Next entry is here. Scroll down to part 8.
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Part 1Most of my posts on this blog have been of a watery nature, but that's not all of me. Long before I'd ever set foot in a boat, I'd been aware of something that would be with me for the whole of my life (up to now). I'm talking about music.
When I was a kid there was no radio or record player in the house for quite a long time, so the only access to music was the school orchestra or the television. The school orchestra at Buckland infants school comprised of one teacher playing the piano, about five girls with recorders and the rest of the class with either castanets or triangles. I was given a triangle for a while, and then it was swapped to a school castanet (just the one). The school castanets differed from the ones that flamenco dancers have, and tourists bring back from Spain. The real ones don't have a handle!
There I was as umpteenth castanet listening to “Time and Tune” or one of the other broacdasts that were pelted at us from the Clarke and Smith school radio. We had to count and then at the right time do a quick clack on the castanet. All very interesting, and not even slightly musical. I was still interested though, and I spent the time when I wasn't clacking (which was most of it) inspecting the “musical” instrument. Then disaster struck! I missed my clack! Worse still, the teacher somehow spotted it and was stood behind me as she let loose her venom. How dare I look at the treasury tag that she'd just spent several seconds attaching the clacky bits back to the castanet with! This was a crime punishable surely by death! She certainly scared my halfway there, and I would have wet myself had I had any head of steam to do so. Result was I was summarily drummed out of the school orchestra (Or I would have been if they had any drums!).
None of this mattered though because on television that afternoon after school I saw the first of my two heroes, Wally Whyton. Along with Five o'clock Club, this guy singing with his acoustic folk guitar (which from an old photo looks to be some form of Martin) was a must. He was, though I didn't know it at the time, something of the acceptable face of the early sixties folk revival and he'd sing a number of simple traditional songs live on air. I was hooked and, though I didn't know it at the time, he was my introduction to the great Woody Guthrie. Wally was, also unbeknown to me, a well established and respected performer and had released a number of records before his stint on children's television. He was also responsible for introducing some co presenters in the form of Pussycat Willum, Fred Barker and Ollie Beak. Of course these puppets got more fan mail than him but he didn't mind. Nor did I for that matter. It was the music that got me.
©2018 Michael Nye
©2018 Michael Nye
©2018 Michael Nye
The second of my early heroes was the sharply dressed Bert Weedon and his beautiful Hofner semi acoustic electric guitar. The twangy sound of the instrument again got my attention as he also played it live on air. This all sounded new and futuristic to my young ears and I wanted more, which came in the form of the Shadows with their close formation stage “dance” and that twangy sound again! I was hooked sufficiently to never want to be unhooked.
The final early influence on my life was the railway track that ran, on an embankment, behind the school playground. Often small steam shunting locos would run along the track pulling a few coal wagons. I never knew where they went or came from, because the sum total of my knowledge of railways was that few yards of track, and the small train set that I shared with my brother. Whenever a loco went past during school playtime the kids' including me all used to beg the driver to blow the whistle (which they usually obliged us with after sufficient commotion). Now of course they'd probably be sacked for paying us any attention, but the result then was that pretty much all of us (girls included) wanted to be engine drivers when we grew up. I was, along with the rest, desirous of that career, but I also wanted to be Bert Weedon and Wally Whyton too. A mix of the three would come out somewhere in Joe Brown territory, and I started pestering that I wanted a guitar. I mean the five year old me really really wanted a guitar. I was nothing if not persistent in my pester power and for Christmas that year I got a shiny new.... ukulele!
Over the years I have made a good few disparaging remarks about the things but, to my five year old eyes, here was a real musical instrument. It even looked like a guitar. I can now see the logic Mum and Dad had was multi faceted. The early sixties were not a time of cheap Chinese made items, so their choices of instrument would have been somewhat limited. They could have got me a plastic toy guitar but I assume that, probably in their view, they may have thought this would be patronising even to a five year old. So, probably from Bell's music in Surbiton or Hand's in Kingston on Thames, the nice varnished wood ukulele was purchased and, when I opened the parcel, I was well pleased. That's when I made a big discovery. You have to learn to play a musical instument otherwise the sound from it is anything but musical!©2018 Michael Nye
This is where Mum stepped into the breach. Despite being (self confessed) tone deaf, and as able to play the uke as me, she read through the book and offered such instruction as she could. To be fair, I did learn a few chords and could eventually plunk my way through Swannee River. At least I knew the chords, but, having never actually heard the song I couldn't do any of the rhythm or melody. There was no record player either, and certainly no Google! I felt I'd achieved something though.
When school chose to do some kind of concert (I think it may have been their rather ill fated “West Indian Jamboree”) I was asked to come in with said ukulele and do an audition. I took the box (Cardboard nicely covered with sticky backed woodgrain effect plastic) into school and showed the instrument off. I'm still rather surprised that anyone was impressed, but some were. On cue I stood up to play, and went through the chord sequence of Swannee River with no tempo, or idea of the tune. To her credit the teacher stepped in and played the melody (which I'd never heard before) on the piano. That just confused me and I stood there, played one chord and just stopped.
In the “West Indian Jamboree,” (which had nothing whatsoever to do with the area whatsoever) I played the part of the orderly in the class performance of “The King's Breakfast” by A.A. Milne. I stood on stage and eventually got to say;
“You'd better tell his majesty that many people nowadays like marmalade instead.”
Actually I think the cow was supposed to say it but I wasn't the producer or director.©2018 Michael Nye
Mum was happy with the idea that I was still a musical child. In fact, despite not letting me sing in the choir (Apparently, I had a voice like a cement mixer. Thank you to my teacher Mrs. Mason for telling me that one.) the school was of the of the opinion that I was, as Mum said, musical. If the ukulele wasn't my forte then maybe another instrument was. Somewhere someone had the bright idea that I joined the recorder band.
Now, anybody that was in primary school in the mid sixties will remember the clusters of girls walking home after school playing rounds on their recorders as they walked. In some ways it was quite nice to hear, if a little repetitive, there being only so many times you can hear “London's Burning, Frère Jacques, or London Bridge is Falling Down before you went looking for cotton wool to stuff your ears with. The main thing to a mid sixties boy was that the group was exclusively female, and there were clear demarcation lines within schools at the time. I got given a recorder but couldn't play the thing even if my life depended on it. It squeaked, the fingering was awkward and I did my best to hide the fact that I was trying to learn. In short I was crap at the thing so I was never let into the recorder group. I was still thought of as musical though. I certainly liked music, and wanted to hear more. It took a hell of a lot of campaigning before I was allowed my own radio, a 6 transistor pocket sized medium wave thing with a 2 inch speaker.
One of the oddities I remember of listening to music was that I had more or less been told that I didn't like pop music. There were not many chances (pre radio) to hear any as the only other radio in the house was owned by my granny who disliked all pop music as, in her opinion, all of these so called musicians were plagiarising the Beatles. She liked the Beatles, until they started taking drugs that is (which they promptly did). So, in the intervening period between that and the radio I got about ten minutes of Top of the Pops each week (unless there was any form of tennis on the television). I remember well things like Procol Harum with the projected Lissajous figure as a backdrop, Arthur Brown with his head on fire, and the Animals (who my granny absolutely hated) doing House of the Rising Sun. I still officially didn't like pop though, even though (when I did get a radio) I listened to the pirate radio stations, and radio Luxembourg under the sheets with a tinny earphone. I felt it better to keep the image up at school, where I was seen as weird as a result. It was worth it though as it meant I could keep listening at home. So, from then until the early seventies I became a closet pop fan.©2018 Michael Nye
In 1971, Lindisfarne released the single “Meet Me on the Corner.” Although not a true pop song, it hit number 5 in the charts and I saw it on Top of the Pops. I'd also saved my pennies and bought a Fidelity Rad 12 radio that had medium and long wave and a good deal better sound for the £9.50 I paid for it. The previous year (with some birthday money, and Christmas cash) spent £15 on a portable record player which, up until that fateful day, I used to play the selection of discarded Marble Arch easy listening records dad had given me. I can't remember the day exactly, but for me it was probably the most radical thing I'd done. I went out one lunchtime at school and actually bought “Meet Me on the Corner!” I had actually gone and bought a chart single. I played it when I got home, and there were no comments (Mainly because I kept the volume so low that nobody else heard it).
As a piece of youth rebellion, going and buying a folksy single by a relatively obscure band from Newcastle was not on a par with smoking dope and going on the hippie trail (I was still 14 remember!) but it didn't half feel good. It did two things. Firstly it opened the floodgate and I'd listen to anything. I bought ex jukebox singles, bootlegged stuff from the radio (when I bought a very cheap and tinny cassette recorder) and generally realised that it was better not to conceal that, all along, I had loved the music that my family really would prefer that I did not. The second was that it rekindled my desire to make my own music.
At the age of fifteen, another momentous event happened. I became the proud owner of a guitar. It was second hand and rather too obviously was an unwanted holiday souvenir from either Spain or Gibraltar. It was made by a company called Roca, had nylon strings an uneven fretboard and bent tuning machines. Hardly rock and roll, but this time I was going to learn to play it! My first attempt at tuning it resulted in a broken bottom E string and a rather embarrassing trip to a music shop.
“Can I have a steel string for a guitar please.” I asked.
“What gauge do you want?” the assistant asked.
“It's the lowest one,” I replied.
“But what gauge, what sort of guitar,” the assistant asked.
“It's an acoustic,” I offered.
Eventually I was sold a medium gauge steel Rotosound bottom e, which (as I remember) was a steel wrapped electric string, and about as unsuitable for the guitar as it could be.
With the help of a neighbour's piano (which was probably a bit out of tune) and a beginners guitar book I had the thing in tune. Next. My first chord. C.... then G7, then G. To be honest they weren't too bad. It took some weeks but I managed to get something.
Then came F. Aptly named for the guitar. What an absolute PIG! Try as I might I couldn't get it. It took months and, had I had any lighter fuel I might just have done a Jimmy Hendrix with the damnable thing. (I mean smashing it and setting it on fire, not actually playing it properly.) So, in the absence of means of creating fire, I persevered. After about three months I could do about three chords (G and G7 in my mind kind of count as one). I could even have a go at simple songs from the book. After six I'd bought a couple of song books (Bob Dylan and Donovan).
A year later I finally bought a proper set of nylon strings after I'd noticed that the steel string had cracked the woodwork on the bridge. After fixing it with Araldite I put the strings on and retuned the thing. The new strings made a difference, and the guitar actually sounded reasonable, but it wasn't steel strung, so it was time to save my pennies up again.
I had a habit then of spending just about every penny I had (apart from my slowly growing collection of 1971 two pence coins that sat on my bedroom windowsill) and had, at the age of sixteen, spent every one (£115) on a small boat (the story of which is elsewhere in this blog, entitled “Keeping a Bee”. Boats are a great way of ensuring a state of permanent skintness, but they have their charm. One thing that had been a nuisance was having to pay a bus fare every time I wanted to go and work on the boat, so the next purchase I decided on was a bicycle. I had just enough (£12) to get a relic of an old green Raliegh, complete with an enclosed chain and a lot of rust. Now, usually when you buy a bike, the assumption is that you can ride the thing. That was something that (even at the ripe old age of 18) I had not yet mastered. I could just about manage a straight line for about 50 yards, and it was like this that I rode home. No surprise then that the thing (and almost me) met its end on the front of a Triumph Herald about 3 weeks later. I flew over the handlebars and landed in the road by the driver's door, out of which stepped the rather annoyed driver.
“You silly boy,” she shouted. “What on earth were you doing.”
“I think I was falling off my bike,” I replied.
She wasn't too amused at the result of one of us cutting a corner and the other going wide. Surprisingly though, the bike was still rideable (despite a severely bent frame and a pedal crank that now hit the back fork of the thing). It clunked until I got to a bike shop, who bent the crank a bit and offered me a trade in which I couldn't afford there and then.
©2018 Michael Nye
Sadly the guitar would have to wait and I saved a bit more before returning to the bike shop.
“Remember me?” I smiled.
“Yes, we straightened your bike a bit,” the guy said.
“Is there still a trade in?” I asked.
“The cheapest new bike we have is a Hercules, but it's £30,” he replied.
With £8 trade in I rode off on the new Hercules for just £22. It was a lot nicer than the Raliegh but it did have a habit of the chain coming off once a week. Several changes of sprocket and chain eventually fixed this (under the warranty) and I did a lot of learning to ride on it. Perhaps my finest achievement was to come home with an 88 key Hohner reed organ on the handlebars. I'd always fancied playing keyboards and this plywood thing really looked nice (and it was rather cheap). It was French polished, and packed neatly into a trunk sized suitcase. I set off from Bells in Surbiton with 3 ½ stone of the thing perched on the handlebar. Mostly the run was O.K. but I was limited to straight lines only. A left turn led to severe imbalance, and a right one caused the keyboard (which only wanted to go in a straight line) to jam my thumb on the brake lever (which hurt rather a lot). The thing sounded like a maltuned harmonium powered by a low grade vacuum cleaner.
Jumping forward a moment. When talking to our local vicar some years back, Janice (my wife) and I complimented the rather nice harmonium he had in his study.
“It's actually not a true harmonium,” he replied with a knowledgeable smile. “It's actually an American organ.”
Well, one of us had to ask so it was me.
“What's the difference?” I smiled.
“Well,” the vicar said. “Harmoniums blow, and American organs suck.”
“I'm sure they aren't that bad,” Janice replied before realising she was in a vicarage.
Thankfully the vicar had a good sense of humour.
Back to the Hohner. Whether it blew or sucked, it sucked in a big way, but I learned a few bits of keyboard with it, so I guess it wasn't a total waste of cash.
After yet more saving, a visit to a second hand shop got me a rather nice looking Kay jumbo which had beautiful gold scroll work on the (Batwing style) scratch plates. It also had beautiful multi coloured veneer on the sides and back of the body. Visually then it was fine. Shame about the action and sound though, and it would have helped if someone had bothered to glue the thing together properly. In short, it was a piece of crap. I persevered though. I lowered the action, applied lots of Araldite to various bits of the body that was slowly disintegrating, stuck a pack of cotton wool and a rather plush dressing gown cord in the sound box to mellow it a bit. It did the job for a while at least. The “gold” kept rubbing off the scratchplates, so I kept adding more with Humbrol enamel paint left over from my Airfix kit building days. ©2018 Michael Nye
I was now fed up with working in an electronics factory, had done my City and Guilds and wanted to do my version of dropping out, so I became an art student. Well, I did evening classes in art and English language as a starter. It was whilst doing these that I decided to have a go at being a real student, and managed to get an interview at Epsom school of art and design for the foundation course. Feeling I'd stand a better chance if I told a couple of porkies I said I wanted to do industrial design (which I had no intention of doing.) I was pretty surprised to be accepted, and even more so to pass the O.levels in art and English. I now had enough (if I chose to) to actually get to a polytechnic after the foundation year!
At Epsom there were a few musicians (people that could play more than one chord on a battered Egmond guitar) and I soon realised both how crap I was, and how rubbish my Kay guitar was. It was around then that Eko (remember them) had adverts in the music papers (I used to buy Melody Maker) suggesting that you buy your second guitar first. I thought it a bit dumb but it had my interest. I had some cash saved from work so, yet again one Saturday, I cycled to Hands music centre in Kingston to look at guitars. My preference was for a Kimbara, but when I tried it, I really didn't like it. I tried a couple and then I was handed an Eko Navajo which was quite nice. Next came the Ranger 6. That was nice in a big way so I put my prejudices aside and tried to work out how I could afford it. I tried a Yamaha (costing 3 times as much as the Eko) as I thought, and came to the conclusion that the Eko was the better sounding instrument. After sorting out a trade in on the Hohner reed organ, and the Kay (complete with cotton wool and pyjama cord) I put a deposit down and returned with said items (thanks to my dad for the lift) and the deal was done.
Whilst Eko guitars were not really revered by anybody, I was quite happy with the thing. The action was adjustable with two stout screws on the sides of the alloy bridge mount, it had an electric style bolt on neck and it was built like a brick outhouse. Comparing it to the Kay would be a bit of an insult but I'll try anyway.
The Eko was what they Kay would have liked to be. It was about the same size, far less decorated, and had a very good sound straight out of the box. In short, it was pretty good. I later found that the top of the range Kay (which I didn't have) was made by Eko to a lower spec than their own range. The Kay version had a single piece neck made of inferior wood (the Eko had a three piece laminate neck that is beautiful to look at and easy to play. The Kay had the variety of tuners that came as three on a strip, and were a bit graunchy. The Eko ones were separate open ones and not too bad. On each count the Kay had corners cut to make a budget version of the Eko that wasn't worth buying.
I've since found out that, as well as making one instrument for Kay, Eko made the famous Vox teardrop guitars and various other items for other people. ©2018 Michael Nye