It was impossible for me to remain unaffected by dad’s boundless enthusiasm and, in 1969, at the age of eight, I asked if he would take me into his choir. I already loved singing all types of music. The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Monkees were, by then, particular favourites of mine, but so too were the songs I’d heard in church and at the Sunday school whose intrusion into my weekend I so deeply resented. I recall performing my entire repertoire in our back garden where, apart from the bemused birds, I was completely alone. Dad welcomed me into his choir with open arms, but made it quite clear that, now I had made up my mind, I would not be allowed to change it. He could never tolerate ditherers or quitters.
At my first practice I was astonished to find that all the boys and most of the adults addressed my dad as “Sir”. Wanting to avoid any whiff of nepotism I too always called him “Sir”. The choir had the utmost respect for him because he was a brilliant teacher who could sing all of their parts – altos, tenors and basses. It was only the higher end of the soprano range, beyond his falsetto, that he demonstrated to us boys on the organ. We were taught how to project our voices and to develop a pleasing tone. No detail was too minor for dad. Before teaching a piece, he fully explained the meaning of its words. Words were as important as melodies and harmonies to him; it was all important. For the unfortunate few afflicted by Liverpool accents there were elocution lessons – but only for the specific purpose of not offending the Lord’s ears while singing in St Mary’s. You had also to sing with passion. If any half heartedness was detected, your semi slumber would be broken either by a volley of his finger clicks (which, I swear, were as loud as castanets) or by his bellow: “SING, you blighters”. Dad taught all the choristers how to breathe properly. One technique he employed, while consulting his wrist watch, was for us to slowly draw in breath for ten seconds, then hold that breath for a torturous twenty seconds, and finally to gently exhale over another ten seconds. The whole process, which was repeated two or three times, helped us to sustain long notes, and that was vital because he wouldn’t let us breathe until the sheet music denoted a full stop or a comma. You really didn’t want to incur his wrath by breathing out of turn. Any chorister who ever learned to sing the ‘Gloria’ from ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High‘ PROPERLY will know the benefits such lessons bestow.
I remember singing at Christmas carol services when it was night time and the church was illuminated purely by red wax candles. These were mystical, nerve racking occasions. One Christmas I sang solo Harold Darke’s version of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and on another two occasions, ‘The Sussex Carol’ (On Christmas Night). Dad’s reflection on ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ was that it had been quite apparent, from my big red face, that I was the one who was about to sing. I have no doubt that this was the case with all my solo performances. Even at that tender age I found public performance both daunting and, in a strange way, exhilarating.
My dad accepted a new position at St Bridget’s in Wavertree in the early 1970s but I remained at St Mary’s under the tutelage of Brian Lee, a much younger, though no less enthusiastic musician. I rose to the position of Head Chorister and achieved a qualification (I can’t remember which) from The Royal School of Church Music. To attain this, the chorister had to demonstrate an ability to read music – something I never did grasp. I just found all the dots and other symbols bewildering and, in truth, I wasn’t in the least bit interested in clefs and staves, rests, bars, minims, crotchets, breves or semibreves. It was all a bit too scientific, far too mathematical for my liking. Dad thought the important thing was that I could sing well, and not being able to sight read was of little relevance. Brian, too, understood my academic limitations and, since it was on his word that the RSCM issued their certificate and medal, he fudged me through the course.
I seldom watched the BBC’s ‘Top of the Pops’ because it was screened on a Thursday – choir practice night, but my sister Barbara threw me a lifeline to the modern world. She spent nearly all her pocket money on rock albums and singles, and introduced me to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, T.Rex, David Bowie and many others. Her taste was impeccable, but Dad despised these “long haired weirdos” with their “bloody banjo music”. I eventually left St Mary’s choir in 1975 having absorbed, over those six years, an immense wealth of melodies, harmonies and words. My scatter brain jumbled these up with all the pop songs I’d heard. In years to come this blend of the ancient and modern helped me conjure up new melodies with relative ease (relative, that is, to the unease with which lyrics came to me).
One day while I was mauling the piano at home, Carol Haughton, a neighbour, remarked “You look like a young Paul McCartney“. I didn’t, of course, but this comment sent a little tingle through me; “Wow! Wouldn’t it be great to be a pop star like McCartney?” But that remained a forlorn hope while I was such a useless pianist. Blast. Nevertheless Carol had planted a seed in my head. An added impetus was that Quarry Bank Comprehensive, the secondary school I attended from 1971 onwards, boasted a rather famous old boy by the name of John Lennon. In 1975 I befriended a pupil called Alex Hanley. He told me that he could play electric guitar and, one lunch hour, invited me back to his mum’s place for an impromptu concert. When he switched on his amplifier, plugged in his guitar and microphone and launched into ‘Caroline’ by Status Quo I was hugely, hugely impressed. As we walked back to school over the playing fields, I jokingly sang “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas for those in peril on the sea.” Mixing and matching songs was something I often did to amuse myself, but Alex recognised this as a valuable trait, and told me “You could write songs!!” That was the biggest seed to have been planted in my head so far.
By 1976 I had in my possession two portable cassette players with which I began experimenting… One of those seeds was beginning to sprout at last. I recorded myself singing along to Eric Idle’s ‘The Song O’ The Continuity Announcers‘ on one of the machines. Then I played back my performance and harmonised with myself while recording my two voices on the other machine. I then played back that recording of my 2 voices while recording a third harmony on the other machine. The sound quality did deteriorate as I added more and more voices, but I had established a method by which I could compose my own songs.