Early in 1978 my school mate Pete Cresswell let it slip that he and another pupil Martyn Gilbert had been writing and recording their own songs onto cassette. I suspect Pete kept these collaborations secret for fear of a rival “songwriter” muscling in. When he played me the tape I was blown away. They’d composed three immediately appealing songs: the punky ‘Having Fun’, a mid tempo bluesy number called ‘Rush Hour’ and a slow, melodic song called ‘Future Mission’ about a failed space flight – “People said it couldn’t be done; I’m here to prove they were right.” Martyn had been practicing guitar for four years and his playing was outstanding. Pete didn’t play an instrument but he did write the lyrics and sang in the fashion of the day – gruffly, just about in tune and with very little melody, but all the same, to great effect. I wanted a piece of the action. I told Pete to let Martyn know that I could keep good time and I would like to play rhythm guitar to his lead. Naturally, I had no idea whether I could keep good time but this lie was enough to secure me a place in Pete’s living room at the next session.
I hardly knew Martyn but I’d formed the opinion that he was somewhat distant and moody. I felt intellectually inferior to him but, at the first session, he demonstrated no signs of a superiority complex. In fact, he actively encouraged me by teaching me various 12 bar blues techniques and, that vital component in the rhythm guitarist’s arsenal, the bar chord. This takes some practice as you need to accumulate enough strength in your left hand to enable you to hold down all 6 strings at the same time with the long side of your index finger. Then you form an E major chord with your other 3 fingers (your thumb rests unseen on the back of the fret board), and move this hand shape anywhere up and down the fret board. Depending on which fret the barring index finger is placed upon, your basic E major chord becomes any major chord from F to E flat – that’s 11 chords. If you take your middle finger off the fret board, then all of those major chords become minors. Then, by removing your ring finger they become minor 7th chords – so that’s a total of 33 bar chords at your disposal. Martyn showed me the five stringed A major bar chord and the A major 7th and the A minor and the A minor 7th too. BUT ENOUGH. This was like presenting an artist who had previously sketched only in black and white, a beginner’s colour painting set. I was delighted by how freely and how patiently Martyn continued to impart his knowledge at these all too infrequent sessions. Had he not been so forthcoming, I would have had nowhere else to turn for tuition. I might have become frustrated or bored and then given up. As it was, Martyn equipped me with some significant song writing tools. He had shaped my destiny.
I contributed a punky simplicity to the early sessions, and out of these came another of Pete’s comedy songs ‘That Monday Morning Feeling’, which he would later perform with No Exit. We all entered into the spirit of the age by adopting punk pseudonyms. Pete became Stud Crabtree, Martyn was The Gap and I christened myself Wedgie Cesspit. How we laughed. We sent John Peel a tape under the name of ‘The Lemons’. We didn’t get a reply, but what did John Peel know, anyway?
I continued to learn and progress – slowly. At school my academic progress was also slow. Pete Cresswell and I were both relegated to the year below. It was a bit embarrassing at first, sitting in lessons with pupils a year younger, but as fate would have it, this brought me under the influence of a great English teacher called John Ayres. Like my dad, he knew and loved his subject and infected those in his company with enthusiasm. We sat entranced as he read out loud Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’ , Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ and Ben Johnson’s ‘Volpone’. He didn’t just read them, he became all of the characters – male and female, adult and child. It was a privilege to sit in his class and be enchanted in this way. How else would a dullard like me have possibly developed a deep appreciation of Hamlet, and identified so strongly with his youthful melancholia? The complex Elizabethan text was explained so well that it read like everyday language. John Ayres recognised that I was a “late developer”, that I had great potential. No one else had ever expressed any confidence in my abilities before, and I was inspired. “To be or not to be” , “what a piece of work is a man” and all those other famous quotations made me realise that no emotion I had ever, or would ever feel, was unique to me. Everything had been done and felt before. So my life, and life itself, seemed utterly meaningless. Through my songs I could never hope to offer insight into humanity’s dark heart with Shakespeare’s eloquence, but hey, I could at least give it a go.
In May I made the first of many visits to the legendary Eric’s club in Mathew Street. I was not yet 18, and therefore under age, but accompanied by Martyn and Dave Evans, (another school friend) I evaded detection. Down the stairs we went and through the matt black doors into a room almost as dark as the doors. The first thing that struck me about Eric’s was the inexplicably sulphurous smell of hamburgers cooking at the far end of the room. As I advanced toward the bar, the second thing that struck me was that my feet were sticking to a beer soaked carpet. The third thing that struck me was that the urinals in the gents’ toilets were overflowing and that the stickiness on the carpet was not necessarily all attributable to beer. Nevertheless I was like a pig in dirt, and I don’t think I’d ever been so excited about anything in my life. This was the place that nearly all my punk and new wave heroes had played. That night we saw The Motors – and they were marvellous.
I felt I deserved a better guitar than the cheese grater and, in June, with my 18th birthday money, I bought myself a black Gibson Les Paul copy which I could actually play for sustained periods without wincing in pain. As a result, over the next few months, my song writing came on in leaps and bounds. Combining simple open chords and bar chords with my Hamletesque gloom, I penned my best song yet – ‘Nothing New’. It was hardly Shakespeare but it hit the spot for me:
“It’s nothing new, nothing new. Don’t know what to do.
This summer’s day sweeps clouds away, still the sky is blue;
Sad and blue, sad and blue – I feel like that too.
It’s nothing new, nothing new. Don’t know what to do.”
Even at this early stage, I knew that the vast majority of pop songs’ words were inane. They were certainly not poetry. Most of The Beatles’ early hits conveyed trite love messages (‘Please Please me‘, ‘From Me to You’, ‘She Loves You‘ and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’) but in spite of that they were still great songs. Often lyrics made no sense – either grammatically or in subject matter – but that didn’t detract from a fantastic song. For instance Bowie’s use of words was brilliant; they just sounded right and conjured up vivid pictures in your mind. But the words were not enough by themselves. They had to be accompanied by a great melody and / or an outstanding musical arrangement. Unlike poems, most song lyrics are not intended to be read or listened to in isolation. They are just one component in a larger body of work – the song. I knew, then, that my words didn’t have to make sense and they didn’t necessarily have to rhyme. They didn’t have to be autobiographical and they didn’t have to be sincere. In fact they didn’t have to be anything. They just had to sound right.
I’d known Nic Corke since childhood when we were both in the choir at St Mary’s. He was now a tall, dark haired, athletic looking youth who was seldom afraid to speak his brains; he was hilarious. Nic had just bought himself a drum kit and, in the school holidays, he invited me round for a jamming session at his parents’ mansion in Fulwood Park. This was a place so huge, with so many rooms and cubby holes, that a visitor could quite easily become disorientated. I arrived with my guitar, and went into an upstairs room where Nic had set up his drums and also a microphone and an amplifier – for me! His dad, Charlie, was in the room, repairing a window frame. I began by demonstrating ‘Nothing New’. Charlie stopped work and looked me straight in the eye in amazement (I think that’s what it was). He congratulated me on a “good song.” In the months ahead he came to regret ever having given me that encouragement.
Punk / new wave bands were now mainstream and this made the Reading Festival of 1978 an attractive proposition for me. That August Bank Holiday weekend I shared a tent with Martyn Gilbert and Dave Evans. Amongst a whole host of others, we saw Status Quo (while still at, or maybe just past, their very best), The Motors, a reformed Pirates(without the deceased Johnny Kidd), Ultravox (before Midge Ure joined), Sham 69, Patti Smith, Penetration (a favourite of Dave’s) and the Tom Robinson Band. Dave and I teased Martyn throughout TRB’s song ‘Martin‘. Robinson sang “No one ever had a brother like Martin” and the whole audience chanted back “MARTIN!!” We selected an ear each to bellow “Martin” down. Martyn was not amused. At slightly over 6 feet tall, he was the same height as me when he didn’t stoop. He had a shock of curly black hair which prompted Dave to christen him “Springhead”. He looked like Charlie Harper, (singer in the punk group UK Subs) and would cheerfully sing their hit ‘Tomorrow’s Girl’ when reminded of that fact (I would have preferred ‘I Live in a Car’, but never mind). Martyn was very intellligent, and articulated his thoughts with measured precision. I had never before encountered a person who took the time to think about what he did or said before acting or speaking. He was an unwitting master of the pregnant pause.
The Jam topped the bill on the opening night and I remember how proud I felt to be a fan of theirs as they delivered a particularly beautiful rendition of ‘Tonight at Noon’ in the balmy, Berkshire twilight. “One day”, I thought, “I’ll be up on that stage.” After The Jam, Dave and I went back to the tent. Martyn went missing for hours. He’d been collecting discarded, but unopened cans of beer, and brought back two bulging carrier bags full. Few people would have had the intelligence to do that. He let us have a couple of cans each, (also a smart move) but he was very tired and not in the best of spirits after the ‘Martin’ incident, and so went to sleep. We borrowed a few more cans and helped ourselves to two large mugs of Martyn’s expensive single malt whiskey. We didn’t wake him to ask for permission because we were sure he wouldn’t have minded. Dave began recording our drunken meanderings on a portable cassette player. Adopting the characters of the vulgar Cockneys, Derek and Clive (as played by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) we sprinkled our conversation with Fs and Cs (and I don’t mean the chords). If that tape were ever to resurface then my squeaky clean façade would be blown clean out of the water. Incredibly Martyn slept through all that racket and next day made no comment about the alarming rate at which his whiskey had evaporated.
Back in Liverpool, in September, Martyn and I made a number of trips to Nic’s house while his mum and dad were away. In an upstairs room, overlooking the Corke family’s tennis court, and in Pete Cresswell’s absence, we practiced the staples – ‘Rush Hour’, ‘Having Fun’ and ‘That Monday Morning Feeling’ over and over again, and also ‘Stepping Stone’ by the Monkees / Sex Pistols. We started to get quite “tight” (more in time with each other and in tune). Nic’s drumming was still erratic, though, and he filled the songs at unpredictable intervals with drum rolls, after which he often lost the beat. Still, he was improving. All too soon it was time to say goodbye to Martyn as he went off to Swansea University for the next three years to study Biochemistry. We vowed to get back together again in the holidays.
During this summer, a former school mate, Mark Adamson, made a surprise visit to my house. Mark was very slim, with brown hair and spectacles, but his unassuming appearance was deceptive. He was immensely strong, and loved to demonstrate how tough he was by punching parking meters so hard that they would reverberate and you could hear the coins rattling inside. He reminded me of James Coburn in the film ‘Our Man Flint’. Like Mr Spock from ‘Star Trek’, he was superhumanly strong willed. When he made up his mind to do something he did it. No matter how circumstances changed around him he would always complete his task – sometimes, unlike Spock, in defiance of all logic. He had a brilliantly wicked sense of humour with which he ribbed me mercilessly. I began to realise, as he became my closest friend and confidante, that he only mocked the people he loved; everyone else was treated with the utmost courtesy. He sounds like a nightmare, you may think. Absolutely not. He was the kindest gentleman I’d ever met in my life.
When I opened the front door Mark immediately barked out the order “Get your coat on; we’re going into town to get wrecked.” I was taken aback, but on reflection, it seemed like a good idea, so we caught the train from Aigburth to the city centre, and spent the evening in St John’s Precinct at The Star & Garter pub, playing Space Invaders. When a high score was achieved the machine offered four fields in which to type your initials for posterity. Mark inserted “Slug” and I tapped in “Toad”. He has been “Slug” ever since, but I managed to shake off the “Toad”. That night we saw Exit (later Saratoga), a very good, though uninspiring heavy rock band. The only thing that really appealed to me about them was that, like The Jam, Exit were a three piece. I thought “That’s what rock music is all about” – stripped to its bare bones with one drummer, one bass player and one guitarist. If any one of them messed up there was nowhere to hide and nobody to fall back on. I believed the three piece to be the ultimate set up for a real man’s band.