Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
It would have been about this time of year. The end of summer 1970. I was seventeen years old and renting my first bedsit in London. I'd been out at work as a messenger boy for nearly two years by then– a few of us did get on the treadmill quite young in those days. It was August Bank Holiday and I'd wanted to go and see Hendrix and The Who at the Isle of Wight Festival. But on a wage of eleven quid a week, with all my outgoings, I didn't really have the money. So I came home to Colchester to see my mum. The town wasn't quite as chopped-about then. It was sleepier somehow. And prettier. So upon arrival at North Station I took my time up sunny Balkerne Hill and then along Crouch Street with its flower-basket pubs and its charming old shops. On Saturday I would have passed the old livestock market at Sheepen Road and later, I probably wandered down St Albans Road and out onto Hilly Fields. And I sat around for that whole balmy weekend being looked-after. Because boys who've left home early and don't quite know how to cook yet, tend to live on Golden Syrup toasted sandwiches and Vesta Chow Meins. You see, they only really appreciate their mums after they've had to fend for themselves for a while in lonely London. Which is partly why I gave Jimi Hendrix a miss that weekend, opting for Colchester instead.
About a year later I agreed to house-sit for a bunch of friends who'd all gone off to an unknown open-air concert at some obscure place in Essex. That's how I managed to miss the Weeley Pop Festival. Who was playing there? Only The Faces, T.Rex and Status Quo, that's all. The site of the now-legendary festival, is only about a mile or two from the present family home. Imagine: Ron Wood, Rod Stewart and Marc Bolan all playing in a field within earshot of your dad's greenhouse. And you miss it because you're sixty miles away. A prat? I fear so.
But rock's legends routinely did visit Essex in those days. Long after they were famous, Pink Floyd and The Who both played at Essex University. The privileged Floyd played in a Lecture Theatre. Most bands had to suffer the dancehall – an afterthought for an entertainment venue which had originally been intended as an underground car park. It sounded like one too. And yet many of our greatest rock gods strutted their stuff there at one time or another. Townsend, Daltrey, Waters and Gilmour must all have staggered dazed out of their tour vans into the humming sub-station gloom underneath the University's podium. Later, they would have changed into their stage shirts in the strip-lit pallor of the breeze-block dressing-rooms up those grey flights of stairs.
It was all unremarkable back then though. From the early 1960s until the early '90s our rock gods gigged relentlessly. North Essex was very much on the circuit. The infrastructure was all in place to facilitate it. In addition to the old 'college-circuit', every UK town still had its ABC and Odeon Cinemas doubling as rock venues. Even the Rolling Stones played Colchester. Not once, mind you, but twice. They did a two-show stint at the Odeon in February of 1964 and then returned in September for a repeat performance. Mick'n'Keef in Crouch Street? That's only about a maracca-throw from my auntie's old house.
The nearest the Beatles ever got to us though – so far as I know – was Southend. And David Bowie is notable by his absence from our sainted county. I scoured yellowing tour intineraries but Ziggy just wasn't here. Though he did apparently show up incognito as Iggy Pop's keyboard player one night at Essex Uni in 1977. Many of the luminaries of the punk and post-punk period also graced that peculiar dancehall stage too: The Damned, The Stranglers, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, XTC, and The Smiths. The list is endless and the gigs went on week-after-week, all through term-times.
Ah, but that Weeley Festival though. It seems almost impossible to believe now that Rod Stewart T.Rex and Status Quo should all have turned up to play in a Tendring field just because Clacton Rotary Club thought it might be a good fund-raising idea. One band, Stray, who had a notoriously unstable line in amateur pyrotechnics – including an infamous exploding metal dustbin – in the absence of proper fireworks, let off distress flares instead. This accidentally launched the Clacton lifeboat into action, causing much trouble for the band.
A year or so after the Weeley Festival, my parents moved out to nearby Aingers Green and I visited the old site. It was my own Pilgrimage of Regret I suppose. I stood there wistfully with the wind blowing over the autumn fields, like it was the week after Custer's Last Stand. I don't know what I'd expected to find. The fluting of distant pan-pipes and a broken guitar-neck sticking out of the stubble, perhaps? A rusting old Watney's Party Four tin and a fragment of paisley shirt? But there was nothing. It was just a bit of farmland up the road. It was also a chunk of my lost youth. And Jimi Hendrix was dead. Yep. It would have been about this time of year.