looking almost embarrassed to have interrupted a moment of time that could be the definitive point where he also could benefit out of the fortune to be made from this acoustic gem, or at the very least, possibly save his job at the next desperate boardroom shuffle. "Sorry to interrupt Andy, could we have a word?" And so Andy pushes the stop button just as the intro swirls into our ears and he exits in fever and dread lest it be this moment chosen for the fraud in his expenses to be revealed.
And his head is nodding. He is feeling the beat. This is the crucial moment. Where are the eyes going to go? If they look at you and he nods the head at the same time then there's a good chance. But no, his eyes are down. What! He's looking at his diary for God's sake. That's really bad. I mean if he were looking at the calendar on the wall, even if it is last year's, we'd be in with a chance... but no he's studying the next day's appointments in his diary. But he is still nodding.
The phone rings. Andy immediately turns the music volume down to a whisper and picks the phone up. "Yes...Yes? No!!!... Re-er-ally? Well that is interesting." Huck and I exchange glances. I wander over to the Revox, and fortunately with my superior technological advantage am able to push the right button straight off to stop it without tape spilling out all over the room. It doesn't always happen like that. "Well we'll have to meet" Andy declares to the interrupter whilst simultaneously giving the two of us full-on eye contact, smiles and raised eyebrows. "Right then. Bye chum...bye chum" he repeats and repeats as he slowly lowers the handset down to the telephone "bye chum" still with his mouth to it until his face becomes horizontal to the telephone on his desk. "Bye chum" he says once more to no-one in particular on replacing the handset.
"Thing is, guys." Andy drops confidentially to a lower octave. "Thing is, and this really is interesting." We are rivetted. Andy was a Guardsmen and has a deep baritone voice. "This IS... interesting... it really is." We are convinced that our fortunes have now miraculously merged with destiny to change the world. "Thing is, you see all those tapes up there?" indicating a shelf the runs most of the length of the room filled and bulging with 15-inch spools of audio tape. "Well, the thing is, I've had to take over from the guy that was here last. And you see, all these tapes, indicating a batch of about thirty reels, they're the master tapes of albums from his recording sessions from the last year."
"Yes…. ?" I venture not quite grasping the connection between the tapes and our eternal salvation.
It seemed a fairly simple operation to me. After all they are one of the major record companies of their time. I mean that's what they do. Record people, issue albums and every now and then one of them makes a fortune that easily covers the cost of the rest. The concept is, throw enough mud at the door and some of it sticks.
The tapping of his gold pen on the teak desktop drives home the significance of this fact.
So here we have one of the early examples of the smooth operator, probably with the right kind of hair, who records whoever he can get his hands on that'll work for next to nothing and a chance of glory, in a cheap studio round the corner probably run by one of his mates and costing him £2,000 tops. He gets it signed off in the company, where the executives know absolutely nothing about current trends in music and are still staggering under the surprise of making so much money from the last batch of mud that did actually stick. An intermediary company, which Mr Right Hair happens to own gets paid all the money allocated in the budget. And in the case of Roger, who managed so well to keep his head down for a whole year busily recording anything that moved, when the shit hit the fan he disappeared with the difference. In this case £45,000, in 1968. That’s nearer £1 million in 21st Century money. Cool. These days you only get the chance to rip off one album at a time. Times change.
In October 1968 we both went to the Radio Luxemburg studios in Mayfair where their publishing company Shaftesbury Music had taken a fancy to four of our songs and wanted to produce some better demos to play around some of the artists that they were close to. They used to record the Radio Luxembourg programmes there and fly the tapes over to Luxembourg for transmission. Up until a few years before this station was the only alternative to the BBC Light Programme and the recent pirate radio ships. Luxembourg had been listened to by most serious music loving teenagers since the days of huddling beneath the bedclothes trying to tune the station in with a ‘cat’s whisker’.
The head honcho was Geoffrey Everett. A charming and avuncular fellow of fiftyish then, he knew the business inside out and had a lady assistant Gloria Nichols. We forgathered that evening supposedly to watch the session being recorded. There was a keen young arranger who had written out proper parts for a band of anonymous session musicians, two singers (and a drummer). The engineer twiddled his knobs in the normal impressive manner and we waited patiently in the background hoping for the trumpets of heaven to start and uplift us all into pure delight. Of course, it didn't happen. The singers would have been great at BBC Light Prog, or better suited to a tea dance at the Waldorf, but they couldn't quite get the hang of this pop music stuff of 1967, which was by then becoming heavily leant on by prog rock influences (you know, the one's who have all the hair).
Anyway, these guys ended up on three of the four numbers. They were told they'd been recorded on the last one but we only laid down the backing track without the vocals. This was because due to MU rules of the time, the session fees were 'so much' for a session recorded As Live but 'so much more' if the recording was going to be produced by using Overdubs. That's how relatively new multi-tracking was at that time. The singers and band were released and Huck and I took their place and overdubbed the vocals in their place under the direction of the arranger.
My older brother was an Electical Engineer and had made my path smooth into experimenting with boxes of glowing tubes and the spinning hubs of Tape Decks and other mysterious equipment summoned up at will. Drums. No problem. The wardrobe was ideal to keep those in. A Zither? Now where did I last put that? That stuff and a couple of guitars was my life for a few years. But the tracks recorded at Luxembourg were all too polite. I think that was the mystifying thing for these record folk. We were put in front of some of the right people to choose songs but they had absolutely no idea how to produce a hit sound. A sound in spirit. The sound of passion.
Some notes here about technical issues for posterity about my recording set up in 1968.
Another problem was of signal to noise ratio, which meant keeping the tape signal at much higher levels than would be necessary a few years later. this produced that over-saturated tape compression sound - which was, of course, used to good effect by Chess Records studios where they knew, by experience, just how much to push the levels into the red to get that famous sound (unachievable in British studios because the men in white coats wouldn't allow ANY over-saturation/compression.) Bass was usually one of the first instruments we recorded and therefore suffered the most in subsequent generations. The record VU meters on the machine were very slow and it was not possible to see the peaks you were reaching.
However, we often found that subsequent sessions in "proper studios" of a song, though better in technical quality or performance accuracy, rarely managed to capture the charm and essence of our original creative track. Sometimes these may have taken a week or two to complete. The original of "Thinking Pictures" features a bell tolling during the middle eight section. This was not particularly liked by publishers and anyway, a record by The Herd came out shortly after with a tolling bell so we had to start all over and write a completely different middle eight and cut the bell idea.
True to his word, he did and a few weeks later we got a letter from Apple saying they liked the song and asking us to come to a meeting, which was to be at their new Savile Row building. Whilst we were waiting in the lush reception area Mary Hopkin walked in weighed down with glitzy-looking shopping bags. She had just had her hit "Those Were The Days" (September 1968) and was treated with deepest respect from all the staff there because it was the first non-Beatles record that had achieved any success.
But the most important thing for us was that the receptionist was complaining that George Harrison had gone absent without leave and apparently the other Beatles were fretting about it. She left the room and Peter and I were left on our own. Suddenly, the doors opened and George Harrison walked in. He had red trousers and was much thinner than expected. Our inward response was to blurt out to him that he was in the wrong place but we were so in awe of him that we kept our heads down. He disappeared through a large wooden door and when the receptionist came back we were able to tell her, rather nervously, that George had just gone through that door. I remember her leaping up just as George returned and her telling him that everyone was looking for him. He grumpily said something like "I wish that they'd tell me where I was supposed to go" and promptly left. We assumed it must have been to Abbey Road. Chaos. Not Organisation, as we were soon to find out.
It’s hard to appreciate now the speed of events that followed. They say a week in politics is along time. The same is true in Chartland. We seem to have captured something of the stylistic originality and atmosphere of what was the Brit Pop of it's time. But within a few months the moving finger had moved on into a new era where we felt we no longer fitted as snuggly.
Artists recorded their own material. Record companies had started buying in complete master tapes. Songwriters as an institution were on the wane, self-penned artists were on the way up. The Apple acetates of our track survived and there is at least one in collectors hands in America. Almost exactly forty years later, it has been released on a CD album (cherryred.co.uk) 'Treacle Toffee World' along with three other of our tracks on a compilation of previously unreleased material from that creative era of 1967-1969.
Hamilton King and IPOH
We were along lines not dissimilar to Santana and Ossibisa, but with a more Caribbean twist. And sometimes we'd do a Reggae and Calypso gig at Harleston Town Hall, with a whole steel pan section. Then, instead of playing bass they'd invite me along to play the very bass steel pan with just two divisions. Doomp and dooooomp. In fact it was actually called 'De doomp dedooomp' and I'd just groove away with them all night peering out over a dance floor with about six hundred very dark-skinned people gyrating and cavorting and doing their thing in the most sensual and evocative way. Must have been quite a culture shock for a middle class marketing man from Pinner, but I don't recall it as such.
Those nights instilled in me a sense of rhythm that forms the pulse that works within me today. It also imbued deep within me a deep sense of joy being in the same room with those dusky ladies, their gyrating hips and dark eyes full of promise, cavorting ever-so precariously but beautifully under a limbo pole not ten inches off the floor.
I remember making, yes making!, a soft velvet brimmed hat a bit like Hendrix wore and I took to wearing black velvet trousers with knee length boots and fur-trimmed jackets with flowing sleeves. I don't remember doing too many gigs, but the rehearsals were interminable.
There were some pub gigs, which we saw as paid rehearsals and we would blow their minds. No-one had seen anything like it before. We did Ronnie Scott's Upstairs a couple of times and the Penthouse Club occasionally. There was a recording session for BBC Radio 2 for Barry Class, and I have blurry recollections of a big gig that filled the Horticultural Hall in Vincent Square.
I'd bought a van at an auction for us. It was a two-and-a-half ton Comma and I suppose it helped to make up for the wrong kind of hair. Sometimes we'd swan off to some outlying venue with the van loaded to the gunwales with equipment and whoever we could squeeze in, and if we found we'd gone right over the heads of the locals we'd sometimes finish off with a blast of good ol’ Rock 'n Roll with an unexpected Caribbean flavour.
The one and only time in my whole musical career I 'got off’ in a truly rock and roll fashion was at a gig at a place that could have been called Sleepyville in the County of Nowhere. It was somewhere in the vicinity of Camarthen. Ralpho was in charge of drugs and we'd laid down a good vapour trail all along the M4. The last few miles of the interminable journey - we could only get a top speed of 45 miles an hour - was up a long, steep and extremely winding lane and several times I wondered whether the engine would blow or the weight of equipment would burst the rear shutter and all our equipment would tumble out back down the road. But somehow we made it.
I'd just popped to the loo at half time and bumped into something rather gorgeous on my way out. In accordance with some strange energies at play in the cosmos that day within a couple minutes she had swept me into my bedroom, which happened to be quite close to hand, and got stuck into it. "And where are you from then" she gulped in the most beautiful Welsh lilt during various exercises. "From London, you know" I replied suitably breathlessly. "Ah, yes. London. Good. You see, they just don't know what to do with it from around here you know. Aargh! Oooh, yes." You know the sort of thing.
Inevitably, time came for the second half performance, and I recall with pride and dignity to my profession that two of the band had to hammer on my door for some minutes to remind me that they really can't start without a bass player. Now if I'd played timbales things might have been different. It was the same the following night. Same lady, just couldn't shake her off all weekend. Life's never been quite the same since.
And he was a real expert. In the fifties he had a little 'firm' as it was called. And nothing suited them better than going out on a Saturday night in the Mk II Jaguar, like Morse used to drive. "You know, I used to look after that car like it was my own. Polish it an everyfink, I did." The Jag was chosen - or should I say nicked - not for the strength of its prestige or pulling power. More for it's pushing power. Or more correctly on the strength of its heavy-gauge, solid steel bumpers.
They back it up to an off-licence door, jamming a scaffolding pole between the bumper and the door and in a flash they're in. Two blankets sewn together along three edges form a gigantic bag. Two of them hold this out while a third runs along a shelf scooping all the bottles of spirits, in one sweep, directly into the outstretched bag. And then straight out and drive off. Some bottles broke, but not many. Total time two minutes. They'd probably do this three times in a night in quite different areas of London, and never got pulled in years. "Course, it was never the same once the fuzz got them radios. That's how I got done and I realised that was the end of the firm. Shame 'cos I really missed that car." My God, how he could hit those congas.
Rod Stewart hung out with him for a while, and Labbi Siffre worked with him for about a year, before decamping with some more of Hamilton's repertoire. I know he was very hurt by all this intellectual shoplifting. I can also recall he was a difficult man to work with at times. Now, whilst songs can be copyrighted, ideas can't. It's frustrating to see people exploiting your ideas without any recognition, either artistically or financially - I've experienced that myself in other business situations. But Hamilton's ideas were so original and enchanting it must have been heartbreaking. That is the blues. Maybe he should have been a better PR man, or better still - white.
One of the last songs we worked on together was with Eddie Grant in his basement studio on Fulham Palace Road. It was not completed due to lack of funds at the time, but remnants of it remain today in a song called 'Why' and I have since reconstructed much of it in a song called ‘Summer Is Gone’.
The most exciting thing we did was in meeting up with Tony Wilson, the original bass player with Hot Chocolate, and Mickie Most. The first time I met Mickie he was seated at a piano in some studio which I can't recall the name of, and I found him the most likeable person I've ever met in the music business. Natural, affable, no side to him at all. I think I'd met Tom Springfield before during my early song writing days and it was one of the characteristics of British life that a mutual acquaintance can break down all kinds of barriers so easily. Mickie worked with us on a session of our own stuff at Tangerine Studios, but after a number of frustrating hours we couldn't get a sound anyone was happy with either in the studio or over the monitors. It was a harsh, rock atmosphere designed more for the newer kinds of groups emerging that played at the kind of volume you get when all the amps are turned up to eleven.
We had to abandon it, but Mickie organised another session at the ATV studios, Marble Arch where it turned out much better. Although, the studio was rather bright, clean and antiseptic. And you can hear that in the music as it sounded like an afternoon session if you know what I mean; a 'tea and biscuits' sort of sound rather than the 'beer and pizza' sound we all came to prefer.
I usually find the best sessions come out of dark and musky atmospheric surroundings, and preferably in the middle of the night, when you can also get it at a cheaper rate. We did one session at Arthur Brown's studio down Islington way. It was painted black throughout with interesting blankets draped all around. That was cool and we got some of our more pleasing results there.
But just before the croupier of destiny stretched his hand out over the table of fate, Tony Wilson offered us a song to record that he and Errol had written but was not suitable for Hot Chocolate. We recorded this and the flipside - one of Hamilton's tunes - at a very rushed four hour session on fairly primitive 4-track equipment at Regent Sounds in Denmark Street in October of 1972.1 remember I had to drive down for it from Derby where I was freelancing for a while as a graphic designer in an advertising agency. After the session we went over to Wembley where Errol Brown was finishing a vocal track, think it was 'I Believe (In Love)'. He was just doing a few punch-ins and we went up to the control room and listened a while as Mickie Most worked on the final mix.
I remember popping in to see Mickie again about ten years later in his new Berkeley Square offices. Just as friendly and considerate as before, he asked me if I minded waiting a bit as he wanted to try out some expensive-looking leather motorcycle suits. So I hung out in his office carefully scrutinising all the recently acquired gold records plastered round the walls and he'd roar round the square a few times on a huge BMW bike, and come in muttering and ripping off one suit, donning another, pouring me a coffee and then off for another circuit, and I'd see him zooming past Satchi & Satchi, this time in cobalt blue rather than ice white.
When I'd finally got his attention I pulled out the 'Caveman Billy' single, "I think the time might right to have another look at this". He played it for about thirty seconds. "I think not" is all he said handing it back to me.
Since we'd last met he'd become the most successful pop producer in Britain, and he'd managed it rather well without me. With his usual courtesy he didn't let it show. Bless him. Or maybe he'd noticed I didn't have the right kind of hair again.
|BACK TO TOP|