Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
I was invited recently by yet another local 'free' festival, to perform. I enquired about pay and was told via their committee that they had 'a policy of not paying their acts'. I told them that unfortunately, I couldn't afford to perform there because it would clash with my full-time music and poetry work. Now that the entire country has become festival literate, 'free' festivals are quite the thing, even at municipal level. They make money and create good will. The food stalls and the bar always do splendidly. The security firm, the stage technicians, the truck and sound equipment hire and the portaloo people all get paid. The volunteer organisers and local authorities all pat each other on the back, and of course, the punters enjoy themselves No musicians or poets are paid. Observe that this is a free Music festival. You couldn't make the same thing work if, say, it were a Festival of Plumbing, or The Big Roofing Gig. So, I'll leave you with the maths on that one, whilst I move swiftly on to someone who almost certainly does get paid.
Whilst watching television, in the dry, last weekend – as opposed to doing an unpaid gig in the wet – I happened upon a festival performance by Florence and the Machine. Ms Florence Welch, a heart-stoppingly lovely young Englishwoman of a kind that could turn perfectly sensible Christian yeomen into lovestruck fools, is a popular singer. To call her band an 'indie' act is misleading. This is because everything which I have learnt of her recently indicates that she is a figurehead for an ultra-modern, highly-successful business set-up rather more akin to a corporate model. This separates her from your standard indie outfit: more usually a team of deluded, bambi-eyed waifs managed by a shifty no-goodnik operating from a broom cupboard in Camden.
Watching Florence's enraptured young audience heaving like a fleece in the rain, punching the air and mouthing her song lyrics was an affecting experience. Florence's stage act – actually more a sort of dressage – might have suited an Olympic event as admirably. When she made her occasional forays into the no-man's-land between the stage and the crush barriers, she was watched over by a platoon of security men, as well as shadowed closely by a very handy-looking minder. I guessed that this was because at a performance two years ago, whilst out 'crowd-surfing', she was reportedly subjected to a highly-distressing personal assault by an audience member.
People can be mean like that. Even if they seem to like you, they'll still chuck food or liquid at you, steal your rings or bracelets and sometimes – as happened to your younger correspondent – spike your drink or grab you roughly, in quite private places. Ian Dury once said that watching his audience when they were really ratcheted up, he used sometimes to wish that someone would throw a bucket of water over them to calm them down.
I noticed with Florence Welch that when she was in full messianic flow, the damp festival air having demolished her coiffure somewhat, at times she resembled an evangelical Boadicea, or perhaps an Isadora Duncan. This only made her more endearing. I couldn't always understand what she was singing about, mind you and her contralto voice, although operatically epic, possessed an unbridled stridency, not always present on her recordings. I looked at the production as a whole, though, considering the size of her band, her crew, her management – the sheer level of organisation – and I thought, “Well, if you're going into this Babylon of an industry, then that's the way to do it.” Everything about the entire shebang was monumental – in sound, light, and in gesture.
Then, I remembered seeing the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park in early July of 1969, amplified through Mr. Charlie Watkins' hastily cobbled-together banks of WEM speaker columns. This was in days before big sound systems were invented. The event was no less impressive. Now I thought back even earlier to a school dance I attended, aged only 11. Here I watched an early northern beat group belting out songs on our school stage. I stood in the shadows and I thought that it was the loudest, sparkliest and most exciting thing I'd ever experienced. Quite seriously, I walked out into the autumn air afterwards, unable to speak. I think that what I'm trying to say here, is that watching those rinky-dink pop groups of my distant boyhood was no less exciting than anything on offer today.
At the top level of entertainment events, nowadays, however, there are multiple performance areas, with vast arrays of equipment, all helping to generate money of corporate proportions. Florence Welch, only in her mid-twenties, is probably, fairly wealthy and deservedly so. She works hard.
In term of modern presentation, therefore, nothing else will do but that all of our events, even our local ones, attempt to emulate this altitudinous industry standard; the best equipment for the best job. This is why local musicians and poets, many of them, traditionally among the poorest people in society, are asked to play for nothing. The tail is wagging the dog. But why do the performers – apart from this one – agree to underwrite it all? Do we have even less respect for ourselves than do those who demand that we work for nothing? I'm sorry, I can't hear you. But still. No victims. Only volunteers.
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.
The Television Will Not Be Revolutionised.
Spring of 1968 was, for me at least, the last spring of the 1960s. By early November of that year I'd more or less stopped going into school, preferring instead to hang around with Hedley in his dad's shop in Earlsfield, South London. By early December I'd officially left school. By January 6th 1969, still aged only 15, I was a working lad in London, getting the tube train to work and buying my own lunches. I'd started work for GPO Telegrams in Farrringdon Road, London. The 1960s really was over by then. Not even 16 yet and I'd missed it.
I knew that somewhere out there, people were making music, painting, writing, leading some kind of magic charmed lives. It was somewhere out there. I swear that I could even hear the pan pipes wafting on the wind sometimes. My life was lived through the pop records which I listened to, the books which I read and occasionally, the ideas which I received from other people's fantasies on TV – programmes such as The Prisoner for instance. In days before videos, when there were only two TV channels – though, soon to be three. If you didn't see a film at the cinema, it usually took something like 4 or 5 years to filter down to the small screen. Good films, therefore, were precious.
Making people – making myself – remember or understand that fact in our own media pampered age, is very hard. There was no View Again feature, for instance. There were no videos. You missed a film, then you'd really missed it. You couldn't watch a scene again, let alone in slo-mo. You all had to gather round a TV and stay with it for the duration. Unless it was being shown on ITV, which had regular 3-minute commercial breaks, then you took all the usual tea and wee breaks while the adverts were on.
Sometimes it would seem desperately important to me that I saw a certain film or programme on our one and only, 14-inch black and white screen. What I as a 15 year old was allowed to watch, or not, would often be a cause of huge family rows. It was sport and news versus music and comedy – Monty Python for instance. The one thing which I'd dread was the dominant male coming into the room, marching over to the TV and saying, “What's this load of old rubbish you're watching?” before changing the channel or turning the TV off altogether. It would make me either angry, or sometimes, despairing.
There was an exciting world out there -- somewhere. But there weren't many signs of it in the dull suburban street immediately outside. No one at my new place of work seemed aware of it either. The 1960s decade is so often nowadays caricatured by the media as an Austin Powers sort of world, with everyone in paisley day-glo, all frantically go-go dancing in groovy clubs. I never saw that bit and I was there. In most cases, there was an almost slavish adherence to normality, with everyone wearing the same clothes, buying the same furniture and taking pleasure in the same mundanities. At work they'd parrot. “We have a laugh...” . But they'd always qualify it with the sober caveat “...But we do get the work done.” This was what work was like for the 1960s school leaver. Quite like school, in fact but with slightly more money and a little less violence.